minutia press.
The Bistro Bag

Why do they even bother? All my flights this past weekend have involved no food service during the flight (not even on a 4 hour one). Instead, as you file into fuselage, you pick up a bistro bag that contains your meal for the flight. I passed on the one going toward LA, but I was curious on the way back, so I took the bait.

Inside the bag, for a 3-hour flight, was a 1/2-container of yogurt and a bag of raisins.

Are they trying to save weight for take-off? Keep the bathroom lines short? They added all this extra room between rows, so why not plump up the passengers a bit so we can feel grateful for the extra space?

Well, another good thing is that once depleted, the bistro bag can double as a barf bag, should the need arise. I wonder if I pull on its handle if it will inflate and serve as a flotation device?


Happy Anniversary

I just returned from my one-day viisit to Irvine, CA to help my aunt and uncle celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. They moved to California in the past year from Tyler, Texas; I reall posting about their leaving Tyler long ago, but the bottom line is that the have settled into a "retirement" community called Leisure World (my brother calls it Seizure World).

One reason for going was that all three of my first cousins in that family were going to be together for the first time in many years. Cousin Ray came from Brownsville, TX where he is a public defender for teenage criminal defendants; cousin Max came from Mexico where he is in the manufacturing business; and cousin Lisa stayed where she was because the party was at her house. There were about 60 people present and the party was held outside (the weather is one thing you can count in in the LA area).

There were people at the party from London (now living in LA and Arizona), from Israel (now liviing in LA), from Texas, and of course, from Missouri. The mix of accents was wonderful, and my cousin Lisa hasn't lost her Texas drawl despite 20 years of living in and around LA. It was a fun time, and made me wish that we cousins lived closer so our kids could get to know each other.

I talked a long time with the guy from Israel, now settled in LA, and engaged to the beautiful woman sitting next to him. Said beautiful woman started pounding her fist on his leg, and I had to tell him that's the international signal for "let's go". But he's in the software business, so he and kept talking, much to said fiancee's dismee'.

Oh, one funny thing was getting picked up at the airport. So I'm used to traveling and had told my parents I'd just take a taxi the 15 minutes to the hotel, but no, no, they wanted to pick me up. So they all show up, my parents, and my aunt and uncle, and I feel like I'm 15 again.

Aunt Fuffy and Uncle Sandy, happy 50th wedding anniversary (y'all)!


Lucas in NY

Lucas was just in NYC, but omitted details of what he did and saw.

Since his blog doesn't allow comments, I'll ask here for details, details, details.

And the addition to Noah's Ark sounds disappointing. Maybe itis meant to convey life in the ark while afloat but dry?


Oops, what do you think?

Today, I had IM'ed my brother (who lives in Dallas) and he said he was about to call me. So the phone rang, and I answered in a somewhat silly voice. At the other end, I hear "This is Mark Wrighton calling for Professor Ron Cytron".

So I explained to our Chancellor that I was expecting my brother's call, but how nice it was to be speaking wtih him. For various reasons, the Chancellor would like me to put together a list of things good/bad about the Engineering School these days, in my incapacity as Speaker of the Faculty Assembly (I will have to study some assembly code before our first meeting).

So I ask you, readers, if you have opinions on the matter to post replies here.

My brother? He told me via IM he was held up calling me. Sure he was.


The party's over

We faculty were just informed that the University has passed a new policy regarding the extent to which we can entertain people. The policy doesn't allow us to provide food at regularly schedule events anymore. So, one may wonder how food will be served at department colloquia, happy hour, or my 101/102 grading sessions?

Logic informs us of the answer.

We will declare the school year to contain one (very long) colloquium, one very long happy hour, and one very long grading session. All food needed for these marathon meetings must be purchased ahead of time, and must therefore possess the stamina to stay fresh for a year. Also, a department can throw at most two parties a year, so I guess CS will have to forego its annual Groundhog Day party if we want to keep the parties we usually throw at Christmas and Alan Turing's birthday.

