Wednesday, December 27, 2006

So that was Christmas. . .

. . .And what have we done?

Well, Reg and I just got back from San Diego for Christmas. Fun times had by all: Saturday was spent fixing stuff around my mom's house (Merry Christmas. . . here are some motion sensitive flood lights!), and then hanging out with K-lee and Dimitri in the evening; Sunday was spent trying to build a screen to replace a broken one at my mom's house, then hanging out at Reg's Grandma Jackie's for dinner, then midnight mass with my mom, sister, and the Plunketts. Holy Trinity has a new pastor, after the beloved Father Brian Corcoran moved to a different parish. He will be missed, but the new pastor seems like a nice guy. Christmas was spent at Grandma Jackie's in the morning, then at my mom's for the late afternoon and evening. Tuesday was a not-too-bad drive up to Long Beach in the mid-day, a few hours of volunteer diving, and then a not-too-bad drive home.

A decent amount of driving around, but nowhere near the hassle of a few years ago, when we were going to 5 different christmas events on the same day!

Monday, December 18, 2006

To Drive or Not To Drive. . .

. . . that is the question.

So it's just before a new quarter at school, and I'm considering a question that man has wrestled with since before civilization began:

Should I take the Metro Rapid 761 bus to UCLA and back everyday, or should I pay for a parking permit and drive there?

It's basically weighing cost against convenience: If I buy a parking permit (as I have been for the last year or so), I can come and go when I want, and will have my car in the parking garage right next to my building at school. I can go between UCLA and our home in Sherman Oaks (~11 miles) via Beverly Glen, Sepulveda, or the 405, depending on traffic conditions, in anywhere from 20 minutes to 1 hour one-way. Also, on Tuesdays, when I go to the Aquarium in Long Beach, I can work at school for the morning, then hop in the car and drive down to LB in ~30 minutes on the 405, and having the car nearby in Westwood also frees me up to run errands on the way home (like stopping at the grocery store).

But a parking permit costs $171 dollars for the 12 week Winter Quarter, and of course, with gasoline costs, I end up paying closer to $300-$350 for gas/permit to get to/from UCLA all quarter. The alternative is to get a UCLA-discounted MetroPass, which would allow me to take the bus to/from UCLA all quarter for a total cost of $42.

So I'd save ~$300 over the quarter if I took the bus to school instead of the car, and of course I'd be producing less CO2 by not driving my car as much (the bus runs whether I'm on it or not), so the bus would be the "greener" option, I suppose. But I'd be sacrificing the convenience and freedom of showing up and leaving UCLA whenever I want. . . as well as taking slightly longer to get to school or home, given the bus' many stops.

Aquarium Tuesdays would probably be dealt with by me just working at home in the morning, and driving to Long Beach from Sherman Oaks, not going in to UCLA at all on that day.

hmmmmm . . .

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Finally, an update

. . .yeah. . . sorry about that. So I lagged on updating my blog a bit. By a bit, I of course mean 4 months. yeesh. Time flies.

Well, in that time the fall quarter of school came and went. I can't believe I'm starting my 4th year of grad school. My friend Dave just defended his thesis, and he was a 4th year when I came in. Crazy.

I've been working all quarter on this research project that I am having trouble actually finishing. Been working on it on and off for a couple years now, and I'm finally to the point where I think I can write it up and submit it to a journal. It's a statistical study observing the daytime increase in plasma density in the plasmasphere, thought to be due to heating and ionization by solar EUV of the Earth's ionosphere. One of those things that has been long predicted, but never reliably observed. If it gets published, it would be my first scientific journal article as first author (I've been co-author on a couple others already, but this project is all me, with help from my advisor and a collaborator in Arizona). Shouldn't get ahead of myself though, I still have some work to do on it before it's ready. Sigh.

Of course, I've managed to distract myself with other pursuits this quarter as well. For one, I took a classical mechanics course (last time I took classical mechanics was over 4 years ago in undergrad, and I wanted to brush up with the help of a professor I really respect.) This was also in preparation for an orbital dynamics course that's finally being offered next spring, and will be taught by the same professor that taught mechanics this quarter. I'm looking forward to this class, as its listing in the catalog has enticed me since I got here over 3 years ago, and this is the first time it's been offered in like 5 years.

Another distraction (though a very welcome one) has been my Scientific Diving class at Aquarium of the Pacific. I've been a volunteer diver at the Aquarium for a year now, target feeding fish in the exhibits, cleaning the exhibits, and giving underwater presentations. But this Scientific Diver certification through the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) will allow me to participate in various science diving projects in the open ocean. We'll be doing fish counts, invertebrate counts, algae surveys and other projects throughout the L.A. and Orange county coasts, as well as on the oil rigs, Channel Islands, and Catalina. The class was pretty rigorous: 3 hours of lecture every monday covering topics from physiology and dive physics (mainly buoyancy problems: ex: if you want to lift a 200 lb object that takes up 3 cubic feet of volume from 100 ft depth in sea water, how many 50 lb lift-bags do you need and how much air should you bring down from the surface?). We also had some really interesting lectures about decompression theory, given by the head of the Catalina recompression chamber. Some of the stories the guy told about people with extreme cases of the bends, arterial gas embolism, and emphyzema were definitely enough to make me wary about using my computer and dive tables conservatively.

In addition to the lectures, the meat of the class was in the dives themselves: every Sunday from 7 am to ~3 pm. We practiced laying out transect meter tapes, using lift-bags for salvage, scientific data collection methods, etc. The final two dives were just plain fun: one was on the Ellen-E oil rig off Huntington beach, where we saw millions of brittle stars and strawberry anemones, as well as a few sea lions that played with us underwater. The second dive was a blue-water dive (ie: can't see the bottom or any other topography underwater, just out in the open ocean). We used a "blue-water-rig", which is essentially a connection point for tether ropes that everyone attaches to their BC's, so we can all stay together and at a given depth when collecting jellies or whatever (see picture above right).

