Bruce Momjian

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History Openness to Collapse

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

As a followup to my previous blog post, this quote from Age of Delirium summarizes why the Soviet Union lasted so long, and why openness quickly lead to its collapse:

The Soviet regime had been organized like a church. Its purpose was to realize an idea, the utopia described in Marxist-Leninist ideology. As absurd as Communist ideology appeared from the outside, it identified each Soviet citizen as a participant in a great historical enterprise and thereby made him feel that his life had meaning, fulfilling, albeit falsely, a basic spiritual need. It was in the service of this enterprise that citizens were ready to sacrifice their fundamental rights and freedom.

Soviet people endured because they believed, and they believed because, with the help of terror that created an entire fictional universe, they were systematically mislead. When glasnost [openness] and the anti-Stalin campaign demonstrated that the Soviet enterprise, instead of being glorious, was a senseless, barbaric fabric of atrocities that morality could not envisage or reason comprehend, citizens where no longer willing to accept their rightless situation and began to reject the Soviet system as such.

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History Fourth Soviet Book

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Having finished my third Soviet book, I have started my fourth, Age of Delirium (review), by David Satter. Unlike my previous Soviet book, which focused on official Soviet government documents, this book focuses on the stories of ordinary citizens during the last decade of the USSR.

I already have a clarification to a previous blog post. It has always been unclear to me how Reagan's belligerent stance, military buildup, and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) affected the Soviet decline. It turns out that Soviet leaders were very focused on advances in the Western world. Reagan accelerated changes in the USSR by creating doubts that the USSR would ever attain parity with the West, and in fact made it clear that the USSR was getting farther behind. With these doubts, Soviet leaders realized they had to do something to overcome their country's stagnation, and launched restructuring and openness initiatives. Openness allowed Soviet citizens to see publicly for the first time communist flaws, and this undermined faith in the entire Soviet system. So when open elections took place, the population was ready to move away from their failing communist system.

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Humor Christmas Book

Monday, December 29, 2008

I got a few Onion books for Christmas. The France entry in the book, Our Dumb World: The Onion's Atlas of the Planet Earth, was particularly funny (audio version, time index 2:58).

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Community Christmas Card Mystery Object

Monday, December 29, 2008

Now that Christmas has past, I can reveal an interesting aspect of our Christmas card. The card had an unusual object in the background, out of focus. I didn't mean for the object to be obscure, but in talking to people who received the card, few saw the object, and no one could identify it. The object was an antique Western Union stock ticker (from my father's antique collection). I thought people would have seen them before, and the paper tape was clearly visible, but clearly it wasn't obvious enough. The stock ticker goes with the text on the back:

Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.

The idea was that the stock ticker represented riches and the children, rather than glancing at it, had their backs to it.

Update: While the stock ticker is my father's, I just found out my uncle John Melian gave it to my father in 1962.

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Technology Computer Game

Monday, December 28, 2008

I just started playing the computer game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. It is an unusual game for a few reasons:

  • Instead of going from one new location to the next, the game often returns you to previously visited locations
  • The game is nonlinear, meaning the order of goals is controlled by the player and is not fixed
  • The game world details amazing; Soviet industrial and laboratory complexes are rendered in stunning detail, right down to the signs, railings, and electrical outlets
  • The environment is malleable — you can create bullet holes in an object and the holes remain

Previous games I have played and completed include Syberia, Syberia II, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix, Unreal, and Myst. I always play on the easiest setting. I enjoy walking around and solving interesting puzzles rather than shooting or fighting.

I played a few puzzle games previous to those.

Update: An interesting video about what types of games are fun

Update: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. videos: review, review, review, interview, interview, gameplay, gameplay, more videos, more videos

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Community Christmas Gift

Friday, December 26, 2008

Our big Christmas gift this year was the Nintendo Wii. My kids have played Wii games at other homes and really enjoyed it. Christine and I were impressed by the team-oriented games available for the Wii.

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Arts A Christmas Carol

Friday, December 26, 2008

Having just finished performing A Christmas Carol for this season, I wanted to mention a good book review about the play.

Also, as a child my brother Chris was scared by the death scene from the 1970 film Scrooge. I never could figure out why because it never seemed very scarey to me. We just learned that he was scared by this scene (commentary) from hell that was only shown a few times on television and which I never saw before.

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History Soviet Regression

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

I have completed my third Soviet book. I mentioned earlier the book was disturbing; the book presented first-hand accounts of Soviet leaders trying to create communism, and the sacrifices and burden born by the population in that futile effort.

Because the book was chronological, it was easy to see the various stages of the USSR:

Interestingly, it gave me new insight into the disintegration of the Soviet Union after 74 years (1917-1991). While many in the US give Reagan credit for the USSR collapse, and he deserves some, the truth is more complex. Stuck in stagnation under Breznev while the non-communist Western world thrived, the USSR realized it had to change, and Gorbachev was the change agent. Decreasing domestic production, lower living standards, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and the Chernobyl disaster together worked to convince the country that something had to change. Gorbachev's 1987 statement, "We must not retreat and do not have anywhere to retreat to" summarizes the desire for change, but also the uncertainty of how to implement significant change in a communist context.

Gorbachev's efforts of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) became his watch-words. What Gorbachev probably didn't realize is that openness would lead to democracy, with the communist party as just one of many political parties. And once the population had the ability to choose or not choose communism, they quickly discarded the communist party, of which Gorbachev was the head.

