Posts By: Mark Alexander

First World Problems

Life was earlier before we were surrounded by all this tech.

“Goddamnit! GET OFF MY LAWN!”

(I’m practicing…)

Anyhow, after discussing it with Ben, we decided that even though we still had a little over a year left on our contract with Cox, it was worth the cancellation fee to tell them to take their shitty television and unneeded telephone service and shove it up their corporate rectum. To that end, we had a visit from DirecTV on Friday, and we’re now enjoying basically the same service for substantially less than what we were paying Cox. We’re keeping Cox for internet because the alternative (DSL through Century Link) was simply unacceptable as far as speed was concerned.

The worst part of switching providers is that once again I am at a total loss for what is on any given channel. It seems that just when I get used to knowing where to find any given program we change providers—not to mention learning an entirely new interface. Last night I pulled out an index card that I’m now keeping handy to write down our most watched channels so I can just enter them directly in the future instead of aimlessly scrolling up and down the on-screen guide. (Ben told me there was a way to select favorite channels and save them, but the index card is faster.)

We kept Cox for internet, but returned their cable modem after buying our own. This was yet another first-world annoyance, because I arrived home on Friday to discover that even though Ben’s laptop was connecting just fine to the outside world, mine absolutely refused to. It would connect to our router, but it wasn’t getting beyond that—even though Ben was connecting the exact same way. Finally, after messing around for more than an hour and going through several reboots of both the router, modem, and laptop, we just decided to simply reset the router to factory settings and set the whole network up again from scratch. That apparently cleared out whatever goop was preventing it from connecting, and once again we had connectivity to the outside world.

But what we then neglected to take into consideration were all the sundry internet connected devices around the house, each of which also needed to be reset to join the new network.

Hopefully we won’t have to go through all this again for quite some time…

Some Thoughts About Apple

As I have made abundantly clear in this blog I have been having ongoing issues with Apple’s Magic Mouse maintaining connection with my MacBook. Lately my entire system has been simply randomly locking up (even if the mouse isn’t even connected), forcing a hard reboot.

This kind of behavior is new to my experience with Apple. In fact, the lack of having to constantly reboot was one of the perks I enjoyed after the continual rebooting I had to do with Windows; lately all that is changing.

But my problems are nothing compared to what Ben is going through. Between his phone, his watch, and his Mac I’m expecting one of them to be violently thrown against a wall any day now. And multiple trips to the Genius Bar have solved nothing. Their standard response to any of these problems? Wipe and reinstall. Wipe and reinstall. That’s a Microsoft response, Apple; not something we expect from you.

I used to enjoy going to the Apple Store. Now I dread it.

As I wrote earlier, I’ve all but given up any hope of getting my bluetooth issues resolved. But this raises the issue of that legendary Apple quality that prompted so many of us to join the church to begin with. How many iterations of an OS do we have to go through before any of these issues are addressed—if at all—much less resolved?

I’m not about to abandon Apple; returning to Microsoft would be a nightmare in my opinion, but it looks to me like Apple is going through a rough patch. It’s not as profound as in the 90s, but there’s trouble afoot. Whether the folks in Cupertino are aware of it and simply choosing to ignore it is a question that’s up for grabs, but based on the steadily declining quality of the software side of the house over the last several years, it’s obvious that too many lines of business are taking their toll on quality control. I hate to haul out this old trope, but if Steve Jobs were alive today, none of this shit would be happening.

At this point, I’d even be willing to forego the now expected yearly updates and pay for OS upgrades again—as long as these ongoing, lingering problems were finally cleared up.


While it’s been proven that our memories are categorically unreliable and subject to change, I still find it amazing at what seems to come washing up when you’re lying wide awake in bed at 4 am.

Take this morning for instance. For no particular reason whatsoever, a memory of sleeping in my great aunt’s attic came flooding back to me.

Like we’d done every other summer since I was a baby, my mom, my sister and I went back east to spend a couple months with my grandparents in upstate Massachusetts. In 1968, we deviated from the usual pattern of flying into JFK where we’d meet the grandparents and they’d drive us to the house. That year, we flew to Green Bay to meet the grandparents there and spend a few days with my great aunt; my great aunt who never married. (In some families it runs, it other it gallops; just sayin’.)

The bits of that trip that stand out to me are odd to say the least. I’d recently developed a childhood interest in human anatomy, thinking one day that I’d grow up to be a doctor. I had books, I had plastic models (having received The Visible Head as a birthday gift about a month before our trip), but of all the anatomical models that I had or wanted, the one that always seemed to elude me was The Visible Woman. (The Visible Man was the one that started me on this particular path about a year earlier.) Guess what I found in Green Bay?

After having built the model, I showed my mom (who I remember being in bed, laid up and recovering from something flu-like) and she wondered if she could see “where she had her surgery.” Surgery? “Down there,” she said.

Now this is where memory selectivity obviously comes into play. I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever of my mom having gone into the hospital for a hysterectomy—unless it happened concurrently with me coming down with a major flu three years earlier; something that sidelined me for what seemed like weeks and explains why I remember my Dad’s mom being around for an extended period.

