Friday, October 25, 2013

Vehicle stats, and more serious stuff

I've put together an updated list of all the vehicles I've owned (including my two first cars, which, technically, my dad owned for me). From that list, I compiled the following statistics (which are rather long - you can skip ahead to the "good stuff" later on if you want):

  • I've owned 29 vehicles (counting the two that my dad technically owned and were never in my name and the motorcycle)
  • Those 29 vehicles are 17 different makes:
    • Alfa Romeo (1)
    • BMW (1)
    • Buick (3)
    • Cadillac (1)
    • Chevrolet (3)
    • Dodge (1)
    • Ford (5)
    • Honda (1)
    • Kia (4)
    • Lexus (1)
    • Mercury (1)
    • Nissan (1)
    • Oldsmobile (1)
    • Renault (1)
    • Suzuki (2) (one of these was a motorcycle)
    • Toyota (1)
  • Of the makes, 5 I've owned multiple models (counting Suzuki here as I've owned both a car and a motorcycle of that brand) and 12 I've owned only a single example
  • The cars are from 3 different regions:
    • America (15)
    • Asia (11)
    • Europe (3)
  • And from 6 different countries:
    • America (15)
    • France (1)
    • Germany (1)
    • Italy (1)
    • Japan (6) (counting the motorcycle)
    • Korea (5)
  • Of the 29, 13 (or 45%) were received from someone with little or no payment (counting the first two, which were actually owned by my dad); 8 of those from my dad
  • Years range from 1967 through 2012, broken into decades as this:
    • 1960s: 1
    • 1970s: 2
    • 1980s: 5
    • 1990s: 8
    • 2000s: 10
    • 2010s: 3
While European vehicles comprise a small percentage of the cars I've owned, I generally prefer them to American and Asian vehicles; all the ones I've driven seem to have something, "soul," that American & Asian vehicles lack. I've not owned any British or Swedish cars, or anything from Yugoslavia, Russia, India, Spain, China, etc. But it's an interesting list (if you want more details about model specifics, check my past posts here and here).

So the website just doesn't work. No problem, right? Since I have until March, 2014 to sign up? Not so fast! Here's the deal: I have health insurance available through my employer, but I elected to go with BCBSAL, individually obtained for my family, instead, since the employer plan is not "Alabama-specific" and the BCBSAL plan covers more of the docs and healthcare in my area (e.g., my dentist is on the BCBS plan, but not my employer's plan). However, BCBSAL is cancelling my current plan and will automatically enroll me in a new plan, if I don't do anything else, at the end of this year. That new plan will cost over $600/month more than my current plan and offer less coverage (higher copays and twice the deductible/out-of-pocket costs). So, I wanted to check what's available on the marketplace, see if there are any subsidies that may help offset my "new, improved" (more expensive) health care plan from BCBSAL. But I can't - it doesn't work. It took 11 days from the time the site opened to be able to create an account and complete an application (which says we can all enroll in plans), but another two weeks later and STILL there are no plans shown on the site. However, my employer's open enrollment occurs in November, so I really need to find out what options are available on the marketplace to see if I can afford, somehow, to continue my BCBSAL insurance, or if I need to enroll in my employer's plan. November, not March. That's a huge difference, and potentially has a major impact on my family's health insurance.

And, in case you didn't think it could get any worse, check out this spot from Senator Ted Cruz (note: it's kind of a long video, nearly 30 minutes, so if you don't want to watch it now, skip down and I'll give you the synopsis):

Yeah. His numbers may be slightly questionable, and some of the leaps he makes (during the "fact check" portion of his speech) are as well, but the concept is the same. Essentially fining employers for hiring American citizens and legal permanent residents instead of hiring illegal immigrants granted amnesty under the proposed legislation. It becomes even more of an issue when taking into account the fact that a CPA I know has done an analysis for a business client of their firm and found that the business would actually save money by paying the fines instead of providing insurance to their employees. Add to that the fact that by firing current employees for which they'd owe fines and replacing them with illegal immigrants for which they wouldn't, and you can see lots of potential issues with this legislation.

Oh, and that $600+/month increase in my insurance? If I had that, don't you think there'd be another vehicle on my list above?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Giving away my money

I pay taxes. And what does the government do with that money? Well, among other things, they give it to other nations. Recently I mentioned the aid to Pakistani students in the form of scholarships (even though, despite paying taxes, my kids are not offered any scholarships by the government, and I have to pay for my own kids' college as well as helping out with Pakistani students' college). And, now, the US is quietly releasing $1.6B in Pakistan assistance.

Washington, while claiming to "grow the economy and create jobs," is also giving our tax money to foreign businesses, such as spending a large chunk of the money to develop the new healthcare exchange on a contract to a Canadian software firm, instead of hiring an American company to do the work. I'm not sure how that works to grow the American economy and create jobs for Americans (which, personally, I don't think should be Washington's responsibility; they should be focused on preserving our liberties and freedoms and creating an environment where the American people take care of the economy and job creation).

But it gets better: the US is not only using our tax money, it's borrowing in order to give money to other nations. In fact, they just added $328 billion to our debt figure (now that they can borrow again).

So, where does that put us? Why, when we're unable to even pay our current interest without borrowing more, are we sending billions of dollars overseas? Don't get me wrong, I do support assisting those in need. But I don't think that's the government's responsibility, particularly when we can't even pay our own bills. Should I, as an individual, borrow twice my yearly income in order to give to the poor? I think I should be offering aid to the needy based on what I have, not on what I haven't. Without first getting my own affairs in order, I shouldn't be trying to aid others, as I risk putting the whole system out of balance and adding to the problem when I go bankrupt and become needy myself. But I also think it shouldn't be the government's position to offer assistance, especially from a deficit. People should do that, whether individually or by forming groups and coalitions. Forced charity isn't really charity, is it?

I also am facing "forced charity" in the form of a $600+ per month increase in my health insurance under the "affordable" care act. And the promise of Obama that "if you like your health plan, you can keep your health plan" doesn't seem to jive with Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Alabama saying, "due to new requirements of the affordable care act, your current health plan can no longer be offered after December 31, 2013." I don't know about you, but I don't happen to have a spare $600 per month sitting around in my paycheck. Yeah, every month.

On a completely different subject, the keyboard in Google jelly bean isn't too smart sometimes. For instance, it typed ragout instead of really, and fire instead of for. And when it gets the word wrong and you go back, it bases the available options on the word it selected, not on likely alternatives based on the location of letters on the keyboard. And often the word you meant to slide type isn't one of the options (which, "options" is a tough one to get right), such as when it puts "pet" when I want "per" - per usually isn't one of the available options. I like the built in slide type feature, but it falls short of Swype or Swift Key.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

"Affordable" Care Act?

Hello, my faithful readers (all 3 of you). Just want to take a moment to regale you with my experience (so far) related to the "affordable" care act.

First, the website - virtually useless. After 12 days, I finally have completed the "application" process (although it didn't tell me when I did; I had to log off and back on to find out it had actually completed 5 times). Initially, I created an account, but couldn't log in with it. Eventually, after the site went down for maintenance (a couple days in), I ended up creating a second account, which could log in, but couldn't "verify" my identity (with Experian). I ended up on the phone with an ACA help desk guy who attempted to connect me with an Experian help desk person, but he couldn't figure out how to conference the phone call, and had it where I could hear him and the Experian girl, she could hear him but not me, and he could hear us both. I found it amusing that the Experian rep knew more about what was going on with the servers and the interaction than the rep did.

At any rate, eventually I went back to the first account (a day after another shutdown/fix), which now could log in, and it successfully verified my identity. I then spent the next few days entering my personal/family info. Over, and over, and over, and over... at least seven times I had to reenter the same info since kept forgetting everything I'd entered and forcing me to start over. And the UI for the application process? ridiculous. One to three minutes delay PER PAGE of info, with only one to three questions per page. And having to repeat the same info multiple times within the context of a single application process. Health insurance info - had to enter the same info for each family member, instead of having an option to apply the info to all family members. And the various employers of my family members? A total of four employers, I had to enter the employer info for each employer six times (one per family member). That's 24 separate steps for something that should have been done once in four steps.

