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December 9th, 2013


01:10 pm - Smooth
I've been meaning to write this little essay for years. Why not today?

Some years ago, I surprised a friend of mine by telling him that one of the reasons I use an electric razor is because it shaves closer than the ubiquitous multi-blade manual kind. I think most people have no idea how good a quality electric is these days.

A few caveats, though. I've found (and myriad reviews and comments online seem to support this) that there is a much wider range of performance between various electrics (Remington, Norelco, Braun, Panasonic) than between different brands of manual ones (Gillette, Schick, etc.). That's also true of different models by the same manufacturer. If you try an electric razor that retails for less than $120, you're wasting your time (and if you go for one that's more than $300, you're probably wasting your money). Also, it can take up to a month for you and your face (or whatever you're shaving) to get used to the new way of shaving. It should be obvious that, the 'magic of technology' notwithstanding, the results you get after just one week using an electric shaver might not measure up to what you can do with a manual after years and years of practice; that's not necessarily the fault of the tool.

I do keep both kinds in my bathroom, because they have different strengths and weaknesses. But a few Halloweens ago, I was going to put makeup all over my head, so I shaved off everything but my eyebrows, and, as an experiment, used a brand-new Gillette three-bladed safety razor on the left size, and my Panasonic electric on the right. I had just finished when friends started coming over for the party, so I took my head over to them and had a few people check out the results, which were unanimous. The electric side was much smoother. The difference for my beard (cheeks and neck) was less pronounced, but still obvious.

Also, while the Gillette was a fresh-from-the-box blade head, my Panasonic's blades were, oh, probably four or five years old at that point, which leads to the other quality where electrics utterly kick butt over modern manuals: cost. How often do you change the blade on your manual, and what do you pay for them? If I did all my shaving with manuals, even if I shopped at Costco, I'd still be spending at least $100/year on blades, and probably a lot more than that.

Also, manual blades have a sloped failure curve. Every day, they work almost as well as the day before. "It seems pretty dull. A new blade would feel a lot better, but geez, they're expensive! What to do. . . ." My electric shaver says I'm supposed to change the blade and foil head every six months. If I did, it would still be cheaper than manuals after two years, but in point of fact, I didn't change the replaceable parts until the foil finally wore through some five to seven years after I bought it, and the new parts cost $40. All the electrics but the Norelco rotary kind use a thin perforated sheet of metal to keep the cutter blades from cutting you, and I've found that, until the day the foil actually wears through and has a hole in it, the cutters works pretty much as well as they did when they were new. So, after a decade, total cost of ownership for electric, about $200. Estimated equivalent cost of manual: $1000–$1500.

Speaking of that perforated foil leads to the third way that I find electric shavers dramatically superior to manuals: safety. No matter how much pressure I use, or how I hold it, or which direction I move it, the only times that my electric has ever drawn blood is when the foil failed. (Well, almost. It did bite me once when being used on a more intimate part of my person, mostly because I had grown over-confident. However, had I used a manual razor as cavalierly on the same skin, I would undoubtably have been in danger of expiring from blood loss.)

It's possible that the reason the electric does a better job shaving is because I can move it in any direction. I can get a smoother shave with the manual if I shave against the direction of hair growth, but it's only smoother for an hour or so. After that, razor burn raises red welts. Using a blade 'backwards' drives the cut ends of the hair in to the skin a short distance, and some of those ends then catch the edge of the follicle and irritate the skin. I've never had a problem with razor burn from the electric.

Both manuals and electrics work best (in my experience) on shorter hair; generally hair that had been shaved no more than a few days ago. The manual tends to cut maybe a quarter-inch track through longer hairs (say, on my head if I haven't shaved it for a couple weeks), where the electric is all but useless. Also, the manual's better for areas where there are only a few hairs (long or short), like the back of my neck.

That's because of a characteristic difference in the way they get the job done. According to my watch, it takes me about the same amount of time to shave my beard with either one, but it feels like it takes longer with the electric, because I have to go over the same spot four or five times. Each pass of the electric gets some of the hair, but not all. The manual will usually cut a more or less clear swath with each pass. However, then I have to drop it into the sink and thrash it about to clear the whiskers from the blades for the next pass. With the electric, I generally don't have to stop until I'm done, so there's a lot more time with the shaver on my face, but much less rinsing it out.

By the way, it appears that the best electric shaver manufacturer today is the same as it was over a decade ago when I bought my current shaver: Braun. Nevertheless, I purchased what was (and also still is) the #2 shaver: Panasonic, because just like now, back then, Braun didn't make a wet/dry shaver. Electric or manual, hair is easier to cut when it's absorbed water, so the best time to shave is during or after a shower. If I were just shaving my beard, I might have gone for the Braun, but because I also wanted it for my head, being able to do it in the shower or tub was going to be much easier to clean up afterwards. Thus, the Panasonic.

Although it's probably as bad an idea as talking on your cell phone, an electric shaver does let you shave while driving, if you're really running late, because an electric shaver works quite well without any skin prep at all. This is particularly handy for quick touch-ups. I have used a manual directly on my skin a few times. If there are just a few hairs, or they're thin, and the blade is really sharp, it's not too bad. Otherwise, shaving cream is a requirement, or else Ow!

I'll use shaving cream with the electric, too, if I'm doing the whole beard. Not only will it help soften the whiskers, but it also helps alleviate one of the negatives about the electric: heat. By the time I've run it around my face enough to finish the job, the friction of the blades on the foil will have warmed up the foil quite a bit. Shaving cream and/or dipping the cutter head into water now and then fixes that problem.

The one factor where I find the manual clearly superior is noise. The rotary Norelco shavers are generally a lot quieter than the linear oscillating blades of the others, but it's still a loud high-pitched buzzing gizmo that you may be putting right next to your ear now and then.

