Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Apologies For Not Posting

I apologize for the lack of a post yesterday and for the lack of an explanation for the lack of a post. Late Sunday night, my stomach decided it no longer wanted to be my body's main food receptacle. Discussions went well through the day yesterday and at this point I'm happy to say that we've reached in agreement. My stomach has been given a small measure of autonomy and half of my pancreas. I, in turn, get to not starve to death.

Given that I'm still not at 100% and I have my surgery on Thursday, possibly making me in a non-posting mood for Friday, I think we'll just call this week a loss and move on. If I feel up to it, I'll continue our journey through the wild world of color tomorrow, but don't hold your breath.

On the plus side, I'm catching up on season 3 of Buffy, when I can stay awake through them. Seth Green is a revelation.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Things To Do Before I Die

No cheeky kid stories today folks. They've been a generally cranky lot this week, which isn't any fun living through once, much less reliving through the magic of the written word.

I'm in a list kind of mood today, as it resolves me of the responsibilty of crafting a coherent narrative. I've been keeping a mental note of things that I want to make sure I do before I make my grand exit, and its high time that I put it down somewhere so that I can refer to it in the past. This will also help you, dear reader, in determining if my life was even remotely successful once you hear of my eventual passing. I'll try to put these points in my will so that my success or failure in accomplishing each one can be passed on to whoever writes my obituary. I'm sure this list will grow with time as I can't go a day without thinking of some stupid ass thing or another. That being said, lets get started.

Uppercut a Punkass
Yes, I did steal this idea from Dane Cook, but it's a good idea and I too want to do it. The world falls into two groups of people, those that stand by and put up with punkasses, and those that refuse to take such abuse and instead uppercut them into nearby refreshment laden tables. I guess that would be three groups as we have to include the punkasses in there somewhere, unless you have punkasses who are willing to uppercut other punkasses. At any rate, I'd like to think that if the situation presented itself, either at a party, or perhaps the junior high Valentines Day Dance, and a punkass was going about his punkassy ways, I would unleash an uppercut that would send him flying into the snack table. If it were at a party, I would also like the opportunity to knock him into the pool. If I'm at a farm, the pig pen is an appropriate post-uppercut, punkass receptacle.

Kick Someone Through a Window
Similar to the above point, but not necessarily limited to punkasses, I would like the chance to karate kick someone with such force that they leave the earth, and crash through a window before eventually returning to the ground. For maximum effect, I would like there to be a water trough under the window, or a fruit display. Perhaps I'm at the grocery store, and someone butts in line at the express lane. I speak to the gentleman calmly and ask him to take his place behind me, and rather than try and have a civilized discourse, he instead resorts to violence. I then proceed to beat his sorry ass to the point where he is barely conscious and standing, but wobbling while doing so. Time would slow and with either a viscious roundhouse, or a mid-air spinning kick, he would go crashing through the window. The store would then erupt in applause and an old lady, who had previously been accosted by my defeated opponent, would hit him with her umbrella as she exited the store.

Rap the Bridge in a Pop/R&B Song
We've all been listening to a pop song on the radio, and just when we've had our fill, here comes the smooth lyrical acrobatics of the latest rap star du jour. A well rapped bridge can elevate a song from mediocrity to genius in 6 or 7 well crafted lines. I would like to be the source of that elevation. I would resume using the moniker MC Whiteboy from my college rap show days and find my partner in rhyme, a one DJ Shag. He was going to school for chemical engineering or some shit, so I'm sure he'd be more than happy to ditch his six figure salary to engineer some chemicals of the lyrical sort. We would use this opportunity to get ourselves known, and then drop our first single "You Da Man? No, I'm The Man", in which we apologize to the world for all of the asshole things done in the name of white people in the past. We would use our new fame to drop a mix of social consciousness and rhymes thicker than your Grandma's gravy. Eventually I would meet Mos Def and he and I would go out to lunch on occasion, and possibly take in a movie. If you are an aspiring pop/r&b song and you think that your latest single is missing something, send it to me and I will add to it in ways that only a 33 year old white guy can.

Appear in a Rock Video, In Front of a Wall of Video
Some images persist in music videos because of laziness on the creator's part, but some images persist because they work. We've all seen the video of the band rocking out in a darkened room, and as the song builds to it's thunderous conclusion, the room becomes alive with light and color as a wall of video turns on and is filled with pulsating images. We are then left with the sight of the band's frontman as the images move behind him. Think the video for "Be Yourself" by Audioslave. I would like to be that frontman. I realize that I don't have a band, mostly because I can't sing, but the lack of singing ability doesn't appear to hold back musicians these days. I could just say that you just don't "get" my inability to carry a note, that I'm being post-modern in how I'm completely tone deaf. It doesn't matter. What matters is getting that video wall fired up as I gyrate, microphone in hand, to my band's massive rock output. In fact, I think that I've just come up with my band's name: Massive Rock Output. If there's a band out there that needs a frontman to appear in their videos, please don't hesitate to call. I also do Bar Mitzvahs.

Jump Out of a Plane
This next one is actually doable, and I've spoken to the missus about it, but she is less than thrilled. I appear to have grown on her over the years and she prefers to not have me in a form that requires a shovel and a bucket just to bring me from room to room. There's also the children to think of, as if I perish in a parachute mishap, I don't think my life insurance will kick in. That, and I would be forcing my wife to deal with those little hellbeasts on her own and she'd never forgive me for that. I need to find a skydiving firm that will take your shattered remains and toss them off of your roof, complete with strategically placed ladder, to give the appearance that I tumbled while cleaning gutters. The goggles and helmet would be completely understandable, as gutters are a popular vacation home for squirrels and those fuckers go for the eyes.

Reveal My Powers in a Case of Mistaken Criminal Identity
As this is the year I've resolved to get super powers, I think it's only right to have them come about as the police suspect me of criminal mischief that I had no part in. Perhaps I could, in the middle of a large city, go to help some poor citizen that had been a victim of some sort of illegal shenanigans. Perhaps I'm handling a weapon that was dropped at the scene, or I'm pulling a tire iron out of the citizen's head. The police then make a snap judgement and unleash a volley of bullets at my person. This is when my powers kick in, and I repel the bullets in some superheroic fashion. I would then turn to the police and say something like, "That was a spectacularly bad idea" and fling them asunder before streaking off into the sky and turning my powers to evil, to punish a world that would mistakenly wrong me. I've left the terms of the repelling, the flinging and the streaking general to accompany a variety of powers. I don't want to pigeonhole myself, should I want to be either a powerful telekinetic or be bathed in living flame.

Retire Early
There were some very interesting articles in the Feb 16th issue of The Economist on managing the ageing workforce. Basically, if all of the boomers retire at the same time, we're all going to hell in a handbasket because there will be more people leaving the workforce than entering. Also, not all of the boomers want to retire, but they're being forced to, due to outdated pension schemes and the incorrect assumption that older people can't be productive workers. Personally, I fucking hate working, so if there's a boomer out there that wants to keep working, I'm more than happy to take their place and retire early. More tee times for me.

