Archive for December, 2007

Eating gingerbread men out of house and home

Monday, December 17th, 2007

So there I was, just a little bit more than halfway through eating one of the sections of gingerbread house roof, and I knew I could not continue. It’s not that my stomach was full; far from it. It was much worse than that.

A gingerbread house eating competition had seemed like a good idea. For better or for worse, I started a tradition at our company of having regular eating competitions. Call it morale building. Some of the competitions went well, like the Chipotle burrito contest and the Chick Fil A nuggets contest. Others didn’t go so well, like the Popeye’s fried chicken contest (it caused some intestinal difficulties) or the pumpkin pie contest (the pumpkiny taste quickly became nauseating in large quantities). But none was uniquely so bad as the gingerbread eating competition.

It started out so well, too. We had four teams of two competing with each other to build the best house in thirty minutes, as judged by our lawyer, office manager, and president (no, really). My team wasn’t the one that ended up winning, but it was still a good time, with everyone from the office clustered around the table in the common area, cracking jokes, drinking eggnog, and generally having a good time. Most of us had never built a gingerbread house before (some had never even seen one in real life), so we were having far too much fun gluing gingerbread walls together with frosting and decorating with gum drops and candies for the grown men and women that we are supposed to be.

But after the building was finished was when it all went to hell. Four of us brave souls stayed on to eat to the ground the houses we had so lovingly built. That was the theory, anyway. None of us got farther than one half of the roof. It was nasty. After the first three bites I already knew it was a terrible idea, but I kept going for awhile after that lest I show weakness in front of the others. You’d think some candy is good, so more candy is better, but noooooo. As I made steady progress on the first sheet of roof, consuming nauseating bite after bite of gingerbread slathered in doughy frosting, sweet candies, and chewy gumdrops, my mind started hearkening back to the idyllic days of yore; anything to divert attention from the ongoing gustatory tragedy.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. The gingerbread kits we bought (weighing in at 4.1 pounds each) came with hidden hazards. Some of what we thought was edible candy turned out to be gum balls. Thankfully, we contestants reached an agreement that the gum balls could be removed from the houses before eating, lest we have to choke down the gum as well. But we didn’t reach such an agreement on the hard candies. Note the emphasis. Hard. Very hard. Like jawbreaker-hard.

You’d be biting through a sheet of chewy, yet easily masticated, gingerbread and gumdrops only to come across a pellet of buckshot masquerading as a candy attempting to fracture your teeth. It was the most enamel-threatening eating contest we had ever embarked upon. Whoever the hell decided to put miniature jawbreakers in a gingerbread house prefab kit obviously never considered the possible ramifications if one were to be used in an eating competition. What a harrowing oversight that turned out to be.

Even after we all gave up, and the one amongst us who ate a whole half of his roof was declared victorious, the bad times were only just beginning. Eating a boatload of sugar and nothing else for lunch, it turns out, is a genuinely bad idea. In hindsight, I recall my mom warning me about this kind of thing during my youth, but I was never so foolish as to attempt it until now. We all experienced sugar highs that lasted about an hour and a half, getting us so hopped up we were unable to concentrate on our work. If I develop diabetes, this is going to be the pivotal moment I look back at and say, “That was what did it!” Then, after the sugar high came the sugar crash. One of our number left home early in search of real food, completely unable to function any further at work. The rest of us suffered and agonized through it.

I was in the unenviable position of simultaneously feeling the lingering effects of the sugar crash and being incredibly hungry to boot (in my ingeniousness, I had forgone lunch in the naive hope of being able to pack in more gingerbread). So I went over to McDonald’s for some food to satiate my hunger and stabilize my energy levels. It was the first time that I ever felt really healthy while eating McDonald’s food. Compared to the pure sugar of a gingerbread house, even eating the spongy, processed chicken (?) in McNuggets felt like guzzling from the fountain of life. It’s got protein. It’s what bodies crave.

I hear rumors that next we’re going to tackle either bananas or one pound Fuddrucker’s burgers. I say bring it on. We can handle it. Nothing will ever be as bad as our gingerbread experience. Nothing can ever be as bad for our productivity, either. Although everyone else had a whale of a good time assembling the houses and watching on in bemused amusement, we competitive office eaters on the front lines of culinary warfare suffered through the worst of it. And war is hell. But now we will live on, forever enshrined in our officemates’ memories as the Greatest Eating Generation. Although we sacrificed so much, we all emerged victorious in the end.

