In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


Open Source Living

The other day, I was reading a security analysis about the impact of viruses in the Linux world. Viruses are not quite unknown in Linux, but they are so rare that most end-users don’t bother to install any virus scanning at all. How can that be?

It’s probably a combination of factors–market share and architecture among them–but the prevailing wisdom is that it’s mostly open source that protects Linux. So many eyes look at the code so often, there is nowhere for agents of propagation to hide.

I submit, however, that there may be something more basic at work here. Linux, in all it’s flavors, exists to get stuff done. Microsoft products exist to drive sales. Microsoft needs to pack it’s SKUs with feature lists. Linux products live or die by end-user reviews. What doesn’t work is soon reworked or soon swept away.

I recently discovered that OpenOffice/LibreOffice has a “Compare Document” feature. It works exactly as you would expect. You load one document, then click “Edit- Compare Document” and select a second. Changes between the two documents then appear through the standard track changes feature. It could not be any simpler, and it’s hard to imagine how it could be improved in any substantive way.

Unless you work in Redmond.

Before tweeting about this feature, I thought I should google MS Word. Surely, it has this feature too and I just never knew it. Indeed, it does, and it’s a doozy. Why, it has a side-by-side feature and legal line-through and all sorts of other bells and whistles that I can’t be bothered to read about, much less remember to use.

The blogosphere tells us the OpenOffice feature just works, and gives endless lecture on where to go looking for the Microsoft. Feature set vs quality.

Did I ever mention how many times Word corrupted by first two novel manuscripts before I abandoned it three years ago?


A Simple, Effective Treadmill Desk

My Simple, Effective Treadmill Desk

Someone asked for details about my treadmill desk, so here they are:

I use an unmodified Horizon T101, purchased from Academy Sports for about $600. It had good reviews and a folding treadmill base–a requirement since I installed it in our game room, where the Xbox Kinnect lives. It also has simple, horizonal handrails, also a requirement for my purposes.

The idea behind a treadmill desk is to WALK while you work (you can’t very well do any work while jogging!), so much of the length of the handrails and deck are unneeded. I simply laid my “desk” across them.

I bought a 4′ length of standard 16″ wire shelving ($9, from the closet renovation section of the local hardware superstore), cut it down to an inch wider than the hand rails, and capped the cut ends with caps sold with the shelf (I used a bolt cutter, but the store has a shelf cutting machine). I laid this across the hand rails (upside down, with the stiffening rib toward me to provide support should I lean on it or trip).

I’m tall, so I topped this with an 18.5″ x 8″ stackable shelf (with folding legs). These legs are meant to clip into the wire shelf and bind a little against the stiffening rib, but with a little wiggling, it went together and hasn’t budged. I still found this a tad low, so I put a handy box on top of this for my netbook (shown).

Not only is this a cheap solution, it’s flexible. I can set the box and the netbook aside when I’m using my gigantic work laptop. To use the Xbox Kinnect, I simply set the whole desk to one side and fold up the treadmill.

If you want more of a proper desk surface, you could add a plastic surface. You could also replace the shelf altogether with one of the a pre-finished pine table tops  sold at the hardware store (they come in square sizes and might have to be cut along one edge, but the store will make a cut for you and you can buy a pack of sandpaper).

Now, any treadmill desk requires some consumer diligence. If you try to drink coffee without stepping off the treadmill first, you are not going to have a nice morning. If you don’t manage your cords sensibly, you could get into all manner of trouble. If you work in a cold-dry room, you can generate enough static electricity to damage electronics (I plug in a spare USB cable and tuck it under my shirt. Grounding wristbands are available online and can be grounded to metal on the treadmill). And then again, once you get used to your desk, you’ll step onto it while it isn’t running and lurch forward–expecting it to move. But with common sense and care, it works extremely well and is a damnsight cheaper than a custom made treadmill desk.

Good luck, and remember to keep the manual and tools that come with your treadmill handy. I use mine so much, I had walked a hundred miles in less than a month and had to tighten and lubricate the belt (easy).

A Better Grindstone

I recently blogged about getting a treadmill desk. Eleven weeks in, I’ve now lost twenty pounds, and I’m starting to think that those who view desk jobs as a modern scourge may be on to something.

