geek points, humor, meme slut

A Little Nonsense

A wise man once said that “a little nonsense every now and then is relished by the wisest men” [1,2]. And so that’s what I present today – a little nonsense for you to chuckle over or chuck out, as you wish [3]. The folks over at the Movoto Real Estate Blog have ranked (almost) every zip code in the US from most desirable to least desirable based on the usual set of characteristics [4]. They came up with a nice map (see below) and a handy-dandy “How’d you do” button.

Movoto's map of the best zip codes to live in
Movoto’s map of the best zip codes to live in

Not one to let a source of amusement lie idle, I’ve put in the zip codes for the top fourteen places that I’ve lived over the past mumbledy-some years. That gives the following results [5]; the ones in bold are where I still own houses for one reason or another:

Place Zip Code Rank
Portland, OR 97239 2,134
Benicia, CA 94510 3,293
Alexandria, VA 22304 3,408
Katy, TX 77450 3,494
La Habra, CA 90631 9,395
Norman, OK 73071 9,959
Houston, TX 77055 15,594
New Orleans, LA 70116 17,957
Narrows, VA 24124 19,216
Chicago, IL 60626 20,497
Miami, FL 33125 23,309
Lafayette, LA 70501 24,357
Oklahoma City, OK 73129 26,515

It is worth noting that I started off on a high note; I was born in the best zip code in the list. (And it’s been all downhill since then – just ask my folks!) And honestly, I don’t agree with a lot of the rankings. I wouldn’t live in Alexandria again on a bet. The city was crowded with terrible transportation and amazingly high prices; if I want that, I’ll live in Houston. (Oh. Wait.) And Oklahoma City is getting very short shrift; it is one of my favorite places to live. (Though having most of my family there might have something to do with that…)

So where was the “most desirable” place that you’ve ever lived? Where was the worst? Can you beat my high score?


[1] Chocolate geek points for the reference!
[2] I am listening to “The Sound of Music” while writing this (don’t judge me!). That phrase fits in perfectly and weirdly (and perfectly weirdly) with the “Do-Re-Mi” tune.
[3] Geek Points of Unusual Size for the reference!
[4] Median income, housing costs, unemployment, number of troll attacks, that sort of thing.
[5] One of the reasons that this sort of thing is nonsense is because those rankings aren’t static; places gentrify and become more desirable (witness Alexandria) or decay and become less desirable (witness Alexandria).

geek points, politics, science

We’re rich!

In case you hadn’t noticed, the US is about a billion dollars less poor than it was a week ago. That’s thanks to the 2014 lease sale for the Gulf of Mexico. In the sale, 7,511 “blocks” [1] were offered by the US government for a limited lease [2]; of these some 326 received bids [3, 4]. The average bid was $3,330,000 or about $578 per acre. (For comparison, some onshore leases run as much as $5,000 per acre – but the wells are much, much less expensive.) The least paid for a block in this sale was $14,706 dollars; the most was $68,790,000.

Distribution of lease bids from sale 231
Distribution of lease bids from sale 231

And the good news doesn’t stop there. If the usual ratio of wet-to-dry holes [5] holds, then about 65 of those leases will actually have enough hydrocarbons to complete. (Which 65? That’s the billion dollar question – and part of why I make a ridiculously big salary reprocessing seismic data so that we are more likely to find one of those 65 needles in the 7,511 straw haystack.) If we assume that there’s an average of 50 million barrels of oil on each successful lease [6] and that we can produce half of that (not bad for the Gulf), then we’re looking at 1.6 billion barrels of oil being found over the next ten years! That’s enough to supply the US for about two months at current use rates.

And, of course, those barrels of oil mean more money for the US government which means lower taxes for the taxpayer (hey – that’s me!). If the price of oil holds steady (as it historically has, once inflation is taken into account), then nearly $300 million will come into the government coffers through royalties on that oil. So, all told, the US will make nearly $1.5 billion from this one lease sale. And, equally important, we’ll help reduce our dependence on other countries for our energy needs.

All told, this is a good result, both for us oily types and for the US as a whole.


[1] Areas in the Gulf of Mexico that are usually (but not always) shaped like squares covering 9 square miles.

[2] If your company wins the lease, then it has the right to drill on the block and produce any oil and gas it finds, as long as it (i) clears the drilling plan with the BOEM, EPA, US Coast Guard, and any other involved agencies, (ii) pays a royalty of 18% on any hydrocarbons that are produced, and (iii) drills the first well within ten years of winning the lease [a].

[3] That’s a fairly standard ratio. Most of the blocks that didn’t get bids either didn’t have any structures on them that could hold oil and gas (“traps” in geology-speak), or were completely filled by salt [b], or have already been tested and found to be empty, or have collections too small to be profitable [c].