Our group at the Aquarium is also partnering with an organization called ReefCheck, which is trying to train and use volunteer divers throughout California to consistently monitor fish, invertebrate, and algae species abundance at various sites just off the coast. Thanks to them, I'm getting better at identifying the various so-cal species.

I'm looking forward to going on some of these dives soon in the new year, both because it gives me another opportunity to do something I really enjoy, and because I actually feel like I'm contributing something useful by diving for a purpose. Goes along with that whole "pursuit of purpose" part of my blog title. :)

In other news, I'm looking forward to spending more time with family as Christmas approaches. Reg has gone into super holiday mode, mailing off cards and categorizing christmas lists. I'm sure this will result in at least 3 pages in her scrapbook! Seriously though, she manages our lives expertly. . . I shudder to think what my level of personal organization would be like without her.

And, probably most importantly, another major event has occurred in my life: Nintendo has finally released its latest incarnation of the Legend of Zelda. What with that and my addition to Survivor, Lost, Heroes, and (suddenly) Battlestar Galactica, I feel more secure in my nerdhood than ever before.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Travel Dance

This guy had a good idea for marking the places he's traveled to! Wouldn't it be nice to travel around the world?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Bad Luck

I don't believe that a person can be "cursed" or "blessed". It is certainly possible that a person can have things turn out badly for then more often than other people, but I dont think there is any explanation for that other than luck. Random chance and coincidence play such a huge role in our lives. It's unsettling to think we don't have absolute control over what happens to us. I guess how our lives turnout depends on how we play the cards we are dealt by chance. Chance handles about half the work, and your own attitude and drive takes up the rest. Someone could have bad luck for a while, but a great attitude about it, and it would appear that that person is doing A-OK. Others could have great luck and not appreciate it, and it would appear they are having a hard time.

I say: Do your best at all you do; that's all anyone can expect. And don't take things too seriously. The ability to laugh at or brush off a bad event or situation, and the willingness to get back up after falling could save your life, or at least make it a lot more enjoyable. Keep things in perspective.

I had a round of minor bad luck that started on Monday. Regan headed south to San Diego for a couple of days, so I was left to my own devices. In the past, before I was married, this would not have been a problem for me. Nowadays, I've let myself delegate certain tasks that I used to handle myself to my wife. Things like remembering the date of an upcoming event, the street-by-street directions to a certain location, reminding me not to forget my keys as I walk out the door. . . I'll return to that last one later.

As I was leaving JPL on Monday, I opened my windows to let the breeze in. I started hearing a periodic "clack, clack, clack" coming from outside the right window. Pulling over, I found that it was coming from my right rear tire, which was flat. A nail had been embedded in the tread, and was making the clacking noise as it hit the asphalt on every rotation. Looking in the trunk, I found I had a compressor(my wife must have put it there). I re-inflated the tire and found that the leak was slow enough to drive home on. A good thing, since it was too late to take the tire in to be fixed that day, and I had to use the freeways to get home (the tiny spare is not meant for speeds over 50 mph).

So there it was, some bad luck (flat tire) and some good luck (compressor in the back). No problem. Home. Bed.

Next morning I gear up for the day: directions to Discount Tire Co. to get the tires fixed and rotated, swimsuit, towel, and mask for aquarium volunteering, backpack for work, white car key. About that car key: I keep it separate from my main key chain, since I have my key to the other car on that chain and I don't like to have two keyless entry remotes on the same keychain (too bulky). Stepped out the door, twisting the knob lock, and let the door swing toward shutting. Put my hand in my pocket to get out my house key to lock the top lock. . . the keys are not in my pocket. . . *click*. The door shuts. I stand motionless for about 30 seconds. What should I do? My nearest source for another key to my condo is in San Diego. . . We have tons of extra keys. . . all on the other side of the door. My hand flies up and strikes my forehead with a thunderous SMACK!

Time is of the essence, as I have to get the tire fixed and then get on the road to Long Beach. I borrow a key to the garage and elevator from a neighbor downstairs, so I can get to my car. Then it's off to discount tire and down to Long Beach. I dive happily and give presentations and feed animals. I call Phil to ask if I can stay at his house in Downey for the night. I can. Sit through a 4 hour CPR class, then it's off to Downey to get to Phil's house. Get up early and drive to work. By the end of the day, I realize I have lost the garage key and elevator key that I borrowed from the neighbor less than 24 hours before. Regan gets home that night, lets me in, and all is well.

So, over just two days (those days when Regan was gone) I got a flat tire, locked myself out of my condo, and lost a set of keys lent to me by a good samaritan neighbor. On the bad side, I feel like a moron with bad luck. On the good side, I got to have a bit of an adventure, and I had neighbors and friends available to help me out.

I don't believe someone can be cursed or blessed. And I know the fact that these things happened only during the short period my wife was away was only a coincidence. But it sure didn't feel like it at first. It felt like I was cursed. The fact that I had people willing to help me made it easy to have a good attitude about it all, though.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Snakes on a Plane

Much has been made about the upcoming Samuel L. Jackson movie "Snakes on a Plane". It has become an internet sensation. The title basically tells you the whole plot. No further explanation is required. With just those four words, and the fact that Samuel L. Jackson is in it, you can probably figure out the whole story. It's been spoofed and made fun of all over the place, and it has been said that the producers have even added the line "Get these motha****** snakes off my motha****** plane!" into the film after internet users imagined Jackson saying that line.

Very funny, right?

