Father’s Day Gifts

Don’t feel sorry for my dad. He is 100% sharp and 100% active. He teaches computing to his fellow seniors at the condo. I suspect he is currently having the best time of his life. Can you say that?

logitech_keys.jpgIt’s Father’s Day. It’s good to have an excuse to be nicer to my dad! We like to buy a Father’s Day gift for him, but quite honestly it’s tough to do. What do you buy an 82 year old man? By now he has acquired nearly everything he wants!

We know some of the gifts we got him in the past were received graciously, but still missed the mark.

Oh–I should mention deciding on my dad’s gift is my responsibility. Considering Helaine is responsible for the other 99.9% of purchases we make it seems fair. But, like I said, he’s tough to buy for.

Along with being 82 and quivering from “essential tremors,” my dad has just one working eye. The ‘good one’ is no prize either with cataracts and other age related problems.

-PAUSE- Don’t feel sorry for my dad. He is 100% sharp and 100% active. He teaches computing to his fellow seniors at the condo. He is MSNBC’s most loyal viewer (often playing the TV loud enough to make sure his neighbors also hear the show). I suspect he is currently having the best time of his life. Can you say that?

While visiting us last month he mentioned in passing that it’s sometimes difficult to use his computer’s keyboard in anything but strong light. That’s what led to his gift–a “Logitech Illuminated Ultrathin Keyboard with Backlighting

Bright, Laser-Etched, Backlit Keys that Let You Type Easily–Even in the Dark

Bright, laser-etched, backlit keys provide precise illumination that can be adjusted to suit your needs. And only the characters are illuminated, so you get just the right amount of light.

When we spoke to him early this afternoon he sounded genuinely pleased. He characterized it as a “thoughtful gift.” It’s something for my dad’s inner geek.

It is better to give than to receive.

Trouble On The Shuttle

Tonight, AP reports:

A close-up laser inspection by Endeavour’s astronauts Sunday revealed that a 3 1/2-inch-long gouge penetrates all the way through the thermal shielding on the shuttle’s belly, and had NASA urgently calculating whether risky spacewalk repairs are needed.

A chunk of insulating foam smacked the shuttle at liftoff last week in an unbelievably unlucky ricochet off the fuel tank and carved out the gouge.

This is a big deal. The area where this gouge is located heats to over 2,000&#176 on reentry. The thermal tiles are the only thing that keeps the shuttle from frying on its way back to Earth!

I, for one, have lost my taste for the danger, without equal reward, the shuttle brings.

Whether this becomes a big deal in the media or not… it’s a big deal to the folks on Endeavour. Their lives are in peril.

Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip

Wow – I like this show a lot.

Here’s the funny part. I never would have seen it had it not been for Helaine, who set the DVR for herself. Last week it was just there. This week too.

I’ve told a few friends this is West Wing II. Maybe that’s unfair, because it’s obviously not a show about the White House, but a TV show.

The sensibilities are the same as West Wing. The edgy look, underlit and high contrast, matches West Wing too. Maybe that’s because, though the show is performed by an ensemble cast, all their words come from Aaron Sorkin, also responsible for West Wing.

You won’t immediately know the name of every significant cast member, but the faces are familiar. The biggest names are Bradley Whitford (West Wing), Matthew Perry (Friends) and Amanda Peet (gorgeous).

The premise is simple: a behind the scenes look at a weekly sketch comedy show, not unlike Saturday Night Live&#185. There’s conflict with the network, the public, the cast. Conflict is good for television.

It’s possible I like this show for different reasons than you. I think Studio 60 is showing us a part of television that’s in the midst of disappearing – high budget, mass market, common experience TV.

I like that kind of television. I will mourn its loss.

Can Studio 60, the show within the show, exist when broadcasting has given way to niche-casting? Can a show that hires a symphonic orchestra and chorus get renewed as budgets tighten and audiences shrink?

Even Saturday Night Live, the last of its kind, has been forced to cut back this season. At least four of last year’s cast members were dropped to save cash.

I love television. I love these complex pieces of programming that come together, touched by dozens of hands. There’s an excitement when the control room sits a dozen or more tightly wound souls, concentrating deeply enough to discern each of the 29.97 individual frames that flash by every second.

It’s what I grew up watching. It was attractive enough to sucker me as an employee.

TV is becoming more of an individual effort. TV programs are more narrowly aimed. In some cases TV programs have eliminated he TV station entirely. They are laser like as they look for their specific, targeted audience.

I grew up in an era when each network was a fire hose and everyone got wet!

There are no more Ed Sullivans, no more Walter Cronkites, no more Studio 60s. It’s quite possible there will be no more Geoff Fox’s – air talent who amass as many individual impressions as I have over twenty two years in one market.