You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch! I can only hope this policy changes before I do 101/102 again!


Clothing drive

If you have an invitation and an inclination, you too can sport a spanking-new, sesquicentennial polo-style shirt. All you have to do is show up at 300 N. Brookings with your ID, a pint of blood, DNA fingerprinting, and a notary public, and after verification of the aforementioned credentials, somebody will reach into the vast reserve of yet-unclaimed shirts and hand you one.

Of course, you must promise to do only good and no evil while wearing the shirt. And I don't believe the shirt gives you any unusual or super powers.

The main advantage of wearing the shirt is that if somebody isn't sure how to spell "sesquicentennial", he or she can look it up on your shirt. Of course, a lesser-ranked institution would pronounce it "150".


Your cheatin' heart will tell on you...

I'm way behind in posting, but one thing to goad me on is the issue of "academic integrity" (pronounced cheating at lesser-ranked universities), which has been raised by Chris and Nathan.

So I think this topic got launched in 503 Bryan when I was relating the story of my freshmen discussion group the night before, where a varoius academic life topics were debated. The students told me and each other of the rampant cheating that had occured in their high schools. Students, presidents of honor societies, even teachers, had been found cheating with schools doing next to nothing about it. One acquaintance had been expelled multiple times only to return and cheat again on her final English assignment. That was the last straw, so I think she had to graduate last in line or something.

One interesting, quasi-Jerry-Springeresque moment occured when student A asked student B, who previously yawned in the face of others cheating, how B would like it if a cheater C scored better than B and got into Wash U, preventing B from being admitted. Or if C got into med school keeping an honest person like B from getting in. This hit home, and B started to care about cheating.

I sat back and took all of this in. But I started to wonder: Do universities have an obligation to catch cheaters, so that the person asking you to say "ahhh" will be an honest, trustworthy person? I know it's not in my job description but I wonder if there is an ethical obligation somewhere to stop these people.


Singled out

I find myself alone this evening, very alone, for the first time since I can remember. My wife and daughers are at the lake with their cousin; my son is at my in-laws' for a sleep-over. I've had time to think about things, time to practice organ as loud as I want, time to watch Extreme Sports Challenge on the Spike network, time to eat the food I love (sushi) without repulsing the people I love, time to blast music in the house with reckless abandon.

Somebody stop me: I'm running with scissors.

I tried to meet up with an old friend for dinner, but it didn't work out. So instead I went looking for a chair or sofa for my office. I plan to do a lot of reading this semester, and it would be great to have some place comfortable in my office to do that. I looked at Relax Your Back (recommended by a colleague in our department), which transfers stress from your back to your wallet. Then I went to Carol House, because let's face it, I don't like mediocre things. But it turns out Brookie is against animal cruelty, so Carol House has nearly divested itself of leather products. There was one remaining chair, which might just work out. I tried Famous Barr at Northwest plaza--a waste of time and gas. Hope holds out for Jennifer Convertibles (there is one in Saint Louis after all -- it's where I would have looked in NY for what I want), which is conveniently near Ted Drewes.

Except for my exessive noise, the house is very quiet. No skirmishes over seats at our dinner table. No TV (except Spike Network). Just me and my thoughts.

A friend of mine, a computer scientist in the making, told me once that he thought computers should not have just two cycles (fetch and execute) but three: fetch, execute, and ponder. In the ponder cycle, the computer would think about the ramifications of what it just executed. It would contemplate the possibilities of other outcomes, and consider what it might do if it had the chance to fetch and execute all over again.

So, having listened (loudly) to P, P, and M's amazing rendition of Dylan's "The times they are a changing", I find myself squarely in ponder mode, awash in the awe and gratitude for the greatness I get to see in people every day.

I think I need evenings like this more often, but not too often. The quiet is inspirational, but the noises are a blessing too.


