Saturday, November 09, 2002

Yay, minor celebrity!
So, apparently my ants saga reached devnull (no, not /dev/null), allowing to bask in my 15 seconds of micro-fame. I've also gotten a surprising email as a result, most of which takes me to task for unfairly maligning ants. I'd like to say this (and yes, I know they're not reading this, which is why I'm going to actually answer the email):

I do like ants in the abstract. I mean, I find the concept of an ant colony interesting; I've read "Ant Fugue" more than once; I played SimAnt (although I was never all that good at it); in fact, some of my best friends are ants! (Okay, I made up that last part.) I just wish they would stop trying to eat my food! Or, as the ants story illustrates, everything in my house! (Well, actually, despite the hyperbolic title, as far as I can tell, the ants didn't actually eat the hub -- I guess they were just there for the warmth -- but still.)

Friday, November 08, 2002

A link I can't refuse
I might complain about the power being down here due to the rain and winds, but it can't compare to this incident in Wales.
"If anyone's found my tank, please give us a bell."
Ramblings of a powerless man
So the rain, which I whined about earlier, was pretty desultory from when it started yesterday up until I left for office hours at 3ish today ("today" being Thursday, despite what the header might tell you). This kind of rain is arguably my least favorite; it's heavy enough that I can't just ignore it, so I still have to carry around an umbrella, but it doesn't have the nice, cleansing effect that a good, heavy rain will. Consequently, the world looks (and smells!) like it's just come out of a dryer which doesn't work so well. Anyway, sometime between when I left for office hours and when I left campus to swing by home before quizbowl, the rain became a lot less perfunctory and a lot more torrential, to the point where I (or at least my jacket, since I hadn't brought an umbrella) got completely soaked walking from LeConte back to my car on Hearst.

So, when driving back after quizbowl, I went to drop Seth off, and we noticed that the power on his block was out. This wasn't terribly surprising, since it was the first heavy rain of the season, and there were tons of downed branches and such all over the place. I thought to myself, "Well, better him than me," and went on my way. But I soon would be punished for my hubris, since after dropping everyone else off and arriving home, I noticed that the power on *my* block was also out. It was a very narrow blackout, too; it extended no further than a block north, south, and east (though it did go as far as my eye could see to the west). As I got home, they were just setting up flares at the intersection, but I heard the screech of people quickly braking more than once when I was home.

I was eminently miserable on getting home. All of the things I would normally do were impossible, of course, and despite having a flashlight and a couple of candles (the latter courtesy of Mike), I could pretty much only unhappily read. I felt so oppressed by the darkness, and that my weapons were quite inadequate against it. (Yes, that's intended to sound as if it were metaphorical. But it's quite literal in this case.) I had even lighted a candle, but I was still cursing the darkness. In fact, though I had been planning to return to campus anyway, I felt so enervated that I just fell asleep. Upon my waking at 3am, the power was still out. I was more than a little annoyed at PG&E, of course; on the one hand, it was the first heavy rain, so they probably had a lot to deal with, but still, it was frustrating.

Returning to campus, though, cheered me up considerably (if you haven't figured it out yet, that's where I'm writing this from). Unlike inside, where it just felt dark, oppressive, and lifeless, outside the world was in the perfect post-rain state: nice, fresh, and well-lit, and I had it all to myself! I actually really like being out in hours like this, since the world doesn't feel like a scary place at all -- it's just completely quiet. In fact, I enjoyed the environment so much that I found myself strongly wishing that I had walked to campus instead of driving (though I changed my mind about that when it started raining again as I was walking back from my car). I'm almost tempted to try to make this part of my regular schedule, but somehow I doubt that would actually end up being a good idea.

Now, to see if I can drag myself away from this in order to actually get some work done.

(Meta-commentary: I suppose this is the closest thing to the canonical "what happened to me today" blog post I've posted so far, unless you count the ants, which are kind of a special case. I'm not sure whether I'll continue to do this kind of thing or not.)

Thursday, November 07, 2002

Thoughts inspired by bowling, II
I'm a better bowler than most of my friends (excepting Kenshin, and I haven't bowled with him a long time). However, it's an open question whether this is because I have some superior degree of intrinsic skill, or whether it's just because I spent every Sunday senior year of high school bowling. While the egotistic part of me would like to believe the former, the truth is that it's probably the latter, because bowling is hardly unique in this respect. There's a very long list of activities in which I've become pretty good simply by doing more of it than your average person, and hence in which I would consider myself better than average. (Bowling is one example; quizbowl is another, and I could make this list much longer if I wanted to bore you further.) However, these activities also share something in common: while I was initially interested in them, and enjoyed them long enough to become pretty good, I never was willing to take the additional steps needed to reach "master" level. (To stick with these two examples, I've never sat down and memorized the things I really would need to memorize in order to become really good at quizbowl, nor have I learned how to properly curve the ball in bowling.) Having fun, and improving naturally, was something I could do easily; but when improvement required explicit work rather than simply more practice, I just wasn't sufficiently interested to put in all this effort for some not-really-tangible result. Consequently, there's a lot of stuff I'm pretty good at, but nothing in which I can say that I'm better than anyone I know.