Big things going down in Wikipedia land

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

Sorry, no specifics, but big things are going down right now in the Wikimedia Foundation (the foundation that runs Wikipedia). A year from now we’ll all be looking back on how things are now and wondering what in the hell happened. Keep your eyes peeled on the technical news websites.

One year of Cyde Weys Musings

Saturday, December 15th, 2007

It’s been a year since I wrote my first blog post on Cyde Weys Musings, back on December 15, 2006. That blog post was a tutorial on installing WordPress on Ubuntu GNU/Linux. And yes, those were the exact steps I took to get this blog installed on my server. That tutorial has remained fairly popular over time. Even a year later, everything in it is still correct, and lots of people are finding it through Google and using it. I love figuring something out and then giving back, because I use online GNU/Linux tutorials all the time and I find them incredibly helpful.

I no longer host this site on my personal server though. In March 2007 I started another blog, Supreme Commander Talk, and I bought hosting through a hosting service. That turned out to be a very wise decision. They can handle much more traffic than my residential cable Internet connection at home, and their stability is much better too (at home, I dealt with the occasional flaky power and flaky net connection). SupComTalk was only using a very small fraction of my storage and bandwidth capacity with the hosting service, so I gradually transitioned the rest of my sites to be hosted there, including Cyde Weys Musings.

I’ve written 380 posts on Cyde Weys Musings thus far, averaging out to a little bit more than one a day. I’m pretty impressed with that rate of posting (as you may have noticed, I don’t do small posts with little substance). Amazingly, I don’t feel burnt out at all. I rarely force myself to write for the blog. I just write about whatever interesting topic comes to mind, and that’s usually good enough to write about one post per day. On days when I can’t think of anything to write about, I simply don’t. Admittedly, it may be too unpredictable for the reader who craves steady content, but at least the content is never uninteresting. If I were to get more professional at this, I would build up a backlog of time-insensitive posts and publish one on every day in which I could think of nothing else to write about.

At this point, I’m asking myself, where do I go from here? Traffic is way up from when I first started this blog, but it’s still nothing stellar. The trend is going in the right direction though, so I’m just going to keep amusing myself with writing here and see what happens. I have learned a lot about writing in the interim. It’s been worth it, even if no one was reading this blog. The feedback from you, the readers, has been icing on the cake. So please do continue commenting; I love hearing what others think about the things I write about. Writing to a vacuum isn’t encouraging, but writing for a responsive audience most definitely is.

I definitely plan for this site to be around for at least another year, so I’ll look back on everything that’s happened with the blog on December 15, 2008, the two year anniversary. I bet a lot will happen in the interim.

Speech therapy and the importance of speaking correctly

Thursday, December 13th, 2007

Speech therapy is a very interesting subject. It deals with no less than the fundamentals of human speech, which are deeply ingrained into all of us. I have personal experience in this area, so even though it’s slightly embarrassing, I feel compelled to write about it and share my experience. Hence this post. Heck, embarrassment is a thoroughly useless emotion anyway.

When I was younger, I had a slight speech impediment. In your life, you’ve almost certainly met kids who didn’t pronounce certain sounds correctly. I was one of them. I didn’t pronounce “R”s correctly. That’s a pretty common impediment. Most kids grow out of it on their own as they grow up. I did not. So, in eighth grade, I underwent speech therapy for a semester. That was all it took to fix my problem. Ever since, I’ve spoken normally, and I don’t often think about it anymore. The proper pronunciation of “R”s is now instinctual to me, just like the rest of the sounds in the English language.

The speech therapy class met once a week on Friday. I was just missing gym class to attend, so it didn’t affect me academically, though Fridays were “free” days in gym (where you could just play whatever sport you wanted to rather than being forced to do a specific set of things). So it was the one day a week in which I wasn’t glad to miss gym, but looking back on it, it was well worth it. I’m so glad that middle school contracted out for a speech therapist. She came in once a week to deal with a few small classes of students at a time. There were two other students who met with her during the period in which I had her.