For me, neither weight nor health have ever been a major problem. Growing up, I was what one might charitably call “gangly”. I was always athletic, but at nearly 6’2”, my weight didn’t catch up with my growth until I started swimming in college. As soon as I went on salary, though, I started gaining weight. Over the years, I’ve gradually improved my diet and periodically improved by exercise regime, and I’ve managed to keep my weight and health in check—just.

But when I read about treadmill desks, the logic was immediately appealing. In recent years, I’ve gotten serious about my writing, and writing takes a LOT of time. Why spend that time in a chair after sitting all day at work? So I bought a good, middle-of-the-road treadmill and I made a little desk out of wire closet shelving. It’s good enough to support my netbook or even my work laptop at a brisk walking pace. After a few days of acclimation, it worked, and I didn’t kill myself or my budget.

But that wasn’t the only surprise. I’m more productive on the treadmill. I don’t fall asleep when wading through xslt transformations for work. I don’t take breaks from writing to go walk down the block and work out a plot twist. The words come more freely—just as they always did in school when I used to go for hikes with a notepad in my pocket.

And loosing weight is all but unavoidable. I try to walk at least two hours a day. On telecommute days, I might walk as many as seven (or fourteen miles), but my average is more like three. That isn’t a huge amount of exercise, but it’s consistent, and I track my caloric intake with a Droid App called MyFitnessPal. The app sets a calory target based on your age, weight, and target weight. Then it calculates a running balance as you eat and exercise during the day.

Yesterday (a telecommute day during which I slacked off shamefully), I went to bed with a surplus of almost a thousand calories. That is, I could have eaten three slices of “meat lover’s” pizza before hitting the calorie target the app has set for me—itself hundreds of calories short of the level at which weight gain would begin. With these tools (the treadmill desk and MyFitnessPal) loosing weight is simple. Just watch out for pasta and bread and look for high-payoff foods.

And here’s another surprise: I’m eating good. I’ve switched to a very good FiberOne cereal with 80 calories per serving (280 calories for a real serving with milk). I’ve discovered Lean Cuisine frozen dinners with 150 and 180 calories per serving (not a whole meal for me, but excellent). I can eat absolutely anything–ice-cream, birthday cake, hummus and pita bread–as long as I record them honestly. Usually, they aren’t worth it, but when I do indulge—I really enjoy it.

The result leads to the final surprise. As a byproduct of loosing weight and eating healthier food overall, my blood pressure and cholesterol are both down markedly since November.

It may seem odd to many, but if you can fit a treadmill desk into your life, do it. There is no downside to living better.



Autism and Vaccines? Try French Fries

In the last decades, the anti-vaccination crowd has, in some parts of the country, succeeded in driving up rates of whooping cough, rubella, and other potentially fatal diseases after universal vaccination had all but wiped them out. Their arguments first gained traction after a single study claimed to show a link between vaccination and autism. This study was soon exposed as a hoax perpetrated under contract to a company hoping to sell its own vaccines, but the crazy horse was out of the barn. A long list of rationalizations have since been added to the anti-vaccination docket, most dreamed up by hucksters hoping to sell books to the desperate. All are false, and most are covered here:

Ultimately, though, the anti-vaccination movement is primarily driven by parents of autistic children who feel understandably frustrated and powerless, and who are easy prey for their own little branch of the pseudo-science industry. These folks want to have a definite cause that they can point to. They don’t understand the science, but they can easily understand the coincidence that autism has been on the up tick over the last forty years that vaccination rates have also been increasing. When two things change at the same time, the one must cause the other, right?


Previous studies have uncovered genetic factors that appear to explain 15% of autism cases, and exhaustively refuted any link to vaccination. Now, the largest autism study ever done has pointed the causal blame directly at something else that has been growing for the last forty years—fast food consumption. Autism, it turns out, is strongly linked to folic acid deficiency before and during pregancy. This is hardly surprising. We have known for a couple of decades that folate deficiency can cause spina-bifida and increase the risk for a host of neurological developmental disorders.

More work will have to be done, but unlike the vaccination link, which was never more than grasping at straws, this link makes clear cultural and biological sense. Previous studies have found that the reason American blacks became less healthy even as their incomes rose is that they started eating more steak and potatoes and less beans and other vegetables. In my lifetime, eating out has—for millions—gradually gone from an occasional luxury to a daily routine. Pizza and coke have gone from party foods to lunch and dinner on a regular basis.

