Quantum Footballery

NFL Scientists Postulate Theoretical Down Before First Down:

NEW YORK—Citing the extremely low level of entropy present before a normal set of football downs, scientists from the NFL’s quantum mechanics and cosmology laboratories spoke Monday of a theoretical proto-down before the first. “Ultimately, we believe there are an infinite number of proto-downs played before the first visible snap,” lead NFL scientist Dr. Oliver Claussen said during a press conference, adding that the very last yocto-down is a by-product of leftover fourth downs from this universe, as well as those from a theoretical universe running along an arrow of time concurrent to our own. “It is our goal to isolate this microscopic down using a highly volatile electron beam with a physical isolation resolution of 500 angstroms or better. If all goes well, we can make this down available, and NFL teams will have one more chance to attain additional yards, a new set of downs, or even score.” Claussen later stated that those in the field who talk of a fifth down after the fourth are only encouraging the practice of bad science.

You know what? I give up.

At first, so-called “white hat” bulk mailers like Constant Contact looked like a good idea, but it appears their clients are not universally scrupulous, so signing up for Mailing List A frequently results in me getting on lists B, C, and D as well. Politicians are the most obnoxious about this, but they’re not alone.

Consequently, I went over to Google to tell it to sideline anything with a ConstantContact (or BlueStateDigital) mail header — except Gmail doesn’t know how to do headers. Grrrr.

How to tell if you’re an Asshole

You’re an Indiana prosecutor, and you’re hell-bent-for-leather on jailing a grandmother for buying too much sudafed.

“I don’t want to go there again,” [Vermillion County Prosecutor Nina] Alexander told the Tribune-Star, recalling how the manufacture and abuse of methamphetamine ravaged the tiny county and its families.

While the law was written with the intent of stopping people from purchasing large quantities of drugs to make methamphetamine, the law does not say the purchase must be made with the intent to make meth.

“The law does not make this distinction,” Alexander said…

Just as with any law, the public has the responsibility to know what is legal and what is not, and ignorance of the law is no excuse, the prosecutor said.

Soviet “Dead Hand”: Fail Safe FAIL

In the 80s, the Soviet Union built a system of sensors and failovers scarily close to an automated “dead-man’s switch” that would ensure the launch of their nuclear arsenal even if a US first strike destroyed their command and control, or even most of their cities and population. They called it Perimeter, and it’s actually still in place.

Perimeter ensures the ability to strike back, but it’s no hair-trigger device. It was designed to lie semi-dormant until switched on by a high official in a crisis. Then it would begin monitoring a network of seismic, radiation, and air pressure sensors for signs of nuclear explosions. Before launching any retaliatory strike, the system had to check off four if/then propositions: If it was turned on, then it would try to determine that a nuclear weapon had hit Soviet soil. If it seemed that one had, the system would check to see if any communication links to the war room of the Soviet General Staff remained. If they did, and if some amount of time—likely ranging from 15 minutes to an hour—passed without further indications of attack, the machine would assume officials were still living who could order the counterattack and shut down. But if the line to the General Staff went dead, then Perimeter would infer that apocalypse had arrived. It would immediately transfer launch authority to whoever was manning the system at that moment deep inside a protected bunker—bypassing layers and layers of normal command authority. At that point, the ability to destroy the world would fall to whoever was on duty: maybe a high minister sent in during the crisis, maybe a 25-year-old junior officer fresh out of military academy. And if that person decided to press the button … If/then. If/then. If/then. If/then.

Once initiated, the counterattack would be controlled by so-called command missiles. Hidden in hardened silos designed to withstand the massive blast and electromagnetic pulses of a nuclear explosion, these missiles would launch first and then radio down coded orders to whatever Soviet weapons had survived the first strike. At that point, the machines will have taken over the war. Soaring over the smoldering, radioactive ruins of the motherland, and with all ground communications destroyed, the command missiles would lead the destruction of the US.

The older I get, and the more I reflect on the Cold War era of nuclear detent, the more shocked I am to still be alive in a green and living world.