I should point out that there was nothing physically wrong with me. I had just never learned the proper motions for my tongue to make the “R” sound correctly. Speech therapy was nothing more than a long series of repeated oral exercises to get me to learn how to shape my tongue properly to make the correct sound. I don’t remember the majority of the exercises anymore, but I do vividly remember how she used star-shaped sprinkles (like for topping ice cream or decorating cakes). She would have us place them on certain parts of our mouth and grab them with our tongues, or have us hold them in the center of our tongues, or all other sorts of exercises. I guess the reason she used those is because they were small, sticky when wet, and not only edible, but sweet. I wonder how many other speech therapists use similar confectioneries. There’s a whole field out there of very specialized knowledge on this subject that most people don’t know anything about.

Incidentally, the “R” sound is made by lifting the sides of your tongue to the roof of your mouth while keeping the center depressed. I couldn’t do that before the therapy. Those muscles in my tongue were completely un-exercised, and I didn’t even know, consciously or otherwise, which neural impulses to send my tongue to make that shape. The exercises in therapy taught me how. As a side effect of the therapy, I became able to roll my tongue up into a circle. I couldn’t before it.

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The media continues playing petty politics

Monday, December 10th, 2007

First they came for John Edwards and his hair. Now they come for Mitt Romney and his hair. Could they please stop making a mockery of the political process? I really don’t give a damn about our candidates’ hair. The issues are much more important. I oppose Mitt Romney as president for a whole host of reasons, but his hair isn’t one of them. I spoke out when they attacked John Edwards, so it’s only fair, for equality’s sake, to speak out when they attack a candidate I don’t like.

The media has a huge responsibility to the American people because what they report ends up forming the majority of people’s opinions on the candidates. Yet they abuse that responsibility so terribly. Reporting on a candidate’s hair making him seem too much like a newscaster? Please! How about reporting on how he’s a religious whacko who thinks atheists have no part in America? That’s the much bigger story.

Where alien abduction stories come from

Monday, December 10th, 2007

My mouth tastes funny. Looking closely in the mirror, tilting my head down, opening my mouth wide, and reflecting the light from my Maglite flashlight into my mouth in the mirror, I can see the stitch at the back of my mouth where my wisdom tooth used to be just a week and two days ago. There’s a little hole between my cheek and the gum that is growing in to replace the lost tooth. I didn’t even know that the oral surgeon was putting a stitch in (he didn’t tell me!), so when I first took a look, I was had quite a shock. It looked like something was growing in my mouth, or exposed veins or nerves were hanging out. Luckily, it was just the stitches. My mouth still tastes funny though. I have the tiniest ever-present taste of blood.

I remember reading awhile back that most supposed alien abductions and probings are unconsciously modeled off of far more down-to-earth experiences at the dentist. After last Friday’s experience of getting two wisdom teeth removed, I would have to concur. It almost felt like an alien abduction. Give me a few years to let the experience sink in, and then a minor psychotic episode at some point, and I could easily see describing a “fresh” alien abduction that was really nothing more than subconscious dental memories.

The nitrous oxide laughing gas has a lot to do with it. It changed my perception of the world. I was still experiencing every moment, but everything seemed far away. I didn’t care what was happening. The procedure itself was very quick. I saw the oral surgeon going into my mouth with some tools, and before I even realized it, the bottom tooth was done. The local anesthetic worked wonders. I heard the cracking of tooth as they splintered and extracted the root, but it didn’t faze me. The only thing I felt was the hard pressing down that I can only assume was the insertion of the stitch.

All the while, the oral surgeon was talking with the assistant about obscure clerical matters. Something or other was coming in next week, and oh by the way, someone had rescheduled. I felt completely detached from reality. They ignored my presence, carrying on their own little conversations, while simultaneously extracting two teeth from my mouth. That was the weirdest part about it. That’s what most resembles the alien abduction story: the feeling that you are being worked on by beings who don’t care about your presence, and go on chatting about their business like nothing is unusual about the situation, even though the situation is extremely unusual to you. It’s humbling and dehumanizing. I was nothing more than a mouth that needed some work done.