Multiple times I contacted the chat help desk, usually with the response, "We have a lot of visitors right now, causing problems accessing the website. You can call the helpdesk to register." Occasionally I would get, "We are having glitches with the website right now, please keep trying." (Once, after successfully completing the application process, and still being unable to see health care options, the help desk chat rep said, "Please call the help desk; they will be able to help you complete your registration or your application" - I'd already told the chat agent that I was past that point - even providing the current URL and error message.) After finally getting the application process completed (without notification while logged in - I had to log out and back in to find out it had actually completed), I went to the "enroll" page to see what health plans would be available, and got a new error there ("General exception while call RetrieveAvailableOperations service"), with no health plan options shown. That's where I currently am on the application process - application completed, no health plan options available for review.

Why am I bothering? Since I already have decent health insurance through BCBSAL? Because I got a notice from BCBSAL that my current plan is being discontinued at the end of 2013, and they will automatically enroll me in a "comparable" plan that meets the new ACA guidelines as of Jan 1, 2014, unless I elect some other course of action. What's that "comparable" plan? Well, it increases my premium, for family coverage for my family of 6, from $553/month to $1080/month while reducing the coverage amounts. Specifically, copays (office visits, ER visits, hospital visits, etc.) and deductibles both increase. So, I'll be paying nearly twice my current rate for lower coverage. Just for fun, I checked the BCBSAL website to see what other plans they offer directly (since I can't get to the marketplace), and the least expensive plan that will be offered, the "bronze" tier, is still over $250/month more than my current plan and is essentially a "zero coverage" plan - it offers 3 office visits at a $40 copay (higher than my current copay), and then you're responsible for 100% until reaching the family deductible of $12,700. I checked the Humana website, the other insurance company that will be available on the marketplace, and their direct offerings are even more expensive than the BCBSAL options. With that in mind, I don't expect to have any great options available on the marketplace (probably not even a government subsidy to help with the increased premiums), but I can't tell you what options might be available since the site doesn't work. Nearly two weeks after it's opened.

Edit: I misread my notice from BCBSAL - actually, the change is from $503 to $1080 just for the health insurance, and the $50 dental rider is being replaced with a $75 dental plan, making the overall change from $553 to $1155, or an extra $602/month.

Fortunately, I do have an insurance option available through my employer. As of yet, I don't know what the cost of that insurance will be in 2014 (the open enrollment at work isn't until November), but I do know that they are no longer covering spouses if the spouse has insurance available at her employer (my wife does not, so will be insurable under my work plan). Why have I not used it before, and was using BCBSAL? Because the insurance option at work is a "high deductible" plan, and, since it's not an Alabama-based plan, the treatment options available to us in Alabama are more limited than what BCBSAL covers (yes, they will cover treatment, but a lot of it will be "out of network" and incur additional cost due to higher copays and non-negotiated rates). For instance, my current dentist is not included in the plan at work, but is included under BCBSAL. At any rate, assuming no major changes in cost of my work-offered plan, hopefully my family's available income will not be too severely impacted by the ACA.

But what if I was self employed instead of working for the company where I work? I'd be facing a major change in either my available income or my health insurance coverage (or both). Or I could elect not to carry insurance, and face a fine by the IRS when filing my 2014 taxes. That penalty is "only" $285 for 2014, but increases in 2015 and 2016 (to $2085) and beyond. Still, might be cheaper to pay the fine and put the remaining money aside to cover medical costs (than to carry the additional cost of BCBSAL insurance).

And what about other people in Alabama? I personally know of the following besides myself (which, I assure you, are all truthful, not hearsay, but I will not disclose who said what in order to maintain their privacy):

  • two people have had their part-time hours cut (in order to pull their hours under the point where the employer would be required to offer insurance under the new ACA regulations)
  • 3 people have their BCBSAL premiums double while offering less coverage (including one who has BCBSAL through an employer)
  • one person whose insurance increased "a lot" (I don't have specifics) with a 33% increase in deductibles
  • one person whose employer-provided BCBSAL "meets guidelines," but no information yet on whether premiums will change
  • one person whose company is likely dropping BCBSAL due to a 40% increase in premiums
  • one person who is on Alabama Medicaid with a BCBSAL supplement, which is "already very expensive," who had the supplement cost increase by $10/month
  • one person who says she will be now able to obtain insurance, although the details of this case are hazy at this point (I'm hoping for clarification)
If you're wanting to see more about increasing premiums in Alabama, check this article.

Also, in case you were wondering, the website cost a lot of money to create (and it doesn't work!), and a large chunk of that money was given to a Canadian software firm, not American software designers.

If you live in Alabama, the "Affordable" Care Act is likely going to cost you. A lot. Sorry, but know this: I didn't do it.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Do you know what you want?

It comes to mind that there are something like 300 million people in America. And by America, I mean the United States of America. And it's truly amazing to me how many people in D.C. "know" what all of America wants. I mean, really, there are six people in my (immediate) family, and sometimes it's just four of us going for lunch after church, and between the four of us we often have six or seven opinions on what we want for lunch. Rarely do we have a unanimous desire, or even a 75% consensus, and yet some guy or another in Washington claims to know "what Americans wants" on numerous issues. I don't know about you, but he didn't call my house to ask. (In fact, the only time I've had a call in the last decade or so asking my opinion on anything, it wasn't the opinion that was later trumpeted as "what America wants" on TV or in the news.) So, instead of saying something is what I want, maybe ask? Or quote a survey or something, and be sure the survey is actually representative of America? Or consider that perhaps the representatives in the House, the ones elected by Americans, have some idea of what Americans want. And, it's probably not a unanimous decision, so don't act like it is.

Take, for instance, this: the US budget is not balanced. We spend more than we bring in. (And I'm not suggesting we should bring in more; we should spend less, much less- our government is too big, way too big!) And what do we spend money on? Well, among other things, Pakistani student scholarships. Now, I have kids in school (two at the time of the events in that article, and I'm talking college here). And I pay taxes. And my taxes, among other things, paid for scholarships for Pakistani students, while the government, and my taxes, didn't give any scholarships to my kids. Loans, yes, we received federal loans, but no scholarships, and the loans didn't even come close to paying the school expenses, not even for the one at South Alabama, one of the least expensive schools in Alabama. So, I pay my taxes, which provide scholarships for foreign students, and I pay for my own kids' college, while the US, which is taking my tax money, goes even more in debt providing those foreign students education.

Something just isn't right here. Let's take care of our own people first, and then, from any excess, offer aid to the rest of the world. Don't give scholarships to foreign students when we can't afford or budget and aren't even offering scholarships to our own students. And that's certainly not how I want my tax money spent.

And don't say that you know what Americans want, especially when there are multiple, conflicting statements of "what Americans want."

So, in other news, I think I need to start keeping my trash in my son's room. The other night he was complaining about its smell, and I suggested we should just keep it in his room so he'll adapt to the smell and the rest of the world will be like a breath of fresh air to him. (I think we had some chicken parts in the trash that night that had started to stink.)

Also, I'm a little less enamored with the Galaxy S4 battery life, which seems to last till about now instead of a day and a half. Not sure if perhaps adding the Android device manager to my system settings has caused it; Google services is the largest culprit outside of the screen for battery consumption. Maybe some additional use of gps for location services is to blame (for the lost or stolen device thing). Whatever, other than that, and sometimes the keyboard (which may be more due to the Zagg screen protector), still pretty much liking the S4.