The study appears in the current issue of JAMA. I have only read summaries, so I cannot attest to the validity of the experimental method. The findings, though, are sensible and compelling. They found, for example, that nutritional improvement during pregnancy made little difference, while serum levels of folic acid at the time of conception accounted for a 40% swing in incidence. This is to be expected if autism results from subtle, but early, developmental problems.

So, for those who have autistic children, relax. You didn’t know. This isn’t your fault and is only part of the story. But for the love of reason, go out and get your child vaccinated before she catches something you actually could have prevented—or before you contribute to a resurgence in polio, and threaten all those around you.

And for everyone else, stop making dietary decisions based on what is easiest for an unsupervised staff of teenagers to prepare. Eat a real, human diet rich in all kinds of vegetables and light on meat, pasta, bread, and processed baked goods of all kinds. The life you save me be your own.

Get it off. Keep it off.

In the eight weeks I’ve had my treadmill desk, I’ve lost 15 pounds, taking me through the range I’ve varied over for the last twenty years, and back (almost) to what I weighed on my wedding night. The first week was only a few miles at low speed, and I lost two weeks to illness and projects around the house. Plus, I didn’t start tracking calories until later, maybe the last five weeks, so that’s, let’s say, three pounds a week.

The thing is, it’s been easy, because I’m walking while I’m working (on my telecommute day) or working on my writing, things I want to or have to do anyway. With the extra calories burned, I sacrifice very little in the way of food. I do keep track and meet targets and have very little room for pasta or bread. When I have dessert, it’s usually only a bite or two, and I count it as honestly as I can. Occasionally, I have room to spurge on a nice high-calorie snack like ice cream or chips and salsa–if I’ve walked enough that day.

This puts me in the enviable position of being able to say with great confidence that by my birthday, I will be down to what I weighed in college–to what I should weigh. Don’t worry, I’m not going for the full “knees and elbows” effect.

Once I reach my target weight, I’ll be able to scale back, which is a bit of a problem because I think better and am more productive when I’m walking. I guess I’ll just have to start eating Italian.

If I can do it, anyone can. It only takes finding what works for you. For me, it’s a droid app called MyFitnessPal and a $400 treadmill.

Oh, and eating actual food.



Recently on Facebook, I unfriended a chap with whom I have been friends, or at least on good terms, for more than thirty years. He had posted a status update asking to be unfriended by anyone who disagreed with him on a certain political issue, but that’s not why I did it. In truth, my position on this particular issue is closer to his than to his opposition, but in reviewing his posts, I found that about 95% were political vitriol, and only a few had anything to do with his life or mine or any shared social concerns. My mother (and his) always warned against discussing politics and religion, and while the Internet certainly offers safe venues for breaking that admonition, Facebook is not one of them. But that’s not why I did it either.

This gentleman is one of those people who feel the need constantly to berate the world with jokes, factoids, and insults supporting his point of view, without regard to fairness or facts or the ineffable reality that life is never as cut and dried as political pundits would have us see it. He happens to follow the republicans, but the disease is not unique to his side of the political spectrum. Occasionally, when one of his posts was factually in error, or supported the opposite position when taken in context, I would point this out and provide a link or two to the correct information. He wouldn’t argue the point, he simply ignored me and carried on metaphorically high-fiveing the affirmative responses of his like minded friends.

Fine. We are all entitled to our opinions, and in this great nation, to giving them voice. Live and let live.

But here’s the thing. We all have to share the same facts. There are places for debate, and there are places for social niceties. There is no place–in my life—for disregard for the truth.

So here is my Facebook manifesto. If you disagree with me, fine. If I have time and inclination, I am happy to debate you on an appropriate forum. If you convince me that you are right, I will admit it and thank you–I have a track record of doing so. If you can’t convince me, I am happy to remain your friend. I have a track record for doing that too.


  • If you are so lazy that you cannot be bothered to Google the facts around a topic before posting your opinion about it, then your opinions are worthless.
  • If you are so insecure that you are unwilling to consider any facts that don’t support your position, then I can safely assume that you are wrong about nearly everything.
  • If you think people with more education than you consistently disagree with your positions because they have been taught not to think with your simple, folksy directness, bring it on.