The top tooth came out more easily (no splintering sounds this time), and did not require a stitch. I remember after the extractions, but before the nitrous oxide had a chance to wear off, how curious I was about what had just happened to me. I was surprised it was over so quickly. I had expected lots of tugging and wiggling to get the teeth free, but it turns out, it only requires a single motion with their special tool. Afterwards, I turned around and looked at the surgical table in amazement, still feeling very much detached, picking up one of the bloodied teeth and staring at it in amazement. I also checked out the special tool he had used to remove the teeth, a tool I hadn’t even caught a glimpse of when it was being used. It looked kind of like a cross between pliers, scissors, and a hole punch. Given that description, you can imagine how it is used.

I hadn’t gone into the oral surgeon’s office feeling afraid, but the assistant (nurse?) who was prepping me before the surgeon came in kept on asking if I was alright. I guess she deals with a lot of people who come in terrified, but her persistent worry for me actually made me feel slightly worried. If nothing else, I was worried about why she expected people to be more worried. But after all was said and done, it wasn’t that bad. The pain was not nearly as bad as I had heard from others. They prescribed me Vicodin, but Advil more than sufficed. The surgery didn’t really bother me. I’ve seen more intense things on Discovery Health and educational anatomy autopsy videos linked from Pharyngula (thanks, PZ).

But it was that feeling of being out of myself, of being nothing more than a passive participant in what was a very personal matter to me, that echoed so much the accounts people typically give of alien abductions. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe any of that hogwash, but now I know where it’s coming from. I always wondered why so many people reported, so consistently, the same descriptions of alien encounters. Now I think I know. There is a grain of truth to it after all, but the real source of it is human, not alien, in nature.

CompUSA closing for good

Saturday, December 8th, 2007

It’s with a good deal of sadness that I read recently that CompUSA is closing for good. Last year they underwent a major restructuring and closed down about half of their stores in an effort to restore profitability, but that plan apparently failed. The remaining stores will be closed down soon after this holiday shopping season.

I have a lot of fond memories from CompUSA. When I was younger, my dad would take me there and I would be in computer wonderland. It’s where we got all of our computer stuff: Keyboards, mice, floppy disks (and later blank CDs), joysticks, video cards, RAM, and especially games. Even back in middle school, I experienced more excitement going to CompUSA than going to a toy store. I loved that place. We would go there at least once a month, not necessarily even to buy anything, but just to see all of the new stuff that was coming out in the field that we loved. Believe it or not, CompUSA was once a happening place. We made it a routine part of our regular errands (much to the chagrin of my mother and sister).

But over time, things changed. Internet shopping caught on, and I started making the majority of my computer-related purchases online (especially at NewEgg). I couldn’t resist the lower prices and better selection. Also, we got a broadband Internet connection, and it suddenly became feasible to download games rather than paying for them in stores (and much easier on my slim teenaged budget).

And somewhere along the way, CompUSA got worse. Much, much, worse. When I revisited the local stores in recent years, CompUSA had become a shell of its former self. They had taken the use of rebates to extreme levels, with many products having two separate rebates that only got the price down to the normal sales price on NewEgg. Copying all of the rebate submission materials was a chore, and then inevitably one of the two would be rejected because of a photocopied UPC. A lot of the time the advertised price was an outright lie, because it factored in two different rebates that often could not be redeemed simultaneously. It was very off-putting.

CompUSA simply became obsolete. They branched out into more products, including televisions, cell phones, and gaming consoles, but couldn’t compete on a price basis with their competitors in any of those areas. They deserved to die out. But I’ll still have all of those fond memories of going to CompUSA during those halcyon days of my youthful nerddom and lusting after dozens of computer games and parts. I do the equivalent on NewEgg now, but it’s not quite the same.

The Commodore 64 turns 25 and CNN notices

Friday, December 7th, 2007

The Commodore 64 turns 25 this year, and amazingly, CNN seems to deem it important enough to merit a front page story. Obviously they have some nerds on staff, because this is far better than their usual sensationalist fare. I’m too young to have grown up with a Commodore, but I do envy everyone who had the experience of using one. From all I’ve read and heard, it sounds like a great system. It was also the best-selling personal computer model of all time, selling 30 million units over its lifespan of twelve years. I can’t even imagine a computer model lasting more than two years these days.