Later, America!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


A few old vehicle-related posts that I wanted to bring up again:

And, by way of update to the "all my vehicles" post, here are the vehicles owned since that was originally posted, the "all my vehicles addendum":
  • 2006 Dodge Grand Caravan - unused vehicle of my in-laws, I drove for a month or so before trading for the next two cars on the list
  • 2001 Hyundai XG-300 with only 40-something thousand miles on it - originally my daughter's car, I drove it for a while when we got her a new one later
  • 2002 Kia Optima - I drove for a while, then it became my son's first car (which he backed into a brick mailbox at one point, knocking over the mailbox); this later became my car (when we got him a newer one) for a while before it was traded on my wife's current car
  • 1994 Cadillac Deville (multi-way trade, this came from my grandmother, no longer driving, through my brother and parents, where my brother ended up with an older Odyssey and my parents got a newer Odyssey, with the sometime-functional Lexus being traded on the newer Odyssey) - two months into ownership the transmission went out
  • 2003 BMW 525i (5-speed manual) w/ Sport Package - fantastic car I got from my dad (picture here) until it uncharacteristically blew up its engine
  • 2010 Kia Forte (sedan) - bought for my daughter (traded the Deville - with the bad tranny - on it)
  • 2012 Chevy Cruze - bought (w/ help from in-laws) for my oldest son
  • 2012 Kia Forte (hatchback) - wife's current car (she liked the Forte we got my daughter so much she wanted her own when we talked about getting her out of the Sedona, which was getting 16mpg for most of her "one or three people" driving)
I think that's the tally since the "all my vehicles" post went up. We're also looking at a 2001 Civic as a possibility for my 2nd son's first car.  It's being looked at by a mechanic friend of mine at the moment, but there's a very good chance that we'll end up having the major repairs done and buying it from him/his shop. We need to do something, since he has a license but no car to drive him and his brother to/from school, meaning we end up doing transportation duties, with the 67 Mustang being used for after school pickup several days per week (while the wife's working). I don't mind doing that, but it really needs some brake work (and probably suspension refreshing, too)... sometimes it's scary to drive.

Maybe there'll be a more interesting post (like "why I think I need to put all my garbage in my son's bedroom from now on") in the next day or two. Till then... a topato!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Tech and Space Post

Found a nice magazine on Flipboard that's the inspiration for a lot of this post, but before I get to that, check this out: 

That's ... well, it's a little weird, of course, but it's kind of cool in that I didn't actually take "that" photo. I took the several images that comprise that photo, and after Google Plus automatically uploaded my photos after taking them, it also created what it calls "#autoawesome" - that is, it automagically (sorry, I don't really like that word; it automatically, like magic) converted the several static images into a motion GIF version, which made Ronnie look like he's dancing. In fact, the several images weren't even "in a row" - there were two separate sets of images taken, but they were close enough in composition that Google Plus automagically (argh! sorry again!) made them into a motion photo. Kind of cool (if a little scary, sort of like how Picasa photo albums, several years ago, did a pretty decent job of automatically suggesting tags of people for your photos, and got smarter the more you tagged people; Facebook has this sort of functionality now, suggesting tags for photos you upload).

So, onto more of the tech post, with stuff stumbled upon through Flipboard. I still like Flipboard - it's a quick look at things that might interest me, and I can quickly decide whether to look more in depth at an article or not. And it brings up great articles like these:

Star of the week: Fomalhaut had first visible exoplanet. Did you catch that? Visible planet (known as Fomalhaut b). Not just an inferred planet (based on dips in luminosity of the host star when the planet traverses the face of the star, coming between the star and our viewpoint from the earth), but actually visible to the eye in photographic images! Check out this photo, which shows the planet (in the inset image):

I've always been fascinated by space (I was one of those kids who wanted to be an astronaut; my experience at Space Camp was awesome, and somewhere or other I still have a Space Shuttle Operator's Manual, probably in my storage unit with lots of other boxed-up books). This is really cool. And, if you look south in the sky at night, you can actually see the star itself, knowing that it has a planet orbiting it, a planet that's now been seen in photographic evidence.

In other news, a tech breakthrough that parents will rejoice about: you know how when you go to visit family at Christmas or kid's birthday, and someone gets the child an awesome little toy that makes lots of neat noises and quickly gets on your nerves, and then you have to drive hours back home with the toy driving you crazy in the back seat? And you really hate your relatives for that toy? You'll love this idea: rechargeable batteries that are "smart" and remote controllable - you can remotely "turn off" the batteries in that infernal noise-making toy! And it's got a name that could become a great joke in itself: "Batthead." You know, somehow referring to the gifters as a similar sounding thing, and then saying, "but Batthead to the rescue!" Go check out the article for more details (and other useful possibilities, such as battery powered flashlights that turn themselves on when you pick them up by sensing the motion with the built in accelerometers).

If you're looking for life on Mars, though, your search may be fruitless (bad pun slightly intended, haha: fruit is from a plant, which is alive...), as the NASA rover Curiosity can't locate traces of methane that were previously noted in plumes back in 2003. Seems they were hoping that the methane plumes would be indicative of living organisms (the source, apparently, of the majority of earth's methane), but the rover can't find methane (at least not where it's roving). On a positive note, there's a disturbing David Bowie video at the article you can watch.

And, finally, our galaxy is about to explode. Well, the core of it, anyway, the giant black hole that anchors the Milky Way (you do know that the Milky Way spins around a giant black hole, right? that our solar system is orbiting the galactic center much the same way that the earth orbits the sun?). If you search G2 Milky Way, you'll find more articles about it, by the way, such as this one in which explains that the gas cloud, known as G2, will actually be passing near several smaller black holes that are clustered near the galactic center (they've predicted that it should encounter around sixteen of the smaller holes), and there are hopes that it will encounter some as-yet-unobserved "middle-sized" black holes (masses somewhere between the small ones in that cluster and the supermassive one that anchors our galaxy). Either way, we should be in for some spectacular fireworks in the night sky, night will be erased for years, and the galaxy will explode, sending the earth careening off into space and away from the sun. (OK, I made that part up, although, per the Popular Mechanics article, a similar flare up a century ago has left light echoes bouncing around the center of the galaxy to this day.)

Incidentally, some guy's putting together a giant telescope to actually observe the supermassive black hole that anchors our galaxy (which has not been directly observed, only inferred, to this point). His telescope is actually not really a telescope in the classic sense, but rather an array of radio dishes all around the earth that will collect microwave data from the galactic center, feed all that data to a supercomputer at MIT, and the supercomputer will assemble the data into "an image of the shadow of the black hole." Sort of like the auto-awesome that Google Plus assembled of Ronnie dancing, which didn't actually happen. I wonder: does that mean the image of the black hole might be a fictitious representation? Eh, whatever...

Go outside tonight and look south, check out Fomalhaut, and know this: there are other planets in the universe outside our solar system, and now we've even seen them (courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope). And know this: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." What an awesomely creative God!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Missing (a two for one special)

Two for one in more ways than one: first, this is the 2nd post of the day. Second, there are two "missings" here. Well, maybe three.

First, Tiffany Daniels, a 25-year-old female employee of Pensacola State College, is still missing, having not been seen since August 12th when she left PSC a few minutes early. Her story is falling out of the news, but you can get the latest updates at the Help Find Tiffany Facebook page. Her family would like help expanding the search area and getting the word out in neighboring states (hence my sharing here again).

Second, Henry Blackaby, noted author of Experiencing God, is missing since yesterday afternoon. The 78-year-old pastor/author was last seen in his black Lincoln around 4pm on Thursday (the 19th) in the Atlanta area, where he's believed to still be. If you're in the Atlanta area, be on the lookout. He's diabetic and didn't have his meds with him.

Third, common sense is missing. Hasn't been seen in drivers in south Alabama in quite some time. If you're planning to turn, please use your turn signal to indicate to those around you your intentions. For example, if you're turning right, and there's a car waiting to come out at the road where you're planning to turn, your indicating your intentions will allow the person waiting to go ahead and pull out instead of waiting until you've slowed and turned. And don't pull out in front of people, but if you do, please accelerate quickly instead of poking around while the person behind you is screeching to a halt. And if you're picking up your kids from school, and there's no one in the pickup line, don't stop at the very back of the pickup area to pick up your kids while blocking up the pickup line and not letting anyone behind you get in to where the kids are.

OK, three for one missing special. Have a great weekend!

See GTA5 (or anything else) in a new way

Another great Flipboard find: a new kind of lens that combines insect and human vision, promising great new features and capabilities for things as common as mobile phone cameras and as intricate as laparascopy (see the link if you don't know what that is). Basically, the new lens is a gel-fluid-filled elastic polymer that has several dome-like bulbs on it. If I understand it correctly, the bulbs provide the insect-like wide field of view, while the whole device will expand or contract (as the amount of fluid is changed) to alter the focal point. The developer (Yi Zhao) says it gives "a wide-angle lens with depth of field."