I'm not yet sure whether the above pattern applies to physics or not.
Thoughts inspired by bowling, I
I tend to not think of myself as a particularly competitive person. (I'm sure there are those out there who would disagree with me, but like I said, this is how I think of myself.) I wasn't really tossed into a competitive environment until high school, and while it was true that Lowell was a very competitive environment, I didn't really feel the need to be competitive myself; I suppose, essentially, I had enough confidence in myself that I didn't worry that one poor performance would destroy my ability to get into a good college, or whatever. I didn't end up at the very top of the class, and I didn't really care; because of the way the system at Lowell worked, you had to take as many honors classes as you possibly could to get a maximal GPA, and so if you took classes which weren't honors, even if you did perfectly in them, you could end up with a lower GPA. Consequently, I took things like band and Latin (the latter being too small to have a separate honors course, so it was all non-honors, except for AP Latin), which prevented me from being at the top, but I cared more about taking classes that I wanted to. And when I got to college and everyone was as intelligent as I was (if not more so), there was much more of an atmosphere of cooperation among equals rather than competitiveness to determine who was the best. It didn't hurt that the classes were sufficiently hard that surviving without cooperation was pretty much impossible, although there was occasionally a competitive element in some of the Core classes. Oh, sure, although we were all equals, I did want, sometimes, to be the primus inter pares, but I couldn't win every time, and so if sometimes I had to go to my friends for help, that worked fine for me.

However, to make up for it, my competitiveness seems to have moved to nonacademic areas. In things like bowling or miniature golf, where I feel that I'm probably better than an average one of my friends, I want to win, though I might not admit it (though, then again, I might). If I put up a good effort and then lose, I'll be less disappointed than if I end up not being competitive at all. When bowling on Monday, I had my usual good games interspersed with bad games, but my bads were definitely on the worse end; I very nearly failed to break 100 for the first time in many years and many games, as after eight frames, I hadn't marked once and had a 68. Fortunately, I picked up spares in both of the last two to just barely squeak over with a 105. Still, though, the bad games were infinitely more frustrating than the good games, since I knew I was capable of playing better but just wasn't able to manage it. Conversely, when playing something where I know I'm very likely to lose (say, Starcraft), I'm not likely to hang around for too long, since I really do want to win, and I know if I can't, it takes a lot of fun out of it. I'm not a bad loser, at least in the usual sense of the word, but I do tend to become impolitely uninterested in situations where I just can't win. Well, as far as faults go, I suppose I could pick worse ones to have.
Drip, drip
Looks like the first rain of the season, which means it's moving into my least-favorite part of the year. And our ceiling still has a pair of pinpoint leaks, requiring me to put cans underneath the doorway to our closet. Whine.

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

Obligatory comments link
All right, I've added in a comments feature. Enjoy!
The blind watchmaker
I have to admit, there are times when I can see the appeal of creationism. I think this was first in AP Biology, when I was learning about the electron transport chain, and I found myself thinking how neat it was that everything fit together so perfectly, and how likely was it that this could have arisen by random chance, anyway? I could certainly agree that if you gave a random anaerobic bacterium the whole apparatus for the Krebs cycle, it would rapidly rise to dominate over its brethren, but it doesn't seem like the kind of thing to suddenly pop out by itself. (Especially since I don't see how any intermediate stages would be particularly useful, and we don't see anything around today with, like, only half of the Krebs cycle. But I'm just wildly speculating here.) Of course, the flip side of this argument is, while the electron transport chain is really neat (well, not that I remember anything about it these days, except "cytochrome C"), it certainly seemed like it was unnecessarily complicated, and that if you were designing cellular respiration from scratch, you could probably make it a much simpler process.

I wonder what creationists have to say about language. In many ways, the same kind of thinking applies: languages are also immensely complicated, to the point where, if you think about it, it seems surprising that they could have evolved just from chance, and a lot of that complexity is completely unnecessary (think about all of the weirdnesses of English, or the 125+ verb forms in Latin). And indeed, those languages which have been explicitly designed (not that I know anything about Esperanto, aside from "-oj") have stated that part of their goal is to eliminate a lot of the unnecessary complexity inherent in any modern language. Of course, we know that languages *did* evolve (not quite in the same sense as standard evolution, since "natural selection" doesn't translate perfectly into the linguistic world), and they did so over a much smaller time frame than the evolution that produced us had. So, looked at from that angle, it suddenly doesn't seem incomprehensible at all that all the complexity inherent in us could have come from chance.