The great thing about the Commodore 64 is that it was affordable (at $600, it was cheaper than a lot of personal computers on the market these days, even adjusting for inflation) and it was hackable. You could get really close to the machine and write all sorts of neat programs out of the box. It turned a generation of kids onto programming. Personal computers these days don’t come with development environments and compilers. If you want to program, you have to go out and download the tools (and many people don’t even realize you can). The way the Commodore 64 did it was much better.

I think it’d be really neat to buy a Commodore 64 and experiment with it to see what the generation of nerds before me was using. It’s not too expensive (going for less than $100 on eBay, and certainly less in local used computer/electronic stores). I already have a bunch of older computers, including some SPARC stations, at my house, so why not add to the collection?

Commodore 64 on CNN front page

Facebook neuters Beacon, but I won’t be back

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

Facebook finally caved after weeks of protests and added a way for users to completely opt out of Beacon. Not that I care. This latest change is too little, too late, and there are no future assurances that Facebook won’t try something again in the future. I already quit Facebook and I’m not coming back.

If you haven’t kept up on this issue, let me explain. Beacon is a service that Facebook recently launched. It integrates with a bunch of online retailers, so anytime you buy something online it is automatically added to your Facebook feed. It was launched as an opt-out service, meaning it was automatically turned on for you unless you explicitly opted out. Needless to say, this ruined a lot of people’s days, including one husband’s who bought a ring for his wife for Christmas only to have it show up on his feed on Facebook and spoil the surprise when his wife read about it. There wasn’t even any way to opt out of Beacon globally; one had to opt out individually for each participating site, but only after something was added to one’s Beacon feed from that site. Needless to say, the original implementation was inexcusably terrible and privacy-infringing.

The new implementation is only slightly better. You are finally able to opt out of Beacon entirely, but you have to make that conscious choice to say you don’t want to do it. It should instead be opt-in, meaning you have to sign up to enable the Beacon service. But opting out of Beacon doesn’t even prevent Facebook from gathering all of the personal details about what you’re buying. It simply prevents them from displaying on the site. But rest assured, Facebook will be processing through all of that personal detail for profit.

Thus, my reasons for continuing to stay away from Facebook and urging everyone I know to do the same are twofold. One, this recent change isn’t a true opt out. It’s still enabled by default, and even when you do “opt out”, all of the privacy-infringing personal details are being recorded. All of the same bad things are going on behind the scenes. And secondly, the manner in which Facebook launched this new feature was atrocious. Time and time again they’ve added new privacy-infringing features (the previous one was the mini-feed) that many people don’t want, and made them enabled by default for all users. Simply put, I’ve lost all trust in the company, and I’m confident that they will continue with these shenanigans in the future. Why wouldn’t they? They stand to make a lot more profit by treating their customers as money plants to be farmed for profit than privacy-deserving human beings. The only way to avoid future impingements on your privacy is not to play the game. Quit Facebook now.

Republicans: The teen pregnancy party

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

For the first time in fifteen years, teen pregnancies in the United States are up. The reason is, of course, the nonsense abstinence-only education that’s being foisted upon us. We’re spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars annually on sex non-education that doesn’t work. Comprehensive studies have been done on the subject showing that telling teens not to have sex has no effect on whether they actually do have sex. And why would it? Sex is a natural biological urge that has been programmed into us by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Kids already don’t listen when told to clean their room, and it’s certainly not as if they experience amazing orgasms from dirty rooms.

Unfortunately, abstinence-only education comes from the religious nutjobs. They deny the truth of basic science, so in addition to not believing in evolution, they think their religion tells them that the only acceptable way to deal with teenage pregnancies is to tell teens not to have premarital sex. Sex is evil, see, so you shouldn’t tell teens how to use protection, even if it prevents pregnancies and the transmission of STDs.

Here’s hoping a Democrat is elected in 2008 and we are freed of this religious tyranny. We should not be wasting taxpayer money on programs that clearly don’t work, and this latest statistic is proof that abstinence-only education does not. States that have abstinence-only education are the states with the highest incidence rates of teen pregnancy? Coincidence? Not really. It’s time the conservatives stopped sticking their fingers in their ears, saying La-la-la-la-la. There’s no denying that teens are going to have sex no matter what you tell them, so you should at least educate them on how to mitigate the consequences of having sex. Sex isn’t cocaine; “Just say no” makes absolutely no sense. “Here’s how to do it safely” does.