Twitter Etiquette idea #1

All this stuff is new, and we’re still figuring our way around with it, but an idea has gelled in my head that I think makes sense. It’s a small thing, but it feels true.

Let’s say you’re the head of some enterprise, and that you’re a savvy user of social networks. Odds are, you’ll find a way to use that savvy to help your business or nonprofit or group or whatever; that’s great, and it’s a good idea, but there are good and bad ways to do it.

You might, first, start hawking CoolCorp on your personal tweets. Lots of people do. No harm in this, really, except that it sort of assumes that everyone who follows you for your pithy 140-byte commentary also wants to get all CoolCorp material. Who knows? It might be true. But probably not.

A better idea is to establish @CoolCorp as a twitter entity of its own; post your work stuff, your marketing messages — let’s face it: your advertising — there, and keep your personal @account for your personal content.

This seems to be an especially popular model, with good reason; people who want just-you can get just-you, and people who want to also get your advertising can do that, too — but you’re not making assumptions about how interested your Twitter friends are about your business endeavors. Think of it as channels.

Further, not even all your CoolCorp fans want to use the Twitter feed to keep up — if you’ve done it right, that info is also available in newsletters, in blog updates or RSS feeds, or in a variety of other ways.

What’s sort of annoying is if you establish @personal and @CoolCorp, but then consistently ReTweet all or most of the CoolCorp posts into your personal feed, too. People who want that info are going to get it anyway (see above about your newsletter, your blog, your feeds). Persistent retweeting makes the @clubcorp feed pointless — if that info is everywhere anyway, why bother following the account? You’ll just get dupes for all or most of the material.

BTW, you can magnify this problem by having multiple Twitter users in the office, all of whom also retweet the corporate info. Don’t be that guy, for God’s sake. Create a Twitter identity for your firm, and make it valuable enough on its own that people want to follow it. If you’re consistently putting the same info out in multiple accounts, odds are you’re wasting your time.


This is Bob.

Taken to send to Erin when she was working on a case in McAllen in 2007

Bob was the only kitten they had at the Tuscaloosa County Humane Society one May morning in 1992. Scrawny and underfed and, frankly, kinda ugly, she was still full of personality. She reached through the bars of her cage and meowed louder than you’d think reasonable when I got close, and when I picked her up to take her home she started purring louder than any cat I’ve heard before or since.

When we took her to be vaccinated, she was still purring so much the vet had to thump her on the nose so he could hear her heart. As a kitten, she was obsessed with open mouths — what IS that? Can I see in? — and with long hair.

Bob was actually a gift to the girl I was dating at the time, since her cat was dying of feline leukemia. I kept her in my place since, for a little while, we had poor, doomed Hudson in Cassie’s apartment (conveniently across the parking lot). When we moved in together a while later, Bob learned what Cassie’s car sounded like, and would leave my study to wait for her at the front door every day when she came home. The apartment faced a parking lot; cars came and went all the time — but Bob knew which one was Cassie’s.

Bob and I moved to Texas in 1994 — somehow I got custody when Cassie and I split up — and Bob became a bit more reclusive and a bit more owner-focused. If I stayed in my car to listen to the end of an NPR story, my roommates would complain because Bob would meow at the back door until I came in. She took a dim view of other animals, including, memorably, a certain husky who desperately wanted to be her friend — and, more hilariously, a friend’s labrador who’d come to visit. With people, she was just selective; I’ve had friends over the years who didn’t know I had a cat. When I was single, she made it very clear she thought one brief relationship was a bad idea. It cost me a comforter.

Knocks at the door and doorbells always freaked her out. She’d run to a hiding spot, growling slightly under her breath, until the threat passed — or until she realized the visitor was on her short list of other acceptable humans, like Eric or Lindsey, or Sharon or Greg, or — oddly — my infrequently visiting mother, whereupon she’d remerge and be social.

The doorknocking thing also came in handy for me, since I frequently have things delivered. Bob started correlating the arrival of a big truck outside with impending knocks, so I could tell if the UPS guy was about to show up and knock on the door by her own little growly-retreats.