[4] BOEM lease bids are done in a “Dutch auction” where everyone has one chance to win the block. Each company (or group of companies) bids what it thinks will be enough to win the block but tries to keep the bid low so that they don’t “leave money on the table” by over-bidding. One year, a company bid $$150 million on a block – and ended up being the sole bidder. And in other years, there have been blocks that were won by bids that were a single dollar higher than the other company’s. This year, a company actually ended up leaving more than $230 million on the table by over-bidding.

[5] A dry hole is one that doesn’t have commercial quantities of oil or gas. A wet hole has enough oil and gas to make it worth completing.

[6] As noted previously, sometimes you can make money with just 25 million barrels. But more often you need 100 million barrels because your new lease is so far away from anything with infrastructure.

[a] In some cases, the leases are more restricted. For example, there are “five and two” leases that require the well be drilled within five years with a possible extension to seven years if the BOEM feels like it.

[b] During the Jurassic, while North America drifted away from South America a shallow basin formed that allowed water to flood it periodically. The warm, shallow seas would evaporate quickly and created a thick layer of salt known as the Louann salt that stretches from Texas to Florida. As the Gulf opened wider, the salt got buried by sediment. The uneven distribution of the sediment caused the salt to be squeezed around (think of what happens when you sit on a bean bag chair), which then caused the sediment to shift. That allowed newly-formed hydrocarbons to move (“migrate” in geology-speak) and build up in traps, creating the rich deposits that make the Gulf so exciting.

[c] In general, it takes at least 25 million barrels of oil to make a block worth the cost of leasing and drilling. That’s because about half of that oil will never be recovered (when was the last time you were able to squeeze all the moisture out of a sponge?) and because it costs upwards of $100 million to drill a well and another $30 million to complete it (connect it to pipelines that bring the hydrocarbons to shore, etc.).

geek points, stock market


Growing up, there is a point where just about every kid wants to be Batman [1]. And, as superheroes go, he’s got a lot to recommend him. He’s smart, he’s clever [2], he’s indomitable, he has lots of cool gadgets, and he’s rich [3]. We know how smart he is (he can outthink Lex Luthor) and how many gadgets he’s got (where does he get those wonderful toys? [4]). But just how rich is he?

When Batman was first written up in 1939, he was described as a millionaire. By 1968, when the TV show was on, he was a “multi-millionaire”. When Burton made his movies, Bruce Wayne had become a billionaire. And in the last series of films, he was a multi-billionaire. So obviously, he’s gotten richer. Or has he?

Remember that thanks to inflation a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow [5] (or, conversely, a dollar yesterday is better than a dollar today). So a millionaire in 1939 would be worth more in terms of constant dollars than a millionaire in 1966 or 2013 [6]. So what would Batman be worth in constant dollars?

Year Event Worth Constant Dollars (2014$)
1939 Batman debuts in Detective Comics $1,000,000 $16,828,489
1966 Batman debuts on TV $10,000,000 $72,196,296
Batman movie (Burton) $1,000,000,000 $1,886,419
Batman Begins $10,000,000,000 $11,977,265,750

So there you have it. Even when we include the effects of inflation, good old Bruce Wayne has piled up a lot of money over the years. Just another case of the rich getting richer, I suppose.

[1] Yep, even girls. That’s why they added Batgirl to the “Batfamily” [a].

[2] Not the same thing. I’m tolerably smart but not very clever; even though I know the answers to a lot of questions, applying them can take me a while. And my cat is very clever but not very smart; she doesn’t know much but she is a whiz at getting what she wants using what she does know.

[3] The Dark Knight Rises notwithstanding. The scriptwriters obviously knew nothing about how money works or they wouldn’t have tried to make Wayne poor by having him spend his company’s money on research that doesn’t pan out or by using fake puts [b] during an attack on the stock exchange. Research is about future products and doesn’t stop the sales of existing ones, so the first is like saying that Ford is going to be broke this year because none of their 2018 models are ready to be sold. And stock exchanges are automatically closed during attacks or even when sales happen too fast, which means that the fake puts wouldn’t be registered and Bruce would still own all of his stock [c] and still be rich.

[4] Purple geek points for the reference!

[5] Which is why you should always wait until the last minute to pay your bills – so that you get the use of that money for as long as possible and pay the least amount that you can.

[6] This is why I’m not all that excited about being a millionaire. One, most of my assets are non-fungible (i.e., I can’t spend them right now) and two, the constant dollar value isn’t that high.

[a] Or, as they would say in “batspeak”, Batthat’s batwhy batthey batadded batgirl batto batthe Batfamily. (The 60’s were a very strange time.)