Yeltsin became the head of the non-communist Russian Federation and soon marginalized and later outlawed the communist party; other USSR territories did the same. This explains how the USSR disappeared with minimal disruption; per-country democratic governments were formed and grew underneath the communist parties; the communist attack on the Russian White House accelerated the marginalization and soon banning of the communist party. Many former USSR-member countries with democratically elected governments soon joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Gorbachev's resignation speech provides a fitting overview of the final years of the USSR.

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Technology Typesetting

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

I have always been interested in typesetting, which involves the use of fonts, layout, and design to create attractive publications. I have read a few typesetting books and own roughly 5700 fonts. My font collection includes fonts from Bitstream, FontSite, Southern Software (SSI), and Expert Software. I purchased these fonts ten years ago when, for legal and marketing reasons, large inexpensive fonts sets were available; similar font sets now cost thousands of dollars.

There are five major typeface categories. Serif fonts are for use in blocks of text, like you are reading here. The most popular serif font is Times Roman, though Times was originally designed for newspaper publishing where getting the most text on a page was a priority; my personal favorite serif font is Palatino. Sans serif fonts don't use serifs (strokes) on letter edges and are used in advertising materials, signs, and sometimes titles and headings. The most popular sans serif font is Helvetica; there is even a movie about the font. Some people use sans serif fonts for text blocks because they believe it looks cleaner, and it probably does, but serif fonts are considered easier to read (some research disputes this). I personally believe a block of text is easier to read in a serif font — sans serif font letters tend to look like either vertical bars or circles; this gives the font a clean, consistent look but it isn't good for easily identifying each letter while reading. In Monospaced fonts each letter has the same width; it is useful for text where characters must align vertically. Script fonts are usually representations of cursive lettering. Symbol fonts have special symbols like Greek letters, arrows, and mathematical symbols.

Serif and sans serif typefaces, like Palatino, are made up of several fonts. There is usually roman for normal text, italic for word emphasis, bold for headings and to highlight words, and bold-italic for emphasizing words among bold text. There is often also a black font for large headings and a light font for small text and to distinguish special headings.

But typesetting involves more than fonts. It requires tools for text layout that understand ligatures, kerning, and precise control over textual appearance. Ideally the tool, usually a computer program, can automatically apply good typesetting practices, e.g. use a bold font for heading text. While word processors, like Microsoft Word, can be used for typesetting, the default mode for most word processors is to place text as specified by the user without enforcing a consistent style or layout.

With the proper fonts and typesetting tools, the rest of typesetting is an art. For example, one layout analysis method is to look not at the text but at the whitespace around the text, so called negative space. Fonts and layout also affect what text is seen first and the feel of the document. It is surprising how small typesetting changes can turn a good document into a great one.

FYI, I typeset my book and sent a PDF to Addison-Wesley for publication.

Update: Interesting article about the Comic Sans typeface

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Humor Obama Humor

Friday, December 5, 2008

This article has some funny jokes in describing how black comedians will adjust to the Obama administration.

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Humor Star Wars Disaster

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Thirty years ago this week The Star Wars Holiday Special was shown on CBS once, and never again. A quick view of a five-minute highlight video makes it clear why it was never rebroadcast.

I usually hear about really bad science fiction, but I never knew about this gem until today. Almost universally panned, it is clear why George Lucas wished it was never created. All the stars from the first Star Wars movie appear because it was required by their original contracts, except for Alec Guinness who had it removed from his contract.

The entire show is viewable online, including the commercials, but is unwatchable. I am watching it with Rifftrax, a "Mystery Science Theater 3000" treatment, which makes it quite enjoyable, though not as it was originally intended.

(Tip: For Rifftrax, to sync the commentary with the video, play the video and Rifftrax audio at the same time, with the Rifftrax audio 2:36 minutes ahead of the video.)

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Thoughts U.S. Economic Collapse

Thursday, November 13, 2008

When oil hit $140 per barrel in June, I wondered how much more pressure the U.S. economy could withstand; it was already suffering from budget deficits, trade deficits, a growing national debt, overvalued real estate, the falling value of the dollar, and unstable credit markets. Well, we now know it couldn't.

This article does a thorough and entertaining job of explaining credit derivatives. Credit derivatives are a banking mechanism designed to spread risk, but it prevented banks from accurately estimating their risk and allowed them to operate with insufficient assets to withstand large losses during economic downturns.

Update: warning signs, report from the inside (see short selling for reference)

Update: This video does a good job of explaining the credit crisis.

Update: This article does a good job of explaining the flawed mathematical formulas used to measure risk.

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History The New Era of Big Government?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

You often can't define an historical period until it is over — such as the Reagan era. The Reagan era is defined as a period when the best government was seen as one that got out of the citizen's way, with lower taxes and less government intervention. Historically, the amount of government involvement has been cyclical:

                    |              |                |             | Opposing
                    |  Government  |    Defining    |  Defining   |  Party
          Years     |     Role     |     Event      |  President  | President
        ------------+--------------+----------------+-------------+----------
        1917-1932   | contracting  | Roaring 20's   | Hoover      |
        1932-1945   | expanding    | New Deal       | Roosevelt   |
        1945-1960   | contracting  | Post-WWII      | Eisenhower  | Truman
        1960-1980   | expanding    | Great Society  | Johnson     | Nixon
        1980-2008?  | contracting  | Reaganomics    | Reagan      | Clinton

Opposing party presidents (Truman, Nixon, Clinton) had minimal ability to promote their agenda due to the lack of public support.