Bob’s always been all about me, so when Erin came around in 2002, we decided to let Erin be the foodgiver. That worked out fine — Bob loved Erin just as much as me pretty quickly — but had some unintended consequences. Bob had learned that waking up Chet was not acceptable, as I’d just shove her off the bed, but Erin was a soft touch, so Bob developed a habit of tapping Erin on the face when she was hungry. Tap tap tap. Wait. Tap tap tap.

When I started working at home after the tech crash, Bob was understandably much happier. She’s spend most of the day on the desk, sometimes on a pile of “decoy papers” I’d lay out to distract her from my actual work documents, but eventually she figured out that the cozy spot formed by the back of the keyboard, the edge of the desk, and bracketed by my forearms was just the right size for napping. I do a lot of writing in my work, so I’d be pretty still for long periods. That suited Bob just fine. She’d tuck her head into the crook of my left elbow and, as God is my witness, snore.

At night, she’d do kind of the same thing. I tend to sleep on my back, so she’d wait until Erin and I were settled and then come and curl up between the crook of my right elbow and my armpit, usually with her head resting on my arm, sometimes under one of her own paws. Other times, like in cold weather when Erin and I were given to spooning, she felt most comfortable as the “innermost spoon”. If she awoke to find herself facing a back, she’d get up and crawl over us in a way I swear was meant to be indignant, sometimes with grunts, until she found her way to the concave side again. And she always figured out a way to take way more than her share of the bed; quite a feat for an 8-pound cat on a queen-size mattress. But of course, we are talking about an 8-pounder who went all Matrixy on a lab, so there you go.

Bob got sick a long while back, in 2000 or so. She picked up a herpetic sinus/eye infection when I boarded her one Thanksgiving, and it’s been a battle ever since. The sneezing — sometimes productive, unfortunately — was chronic and pretty everpresent, but the real nastiness was in the flareups. When they happened, she’d get really horrific swelling on the right side of her face, centered around her lower and third lids, sometimes obscuring the eye entirely. We got to be good friends with a local veterinary ophthalmologist, who managed to knock the flareups back pretty handily with a complicated cocktail of drugs delivered by ointment, food supplements, and pills, and they typically did the job pretty well. One of them I got pretty good at popping down her throat until a few years ago, when I figured I’d let Bob smell the quarter-pill first. She sniffed it twice, and then ate it out of my hand. Well, there you go.

A few months ago, Bob stopped coming down to my office as much. She was quite happy to “help” me if I worked on the couch, so I didn’t think much of it. Then, while I was traveling nearly full time, Erin noticed she was bumping into things; we think she gradually went blind, and had started avoiding the less-predictable layout of the office as a consequence. Oh well, we thought, she’s 17.

About two weeks ago, though, she had another flareup, the first in years. This time, there were more problems. Her blood pressure was very high, and they worried about renal problems — a common endgame for cats. We went with the usual wonder cocktail, but it didn’t help as much or as quickly. Late last week, she was clearly not well, and stopped coming upstairs to sleep with us. We hoped the meds would help turn her around.

Then, at the worst possible moment, we had to leave town for a funeral. Sharon took care of her for us, but called us Monday morning with bad news. Bob was much worse. What vet should she take her to?

The specialist could do little for her, so he sent her to our nominal “general” vet. That vet quickly sent Bob and Sharon to the internal medicine people for around the clock care. The situation was grave, but not without hope.

Hope left late yesterday. I flew home from Kansas early today, and my driver took me from the airport directly to the specialist’s office, where we met Erin and Sharon. We held Bob one last time, and then let her go.

Bob was nearly 18 years old. I got her when I was 22; I’m nearly 40 now. I can type all this out just fine, but I can’t begin to talk about her. Erin and I are shattered and heartbroken, and the house is horribly empty without her on the couch between us tonight. And I don’t know what else to say other than I miss her horribly.