The other category where the manual is better is that, with the exception of the amusing new vibrating manual razors, you don't have to worry about their batteries running down. I haven't found that to be all that big a problem with the Panasonic, though. A full charge, even today, is still enough to shave my face and head at least twice, if not three times, or just my beard for at least a week, so I only bring its power cord along on trips >7 days.

So:
-Closer shave? Electric.
-Cheaper? Electric.
-Safer? Electric.
-Faster? Tie.
-Better for thin areas? Manual.
-Better for longer hairs? Manual, by a nose. Clippers are the real answer.
-In wet/shower? Tie.
-Outside the bathroom? Electric.
-Noise? Manual.

For being clearly superior in the first three categories, the trophy goes to the electric shaver.

Just for the record, I did not receive any consideration or compensation from anybody for this commentary.
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October 30th, 2013


01:43 pm - Captain Underpants
If you are, or live with, a male of the human race, you may or may not have noted a curious (well, I think it's curious) characteristic of men's underwear, specifically of briefs or boxer briefs. Ignore boxers: they're too loose to be relevant. But briefs, also known as 'jockeys' or 'tighty-whities,' and boxer briefs (similar, but with an inch or two of inseam), as manufactured by, oh, say, Hanes or Fruit of the Loom or Sears, do something very strange.

They lay flat.

I admit, as with so many other things in the world, I took this for granted for many years before one day thinking "What the heck?"

I have had a couple of different female friends over the years discuss bras with me; for example, I've learned that many women are slightly asymmetric, and wouldn't it be wonderful if you could get a bra that was one size on the left but a slightly different size on the right? I can only imagine the laughter and ridicule I would have received if I'd tried to convince them that what they really needed was a bra that lay flat on a table.

Now, there are manufacturers that make men's underwear that does not lay flat. I bought a pair (and why do we call one brief "a pair of underwear??") a couple of decades ago. I didn't buy them for their three-dimensional nature, but once I'd tried them on, it was suddenly obvious to me why they should be.

I think, though, that what I like best about the question "Why do men's underpants lay flat?" is that it actually springboards in many different directions.

Anatomy: After all, although both women's breasts and men's genitals present as curves surfaces, they're not the same curve, they're not the same mass, and there are structural differences. Perhaps it happens that if there were a male equivalent of 'cup size,' it would turn out that most men tend to be "A cups." Maybe they're squishier. Maybe many other things, some not necessarily appropriate for polite conversation.

There's also apparently a difference in what the garment wearer will tolerate. I know from experience that one of the consequences of flat underwear is the opportunity for 'wardrobe malfunction,' although since it happens inside pants, it usually just requires some discreet adjustments to put things right. However, boxers are the most popular style of underwear, and they are, in effect, one ongoing wardrobe malfunction, inasmuch as they don't even provide the support that briefs do, as long as you can stay inside briefs properly.

Engineering: Fabric does stretch, after all. Maybe the available stretch in underpants is adequate to reshape to an appropriate curve for men, where it would not be for a breast.

Fashion/Design: Not high fashion, but just the process of creating clothing for humans. There are many companies making more anatomically-conformant underwear. So why would the mainstream manufacturers so rarely follow suit? Expense? Market demand? And why, oh why, are there so many racks of tacky boxers for sale? "Metrosexuals" notwithstanding, is the typical male really that fashion-backward? {sounds of retching}

Culture: How does it come about that I've had more conversations with women about the practical considerations of the fit of a bra than I've had with men about the fit of underwear? And I'm fairly confident that I'm not unusual in that way. I'm sure there are many many men who've never discussed either subject, but I really doubt more than a tiny fraction have the opposite ratio.

Then there's the related issue about men and their neuroses related to endowment. On more than one occasion, I've considered raising this topic, but refrained because I was worried that it would come across as, well, bragging. Will my co-conversationalists, if they haven't already thought about this topic, think that I have this opinion just because I was more observant or thoughtful about this particular topic, or because it's a "bigger" issue for me? Never mind why it should even matter. There are some strange differences in the likely responses to a woman's stating "it's hard to find a comfortable bra because my breasts are just too large" and a man saying (or even implying) "it's hard to find comfortable underwear because my penis is just too big."

Gay Culture: Most of the non-flat underwear I'm aware of is marketed primarily to gays. Why? Yes, yes, I can think of two glaringly obvious reasons right off the bat; 'real men' (i.e. the classic macho straight guy) would be embarrassed near to death to talk about underwear; and, just like the bras at Victoria's Secret, some of the more dimensional items are intended specifically to enhance the wearer's sex appeal. Generally (although not exclusively!) I've noticed a bulging crotch is more likely to turn the head of a gay man than a straight woman. But are those the only reasons? I think not...

So. A simple question with, IMHO, many intriguing ramifications. Assuming, that is, that you're not somebody too embarrassed to even think about the subject. :)




Huh. LiveJournal has an "adult content" flag. My choices are "none" and "explicit". I would like to know why "implicit" isn't an option, thank you very much. And why isn't "innuendo" a choice? Huh? Huh?

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July 12th, 2013


12:54 pm - Geezerology
I've surprised myself a little with how I've felt about gray hair as I've gotten older. But then, the gray hairs have surprised me with how quixotic they've been. My beard started going gray first, and there's a lot of gray there. Frankly, I didn't like it. A salt-and-pepper chin but my original very dark brown on the sides of my head looked rather silly to me. The top of my head doesn't have much hair left, but the fact that there are a few still hanging on is even less esthetically acceptable to me. Stop looking straggly and pathetic! Give up! Let go! But I digress.

Now my temples are going gray, and I'm fine with that. It looks fairly elegant and distinguished to me. Also, I'm old enough that I figure I probably ought to have gray hair by now anyway. Which of course means I'm way past due, because how many of us ever think we should have started getting gray hair when we started getting gray hair? Hardly surprising, though. When I think about "people with gray hair," my brain is more or less sampling everybody I know, and comes back with an average age of fifty to sixty or so. I point out to it that it should only include people who are starting to turn gray, and it still gives me forty-five to fifty.