As I mentioned before, I will continue to work on this list so that I can keep track of how my life is progressing. In a perfect world, I could knock some of these out at once, however the odds of my superpowers kicking in due to a parachute failure as I plummet while composing my rap bridge are somewhat on the low side. Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A Post of a Different Color

Greetings Science Squaddies! Man have we hit the motherload this week! This is the joyous thing about science, asking questions provides answers, but it also provides more questions. I've always had an interest in color. The fact that there are soooooo many colors in the universe amazes me. Just walking around and taking note of all of the different colors that we see from day to day can be an eye opening experience, excuse the pun. When I see all of the colors, I then begin to think about the fact that in order for things to be different colors, there has to be an inherent structural difference to account for these colors. Then I start to get freaked out and I have to stop. Sometimes, being me is an odd experience.

So, when I had a hard time coming up with this week's post, I thought it'd be simple and I'll just write about what makes things different colors. As it turns out, that isn't a simple answer. When is it ever, right? As usual, the little sliver of knowledge I have on the subject is but a splinter compared to the great tree of ignorance currently growing on my intellectual property. That being the case, I think that we should take this journey together, me and you, and turn this into a series of posts. Come on, it'll be fun! Honest it will. All righty then, here we go:

What determines an object's color? (Or, why is the world a many colored thing?)

Today we'll lay the ground work before we get into the nitty and the gritty, there being a fair amount of both. Before we talk about color, we have to talk about light, because without light, there's no color, hence the difficulty one has when trying to read when sealed in a closet.

The interesting thing about color is that color is a human perception of a characteristic of light, namely its wavelength. We see the large wavelength part of the visible spectrum (the range of wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation that we can see) as being red. If our eyes developed differently, we'd see that portion of the spectrum differently, and it wouldn't be red any more. It's all very odd when you think about it. The spectrum goes from red down to blue, with red having the largest wavelength, and lowest frequency, and blue having the smallest wavelength and the highest frequency.

The simple reason that things are different colors, is because the light (for our purposes, I'm going to replace the words "electromagnetic radiation" with "light" as I am uncomfortable with the thought that I'm being constantly irradiated) coming from said object, and into your eye, has a specific wavelength and frequency that then gets interpreted by your brain as being red or blue or periwinkle. Of course, that's not much of an answer, as it doesn't really get to why light coming off of an object would be different in the first place.

As it turns out, there are 15 causes of color, that can be grouped into 5 groups. These groups are:
  • Vibrations and excitations
  • Ligand field effect
  • Molecular orbitals
  • Energy bands
  • Optics
As you can see, we have a lot of ground to cover, and this doesn't even get into how and why color affects us emotionally, color theory in art, the science or measuring and reproducing color, and on and on and on. Oh the places we'll go!

For now, I think this is a good place to stop. Always leave 'em wanting more, I say. Plus, my kid is home sick, so I need to tend to her, and she doesn't take kindly to being ignored when she's perfectly healthy, much less when she's stricken with baby malaise.

Next week: I'm So Excited, And I Am Having Difficulty Hiding It

Wikipedia - Color
Web Exhibits - Causes of Color
The Franklin Institute Online - Light and Color
The Physics Hypertextbook - Color

Monday, February 20, 2006

Web Comics

This post was supposed to be about Condemned: Criminal Origins, but I'm not finished with it yet despite having served up a steaming platter of beat down to dozens of homicidal vagrants. I can tell you that using a locker door to dispatch a crazed hobo is a gaming moment like no other. Once I realized that Condemned was out of the question, and that I had no back-up ideas planned, I thought I'd write about the state of the 360 at the moment. The draft I cooked up in my head amounted to nothing but a bunch of whining, so I need some more time with that one. Instead I think I'll point out the webcomics that I visit daily. Most of them have to do with gaming, and all of their bookmarks reside in my gaming bookmarks folder, so there is some sort of connection.

Before we get started I'd like to point out my new profile picture courtesy of the fine folks at Yahoo, specifically the Avatar individuals. As the picture in the profile box is kind of small, I have reproduced it here for your pleasure. This is as good a cartoon approximation of my looks as I have ever seen. In fact, I am wearing a brown sweatshirt as I write this, although I am in a stifling office complex, not the crisp, leafy air of autumn. I do own a grill, and a gasser at that, which I am more than happy to fire up after a long day of raking. I don't actually rake, as I use my ride-on mower to pick up leaves, but that wasn't an option in the avatar generator. I also do not have a pet pig, as much as I might wish to, however I have provided one for my cartoon counterpart so that, after he finishes raking, he can grill up the pig and eat it. Special thanks to Andy for helping me in getting my profile to show. He is truly a god among men.

Some of the comics I'm going to link to are episodic, so you would be well served to go back and read them from the beginning. If this task seems daunting, have no fear, as you need not be afraid, unless you are comedyphobic. Some of the comics are standalone, so going back to the beginning will only provide you with something to do while you wait for your TPS cover sheet to print. I will link you to the main page, with the most recent comic and let you decide if you wish to travel back in time from there. At that point, it's all you, baby. Now, let us make with the clicking.

Penny Arcade - I've spoken about these gentlemen before and I stand by my original assertment that if I could only read one webcomic, this would be it. It is primarily standalone, although they do dabble in continuity when the mood strikes them. It is primarily about gaming, although they aren't afraid to go well off the beaten track to areas that probably should have been left to the imagination. Each comic comes with a tasty news post, which is always very well written and chock full of 50 cent words. By this, I mean big words, not words from the raps of 50 Cent, although sometimes the two worlds do collide. The comic strip and newspost archives are fully searchable, in case you want to point someone to a particular strip. The art is great, the writing is great, and they post on a regular M-W-F schedule, so you're, at most, only a couple of days away from new hilarity, whatever day of the week you find yourself on. They also run a very successful charity to provide sick children with toys and video games, so even if the comic isn't your thing, the charity damn well should be. The strip is not for the kiddies as violence, profanity and strong sexual situations abound.

PVP - This strip is the closest thing to a newspaper strip, in terms of structure, that I read online. I still read the comics in the paper, it being a high point of my evening, but I prefer my online strips to better make use of the medium, be it in content or style. That being said, this is a very entertaining strip, which you can recommend to fellow gamers that aren't comfortable with the more adult nature of some of the other strips. The strip focuses on the wacky hijinks of a bunch of employees at a gaming magazine. The art is good, the writing is good, albeit sometimes very gaming and pop-culture heavy (a common thread here) and sometimes Kurtz's rants can be fun to read. The Blamimation "Live" strips are particularly hilarious as it's Kurtz and his friends trying out various live action readings to the strips. The strips is more along the PG lines with some vague references to sex at some times. The strip publishes daily on the weekdays

Nodwick - Nodwick is all about the Dungeons and Dragons, the title character being a henchman for what is perhaps the most incompetent group of adventurers this side of a d20. If you're not into D&D, or epic fantasy in general, it won't really be for you. If you can put the subject material aside, it's very well drawn and quite funny too. It's usually episodic, accept for times when its creator, Aaron Williams, doesn't have time for a weekly update. Also from Williams is Full Frontal Nerdity which focuses on the gaming activities of 4 tabletop gaming aficianados. I don't always understand the references in this strip, but I enjoy it immensely. Both strips are for everyone, with some mild violence in Nodwick. Both are updated weekly, on Thursday.