But really, if you are so ignorant, fatuous, and miserable, that you have nothing better to do than clog up my social networking experience with unsubstantiated, simple-minded yech, then unfriend me. Save me the trouble. And got help us all come election time.

The End of The World As We Know It.

I recently blogged about my treadmill desk, and after a faltering start due to illness over the holidays, I’m very pleased with it. I can read, write, revise, blog, surf, and do anything else I need to do on the computer, all while walking at a comfortable 2 miles per hour. I already lose track of time while writing and find my wife giving me the stinkeye at two in the morning. Now I’m getting healthier instead of heavier while I’m at it.

But like getting a dog, the treadmill desk turns out to have a social dimension above and beyond the technical. Though I had probably had the passing idea, I first encountered the serious proposition of an actual treadmill desk on line. Now that I have one, I’m finding I’m far from alone. Susan Currie Sivek blogged about her experiences doing academic work on her treadmill. Daniel Miller ‏(@Crimson342 on Twitter) is using a treadmill to fit up his gaming habit. Ashley Jenkins ‏(@jinxcellent) successfully petitioned for a shared walking desk to be installed by her employer.

This is not a crazy idea. As we sciency types often find, what we’ve been doing for generations is the crazy idea. This particular crazy idea (spending 40,000 or more of our most produtive hours sitting behind a desk) is killing us, and it stops here–or at least takes a majorehind a desk) jog to the left–and we’re helping one another do it. Score one for the internet. Welcome to the end of the world as we know it.

My Little Christmas Present

This year, I bought myself a Christmas present.

I’m not really a trend follower, but a recent NPR story about treadmill desks started me thinking. I read on the exercycle all the time, but these days I spend a LOT of time writing, often taking breaks to go for a walk and think. Why not combine the two?

Of course, both treadmills and treadmill desks are often over-done and over-expensive for my tastes, so I just bought a Horizon T101 treadmill and made my own desk. The T101 is a good, middle of the road unit that folds out of the way and is large enough for my stride. Most important, it has simple, flat grip handles. I just lay a short piece of wire shelving upside down across the handles and add a matching shelf-top rack that locks securely into the shelf and bumps my netbook up to a tolerable height.

So far it’s working well. The shelf extends far enough over the deck that I don’t kick anything when close to the keyboard (a problem many have had with expensive treadmill desks), but I still have enough handle to grip should I need to. Of course, I do step off to drink my coffee, and I added a small box to raise the netbook another two inches and to prevent neck strain (I’m 6′ 1”). I’ll come up with something more permanent for that, but in the meantime, I’ve got a fully functional treadmill desk for just over $600.

The best part is, I completely loose track of time when I’m writing. Once I get used to typing while I walk, I’ll while away hours on this thing and never even notice. Most likely, my legs will give out long before my patience, which will be a novel excercise experience.

Cheers, and happy holidays.


images-1You know who had faith? Hiroo Onodo. He was the last officer to serve the old Japanese Imperial Army after World War II. He held out on a remote island in the Philippines for twenty-nine years until 1974, when he was found by a college dropout searching the world for ghosts. Even then, he held out until his old commander, now a bookseller, came out into the jungle to relieve him.

Hiroo never surrendered. He didn’t believe the pamphlets dropped by his adversaries or those of his own government. He didn’t trust the pleas and photos dropped for a decade on behalf of his own relations or the return to domestic life on his island. He missed Hiroshima and the cold war. He missed the moon landings—all of them—and his country’s emergence as a great and positive force in the world. He missed whatever family of his own he might otherwise have had.

He missed most of his own life and much of the most amazing progress in human history, but Hiroo had faith. He knew what he knew. In thirty years time, he slaughtered thirty innocent villagers, shot two men who had risked their lives to retrieve him, and wrought no end of carnage on a people whose lives his emperor had already despoiled. All of this, he did for faith–for a military-imperial-religious certainty instilled in childhood beyond all question, beyond all consideration of evidence, no matter how ample or bloody.

To have faith in mankind is to reckon on his strength and character and mind. But there is another kind of faith, the kind still widely celebrated in our culture, the kind Mark Twain defined as “believing what you know ain’t so”. This is the sort of faith that enslaves one man’s character in the service of another. Such faith can tame barbarity and foster civilization. All too often, though, it only dresses up the one in the guise of the other.