[b] A “put” means that you’ve placed stock for sale at a given price on a given date; basically, it is a bet that the stock will decrease in price. Its opposite is a “call” which means that you’ve agreed to buy a stock at a given price on a given day and is a bet that the stock will increase in value. Let’s say that you think that Wayne Industries will drop in price from $35 to $25 over the next month. You can then sell people the option to buy the stock at $25 a month from now [i] at $2.50 per share; i.e., the buyer will pay you $2.50 to get the opportunity to buy one share of Wayne Industries stock in a month at $25. If Wayne industries ends up being worth less than $25, then the person who bought the option won’t want to exercise it (because he’d lose money) and you’ll have made $2.50 for every option that you sold. But if Wayne Industries ends up being worth more than $25 (i.e., is “in the money” and now you know what that song was all about), then the caller will exercise his option and you’ll be out lots of shares.

[c] There is also the added complication that he sold most of his shares in the first movie!

[i] You don’t even need to own shares of the stock to do this, though that is somewhat riskier. In market terms, that’s a “naked put”.

education, geek points

I’d like to buy the advertisers a Coke…

In case you hadn’t heard, the latest manufactured controversy is over the Coke commercial that was played during the Superbowl; it seems that several folks are upset that it dared to sing a well-known song in a language that isn’t English [1]. There have been plenty of folks who have pointed out that the author of the hymn was reasonably diverse herself [2] and probably would have been just fine with the translation into other languages as it (a) celebrates the global reach that is America’s siren song and (b) because it helps to spread that song even further and so make America a richer (in all senses of the word) country.

I’d like to take another tack on the matter [3]. Remembering that English is a language that “has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary”, I decided to chase some words down myself.  Many of our best words come from other languages, so to decry the song because it was translated is to miss the very essence of English and especially the essence of American English. To demonstrate that, I’ve taken the first stanza [4] and color-coded the word so that you can see how wonderful this mixing has made us:

Word’s Original language [5] Word’s color
Old English [6] Black
French/Old French Blue
Norse Red
Greek Purple
Italian/Latin Green

America The Beautiful
by Katharine Lee Bates, 1913

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

Just look at that. Without the non-English words, this poem (and this language) would be drear indeed. But with them and with the people who brought them to us, how wonderfully rich is our experience! And if those who protest the song don’t understand that, then they are the ones most in need of that fabled lamp by the golden door [7].

[1] Sad to say, this controversy even erupted at work when a “team leader” tried to diss the Coke Zero [a] that I was drinking. I pointed out that one of the original mottoes of the USA was E Pluribus Unum (“From many, one”) and that we had always had diversity of language in this country – after all, didn’t the New York legislature nearly agree to start publishing the laws in German as well as English?[b] He did come to me later and apologize; he even said that I’d solved a problem for him because it meant that they could make Cuba Libres [c]at his duck hunt after all.
[2] A female, gay, socialist counts as “diverse”, right?
[3] Surprise, surprise.
[4] Which happens to be an Italian word we’ve, er, “borrowed”. (We’ll give it back one of these centuries…)
[5] At least, the word’s first non-English language. A lot of the Old French words are actually stolen from the Latin which in turn lifted them from the Greeks who probably pilfered them from the Babylonians.
[6] As the dictionary notes, many Old English words are very similar to Old German words. This is not surprising as the two languages probably shared a history of mugging each other in dark alleyways.
[7]  Geek points for the reference!

[a] Don’t get me started on Coke Zero – all of the numiness of Coke and no calories? Yeah!
[b] When he asked “Why German?”, I pointed out that the original name for New York was “New Amsterdam”.
[c] No, I didn’t point out that “Cuba Libre” was Spanish. I’m not sure his head could have taken the news…

geek points, holiday, vacation

Rocking Down Under

After the frantic three days in Sydney, I was definitely ready for a rest. And so I headed over to Uluru [1] to get one. Why Uluru? Because, in many ways, it is Australia. Mention “Australia” to anyone and the first image that they have is of the iconic Uluru (“Earth Mother”): a massive red sandstone inselberg (“island mountain”). This majestic monolith is also known as Ayers rock, and is a sacred place to the local Anangu (as is the nearby Kata Tjuta {“many heads”, the Olgas}). Located near the center of the continent, it symbolizes both Australia’s insularity and its uniqueness.

Though it was first sighted by Europeans on July 19, 1873, when they named it for the Chief Secretary of South Australia, Uluru has been known to the indigenous peoples since time immemorial. To them, Uluru isn’t just a massive arkosic sandstone with no joints; it is a sacred place created by two boys who played in the mud after the world had been created or the place where the earth itself welled up in grief at the bloodshed in an epic battle between two tribes. In either case, the locals believe that there is a curse on those who take rocks from the area: they will suffer misfortune and lose their money.