Executive Decisions

Because of the calamity of last year's faculty assembly, I find myself in the shoes of Speaker of the Faculty Assembly, a position that I am overly and overtly inadequate to fill.

To recap the circumstances leading to this situation, I essentially gave the null campaign speech, saying I would be brief, and then I sat down. I had hoped that a speechless speaker would be, well, unelectable. Who could forsee that my opponent would trump me by saying that he had served as speaker some 100 years ago, and nobody should have to do the job twice.

So here I am, following in the steps of Ron Loui, but lacking his charm, charisma, and fortitude to do what must be done. Of course, I did what any self-respecting geek would do in a situation like this: I had a web site set up for the group. Shawn Henrichs designed the site, so take a look and let me or him know what you think.

The most frequent duty for this job is attending the Executive Committeee meetings of our School. The Committee is comprised of the department chairs, our Dean Byrnes, and the Speaker of the Faculty Assembly, yours truly. The committee wields untold power, and can control the weather and corn production in the bistate area. You see, some years ago, each department chair was given a ring to control his or her department, but the clever Dean at the time crafted one more ring, forged in the land of Target where the bargains lie. Hmm....Brookings does have two towers, does it not?


On Wisconsin!

Lucas has posted about the wonders that await the intrepid adventurer in the beautiful yet factual Dairy State. They even have a state dog in Wisconsin. How can you dislike a state that has a sanctioned canine? And contrary to popular opinion, the state bird is neither the mosquito nor the construction crane.

But what the web sites hide so carefully are the delights of the Dells. Years ago, some farmer in Wisconsin realized how the area's natural beauty could only be improved by hosting the country's best water park. Surely you've heard of the famous Farmer in the Dells? Well, he was just the Farmer inthe Dell back when he was singular.

No water park should be without a theme, and the Dells was launched into pentecostal prominence when its water park was named Noah's Ark. The only downside to this is that you have to file into the park two-by-two.

You could probably spend at least two days at the water park, but we only spent one. My favorite "ride" was the very high, almost vertical water slide. You climb up some 200 cubits of stairs and then sit on the edge of the thing without much proof of structure underneath. You push yourself out and fall, with arms, legs, fingers, and eyes crossed. My oldest kid and I climbed up, but she lacked the faith to take the quick way down. The plunge was well worth the climb, and there wasn't much of a wait at this or any attraction at the park.

Penultimately, I must whey in with one last observation on the Dairy State. As one who has tried personally to make edible cheese, but who has succeeded in making only hockey pucks, I was eager to visit a cheese factory. I missed my chance as a grad student in Urbana-Champaign (Smell of Kraft brings Cooling Draft was the weather motto of the day). Every store we visited had some form of cheese or dairy product for sale. But just try to find out where the stuff is made. I must have been the only tourist in the past century who wanted to see a cheese factory in Wisconsin. I guess that's because I now live in the Show Me state. A dairy farm and cheese factory were eventually identifed to me, but they were some 100 miles from the Dells, and my family did not share my longing for lactose.

Finally I should say that our visit to Wisconsin remains one of our best trips. We vacationed there with a family we know well from Chicago, and when the 11 of us travel we always have a great time. If we return to Wisconsin sans Kinder, we might just knock on Doerr county next. I hear it's great too.


Inside the RV

Since it's been asked, here are some details about the interior of an RV. First, note that the one we rented was not a high-end model. And along the way as I discovered things I would have built differntly, I thought about the "ideal" RV and it turned out upon return that Winnebago has beat me to almost all of those things.

But here goes. First, we had a class "C" RV. The class A RVs are basically busses. The class C RV is like class A in that it is a single unit. You can walk from the driver's or passenger's seat all the way to the back without having to go outside. A class B is the kind where a truck tows a trailer -- you can't walk around freely inside.