WRONG! It can happen to someone. . . anyone. . . YOU! Observe the case of one Monty Coles, a 62 year old private pilot who found a snake in the cockpit of his single engine Piper Cherokee. As he puts it, in what I think is a better line than the one imagined for Sam Jackson, " I had one hand full of snake and the other hand full of plane!",2933,197976,00.html

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Real work. . .

Reg and I headed out to Julian this past weekend to help the Parker family with the garage they are building. The plot of land used to be the site of Linda's parents' house, which burned down in the Cedar fire of 2003. Now the family is building a new house on the land. They're saving money by building it themselves in their spare time.

It felt good to do some real, physical work. So much of what I do involves reading and computer work.

Monday, July 17, 2006


The internet leads to the invention of a new word. . . sort of.


Thursday, July 13, 2006

Ahh. . . summer.

The summer kicked off with the Geospace Environment Modeling (GEM) conference in Snowmass, Colorado. I presented a poster on my research, and Regan came along to get some vacation time in, since she's off for the summer. That's one of the huge benefits to being a teacher: summers off.

After the conference we drove through Utah and stopped at Arches, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks. Beautiful places.

Also, Regan came with me to one of my volunteer shifts diving at the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific last tuesday, and snapped some photos of me in the water.

Pictures of vacation and diving are at my flickr site:

Here's to a fun and productive summer!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Moons of Saturn

Another cool movie has been released by NASA. This one is of three moons of Saturn as viewed by the Cassini spacecraft.

The center (and largest) moon is Rhea, and it is the closest. Further away is Mimas, the moon on top, and even further away (yet larger in size than the top moon)is Enceladus. Check out the link to see the movie in motion and learn more about it.

Fun fact: Enceladus (the bottom moon) has been discovered to have sub-surface liquid water beneath its icy crust. The fact that this water sometimes escapes the surface (cryovolcanism) provides water molecules into the space surrounding the moon, and these water molecules become ionized by sunlight and travel through Saturn's magnetosphere. What an amazing system!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Proofs that God exists

Disclaimer: I don't mean to offend anyone (yeah, all 10 million of you who read my blog).

My friends know (or maybe some of them don't) that I am agnostic when it comes to religion. I used to be a devout and faithful Catholic. Nowadays I'm not convinced by most of the arguments for the veracity of much of the mythology of Christianity or even the existence of God. I agree with many of the take home messages from Christianity (the Golden rule: treat others as you'd like to be treated, etc.), but I just don't subscribe to the stories of how the universe is set up. I prefer to claim ignorance and openly admit there are so many things that we don't understand. I don't need to substitute a God of the gaps in order to make the universe sit right with me, I just admit that I don't know. So I'm not an atheist either, because I think it's impossible to prove categorically that a God doesn't exist, and that wouldn't be scientific either.

All that said, I thought this website was funny:

Monday, June 19, 2006

Dive Pics

Click for dive pics at Flickr

From Catalina a week ago sunday. I think I need an external strobe to get rid of the backscatter and brighten things up. All in good time, I suppose.

Thank goodness for Garibaldi.

Roller Coasters

Reg and I went to Magic Mountain last Thursday, and we got to ride the latest thrill machine: Tatsu. A huge and innovative roller coaster where you lie on your stomach, the train hangs down from an overhead track, and you get the feeling of flying like superman. It’s also cool because you are able to do the type of loop where you start off straight, then pitch down all the way over like a somersault, completely opposite the way most roller coasters loop. It was awesome.

I've always loved roller coasters.

They have a quasi-special meaning for me. My dad grew up in the tiny city of Fillmore in Ventura County, and so my grandparents and cousins on my father's side always lived there. Growing up, about once a year or so, we would add a trip to Six Flags Magic Mountain to the end or beginning of a weekend Fillmore visit. When I was very young, it was mainly about bugs bunny world and cotton candy. But when I was about 8 years old (that's a guess), Dad suggested the idea of going on one of the "big roller coasters". At this time in history, the biggest of the "big roller coasters" was Colossus. A huge, beautiful dual-track white wooden roller coaster that stood as the boundary between the amusement park and the parking lot, challenging anyone to survive it. I was just tall enough for the top of my hair to reach the "riders must be this tall" line. I was a little nervous about it, but I wanted to be brave like Dad, so I said ok.

The line was long, and it was just after dusk. The boarding station was a good 100 ft or so from the start of the coaster structure itself, so one could easily see the train departing toward the structure with its intrepid warriors, and returning with frazzled, laughing passengers. I kept the knot in my stomach mostly under control as we finally climbed into the train seats. Then it was out, away from the din of hundreds of people conversing, away from the sticky ground and dirty hand rails and rushing teenagers and Warner Brothers costumes, and up, slowly, into the windy sky. At that time, the top of the first drop of Colossus, at a little over 100 feet, was the highest point in the park, aside from the sky tower elevator. We could see the whole park; yet for all the visual lights and liveliness, the only audible sounds were the KA-CHUK KA-CHUK of the chain and tracks beneath our feet, and the low whoosh of the breeze. Then it came: the drop. I had really never done anything like this in my young life. Space and Thunder mountain at Disneyland were fun, but they produced nowhere near this level of dread and thrill in me. My stomach seemed to vibrate and resonate with the feeling of weightlessness as we plummeted down amid the screams of the other passengers. It was an odd thing to be feeling a very intense sensation, and have absolutely no control over it. Then it was back up, around, and down again as we made our way through the labyrinthine structure. I didn't scream at first, mainly because I didn't really know what to do in this state of thrill and distress except grit my teeth and hang on. My dad yelled at me before the next drop: "Scream, David! Just let it out! WOOHOOO!". And I did. It let me loose to enjoy the rest of the ride. It wasn't about fear anymore, but gusto. The giant wooden Colossus had challenged me, and I was answering its challenge. As the train left the structure and slowed down, heading back to the boarding station, Dad told me he was proud of me for being so brave (though I hadn't felt very brave at all before he said it).