The election of Barack Obama and Democratic congressional gains in 2008 might signal the end of the Reagan era and the start of an era of larger government. One question is what will be Obama's agenda in his first two years, but the larger question is what agenda will the U.S. public support, long-term.

Update: article, article, article

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Community Post-Election Analysis

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

With Obama winning presidency, it will be interesting to see if he takes a radical approach, as Clinton did in his first two years (and which led to a Republican majority in Congress), or a more centrist approach (video analysis). It certainly was an historic victory.

I thought McCain's concession speech was particularly unifying and humble for a concession speech.

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Technology Air Traffic Control Visit

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Yesterday I visited an Air Traffic Control (ATC) facility in New Hampshire that controls flight approaches for Boston and Manchester, New Hampshire. The room where they communicate with pilots was quite interesting; it looked like something out of the movies (image, image, image). I also got to see some of the technology used by the organization.

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Community The Phillies and William Penn

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Phillies won the World Series last night. I was a little disappointed none of the interviewed players thanked William Penn, who founded Philadelphia as a place of religious liberty and strong community spirit.

You might have heard of the curse of the William Penn statue: there was a gentlemen's agreement that no building would be built higher than the statue of William Penn atop city hall, but since 1983 several buildings have been built higher than the statue, causing a curse on Philadelphia sports teams. However, last year the Comcast Tower, the tallest building in Philadelphia, put a William Penn statue on top of their building to erase the curse.

I hope Comcast understands the meaning of the statue; that unlike New York, Washington, and Boston, where money, power, and success are highly prized, community is more important than commerce in Philadelphia. It is not that Philadelphians don't like money, power, and success, but it is not as high a priority here as it is in other east coast cities.

I saw the original Rocky movie when it was released, but seeing it years later, I realized how well the movie captured the Philly attitude, in all its quirkiness and boys locker room quality.

I was in the stadium for the 1980 Phillies win, but had to watch this win from a hotel room in Massachusetts.

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Technology Google Book Access

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I mentioned previously that certain books can be viewed through Google. It seems Google has now gotten agreement from publishers to allow up to 20% of book content to be viewed online, and to allow a pay option to read the entire book online; this greatly increases the amount of book content available on the web.

Update: new article

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Community A Liberal Supermajority

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

This Wall Street Journal article suggests a possible major political shift in 2009 if Barack Obama wins and Democrats win a filibuster-proof majority in Congress. Such an overwhelming majority for a political party hasn't happened since 1965, during the Johnson administration. The article lists a number of likely changes, including government health care, more powerful unions, and generally more government services with higher taxes for upper incomes. In fact, the U.S. government might end up looking more like European and Canadian governments, which explains Obama's support in those countries.

When Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, the maximum tax rate was 70%; by the end of his presidency it dropped to 28%. Reagan's economic policies have remained largely unchanged though both Bush presidencies and even Bill Clinton, but that could dramatically change in 2009. We might return to Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter economic policies, with an activist government and higher taxes. At the extreme, we might find a push for a Great Society program similar to Johnson's, which was well-intentioned and produced some good results, but was often harmful to the people it was trying to help.

The current financial crisis is certainly fueling voters' desire for a more activist government to shield them from violent economic forces. Obama's idealism has also increased his popularity. I earlier mentioned that Obama's inexperience would be a problem, but he has weathered the campaign and debate pressures admirably.

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Humor Demotivational Posters

Saturday, October 11, 2008

This web site pokes fun at motivational business posters. This paragraph from their web page humorously explains why:

AT DESPAIR, INC., we believe motivational products create unrealistic expectations, raising hopes only to dash them. That's why we created our soul-crushingly depressing Demotivators (R) designs, so you can skip the delusions that motivational products induce and head straight for the disappointments that follow!

They even have one for blogging. Their mug and some of their videos are funny too. Of course these fit in well with my personalized demotivational poster.

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Community Islamic DVD

Monday, September 29, 2008

A few days ago I received a DVD in mail titled, Obsession - Radical Islam's War Against the West, as did my parents and 28 million other people in the United States. Christine, Wilma, and I decided to watch it.

The basic premise of the video is that radical Islamic teachers are fermenting hatred of Western society, and that terrorism perpetrated by these radicals amounts to a war against the West. It points to a series of attacks over the years, which doesn't even include the most recent attack in Pakistan (a hotel where I once dined).

One major point of the film is that radicals are a small percentage of the Muslim population, and it urges the larger Muslim community to speak out against radicalism. This rings true with me; the large majority of U.S. Muslims feel very American and work to prevent terrorism. I think we can credit the Muslim community for preventing terrorist attacks since 2001. Certainly the U.S. security agencies deserve credit for preventing attacks too, but they are helped by tips from citizens, including an energized Muslim citizenry.

This might explain the former CIA head's puzzlement:

Mr. Tenet expresses puzzlement that, since 2001, Al Qaeda has not sent "suicide bombers to cause chaos in a half-dozen American shopping malls on any given day."

Europe has seen serious attacks since 2001 and has a more radical Muslim citizenry because of less Muslim assimilation in those countries. The U.S.A. does have home-grown terrorists too, like Timothy McVeigh and the Unbomber, but they usually aren't Muslims.

Another shocking issue is that Muslims are often the primary victims of Muslim terrorist attacks.

Update: Another article about this issue.

Update: Here is a list of foiled terror plots since 9/11.

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Technology Mac PDF Viewer

Friday, September 5, 2008

I have been to a few conferences recently where presenters displayed PDF files using Apple's OS X. For some strange reason, OS X displays a grey toolbar on the screen every time the image is changed. This web page explains how to disable that.