One possibility for implementation are mobile phone cameras, which currently typically have a fixed-focus lens; the new lens would offer a dynamically focusing lens, improving the depth of photos. Of course, a gel-fluid in your phone's camera lens could be bad if it cracked; I'd hope the designers would take this into account and seal off the areas around the camera lens. (Maybe the Phoneblocs people could find a great way to make it practical.) Another possibility relates to surgical procedures; the new lens, with a different type of activating mechanism (electrically active polymer instead of gelatinous fluid), would provide surgeons with a wide field of view and, at the same time, the depth perception necessary for judging the distance between the lens and tissue, improving their ability to accurately place instruments or remove tumors.

Cool, but mostly for the idea of human/bug eye lenses.

Maybe the new lens will find some new way of viewing Grand Theft Auto V (GTA5), which has surpassed $1 billion in sales in just three days ("a rate faster than any other video game, film or other entertainment product has ever managed," according to Take Two, or so says that article). First day sales alone were over $800 million. GTA5 is available on XBox 360 and PS3 platforms, of which there are something like 160 million console gamers. Based on a retail price of roughly $60, the $1 billion in sales equates to about 16.7 million copies sold, or 10% of the (XBox 360/PS3) gaming community. 10% of console gamers bought one game. (FYI, I wasn't part of the 10%.)

One guy bought the game, and it turned out badly: he was "stabbed, hit with a brick and robbed as he walked home from the store" just minutes after buying the game. I suppose someone will make some reference to video game violence, kids, etc. After all, this is a fairly violent game, right? Rated M for "Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Mature Humor, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, and Use of Drugs and Alcohol." Regardless, robbing a guy of his video game? Really? (Three teens, 15, 16, and 18, were taken into custody.) In another situation, three other teens (19, 19, and 20) had bought an unmarked police car at auction, arrived at a game store, got out wearing police uniforms, and tried to use their fake authority to break in the front of the line for the game. Seems like a lot of trouble to go through. Especially since the game can be bought over the Playstation Network online - you didn't even have to wait in line at the store at all!

So, maybe there is something to this "video game promotes violence" thing... since it's causing teens to mug others to get the game (as well as the guy's cell phone & watch) and/or impersonate police officers to try to skip the line. Anyway, I guess I'll go back to playing some Battlefield 3 now.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

I think I need this!

If you have a smart phone, check out this product, the Iloome tempered glass screen protector. In this video, you can skip ahead to around 7 minutes to see the good stuff, where she configures a mockup of a Galaxy screen with the screen protector in place, then his it with a hammer. Screen protector destroyed, but screen protected! Like I said, I think I need this! (Not my usual embedded video since I'm composing this short blog entry with my phone; and, sure, not all impacts will be like a hammer hitting the screen dead on on a flat surface, but this probably will help even more than the Zagg Invisible Shield I have on it now, and probably feels better to the hand than the Zagg film, too.)

Monday, September 16, 2013

Print your own toy!

Maybe I'm a geek (OK, that's probably a given, not a possibility), but this is kind of cool: Disney's Software Could Let You 3-D Print Your Own Mechanical Toys. I think this may be where "new tech" meets "old school" and we finally start to see some "reality" out of the "virtual"... and maybe we'll get some kids interested in engineering again. (You know, real engineering, not the soft kind, even though that's the kind that's leading to this.) And where imagination comes back around (instead of it being lost in video games and videos). Designing your own mechanically operated toy, then have it 3D printed and play with it? That's just cool.

Check out the video (note: there's no sound in the vid, so maybe hit your Pink station in the background on Pandora while this is playing; I laughed when Bernie fell over):

It's, in some ways, another step similar to Scratch, the MIT program that teaches kids (or adults) programming by way of "blocks" (similar to Lego bricks) that are assembled to create programs. My 3rd child has a library of works in Scratch, although he hasn't done much recently, and I even used it for animating a video to go over my boring sax music once (warning: that link is probably one of the worst places on the internet; no, really, I mean it - you should probably stay away from it - don't click! don't click!).

In other news, apparently terrorists prefer GMail, and so do I. Does that make me a terrorist? If a=b and b=c, then a=c, right? (I know, it's not really an equality thing in the "if terrorists prefer GMail, and I prefer GMail, then I must be a terrorist" logic train.) Fortunately, based on the definition of terrorism, my subjecting you to bad sax music in and of itself isn't such, as I've not attempted to coerce you into something. So I think I'm not a terrorist (despite possibly causing terror through my music videos). Hopefully the use of the terms terrorism, videos, and GMail all in the same post (along with software, 3D printing, and engineering) won't have the CIA or homeland security knocking at my door in the morning.

And with that, it's time to get some sleep, just in case.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Surprise: we left the solar system (last year)

Voyager 1 has entered interstellar space at last, NASA says. This is a neat article, but I'm a bit miffed at this wording: "the amount of ground it covers" - that spacecraft (Voyager) isn't covering ground, it's covering (now interstellar) space. Perhaps "its velocity" would have been more appropriate wording. Or "its speed." Or "the amount of distance it travels per second." But not the amount of "ground" it covers. That's just silly.

Of course, they are just now determining (for certain) that, in fact, it did leave the solar system (that is, it has crossed through and exited the heliopause, which demarks the edges of our solar system) last year. Granted, the instrument that was supposed to tell them this died back in 1980, leaving the team searching for clever ways to use other instrumentation to determine when it enters interstellar space (and, in fact, one facet of what's been determined as interstellar space has the team puzzled, that there was no change in the direction of the magnetic field between the heliopause and interstellar space of our Milky Way galaxy). And I'm not sure what's more amazing: that they did, in fact, find a way to determine that; that the majority of the instruments are still functional nearly 40 years later (then again, my 1967 Mustang is still functional, but it had a redo back in 87, whereas the Voyager craft haven't been serviced since leaving the earth); or that there is still a team at NASA monitoring the spacecraft! Whatever, just know that human-made devices have now officially left the solar system. Granted, there's probably significantly more computing power in my pocket in the form of the Samsung Galaxy S4, but that one is still well within the confines of our solar system.

Yes, I'm enjoying the Galaxy S4. Got something like 32 hours on a test charge of the battery, where I unplugged it yesterday morning at 100% (fully charged), did not charge it last night, and plugged it in this afternoon around 4 when the charge had dropped to 4%. Not bad, in my opinion. I am still undecided on a case for it: some sort of cover flap case since I put it in my pocket? A waterproof one (or at least splash proof) for great protection? Just leave it caseless and do my best to be careful with it? My last two phones before this one did fine with no cases (but, I admit, they did hit the floor from time to time). All these choices! I'm enjoying Flipboard, too - it's a quick way to catch up on a lot of news all at once, and quickly scan past the items you don't really care about. You can even integrate your social network feeds into the "cover story" section to get a nice flavor of lots of what's going on. Check it out, you may like it, too!

And, in case you missed it, check out my comparison of real and fake Galaxy S4 devices, in case you're in China to adopt a child and someone offers you a really cheap S4, or you see a too-good-to-be-true deal on eBay (hint: that kind of deal usually is). Here it is, enjoy!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Tech update and, well, something else...

I have recently discovered Flipboard. If, like me, you were skeptical, give it a try; it's kind of neat. I've discovered lots of neat stories with it. It was installed as a default app on my new phone, which is why I recently tried it, and I think I like it. You can get quick synopses of various stories, and then focus in and read the ones that interest you. I'm even starting to like the flip interface, which I thought stupid on another app I tried recently, but it actually works fairly well for the flipboard concept. Welcome, me,  to fairly leading edge tech. :)

There are also some other neat features of the new phone (a Samsung Galaxy 4s, which was on sale at Sam's Club mobile in our store). The phone can detect your finger hovering over the screen and react to it (like expanding headlines in the flipboard app), and has features to, for instance, keep the screen on while you're looking at it. Cool. Speaking of Sam's mobile, if you're in need of an upgrade, give them a try; the prices were better than both Verizon and Best Buy Mobile in store prices (and the Galaxy S3 we got for my wife was 96 cents). I hadn't expected to get the Galaxy, and was instead thinking something like the new LG Enact at the Verizon store, a new but low end phone (it does have a full slide out keyboard and is thicker but smaller than the S4), but the price on the S4 at Sam's was too good to pass up. I also (so far, anyway) recommend Invisible Shield screen covers. Looks terrible initially installed, but unlike pet screen protectors I've used in the past, the bubbles worked themselves out after half a day and it looks great, pretty much invisible.

