Walk again down memory lane …

November 29, 2009

This will ramble …. just go with it.

While I did not have time for the full tour, I did get to look a bit at my alma mater while driving and walking around relative to the football game.

1. The one dorm I stayed in looks as forboding as ever. Except for the bars, guards, soddomy, and about 20 square feet smaller in room area, it could have been a prison.

2. The one apartment I lived in looks as run down as ever … just 16 years older, and now surrounded by even more buildings which makes it look even smaller.

3. The really cool apartment that Tom N used to live in over one summer (it had a pool table, how could it not be cool!) looks run down.

4. The student union now offers massages to run down students. Poor stressed out kids. They have no idea. I guess neither did we. The bowling alley is out, and so is the microcomputer center. There is a Jamba Juice on the main floor. In some ways, things have not improved.

5. Altgeld Hall … still as gothic looking as ever.

6. The dorms near the football stadium provide really great echoes of the stadium’s public address system. I could hear announcements crystal clear walking between those dorms and the stadium.

7. People are friendly, if not amazingly slow!

8. When checking into the hotel at the Union, I was worried that the parking cops would tow my car. The hotel manager told me not to worry, that no police were patrolling parking today. He then handed me my parking pass … if the police weren’t patrolling, then why do I need a parking pass? I couldn’t shake that one for a while.

9. Number of times Marist students, in age old tradition, chanted “bullshit” after they thought the refs blew a call: 2

10. Number of personal fouls: 7

11. Number of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties: 1

12. Number of yards the Maine South running back ran for: 316

13. Number of TD’s same player ran for: 5

14. Last time a “big” school in Illinois had two consecutive undefeated state championships: 1985.

I took a stroll past FAR which is where Tom N. lived for a few years … it really was far! PAR next door is where Beth lived for a year before jumping ship for IceU.

It just looked weird not seeing all of the video games around anymore … is this what older people think when they go somewhere and say “I could have sworn there used to be a disco ball hanging there …”

I was walking through the halls of the union looking at the beautiful portraits of the distinguished alumni, and while I was admiring them, I was thinking “If I had chosen the major that half of these folks did, I to could have had a GPA as inflated as theirs … I bet half of them never had grades as good as me, not that mine were the best. Kind of makes me wish I could try it again.” Then I saw Jack Kilby’s portrait, and just kept moving.


41,000,000th floor … men’s wear, satellite deployment

November 7, 2009


My good friend, Tom, has had a thing about space travel. This is nothing new …. he has had the bug for years. I cannot say my enthusiasm is at his level, but I certainly understand it.

For the past few years, he has been working with a company, LaserMotive out in Seattle, and they have been working on a problem that seems a little outlandish to some people: begin the process of building an elevator to space.

I know the image that comes to mind … a vision of a normal elevator disappearing into the clouds and opening up somewhere in orbit …. hope you were wearing a spacesuit.

It seems outlandish, even as science fiction goes (and space elevators have populated science fiction). Yet, how many ideas from science fiction of the past later became reality (note: there is a reason why most cell phones open the same way Star Trek style communicators do … their inventor was inspired by the show).

So, this week, after months of delays, LaserMotive finally got to test their mettle at the NASA sponsored Space Elevator Games held out at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of California (the same place where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, and where the earliest space shuttle missions landed).

The challenge: have a robot climb a cable 1 km long. Do it at an average speed of 2 m/s, you can share in a $900,00 payday. Do it at a speed exceeding 5 m/s, and you can share in an additional $1.1 million payout.

LaserMotive has had false starts in the past, but this time did not disappoint. They easily qualified for the $900,000 prize, and were the only one of the teams there to have a successful run.

The hope is that one day, robots such as these can help construct the “cable” that would serve as the “elevator cable” for a space elevator, significantly reducing the cost needed to launch payloads into space.

Congrats to LaserMotive for taking a small step forward into unknown territory.

Here is video of the first run … sorry, no explosions or ray guns … just a little bit of history.

Shakespeare, Serling, and the growth of mature scifi …

November 3, 2009


An odd set of coincidences occurred over the past few days … hardly even the most important things to happen, yet they stuck out as something of an odd set of coincidences.

First, on Sunday, while eating dinner with my parents, my father had Turner Classic Movies on the television, and it was broadcasting Forbidden Planet. When the film concluded, the host reminded us that the film was based on Shakeepeare’s The Tempest, and was considered the first truly respectable work of cinematic science fiction (note: I guess we are tossing out Frankenstein, but since that was “supposed” to be directly based on the Shelley novel, and not some futuristic adaptation, I guess FP is the first semi-original piece of legitimate scifi for film). It is hard to disagree. Despite being over 50 years old, the film has aged remarkably well … you never hear about anyone trying to remake it … it is perfect just the way it is,

The link above is to an LA Times piece about Rod Serling. Serling was a well respected TV writer when he suddenly shucked his career over a precipice to write, host, and produce kiddy scifi. Of course, there was nothing kiddy about The Twilight Zone … quite the opposite. TTZ was quite probably for TV what FP was for film: an attempt to produce high quality science fiction that could be entertaining, but more importantly used the trappings of science fiction (space ships, ray guns, monsters, aliens, etc) as the backdrop for a moral, philosophy, or most importantly, to comment on the current state of humanity (something that even journalism had a hard time doing). The LA times article further points out that with Serling, you had a writer in charge instead of a suit. This lay the groundwork for the better scifi series that would follow … everything from cop show/western writer Gene Rodenberry’s little “wagon train to the stars” in the 1960s, to Ronald D. Moore taking the lessons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and applying them in masterfully recreating Battlestar Galactica.