Doing a bit of research for this post, by the way, turned up this rather fascinating report (check me out, citing the original research, who's da dude? Me!) which I found through an article in a British newspaper: "The researchers set out to test a widely-accepted “rule of thumb” in the cosmetics industry, that the age of 50, 50 per cent of the population had at least 50 per cent grey hair. In fact, the new study found that less than a quarter of those taking part had that much grey hair at that age. In many parts of the world, it was a substantially lower proportion."

Now, it's hardly fair to compare when you spot your own first gray hair to the age your brain hands you for when it notices other people with gray hair. First of all, we're probably going to notice our own much earlier than somebody else's. We're probably looking a lot more closely at our own, and we tend to be more critical of our own appearance. On top of that, because the typical human thought patterns are already tricking many of us into thinking we're going gray earlier than we "ought to," many of us dye it to hide the gray, thus skewing the perceived age related to gray hair upwards even further.

My gray hairs started appearing in my late 30's, which apparently was just little bit behind the average for Caucasian men, and for the most part, the hair follicles seem to be switching over to gray fairly slowly. At the rate I'm going, I probably won't be predominantly gray on my head until I'm in my mid to late 60's.

So here I am, pretty much copacetic with gray hairs showing up on my head right by my ears. Then one day I find a gray hair on my chest. This should not have surprised me in the slightest, but I found myself quite annoyed! It's particularly silly since I don't even particularly like my chest hair, so if it wants to camoflage itself against my pale epidermis, I ought to be glad. But no, I was offended, and promptly plucked the dang thing. Then I had pretty much the same reaction when I found one in one of my eyebrows. "I don't think so!" {poit!}

I mentioned this a few months ago to some friends, and one of them agreed that some gray hairs were more disturbing/offensive than others, and managed to rather gracefully imply that the ones that had bothered them the most were ironically located where they were very unlikely to be seen. I'd had the same reaction myself, but I was at a loss as to how to say that in polite company, so I'd waited to raise the topic until my eyebrow provided a more genteel example.

So I know it's not just me, and yet, how ridiculous is that? I should be pleased if the hairs that are normally covered by clothing turn gray, on the grounds that I'm probably going to go gray at a certain rate, but yea, let's keep the most visible hair dark and put the gray hair where it doesn't show.

Now I have not really tried to seriously manage gray hairs by pulling them out. I do pluck them out now and then, but I know that the end result is either giving up in exhaustion as the rate increases, or looking as if I have mange. But I have pulled a few now and then, and what I have found is rather perplexing. That eyebrow hair had a white tip. The majority of the pubic hairs have been white at the end, and dark at the base. The melanocytes decide to retire and let the hair grow in white, and then, what, Moe comes along and slaps them, and they get back to work?

The Interwebs were less than helpful for this. Lots of people report hair that shows spontaneous repigmentation, with nearly as many 'helpful' respondents claiming it must be due to diet, or sun bleaching, or whatever, because "real" gray hair doesn't change back. PubMed wasn't very helpful, either. I turned up just one clear reference: "Indeed, it is not too uncommon to see spontaneous repigmentation along the same individual hair shaft in early canities." ('Graying: gerontobiology of the hair follicle pigmentary unit.' Exp Gerontol. 2001 Jan;36(1):29-54.) All remaining search results were related to vitiligo, not to age-related pigment changes. BTW, "canities" means "grayness or whiteness of the hair."

The hair cycle, as you might know, is that a follicle spends some amount of time manufacturing a hair, then takes a few weeks (or months) off. When the rest period is over, it releases the hair and begins growing a new one. Arm hairs (for example) have a short growth phase and a long rest phase, which is why they're so much shorter than head hair.

So here I am, finding hair follicles that shut down pigment production, and then start it back up again partway through the job. I would love to know what that follicle does with the next hair that it grows. Does it stay white next time? Is it back to brown? Does it restart partway through, but maybe later?

I have no doubt that there are commercial research labs working on how to restart hair follicle melanocyte activity, but we probably won't hear much about it until they've got some results.

In the mean time, I guess I'll just have to deal with my own hair follicles trying to freak me out. Ah, Mistress Biology, you are a wacky thing indeed.
Current Mood: Amused

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July 10th, 2013


08:13 pm - Portland Mass Transit: Is it really that good?
A friend of mine from Portland was recently complaining about the Seattle mass transit system. There are a bunch of different ones here in Seattle, and you have to pay for each segment! Pierce, Community Transit, Metro, Sound; what a mess. In Portland, it's all tied together. You can just pay once and not worry about transfers.

Yea, whatever. It's not the first time I've had somebody extol the virtues of the Portland transit system. I can't say I'm in love with Seattle's mass transit system, but I'm not very impressed with Portland's, either. But this time I was near my computer, so I decided to rustle up some facts to see how they compare, because I rather suspected the reason Portland's seems so much easier to use is because there just isn't very much of it.

Yup.

First of all, I'm just going to compare the Seattle city transit system, "Metro," to the Portland system, "TriMet." They both handled about 110 million passenger trips last year. With TriMet, 54 million of those were bus trips, the rest were commuter rail. Metro only has busses. In fact, Metro has 220 bus routes and 1600 vehicles. TriMet has 79 routes and approximately 600 busses, plus the 4 rail lines.