That ride was all I could talk about for weeks, and from then on I would never shy away from any ride at an amusement park. It may sound cheesy, but I think that first ride on Colossus with my dad helped me to adopt an adventurous attitude about life. What had seemed like a scary challenge proved instead to be a worthwhile and thrilling experience. I feel like I’ve applied that outlook to other thrills in life. Whether it was going skiing for the first time (spending most of that day alone, with my closest companion being the hard icy slopes that were more than happy to smack me in the face repeatedly), learning to SCUBA dive in college, going skydiving or bungee jumping. Something scary out there? Give it a shot! Embrace the challenges, be they physical or otherwise, as part of life. I don’t know what happens after I die, so I’d better pack all the fun things I can into this life.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Gay marriage

It's been a while since my last entry, and a lot has happened since then. I hope to post a blog about my trip to Puerto Rico soon. In the mean time, I was spurred to post about a news story I saw on

Again, I don't intend for this blog to become very political, but politics is (however unfortunately) a part of human life and cannot really be divorced from it, so to speak. But rather than give this article the knee-jerk political response I'd like to, perhaps it would be good to do some contemplation on the situation.

Bush and senate Republicans back Constitutional Gay Marriage Ban proposal.

Bush brought up the idea of a constitutional gay marriage ban before the last presidential election. After he was re-elected in 2004, the idea was not really mentioned again, implying to me that it was just a political move to guarantee him the presidential vote from religious conservatives. Now here we are in another election year, this time for congress, and the idea of a constitutional ammendment to ban gay marriage is back in the headlines. It appears the move is once again political: the amendment does not really have a chance of passing, as it would require a 2/3 majority vote in both Houses of Congress, and approval by 3/4 of the states. The GOP may have a majority in both houses, but they are still not strong enough to railroad a constitutional amendment.

Plus, many states already have this definition of marriage in their own laws. Shouldn't this be an issue that's left up to the states under the 10th amendment?

So what's the point of supporting this and Bush making a big statement about it, if the legislation won't pass? Politics. It seems to me that the Bush administration is going all-in. Support this idea again this year, polarize the voters again, and do all you can to maintain a Republican majority in congress. That way, even if the democrats get the presidency in '08, you've still got Congress.

What a game. The ends justify the means, I suppose.

As far as the idea of banning gay marriage itself, I'd say that it's an antiquated case of bigotry. The reason it's contraversial is because Americans have been so used to the idea of male-female marriage for so long that even those who would never try to prohibit marriage between a male-female couple of another race would think twice about allowing a male-male couple to wed.

Now here's an idea that's a bit uncomfortable: is this a slippery slope? If a state agrees to recognize a gay couple, should it also recognize a polygamous family unit? Why not? If traditional male-female couple should not be held high above other types of family, then why should a monogamous gay couple be welcomed into the club of recognized unions, but not a polygamous family? Perhaps it's better to say that all monogamous marriages are equal. . . but they are more equal than polygamous ones. . .? A bit unsettling, if you ask me.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Memories of Buddy

Buddy was my first dog. He was a good friend and companion as I was growing up and through high school. As I went off to college, internships, and grad school, I would see him less often. But every time I came home he would greet me with excitement, a wagging tail and a warm tongue. As an addendum to my last entry, I thought I’d include some of my memories of Buddy throughout his life. Maybe it will help me to remember the details when I'm old and grey if I put the memories down in writing.

We trained him to go on a newspaper, and then outside. During his first few weeks, he slept close to me and would sometimes wake me up in the mornings by licking my face. As a puppy he had sharp little teeth, and he loved to play any game where he tugged on one end of a towel or toy, and you tugged on the other. He seemed to have a terrier’s desire to pull on things.

As he grew up, we tried to teach Buddy to “sit pretty” on command. He soon learned to use this trick to his own advantage, and he would come up to your chair while you were eating at the table and “sit pretty” without being asked. His begging earned him table scraps once in a while, especially from guests for whom his ploy had not been overused.

He also loved to play with a tennis or racquetball, though he never subscribed to the conventional sport of fetch. I’d throw the ball, and he’d go get it all right, but he had much more fun running away with the ball then bringing it back to me. He loved to be chased. He also became a pretty good catcher, and would reliably catch the tennis ball after one bounce on the carpet of hard floor. At one time, he could “juggle” several balls. I would bounce one ball and he’d catch it, then I’d bounce the next ball and he’d drop the first ball and catch the second without missing a beat.

Buddy loved to explore the neighborhood. He would get excited if he heard the word “walk” or was shown his leash. We didn’t take him for walks as much as we probably should have, and every time we’d open the front door, if we weren’t watching, Buddy would dash to escape. He’d spend his freedom sniffing and marking his territory around our front yard, and would sometimes even venture as far as a couple of blocks in our suburban neighborhood. Even on those occasions when we didn’t even know he was out, however, he would eventually return home, and a few times we were surprised to find him waiting outside the front door when we thought he had been inside the house.

At night, when I would feed Buddy his dinner, he would always come into my room a few minutes after he’d finished eating and spend a minute or two relaxing on my legs while I sat on the floor and did my homework. It always seemed to me that he was thanking me for dinner.

He was not mischievous by nature, but he did have moments where he’d get himself into trouble. At one of my birthday parties, we came into the kitchen after opening presents in the living room to find Buddy eating my ice cream pie from Baskin Robbins on the kitchen table. We stared at him in amazement, worried that the chocolate crust and frosting would prove toxic to him. As we approached, he saw us and began eating faster, trying to make the most of what little cake eating time he had left. I don’t recall him having any problems after eating the chocolate.