Slideshows Without the Toolbar

When viewing PDFs fullscreen using the slideshow option in the View menu (Command-Shift-F), the toolbar appears at the bottom whenever you move the mouse. To prevent this, double-click anywhere (but not on the toolbar). Now the toolbar will stay hidden until you next click. You can still get its functionality using keyboard shortcuts: Space will Play/Pause and the Left and Right arrows scroll through pages. Pressing A and F will toggle between actual size and fit to screen.

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Arts 'King of Voiceovers' No More

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Don LaFontaine, famous for his voiceovers in movie trailers, died recently. He was most proud recently of a Geico commercial he did. This video covers LaFontaine work in detail.

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Thoughts United States Dominance

Thursday, August 21, 2008

In my travels, I have noticed something that both helps me and concerns me: the dominance of the United States in the world. It helps me be more effective in foreign countries, but it concerns me because it suppresses local efforts that are as good or better. To illustrate the breadth of US dominance, let me list some categories:

  • Military (with the fall of the USSR, the US has never been more dominant)
  • Finance (even with the declining US Dollar)
  • Business
  • Technology
  • Education
  • Research
  • Retail (e.g. McDonalds, Starbucks)
  • Media/Culture (movies, music, news, etc.)
  • Language (the English-dominated Internet has accelerating this)
  • Diet (this is particularly true in Asia and Latin America)

While the first items are more political/business oriented, the later items directly affect the local population.

It is true other regions also dominate: Europe (business, finance), Asia (manufacturing), the Middle East (oil), but none of these dominate in the breadth of the US, and while some of them are growing in dominance, the US is growing in dominance in other areas.

As a United States citizen I find the US dominance concerning; if I were a non-US citizen, I would be disturbed.

The world hasn't always been this way. England, France, Spain, and Rome similarly dominated in previous centuries. Their dominance was more overt, and probably less invasive. US dominance started only after World War II, and there are indications that emerging nations might challenge this dominance someday.

My major point is that, having grown up in the United States, I never realized the extent of US dominance until I traveled internationally.

Update: article

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Technology Number of Home Computers Doubled in One Year

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Last year I had five computers at home: three laptops and two desktops; now I have ten — seven laptops and three desktops. It happened through a strange combination of circumstances — my boss Denis talked me into getting a nicer company-supplied laptop last year, then I bought three obsolete laptops from EnterpriseDB, then Matthew won a desktop at a conference.

I bought the EnterpriseDB laptops to replace two +4-year-old laptops that will die someday. Fortunately the EnterpriseDB laptops are all Thinkpad T43 laptops; I have a local Thinkpad service vendor and even an extra for spare parts. I am using them in rooms that occasionally need a laptop.

All the new computers are running Ubuntu, which is easy to install and manage. Matthew enhanced his new desktop with a faster graphics card for gaming.

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Community Fixing the Middle East?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The problems in the Middle East always seemed unfixable to me. This interview of a Muslim turned Christian has an interesting perspective.

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Thoughts Catch Me But You Can't

Monday, August 11, 2008

The conclusion of the anthrax killer investigation recalls serious problems with other recent federal investigations:

  • Atlanta Olympic park bombing
  • Wen Ho Lee nuclear secret espionage
  • Madrid terrorist bombing fingerprints
  • Unabomber investigation

The anthrax case is particularly troubling because there are so few people who have access to the anthrax used in the attack. Grouped together, they don't look good for federal investigative competency. I can't figure out if grouping the failures is just highlighting the negatives, or if it shows a more general trend of federal incompetence.

Update: This article retells the experiences of the man wrongly accused of the anthrax attacks. 2010-05-10

Update: This blog mentions the many terrorist acts that don't happen; the comments are particularly interesting.

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Thoughts Cowboy Boots

Friday, August 1, 2008

I have gotten a few question about why I wear cowboy boots. It started in the early 1990's when I was a computer consultant frequently visiting clients in downtown Philadelphia. I needed footwear suitable for snowy and rainy Philadelphia streets, but also suitable for a law firm. Most employees kept a pair of dress shoes at their desks, but I often went to a different office each day, so that wasn't a possibility for me. Cowboy boots were good in poor weather and dressy enough for business meetings.

Now that I travel, cowboy boots allow me to use the same footwear in both harsh environments and formal settings. In my travels, I often don't know which environment to expect.

One odd thing about leather footwear is that leather can be polished to look like new; there are few durable materials with that property. I admit, if I have time, I make a bee-line for a shoe shine stand. I have even had my shoes shined in some unusual places, like the Mumbai, India train station, which looked something like this.

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History Rethinking History

Saturday, July 12, 2008

I am finding my third Soviet book more disturbing than the previous books. The previous books were written by non-Russians analyzing the Soviet Union; the third book is primarily excerpts of Soviet writings. This gives the book an intimacy with Soviet thought that the previous books lacked. It also gives the book a haunting quality as I read of the progressive dehumanization of Soviet society.

While this all might sound fantastic, this excerpt from an article in The Atlantic captures the idea of recreating feelings from the past:

While writing his masterpiece, Portrait of an Age, the historian G. M. Young came to apprehend that "the real, central theme of History is not what happened, but what people felt about it when it was happening: in Philip Sidney's phrase, 'the affects, the whispering, the motions of the people.'" A historian will fulfill his promise, Young believed (he was quoting Frederic Maitland), only when "the thoughts of our forefathers, their common thoughts about common things, will have become thinkable once more."