This crunch over viewers and costs has been enabled by new technologies. which replace people. I suppose it’s inevitable, even if it’s a shame.

A single TV show as a universal experience will never happen again. That’s why we need to celebrate the glory that is Studio 60, today.

&#185 – Though there are parallels, this can’t be Saturday Night Live. In fact, Studio 60 acknowledges SNL as another network show.

One More Planet – It Could Be Xena

Considering how long telescopes have been around and the limitations imposed by our atmosphere, it boggles the mind to think there are new discoveries – lots of new discoveries, from Earth based telescopes.

PASADENA, Calif.–A planet larger than Pluto has been discovered in the outlying regions of the solar system with the Samuel Oschin Telescope at Palomar Observatory, California Institute of Technology planetary scientist Mike Brown announced today.

The planet is a typical member of the Kuiper belt, but its sheer size in relation to the nine planets already known means that it can only be classified as a planet, Brown says. Currently about 97 astronomical units from the sun (an astronomical unit is the distance between the sun and Earth), the planet becomes the farthest-known object in the solar system, and the third brightest of the Kuiper belt objects.

“It will be visible over the next six months and is currently almost directly overhead in the early-morning eastern sky, in the constellation Cetus,” says Brown, who made the discovery with colleagues Chad Trujillo, of the Gemini Observatory, and David Rabinowitz, of Yale University, on January 8.

Yale – wow! That means some of these discoveries are being made by people who work down the block from me. I decided to drop David Rabinowitz a congratulatory note.

Before we go on – I am not shy about using email to reach out, especially when there’s more information I want. I have corresponded with Nobel Prize winners, famous scientists and journalists, producers I’ve wanted to work for… even actor/lawyer/game show host/commentator Ben Stein&#185.

Hi David,

I just want you to know, every time I read about this amazing discovery, I am pleased to see there was a New Haven/Yale connection. Congratulations on your work.

When things calm down and you get a few minutes, could you tell me how this evaded detection for so long? I would have assumed there would be some gravitational component that was seen yet unaccounted for and would have led to an earlier search. Of course my knowledge of planetary physics leaves lots to be desired.

All the best,

Geoff Fox

A few hours later, there was a reply.

Hi Geoff. Thanks for the kudos.

It is amazing that this new planet, which I am still getting used to calling a planet, was not detected before. But it doesn’t have anything to do with the orbital dynamics. It is too small to have an effect on the orbits of the other planets. So it wouldn’t show up that way.

Really, the short answer is that nobody ever looked before. For the first time, we are using a large telescope and a large digital camera to search the whole northern hemisphere for distant planets. Building the camera was a major accomplishment – it was a team effort at the Yale Physics Dept and Indiana Univ. in Bloomginton IN. Called the Palomar-Quest camera, it is one of the worlds largest digital camera – 160 Megs. In combination with the special wide-field optics of the 48″” Samuel Oschin Schmidt at Palomar Observatory, we can search the whole northern hemisphere more efficiently than anybody else.

Now nobody ever though it would be very productive to search for distant planets far from the plane of the planets — the ecliptic plane. Our competitors, in fact, mostly search only within a few degrees of the ecliptic. But because we can search so much area with Palomar-Quest, we decided to search everywhere. We started at the ecliptic, believing this would be most productive. But strangely, the most intriguing discoveries have been out of the plane. We found Sedna 12 degrees below the plane, we found our new planet 14 deg below the plane. One of the new objects reported on Friday, called 2003 FY9, is the brightest (but not biggest) object in the Kuiper Belt. It is 30 degrees above the ecliptic plane.

What makes astronomy so exciting, there is so much out there left to be discovered. Building a new instruments helps. But just looking where nobody expects to find something, you can get lucky. We still have more area to search even farther from the ecliptic. So there could even be more exciting things to find.


David Rabinowitz

Basically, the team took a succession of photos and then analyzed them for movement. From our perspective, distant stars stand still while much closer planets (or asteroids, comets and meteors) move in the sky. Look for something moving like a planet and you just might spot a planet! Or, you might just be picking out some noise in the telescope’s sensors. That’s where astronomers come in.

The picture on the left represents what you would see, looking at the Sun from this distant planet. It’s just another very bright star in a very dark sky.

To me, the “magic keys” to this discovery are both the laser guide star adaptive optics, which allows astronomers on the ground to take images as sharp as the images from the Hubble Space Telescope and the ability to have much of the grunt work of comparing images done by computer.

In any event, as more and more objects are discovered, there will be more and more controversy over what exactly is a planet? Lots of astronomers don’t think Pluto is a planet! And this new sighting, though larger than Pluto, is in some ways similar – especially its orbit.

In the meantime, the word is the discoverers are waiting for approval to call this planet, “Xena.”