Some take the curse further and apply it to all who climb the rock (though many tourists still do). The indigenous people would rather that nobody climbed, as the trail follows a Dreamtime path [2] (also known as a “songline”). If you choose to ignore that, the climb itself is guarded by a chain that leads along the steep 0.5 mile path that takes up to two hours to complete. You’ll go up 1,142 ft to a total elevation of 2,831 ft above sea level. On the trail you’ll have the opportunity to see more than 100 native species of animal and even more plants. Once at the top, you’ll have a spectacular view with a horizon that stretches out for 41.4 miles in every direction.

If you instead decide to walk the 5.8 miles around Uluru, you’ll still see some spectacular sights, including Uluru itself. The massif is famous for changing color throughout the day, with the most spectacular colors arising at dawn and dusk when it glows purple and red. However, there are some areas that the aborigines request you do not take photographs; these areas include pictographs and other images that are used in gender-specific rituals. The Anangu fear that having those images out in the world might inadvertently show someone a tabu subject.

Nearby Uluru is Kata Tjuta, also known as the Olgas (after Queen Olga of Wurttember). This conglomeratic sandstone rises even higher than Uluru (1,791 ft) and shares a common origin in the Petermann orogeny 550 mya. During this event, a major transpressional thrust created a flower structure that created local relief; this then eroded and formed the sandstone that would later be buried and exhumed as Uluru and Kata Tjuta. According to local legends, the snake king Wanambi lives atop Kata Tjuta; during dry season, he comes down to renew his kingdom. So, looked at from the standpoint of either geology or anthropology, Uluru is a fascinating place.

And it has lots to do. On my list, I had climbing Uluru [3], walking around Uluru, seeing Kata Tjuta, visiting the ptetroglyphs at Mutitjulu Waterhole, taking a camel ride to the sunset, watching the sunrise over Uluru at the Desert Awakenings breakfast, and visiting the cultural center where I wanted to throw a boomerang and spear and play a didgeridoo. Though that might seem a bit ambitious for a forty-eight hour stay, I ended up doing everything but the climb, there by proving that an over-active geek is capable of nearly any feat. (grin)

And now for the pictures!

To give you an idea of how small the resort is, I had to enter the plane through the back door!
To give you an idea of how small the resort is, I had to enter the plane through the back door!

The resort where I stayed, Sails In The Desert (highly recommended!)
The resort where I stayed, Sails In The Desert (highly recommended!)

At the camel ranch where they took care of Australia's third most annoying invasive species
At the camel ranch where they took care of Australia’s third most annoying invasive species

Why the life jacket? Because camels are "ships of the desert"!
Why the life jacket? Because camels are “ships of the desert”!

Heading out for the ride
Heading out for the ride

Passing by Uluru
Passing by Uluru

The next day started with "brekkie" and Uluru at dawn
The next day started with “brekkie” and Uluru at dawn

It was a rainy day, which is a rare blessing in the desert
It was a rainy day, which is a rare blessing in the desert

Uluru takes on a special sheen when it rains
Uluru takes on a special sheen when it rains

The pictographs were everything that I had hoped for. This one tells about looking for food in the form of witchetty grubs.
The pictographs were everything that I had hoped for. This one tells about looking for food in the form of witchetty grubs.

The far side of Uluru. The caves are used for religious ceremonies and are strictly segregated by sex. (Women's lib hasn't hit the outback yet.)
The climb up Uluru.

The road from the resort to the nearest town. You have to let teh local sherrif know before you leave, just so they can rescue you!
The road from the resort to the nearest town. You have to let the local sheriff know before you leave, just so they can rescue you!

After Uluru, it was time for Kata Tjuta.
After Uluru, it was time for Kata Tjuta.

The rain closed some of the trails but had a few benefits.
The rain closed some of the trails but had a few benefits.

Sunset over Kata Tjuta was even more spectacular than sunrise (though the free Australian wine that they passed out may have had something to do with that).
Sunset over Kata Tjuta was even more spectacular than sunrise (though the free Australian wine that they passed out may have had something to do with that).

This is a desert oak. It grows a long tap root for the first few decades before it starts spreading out major limbs.
This is a desert oak. It grows a long tap root for the first few decades before it starts spreading out major limbs.

A crested pigeon in the scrub
A crested pigeon in the scrub

A bearded dragon on one of the trees in the resort.
A bearded dragon on one of the trees in the resort.