The "greater Portland metropolitan area" (Hillsboro, Portland, Vancouver WA, and the like) is actually bigger than the "greater Seattle metropolitan area" (Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue, Woodinvile, Issaquah), 6,600 sq. miles vs 5,400 sq. miles, but I can't easily figure out how much of the Portland area actually has usable mass transit service. With about 1/3rd the routes but more area, it seems improbable that the coverage is as good, but maybe they're long routes that cover a lot of territory. {shrug}

Now, keep in mind my friend was whining about how complicated it is to get to Tacoma or Everett, where you start on a Metro bus, then transfer to a Sound Transit bus, and the go to a Pierce Transit or Community Transit bus. Quite frankly, I'm too lazy to hit the Pierce, Sound, Community, and state ferry web sites to add in their route count and resources. It seems rather unnecessary. For Portland, TriMet is the *only* transit system. The intra-Metro fare transfer system is just as good as the TriMet one. But TriMet doesn't have any other major systems to interface with, so no wonder that it seems easier.

Particularly annoying is that my unhappy friend even used to have an ORCA card, but seemed to think bitching that it was going to cost $7.75 to get to Tacoma via cash fares was better than coughing up the $5 to buy a card (available at dozens of locations, including vending machines in the bus tunnel stations, and many local retailers). The ORCA card provides toll-free transfers between the different transit systems.

Portland's system does have remarkably high usage rates, and I am happy that there is a transit system that's really being used. According to TriMet, 26% of evening commuters are using mass transit. Wow. They also point out that "More people ride TriMet than transit systems in larger cities, such as Dallas, Denver and San Diego." Seattle's not on that list because Metro had about 10 million more, I believe. On the other hand, the Seattle area has 80% more people, and is almost twice as dense, so you'd think they could do better than that. Maybe when the light rail line is extended north, they will. {shrug}

If you want to tell me that you like Portland's transit system, go right ahead. Just don't follow it up with a complaint about Seattle's. Could Seattle have had a system as well-liked as Portland's, had they done things differently? Beats me. *Could* they have done things differently, which is to say, was it ever politically possible to get the right amount of money spent on the right things to have made something else? There's no way to know. But it's still clear that the Portland system is just a heck of a lot smaller than the Seattle one, and that makes the job a lot easier. Walla Walla has 9 routes, and the standard fare is 50 cents. I'm sure it's much easier to figure out routes there, and what a bargain! Is it better?

Apples and oranges. Apples and oranges.

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June 18th, 2013


10:55 am - But I don't WANT to be innovative!
Yesterday's housechilling party was all kinds of fun (yay!). I wonder if you can tell how successful a party was by how much cleanup you have to do afterwards? Probably not, but one of the things I had do deal with was the remainder of the enormous ripe casaba that Nick brought. My first thought was "sorbet!" but after I pureed some of it and gave it a taste, I don't think that will work very well. Like watermelon, the casaba has a very delicate flavor; it's quite watery. I think it will either freeze up solid or require way too much sugar, just like watermelon sorbet.

The solution with watermelon sorbet, by the way, is to add a teaspoon of ethanol, or two teaspoons of, say, vodka. The ethanol does what the sugar does: it's an antifreeze. The ethanol's just a lot more powerful than the sugar.

However, I don't have any Everclear in the pantry right now, so I went to Plan B: jelly or jam.

The canonical home canning text, the Ball Blue Book Of Preserving, does not have any recipes for melon jelly. WTH? (heck)

To make a successful jam or jelly, you need to get the pectin/sugar/water ratio right, and that varies from fruit to fruit. I need some kind of melon jelly recipe as a guide. Casaba is closely related to honeydew, but probably even a watermelon jelly recipe would work.

Apparently the concept of melon jelly is just mind-blowingly radical. There is absolutely nothing on the internet for casaba jelly. The only honeydew jelly recipe I found was in a blog by somebody who just made it up on the fly, and hers didn't set up. I'm guessing it's because she just swapped honeydew for the plums she used the very first time she made jam, and plums, being quite high in natural pectin, don't need any additional in order to set up.

I did find a watermelon jelly recipe from Marisa McClellan on a blog entitled "Food in Jars." This is a blogger who specializes in home canning, and yet she posts that watermelon is something "I would [not] have even considered putting in my jam pot" except that somebody asked her for a watermelon jelly recipe. This lack of imagination is more startling when I found Apronstrings Blog sharing a "Honeydew Jam with Mint and Lime" recipe that was adapted from "Cantaloupe Jam with Mint and Lime" that the blogger found . . . in the "Food In Jars" book. Yes, the book was written by Marisa McClellan. So she's made cantaloupe jam, but would never have thought to make watermelon jelly?

Yea, I know I'm unusually creative. But good grief! How hard can it be to say "I have more [name any fruit you can imagine] than I can eat all at one sitting. What will I do with it?" and answer with something other than "Wrap it in plastic and put it in the refrigerator." And yet, if Google's results are to be believed, rarely has anybody (or at least, anybody who shares recipes online), even thought about trying to make watermelon jelly, and nobody has ever tried it with casaba.

Bizarre.




I did find some related stuff that was pretty awesome, though. Marisa has obviously done a lot more than just parrot back instructions from other people. The overwhelming majority of home canners work via the "because they said so" principle. "You use that much sugar because the recipe says so." And it's extraordinarily rare that somebody *writing* a recipe knows enough about the science to tell you *why* a particular step is there. As a result, most people think that the sugar used in home canning fruit is there for flavor, and thus that it's no big deal to cut back if you think adding, say, five cups of sugar to six cups of fruit is excessive.

The "Food in Jars" blog is smarter than that. I already knew that sugar is critical for shelf life. As she notes, it's a preservative. It is aggressively hygroscopic, like salt. It's why you can store maple syrup in the cupboard without it going bad; the sugar concentration is really high. Bacteria and mold can't grow in the syrup because the water is sucked right out of them by the sugar; they actually get dehydrated.

What I *didn't* know is how it works to help jam set. I was aware that adding sugar changes the boiling point of water. Turns out that 220° F is the temp that sugar and pectin bond. Not enough sugar means you can't get the mix hot enough to trigger the bonding. Neat!