Weird coincidence …..

I happened to read that LA Times article while waiting for this evening’s feature attraction: ABC’s attempted relaunch of the old NBC miniseries “V“. For the 2% of you not familiar, “V” is an exceptionally veiled parable which relates how totalitarianism (notably, the Nazis) not only came to power, but that even in the warm Los Angeles sun of the 1980s, it would be very easy to happen all over again. It is a miniseries that reminds us that all good wars have nothing to do with religion or ideology (its always about resources … in the case of “V”, our reptilian overlords want our water, and want us as a new protein source). The original miniseries was a tremendous application of science fiction … the aliens and their spaceships were the backdrop … the lessons about allowing society to be swayed into devotion to a charismatic individual or group was the real point. The sequel miniseries and subsequent series was not as good, and was really not needed (the points about totalitarianism were dropped, and the point became all about plot).

This new series has already thrown the gasoline onto the fire. In the first episode there was a moment when a the alien leader is being interviewed by a newscaster, and she calmly explains that her people are going to be expanding their “healing centers” to every major city around the world. The reporter returns with “you mean, you are offering us universal health coverage”. The reptile-in-human clothing smiles and responds “yes, you could call it that.” I’m not sure if Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama were watching, but if they were, you could tell there would be a small chill going down their spine. That piece of overt politics aside, I thought this was not bad as remakes go. The exotic good looks of Morena Baccarin could not have been a better choice to play the alien leader … a combination of intelligence and warmth mixed with a very cold demeanor buried beneath. This will be worthy of a second look next week

school happenings …

November 1, 2009

I have always felt blessed to work at the school I work at. The kids for the vast most part are good kids … minus a few crazies, I have received support from my parents … minus a really bad call from my department chair a few years ago, I have received pretty good support from my superiors … my colleagues have been pretty good … and the school district has been financially sound.

But something has changed.

This years is our first year under a new superintendent and business manager. The previous superintendent left under murky circumstances after only three years. The new guy (a guy I happen to have some trust in … I think he is a good guy), announced that the school is running a roughly $17 million structural deficit …. which is to say that the district has somewhere between $80 million and $100 million in reserve, but that the current level of expenditure paired with less money coming in from investments and property taxes has created a situation that will put the district in severe financial problems within the next year.

The district has announced that they are in the midst of determining what to cut, and what to start charging more money for. The district has requested that the teachers union consider reopening the contract (currently in year 3 of a five year deal) to cut costs. The union is currently in midst of an internal fight regarding this: certainly all of the untenured teachers are in favor of this, as are some of the recently tenured teachers who are in danger of losing their jobs. There are tenured teachers who are in favor of opening the contract, provided that there are written guarantees that concessions would translate to jobs being saved. Most of the teachers are, however vehemently against conceding a dime. There are some old school hippiesque teachers who just won’t give in to “the establishment” under any circumstance …

There is some irony to what is happening … on the one hand, the union is reminding everyone that they only wanted a 3 year contract … and actually had wanted annual pay increases tied to the consumer price … which is practically nothing today (this of course would have led the union to lynch its leadership right now). The Board didn’t want a 3 year contract because the last contract negotiation was so contentious (it nearly led to the district’ first strike in its 100 years). The other irony was that the union stood firm on big salary gains (the contract averages out to some 4% or so increase per year) because the union claimed that the district was sitting on a huge cash reserve. Now $100 million is not chump change … but for a huge school district (6,500+ students … well over 400 teachers plus support staff …. three large schools, two alternative schools), $100 million could evaporate very quickly if it is not managed properly.

So once again, the union and school board are circling each other. The district is not releasing detailed financial information, and the union is refusing to do anything until they get to see more detailed information. One issue that is starting to come up: if a large number of the younger staff are dismissed … a lot of those younger teachers were the margin which prevented a strike on the last contract …. with them out of the way, a strike might be all but inevitable, which is one of the reasons some of the older staff are so willing to see the younger staff go.

Needless to say, rumors are rife …. the number of layoffs … how much students will be charged to play sports … class sizes of 50 or more … how many of the support staff will be dismissed … my favorite was a story about a teacher coming into possession of an accidentally sent out e-mail from the business manager with the real financial data and strategies to “misinform the public and union” … of course was a bold faced lie.

The superintendent has been giving public talks (first with teachers only, and now later community forums). The public has been upset with the teachers getting large pay increases in a time when a lot of families are barely getting by … or not. There has been a loud outcry over spending when the district should have better predicted that there wouldn’t be as much money around. The superintendent has been careful to not blame any problems on the teachers, but has noted that the request to open the contract has not been responded to yet. The union hardliners (IMO) quotemined this and have been holding up as proof that the administration is trying to throw the teaches under the bus. I haven’t bought into that.

The district has announced that they have set a deadline of January to announce all of the cuts … this in order to give teachers losing their jobs the best opportunity to find new work. The next few months will not be boring, if not depressing.