Buddy did not like to swim, and could barely dog paddle. We put him in the pool a few times to make sure he could get out if he ever fell in, but he couldn’t do much more than stay afloat. He did enjoy taking rides with me when I was in an inner tube, though. He liked to stand on the inner tube and float around the pool.

It’s always fun to see how your pets interact with each other. When we got Buddy, we also had our 10+ year-old dog Vida, Jack the rabbit, 2 year-old Wishes the cat and an aquarium of small fish. To Vida, I’m sure Buddy was little more than a young whipper-snapper nuisance. His only interactions with Jack were probably a bit distressing for the rabbit, as Buddy looked at him with interest from outside the cage. I do remember one occasion when we had let Jack out to roam the yard, and we accidentally allowed Buddy to get out the back door before we closed it. Buddy chased Jack around the yard for a minute or so, despite our shouts for him to stop. His teeth were getting pretty close to Jack’s puffball tail when I threw a ball at Buddy to get him to stop. It was one of those light, bouncy balls you get out of a huge bin at the supermarket, and Buddy saw it and stopped in his tracks to avoid getting hit as it whizzed between him and the rabbit. Buddy having stopped, Jack was still spooked and continued running until he smacked head-on into my ankle. Ouch.

I guess Buddy interacted the most with Wishes, as their lifespans overlapped for thirteen years. (Wishes died of a malignant tumor in June of 2003. She was 15.) Now, Wishes had a very distinctive personality of her own. One of her parents was feral, and she maintained a wild element of unpredictability her whole life. IE: you could pet her, but only in a spot and for a duration she deemed fit. She would inform you of these specifications by sinking her claws and teeth into your hand or leg if you did not abide by her rules. On the other hand, Buddy was always very friendly. This resulted in him getting swatted in the face by Wishes on several occasions. There were also times when I’d be looking out in the back yard and saw Buddy playfully chasing Wishes from right to left across my field of view. A few seconds later and Buddy would be running, in earnest fear, from Wishes who was now chasing him from left to right. The funny thing was, at ~ 3 times Wishes’ weight, Buddy probably could have pushed her around if he wanted to, but his personality did not lend to aggressive behavior. The exception to this involved food. When it came to scavenging, Wishes could not compete with Buddy. Buddy could swallow tablescraps in mid-air, while Wishes would always wait till they landed and then sniff them cautiously before nibbling on them. . . leaving ample time for Buddy to snatch them away from her. If Wishes ever got too close to Buddy’s food dish while he was eating, you would see the rare spectacle of a snap and snarl from the dog, though it was always meant as a warning.

Of course, I think Buddy’s favorite leisure time activity was being scratched. His lower stomach, the part of his back just above his tail, the small of his back, his underarms, and the muscular area of his neck, just above his chest were all prime areas. Find the right spot, and you’d know it by his stiffening muscles and his gyrating back legs.

Good old pup.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Farewell, Old Friend.

There aren’t usually obituaries published for dogs, but I need some catharsis so here it goes.

Buddy was a lhasa apso and toy poodle mutt born in May of 1990. As fortune would have it, this was near the end of the school year on the year of my tenth birthday. Mom and Dad had told me I would get a puppy for my birthday that year, and that we should get it at the beginning of the summer so that we’d have time to train and look after it without school getting in the way for me or for Mom. After looking at a few pet shops and shelters for a puppy, we followed up on an ad in the newspaper and headed to a private residence where there was a litter of puppies for sale at $75 each. Each of the puppies had distinctive markings and different colors. Some were brown or black all over, others were black with white tummies. I chose a black one with brown eyebrows, a white tummy, white paws and a white tip at the end of his tail. He was 6 weeks old when we took him home.

Buddy died last Wednesday, March 1st, 2005, at about 11:50 am at the El Cajon Valley Veterinary Hospital. After about 5 days of problems with his digestive system, Mom and I decided that we had to let him go, much as we wanted to keep him around. He has been losing weight for over a year, and he was no longer able to eat or drink anything without throwing it back up shortly after. He had gone into advanced renal failure, and his liver was shutting down as well. This caused him to start throwing up every couple of hours on Saturday, and before too long he was dehydrated. I spent all day with him on Monday, and he seemed exhausted. He was so weak from dehydration and malnutrition that he could only walk several steps at a time before stopping to stand and rest for a few seconds. Anything he tried to eat or drink would be thrown up an hour or two later, despite anti-nausea medicine we were giving him, and eventually he stopped even trying to eat or drink.

In addition to the problems with his digestive system, he had congestive heart failure. We were trying to re-hydrate him at the vet from Monday through Wednesday, hoping he could get back to a point where he would eat and drink on his own, but the vets had to decrease the flow rate on his IV, since putting too much fluid into his system could aggrevate his weak heart and give him a heart attack. After laboring over the decision of whether or not to continue the therapy, Mom and I made him a meal that he would normally find delicious: finely cut pieces of chicken breast soaked in broth. He was not interested in that or anything else we offered him. That was that. We didn’t want him to starve to death, and sustaining him with nutrition intravenously would be traumatic and uncomfortable for him. At this point his kidneys had stopped filtering the toxins out of his blood stream, and his body was forcing him to throw up, even when he had nothing but bile in his stomach. There were just too many strikes against us. It was time to let him go.

I asked to stay with Buddy when he was given the injection that would end his life. I just wanted to make sure that he could at least perceive someone he knew during his last few seconds. I didn’t want himto be alone in an unfamiliar place and with unfamiliar people. As the vet prepared to inject the overdose of anesthesia that would euthanize Buddy, I looked into his eyes, held his head close, and told him over and over that he was a good dog. Buddy has been practically deaf for over a year, but maybe he could at least sense the vibrations from my loud affirmations of “Good dog. . . . Good boy!”, and feel my embrace. Dr. Paulsen squeezed the syringe, and perhaps it stung a little bit as it went in, as Buddy whimpered faintly. I held him a little more tightly. After a few seconds, his muscles relaxed and his breathing slowed. He fell limp, though his eyes stayed open. I had kept my face in his field of view the whole time, trying to smile and continuing to tell him he was a good dog. He died looking into my eyes.