For all the claims made by those who would speak for the creator, we all have direct access to the creation itself. When a man holds beliefs more tightly than the truth in evidence around him, he cannot but blaspheme against creation. For all his promise as a civilized being, man is also the most dangerous of predators. To cleave conviction from reason divides the predator against everything greater he might yet become. It turns his very strengths into weapons against his own soul. For the soul of man is humanity, and it survives nowhere but in collective memory, and the dead recall naught.

When the lights go out on broadway…

It was a seedy little hotel, the kind adulterers and drug dealers rent by the hour, but we had contracted for a whole wing for as long as we needed it. I was to ask at the front office, but the office was locked and the city had posted a sign stating that the building was not fit for human habitation. I took a few step back and looked around. Quiet. When I looked up, I saw a bed sitting on the roof. That wasn’t the roof though. The second floor had been peeled away starting three rooms down from the road.
I work for an electric utility that delivers power to two and a quarter million customers in south Texas. Hurricane Ike left ninety-six percent of those customers in the dark. It took four days to restore the majority of the distribution lines and substations, returning power to nearly a million customers. The remainder of the effort took another two weeks and cost over half a billion dollars. We have had more practice with this sort of thing than most other parts of the country, but all utilities approach restoration the same way:
First, secure downed lines and restore service to vital infrastructure, hospitals, waste and water treatment facilities, government facilities, and so on.
Second, restore major lines, fuses, and key distribution infrastructure.
Third, clear debris from the distribution system. In our case, this required an army of 5,000 tree trimmers who could not start work until day five.
Fourth, restore local distribution. For us, this required 7,000 linemen, the vast majority on loan from other utilities throughout the country as part of prearranged mutual assistance agreements. Key personnel began triage earlier, but for the most part, this effort did not begin until day six.
Fifth, repair individual transformers, circuits, and drops to restore power to individual buildings.
Restoration starts at the power plants and moves out into the distribution system. Doing it any other way will get people killed and damage key infrastructure—making the effort take even longer. Every component must be isolated and tested before it can be energized. Improperly installed generators and fire hazards must be cleared. Restoration must follow these steps, and no matter the resources dumped on the problem, it can only move so fast.
As in New York, we had public outcry starting on the third day, mostly from residents who had yet to see any linemen in their neighborhoods. In our case, though, the mayor and county commissioner appeared with representatives of our management to assure the public that help was coming. Seventy-five percent of service was restored within ten days (four days after linemen went to work). Complete restoration took 18 days.
During this time, our company established and managed five staging areas around the city. We provided food, fuel, supplies, laundry, medical care, ice, and logistics to what was, in fact, a small army. I drove past one of these on my way to my alternate work site at a nearby power plant. The roads were choked for miles with pole trucks. The air was orange with diesel exhaust.
Hundreds of office workers rode with linemen and trimmers. They acted as spotters and talked to customers so the crews could focus on work. In the south, people don’t throw eggs, they make lemonade (and sometimes cookies), but recovery is no time for southern hospitality; we have work to do. Crews worked from two hours before sunrise to dusk, every day. We fed them and watched over them. I was assigned a tree trimming crew from some town in New Mexico I had never heard of. I was to report and help solve any problem they might have. The missing roof, surprisingly, was not a problem. The hotel staff moved into a room in one of the wings and our crews moved in next door. And yes, we contracted every available hotel room in the region—something that people also complained about at the time.
Today, I watched in disgust as New York Governor Cuomo stood before the cameras fanning the flames of dissent that always follow a disaster, playing the protector who will make those misfits at Con Ed move faster. Really? They say they can restore power in a week. If they can do that, my hat’s off to them. We couldn’t do it, and I’m absolutely sure that no utility on this planet is better at recovery than we are. We also don’t have miles of underground lines to contend with—and those take much longer to repair.
By the way, our recovery cost half a billion dollars. The rate payers will pay this off, a little bit each month, for the next several years. It would cost far, far more to maintain a larger staff of linemen to sit around idle until they are needed. And guess what, when they were finally called for, they wouldn’t be able to start work until day six. That’s the way it’s done.
If Mr. Quomo is really interested in helping the voters, he should let the power company do its job by focusing on his own, and right now, that’s mostly appealing for calm and patience.
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