&#185 – After the “Deep Throat” unmasking, I wrote Ben to disagree with a commentary he had written. We went back through three or four sets of emails, airing our opposing views. I enjoyed the discussion, and was meticulous in sourcing my conclusions. Ben also seemed to enjoy the ‘fight’ and gave back without hesitation.

Though we disagreed strongly, I have a great deal of respect for him and was more than a little pleased he was willing to engage me in this manner.

My Trashy Story

Every week, on Friday, our trash goes to the curb. Every other week it’s supposed to be accompanied by recycling. It doesn’t work that way in our household.

Whether it’s our distance from the curb or the amount of recycled newspapers we have (we subscribe to both the New Haven Register or New York Times) or maybe all the boxes we get because of online shopping, going to the curb bi-weekly doesn’t work. So all of this recyclable material piles up in the garage. A few times a year we stuff it into the SUV and I drive it to the transfer station.

Transfer station, what a lovely phrase. It’s so much more genteel than town dump.

I drove up to the transfer station this morning only to find the new policy – no newspapers. I had an SUV full of recyclables, and of course, the supermarket bags of newspapers were on top!

I unloaded the 20 or so bags of newspapers to get to the cardboard and other material underneath. At this point the transfer station folks took pity on me and found a place… a transfer station loophole if you will… that allowed me to drop the papers off. From now on it’s newspapers to the street, I suppose.

I want to be a good citizen, but it is increasingly difficult to follow the rules. In fact, it would be much easier to hide the newspapers and cardboard and bottles with our weekly trash. I’m sure a lot of people do just that. It also always strikes me as a little ironic that the two most talked about recycled products are made from sand (glass) or grow on trees (paper).

I know this is supposed to be good for the environment, and I’m for that. But, is it really? Is this just a feel good exercise with no payoff… or negative payoff?

From “Recycling Is Garbage” – New York Times Magazine, June 30, 1996:

Every time a sanitation department crew picks up a load of bottles and cans from the curb, New York City loses money. The recycling program consumes resources. It requires extra administrators and a continual public relations campaign explaining what to do with dozens of different products — recycle milk jugs but not milk cartons, index cards but not construction paper. (Most New Yorkers still don’t know the rules.) It requires enforcement agents to inspect garbage and issue tickets. Most of all, it requires extra collection crews and trucks. Collecting a ton of recyclable items is three times more expensive than collecting a ton of garbage because the crews pick up less material at each stop. For every ton of glass, plastic and metal that the truck delivers to a private recycler, the city currently spends $200 more than it would spend to bury the material in a landfill.

I don’t know what to think. I want to do what’s right, but I am really not sure. Until I know otherwise, I will follow the rules.

In the meantime, part of our recycling life at home will have to change. Newspapers to the curb. I can hardly wait for the first really big rain on a Thursday night.

Continue reading “My Trashy Story”

The Height of Embarrassment

Being back on Atkins, I am the best friend the Cattleman’s Association ever had! There are days when I eat beef three separate times. As much as Helaine buys, we’re always running out. That was the case today.

So, on the way home from seeing a friend, I pulled into the Super Stop & Shop in Cheshire.

As I walked in I spotted a few people I know selling SnoKones to benefit Juvenile Diabetes. They asked if I lived in Cheshire? No – just passing through, getting meat.

Inside the store a woman came up to me and said hello. Do I live in Cheshire? No.

I said hello to a few more people, got my strip steaks and headed out… but not before stopping at the magazine rack. I’m thinking about a new camera and during the ‘salivation stage’ Popular Photography serves me in much the same way that Playboy serves 16 year old boys.

I threw the magazine high up under my arm so the binding reached all the way to my arm pit. In my hand was the precious steak. I walked to the checkout.

I go to the grocery store so infrequently that I’m sure I’m going to have a George H. W. Bush moment at some point – getting excited about something pedestrian to those who shop all the time.

An express checkout line was open, so with the magazine still firmly implanted, I began to self check. The meat went through the laser sensor with the attendant beep. On a touch screen pressed I pressed a button and began to fish for my wallet and credit card.

“Do you want to buy that magazine?”

The voice came from the end of the line where a uniformed Stop and Shop employee had been paying more attention than I had! I had done everything short of swiping my card when she noticed the magazine was about to be taken without being purchased.

At this point she didn’t recognize me, though she soon would. I was red faced. She said she understood – but I wondered if she really did.

In reality, I’m a very lucky guy. Thirty seconds later I would have been in the parking lot, officially a thief.

This kind of thing probably happens all the time, but that doesn’t make it any less distressing. Is this the first time I’ve absent mindedly walked away with something? I’ll never know. That’s even more distressing.