So, anyway, I was reading a story on flipboard about Molly, the street name for a version of ecstasy, and was somewhat flabbergasted by what I read. For instance, a girl with a master's degree in public health with a specialty in habitual substance abuse, who currently works in public health, is a frequent user and thinks we should be focusing on making recreational drugs safer rather than preventing their use. But what really got me was the closing of the article, where it talked about another user's positive experiences with the drug and ends the article with the line, "who wouldn't want to feel like that?" In other words, encouraging use of the drug. Besides briefly mentioning several recent deaths attributed to the drug's use, the article mostly seems to focus on the supposed positives of the drug's use.

And this is where we are today in society. Yay.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Random Saturday Stuff

This is pretty cool (yeah, I tweeted it last night, but it's worth repeating). I like the fact that he is interested in the design implications (designers using "natural methods" to design vs. trying to figure out how to design things with the current state of computer interfaces), as well as the metal powder/laser 3D printing mechanics (very cool). I'm thinking this: imagine the car stylist creating a "virtual" clay model that then becomes the CAD for the part manufacturing (with the body engineers taking the model and slicing it up into stampable pieces). Cool. The article is worth reading, too.

In other tech news, Microsoft has bought Nokia's cell phone business. So, Nokia, the cell phone manufacturer, no longer manufactures cell phones. Instead, it'll maintain its mobile network biz, R&D, and Here, its location & mapping unit, among others. (Because, you know, that's going to be a much better business model: Here, the mapping & location biz, that is going to challenge Google Maps and similar mapping and location services.)

Even better, this: Stephen Elop, the now-former CEO of Nokia, may be the guy to replace Steve Ballmer in leading Microsoft. (Hey, just realized this: there are a lot of "Steves" in the tech world: Steve Jobs, Steve Ballmer, Stephen Elop, Steve Wozniak, Steve Gibson... in fact, there's even a "Steve Rule" stating that, in a random sample of programmers, there will be more named Steve than there will be females; note: I'm not trying to be sexist, that's not my rule, I just found it when searching Google for "tech guys named Steve".) What's so great about the Elop/Ballmer thing? This: Elop was the CEO of Nokia as its cell phone business failed, and now he's (possibly) going to lead Microsoft. Anyone else see it? Using the guy who lead the failure of Nokia's main business to lead all of Microsoft? Awesome! Better get used to Linux if you're not already (or possibly Apple's OSX).

There are plenty of good, easy Linux distros (that's short for distributions) out now. Ubuntu and Mint are both good (here's an article discussing which is better for a beginner). If those aren't enough, here are 10 popular distributions. And if that's not enough, just search "linux distribution" (or similar) and you'll probably find more than you can comfortably review in a short period of time. There are all sorts of distributions, from engineering distributions to audio/video/web distributions (note: some of the ones at that link are mainly audio/video, while some include web stuff). Best of all: Linux is (for the most part) free (there are usually some pay for support options and there are some distributions and/or apps that you may pay for, but generally speaking, you download a distribution, burn a DVD, and run/install it).

OK, driver #3 just returned from his first solo trip... things to do now, cars to check... :) Have a great day!

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Say what you mean...

Hey, Florida department of digital highway signs, some things. First, when you mean "it is," there's an apostrophe (') between the t and the s. And if you can't do that with your digital sign, then spell out "it is" instead of writing "its" because that is wrong. Second, you wrote, "wipers on headlights on its the law" - well, I think I know what you mean, that it's the law to turn on your headlights when you turn on your wipers because of rain, but technically you wrote that it's the law to have both my headlights and wipers on, period. I.e., all the time. Which isn't the case. You should have written something like, "lights on when raining" or "headlights on when wipers on" (although that's technically not correct either, since according to that I'd have to turn my headlights on when washing the windshield). So, as I often tell my kids, say what you mean, and mean what you say.

Also, it might be better to have advice like "slower traffic keep right" or "keep right except to pass" or "don't keep your bright lights on when another car is in front of you" (that minivan following us with its brights on for several miles could have used that advice this evening).

Congrats to Alabama and Spanish Fort on their football victories this weekend, and too bad, South Alabama; you probably should have won, too, but probably doesn't carry any points, unfortunately. As for me, I think I ate too much and slept too little. So, g'night, all!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Serving Question

So, as regards "serving in the church" - you know, doing things and stuff... "I'll pray about it" - that's a pretty common response when asked.

My question is this: when it comes to things that need done in the church, if I'm capable of doing it, and I see the need, shouldn't I just do it?  As a metaphor, if my kid is walking through my house, notices a full and almost overflowing trash can, should he come running over and ask me, "Dad, should I take out the trash?"

Yeah, there are other things at play here: "do I have what's needed to take out the trash?" (Well, if you have two arms and two legs, or even one arm and a motorized wheelchair, depending on the route to where the trash is taken, you can probably manage it.) "But I took the trash out last time." (Well, it got full again, and needs doing, again.) "Shouldn't I let someone else take out the trash and get the praise for it?" (What if everyone is waiting for someone else to do it, and get the praise? Pretty soon we'll have trash running all over the house.) "I really don't feel like taking out the trash." (OK, sometimes that's just how you feel. Then again, maybe no one else is feeling like taking out the trash, or maybe everyone else is somewhere else in the house, attending to other things.) "But Dad, you didn't tell me to take out the trash." (Honestly, I don't think not being told to do something that obviously needs doing is a reason for not doing it; when there's food on the table, do you sit and wait to be told to eat it?)

Just a thought. And, obviously, there are some serious roles that really should be considered with much prayer. But, if there's a role that needs filling, and you have the means to meet the need, should you "just do it"? What do you think? (Do respond, please!)

Monday, August 26, 2013

Pink Radio

OK, I admit it: I like my "Pink" radio station (on Pandora), which plays Pink, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, Lady Gaga, Avril Lavigne, and others (Alanis Morissette, Suzanne Vega, Sixpense None the Richer, to name a few). With that in mind, enjoy this:

Yeah, that's right... um, "Bad Romance" in polka-melodica form, with Ronnie, um, dancing. (Feel free to give feedback as to whether the YouTube auto-enhanced lighting of the low-light camera-phone video is effective or awful, and I apologize if there's a terrible Miley Cyrus video on the "related videos" links - I haven't watched it and don't plan to, and I'm sorry that it shows up, if it does.)

Yeah, I think we both lost our minds that night (me for making the music, Ronnie for, well, you did watch the video, right?).  But for what else is the internet?

Oh, and if you hadn't heard, I think all my sons are abducted.  Yep, they have intestines in their lower torso area.

That (really bad) joke leads to a more serious bit of news, particularly for friends near the Gulf Coast: Tiffany Daniels, a 25-year old employee of Pensacola State College, has been missing for the last two weeks or so. I don't really know her, but we did meet her when looking at a car she was selling several months ago (which we didn't buy), so it was a little weird when I saw a random news article about her being missing, recognized the name & face, and confirmed with my wife that it was the same person. Her car (not the one she was selling) was found at Fort Pickens several days later, with her cell phone and personal belongings (including bicycle) inside (that last article has several pics of her in case you think you may have seen her somewhere).

Anyway, public service announcement thing out of the way, enjoy the rest of your day. Go listen to some Pink or Perry or Clarkson, maybe on your own Pink radio station. Hopefully it won't get into the "you can't skip any more songs for the next 48 hours" loop that mine seems to get into sometimes.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Trouble? Not really.

I was recently made aware of this article, explaining how "Radioactive Water From Fukushima Is Systematically Poisoning The Entire Pacific Ocean" (not really- we're going to look into that in this blog post). First, let me point out: that article is written not by a nuclear physicist, but by an attorney (someone who stands to gain from class action lawsuits) - well, a former attorney who now publishes "the truth" - a very conspiracy-theory oriented "online paper" (if you want the link, look in the article) including info about how our sun is actually starting to shut down - and a recent book, "The Beginning Of The End" (and, yes, he capitalizes the article "the" in his reference to the title, which I've copied here), which I'll admit I've not read, but a glance at the first sentence of his description was enough.