I realize now that reading history from a terrible time gives you disturbing thoughts.

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Thoughts Try, Try Again

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I just read a though-provoking article, "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower". The article disproves the saying, "You can do anything if you try hard enough." The truth is that there are tasks that some people will never be table to do, no matter how hard they try. I know there are some tasks I will never be able to do. (They don't teach that in school.)

This is a good illustration of the problems of mistaking idealism with reality.

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Flight The Real International Experience

Monday, June 30, 2008

As a frequent international traveler, I usually see countries as a native, rather than a tourist: from a Tokyo skyscraper, a Russian dacha, a Pakistani village. Sometimes I see travel shows to countries I have visited, and often they are quite inaccurate in their emphasis on hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions.

One television show that consistently shows the sophistication of countries is "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations". While nominally focussed on foreign food, the show does a great job portraying each country in a native light.

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Technology Google Street View

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Seems Google Street View visited my street in the fall of last year and added a view of my house. It is interesting how the picture can be panned. Seems I just fit in their coverage area.

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History Soviet Defector

Monday, June 23, 2008

In 1946, Victor Kravchenko defected from the Soviet Union in 1946. His book, I Chose Freedom (review), chronicled his life as a communist official since the 1917 revolution. The book was considered so fantastic as to be unbelievable, but a French trial vindicated his claims, and we now know it was all true.

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Transportation Train Travel

Sunday, June 22, 2008

This article has a good overview of the increase in train travel.

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Transportation SUVs Declining

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

I wrote about SUVs before, but it seems their decline is accelerating (second article). This article has a good analysis of the psychological reasons why SUVs were popular.

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Flight Traveling Limit Reached

Monday, June 9, 2008

I found out how much traveling I can handle. In late April I did a week of training, was home for two weeks, went to an Ottawa conference, was home for another week, then went to speak in Japan; that is probably more traveling than I can handle in a short period of time. I am now home for six weeks.

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History Bertrand Russell Visits the Soviet Union

Saturday, June 7, 2008

As a communist supporter, Bertrand Russell visited the Soviet Union in 1920, three years after the Bolshevik revolution. Russell wrote a report of what he found. While he found many Bolshevik leaders incredibly dedicated, he found the communist system oppressive for its citizens. Russell had a few ideas on how communism could work, but as I mentioned already, communism could never be adjusted to work.

Russel also had an interesting section that explains that the love of power became a fundamental motivation once personal property was eliminated.

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Flight Airport Security

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Many people feel airport security has become more inconvenient since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but I have found that security checkpoints are actually easier now because there is more staff and security scanners.

It has been revealed why liquids are no longer allowed on flights; it turns out that a mixture of liquids can be used to make a bomb.

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Transportation Celica Burning Oil

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Two years ago, my Celica started burning a quart of oil every 1,000 miles. That wasn't a huge problem because I change the oil every 3,000 miles, but the amount of oil burned increased. Also the car started producing a smell when pulled into the garage, and there was sometimes a bluish smoke coming from the tail pipe when accelerating from a standstill.

One mechanic wanted to replace the piston rings, while another mechanic felt I should wait for it to get worse then replace the engine; a third recommended using a gasoline additive like Techron. A fourth mechanic said simply refill the oil every 1,000 miles; after asking more questions, he recommended Rislone Engine Treatment.

I started using Rislone three months or 3,000 miles ago. The oil smell and bluish smoke stopped, and oil consumption reduced to currently one-eighth of a quart per 1,000. I expect oil consuption to continue decreasing. I will keep using Rislone for another year to make sure it has removed all the sludge it can from the engine.

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Transportation Replacing a Car Based On the Price of Gasoline

Sunday, June 1, 2008

With high gasoline prices, I wondered if people will be replacing inefficient cars with more gasoline-efficient cars. I figured with gasoline at $4/gallon, a 10 MPG car driven 30,000 miles a year would cost $12,000 USD in gasoline. A car getting 40 MPG would require $3,000, so the more efficient car saves $9,000 (though these are extreme numbers). The cost of a new car is clearly greater than $9,000, so it would take several years for a more efficient car to save enough money to offset the purchase price. So, it is my guess that most people will continue using their inefficient cars until it is time for the car to be replaced.

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Transportation Gasoline Prices

Sunday, June 1, 2008

With gasoline costing roughly $4 per gallon in the United States, I am glad I have two cars of different sizes — my Celica gets 28 miles per gallon (MPG) in typical driving (33 MPG on the highway), and my van gets around 18 MPG. We use the Celica when possible to save on gas. It is surprising that car gasoline efficiency has not progress much since my 1986 Celica was made. I think the Celica gets good gasoline mileage because it is a light car, and has a manual transmission.

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Arts "Once Upon a Time in America"

Thursday, May 29, 2008

I just finished watching the movie Once Upon a Time in America (1984). I saw the 229 minute version (3 hours 49 minutes), not the much-panned shorter version shown in U.S. movie theaters.

The movie spans three time periods with many flashbacks and flashfowards. In fact there are so many flashbacks/flashfowards that it is hard to keep a single time period consistent in your head. The movie follows the protagonist, played by Robert De Niro, from childhood to gangster to old age. The flashbacks/flashfowards highlight how past actions affect future possibilities.

At the end of the movie, I was left a little confused because the movie was so complex. I read a few movie reviews which talked about technical details, like the acting, cinematography, and sets, which were all very good. But then I found this review which really pulled all the complex parts of the movie into a single theme — that the protagonist's friendship with others led him away from his true nature, and that only when he left his friends was he able to find peace.