Dept. of pet peeves

When I call your company and you need to put me on hold, DO NOT MAKE ME LISTEN TO A CONSTANT STREAM OF COMMERCIALS. Play quiet music. That way, it’s easier to zone out and work or talk to someone else while you wait. With a babbling brook of cutesy nonsense (I’m looking at you, Southwest), it’s much harder to focus on productive activities while the CSR has you on hold.

A year

I wrote this last September 18, on the Well, after a bad week for Houston.

My friend Cary died on Tuesday. He’d been fighting cancer for a while but his most recent and dire prognosis wasn’t common knowlege. He was locally famous in Houston and Austin, partly for being in a band called Horseshoe, and partly for his years of association with Houston’s Infernal Bridegroom Productions. IBP was, until its own unfortunate and premature death in 2007, a tremendous and inventive local theater company devoted to doing the weird, the underperformed, the new, the avant garde, and doing it very, very well. Cary’s only acting was with them, but his roles just got stronger and better with time. He started with their very first production in 1993 with an original show, but was best known for star turns in productions of the Kinks’ “Soap Opera” (2002) and, in 2006, something called “Speeding Motorcycle.”

If you asked Cary the most important, biggest, best thing he ever did on stage, he’d answer quickly that this show, based on the songs of Daniel Johnston, and done partly in collaboration with Johnston himself, was his pinnacle. Already sick by the time the show went to Austin this summer, he cut his chemo short so he could reprise his role (all three “Joe the Boxer” actors made the move).

Ike’s made it a rough week or so to be a Houstonian. You still can’t go to the grocery store, mostly, or buy gas like a normal person. More than half the city doesn’t even have power yet, which is astounding. Galveston is still flat, and will stay that way for a while. We got lucky in that we had no damage, little to clean up, and good friends a mile away who never lost power and opened their home to Erin and I as well as two other couples and a singleton from our social group. We called it Camp Ike, and tried to make the best of it — but even in a largish house, that many adults is tight, so we were very happy on Tuesday when we got word our block had power at around 8pm. In the midst of dinner when we got word, we didn’t end up coming home until nearly midnight. Sitting on the bed in our delightfully re-lit house, waiting for my wife to join me, I idly checked my email on my phone, and the four-hour everything-is-finally-fine holiday I’d been enjoying evaporated. Cary’d had a seizure Tuesday morning, and was in Ben Taub. I should call for more details.

I think I knew what those details were before I clicked Jason’s number. Cary’d never regained consciousness, and passed away around 1130pm. Erin and I didn’t go to sleep for a long time, watching video I had on my laptop from a still-unfinished and unreleased DVD version of SM. Also on YouTube was this performance of Cary doing a cover of a Johnston song that didn’t make the final show. Cary liked well enough to work up for a post-show performance one night, after his much-loved singalong of “Brainwash”.


Cary Winscott was 38.

Dept. of Random TV Observations

An old episode of Cold Case is on at the Sheraton; the plotline is about a murdered schoolteacher during the Red Scare, as recounted by his paramour.

Said paramour is played by Ellen Geer. Geer is the daughter of Will Geer, better known as Grandpa Walton, and himself a victim of McCarthy-era blacklisting.

Sadly for Heathen-aged people, Ellen is nearly 70, so she is the “old” daughter of an actor I only knew as an “old” man in the 70s, but she is about as old as her father was as Zebulon Walton in the 1970s.

By the way, the whole Red Scare? Architected by the GOP.


It is entirely unclear to me why, given the broad realms of expertise on offer in Heathen Nation, that we have not yet undertaken to build any seige engines.

Heathen Nation, please account for yourselves. Or, failing that, signify in comments below your willingness to undertake the mission of flinging large objects great distances for the sheer flying (yes) fuck of it some time in the near future. I am willing to start with fall harvest gourdfruit, chiefly because I believe them to be cheap, plentiful, and possessed of a satisfyingly dramatic endgame.

What we need:

  • A truck.
  • A place to fling.
  • Power tools.
  • Raw material (hello, Home Depot)
  • Plans (hello, Google)
  • Beer (not strictly required, but it sure seems wise, doesn’t it?)