And, from "Local Kitchen" I come across the (in retrospect, terribly obvious) idea (also set forth by Marisa) that if you are going to experiment with making preserves out of fruits that you don't have an Officially Sanctioned recipe for, that you should test the pH. What water-bath canning doesn't kill is botulism spores. However, they are prevented from growing in a high-acid environment, where "high-acid" is pH 4.6 or below. The "Local Kitchen" blogger made honeydew melon jam (with forsythia and citrus!), and was ready to can when they remembered to test. The pH was around 6.0, so they froze it instead.

Since I do happen to have appropriate litmus paper handy, I can and shall do the appropriate testing. I found a comment on another site that said that one should use an electronic tester, because litmus paper wasn't accurate enough, but I am fairly confident that such a statement only makes sense if we're talking about the original wide-range stuff, that does its color-change from around 4 to 10 or so. I have some that reads 4-7, and then different paper for 6-11.

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June 11th, 2013


02:57 pm - Dear Discover Magazine . . . .
I just sent off my very first letter to a magazine. It was a minor issue, but it was about the English language, so I couldn't help myself. . . .




Dear Editors:

Just finished reading my most recent "Discover" (really great issue, by the way), and now I'm writing my very first letter to a magazine.

Bill Andrews, in his "20 Things You Didn't Know About Gravity," item #4, says "Passengers on amusement park rides and the International Space Station experience microgravity—incorrectly known as zero gravity—because they fall at the same speed as the vehicles".

Sorry, Bill, but you're the one who's incorrect. You've made the common mistake of confusing English and Math. The English language phrase "zero gravity" is not in any way a replacement for "0g". English routinely rounds numerical amounts. "My commute was great! There was no traffic!" doesn't mean there was not a single car on the road; it means there were so few cars that they had no effect. If I want you to understand that the freeway was truly devoid of any other vehicles, I have to say "There was literally not another car on the road!" The editors at Merriam-Webster are on top of that distinction, since they have documented the commonly held definition of "zero gravity" as "lacking apparent gravitational pull" (emphasis mine).

If I'm riding a roller coaster or the Vomit Comet, and I'm in a situation where the various forces (gravitational and otherwise) cancel out to the point that I can't detect them without instruments, then I am, by definition, experiencing what most English speakers call "zero gravity." And, unlike the language of mathematics, meaning in English (and most other common general-purpose languages), is decided (in effect) by popular vote.

I've worked as an editor for many years myself, and I don't always *like* that; if I were the King of English, I would immediately ban "utilize" since "use" is an entirely superior and 100% compatible replacement. But I'm not, and I can't. And what people experience on the International Space Station fits the definition of the common English phrase "zero gravity." Sorry.

(Yes, I know that English as used in professional journals often assigns different definitions to things, and using the phrase "zero gravity" for a paper in Aerospace Science and Technology might be rather inappropriate, and even incorrect. But this is Discover, not (shudder) Scientific American.)
Current Mood: informative

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November 25th, 2012


01:52 pm - A New Appreciation For Gardening
I've just finished, er, something. "...reading a graphic novel?" No. "...playing a game?" Kind of. "...having an experience?" Closer. "...experiencing Botanicula." That'll have to do.

Botanicula is a computer program/game/graphic novel from Amanita Design, which came to me via the Humble Bundle program, and it's a stunning example of what's possible when you really take advantage of what a computer can bring to the art of telling a story.

First, though, a brief recap of history, starting with the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Literature with hyperlinks in the dead tree medium. Although illustrated, they were still fundamentally a text-based story. Much less well known are Infocom's computerized comic books of the time. They released three titles that were a cross between a traditional comic book and a computer game, where the story line was presented with different perspectives and one could switch back and forth between them. The release of HyperCard for the Macintosh helped spur computer-based interactive fiction. In fact, while researching this post, I discovered that Myst was originally written in HyperCard.

I think these days there are some parallel-ish developments. Or maybe they're converging. It's hard to say. I've seen very little contemporary hypertext literature. I think that is, in part, because it's just so hard to do. A writer already has monumental challenges just making a classic linear narrative compelling and engaging. If the reader is allowed to wander around the text, experiencing things in (at best) a semi-predictable order, it's so much harder to get the story's events and characters to set up the story arc in a way that will leave the reader satisfied.

Then there's "interactive fiction," or IF. I am not really satisfied with the current trends in IF because the term is used primarily for what most people think of as "text adventures," of which the original was Collossal Cave, and the most famous being Infocom's Zork games. There is innovative work being done in this area, but it is still very much focused on working through the command-line interface, where a 'reader' will type things like "go west," "pick up the letter," and the like. There are many potential ways to interact with fiction other than typing words at a prompt, but what I feel are some of the most innovative and promising approaches aren't really encompassed by the IF community as such.

In fact, most of the best "interactive fiction" I've seen in the past few years has caught me by surprise because the work presented itself as a computer game. Alas, this belief that a computer program designed to entertain must by definition be a game is (I think) the cause of what I think have been the major flaws in the works I've enjoyed. To illustrate why, I need to tell you about my encounter with "Millenium."

In the late 1980's, my computer of choice was the late, lamented, way-ahead-of-its-time Amiga, and, like many computer owners of the time, there was a certain percentage of the programs in my floppy case that were illegal copies. I wasn't as avid as some of my friends, but there were certainly a couple of occasions when I got together with a fellow Amiga owner and we'd spend time running some kind of copy-protection-bypass program and swapping software.

During one of these sessions, I acquired a program called "Millenium." Since my friend didn't have the original box it came in, I didn't know anything about it. So, when I popped it into the drive and launched it, the initial screen was pretty baffling: a picture that was fairly obviously some kind of moon base. Most of the systems were deactivated. I eventually found a button that activated a power plant, which provided enough power to activate the computer, which . . .