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History Communism Never Had a Chance

Sunday, May 18, 2008

My blog entry, "Early Soviet Criticism", I mentioned Alexandra Kollontai criticized the early Soviet leaders for not being communist enough. Of course, others complained the leadership was too communist.

Through Soviet history, there were many adjustments to the communist system:

China has similar adjustments, including the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and more five-year plans.

Fundamentally, the reason for all those adjustments is that the communist system never could work, because it tried to change human nature to create an unattainable reality. All the adjusting in the world can never attain that, even after seventy years of trying.

Of course, the Soviet Union was able to attain superpower status, but at a high human cost — a cost a democratic society would never accept.

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Flight Upcoming Trips

Friday, May 16, 2008

During the next sixty days, I have trips to Ottawa, Tokyo, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Portland, Oregon; each trip averages five days. Unfortunately none of them can be combined.

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Technology Computer Advances?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Five years ago this month, I bought a new computer as a server. At the time it was a mid-range server, with dual Xeon 2.40GHz CPUs, RDRAM, and SCSI disks.

I have asked a few people if I should upgrade my server, and they said what I have now is fine and that I wouldn't notice a difference if I bought a new server.

The big question is why there hasn't been more advancement in computers during the past five years. Prices have come down during the past five years, so low-end computers now have multiple CPU cores and more RAM, but CPU speeds have not increased dramatically and the high-end capabilities of computers haven't changed much.

Update: Article about why computers are not advancing rapidly 2011-08-24

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Community Don't the Democrats Want To Win the Presidency?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Both U.S. Democratic presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, are going to have trouble winning the general election in November. Obama has only three years of US Senate experience and is far-left on many issues, while Clinton is perceived negatively by many voters.

If the Democrats wanted victory in November, they should have nominated a more mainstream candidate, like they did in previous years with Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry.

Since 1976, all presidents have been state governors, except for George H. W. Bush, and there were doubts during his candidacy that he had only been vice-president and director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). You can see how questions about Obama's inexperience will come up. Of course, John McCain wasn't a governor either, but he was a war hero and has spent 22 years in the Senate.

Of course, there is frustration with the Republicans so that will certainly help the Democrats in the fall. It just feels to me that the Democrats are being overconfident by considering these two candidates.

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History Early Soviet Criticism

Monday, May 12, 2008

About one-fifth through my third Soviet book, I found an article by Alexandra Kollontai (detailed biography) who sums up criticism of the first years after the Russian revolution of 1917. Alexandra was a member of the Workers Opposition (details) that formed in reaction to the heavy-handed policies of the ruling Bolshevik government led by Lenin.

Kollontai's writings summarize concerns during those early years and many of the problems that would plague the Soviet Union. Her objections were:

  • The dictatorship of the Bolshevik government rather than democratic worker participation
  • No freedom of speech or criticism
  • Increasing bureaucratization that made worker initiative nearly impossible
  • The control of bourgeoisie/capitalists compared to worker/proletariat control

Surprisingly, Bolshevik dictatorship was identified early in Soviet history, yet the Soviet Union would last another seventy years. To reduce bureaucracy, decentralization was attempted by Nikita Khrushchev during the 1950's. However, without the risks and rewards of capitalism, there was no motivation for economic actors to cooperate and the experiment was abandoned.

The complaint about bourgeois influence stems from a belief that workers were somehow internally different from capitalist-motivated individuals. Fundamentally I suppose the idea was that capitalist motivation was a flaw that could be bred out of the population to create socialism.

Interestingly, Kollontai's recommendation was not that communism wouldn't work, but that the Bolshevik dictatorship had too much bourgeois influence and needed to be more worker-centric — in short, more communist. Her article in 1921, The Workers' Opposition, outlined these ideas; the third section, "On Bureaucracy and Self-activity of The Masses", is particularly expressive.

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Transportation SUVs On Their Way Out

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

This article says Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) are becoming less popular. The best quote is, "It's an irrational vehicle. It'll never come back." I have to say I never understood the appeal of SUVs either.

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Flight Travel Observations

Sunday, May 4, 2008

I recently traveled to Minneapolis and Los Angeles and learned a few things.

One interesting experience was checking out of a Minneapolis Marriott Courtyard hotel, getting into my Avis rental car, flying to Los Angeles, and getting into an identical rental car, and checking into an almost identical hotel. I can see why travelers like consistency when traveling — I was more comfortable and effective in a car and hotel I knew.

Similarly, I brought my portable GPS with me and was able to drive quite effectively in cities I had never visited. Using my own GPS meant I knew exactly how to operate it, including its sophisticated features. A GPS in a rental car offers new freedom because you can always find your destination and get back to your hotel, no matter where you go. I also tried the GPS during my flight and it detected I was over Nebraska and going 450MPH.

I perceived my bow tie was a greater curiosity in California than other places I had visited. That was confirmed when a group was excited to see me tie my bow tie in front of them at the start of my presentation.

While touring Minneapolis and Saint Paul, I found the Skyway system that links their buildings quite innovative.

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Arts Hedgerow In The News

Friday, April 25, 2008

Hedgerow Theatre, where we often perform, was featured in a prominent newspaper article today.

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Technology Borg makes nice with open source. Oh please.

Friday, April 25, 2008

This blog posting from someone pretending to be Apple's Steve Jobs is quite interesting in how it compares the magnitude of open source company success with that of proprietary companies.