Diesel Sweeties - Diesel Sweeties pushes the limits of what MS Paint can do, while being entertaining and off-beat at the same time. It's kind of episodic in that things that happen in the past aren't forgotten by the time the next strip rolls around. It's got robots, and vegans, and mullets and Indie Rock Pete, so there's something for everyone. Sort of. It's very much a take it or leave it kind of strip. I love it, so I can be biased, but I can see why some wouldn't. I'd put it at more on the adult nature of things, just for some of the suggested situations. Well, that and one of the characters used to be a porn star. This strip rarely has anything to do with gaming.

WIGU - Ah Wigu, how I love thee. Wigu is a little boy who, with the aid of his messed up family, and Topato, space potato and star of Magical Adventures in Space, gets into situations that no small child should ever be subjected to. It used to run daily, but Jeffrey Rowland is moving to a more book type format so that he can tell the story in one big, delicious chunk. It is well worth your time to check out the archives. I have a WIGU book, as well as three t-shirts, so I can make that recommendation in earnest.

Overcompensating - Overcompensating is the daily comic blog that Jeffrey Rowland does when he's not creating WIGU and running a t-shirt empire. It's sometimes episodic, sometimes topical and always filled with mirth. Art is quirky, as it is with Wigu, however if you like the style, it doesn't dissapoint. This strip, like Wigu, needs no prior gaming experience to be enjoyed, but he certainly won't fault you for it. Updated (near) daily.

Achewood - If I could only read two webcomics a day, Achewood would be the second one. Achewood revolves around a cast of animals (inspired by author Chris Onstad's stuffed animals) that live in the town of Achewood. The strip mostly focuses on two cats, Ray Smuckles, and Roast Beef, but others make an appearance as well. It can be episodic, but also has standalone strips as well. Art is very simple, but works very well for the type of strip that it is. One thing that Onstad has done, which separates him from the rest of his creative brethren, is create blogs for each of the Achewood characters. This not only fleshes out the characters in ways that the strip can't, but also allows the other characters to have adventures not shown in the strip. The blogs are dead on too, which they should be, given that they're written by the strip's creator. The strip is probably best kept from the kiddies, although I doubt they'd understand most of it anyways. Nary a gaming reference in sight. Updated daily.

Scary Go Round - Scary Go Round is a strip about a bunch of folks in England who seem to have a lot of things of a supernatural bent happen to them. Not sure why, as I haven't investigated the archive as much as I should. The art style is very cool, and the writing is very well done, although I would recommend knowing someone British so that you can have the references translated for you. It is episodic, so a trip to the archives may be in order for at least a few strips back, but most story lines are very easy to pick up. I am totally hot for Shelley. I think it's the red hair. Don't judge me. Strip is safe for folks of all ages and has no gaming prerequisites. Updated daily.

Order of the Stick - OOtS requires interest in, and possibly knowledge of Dungeons and Dragons. I say possibly, because there are some things I vaguely understand and they may be much funnier if you understand them in totality. The strip focuses on a band of adventurers who know that they're in a D&D universe, so references to things like fortitude checks and race/class benefits abound. The art is extremely well done, especially considering that everyone is a stick figure. It's also very well written, although it can be wordy at times. Updated M-W-F and is rated PG for mild, fantasy violence.

VG Cats - VG Cats is the best looking, and least scheduled strip I read. I'm sure that the two are related. It comes out weekly, for the most part, and requires almost an encyclopedic knowledge of games to get all the jokes. There are some weeks that I don't understand any of it, because I haven't played the game that the strip is based on, however the art is pretty enough for me to just enjoy the visuals on those occasions. This strip is not for kids, unless you want your kids to see Pac-Man in uncompromising positions.

Concerned - Concerned is about Gordon Frohman, a complete and total idiot who arrives at City 17 a week before Gordon Freeman, the hero of Half-Life 2. Being that the comic is set in Half-Life 2, some knowledge of the game is required. I started reading the comic before I started playing HL2, and I can attest that the strips, while funny without having played the game, are twice as funny once you can catch all of the references. The strip is created entirely in the game, requiring author Christopher Livingston to pose people in the game, take screen caps and then add dialog and any other after affects. The results are amazing, and the strip is one of the funniest ones out there. Read the notes as you go through the archive (available below the strip) to get some insight into the creative process. Updated M-W-F. Strip has violence as you would see in HL2, so base your desire to share accordingly.

So there you are, some things to read at work while avoiding the tasks they're paying you to do. I can't help but think that somewhere out there is someone paid to read webcomics who slacks off by creating spreadsheets and traceability matrixes. Matrices? Matrixi? Oh hell, grid thingies.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Diagnosing the Sick Toddler

OK people, settle down, settle down. We have a lot to cover in a short amount of time, so let's get right to it. Today's material is on diagnosing the sick toddler. Now, as doctors you'll often have to diagnose people who have a hard time communicating what is wrong with them. This is hard enough as it is, however when you're dealing with a person who is completely removed from the actual happenings of the physical world, the toddler for example, this becomes even more difficult. Also, due to the rambling, stream of consciousness nature of these creatures, often times the maladies will change from moment to moment, making treatment a difficult situation. Let's just jump into some examples so that we can see what works and what doesn't.

Situation 1: Normally cheerful toddler is picked up at daycare, having been crying for no reason for the past hour. Upon calming down said toddler, you are able to ask him what is wrong. His response is "A spider bit me on my finger." OK....Johnson, go.

Johnson: Well, I'd try and find out what spider bit him so that we could call the hospital and prepare an anti-venom, then I'd---

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Stevens, go.

Stevens: I'd inspect the afflicted finger and kiss it to make it better.

Correct. Moving on. Once you get the child calmed down you get him and his sister out to the car. After getting his sister in the car, you try to get to the bottom of what's bothering him. For this exercise, I'll be the toddler and I'd like, let's see, I'd like Davidson to try and diagnose the problem. Davidson, you ready? All right, and...go.

Davidson: So a spider bit you?
Toddler: No. A spider scared me.
Davidson: A spider scared you? Where?
Toddler: On my finger.
Davidson: A spider scared you on your finger?
Toddler: Yes. Miss Frances threw it.
Davidson: Miss Frances threw what?
Toddler: A black spider. Threw it on the ground.
Davidson: Wait. Miss Frances threw a spider on the ground and that scared you?
Toddler: Yes. Ryan drew it.
Davidson: Drew what?
Toddler: A spider
Davidson: Ryan drew a spider? Where? In class?
Toddler: On my eye.
Davidson: I got nothing.