(Hmm, I wonder if there are any creationists who say that God planted the Canterbury Tales to fool us, too?)
So, what, in December, Santa Claus is going to lose?
While I'm not as emotionally attached to the Democratic party as I am to the Giants, especially since the Dems have an even larger share of dislikable characters (is Gray Davis the Shawon Dunston of the party?), there's also the little fact that there's slightly more at stake here, so the net effect of yesterday was about the same as Game 7 -- I checked the early results, and when it became apparent that things looked bad, decided to avoid the subject for the rest of the day, only checking at the end to make sure no miracle had occurred. In my political junkie days, I would have eagerly devoured every article on talking about the election, and had the results turned out more palatable, I would probably be doing the same now, but now, blah...I just don't want to think about it.

Monday, November 04, 2002

Ants ate my hub!
If you're wondering what took me so long to post after getting home yesterday, this is the reason. Warning: this is really long, but it occupied a good portion of my day, so there's a lot to write about.

So, last night, I come home after a 4-1/2 hour drive back from LA (note to law enforcement officials: that's a "6" there, really), and sit down in front of the computer to check my mail. My connection is, for lack of a better word, ass-slow. I go to look at the hub to see if everyone else is having this problem. Nope, Mike and David's activity lights are busily flickering; it's only me who has been screwed. I reach down to fiddle with the connection, and notice that the hub is covered with ants (as well as my hand, after the fiddling). "That's odd," I think to myself, "what would ants want with our hub?" But I'm way too tired to deal with it at the time, so instead I go to sleep, cursing my ill fortune.

I wake up this morning, and decide to investigate further. Yep, the hub is definitely swarming with ants. And it doesn't look like the ants are just going over it to somewhere else (especially since there aren't any tasty ant treats anywhere nearby); they're clearly going into and out of the hub. Some of the ants going in are even carrying little white pellets. "Is that food?" I wonder. "Where is it coming from?"

I unplug the hub and pick it up, and then kill all of the ants that come out of it. And kill some more ants. And kill some more ants. This goes on for a while. I begin to think that the little white pellets look an awful lot like eggs. I shake the hub, and it sounds like someone has poured a handful of coarse sand into it. "That's odd," I think to myself, "I could have sworn this hub *didn't* come with the sand option." I initially thought that there were just some ants here, but it's pretty clear I've got more on my hands now.

So, I decide to take a closer look at the hub. Unfortunately, the hub boasts a screwless construction, but I know that my screwdrivers can be used for more than merely removing screws, so I start prying. As I do so, a bunch of ants and eggs, as well as what look like larvae (basically, they look like slightly-smaller-than-normal ants, but a very pale brown instead of black) continue to fall out (fortunately, I've become clever enough to move to doing this over the sink). I finally get the thing open, and see a bunch of eggs lying on the circuit board, but less than I would have expected if there's really a colony set up here. So, I figure that they're probably under the circuit board, and set to work unscrewing the circuit board to take it out of the box.

Jackpot! (That is, if my goal were to win an ant colony, which it really *wasn't*.) The entire bottom of the box is covered with eggs and larvae, and I see a large ant which I can only assume is the queen. I terminate the queen with extreme prejudice, and then wash out the box (it's made of metal, so I figure it'll be okay.) The circuit board, on the other hand, I can't just wash off (since I hold hopes of saving the hub, not really wanting to have to drop $30 on a new one), and there are lots of eggs wedged in small places, like between the link lights or between the chips connected to the ports, where they'll be really hard to get out of. So, I set the circuit board aside for the moment to take a shower.

When I come back, I notice that the ants have actually done me a favor! (Suckers!) In their futile attempts to save the colony, they've picked up the eggs themselves to scurry around like maniacs, solving my problem. I pick off the ants, and then vigorously shake the board to try to dislodge anything still stuck in the ports, and much to my surprise *another* queen falls out. (I've read that Argentine ants can have more than one queen per colony, but this is still a surprise, especially since I thought I had already gotten almost everything.) I dispose of her, too, clean up the remaining ants, and figure I might as well try putting the hub back together. Not that I can completely undo my prying, but hey, that's cosmetic anyway.

Much to my surprise, it actually works! And my performance is back from miserable to normal. Ants 0, Me 1.

Man, I hate ants. If I could choose one genus to completely wipe off the Earth, assuming that it wouldn't, like, destroy the ecosystem (but really, what depends on ants? Anteaters? Well, they're not doing a very good job, are they?!), it would be them. Well, okay, I suppose I should probably choose something like mosquitoes, since even though they're less personally annoying to me, they still have the whole large-scale disease-spreading thing. But I'd expect some serious compensation from the WHO for not choosing ants!