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Technology OK, I Am Using Bluetooth

Friday, April 25, 2008

After my previous posting making fun of Bluetooth headsets, I replaced my cell phone with a new model and got a Bluetooth headset with it. The wired headset I was using in my car was just too cumbersome. The Bluetooth earpiece has good voice clarity and no wires. Hopefully I will never wear it on romantic dinners with my wife, as spoofed in my previous blog post.

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Technology Bluetooth

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

I always think of this Onion spoof picture when I see people wearing those Bluetooth ear pieces.

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Technology Why Old Technologies Are Still Kicking

Thursday, March 27, 2008

This is a good article about how old technology remains in wide use by adapting.

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Humor Look What My Wife Emailed Me

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

My wife emailed me this article. How am I supposed to interpret this? ;-)

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History Lenin's Tragedy

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I have read to page 50 in my current Soviet book and I am finding it eerie. The early pages have writings and speeches by Lenin outlining how and when to overthrow the weak Russian government (1917).

The eerie part is that you know Lenin has made incorrect assumptions (thanks to Karl Marx) and he is leading the country toward disaster, but he actually thinks he is helping Russia. It is like a ship's captain who has gotten some incorrect information and has set a course toward rocks that will sink the ship — it all seems so logical to the captain, but you know he is headed for disaster.

The larger tragedy is that Lenin is not steering a ship, but an entire country — a country that will take seventy years to admit it was based on incorrect assumptions. My previous Soviet books remind me how badly it will all turn out.

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Arts Performing at Yankee Stadium

Thursday, March 13, 2008

We had the dress rehearsal for Peter's opera today. It was an odd feeling performing at the Kimmel Center. Imagine taking your family to Yankee Stadium for years, and then suddenly you are in the Yankees locker room with your son. Then you are in the Yankees dugout and your son is on the pitcher's mound. And the weirder part is that this isn't something you planned for or worked towards — it just happened; that is what the Kimmel felt like.

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History Third Soviet Book

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I have finished my second Soviet book, The Soviet Century. The book was detail-oriented and had lots of statistics, but it lacked the kind of analysis that holds my attention.

I have started reading The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union, 1917-1991 (review), which is a book of Soviet historical documents, with introductory text for each document by the editor. You can see from its front cover that this is a thought-provoking book. The book allows you to read about what Soviet leaders were thinking, and why.

After I am done with this book, I will read a book about the experiences of ordinary Soviet citizens, which should balance out "The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union" nicely. I have a book about Stalin I also might read.

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Arts Libretto

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Someone gave me the libretto (English translation) for Peter's opera so I can now understand what is happening during the performance — it really helps.

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Arts Opera Practice

Friday, March 7, 2008

I finally saw a full run-through of the opera Peter is in. Five minutes before the practice everyone was sitting around, then during the play they had huge opera voices. I was basically bouncing in and out of opera world — a surreal experience.

It is certainly interesting to see opera practice — there are lots of additional helpers, like a choreographer and conductor. I am told that when the orchestra is added, the performance really takes off.

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Community Journalists Heading to Pennsylvania

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Because the Pennsylvania Democratic primary is going to be important this year, someone has written a humorous summary of how to understand and woo our state voters.

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Transportation Toyota Celica Turns 22

Friday, February 1, 2008

Our Toyota Celica GT will be 22 years old next month. (Christine got it in March of 1986.) We have replaced a number of parts over the years: in the engine (starter, distributor, timing belt, water pump, steering fluid pump), on the body (repainted, both front quarter panels, front struts, clutch master cylinder, air dam, side molding, brake drums, antenna, headlights), and in the interior (radio, speakers, shift boot). Of course, we also replaced the standard consumables (belts, gaskets, oil, brakes, clutch, muffler, wiper blades, battery, tires, bulbs).

The car is too old for local automobile mechanics to repair. Fortunately I found a Toyota dealership (Central City Toyota) who has veteran mechanics who worked on the car when it was new. Basically, keeping a 22-year-old car looking like new is quite a challenge.

When the car was ten years old, I wondered how long it would last. At fifteen I questioned how long this car could keep going. Now, I think it might last forever. :-)

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Technology Filtering RSS Feeds For Google Reader

Friday, February 1, 2008

Google Reader cannot filter RSS feed content — you have to read the entire feed. I am now using FeedRinse (review) to create a custom feed that filters out unwanted items; I then subscribe to the FeedRinse feed in Google Reader.

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Technology Increasing Wireless Access Point Coverage

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Wireless Internet access is now ubiquitous, but methods to provide reliable operation over a large area are still not widely known. I have setup a wireless network that works quite well so will outline the methods I used below.

Let's start with a picture of my wireless access point (WAP). First, I am using a dedicated wireless access point (Linksys WAP54G), not a combination wireless access point and router. Combination devices have limited signal strength, and it is best to be able to locate the WAP independent of the router. Second, I have modified the firmware of the wireless access point so I can increase its signal strength. (Fortunately the Linksys firmware is GPL-licensed so it is freely available, and someone modified it as "HyperWAP"; email me if you want a copy, but be aware that using modified firmware can easily break your WAP if configured improperly.)

Third, you will notice the roof beams in the picture — my wireless access point is in my attic because I get better signal strength by projecting the signal downward to all the rooms of my house. (It was necessary to run a long Ethernet cable to the attic to allow this placement.) When projecting a wireless signal downward, it usually has to go through only one or two surfaces, typically the floor/ceilings; projecting horizontally usually has more blocking surfaces (walls), which reduces signal strength. Notice the Linksys WAP is suspended from ropes and is vertical. The device was not designed to operate in a hot summer attic so this placement helps keep the device cool by allowing airflow along the internal computer boards, rather than having heat build up under the boards if it was horizontal.