It was obviously a "game," but for me, it really wasn't much of a challenge. With very few exceptions, the next action I should take seemed pretty obvious. What I didn't know was why I was managing a moon base in the first place. The backstory unfolded piece by piece while I took care of my various tasks; the fact that something catastrophic had happened on Earth (but what?), and that there were other colonies in the system (somewhere? friendly?).

When I finally "won the game," I felt like I'd been watching a movie or reading a book, more than playing a game, and I loved it! I strongly suspected that, had I bought the game in the store, a lot of the backstory would have been plastered all over the box, and I was very glad I hadn't seen it, because the gradual unfolding of the context was, for me, the best part.

Now, as it happens, if you want to retrace my journey, you probably can, because it wasn't hard for me to dig up the details of that mysterious game. Its full name was "Millenium 2.2", released for the Atari and Amiga, and for DOS as "Millennium: Return to Earth." There's a Wikipedia entry which you should avoid, since it pretty much spoils the entire storyline in the first paragraph. Even better, they re-released the game (for I must assume, Windows, since the download file contains only an *.exe file, although the web page totally neglects to provide any information about the system required) in 2006. Again, avoid the "readme.txt" file if you want to experience it as a movie/novel, because the designers clearly see it as a game, so most of the context is spelled out in a few paragraphs right at the beginning of the file.

"Botanicula", delightfully, didn't try to tell me what it was about. Well, okay, when you start, there's a 'cinematic' sequence that sets up the story line, but mostly it's a game of discovery. It's entirely wordless; the story is told through the animation and the sounds made by the objects in the game. It reminded me of the movie Yellow Submarine and the animated series Samurai Jack on more than one occasion. It's surreal and beautiful and unexpected. It has a sonic background/soundtrack that adds immensely to the experience.

I only wish it weren't as much of a game as it is. "It's a game! There must be puzzles! The player must solve the puzzles!" I eventually got tired of the story grinding to a halt because I couldn't figure out what the **** I was supposed to do, and found a walk-through. Still, "Botanicula" is, for me, hugely better than many other similar games I've played because it seemed less obsessed with forcing me to be clever than many of them. You still need to be familiar with this genre, and know that you will spend a fair amount of time waving your mouse pointer around the screen looking for objects that change the pointer from the arrow to the hand. But Botanicula's art and design do a really good job of cueing those 'hot spots.' Each screen tends to be fairly minimal, and the objects you are likely to interact with are clear and sharp; objects that are decorative are usually slightly out of focus.

Arrows appear readily to show you where the exits are from the screen. Sound effects usually clearly informed me if I'd started a sequence of events that were good, if I'd found the right button but didn't have the right item with me to complete it, or if they were just amusing toys added for fun. Generally, I was led, gently but firmly, from chapter to chapter of the story.

It's rather the antithesis of a first person shooter, in that most of it happens at an easy, measured pace. Things float, drift, flutter, flex, bend, and sway much more than they snap, pop, explode, flash, or blink. Everything's small, and cute, except for the bad things, which are deliciously scary, rather than horrifyingly evil.

Except for the worm and star. There's a point near the middle of the game where the job is to move a star through a maze before a worm catches up to it, and this bit resembles nothing so much as those wooden marble maze games where you have to tilt the board to get the ball through the maze without dropping it into a hole. I was infuriated when I hit that stupid thing. Maybe if I'd had a mouse with the sensitivity dialed down, or a good trackball, it would have been okay, but with the trackpad on my laptop, mastering that stupid maze to get the star through fast enough was going to take me hours of trying over and over again, and there was no way I was going to waste that much of my life just to finish this story.

It turned out that there was a trick. It wasn't in the walk-through I had, but rather in Amanita's discussion group, and it's so non-obvious that the person who posted it speculated that it might have been an unintentional bug. There's a loop near the beginning of the maze, and if you take the star around the loop and back to the start, the worm gets confused and heads toward the end of the maze, You can then follow along behind it. When it gets to the end, it turns around and goes back to the start, so you have to move the star into a side branch as it passes, and you still have to complete the maze before the worm gets back to the beginning or the star just resets, but it's still vastly easier to complete the maze in the time it takes the worm to traverse the entire maze forwards and backwards rather than the time it takes for it to just catch up to you.

I think this is the key difference between thinking of something like "Botanicula" as a work of interactive fiction vs. a game. If it's a game, then you're going to think in terms of "winning" and "losing." If it's a story, then you should plan to make sure that every reader will be able to finish it. A writer doesn't want a reader to feel like they've "lost" when reading a novel. "Yea, I couldn't finish it, so I gave up and read something else." Yikes.

I can't really fault Amanita, though, because they clearly think of it as a game. And yet, it is so close to working as a brilliant and innovative interactive graphic novel. All it would need is some mechanism(s) for graceful challenge decay. If somebody spends more than a certain amount of time wandering back and forth without obtaining a token or entering new territory or whatnot, then some subtle hinting might appear. Make the little creature start peeking out or rustling the leaf its hiding behind. Have an arrow appear briefly to suggest a direction to travel. Have one of the characters pop up a thought balloon suggesting a course of action. If I'm wandering around stuck, I wouldn't mind just pacing back and forth trying random crap if I knew that eventually I'll either find what I'm missing or the game will give me a clue.

As it is, I'm pretty sure the game will let me wander around indefinitely without helping me along, and there were at least three places during the game where, when I resorted to reading the walk-through to find out how to advance, I said "there's no f***ing way I would ever have thought to try something as nonsensical as that!!" Now, there were also times when I *did* think to try something pretty nonsensical, but each reader is going to have different moments of "aha!"