As you can see, the "spider" that bit the child, either didn't exist at all, or not only bit him, but also scared him, got thrown on the ground, and was drawn on his eye. This then expands the diagnosis from a simple spider bite to possible retinal scratching and/or detachment, pyschological trauma manifesting in arachnaphobic tendencies and possible blunt trauma to the spider. In this case, it was determined, upon getting home, that the child had a fever. He was given a bath and put to bed. Upon waking the next morning he was fine.

All right, next case, same child, next day. Child, who normally sleeps very soundly wakes up crying. Child request dinosaur from downstairs. Possible diagnoses people? Anyone? Come on folks, this isn't hard. OK, it's Friday, so I'll let you slide. Possible diagnoses include, but are not limited to: nightmares, full bladder/bowels, empty bladder/bowels, hunger, a stiff wind, it being Tuesday, ear ache, stomach ache, foot ache, male pattern baldness, pain, suffering, lost wages. Treatment? Harris?

Harris: Go downstairs and get the dinosaur?

Jesus, Harris, don't ever have kids. No, remember, it's late and you're tired. Franklin?

Franklin: Tell him he's not going downstairs to get his goddamned dinosaur, that it's late and that he needs to go to sleep.

Bingo. Franklin, you just won Father of the Year. One hour later, child again cries for dinosaur. This time he complains of ear pain. Diagnoses? Mr. Chung?

Chung: Um, tennis elbow?

Normally I'd say yes. Had you asked him if his ear hurt, in an attempt to figure out the source of irritation, and he answered yes, tennis elbow would be a viable possibility. However given that this statement was unsolicited, we can assume that his ear pain is genunine. A subsequent trip to the doctor would prove an ear infection was to blame.

OK, next morning, child is again crying. Again, let's roleplay. Andrews you're up.

Toddler: Waaah.
Andrews: Does your ear hurt?
Toddler: Yes.
Andrews: Does anything else hurt?
Toddler: My face.
Andrews: Your face hurts?
Toddler: Yes.
Andrews: What happened to your face?
Toddler: Wall hit it.
Andrews: The wall hit it?
Toddler: Yes.
Andrews: You've been in bed all night? How could the wall have hit your face?
Toddler: Waaah.

OK, Andrews, what's the diagnoses? What? Misplaced facial pain as a result of the ear infection? Close, but not quite right. The correct answer is "spider bite".

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble

OK, one thing I should point out is that economics is really fucking hard. I thought that chemistry was hard, but economics makes chemistry look like making balloon animals. Then again, I don't know how to make balloon animals either, so perhaps I'm unqualified to make statements comparing those three sciences. Let's just say that they all represent a near infinite level of difficulty, and leave it at that.

So, when I decided that this week's science post would be about bubbles, particularly housing bubbles, I forgot that housing bubbles means economics, which is the section of The Economist that I skip every week. Yes, I realize the irony inherent in my skipping the economics section of The Economist. I'm not particularly proud of my skipping, but I'm taking it one article at a time. That being said, I can't guarantee that this post will be overwhelmingly educational, as I'm still learning myself and I may have to sacrifice providing a wealth of information for clarity. Don't get me wrong, it will still be educational, just not overwhelmingly so. It will be just the right amount of whelming.

Without further ado, here's the question of the week:

What is a housing bubble?

In economic terms, a bubble occurs when speculation in a particular commodity drives the price of said commodity up to unsustainable levels. In real life, bubbles are floating faerie houses made of moonbeams and pixie dust. Let's say you make a candy bar called the Fudgemeister. You go online and talk up Fudgemeister bars and somehow manage to convince the world that Fudgemeister bars are the greatest thing ever, so everyone goes out and starts buying Fudgemeister bars as they see them holding some future value. To capitalize on this success, you make limited edition Fudgemeister bars, and start printing a magazine called Fudgemeister Monthly. As a result, the price of Fudgemeister bars go up, which makes people talk about it more and worry more about them not being around, so they go out and buy more Fudgemeister bars and hoarding them in their basement to sell at a future date. Eventually someone realizes how fucking stupid they're being by thinking they can fund their retirement with candy, and they stop paying inflated prices for Fudgemeister bars. This sets off a panic, people start selling off their bars and soon you can't swing a dead cat without seeing a 3 for 1 sale on Fudgemeister bars at the local drug store. Those still holding massive quantities of bars see their fudgy worth go down the toilet, they come to your house and beat you about the head and neck with King Size Fudgemeisters. This then goes down in history as the Fudgemeister Bubble and the Great Candy Crash of '06.

Sound familiar? Well, it should. It happened with Tulips in the Netherlands in 1636, it happened with dot-com stocks in the US in 2000 and some would say it's happening with real estate, specifically houses, in the US and other countries as we speak. Bubbles are tricky things in that you don't know you're in one until after it pops and whatever you've been speculating on crashes. For this reason, we can't really say if we're in a housing bubble at the moment, although there are plenty of people on both sides to give their opinions.

A housing bubble is just like our Fudgemeister Bubble. People start overvaluing houses, which in turn fuels more overvaluing until the point where house prices reach unsustainable levels. Here's where it gets bad. Unlike in the Great Candy Crash, where speculators are left with a basement full of candy, and not much else to show for it, when a housing bubble bursts, people are left with negative equity on their mortgage. To place this in plainer terms, you owe more on your house than your house is worth. This is a bad thing.

As the economy sputtered along these past few years and the Federal Reserve continued to reduce interest rates, mortgage interest rates fell as a result, making it easier for people to borrow large amounts of cash for buying a house. Mortgage companies then "helped" people some more by offering interest only loans, or loans for 105% of the purchase price, to cover closing costs, and other incentives to get people buying houses. Armed with this cash, folks can now buy more house than they ever could before, only they're not necessarily buying more house, just a more expensive house.

House prices are traditionally set based on what houses in the same neighborhood, with the same features have sold for. Once one sells for a ridiculously high price, others have precedence to be sold for a ridiculously high price. Human nature also pays a part in this, as people don't want to sell their house for less than the next guy, especially if they can get much more than what their house is worth. On the other side, folks don't want to be outbid on a house, so they jack their offer up to match whatever they think the other buyers will be offering. Besides, their interest rate is so low, and they don't have to put any cash down, so why not? After all, in 2 years, the house will be worth double what they paid for it, so they can just refinance then.

You also have all the folks who see houses as an investment, either as a reaction to seeing gains in stocks wiped out after the dot-com crash, or as a reaction to seeing their neighbor make 50k on a house that they owned for only a year. Take a look at the various home and garden tv networks some time and count how many shows are built on the premise of fixing up a house for the purpose of selling it. I can tell you that the number is more than 2. These investments serve to push the prices of houses up and up and up and up to the point where they become overvalued.