Anyway, if you've seen this article, don't worry! There's really nothing to worry about. Read on and I'll explain.

According to the article's author, Michael T. Snyder, we're all about to die from the massive amount of radiation that is escaping the damaged Fukushima reactors into the Pacific ocean. How massive? Well, apparently Tepco ("Tokyo Electric Power COmpany") has admitted that between 20 and 40 trillion becquerels of tritium (that's Hydrogen 3, if you care) has "probably" been leaked, "likely" into the Pacific ocean. Sounds really bad, right? Well, 40 trillion becquerels is, assuming I can remember my math and/or my metric prefixes, roughly 1000 curies. But 1k curies of what? Primarily beta radiation. And, per this calculator, that's roughly an equivalent dose of 0 at 1 cm distance. And that's if it's a point source. Now, imagine this "40 trillion becquerels" dispersed into the Pacific ocean, which contains some 700,000 trillion litres of water. Granted, that's the whole Pacific; say it's dispersed across 1% of the Pacific: that's 7,000 trillion gallons of water, or .0057 becquerels per litre. If you convert that to picocuries, .0057 becquerels/litre equates to roughly 1.5 picocuries/litre. An NRC page shows that were you to drink tritium-water at 1000 times this level (1600 picocuries/litre) for a year, your radiation dose would be 0.3 millirem (mrem), which is roughly 1000 times lower than the approximate 300 mrem dose from natural background radiation. In other words, the 1.5 picocuries/litre water you'd be drinking would roughly be nothing. In fact, I'd say you're probably more likely to get some bacteria from the water, or even just have bad effects from drinking salt water in the first place. :)  Also, the radiation from tritium is beta radiation, which is a low-energy type of radiation. Can it hurt you? Sure, any radiation can, and the EPA even has information on what tritium will do once inside the body. However, it leaves the body relatively quickly and, because of the low energy level of the radiation, it's "one of the least dangerous radionuclides." And, by the way, cosmic rays create tritium in air molecules, and as a result, it's found in small or trace amounts in groundwater throughout the world. So, you're probably already getting something like that 1.5 picocuries/litre in your drinking water.

But wait, what about the Strontium-90 and the Cesium-137? Apparently Tepco has found Sr90 ad levels "30 times the permissible rate" that are making their way into the groundwater which "usually flows to the sea." Again, Sr90 is already "widely dispersed in the environment and food chain" - per the EPA. Roughly 20-30% of ingested Sr90 is absorbed into the bone (it's similar to Calcium in its properties), which is bad - bone cancer is bad. But what is the "safe level"? Well, per this report, it was detected at six times the safety limit, at 170,000 becquerels/cubic meter in seawater (I'm going to start using the abbreviation, Bq, for becquerels, 'cause I'm tired of typing it so much). That's 170k Bq/ 1k litres, or 170 Bq/litre. That sounds pretty bad, especially compared to the miniscule amounts of tritium from the prior paragraph. But is it? That's measured "right at the source" (and, by the way, the amount of tritium detected was less there, 120Bq/L, than the amount in the article I'm discussing - in fact, that tritium level is well under the limits specified by the Reactor Regulation of 60,000 Bq/L); now imagine that 170 Bq/litre dispersed over the 7,000 trillion gallons of water in the Pacific before it reaches North America. Tougher to estimate here, as I don't know the sample size (and thus the total amount), but even if it's at 1/100 ratio by the time it hits a North American shore, that's 1.7 Bq/L, or 460 picocuries/L. Probably it would be much lower. Based on this randomly accessed radionuclide safety data sheet (probably from Hong Kong), "annual limit on intake" of Sr90 is 110,000 Bq, or 64,700 litres of (sea)water, or 177 litre/day. Don't know about you, but I'd be going to the bathroom a lot after drinking that much water, and I think the Sr90 wouldn't have enough time in my system to be absorbed into the bones at 20-30% level (it'd be flushed out too quickly). By the way, in case you didn't know, Sr90 isn't a naturally occurring isotope... and most of what's in our environment is left over from nuclear weapons testing in the past decades.

Cesium-137? 17Bq/L. Not even worth talking about. Granted, this article claims higher numbers (but doesn't have a report cited, only saying that Tepco said; other articles seem to be in at least slight agreement). But, really, if you're worried about the Cs137 and Sr90 increasing, dillution is your friend! It would be better to pump the contaminated water into the Pacific and allow it to disperse there, where it will be dissipated to nearly undetectable levels, vs. sitting around in the groundwater or evaporating and either going airborne during evaporation or leaving radioactive isotopes on the ground (where they could become airborne if struck by something or stirred by wind). And the seawater makes an excellent shield against radiation anyway (this page explains how swimming in a "spent nuclear fuel rod" containment pool would likely lead to a lower radiation dose than standing outside the pool!).

The comparison of Fukushima to Chernobyl? Not even close. Even though Chernobyl may have had less fuel, the damage to the containment was far greater, and the spread of radioactive material was much more significant. "Please share this article with as many people as you can," he says; of course - he wants to sell his books and get his advertising links revenue off his website. And maybe to get called to be part of a class action lawsuit. "The damage that is being done is absolutely incalculable" - well, he's not a nuclear physicist, so I wouldn't expect him to be able to calculate nuclear quantities, but it is, in fact, calculable, and "systematically poisoning the entire Pacific ocean" - well, if all 700,000 trillion litres of Pacific ocean were available to become a sink for the Fukushima radioactive material, that would be superb: the material would be so dispersed as to be virtually undetectable, and we'd never have to hear doomsday prophets like this guy talking about Fukushima again.

Don't worry about Fukushima; you're going to be OK, even if you live on the coast of California. Well, then again, if you're in California, there are other things to worry about, like earthquakes and politicians.

Monday, June 24, 2013

What did I really mean?

So, my last post included a short story written long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. (OK, it was two decades ago, and written at Naval Nuclear Power Training Unit at Naval Weapons Station, Charleston, SC.) I hope you've read it already (and if you haven't, go read it now!). Interestingly, I also happen to have a few essays written by actual college students about my story and the meaning behind it. Which is really interesting, since there wasn't any meaning behind it (that I know of, anyway)... it's kind of telling about all those stories you wrote about in your own English Lit classes, whether the author really meant the things you said he meant in your essays and summaries about old stories by dead authors (except I'm not dead... not that I know of, anyway).

My favorite is the one that states the story is "written by Anthony R. Moore who is now residing in a castle occupied by a powerful magician many centuries ago." I hadn't realized that, in fact, I was actually writing history, nor that I lived in a castle at the time that I wrote the story. I thought it was fiction. I did like the comment about the lead dog being Draaken's reincarnation (although I don't believe in reincarnation, the comment is an interesting twist on the story).

It's very interesting, though, to have summaries and essays written about my own story in my possession. I guess it's kind of like having reviewers on the back cover of my book, except it's not my book and they're not on the back cover (they're carefully tucked inside the book at the page where my story starts, with a slightly rusting paperclip holding them together).

This is a pretty boring post, I think. I hope you aren't totally turned off by this one; just go read the prior post again, or pick a random post from the list of posts (over to the right). Maybe the First Ever LBD post (even though, technically, two other posts show up before it in the chronology, due to an anomaly of either time travel or changing the time zone on my blog until after publishing that first post). 2008 seems to have been my peak blogging year, and 2013 isn't very populous yet, but I'll see about changing that. Hopefully you'll join me (again) as we take off. (My other blog, Not-tional Geographic, is really behind the times - it hasn't been updated since 2008! - but that means there are many fewer posts to read there, and you'd probably enjoy them more than this one; maybe I'll start updating that one again, too!)