And finally, the antenna in the picture is a patch antenna. A patch (or panel) antenna projects the signal in one direction (downward), unlike the more common pole antenna which projects the signal equally in all directions (omnidirectional). This antenna also minimizes signal spillage to neighboring houses. This web site explains many of the details about wireless signal propagation, including how to interpret directional antenna graphs. Also notice the antenna is mounted high on the ceiling to give it better coverage than if it had been on the floor.

There are other approaches, such as additional wireless access points or repeaters. The problem with this approach is that every additional antenna reduces the coverage area of existing antennas, and limits bandwidth. There can also be problems with signal reliability when moving from one coverage area to another, so this approach is best avoided if possible.

In summary, increasing wireless access point coverage involves various methods and disciplines: a dedicated wireless access point (hardware), modified firmware (software), attic location (radio signal propagation), vertical placement (thermodynamics), and a directional antenna (antenna design). I have updated the original picture to show each method.

I got much of this information from the Internet, but it was scattered on many web sites. I have collected this information here in the hope it will be more useful.

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Thoughts Atlantic Magazine Archive Now Open

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Atlantic magazine has opened its archive to non-subscribers so I have added many new article to my favorite writings section. Fortunately I recorded good Atlantic articles when I read them in hope someday they would open their archive — and they have done so.

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Technology Site Search

Friday, January 25, 2008

I have added a menu item that allows keyword searches of my web site.

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Technology Web Site Comments

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

I have added a comment menu item to my web site and the ability to comment on blog entries. I am using JS-Kit (article).

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Technology Artificial Intelligence Handwaving

Sunday, January 20, 2008

During the first decades of computers there was hope that Artificial Intelligence (AI) would someday create reasoning computers. The thought was that eventually more powerful computers would make this possible.

Well, years after having more powerful computers, artificial intelligence is no closer to reasoning. This article comment describes well how "hand-waving around the problems" allowed artificial intelligence to promise so much but deliver so little.

(This reminds me of the similar hope that flying cars would soon be common in the first decades of the automobile.)

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Thoughts United States Policy Shift In Iraqi Troop Surge

Saturday, January 19, 2008

In March 2007 the United States, against strong domestic opposition, increased the number of troops in Iraq by 15% in an attempt to secure a self-governing democracy in Iraq. This troop surge contrasted with the previous U.S policy of "limited engagement" in a variety of conflicts since the Vietnam War. For example, when a bomb destroyed the Marine barracks in Lebanon, the United States withdrew troops, as they did in Somalia in 1993.

It is hard to understand how a 15% increase could change the outcome of a conflict but it seems to have done just that. Current indications are that Iraq has become safer since the troop surge and has increased the ability of Iraqis to take control of the country. Of course, increased Iraqi cooperation and new tactics probably had a significant effect too.

I always believed the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was mostly a subterfuge. The real reason for the Iraq War was a United States government realization after 9/11 that an isolationist approach to world conflicts was unwise; that threats, like Saddam Hussein, had to be addressed early rather than waiting for them to arrive in the United States. Also, by going to Iraq the U.S military provided a target for extremists so they could be fought away from United States soil. (Of course the war increased the number of extremists as well.) A secondary goal was to force democracy into the Middle East, with the thought that democratic governments are usually friendly to the United States.

Only time will tell if the troop surge provides lasting benefits, but the new United States approach to foreign conflicts is probably here to stay.

Update: This news story states Saddam pretended to have weapons of mass destruction to prevent an attack from Iran; Saddam never expected an invasion by the United States until it was too late. It seems Saddam was relying on pre-9/11 U.S. behavior and policies.

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Technology Tracking New Web Site Changes With RSS

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I have recently discovered the usefulness of RSS feeds. RSS feeds are a way track web site activity by subscribing to a stream of changes.

Many web sites have a RSS feeds. The availability of RSS feeds is indicated by the presence of an orange RSS icon or the letters "RSS" either in the web browser status bar or at the bottom of the web page (such as this one).

Using Google Reader I subscribed to the RSS feeds of web sites I frequently check for new activity. Now I no longer have to scan web sites several times a day looking for new items; RSS delivers all web site changes to Google Reader and I can just check there for items of interest.

This article goes into much more detail about the usefulness of RSS feeds.

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Technology Ultraportable Notebook Computer

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Asus Eee PC is a bold new approach for portable computers.

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Community Local Estate for Sale

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Perhaps the last great Philadelphia Main Line estate and the inspiration for the movie The Philadelphia Story, Ardrossan Farm, is up for sale. There is hope Radnor township will buy and preserve it now that a $20 million USD bond issue was approved two months ago. Several conservancy groups are also involved. My house is one mile from the property, to the left of the dark green area on the map.

Update: This article has more details about the Ardrossan estate.

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Arts Recent Movies

Friday, January 4, 2008

I saw I Am Legend yesterday. It was a good movie, though the scary scenes detracted from the movie's full potential. It was similar to Omega Man. I also saw National Treasure: Book of Secrets this week with my family. It was good and Christine thought it was better than the first National Treasure.

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Technology Web Site Fixed for Internet Explorer

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Microsoft Internet Explorer has had trouble rendering my web site correctly, particularly the left menu. I thought it was an Internet Explorer bug but in fact my web site content was wrong and has been corrected.

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