It’s funny the way we become attached to our pets. Common sense might tell you that the loss of a pet should not be comparable to the loss of a human relative or friend. But anyone with a dog will tell you that they quickly become a part of your family, and that you often care for and interact with them as if they were your relative or friend. Buddy was a good friend, and a member of my family. He gave his companionship and affection willingly, and asked only to be cared for in return. The fact that his lifespan is naturally shorter than my own is what separates him from me the most, and little else. It was heartrending to seem him go, but I take comfort in the fact that he won’t be suffering any longer, and that we tried just about every humane way of keeping him both alive and comfortable. His life was not long by human standards, but I guess that, from his point of view, it was longer than he could remember. It was all of time.

Buddy was 15 years and 10 months old. He was a good dog, and I will never forget him.

Farewell, old friend.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Twenty four

In recent times, I've found that there are just way too many TV shows of good quality to keep track of. Even with our handy-dandy DVR, I don't have time to watch all the good shows that are out there. I LOVE a good story, and dramatic story lines that are character driven really work on me. I think it's because I'm easily intrigued, and any mystery or unanswered question in a show will get me hooked. That's why I liked the X-files, and was the only person I know who stuck with it to the very last episode, only to be disappointed by all the questions left unanswered.

Now I am hooked on LOST. It's great because it is very character driven (each episode focuses on one character and reveals something interesting about their past), and there are tons of mysteries to be explored and discussed. I hope that it doesn't get bad like the X-files did, or like Alias has. So far, the writers have done a good job of satisfying us with some answers, but always leaving enough unanswered to keep us intrigued.

Anyway, the last few times I've seen my friend Phil, I'd tell him how cool Lost is, and he'd say yeah that's great, but 24. . . now there's a cool show. I never really got into that show, but had always heard great things. So today I busted through the first 5 or so hours of the current series of 24 (thank you DVR, for having roved and recorded them for the past month). Now I'm hooked on that show.

Making a real time show really seems like a good idea, and I wonder if it has ever been done before. I'll bet it has, but I don't know about a predecessor. It sort of ensures that the show can't be canceled mid-season, since one season is essentially a single 24-part episode.

My favorite character so far: Chloe. She's so surly and bitter! Reg and I discovered that her character is equivalent to Napoleon Dynamite. Every time someone tells her to do something she replies with something like "Fine!" or "I'm already working on it! . . . GOD!"

Try it! watch an episode, and whatever line she just said, pretend that Napoleon Dynamite just said it. It should have the same effect.

Example from a recent episode:

Spencer: "I need your help to get this signal decoded. . ."

Chloe: "I don't have time for your crap! Just get it done! God!"

Spencer: "You know, I don't care that you are both my lover AND my boss. . . NO ONE talks to me that way!"

Chloe: "Oh really? Too bad I just did!" (Touche Napoleon. . . I mean Chloe.)

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Incompetence and politics. . .

Politics. . . sigh. . .

Sorry to intrude on my usually apolitical posts with a political one, but this has me a bit miffed.

Slashdot has collected the major source material here. Read the articles yourself if you are interested. The text below is my own summary and rant.

Those who know me well know that I am not a fan of the Bush administration. I think the man himself is not very bright, his policies de-emphasize science and the natural environment, he over-emphasizes religion and lets it drive his policies too much, and his administration bungled us into the Iraq war. All of these issues are big problems in and of themselves, and have been argued and discussed for countless hours in countless forums. The one I’m miffed about right now is his de-emphasis on science, mixed with political cronyism. Here’s what happened:

George Deutsch, a 24 year old college dropout, was appointed by the Bush administration to be in charge of astrophysics content editing for web pages intended for middle school age readers. He instructed a web programmer to place the word “theory” after every mention of the Big Bang on some of NASA’s sights, because he felt that without the extra word it would be implied that the Big Bang was fact. He wanted to inform the public that intelligent design is “the other side of the debate”, going on to say:

[The Big Bang is] "not proven fact; it is opinion," Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator."

Well, he’s technically right that the Big Bang theory is not proven fact. . . BUT NEITHER IS ANYTHING INFERRED BY SCIENCE! This is an unfortunate result of scientific vocabulary which the American public really needs to understand: A scientific “theory” is an explanation of nature that has been supported by repeated experiment and observation. It is the highest level of certainty in science. There is nothing higher. You start out with a “hypothesis” (a proposed explanation of some natural phenomenon) then test it using experimentation. You get some results, make a few conclusions about how good the test was and what it says about your hypothesis. . . and then you test it again. . . and again. . . and again. Others perform more tests trying to disprove the hypothesis. Science is performed by trying to disprove things, and those ideas that have yet to be disproved after many experiments are called theories.

In science, “theory” is synonymous with “law”. The law of gravity and the theory of gravity mean exactly the same thing. So yes, the Big Bang is a theory, as are natural selection, gravity, relativity, and plate tectonics. Each of these has been supported time and time again by experiment, and has yet to be shot down with evidence, not for lack of trying. None of the theories listed above are controversial in the scientific community.

I expect that the majority of people attacking evolution as “just a theory”, do not understand the scientific method, and it is partially the fault of scientists for not making the definition more clear to the public. That’s another story, though.

Anyway, the guy had been appointed to this job as a reward for working so hard for the Bush-Cheney 2004 reelection campaign. The New York Times broke this story on Saturday. By today (Feb 8th), Deutsch had resigned.