Also, be sure to read "A Slip of the Clock" and check out Lydia's journal of her (still-current) expedition to Madrid, Spain. Hopefully in the near future I'll be discussing the pros and cons of green energy (in particular, related to nuclear power). That should be fun. Till then, enjoy some good food or something. Later, all!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Dogs of Draaken (a short story)

Hello, dear reader (well, there may be more than one of you, but I'm assuming only one of you is reading at a time, so addressing to "reader," singular, is still probably appropriate). Thanks for visiting my blog. Today we're going in a new direction, fiction. Specifically, my own fiction, from ages ago. Well, many moons ago... 1993, specifically. Or 20 years. Wow, how time flies. Anyway, you see, my aunt, Peggy Jolly, is (was, I believe she's retired now) an English professor (at UAB), and she edited her own literature textbook, The Freshman Sampler (out of print, but you can still find some copies if you wish). The book is a collection of short stories used for literature classes, and she asked if I'd write a piece for it, which I did. In 1993. While I was in Naval Nuclear Power Prototype training. Instead of studying the nuclear chemistry, I wrote this story (I did pass the prototype training, if you care, before I joined the crew of the John C. Stennis, CVN-74; I was, in fact, on board the ship when they were filming "Executive Decision" using our carrier in place of the Eisenhower - and, no, I wasn't "seen" in the film - I was below decks, probably working in the #2 machinery room at the time, and no, I didn't meet Kurt Russell). So, with that intro, here we go...

The Dogs of Draaken

Anthony R. Moore

The dogs had been gathering for about three hours now. I would say there were a couple of dozen at least; it was hard to tell the way they were all pacing around. That is, all except the first one; he sat rooted in the same spot he had been all this time, rhythmically emitting an eerie thirty-six second howl every twelve minutes. It was the sort of sound that chills your blood and leaves you wondering if perhaps you are dead, wandering through someone's nightmare. It was a sound that seemed to pass right through your self and soul, as if you were a misty shadow with no substance or being. A sound that filled your mind with an unknown terror that you can neither explain nor escape. The sound, the howls, of the Dogs of Draaken.
Draaken was a well-known legend in these parts. I, having only recently taken up residence here, had not yet experienced the phenomenon that supposedly had driven the previous owner of my new home mad, first to lunacy, finally to suicide. I say home, but that is quite an understatement. The Fourth Century castle I had recently acquired was much more than a home: it was legend, history, grandeur, and most of all a dream come true. I have always loved castles, and the previous owner's recent misfortune left me in possession of this glorious work of art which was so well constructed it has stood for over fifteen hundred years. It has lasted through three national wars and numerous servant and townspeople rebellions. It also survived a fourteen-year occupation during which all the rightful tenants were beheaded. Today it is no less stout than when it was built so many centuries ago by a man with the name of Draaken.
Draaken of old, I am told, was a great and powerful magician who used his power for the good of his townspeople. His kindness was well-known throughout the land. Warriors from a neighboring territory, however, held only disdain for Draaken and his town. They thought the tariffs were too high and the quality of the wine produced here too low. One day these people came to visit, swords and daggers drawn, intent upon "improving" the village. The townspeople fled to the castle, begging Draaken to to save them; Draaken, his soul sworn to the forces who bestowed his power to use his magic only for good, could not force himself to cause anyone's harm. Thus, he refused the townspeople's plea. His bond signed his death warrant. By their own strength the townspeople gathered together and turned back the assaulting horde, but not without grave losses. The entire stock of wine was destroyed, and many men did not return home that evening. Draaken was hated by all the townspeople; blamed for their losses, he was forever vanquished from their hearts.
Although Draaken no longer had the fealty of his townspeople, he quietly continued to use his powers for their good and benefit. He aided their strength and endurance and doubled the next year's crop yield. Because of him, a local epidemic of deadly illness touched not one of the townspeople. Unaware of his constant concern and guidance, they never forgave Draaken's refusal nor forgot the war.
Some years later, Draaken's wife went on a journey to console her father and pay tribute to her mother as she lay dying. She had been gone three weeks when a messenger brought news: on the return from her journey, she had been assaulted in a nearby mountain passage, and a blow to her head had claimed her life. Draaken, taken by grief, wept for three days; once the tears had ceased, he built a shrine and planned her funeral. He planned a fitting spectacle to pay tribute to the woman he had loved with all his heart. He had a servant inform the townspeople of the tragedy and the memorial service. Not one person returned any kind words or consolation through the servant to Draaken.
The time came for the service. The music, the speech, and the burial were befitting of a queen. However, Draaken and his castle servants were the only mourners at the funeral. Not a single townsperson showed up to pay tribute to the great woman who had been Draaken's wife. Their hearts remained stony with unforgiveness for his refusing to use his powers to slay the invaders. This searing insult drove the great man mad. After burying his wife, Draaken vowed that when he died no townsperson would avoid his mourning. He then set to work on an enchantment that took most of the rest of his life to create.
This magic he made is what I am now seeing. His spell causes a mystic dog to appear every year on the day of his death. This dog sits at the top of the hill under which Draaken is buried and howls chillingly, rhythmically into the night, a mourning how that causes every dog in the town below to come to this spot and grieve over the body of Draaken. These village mourners wander about the hill for six hours, the length of the battle between the townspeople and their assailants. The howling can be heard in every inch of the town, can be felt in the very marrow of every bone, and pierces the souls of all the townspeople. And they observe, once again, the death of their beloved patron.
And there you have it - my first (and only, so far) published work (not counting anything you may read in this blog, which might be considered published?). I hope you have enjoyed the short story, written while I was supposed to be studying nuclear chemistry in the US Navy. This version is devoid of typos and misspellings in the originally published version (some mine, some my editor's, although I won't point that out... whoops!).

And, as mentioned previously, check out "A Slip Of the Clock" by a virtual friend of mine (I say "virtual" friend because we've never actually met in person, only online). The link goes to the Facebook page for her book, which includes links to Kobo and Lulu (where it's "self published" in electronic format), available for $2.99 or so (and worth more, probably worth $6.99 or $7.99 like your normal paperback novels would be).  She can write "full length" stories, whereas I seem to peter out after much more than a chapter (or, say, a short story or blog entry). I have some ideas, but just can't seem to flesh them out like Jane Edwards.

Until next time... a topato!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Driving in Alabama... what you never knew (maybe).

So, just glancing through the Code of Alabama, there are some real gems in relation to driving statutes.

For instance, it's illegal to coast down a hill (that is, in neutral or with the clutch disengaged), even if you want to save a little fuel. This is, in fact, a 2-point offense in the Alabama driver license point system.

Also, you can't get out of your vehicle and leave it running - you have to turn it off, lock the ignition and remove the key, and effectively set your brake.

It's also illegal to back your vehicle on the shoulder of an interstate (such as when you pass a car with a pregnant lady attempting to change a flat and stop as closely as you can after passing it - it's technically illegal to back your car up to hers to assist; you'll just have to walk back to help out).

If you have tinted windows, you can't tint the front (windshield) and the rest must be no more than 32 percent light transmission reduction. That said, you also can't be charged under this provision unless the light transmission of the tinted windows has been checked with an appropriate device or instrument, and, in fact, an officer may not stop you for this violation unless he has such a device already in his equipment.

By the way, if your car normally operates in reverse, you don't have to wear safety belts. (I'd still recommend doing so.)

And you can't ride in a house trailer while it's being transported.

Yes, it is a legal requirement to signal your turn (not less than 100' prior to the turn).

Yes, it's illegal to drive too slowly, too. (But what defines "normal and reasonable" here?)

Finally, there's some apparent issues with the point system (for offenses) as well. Based on the points assigned for violations, here's a list of violations, from most to least dangerous:

  • 6 points: Reckless driving or reckless endangerment involving operating a motor vehicle (granted - several of the following could probably be written as reckless driving...)
  • 5 points: Speeding (26 or more mph over speed limit)
  • 4 points: Driving on the wrong side of the road or illegal passing
  • 3 points: Disregarding traffic control device (stop sign, traffic light, etc.)
  • 2 points: Speeding (1 to 25mph over speed limit)
  • 2 points: Drinking alcohol while operating a vehicle (note: I'm pretty sure there is separate legislation regarding driving under the influence, and there is a 6 point offense for "Any conviction which resulted from a charge that involved the drinking of alcoholic beverages and the driving of a motor vehicle but did not require mandatory revocation of the driver license")
So, there you go... enjoy!