How do we know they're overvalued? There are a number of factors, but the only one I somewhat understand is the ratio of house prices to rents. To quote The Economist, "...the price of a house should reflect the future benefits of ownership, either as rental income for an investor or the rent saved by an owner-occupier." In other words, if you're paying $600,000 for a house, you should either a) be able to rent that house for an amount that matches the montly mortgage amount or b) be able to pay a monthly mortgage that represents a savings over what you were paying in rent. For the most part, this ain't happening. Again, from The Economist, "America's ratio of prices to rents is 35% above its average level during 1975-2000". This points to overvaluation, because there is no financial savings to owning rather than renting. The housing investors are willing to accept this temporary loss, by renting our their investment property, for the hint of future profits, which is a sure sign that speculation is taking place.

There are counters to this argument, however I barely understand this argument, so forgive me if I don't get into what the counter is, but it has to do with the fact that lower interest rates makes it easier to buy a house, so it costs less than before to buy your McMansion, so it only makes sense that the price of houses is so much larger than rents. I've included opposing arguments in the reference section, so please don't take just my word for it.

I can tell you from personal experience that there are some crazy regional shenanigans going on, that, in my opinion, need to be fixed with some sort of market correction, lest we all plummet into economic despair. We bought our first house in Northern VA., in October of 1999. A little over 5 years later, in Feb of 05, we sold it for roughly 2.25 times what we paid for it. That's a pretty significant appreciation rate. Granted, we painted, added a deck and a fence, finished the basement and did some landscaping, but none of those additions can account for the rise in price. Part of the reason we decided to sell, was that we could no longer afford our own home. Don't get me wrong, we could make our mortgage payments, but if we were to buy our house, for the price we sold it for, our mortgage would have been through the roof, and beyond what we were comfortable paying. Not much of a big deal had we decided to stay put, but what if we decided we wanted something larger, or just something different? In the 5 years of ownership, the area got priced out of our income range. How first time home buyers, like us, could afford such ridiculous prices, is beyond me. See mortgages, 105%.

And the prices are ridiculous. I know what my house was worth, and I feel like I cheated the buyers out of a huge bundle of money because of where we priced it. But, human nature being what it is, had we priced it significantly lower, it would have been avoided because people would have wondered what was wrong with it.

Now, compare that experience with what we have in Atlanta, and you can see the argument for there being small, regional bubbles, rather than a large US wide bubble. Most houses here take several months to sell, and seem to be pretty much on point with what I would expect to pay. I know how much the seller of our current house paid, and I know how much we paid, and I don't feel like we got cheated. They were jerks, but that's another story for another time. Similarly, I don't expect to be able to sell my house for double in 5 years, which is just fine with me. Maybe new houses are ridiculously overpriced. I have no idea.

Regardless of whether or not it's a case of regional bubbles, or a large US bubble, a crash would be bad news for a bunch of people. All the housing investors would now have property that they won't make a profit on. All the people with negative equity will have a hard time getting additional equity should the roof on their $800,000 house spring a leak, because of the negative mortgage equity. If interest rates go up, all those with interest only ARM's will feel the pinch once they go from an interest only 5.25% mortgage to an interest + principal 8% mortgage on a house they could barely afford in the first place. The private sector jobs wrapped up in construction, real estate, mortgage brokering and other aspects of buying, selling and owning a house will dry up. People, who have to move will find themselves selling their house and not taking enough, if anything, from the sale to put towards the next house. Finally, people will spend less in general, because that new 42" plasma TV seems less important when you have a $650k mortgage on a house valued at $300k. The only people who would benefit, would be first time buyers who would be able to finally afford a house that's priced near or at the home's value, and who are willing to stay in it for 5 - 6 years, until the whole stupid process gets going again.

Me, I'm happy with having sold our house when we could benefit from this bubble, and am more than happy to hoard my cash for when it eventually bursts. Besides, I've got an inside tip on these candy bars. Trust me. I have seen the future, and it is Fudgemeisters.

Next week: No Idea, but Man Will It Be Good

Wikipedia - Economic Bubble
Wikipedia - US Housing Bubble
Wikipedia - The Housing Bubble
Investor Elite.com - Housing Bubble
Economy.com - U.S. Bubble Trouble - Celia Chen
The Economist - In Come the Waves, June 16th, 2005 (requires subscription)

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Follow Freeman!

I finished Half-Life 2 on the Xbox the other night and boy, did it suck. Half-Life 2, the game, didn't suck, but finishing Half-Life 2 did, and not in a "man this ending sucked" kind of way, but more of a "there's a gaping hole in my existance where this game and our special moments together used to be. What kind of cruel God would provide me with such a fantastic gaming experience and not make it last forever and ever and ever and ever until the galaxy collapsed upon itself?" kind of way. Maybe I'm just nostalgic for the original Half-Life, maybe I'm just generally irritated with the offerings on the 360, or maybe, just maybe, it's geniuinely a very good game and I'm just calling it like it is.

For some reason, despite it being 6 years since the original Half-Life came out and won every gaming award ever created, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize, the NBA Rookie of the Year award and the Blue Ribbon in the Ohio State Fair Pie Eating contest, developers seem to be unable to tell a coherent story in a shooter. I don't really know why. One would think that they could just play Half-Life and get some good ideas there, but maybe they're not allowed to. I can see some contentious design meetings if all everyone says is "make it like Half-Life", but still, at least try and take some good ideas away from the game.

What Half-Life did, and Half-Life 2 does, better than any shooter I've ever played, is place the player directly in the story. There are no cinematics to fill in the background details, no in-engine movies showing our hero running around and figuring things out. There is you, your eyes, your ears and your actions. The entire story unfolds around you, and because of you, as you play the game. Now, as a result, that leaves some details less fleshed out than others, but when, in life, do we ever have all of the answers? Exactly. I can see there being the temptation to want to show external events through cut scenes or other form of exposition, but by sticking to the idea that if you don't see it or hear about it, you don't know about it, it keeps the player firmly entrenched in the story.

Of course, if the story sucks, this ain't such a good thing, but in this case, the story is quite good. At the end of the original Half-Life, you were given a choice by the mysterious Cigarette Smoking Man rip-off guy to either go with him and do things, or, um, you know, don't. It's been 6 years since I played the original, so the ending is a little fuzzy. Half-Life 2 starts up with your choice having been made for you. You're on a train, heading to the very oppressive City 17 which, like all of the other cities of Earth, have been taken over by the Combine, a race of aliens who have only our best interests at heart, as long as you count total subjugation as one of our best interests. In these situations, what's a theoretical physicist to do but jump in his enviromental suit, pick up some firearms and free humanity from alien oppression? As interesting as it would be to watch Feeman work on some physics theorems, or come up with a list for the grocery store, making with the bang-bang is the more fun, if somewhat less realistic choice.

Once you start shooting, you'll be doing a ton of it, and the weapons and enemies provide a nice mix of things to shoot and things to shoot at. The balance of weapons is nice, and while some have a very specific purpose, there's plenty of variety with the others for you to pick a favorite and stick with it. Not content to stick with the usual set of weaponry, Valve added the gravity gun, which allows you to pick up and shoot objects such as paint cans, tables, explosive barrels, massive saw blades, etc. You'll get over the strangeness of seeing explosive barrels all over the place once you pick one up and chuck it into a group of Combine soldiers. Just be sure to actually throw the barrel, rather than use it for cover, as they react rather violently to bullets.