Sneaky Stuff On Route 40

Every night, on my way home from work, I head north on I-91 and then cut west for a few miles on State Route 40. Route 40 is a beautiful little gem of a road. As it wends its way between North Haven and Hamden, you pass by hundreds of yards of exposed rock face. The geological history of Connecticut is out in the open, and to a non-geologist like me, picturesque. At least once or twice a year students come by bus or van, stand by the side of the road, and examine the rocks to help their classroom work.

It is a wide road with nice shoulders, large separation between opposing traffic and very few cars. In my 13 years of traveling this road I have never seen a police officer with radar or laser gun… until last night.

As I crested a hill, approaching another car in the right lane, I saw a darkened car on the right shoulder. Moving closer, I noticed what looked like a roof rack. I tapped my brakes. At that very instant my radar detectopr went off. That’s about the time the car I had been approaching noticed. Too late for him. Twenty seconds later he and a State Tropper were on the grass.

One of my co-worker, passing by a few minutes later, was sure it was me. He’s seen me pass him by loads of times.

There’s really a larger problem here. This is a beautiful road, built for speed, with an unreasonably low speed limit. It’s never higher than 55 mph, and drops to 35 mph before the road ends at a traffic light. That 35 mph limit is lower than the non-divided highway you’re forced on!

How do roads get speed limits? I have no clue. It just seems that this one is inappropriately low.

I feel bad for the guy who (probably) got a ticket. I’ll be going slower and keeping my eyes open wider tonight.

TV Sports Factory Outlet

Living here in Connecticut, I’m not far from ESPN, the self proclaimed, “worldwide leader in sports.” They are located in Bristol, not far from the tall, narrow building used by Otis Elevators as a test center for elevator technology (really – the vast majority of the building is taken up by shafts).

I had been invited by a friend, for lunch. Working in this market so long, I know a bunch of people there. What always strikes me as odd is that people at ESPN also know me. It was a little unnerving, a few years ago, to meet some of their higher profile talent and have them know me.

I last visited ESPN more than 20 years ago. Back then I marveled at their satellite dishes. That was nothing!

As you approach ESPN, crossing from Southington to Bristol, the first thing you see are the immense dishes… and dozens of them. Since we’re pretty far from the equator, and lots of the satellites are really positioned for Europe or the Pacific, most of the dishes are barely pointed above the horizon. It’s a Star Wars scene to say the least.

Inside is just as immense. My TV station looks like a Radio Shack compared to what’s going on at ESPN! With 10 TV networks (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPN News, ESPN Deportes, ESPN-HD, ESPN Atlantic, ESPN Pac-Rim, ESPN Latin America [Spanish], ESPN Latin America [Portugese] PLUS 24/7 ESPN radio PLUS regional feeds PLUS occasional domestic and international feeds… ESPN.com originates in Bristol as well), the place is hopping around the clock. Because weekday sports is a nighttime thing, the most action takes place during what’s traditionally 2nd shift.

Wherever you look there are edit booths (they’re named by letters of the alphabet, but they recently ran out and had to name the 27th “AA”). Some are traditional with multiple tape machines and possibly a switcher. More and more they are becoming non-linear editing stations where all the audio and video ‘live’ on hard drives and not tape decks.

Keeping a facility like ESPN up-to-date is exceedingly difficult. As you advance the technology, going digital in what was once an analog world, you have to make sure ‘legacy’ equipment still functions and that all the equipment plays well together. I don’t envy the engineers who deal with that. I have seen, as video and audio paths move through different processes, that they tend to move out of sync… so lips flap before (or after) the words come out.

One of the smallest pieces of equipment I saw was one of the most startling. An engineer was splicing fiber optic cable by fusing it using laser light. As the two ends to be connected approached each other, they were displayed on a small LCD screen. Then, the screen went white. As it faded back to the original scene, what had been two pieces was now one. It looked like something out of a James Bond movie.

With all the networks, and all the programming, moving ‘normal’ TV signals around the plant is a major undertaking. The 125 channel in-house cable TV system is about to add a digital tier.

Of course I went to the Sports Center studio. Da da dum, da da dum. It was reasonably large for a studio. Most people see a TV studio for the first time and are immediately struck by how small they usually are. This was larger than it would have to be were it not for the fact that the opposite wall was used as a set for the NFL shows. The studio has three cameras on pedestals and another on a ‘jib’, which enables it to smoothly fly in three dimensions for a little added sizzle. There is a walkway about the flats.

The coloring of the studio and its fixtures seemed a little cold in real life. The desk areas were much too reminiscent of a hip clothing store at the mall. Still, on the air it looks great and that’s all that counts.

The most surprising part of the trip, and ostensibly the real purpose of my going there, was the cafeteria. It looked like something from Vegas, with a pasta station, salad bar and open grill. My friend told me, as nice as it is, people still kvetch. That doesn’t surprise me – though they’re crazy if they do. It is an employees job to kvetch, and most do it really well.