So the front two seats were just like you'd find in a big Ford truck. Then behind the front two seats on either side were the dinette and couch along the side, and you could walk down the middle towrd the rear of the thing. Both dinette and couch made into a twin bed for sleeping at night. And overhead of the driver was a shelf on which one or two people could sleep. As you head towrd the back, past the dinnette/couch area, you come to the kitchen area. On the left was a refrigerator and on the right a cooktop and sink.

The refrigerator was remarkable in that it could run on 110V AC power when it was present, and when it was not, it switched automatically to propane power. The cooktop (and hot water heater and furnace) also ran on propane.

Heading more to the rear you come to the bathroom on your left and shower on your right. Both are small but fine for a normal sized human. Then finally in the way back rear was a queen bed. It could flip up some to store stuff underneath.

When in transit, people sit in the dinette/couch area and there are seatbelts.

There was roof mounted air conditioner that blew air through the whole RV. It could keep up pretty well with 100 degree external temperatures during the day. At night it would freeze you out. We ran it only two nights and kept windows open the other nights -- we had great weather.

The AC and all 110V gadgets are powered by an on-board generator when traveling and by the hook up at the site when camping.

Hooking up meant the following. First you pull into the site and line things up so that the connections you have will reach their intended destinations. For us, the sewage pipe was shortest, so we usually parked with that close to the sewage port. Then, you unpug the RV from its generator and plug it into the outlet at the site. Hook up a garden hose from a spigot to the RV. Hook up the sewage hose to the dump port. Then you can dump stuff: first the "black water" and then the grey water to wash it down. Grey water comes from the kitchen sink and shower. You can imagine where black water comes from. You can leave the grey water open while camping so you have running water as much as you want.


RV and its merits

David asks if the RV was worth it, as the trip West is rather far.

My answer is yes in that the journey was a deliberate part of our vacation. If you just want to transport yourself West, flying there is no doubt the easiest way to do it.

While most of the trip in the RV was scenic and enjoyable, I do admit that Kansas is much wider than it needed to be to make its point.

Some nice things about the RV:

  • If you get hungry, you can go back to the fridge and get something cold to eat or drink
  • If you're hungry but don't want something too cold, the pantry offers many tasty snacks.
  • If you want something warm, then you can nuke whatever you find in fridge or pantry in the microwave (but the generaetor has to be fired up at a cost of 1/2 gallon per hour).
  • If after all that food you are tired, you can go back and have a nap on the bed (our couch, or dinette-bed).

The rig is wider than the mortal car, and longer too. Ours was 28 feet. The extra width was difficult when lanes narrowed (in Kansas) and other vehicles of similar width insisted on passing (these were bad truck drivers; most truck drivers are excellent).

The extra length has to be taken into account when turning; luckily I remmeber enough trigonometry to negotiate the turns I encountered on this trip.

An alternative to the RV for one or two people would be to tow a pop-up, which springs into action once you are parked at a campground and offers shelter and an airconditioner.


Presses running again

First, let me thank the powers that be for restoring my site to full blogitude. Thanks!

You may have noticed a lapse in my posting, and this was due to my family's vacation. We rented an RV and drove West to visit some of the National Parks. In order, we visited Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, Arches, Bryce, Zion, Grand Canyon, and Petrified Forest.

Of the above, I had only been to the Grand Canyon before -- its South rim -- and we visited the North rim. I have a lot to say about the vacation and I will probably put up some pictures on a web site, but the executive summary goes something like this:

  • Our National Parks possess endless wonder and beauty, and we are fortunate as a nation to have had the wisdom to preserve and protect them.
  • Travelling in an RV is a great experience--one I hope to repeat very soon. While you're not exactly roughing it, you get to enjoy nature in a way that is easy on children and spouses.
  • None of us should ever get so busy as to avoid going on an extended vacation with one's family. There is a Jewish proverb that G-d will hold you responsible for every joy you choose not to experience.

More on the great RV trip as the thoughts collect.