Oh yeah, I mentioned that Deutsch was a college dropout. . . The original NYT story stated that he was a Journalism graduate of Texas A&M. It turns out he never finished his degree. . . he dropped out to work full time on the Bush re-election campaign. This was discovered by an intrepid scientific activist over at Oxford, who had recently graduated from Texas A&M himself. Check out his blog.. The point is that this young man was obviously not qualified to be editing astrophysics content on NASA web pages. I don’t think that Journalism students are required to take many courses in science.

What? An unqualified person appointed to an influential position out of political cronyism by the Bush administration? Where have we heard that before? COUGH (FEMA). . . AHEM (Katrina). . . cough cough. Ahem. Excuse me.

The sad part is that this is just a smaller part of a larger issue, which is that various other Bush appointees in the NASA Public Affairs office have been attempting to censor NASA scientists, especially those attempting to explain their results on climate change to the general public. See article.

Ugh. Okay. I’m done ranting for now.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Calculicious. . .

So I'm moonlighting as a substitute teacher for another couple of weeks. One of the teachers at Regan's school is on maternity leave, and so I've been teaching part of her calculus class. I really can't complain: there are only 5 students, they are all high school seniors (IE: basically adults, so no real discipline problems), and they are among the best students in their class. I'm doing my best to be clear in my lessons, but I've found they always need a bit more explanation than my original lesson plan entails. I think it's because I've been using this stuff since I started college. . . oh. . . 8 YEARS AGO!!! It's amazingly hard to remember what it was like when I was a high school senior, in terms of how much math I knew.

I'm doing my best, but it still seems as though I'm making the tests/quizzes a bit too hard. The students are smart, but they also want to do the minimum amount of work and reap the maximum amount of learning. I should aim for that balance as well. I'm pretty sure I made their semester final exam too hard, even though I didn't design most of it. Looks like a curve is in order. The regular teacher should be coming off of maternity leave in two weeks, but I get the impression she may take another week. That's fine. I could actually use the money.

Once my moonlighting as a substitute teacher is finished, I'll be able to concentrate more on my research. I need to make some progress and finish off this diurnal variation study, so I can put it behind me and move on to the next thing. I'm looking forward to the Puerto Rico trip in March! Mark is sending Dave and I down to Arecibo to install a field magnetometer for his MEASURE array. It'll be cool to get to see the Arecibo obervatory! That's the one they used in the movies Contact and Goldeneye. I'll bet it'll be tough to get the whole dish in one photo frame. . . Anyway, I'm going to San Gabriel Dam this wednesday with a group of engineers so I can learn how to set up one of these magnetometers. It'll just be two space science grad students fumbling around in the jungles of Puerto Rico in a month or two, and I need to be prepared. I wonder if we'll need machetes. . .

Rammed by a zebra shark, and happy as a clam!

It's cool how a hobby can make the other parts of your life all the more enjoyable. Now that I've started doing this volunteer diving program with the Long Beach Aquarium, I'm just plain happier. I'm excited every Tuesday because I know I'll get to be in the water with tons of amazing sea creatures. Two weeks ago, the experience was amazing. Not only did I get to feed the giant black sea bass again, but I got to feed the trevali. These are medium size fish that just swarm all around you when you feed them. I was literally at the center of a seemingly impenetrable sphere of hungry fish. Also, the red snappers can be pretty aggressive. I would not want to be feeding most of these fish without my neoprene gloves. During the last dive, Karen, a more experienced diver, suggested that I try something. In the tropical reef tank, there is a large male napoleon wrasse. This fish is about 3.5 feet long, and a beautiful shade of electric aqua blue. (See the picture above) Apparently, he loves the tactile sensation of air bubbles on his skin and in his gill slits. I swam down to the bottom of the exhibit, near a wall, and just started blowing a steady stream of bubbles. Just as Karen said he would, the wrasse mosied on over and levitated just a couple feed above my head, sitting in my bubble stream as if it were some sort of inverse shower. He even opened up his gill slits to let the bubbles caress his gills. It was amazing!

After the dives we heard that, over in the shark tank, a sand tiger shark had bitten the sawfish right on the rostrum (nose). We went down to the shark tank to see how it was, and found the veterinarian and the aquarists keeping the sawfish wet while the splint thay had constructed dried. The splint was basically made of water-safe epoxy and popsicle sticks, and was basically keeping her rostrum from bending much, since the sand tiger had almost broken it. The shark expert saw us lowly volunteer divers and said "Perfect timing! We could use your help!". Since we were already in our wetsuits, he had us help lift the sawfish (a large fish about 5 feet long from tail to end of snout) back into an isolated area of the shark tank. 6 of us slowly lifted her into the tank, which already had two harmless zebra sharks swimming about in it. We carefully tried to step over and around them as they weaved between our legs, much as a cat does when you're trying to feed it. One of them got spooked by another person, and turned and rammed right into my groin. It smarted a bit, but with my wet suit I was fairly well. . . ahem. . . protected. Anyway, when I woke up that morning I hardly thought I'd be rammed in the crotch by a zebra shark while helping rehabilitate an injured sawfish! It was an amazing experience as we watched the anesthetized sawfish slowly start to swim again.

Then, just last week, I got to feed the leopard sharks again. They weren't nearly as interested as they were the last time I fed them. I'm told it's because the water temperature in the Blue Cavern exhibit has been brought down to a balmy 58 deg F. When the water gets colder, the cold-blooded sharks' metabolism slows as well, and their appetite decreases. They did eat a bit, but I kept having to move closer to them and basically put the squid or sardine right under their nose and let them take it from my hand. Also, it was a bit tricky since the halibut (who, I'm told, must be fed using tongs because when they strike their sharp teeth can "take your finger off") kept coming after me. I would typically block their attacks with my fin, or just turn around and swim to another area. . . but I always had to keep them in my peripheral vision.