A galah bird looking for grubs
A galah bird looking for grubs

A cardinal honeyeater sipping from a maleluca (tea tree); the nectar is amazingly sweet! (Yes, I drank some.)
A cardinal honeyeater sipping from a maleluca (tea tree); the nectar is amazingly sweet! (Yes, I drank some.)

A waxeye in flight
A waxeye in flight

Shield bugs on a gum tree (eucalyptus)
Shield bugs on a gum tree (eucalyptus); the tree sheds its bark to prevent parasites.

The brown snake, one of the most dangerous snakes on the continent. (I told you I'd met several deadly Australians!)
The brown snake, one of the most dangerous snakes on the continent. (I told you I’d met several deadly Australians!)

The local tribes offer many of their goods at the trading area.
The local tribes offer many of their goods at the trading area.

The "Hunting the Emu" dance. This is part of Dreamtime, explaining how to get your dinner.
The “Hunting the Emu” dance. This is part of Dreamtime, explaining how to get your dinner.

Another Dreamtime dance. I took part in the next one ("Guy Gets Lost"); they were surprised when someone volunteered to join them. Normally, they have to drag someone up.)
Another Dreamtime dance. I took part in the next one (“Guy Gets Lost”); they were surprised when someone volunteered to join them. Normally, they have to drag someone up.
Learning how to throw a boomerang. It turns out that I had too much swish and not enough flick in my throw (but I did pronounce the phrase perfectly) [5].
Learning how to throw a boomerang. It turns out that I had too much swish and not enough flick in my throw (but I did pronounce the phrase perfectly) [5].

Tossing a spear. They normally use a form of the atlatl, but we had to just chuck ours.
Tossing a spear. They normally use a form of the atlatl, but we had to just chuck ours.

[1] Formerly known as “Ayers rock” [i], the rock got its original name back (mostly) when the area was handed back to the local tribes in 1985 (you may remember the song “Beds Are Burning” by Midnight Oil; it was written to promote the return of the region). What is amazing is how rapidly the local attitudes have changed. Back in 1985, there was wide-spread resentment over the hand-over. Today, the local non-tribespeople [ii] are very protective of “the Rock” and actively discourage people from climbing it.
[2] What is “Dreamtime”? It is an alternate way of viewing the world. In the local world system, the universe was created out of a celestial music which details everything from how you should behave to what plants and animals can be eaten. (Think of it as a Torah written by Stephen Sondheim.) But the Dreamtime isn’t something that happened and stopped; instead, it is continually happening and must be renewed from moment to moment by the tribe. Every tribal member spends a large part of their life taking part in the Dreamtime, helping to keep the Universe alive by following Songlines.
[3]When the Rock was first handed back, the climb was open an average of 300 days a year; it was only closed when the winds were too strong or the heat was too high. Today, it is open about 60 days a year. It is still closed just when the winds are too strong or the temperature is too high but nowadays the decision is in the hands of the tribes and not the Australian Tourism Board.
[4] Magic geek points for the reference!

[i] The name was given to it by William Gosse when he saw it on July 19, 1873; he named it in honor of the Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers.
[ii] There are lots of these folks in the resort simply because the tribal members still have a strong habit of simply heading out into the desert with little or no notice, whcih makes running a business a bit problematic.

family, geek points, vacation

Final stop: Boston

Well, it had been a fun-filled week (at least, it was fun-filled once my clothes arrived!), but all good things must come to an end. So, once the ship arrived in Boston, we disembarked to go our separate ways. The kids and their mom would take the train down to Virginia and I would fly to Houston. But there was one last adventure waiting for us.

One of the more colorful buildings in downtown Boston
One of the more colorful buildings in downtown Boston
The Tea Party Museum
The Tea Party Museum
Throwing the tea overboard
Throwing the tea overboard













Arthur waved "bye" to us as we left the harbor
Arthur waved “bye” to us as we left the harbor









On the way to the rail road station [1], we saw a nice ship in the harbor. Given that we hadn’t seen a ship in at least five minutes, we all walked back to it and discovered that it was the Tea Party Museum [2]. Even though I am morally opposed to education [3], we went in anyway. Though it was a bit expensive, it was definitely worth it. The visit is run like a ride at Disneyland: you get a feather for your “disguise” and a card with your life history on it [4], then you have a “town meeting” where you all make fun of the British, then you go onboard the ship and throw the tea overboard [5], followed by a bit of history [6], and then on to a theater modeled after the better parts of the Haunted Mansion, and finally up to the tea room where you can exit through the gift shop. The kids had a blast, Resa had tea, and I had a nervous breakdown trying to get them out of there in time to catch the train.