So in a sense, as a work of fiction, it's a failure. It's unreadable unless you have the Cliff Notes to hand, or annotations, or what have you. But it and Trauma (which I described in a Google+ post as 'Deft, dream-like, and fairly short, [striking] a delicate balance between "too obvious" and "too obscure." Delightful.') are still very satisfying, engaging, and immersive. I recommend them both.
Current Mood: pleasedpleased

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November 18th, 2012


06:22 pm - Default Discretionary Beverage
Last month I had the opportunity to spend a couple weeks in Puerto Vallarta. For reasons I don't really understand, although I'm not a particularly adventuresome eater, I really enjoy trying unknown (non-alchoholic) beverages, so I'll happily say "I'll have that!" and point to some name or brand of soda that I've never seen before.

As a result, I had a lot of apple soda while I was there. For example, at the local McDonald's, the soda fountain machine had the usual Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, et cetera, but it also had Lift. Lift is the brand name for (I would suspect) Coca-cola's version of manzana soda. "Manzana" is Spanish for "apple."

At the Wal-mart, I found 3-liter bottles of cola, clear, naranja (orange), and manzana. (By the way, it does taste more or less like Martinelli's sparkling apple juice.)

Years ago, when I visited Belgium, I noticed a similar phenomenon, except that the 'other flavor' there wasn't apple, but black current, also known as cassis. Again, the colas and clears were ubiquitous, and orange was very common, but cassis frequently appeared on soda fountains, was often in vending machines, and was available in cans from more than one brand.

I've seen a weaker version of the same effect in New England. It was frequently the case that I could order birch beer to drink in a restaurant, although I don't think I ever saw it offered as a fountain drink.

So one day while enjoying a glass of manzana soda, I got to thinking. Is there an American version of manzana or cassis? Is there some soda flavor that we take for granted, that is very commonly available, that a visitor from Mexico or the EU would find unusual?

Yes, there is. No, not Dr. Pepper. That's just a particular brand of cola.

Root beer.

We've got Mug, A&W, Barq's, and countless other brands. It's more common than orange soda at restaurants. But I don't believe I ever saw any in Puerto Vallarta. I have no idea if I saw root beer in Belgium, because, well, it's root beer! Nothing special about that!

So the next time you have a glass of root beer, maybe you'll reflect briefly on it's distinctly American quality as our default alternative flavor.
Current Mood: thirstythirsty

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November 16th, 2012


06:10 pm - A Primer for Secure Email
As recent news has underscored, email isn't the most private way to communicate. The way most email is handled, it's the digital equivalent of sending all your messages on postcards: anybody who handles that message on the way from you to the recipient can just look at it to read it.

So what? You don't care if anybody reads your email? Are you sure? You make a joke some time about whatever, and it contains some keywords that the NSA or FBI is (perhaps illegally) scanning email for, and suddenly people are knocking on your door asking questions. Even if you convince them that you're not a terrorist, how many hours of your life will be wasted in the process?

The good news is, it's super-duper easy to avoid this problem, as long as you're using a 'real' mail program like Exchange or Eudora or Apple Mail or something else that runs on your own computer, as opposed to using the web interface for GMail or the web interface for Hotmail or the web interface for . . . you get the idea. Note that you can use (for instance) Apple Mail even if you have a GMail account. You just tell Mail to get your mail from the GMail servers. More on this later.

First, though, a brief summary of public key cryptography. If you've ever received an email message from my 'main' email account, by default, my messages go out with a digital signature. The signature is an attachment to the message that contains a couple of different things. One is my public key, a specific kind of big number. There's another big number which is the 'authentic certified signature/seal' for this email message.

If you're using Apple Mail and you get this message from me, Mail will say "[checkmark] Signed (dave@mydomain.com)" at the top. What it's done is used the attached public key to decrypt the certification, and then compared the resulting data to the email message itself. If anybody had altered the email message between when I sent it and you received it, then the results would not match. "Signing" a message makes it tamperproof.

Bad guys are clever, though. Somebody could try to alter my message by throwing away the entire attachment, changing the message, then creating a new attachment using their own encryption key. How do you know? That's where the Certificate Authority comes in.

The public key that I sent with my message is, itself, signed. It's signed by the company that issued my certificate. Your computer came with dozens of certificates pre-installed from a variety of different computer security firms, like VeriSign, Thawte, TC TrustCenter, Equifax, Entrust, DigiCert, AOL Time Warner, Apple, and the like. So your computer has a public key that it trusts is valid, and my certificate is certified valid by them, then your computer can trust my key as well.

Now, so far, the system has safeguarded my message from tampering, but it has *not* safeguarded it from being read by third parties. That only happens when you *reply* to me. The message composition window in Mail has a pair of icons on the right just above the main text pane: a padlock and a little seal. The padlock is usually open, and grayed out. If you reply to my message, it will probably be locked, and it will def. be black. You can "lock" or "unlock" your message to me. If you lock it, then Mail will encrypt the message using my public key. Once it's locked, only I (or maybe the NSA) will be able to read the contents, because my *private* key is required to decrypt what's been encrypted by the public key.

Yes, for those of you who are crypto-nuts, I have definitely left stuff out and simplified things. But that's what's so cool about all this. Even though it's actually really complicated, once you have a certificate, you can just send email normally. Every mail client I've seen in the past five years has included support for the certificate encryption system.

In fact, I would be very surprised if the GMail web interface didn't support it too, so you can get some of the benefits even if you are using a web-based client. Personally, I much prefer to keep my messages encrypted until they're on a machine in my physical possession.

So how do you get one of these magical certificates? This is the one small speedbump that, I think, is the main reason that email certificates aren't already in widespread use. For years, Thawte issued basic email certificates for free, but they discontinued this about four years ago. VeriSign charges $19.95 a year. That's practically highway robbery. It takes an ordinary computer a fraction of a second to generate a 2048-bit public key certificate set, and no human time (except your own) is required. These things should be free; it's bullshit to charge for them.