Again, signify your willingness to participate in said tomfoolery with a comment below, or an email to me.

Dept. of the Very Weird, or, Life in the Future

For a very, very long time, I’ve been a subscriber to a very old-skool geek lisstserv the traditions of which prohibit me from naming. It’s been around for probably 20+ years, and I’ve been a subscriber for probably 10 years.

I have no interaction with any of the listmembers in the real world. Its geographical centers of gravity are Boston and the Bay Area, and I live in Texas. It, like the Well, is just a good place to go for profoundly intelligent conversation amongst the overeducated. It’s a good thing, if you like that sort of thing.

Anyway, comes now Facebook.

By now, all of us on these networks are unsurprised to discover online that two friends we see as belonging to unrelated social spheres are in fact connected by a third circle previously unknown to us. This is the “small world” aspect of Facebook and similar services, and it’s a big part of the appeal — you get to see your own social networks from other perspectives, so to speak, and that gives us all a little buzz. But last week something even weirder happened.

Facebook, like most such services, has a “people you might know” list. I’ve long assumed that this mostly worked off friends-list comparisons — if you were friends with Bob and Mary, and both Bob and Mary are friends with Jack, it might think that you, too, might want to be “friends” with Jack. Of course the algorithms go many more steps into the trees, and of course they’re more elaborate than this, but that’s the root of the tool, or so I assumed.

My weird event, though, suggests that something even more subtle is going on. I logged in last week to discover that Facebook was suggesting that I might want to be friends with H.M. I do not know H.M. in real life, but she is also a longtime subscriber to the listserve I mentioned above. We have no friends in common. I doubt we have friends of friends in common, but I cannot tell this. (It is possible, I suppose, that Facebook has found some way to convince Safari — my “disposable” browser, which I fully reset every time I run it for privacy reasons — to allow its scripts to sniff the addresses in Mail.app, but this seems unlikely (more unlikely, though, is that such a thing is possible AND that I’d be unaware of it)). I’d very much like to know how Facebook determined that H.M. is someone I might now, but unlike (e.g.) LinkedIn, FB does not disclose how many steps away a person is.

The whole thing reminds me of something my friend Laura said to me a while back: “We have only begun to realize the degree to which the Internet, via Google, is going to radically change  the way we work with information.” We were discussing social recommendation services like LibraryThing, but this H.M./Facebook development suggests that our social networks themselves — the real ones, not the shadows on the cave wall given us by Facebook — are the real places we’ll see weird developments.

Dear Intarwub

Please gets us a coelacanth, k?

(Sadly, the linked story doesn’t give us an order link. Who are these Wild Safari people? Where’s the “add to cart” link? C’mon, Interwub, don’t let me down!)

Oh, THOSE Death Panels


More than one of every five requests for medical claims for insured patients, even when recommended by a patient’s physician, are rejected by California’s largest private insurers, amounting to very real death panels in practice daily in the nation’s biggest state

And so it begins

It was ugly and full of mistakes, but the #5 Tide opened with a real win over 7th-ranked Virginia Tech — this while other “contenders” were opening with creampuffs (hello, Florida? I’m looking at you.).

MORE fun was how supposedly-strong Ohio State only barely escaped Navy — in a game that involved a Buckeye intercepting a 2-point conversion throw and running it it all the way back for a . . . two point conversion. (That’s your football trivia for this week.)

Oh, and Oklahoma? Done, and Bradford is out for several weeks. I expect the Big XII to be all about Texas now.

Excellent points. Not that any IT drone will listen, natch.

Why corporate IT should unchain our office computers lays out the very convincing case for less lockdown on workplace PCs. I’ve been on consulting sites where users couldn’t change their wallpaper, for crying out loud, and the true reason for this is not quality of service, or protection, or SarBox; it’s a failure of IT to view their job as enabling the workforce.

Big Corporate IT says “no” unless someone above them forces them to say “yes.” Their default mode is obstruction — for outside contractors like I’ve been for most of my career, and also for employees.