After which, I went to the airport and came home to the usual caterwauling. But that’s another story…


[1] Where we spent thirty minutes going back and forth between windows because one person would say that we could check luggage and another would say that we couldn’t. I finally settled the matter by changing the tickets from their station to one just a stop earlier (and fifteen minutes drive further for Mike to pick them up), where both people agreed we could check the luggage. And they wonder why Amtrak loses money!

[2] No, not that Tea Party; the good one!

[3] Bazinga! (And do I even need to give geek points on that?)

[4] Taken from one of the people who were at the original.

[5] The kids liked that so much that they did it two more times.

[6] Sadly, here is where they fell down. They used the old shibboleth of “sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite” being linked to rope matresses.

geek points, vacation

First port: Quebec

Our first port of call was Quebec, which is a place that I’ve wanted to visit (and want to go back to). Quebec is a throwback in many ways, which is only fitting considering that the city was settled 405 years ago. Originally called Canada (the Nunavut word for “Settlement”), Quebec soon became known by the Algonquin word for the area kebec (“the river narrows”). That narrowing of the river marks the place where the St. Lawrence River stops and the Gulf of St. Lawrence starts. The locals speak French, just as the original fur trappers who came here in the 1600s did. The city is walled (the only one in North America!) to keep out hostile Indians and upstart colonists. And there are buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries around every corner. As a result, Quebec is often referred to as “the American Paris”.  And it lives up to that appellation.

Quebec is divided into upper and lower towns
Quebec is divided into upper and lower towns
We were greeted by a pelleton of bikes; it was the day of the annual bike race!
We were greeted by a peloton of bikes; it was the day of the annual bike race!










Unfortunately, my day started with bad news: the steward hadn’t managed to convince the airline to find my luggage. So I’d be at least two more days without my clothes because the next day would be spent at sea. So my plan for the day was early sight-seeing, followed by a quick shopping expedition to buy a couple of shirts and pairs f pants to tide me over until my luggage arrived. Naturally, my plan went gang agley [1] as the kids had decided to sleep in. So we had a leisurely breakfast at about nine and by noon were finally out in the city, wandering around.

The funicular to the upper town ($2.50 and worth it)
The funicular to the upper town ($2.50 and worth it)
Looking over the ruins of the first house built in Quebec
Looking over the ruins of the first house built in Quebec













We wandered through the center of the old town, which is the lower part of the city near the riverfront, and saw the remains of the oldest house in Quebec. We then rode the funicular to the upper town, where we wandered through an artisan showplace near the church and climbed the Citadel [2] and walked along the ramparts before stopping at a store to buy my niece a tea dress [3] before they went back to the ship and I went shopping.

Looking down on the ship from the Citadel
Looking down on the ship from the Citadel
Walking along the city wall
Walking along the city wall
An amusing monument to someone known as "the father of the UN"
An amusing monument to someone known as “the father of the UN”













On the advice of a friendly tourist guide inside the port authority [4], I went to Simmon’s, which is where the locals shop. Thought I was able to find a couple of shirts that fit me, along with some new underwear [5] and socks. But the biggest pants that they had were one size too small for me. When I asked if they had any “fat pants”, the salesperson laughed and said that they didn’t eat enough poutine to get fat [6]. So I had to be content with my small victory, and headed back to the ship.


[1] Mousey geek points for the reference!

[2] There are “Citadels” in many of the cities in eastern Canada, intended to keep the upstart Americans out of the region. For the most part, they worked.

[3] The one she had brought with her itched abdominally and she really wanted to be a part of the high tea that they served every day.

[4] Never listen to the touts outside of a port or airport; they are trying to get your money. But the ones inside the port are frequently hired by the local tourist agency and they only make money if more tourists come; as a result, they rarely steer you to clip joints.

[5] Clean underwear is one of my favorite things.

[6] Poutine, Quebeciose for “a damn mess”, is a pile of french fries smothered in brown gravy and topped with fresh cheese curds. It tastes much better than it sounds, snd is the most popular dish in Quebec (after Celine Dione).

education, geek points

My competition

There is something sobering in realizing that you are your own competition [1]. Many of the ideas and much of the time that I would normally spend writing on this blog [2] is instead invested on my other, other blog [3]. But far more sobering that that are the statistics. Even though this blog has nearly seven times the posts (737 vs. 119) and more than ten times the number of views (19,189 vs. 1,688) and nearly 100 times the comments (2,809 vs. 39), the other, other blog has twice as many likes and more traffic (though it has yet to match the daily high of 277 views that this one set). And the most popular thing I’ve written on this blog, day in and day out, is the description of Mt. St. Helens’ eruption (followed semi-closely by the Macondo disaster [4]); had I written it today, it would have ended up on the other, other boog (and indeed will come the anniversary).