The levels are equally as varied with scary, zombie filled levels, levels piloting air boats and dune buggys, run and gun levels while leading a squad of resistance soldiers and sneak into the enemy base levels. On that last point, every shooter has a point in the game where our plucky hero has to infiltrate the enemy base. Usually the game camera swoops over the fortress, lingering on guards walking across catwalks and sentry points, until it ultimately flies back to our hero who is now supposed to be scared. Or something. I can assure you, that when you make it into the heart of the Combine, the subsequent journey will show you that the enormity of the situation you now face makes the previous time fighting the Combine look like a trip to the Gas & Sip. As I sat there, watching the enemy around me, I found myself thinking "how the hell am I supposed to fight them?"

It's not all perfect, though, primarily because this is a port of a PC game, rather than something created natively for the platform. There are some choppy moments, especially when levels first load, and when battles get particularly heated. This can be annoying, as the reason the battle is so heated is that there are like 9 hojillion people all trying to kill you at the same time, and choppy framerates makes it hard to aim. The level load times are also on the long side, which, based on how the game is split up, can be distracting. On a high-end PC, I'm sure the levels zip along as they load. On the Xbox, well, just pack a lunch and you'll be fine. I can tell you that by the end of the game, either the level loading got better, be it faster or less frequent, or I just got used to it, because it didn't bother me any more.

If you're planning on playing this on the 360, because you sold your Xbox, well, see if you can pick an Oldbox on the cheap, because the emulation sucks. Level load times are significantly longer and there's some very annoying audio and video stuttering, and this was just as I opened up the main menu. After seeing these problems, I didn't even bother any more, but I have read of others having the same problems as the game progressed. There also isn't any multiplayer, however I don't consider that a flaw, as if I'm going to be filled with bullets, I'd like the story to be something other than "Man meets 14 year old. 14 year old shoots man several times. Man quits in digust." The game clocks in around 15 hours, so even if you pay the full 50 that the game dropped for, it's more than worth it to pay what amounts to 3 bucks an hour for an experience of this caliber. Of late, you can get the game for less than 50, so the fun per hour rate climbs through the very-high-o-sphere. The ending can be considered by some as being somewhat anti-climactic, but I enjoyed it, and it sets things up for a Half-Life 3, so bully for them.

It's a shame that this game came out in November of '05 when no one was buying Xbox games in anticipation of the unmitigated joy that would be the 360 experience. Now that said experience has proven to be um, mitigated, there are a lot of people who won't play this game either because a) they sold their Xbox (see emulation, sucky) or b) they didn't know that it dropped and won't think to look for it. Maybe they already played it on the PC, but somehow I doubt that. The only PC game my fellow console aficianodos play is World of Warcraft, and good luck getting them off of that. Your decision making process when it comes to this game, can be summed up in a flow chart of three boxes. Box 1: Do I like shooters? Box 2: Am I alive? Box 3: Am I trapped under something heavy? Answering yes, yes, no is the key to joyous rapture. Anything else provides you with a set of problems I am unable to help you with at this juncture.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Seize Your Density

So I got this brochure in the mail the other day, about becoming a Jedi and after reading it and successfully drawing the turtle, I was like "hell yes". I headed out to their Secret Jedi Training Facility and I've got two words for you: let down. I was mainly interested in it for the lightsaber and the mind tricks. It'd be cool to roll up to the drive-through window and they'd be all like "That's 4.78 sir" and I'm all like "I already paid for these sausage biscuits" and they're all like "You already paid for these sausage biscuits" and BAM, free sausage biscuits. If it didn't work, I'd bust out the saber and then see if they can collect money when I lop their hand off. I thought it'd be all high style living and prestige and shit. I could live with the robes, because they seem comfortable enough and I pretty much live in my bathrobe anyway so there's no big stretch there.

Man was I wrong. First of all, I get there and meet this Skywalker dude and he's all going on about serving the universe and serving the Force and not being angry and blah, blah, blah. I drifted off a couple of times but was awake long enough to learn that being a Jedi ain't got nothing to do with stealing sausage biscuits. I tried to hide those thoughts from him but he's a snoopy motherfucker and I'm sure he caught some thoughts he wasn't too pleased with because after a while he looked at me like he caught me whacking off to pictures of goats or something. Second of all, they don't get paid! Can you believe that? They're all flying around, policing the galaxy, getting their arms lopped off fighting whatever threat just rolled up in the galaxy and they don't get paid. Fuck. That. I'm all about gettin' mine and I ain't about to put myself in a situation where I can lose a thumb and not have some Accidental Death and Dismemberment Insurance or at least a Long Term Disability plan. Hell to the no. How the hell they expect me to keep putting gas in the X-Wing without a salary is anyone's guess.

Thankfully it wasn't a total bust. Usually making a lightsaber is this big contemplative act where you meditate on the Force and go into a trance for like 6 days or some shit and when you're done you have a completed lightsaber, but sometimes that shit ain't practical. When you're being hunted by Trandoshan bounty hunters they're not going to take a week off just so that you can remake your lightsaber. Trust me, I've asked. For those times, when you really need something quickly, the Jedi make these Build Your Own Lightsaber kits. When I was being escorted out of the training facility, I saw a bunch of the kits in a supply closet. I used a Jedi "mind trick" to brain my guide with a coat stand and grabbed one on my way out. Ossus is a hell of a long ways away to leave completely empty handed.

So, here's the kit and as you can see, you've got a lot of options to play with. They give you instructions on how to make sabers that look like Anakin Skywalker's, Darth Vader's, Luke Skywalker's and Obi-Wan Kenobi's. Not sure about the idea behind that. I mean, they're recognizeable names but Anakin? Dead. Darth? Dead. Obi-Wan? Dead. They're like 1 - 4 on living Jedi, so excuse me if I choose a style that won't leave me all twisted by the dark side and some shit. In typical Jedi fashion, it doesn't come with batteries which is oh-so helpful when you're trying to create your saber in the heat of battle. Oh excuse me Vong warrior, but can you put down your amphistaff long enough so that I can rustle up some C-cells? No? Oh, ok.

Here you see the saber in the initial stages of construction. Note the green crystal. Each saber uses different crystals to regulate the length of the blade, power, color, etc. I meditated on the Force while watching Veronica Mars to figure out what color crystal to pick and the Force was all like "Green, green, green". I was cool with that. Green is all about life and the Force can't exist without life so that's cool. Plus, green is all about cash money and you know I'm down wit gettin' paid. Holla! Each crystal also has a distinct resonance too, which helps to distinguish your saber. Funny story. Every one used to make fun of Windu because he had that prissy purple blade, but he tweaked his crystal so that when his saber was on, instead of humming, it kept saying "Piiiiimmmmmp. Piiiiimmmmmp." That dude was hilarious. Anyways, I put the green crystal in and fired up the saber to do some preliminary testing and it sounded like someone was operating a chainsaw in a metal garbage can. Nice job, Force. I can't be steppin to some Storm Troopers sounding like I'm wielding a weed-whacker. Fuck that noise. After that, I switched to blue.