Later, as I was just getting in for my second dive in Blue Cavern, Chris the aquarist came up to me with about 5 huge sea stars in his arms. He wanted me to swim them down to the bottom and place them on the rocks. No problem! I grabbed three and put them on my arm, keeping my other arm free for buoyancy control and ear-clearing. Down I went, set them on some rocks, and came back up to get the others. Only when I got back to the surface, I found about 10 more waiting for me! After a couple more trips up and down the water column, I returned to the surface to find that the last three sea stars had managed to turn over and were now bellies (and feet) face down on the underwater step. This was bad, because they had grabbed hold of the rocky surface of the step and did not want to let go. I couldn't remove them without hurting them, so I ended up leaving them there. Hopefully they will migrate downward, so they're not in the way of egressing divers.

I'm glad I followed through with this volunteer diving program. It took a decent amount of work: passing an intense swim test, renewing my first aid and cpr certs, getting an oxygen first aid certification, and sitting through several hours of introductory aquarium classes. But it breaks up the monotony that can sometimes arise when all you do is research and organization and, for another couple of weeks, teach. Just the fact that I get to dive every week, for free, among fish I would normally only get to dive with in the carribean or the south pacific, is such a treat that it makes me more enthusiastic about everything else I do. I enjoy my space research more now that it's not the ONLY thing I'm doing.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Dream a little dream of me. . .

Have you ever had an epic dream? I mean a dream that seems so real, so long, and immerses you so deeply in its world that when you awaken you feel as if years and years have passed by. As if you have just lived a large part of an entirely different life, and have finally returned to your real life after a sustained absence.

I have them once in a while. I can remember having them maybe three or four times a year, but I suspect I have them more often than that and just can’t remember them after I wake up.

In my dream worlds, there is often an overwhelming sense of purpose. Life is simpler, because circumstances make it clear what must be done at any given time. Sometimes my companions and I are being pursued by some powerful governing force, and we must endure an epic pursuit, and often personal and hard-hitting casualties, in order to reach a goal and fulfill our roles in the story. Sometimes our roles are heroic, sometimes mundane. Often there is a theme that we have some sort of mission, and we must do everything in our power to complete it. There are battles sometimes, and chases. There are acts of selflessness, bravery, and love. There are multiple adventures, and twists of the plot. Sometimes the dream is not an exciting adventure, but simply an alternate life. A life in which I have made different choices, or where chance has taken me down a different path, or where the dream world is so different from the real world that it is almost incomprehensible by comparison.

The ending is not always happy, nor is it always a real ending, and sometimes I awaken feeling that my dream-world adventure has been rudely interrupted; and I wish I could go back to sleep and re-enter my dream where I left off. There are other times, though, when I wake up and, after the few minutes it takes me to sort out which events happened in my memory from the real world, and which took place only in the dream, I feel relieved that the dream was not real, and I am happy to return to my real life.

In these epic dreams, the main characters are sometimes formed from people I know in real life, and sometimes not. They are the people I know from different realms of my real life; some from work or school, others from my family and friends, others from my past, others, perhaps, from my future. Then there are those who don’t really exist at all in real life. . . as far as I know, anyway. There are times when one of those imaginary characters, who exists only in my dream world, is so important to the story that he or she actually solicits a real emotional investment from me. When I awaken in bed, as I slowly realize which characters are real and which were complete fabrications of my id, I actually feel a pang of grief that the imaginary ones are not in my real life. In that moment, I know that as the sun rises higher I will forget more and more details of the “people” who, moments before, had been so important to me, and I will likely never get those memories back. I sigh and say a quiet goodbye to those characters, and later all I can remember about them is that they did exist, though briefly, in a sense that was very real to me at the time.

There was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when the Enterprise comes upon a derelict space probe, which immediately paralyzes Captain Picard, and transfers memories to his brain. Inside his mind, Picard is transported to a distant planet and a different society. He knows, at first, that it is not his real world, and claims to the people around him that he is not who they think he is. But each of them tell him that he is their old friend whom they have known for many years, and they don’t know why he is acting as if they are strangers. He even has a house and a wife. Years pass in his mind, and he comes to accept his predicament and take this new reality at face value. He learns a trade, has children, endures the death of his wife and best friend, sees his children grow up and give him grandchildren, and eventually dies an old man. He finally awakens on the bridge of the Enterprise, and it takes him a minute or so to realize who he is, and to remember the people around him, his crew, who were so familiar to him many decades before. He is told that he has been unconscious for only a few minutes, and he realizes that the space probe transferred the experience of living in the alien society in order to preserve the memory of their existence. The people went extinct when their sun went nova, and Picard’s memories and the now broken space probe are all that remain to speak for their ever having existed. Picard experiences grief and sadness that the people who became so dear to him never actually knew him in the real world. That his children and grandchildren did not really exist, or at least, were not really his. But they were real to him. He also feels peace; a quiet happiness that he had the opportunity to live an entire lifetime (a happy one, at that), and is now able to return to his real life to live out that experience as well.

I love that episode.

The mind is an amazing thing. It allows us to reason and solve problems, to feel emotions and interact with other life forms and the natural world around us. Even when we rest, it works to provide us some way to interpret our situation, even by providing us an alternate reality for a time.

In the end, I am glad to have these epic dreams. Some are wonderful adventures; others are nightmares. In the end, I am grateful to have the chance to live out many little pieces of different lives, which may have nothing else in common besides the fact that they are all tied to my own. I don’t know what happens at the end of this life, but I know that my time is limited, and these dreams allow me to cheat death, and convince myself that I have had more minutes of life than I actually have. That’s an illusion I am happy to live with.