So what have I learned from comparing the three blogs? First, regularity helps. Though it seems obvious, posting on a regular schedule makes people happy and making the gap between posts reasonably short makes them even happier. Because the other, other blog is posted daily, people know that they will always have something new to read. Even if one post doesn’t strike their fancy, the next might.

Second, to borrow from a philosopher of science, “Posts should be as simple as possible and no simpler” [5]. In this blog, I have allowed myself to wax prolix and to use obscure language and intricate descriptions. The same is true on my other blog. There is no simple way to describe the many inter-linked processes that create planets; there is only a least-complicated way. But on my other, other blog, I focus on citizen science and short articles that highlight the many fascinating aspects of science in general.

Finally, it never hurts to brag. I don’t publicize this blog much. It was intended to be a way for me to discuss things ranging from the personal to the weird and to jabber with like-minded net-friends. But I have worked to make as many people aware of the other two blogs. I hope to sell my planetology book someday [6] and already have my book on kid’s science experiments on sale; similarly, I hope to turn the citizen science posts into a book at some point. As a result, I have been blasting those posts onto Facebook, Google+ and other social media. I’ve also been going to science fiction conventions [7] and putting out calling cards with the blog addresses on them.

Will I keep this blog? Yes. It serves a purpose for me, not unlike Scalzi’s Whatever [8]. And I’m not sure if I’ll keep my other, other blog once the year-long experiment in promoting citizen science is over. If I get some clear indications that it (a) served a valuable purpose by getting more people involved in science or (b) made me craploads of money, then sure. If not, then I’ll return my focus to the other blog and this one. But in any case, it has taught me some interesting lessons – and that makes it worth the investment right there.


[1] Not to mention being my own worst enemy – but that’s a topic for another post…

[2] Or – horrors! – writing papers for publication.

[3] Which is also sucking the air out of my other blog; I haven’t finished Chapter 2 (How do we know what we know) of the planetology book yet, nor worked on Chapter 3 (the history of everything) in far too long.

[4] Interestingly, the popularity of the posts on this blog appear to follow a Zipf’s law type distribution with the most popular being about four times as popular as the next which is four times as popular as the third favorite and so on. Math hides in some pretty weird places.

[5] German geek points for the reference!

[6] If I ever finish writing the darn thing! Though after chapter 3, it is all smooth sailing – a chapter for each of the classical planets, another for planemos in the Solar system, and one least one for the 1200 or so extrasolar planets.

[7] I’m becoming semi-known as a panelist and geek of all trades.

[8] Doctorow and Scalzi are rapidly becoming my guides for “How to succeed on the internet”. Both of them have wonderful, wonderfully large groups of followers and make tons of money doing what they love (writing science fiction).

geek points


I’ve always wanted to serve as a bad example. You know – “See what happens when you don’t eat your vegetables!” or “I told you that your face would freeze that way!” or even “That’s why you should never vote straight party ticket!” [1] Instead, I usually get stuck being the good example. Take this past week, for instance.

As you may know, I have ulcers. (This is not a non sequitur.)  As a result, my gastroenterologist wants me to have a colonoscopy every ten years, when my preferred schedule is “never”. But he made a powerful argument [2] and I reluctantly gave in. It turns out to be a good thing that I did so. Though they didn’t find any evidence of ulcers in the lower intestine or colitis (both of which could happen from my ulcers) they did find a polyp and promptly chopped it out for biopsy.

What did the biopsy reveal? The polyp was precancerous. Believe it or not, this is good news: colorectal cancer is one of the few cancers that can be cured if they catch it early enough. They caught this one before it was even cancer, so there is no chance that I’ll get colorectal cancer [3]. There another bullet, successfully dodged (just call me Neo). About the only change this has made is that my next date with a human rotorooter is in three years instead of ten.

But it does bring home the point that colonoscopies are more than annoying; they are also potentially life-saving. So if you fall into a higher risk category (as I did) or are past 50, then please go get a colonoscopy. Yes, it is disgusting getting ready for it [4]. Yes, it is annoying having someone play Space Invaders in your inner sanctum (so to speak) [5] . But it may just save your life.


[1] I have never done that last. On the others, I plead the fifth [a].

[2] On the order of “No Nexium for you without a colonoscopy!” Since I cannot eat without Nexium and I really, really like eating, I gave in.

[3] Cue Mr. Burns saying “Indestructible”. The truth is my chances are now slightly higher that I’ll develop cancer. But not enough to matter, and not this time, Mr. Crumbly Cliff! [b]

[4] Basically, they give you medicine that gives you diarrhea for a day and tell you not to eat anything but clear jello and broth.