Here you can see the basic design. The emitter was a little bigger than I had hoped for, but it's not like this is something I can conceal anyways, and besides, I'd rather people see it and think I'm a Jedi so that they just do what I want them to do out of fear. The kit comes with extra emitters and crystals if you want to go double-bladed, but don't even bother. Oh, sure it looks cool and shit, but what you need to remember is that these blades don't have any weight to them, so you have to be able to see the blade to know where it's going. It's hard to see two blades at once. Everyone who makes their first saber wants to be all badass and go the double bladed route, but after their first practice session they're all in bacta tanks waiting for the medical droids to grow them some new feet. Not this playa. Besides, those double-bladed sabers eat up batteries like crazy and that's a discussion we've already had.

The almost finished product. All that's left is some power level tweaking and rust protection. As you can see, I have two power switches, because I thought it'd give me an advantage when dueling to be able to power down the saber from different grips when doing things like feints and parrys. It really throws someone off when they expect to clash blades but your blade isn't there. Just make sure that your arm isn't there instead. That red switch at the base of the hilt is a little something extra I cooked up for those dueling moments when you're all locked in combat, staring into the eyes of your hated enemy, his face inches from your's. I bought this huge batch of Corellian hot peppers, boiled them down and built a small atomizer into the hilt. If I thumb the red button it sends out a blast of pepper spray. Unfortunately I didn't take into account the spray direction when I first tested it and managed to get a blast right in the ol' peepers. They swelled up something awful. I was going to go to the hospital but if I had told them I got hit with pepper spray, they would think I was a rapist, and if I told them that it was when I was building my lightsaber, they would think I was a mental patient. I stayed in that weekend. I had originally planned on making it an electro-shock thing that would send a charge down the blade to my opponent's hilt, but surprisingly enough, those energy blades don't conduct electricity all that well. After I came to, I came up with the pepper spray idea.

Here's the final assembly. It turned out pretty much how I wanted it to, but again, the hilt is a bit bigger than I had hoped. I figure when people see it, they'll just think that I'm a tricked out thug who ain't afraid to bust out the big blade. When people see you coming with a lightsaber, they pretty much make up their minds on the spot, so I don't think that having a bigger hilt is going to make much of a difference. The plastic blade you see is a test harnass they give you so that when you're building the blade, you don't mess up and send out a 20 ft energy blade and cut a hole through your parent's basement in the process. The blade itself doesn't photograph well, but trust me, it's there in all of its blue, blazing glory. I haven't had much of a chance to use it since building it, as things are pretty calm around here, although I did chase some kids off of my lawn with it. They were all throwing their ball on my grass and shit, but once they heard the snap-hiss of the blade coming out, and saw me slice that ball in two, they hightailed it on out of there. I called the police to register my services as a Jedi (it's not like they're going to check my membership card or anything) but they didn't seem too interested in knowing I was around. The saber does a pretty good job trimming hedges, so at least it's not a total waste. Next time I'm out, I'm going to see if I can buy one of those Build Your Own Force Pike Kits. Those Crimson Guard dudes are the shit.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

No Science Post Today

Sorry kids, but a cold has been knocking me around to the point where I am unable to communicate effectively. In my usual post's stead, I refer you to the fine folks at The Straight Dope. Those fuckers know everything.

Monday, February 06, 2006

And Their Cousins, the Baco-Gobots

Today's gaming post isn't about a game, it's about a book, "Attack of the Bacon Robots" in particular by the fine fellows over at Penny Arcade. Seeing how this book would be of interest to pretty much only gamers, I figured it was OK to post about on this, the hallowed Day of Gaming Posts.

The book covers the first 2 years of Penny Arcade strips, complete with commentary on each strip from Tycho. Note that these aren't the posts you're used to getting with the strips now, but thoughts on the strips themselves, provided they can remember what was going on when they created them. Most of the time they can remember, but when they can't, the commentary is pretty damn funny, and honest too. There are several strips where you can tell they're thinking "What the hell were we doing here", primarily because the commentary is something like "We don't know what the hell we were doing here". The majority of strips with unknown origins seem to center around feuds with other sites, an interesting point when you consider that, at the time, I'm sure that the feud was a big deal. Most of those sites aren't even around any more which should give you some perspective the next time you get in a flame war with HamsterLove.com.

The art isn't anything spectacular, said by the guy who's entire artistical talents lie in the ability to draw cartoon alligators and dinosaurs recognizeable only to a 3 year old who has seen neither. In the context of the Gabe's current work, it's impressive to see how his art has evolved, and the characters along with them. The strips towards the end of the book have a very odd thick black line outlining the major characters which, for some reason, reminds me of ShrinyDinks. That being said, a set of Penny Arcade ShrinkyDinks would make for a most awesome mobile. The writing is what we've come to expect, with some laugh out loud strips and some strips that tried just a wee bit too hard.

The best part of the book is how it acts as a walk down memory lane of video gaming in all of it's myriad forms. The strips cover events from 1999 - 2000, most of which I had forgotten about completely. I had just gotten into PC gaming in earnest only a year or so before that, so much of what they're talking about, I remember reading about. All of the console material is lost on me as I didn't start gaming on consoles until the Cube came out, but sadly most of what they're making fun of in regards to the consoles still applies today, so I wasn't completely confused.

It's amazing to me to be able to look back on how gaming was just 5-6 years ago and see how quickly things have moved along. 6 years ago, you didn't actually need a 3D accelerator card. Today that shit comes standard on the motherboard. I remember buying my first 3d card (a 3dfx card I'm sure), installing it, booting it up, playing Wing Commander Prophecy and not noticing one goddamned lick of difference. Glide my ass. Fast forward a year or so and I'm trying to convince my wife that I have to buy a new card because all of the new games coming out are requring it and all she remembers is me complaining that nothing looked any different with the card. That was a painful discussion. It's hard to insert the words "need" into a conversation about my desire to shoot down large, bipedal robots.

Back then I eagerly awaited the PC Gamer magazine, resplendent with demos so that I could see what my next purchase would be. The idea of a console curdled my stomach. Oh how things have changed. Now I have 4 consoles at home, a movie theater to play two of them on and the only PC game I've played in years sits on my laptop, untouched since I bought my DS. You can thank 3d cards for that, in part. After a while, one gets tired of searching out new drivers every time the shooter du jour drops. You can also thank my wife because it was her idea to finish the basement, complete with widescreen TV. And she bought me my GameCube. I blame her.

Getting back to the book, if you're not a fan of Penny Arcade, or aren't a gamer, I don't see this book being your cup of tea. If, on the other hand, you enjoy the strip, or enjoy the hobby and want to read about it in an interesting way, I'd say you can't go wrong by picking it up. Violence and profanity abound, so keep that in mind when picking it up for Gramma, unless Gramma is fucking metal.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Factory Closings

Ladies, take note. Time is running out for you to obtain my highly coveted genetic material. Oh sure, cheek swabs and skin cells will still be available for purchase should you want to go the cloning route, but should you want to try combining my DNA with your's to create a race of super-babies, the clock is ticking. Yes, we're talking about the big V, two small cuts with big, big sterile taste.