There is one important limitation I'll note about the free kind. The Certificate Authority (CA) *is* staking their reputation when they sign your certificate. An automatically-issued certificate cannot, and does not, prove that you have received email from Your Friend Dave H. What it proves is that the person who is in control of dave@mydomain.com is the one who sent you that message. The CA sent the certificate *for* dave@mydomain.com *to* dave@mydomain.com. I can't just ask for a certificate for whatever address I want, because the message that lets me retrieve the certificate is sent there. It's not spy-grade secure, but for normal people and normal email, it's more than adequate.

The good news is that there ARE some CAs that offer free email certificates. My personal favorite is CACert, because they've been around for years, and they are seriously dedicated to the idea that people shouldn't overpay for encryption.

Here's the catch. In order for a CA to get their certificates included when you buy a computer (or install a new OS), they have to go through a very elaborate, and very expensive, certification system of their own, with auditing and examinations and what-all I don't even know. CACert hasn't been able to afford to do that yet.

So when my friends get email from my main account, more often than not their mail program says "Uh-oh! This message is signed, but the signature is untrusted, because I don't know the CA that signed it."

This is easily fixed. They just have to go to "cacert.org" and click on the "Root Certificate" link. Then, er, alas, randomly select from the overabundance of options? C'mon, CACert, you could make this easier! Click on "Class 1 PKI Key, Root Certificate (PEM Format)". PEM is widely supported. Some computers/browsers will install the downloaded file immediately into your computer's keychain. I don't remember if I deliberately changed the settings in Safari or if they're the default, but on my Mac, clicking on the link causes a downloaded file called "root.crt" to appear in my Downloads location. Double-click this file, and Keychain Assistant will launch and ask you if you want to include the certificate in your keychain. Yes, you do.

That's it. From now on, your computer will trust signatures from friends who have certificates issued by CACert.

You may have spotted the ironic nature of PK-crypto. If I want my email messages to be encrypted, I have to get all my *friends* to get certificates. When I have a certificate but my friend doesn't, her messages to me are encrypted, but mine to her are not.

By the way, what prompted me to write up this primer *today* was the fact I'm getting ready to wire some money via Western Union. I was looking up my WU account password in my keychain, and discovered that, at some point in the past, I had received a signed message from WU. The public key certificate was listed in my keychain, but was marked as "untrusted," because I didn't have that CA certificate. Now, first of all, I was really surprised that Western Union, of all people, was using a CA that didn't have their certificates in my system keychain, but I figured if I went to the CA's web site myself (thus greatly decreasing the chances of somebody trying to get me to get a fake certificate from a fake website), and got the certificate, that would fix that.

And it did. WU's certificate was signed by COMODO. And COMODO is *also* offering free email certificates to individuals.

So, do your friends a big favor. I *strongly* encourage you to get your own email certificate. If you want to get it from COMODO, go to www.comodo.com, point at "Home & Home Office" in the top nav bar, and look in the red box on the far right of the pop-up that appears for the "Free Email Certificate" link.

If you want one issued by CAcert, go to "www.cacert.org", and select "Join the CAcert Community."

The COMODO certificate is less likely to confuse people receiving your mail, because some of them will probably have a COMODO Root certificate in their system keychain already. I'm not sure why computer didn't, but I'm assuming that was something of an anomaly. On the other hand, I really really want CAcert to remain viable, because they're serious about keeping certificates affordable all the way up the chain. For example, if I want to do some e-commerce from a web site, CAcert issues the server certificates required to allow a site to do the "SSL/https:" secure surfing thing, also for far far less than VeriSign charges. Higher grades of certificates will authenticate more than just an email address or web address. A good e-commerce certificate will say "You have certifiably encrypted communication with website www.ImpObj.com, and this website belongs to Improbable Objects, a company based in Seattle, with a business license, a bank account (with a real bank), and at least one staff member who has demonstrated in various ways to us that all of the above is true."

Note that it's very difficult to sign spam. Each certificate is locked to just one specific email address. If you get a certificate, and start spamming people, after the first message, they block that address. Further, your CA might revoke the certificate. You can't change the "from" address of the email message because then the certificate won't validate. So any message with an *invalid* signature I can pretty much throw away unseen, and any with a valid one are 99.9999% guaranteed to be not-spam.

*Every* business that sends me *anything* should be signing the damn things. The infrastructure has been in place for years! We just need to start getting the certificates.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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October 3rd, 2012


05:19 am - A Letter to United's MileagePlus Frequent Flyer Program
Boy, you guys don't know when to leave well enough alone, do you?

"MileagePlus® is offering you the opportunity to get back your 12,224 award miles that expired in February 2012 at no charge when you buy a minimum of 5,000 miles for only $189. Offer ends at 11:59 p.m. CDT on October 16, 2012."

I was plenty irritated when you decided to throw my accrued miles in the garbage can in the first place. "Oh, did we forget to mention that we changed our policy and now your miles will spoil if you don't use them? Oops."

But now this. You will generously give me back my miles, IF I pay you for more miles.

Let's see, if I give you $189 dollars, you'll give me a total of 17,224 miles? That means I'd be paying you about 1.1 cents per mile. That's more than the crap things are worth! Boardingarea.com, Smartertravel.com, and AirfareWatchdog.com all come to pretty much the same conclusion: for most people, an airline mile is worth between 0.5 and 1 cent per mile, mostly because you all have so few seats available at the 'saver' level.

So here you are offering to sell me miles at a jacked-up price, while pretending you're being generous by offering to 'give me back' miles that you shouldn't have taken away in the first place.

Please tell whoever came up with this preposterous idea that I can only assume they used to work in a used car lot, or maybe they were a Countrywide loan officer. Or they're just a royal jerk.

"MileagePlus – the world's most rewarding loyalty program." HA HA HA ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Bite me.
Current Mood: annoyedannoyed

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