[5] And yes,  it was really, really annoying to have to call my brothers and sister to tell them that they now needed to get a colonoscopy. If one person in a family has precancerous polyps, then it is likely that others have them as well.

[a] I actually did that recently on a jury information form. The attorneys didn’t like it, but the judge was amused and understanding, especially when I pointed out that they were asking for a lot of information that could be used to steal an identity (e.g., our birth dates are printed on the form!) and providing us with no details on how our information would be handled. It turns out that he is on the committee charged with redesigning the form and actually listened to my concerns.

[b] Llama-flavored geek points for the reference!

geek points

New Year’s Resolutions

I’ve decided to break with my tradition of not making New Year’s Resolutions [1] this year and actually make some. And, as a promise made to yourself is easily forgotten whereas one made to the world is somewhat less so [2], here are my resolutions. Look upon them, ye mighty, and despair [3]!

1) Be more selfish
One of my major annoyances from last year was the sheer number of people who asked me for money [4] and just expected to get it. But what really chapped my hide was that many of these folks demanded money for essentials while frittering away their own money on trivialities. So I’ve decided to take a break from being the “First National Bank of John”. If someone asks me for money this year, I will take a leaf from Heinlein and simply tell them “No” [5].

2) Be more sinful
It says something when your mother gives you a beer stein and your sister-in-law gives you a cigar case for Christmas. They told me that I didn’t have enough vices and needed to cultivate more. So I will. This year, I’ll spend more time dancing, drinking, laughing, going to movies, eating, smoking, blogging, writing, and doing all the other things that are frowned upon in soi disant “polite society”. Heck, I might even think about dating again [6].

3) Live like I’m a grad student
I’ve been looking over my finances (as I do every two weeks, in order to keep myself on the fiscally straight and narrow), and I’ve noticed a troubling trend. Though my income has increased enormously, so have my expenditures. And though most of them were either necessary (e.g., house repairs) or purely personal and therefore essential (e.g., trips to far-away places), there have been a number of frivolous expenses as well. As a result, I’ve only saved about half of my income [7].

Now, a large part of this has been deliberate on my part. Rather than saving money, I have focused on reducing debt. As a result, my total indebtedness has decreased by more than 15% in the past five years, and my short-term debt (credit cards and such) is effectively zero. But part of it has been a slide in standards on my part. I used to have to budget for trips and save up the money in advance. Now I can simply pay for it afterwards, which leads to spending more money than I should have.

So I’m going back to having accounts for different purposes and using the money in an account only for that. I’ll have a vacation account and one for house repairs and one for fun. And when the money is gone from any of those accounts, that is it – that’s all that can be done. That is how I lived as a graduate student, when I had little money and lots of fun, and that’s how I’ll live this year.

4) Have more fun
Of late, I’ve allowed my trivial health concerns to limit my life. I’ve not been able to exercise [8] nor to drink nor to smoke nor to basically have any fun. In effect, I’ve been living the part of the protagonist in the old joke about living to be a hundred [9]. And I don’t like it. So I’m going to have more fun. Sure, it might mean that I never live to see 97 [10]. But I will see a lot more of life in the years that I do live.

So there are my resolutions. What are yours?


[1] Why don’t I make resolutions? Because they are rarely practical (e.g., “Lose weight” sounds great but is woefully short on the mechanics of how to do so) and even more rarely kept (because of those absent details).

[2] Which means I hope to keep these resolutions in effect for at least a month…

[3] Poetic geek points for the reference!

[4] Note that this is different than those times that I offered money to folks who needed a hand.

[5] However, I will be somewhat less brusque than he suggests, unless the person insists on it.

[6] But don’t bet on it. As the prophet said, “Marriage is a young man’s folly and an old man’s comfort.” Since I fit neither of those categories, I’ll stay single a bit longer. Say until I’m 97.

[7] Mostly in the form of retirement funds and real estate. Though both of these are good investments, neither of them is really liquid (i.e., something that can be turned into usable cash).

[8] The great swamp adventure happened when the doctor told me that I was allowed a little exercise. Obviously, he and I had different ideas of what “a little” meant…

[9] In case you haven’t hear it, the joke goes like this: ‘

A guy goes to his doctor and says “Doc, I want to live to be a hundred.”
So the doctor looks him over and says “First, you need to stop smoking.”
“No problem, doc – I don’t smoke.”
“OK, then you need to give up drinking.”
“No sweat, doc – I don’t drink.”
“You have to cut out all fatty foods.”
“Not a problem, doc – I’m a strict vegetarian and I never touch vegetable oil.”
“And you should stop having risky sex.”
“I don’t have sex at all, doc.”
At this, the doctor looks at the guy quizzically and asks “Then why do you want to live to be a hundred?”