Before we talk more on this subject, I'd like to have a chat with just the fellas. Gentlemen, normally I wouldn't address this topic with you as I'm loathe to bring up anything regarding that place with others of the same gender, but I feel that I can't go forward without giving you proper warning, should you decide to go this route in the future. As part of the procedure scheduling process, I had to watch an instructional video. This video was created in 1974 and due to this fact, and the fact that the information in said video is unchanged since then, there's a very good chance that you may see the same instructional video. Once I saw the animations as how things work down there, I thought I had seen the worst that the video had to offer. Oh no. Not by a long shot. Not content with animating things, I was subjected to watching an actor, shave, ice and, oh God, gently wash his area. The horror. As a side note, I don't know how the medical community thinks that men go about washing but due to the emphasis on "gently" they must think that men furious attack dirt, pounding away with animal intensity in an effort to be clean. Not our actor though, he was very thorough. Very thorough. Be warned, here there be monsters. That is all.

The impending procedure fills me with mixed emotions. I love my children but I sure as hell don't want any more of them. While it is true that the amount of love one has to give is infinite, it is also true that the amount of patience one has is not. In fact, there are days that I think I have brung as much patience up from the well as there is ever going to be. Dividing up this patience amongst additional life forms would only prove disastrous.

However, at the same time, this procedure will hereby end any possibility of Linda and I ever having our own children. It's been a long time since either one of us thought that this would ever be possible, but the thing about unexplained infertility is that the lack of an explanation leaves the door open, for things to fix themselves, however slight the chances. Once I do this, our infertility will be forever pushed into the realm of completely explainable. Presentations, complete with pie charts and 3-D logos are not out of the question.

I think that part of the interest in having a child is the curiosity of seeing which traits, physical and emotional, your child gets from each parent. I have seen our respective junior high photos, and placing a child in that particular pre-pubescent House of Horrors could be construed as genetic assault, however I still would have liked to see the being that would have arisen from our genetic soup. On the other hand, I don't think there exists a pair of glasses large enough to correct that poor child's vision. Chemical compounds have yet to be discovered to allow for those lenses to be of a manageable size and weight.

I see this operation as not just an end to my child producing capabilities, but as an end to the infertility and all the pain, emotional turmoil and sleepness nights that it caused. For that reason, and despite my above misgivings, I can't think of it as anything but positive. Now that I have some time and distance from the situation, and can look back somewhat objectively, I can't help but think that the universe was trying to teach us a lesson. Thank the gods that the methods it chose were fairly benign, all things considered. The lesson, as I have learned it, is this: sometimes we make choices, sometimes choices are made for us, and the line between the two is smaller than you can imagine.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

On the Existence of Wooden Pots, Part 2

Greetings Science Squaddies! Nice to have you back. Before we get started, don't forget that if you have a question that's been burning in your soul like a flaming nugget of ignorance, please drop me an email at suburbanjoe -@- gmail . com and I'll do my best to answer the question. You can also leave questions in the comments if that suits your fancy.

Last week we talked about why you wouldn't use a wooden pan, discounting the obvious reason. Today we look at that obvious reason. When preparing this post, I asked my wife why wood burns but iron melts and here response was that iron is a "melty thing". I'm assuming that this means that wood is a "burny thing" but I didn't take the time to probe further. My curiosity only goes so far.

In truth, it's not that much more complicated than that. Iron is a pretty simple substance. All of the iron atoms arrange themselves in a nice crystalline pattern, metallic bonds keeping the atoms all nestled snug in their iron-y beds. Provide enough energy, from heat in our case, and these crystalline structures break down. The atoms still have enough of an attraction to each other to not go all over the place and iron turns into a liquid, or melts. Thus, iron is a melty thing.

Wood on the other hand, is anything but simple. Yes, it's a solid, as anyone who has ever been whacked with a 2 x 4 can attest to, but it's not a solid in the traditional, chemical sense of the word. Wood is made up of a number of things, but for our discussion, we'll talk about the big 3, water, cellulose and lignin. Water, is well, water. Not much to talk about there. Cellulose is a carbohydrate (carbon, hydrogen and oxygen whipped up into a creamy compound) that makes up the wood's cell walls. Lignin is a chemical compound that acts as a glue for the wood cells. There's also a whole bunch of other stuff in wood that we won't get into, mostly because I don't understand a blasted word of it.

Although not pertinent to our discussion, I'll offer this article up for your enjoyment. It's pretty interesting and talks about how the angle of the cellulose microfibers in the wood cell walls, relative to the orientation of the cells themselves offer various structural characteristics to trees. Cool stuff. You know, or not.

Anyways, back to burny things. So, you carve your pan out of wood, place it on the stove to get it warmed up, and 10 minutes later you're out on the front lawn with a fire department blanket on you while you watch your collection of Neil Sedaka cd's go up in flames. What happened?

When wood comes into contact with a large enough heat source, the first thing that happens is that the water inside the wood starts to evaporate. Once the wood gets to around 300 degrees, the cellulose starts to fall apart. As we mentioned before, cellulose is made up of Carbon, Hyrdogen and Oxygen. As two of these are gasses, we would expect some of the decomposing cellulose to turn into gas. And looky here, it does. That would be smoke. There's carbon in there too, so don't think that it doesn't get to fly around all willy-nilly, letting the other two elements have all the fun. Once the temp gets up to around 500 degrees, the compounds in the gases start to break apart and ignite, and we have fire. What doesn't burn travels up into the atmosphere or sticks to your chimney as creosote and then you have to have Dick Van Dyke come and clean your chimney lest you start a chimney fire and burn your house down. See cd collection, Neil Sedaka.

Now, this explains what happens when iron melts and when wood burns, but doesn't explain why wood burns and not melts and why iron melts and doesn't burn. Iron melts because you can apply enough energy to free up the atoms enough to let them slide around as they would need to, to be a liquid. Not so with wood. The structure of cellulose is such that the melting point is actually higher than the burning point, so you won't ever see it melt, it'll fall apart from the heat first. Blame it all on those pesky hydrogen bonds.
For the record, iron will burn, if in an environment of pure oxygen, but I don't see that being the case in your kitchen, so I think you'll be OK. Similarly unfounded are your fears of your iron skillet melting onto your stove, taking your eggs with it, as the melting point of cast iron is around 1200 degrees Celsius. However, don't let that dissuade you from doing some smelting in your home. It certainly didn't for this guy.

So, there you have it. Fear the stove no longer!

Next week: It's the Bubble Stupid!


How Stuff Works - How Fire Works
Ask A Scientist - Wood Does Not Melt
Ask A Scientist - Chemical Makeup of Wood
Wikipedia - Cellulose
Wikipedia - Lignin
Nikon - MicroscopyU: Confocal Image Gallery - Wood Cells