And, speaking of enjoying, you should definitely check out "A Slip Of the Clock" (at Lulu or at Kobo), written by a virtual friend of mine (whom I've never met in person, only online; as a matter of fact, met through this very blog!).  It's a very enjoyable read (I know, I've read it ... numerous times already!). And it's not expensive, either, so you can enjoy it while saving money!

Later, all...

Friday, May 10, 2013

Check out: Lydia's Thought Spot: My First Blog

Yes, this is a rip-off blog post, but enjoy Lydia's first blog post ever:

Lydia's Thought Spot: My First Blog: I am sitting at my computer, wrapped snugly in my super soft leopard print fleece blanket, attempting to write my very first blog post, ever...

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Friends and kids and stuff...

So, shortly after dumping the first batch of clippings from the riding mower's grass catcher (which I currently dump in the adjoining, vacant, forested lot), I got back up on the mower and started it up. When what to my wondering eyes did appear, but this:

If you don't see it, zoom in, and look closely... yeah, that's a 3 to 4 foot long, inch-diameter snake, just a few feet from where I'd just been walking around. (No, I didn't panic; I pulled out the camera and took this pic, and a few more, slowly inching the mower closer and closer... which the snake didn't like, and eventually slithered its way off into the woods.) Oh, yeah, that's our fence in the picture (I'm on the outside of the fence here). Nearest I can tell (by my post-picture sleuthing) it's a grey rat snake (I'm not much on identifying critters, so I had to wait until the internet could help me figure out what it was). Non-venomous. And, based on the recent present one of our dogs left on our back porch (a dead, slightly disemboweled rat), probably a good friend to have around.

Speaking of friends, if you're a friend (or even if you're not), check out what some of my kids are doing this summer: my youngest two boys (Ronnie & Alex) are going to be working at summer camps sponsored by the Child Evangelism Fellowship, while our daughter Lydia (our oldest child) will be working at a summer arts camp... in Madrid, Spain! Both opportunities are very exciting (and we're very proud of our kids for volunteering in these ministries), albeit somewhat costly; each boy has to attend a training session (at a cost of $435 each), and Lydia's trip will require roughly $2500 in various expenses. If you'd like to contribute to the expenses, you can visit the info and donation page I set up to find out more (each kid has written a letter about the ministry which are available at the site) and donate to help with the expenses through PayPal (and thanks in advance for any donations, and even more for prayer - both for the kids, and the ones they'll be ministering to, and for mom to keep her cool while her baby girl is on another continent).

My other boy, Justin, has also been busy recently with his "daily" YouTube show, "The Daily Chicken" - even though it really only comes out weekly. I've also been helping out a little by getting a website set up for them: There's not much out there on the website yet (I'm working on a "Virtual Chicken Challenge Chest" - and if you wonder what that is, you'll have to watch the videos at The Daily Chicken YouTube Channel to find out!). Oh, and a concussion he suffered a few weeks back (at the hands of his younger brother, Ronnie).

Speaking of videos... do you remember Hee Haw or The Carol Burnett Show? Do you miss that kind of fun, mainly clean entertainment? Well, then, have I got a show for you: The Mythical Show. Featuring Rhett and Link (well, not just featuring them... it's their concept!), it's a half hour of entertainment that's safe for the family to watch along with you. And a real half hour, not twenty-two minutes and eight minutes of commercials (although the first episode was really only 29:03, not a full 30:00). I recommend putting it on your living room TV (via the Wii or PS3 or just hooking up your laptop's HDMI output to your TV) and watching with your family. A new episode will come out every Thursday (at least for a dozen weeks), although once out, it's available for instant streaming at any time, so you don't have to sit down and watch it exactly when it comes out. Try it, and hopefully you'll like it.

OK, that's enough for this edition of LBD... until next time...
...a topato!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Tree Saga, 2013

So, last week at this time we had a 40-50 foot split oak in our yard. Looked something like this:

This 50' split oak was about 2 feet from the fence, 20-30 feet from the above ground pool, and basically dead. Tonight, it looks more like this:

And all that happened with $10 worth of 2x4s, a hand saw (pretty awesome saw, this one - highly recommended!), $10 worth of 100' nylon braided rope, and risk loving teenage boys. We built a ladder onto the tree, then cut it down in pieces, with rope attached to the pieces we were cutting in order to guide the pieces down without hitting anything.

Guess what? We did it! Without breaking anything (or anyone) in the process. (OK, I did break a hammer attempting to remove one of the two-by-four steps - well, the nail from one of those, and there was a slight gouge on the fence post in that picture, but you can't really see it.) You can see the whole "tree saga" in photos here, but as a summary, here's a few from the album:

Cool, huh? But I'm worn out. Thanks to Justin, Ronnie, and Alex for the help taking down the tree (and splitting the resulting logs), and to Lydia and Ninfa for their assistance during and after the process (cleaning up the debris, for instance). And to God for making sure we didn't break anything or anyone in the process of saving a few bucks by not calling a tree service. Tomorrow (maybe) I'll write about the absolute silliness of our income taxes, but for now, this will have to do. Took a tree down in less than a week, from "just a tree" to a stack of firewood (too bad I don't have a wood-burning fireplace!).

OK, night, all!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Positives and Negatives

It was the best of days, it was the worst of days...

Positive: I got to play in Lydia's Junior Jury Recital today! I was very pleased to have this opportunity, that she shared it with me, and that she even asked. Of course, the real star today was Lydia (and her "full" accompanist, Bekah, whose piano skills are quite covetable; now, I'd say the same "covetable" thing about Lydia's voice, but people might consider it a bit odd if I was a powerful first soprano). The piece I got to play with her on was "All of Me" - like the one below (Billie Holiday), but up four half steps (or two whole steps, if you prefer). It was a lot of fun, and an experience that I imagine not a lot of dads get to enjoy, which I did! Thanks, Lydia! (Note: I'm not quite as good as the sax player in the Billie Holiday version - might could be, if it were my profession, but I'm just an amateur.) We'll be doing it again April 4th, if you're interested in the rest of the concert. Oh, and yes, she passed the jury!

Negative: car dealerships. Whether incompetent or unscrupulous, don't tell me "we're close; bring your car in for us to take a look" when we're not even close. I have a 2006 Kia Sedona (LX) that I asked if they'd be able to trade for a couple of vehicles on their lot, a 2002 Isuzu Rodeo (S, 2wd, V6) and a 91 Olds 88. "I think we're close" he says. I think we should be - the Isuzu has a trade value of 2350-2850 or so (NADA), and the Olds - well, you can't even get trade values for it from NADA or KBB online.  My Sedona has a trade value, even with its "excessive" mileage (137k or so) of 3050-3800 (NADA). So, I figure, we're close, let's go see. (Why two? 'Cause Ronnie just turned 16, and a "big" minivan isn't quite a great teen vehicle, and it would be convenient to have something for him as well as something for me to run around in as well.) Of course, I can't get to the dealership before they sell the Olds, but the guy assures me, "I have a few more in mind that should work." So this evening, on the way back from a great day in Jackson, MS (where Lydia goes to school), I stop by. Long story short: they offer me $1,500 for the Sedona and want me to pay over $4k to trade the 06 Sedona for just the 02 Isuzu. Um, no. 1) My van is worth at least twice what you're offering (based on the fact that they were claiming the Isuzu was wholesale value at the price they were listing it - they were way off there); 2) that's not "close" - that's "way far apart"; 3) I'm not going to pay money to trade my "old" car - on which everything works - for your older car, on which not even everything works (the rear wiper doesn't work and the button on the rear door to open the glass portion is loose and falls out). And why are you wasting my time? I spent an hour or so at the dealer for "we're close" when you aren't even in the same ballpark - what you told me was either incompetent (you didn't know what you were talking about, or you failed to check on what you were saying prior to saying it) or unscrupulous (you flat out lied, or you failed to check on what you were saying prior to saying it). Either way, you're wasting my time. (If you want to know what dealer, it's Springhill Toyota in Mobile.)

So, anyway, positives and negatives today... but the positives definitely outweighed the negatives! And if you're interested in Lydia's recital (9 songs or so), let me know and I'll get you the details. And if you're interested in buying a well-cared-for 2006 Kia Sedona (so I can buy a couple of older, cheaper cars), let me know...