Monday, April 28, 2008

Stimulating the economy

Don't tell Ann, but I'm thinking of using our entire tax rebate check to buy a giant pile of comic books and a few dozen boxes of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. The wayI figure it, the economy gets stimulated, and I get comics and candy. It's a win-win situation.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Chilhood's End

In honor of the late, great Arthur C. Clarke, I picked up one of his books I'd never read: Childhood's End. The book recounts the story of an alien civilization that comes to Earth and rules over it for 150 years, before mankind's true destiny is revealed.

I won't get into the overall story of the book itself - it's a quick read and certainly worth picking up. One of the most interesting things to me about the book was that Clarke wrote it in 1953, but it's set between about 1970 and 2120. It's fascinating to read what a sci-fi author, writing 60 years ago, THINKS will be the great technological innovations of his future (our present). As an example, here's a passage from the book. The timeframe for this passage is about 50 years from now, but keep in mind it was written 55 years ago:

"Do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels? If you went without sleep and did nothing else, you could follow less than a twentieth of the entertainment that's available at the turn of a switch! No wonder that people are becoming passive sponges - absorbing but never creating. Did you know that the average viewing time per person is now three hours a day? Soon people won't be living their own lives any more. It will be a full-time job keeping up with the various family serials on TV!"

Clarke, how right you were. Your timing was a little off - we hit this point in the mid-80s! And according to a Nielsen Media report published in 2006, the average American watches 4.5 hours of TV a day. And of course, in a world where everyone has cable, the number of programs you could watch for outstrips the amount of time you have. For that matter, you could probably spend 24 hours a day just watching tournament bass fishing if you wanted to. Add the Internet to the mix, and the formula becomes much more complicated.

Anyway, I just thought it was interesting how off Clarke was with his predictions. Often you think of sci-fi authors as building these fanciful worlds that could never come to be, at least not in our lifetimes. In this case, I think it came to be far too quickly!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The finer points of vocabulary

I'm continuously amazed by the Monkey and the process by which he's learning to speak and understand language. Here are a couple of examples of very humorous situations where his vocabulary was just a little off.

Last night, we got to talking over dinner about fireants and how we could rid them from our yard. I told him that lots of the ants live underground, so there's no way to kill them. He said, "What if we just put in an ah-rarming budge?" It was clear that he had a very particular phrase he was trying to say, but I couldn't figure out what it was. I asked him to repeat it. "What if we just use an ah-rarming budge?" Ann and I both looked at him quizically, and then Ann said, "Do you mean an alarming bulge?" He said yes. As it turns out, he has a book about Mt. Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii - one of his favorites. In the book, it mentions how the eruption started off as an "alarming bulge" in the ground. Apparently he thought that if you wanted to get rid of something underground, you just have to stick an alarming bulge down there and wait for it to blow up. We haven't read that book in several weeks, but for some reason that concept, and that particular phrase, had stuck in his head.

A couple of weeks ago he asked if he would always need to wear glasses. Ann and I told him that he might be able to get contacts some day, and maybe even have surgery. He thought about that for a moment and said, "I'll just tell my wife that she can't have any babies." I had no idea what he was talking about, and then it hit me. I had a vasectomy back in December, and had told him at the time that I was having surgery so that Mommy wouldn't have any more babies. Apparently he believed that sterility was the point of ALL surgeries. We assured him that there were many different kinds of surgeries, and that if he had surgery on his eyes his wife would still be able to have babies.

I think this is a fascinating insight into how little kids comprehend language and interpret what you say. Just goes to show you that 75% understanding might be worse than none at all.

Monday, April 14, 2008

How do you say no to that?

This morning, I was getting ready for work and was just about to walk out the door. The Monkey came around the corner carrying one of his foam swords that we love to play with together. I told him I was getting ready to leave and he said, "But can you play swords with me?" I told him I really needed to be at work soon. He looked up at me through those cute glasses of his and said, "But you're here right now."

I stayed home for a few minutes and played swords.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

To Expedition 17!

Tomorrow morning, a Soyuz will dock to the Space Station containing the first crew for which I was the training lead. Sergei Volkov and Oleg Kononenko launched on Tuesday with spaceflight participant So-Yeon Yi (read: space tourist). Astronaut Greg Chamitoff will be joining them in join.

Over the last year and a half, I'm proud to have formed a friendship with Sergei and Oleg. Both are quiet, stoic men: almost the idealization of the Russian military man. Neither one has ever flown in space before. Sergei has a bright, easy smile. His English is very good, and he capably bears three burdens: he is the first second-generation person to fly in space (his father was a cosmonaut on Mir), he is the youngest commander of the ISS (at 35), and he is taking the reins from one of the hardest-working people ever in space, Peggy Whitson. Oleg is definitely the quiet half of the pairing, but he is genuinely friendly and absorbs everything that's going on around them.

I can only hope that my training team and I have served them well. Sergei and Oleg: good luck, have fun, work hard, and come home safely.

Monday, April 7, 2008

A parent's rights

Now that I've had kids for four years (five, if I get double-time for having TWO kids), I have one request I'd like to ask of the toy industry. It's a simple thing really, just a trifle.

Before I state my request, let me say that I understand that toys these days require batteries, and lots of them. I have invested hundreds (no, seriously, HUNDREDS) of dollars in stocking everything in my house with rechargeables so that I don't have to spend so much on batteries (yes, I'm aware of the irony). And it would be hypocritical of me to fault anyone for having battery-powered gadgetry. At any given time, chances are I'm wearing more battery-powered gizmos than most people even own. So I can appreciate that toys these days require self-sufficient power sources.

But there are two things that toy companies really need to design into their toys, beginning immediately:

1) A volume switch. My kids are not hard of hearing. At least, not yet. So why are their toys easily capable of forcing the lead singer for Metallica to wear earplugs? If the toy needs to be loud on the shelf to compete with all the other toys for attention, then have the courtesy to put a little switch on it to turn it down once I've brought it home.

2) An on/off switch. Seriously, who designs an electronic device, especially one that requires a limited battery power supply, and especially one that's too loud to begin with, without a power switch?! The kids have at least three toys that I can think of that cannot be unpowered without removing the batteries. And keep in mind that all toys these days have the battery lid screwed shut. And that's not all - these toys are even more insidious because they're motion-activated. All you have to do is walk near them and they start singing. And the toy doesn't care what time it is! "What's that? You just got both kids down for the night? You're sitting down to have some alone-time with your spouse? I feel the need to sing 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star'! And you're not gonna be able to shut me up without a screwdriver!!"

There's even one toy that, I swear to you, waits until it's in our bedroom and it's four in the morning. It will have not made a sound for days, and then, perhaps triggered by seismic shifts on the surface of Mars, it decides to serenade us. And then there's the super-sensitive toy that somehow always ends up in the back of the car. It's rendition of "Shave and a Haircut" is triggered by any jolt, such as a speed bump, stopping for a light, or a slight breeze from the northwest.

So toy manufacturers, for the sake of parents everywhere, I beg you: a volume control and a power switch.

And what the heck: throw in a pack of batteries too.