Anyway, back to the attic. I can recall the smell vividly—and the fact it was only marginally a bedroom; rough-hewn wood floors, exposed wood joists (and surprisingly for Wisconsin—even with it being an old house—no roof insulation whatsoever). There was a lot of stuff stored in there along with the two twin beds and I loved the energy of the place, but there was one there item that totally creeped me out—to the point I had to have my mom remove it so I could sleep: my recently-deceased great grandmother’s cane that had been propped up against the dressing table on the other side of the room.

My great aunt was also a collector of glass. The window sill of the south-facing dining room was covered with various transparent, sparkling items of every color you could imagine. When the sun hit, the effect was magical. I remember being especially enamored of two aquamarine birds, and asked her if I might have them. She said yes, and I immediately took them upstairs. I don’t know what ever happened to them; they might’ve made it the rest of the journey to Massachusetts and back to Arizona with us, but I think it far more likely that my Mom made me give them back before we left, claiming there was no room to pack them for the remainder of the journey.

Another memory of that trip was one particular bath—and it stands out only because of the smell. It was my first exposure to Dial soap. To this day, the smell of Dial invokes the memory of that bath in that bathroom that was just down the hall from my great aunt’s kitchen. Funny thing, memory and how it is so intimately tied to our sense of smell.

I remember nothing of our departure from Green Bay, and only bits and pieces of the drive to Massachusetts. I know we crossed the Mackinac Bridge and drove through Michigan into Canada. We came back into the US at Niagara Falls, and of course stopped there to take photos. I remember it rained a lot, and I did a lot of napping.


Mackinac Bridge

Niagara Falls

I know we must’ve overnighted at least once on the drive (at a Howard Johnson’s no doubt), but I have no real recollection, nor do I remember anything of our arrival at the grandparents’ homestead. I do know that once we got there it was a busy summer—only because I have pictures to jog those memories.


Grandparents’ House

It was my first time fishing (there was a small pond on the property), and the summer included a trip to Old Sturbridge Village, the completion of my first 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, and more than one fancy lunch with friends of my grandmother on what seemed at the time like a palatial estate (bitch had an olympic size swimming pool in her back yard)…



Old Sturbridge Village


1000 Pieces

And one more memory of that summer that will probably fall under the “TMI” category…

Driving back from our weekly grocery shopping in the neighboring town, I was riding in the back seat of the car by myself, listening the radio playing reports of what was going on in Woodstock (yes, it was that summer) and my mom and grandmother were discussing how wrong the Vietnam War was and how Mom and Dad had agreed that they’d personally pack me up and ship me off to Canada if I came of age and the war was still going on. I was thumbing through some magazine they’d picked up on the trip and ran across a picture of a young, shirtless, and very hirsute Burt Reynolds. I had no idea who Burt Reynolds was, but I knew I liked what I saw and before I knew it I had my hand down my shorts and a short time later ended up some some very soggy underwear…all flying under the radar of the people in the front seat.

Or so my memory would have me believe.

Why It’s The Duty Of Every Sanders Supporter To Vote For Hillary

I’m a Bernie supporter, but I have to agree 100% with what John writes below:

From AMERICAblog:

There’s a common misconception that elections are job interviews; and that candidates need to “earn” our vote, as if we’re doing them a favor by putting them in office. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Elections are selfish. They’re not about the candidates, they’re about us. They’re about choosing someone who will have inordinate influence over our lives and our livelihoods for the next four years.

To the degree that the job metaphor is apt, picking a president is more like picking a nanny for your kids. Except in this case, it’s down to two candidates, and one is going to get hired. Your only options are to pick one, pick the other, or don’t pick either and let someone else make the choice for you.

To take the analogy a bit further, let’s call the first nanny Hillary. As hard as you try, Hillary just doesn’t move you. You see, there was another nanny named Bernie, and you adored Bernie. But Sadly, Bernie didn’t make the cut. So now you’re left choosing between Hillary, who doesn’t excite you, and another nanny named Donald, who is categorically crazy and hates your kids.

Your only choice is to hire Hillary, hire Donald, or let some stranger choose which of the two is going to have ultimate say over the most important thing in your life.

I’ve seen people talk about how Hillary Clinton is “bad” on fracking, and Wall Street, and money in politics, so they’re just not going to vote for her in November unless she does something “big” to win them over. But how is Donald Trump on all of those issues? Far worse than Hillary, in fact. And how is Donald Trump on the civil rights of gays, women, blacks, Latinos, and Muslims? How is Donald Trump on climate change, immigration, criminal justice, gun violence, privacy, health care, and caring about the middle and working classes? And how is Donald Trump on a woman’s right to choose? Awful, awful, awful.

If you choose not to support Hillary in the fall, because of some misguided notion of what she “owes” you, then you choose to cede the election to a man who will destroy every cause that Bernie Sanders, and you, once claimed to care about. And while you may be in a position in life that it won’t affect you directly if Trump bans Muslims, repeals Obamacare, and does everything he can to hurt gays, blacks, Latinos and women, is that really why you felt the Bern this election—because you put your own disappointment over the needs of the many?


A Skeptical Look at the Possibility of Life on Other Planets

From Skeptic Ink:

There were several interesting articles and images that all gave me the inspiration for this post. So, let’s talk about the idea of life in our universe beyond our solar system.

The first question to think about is how many other planets are there. The answer is lots. No, “lots” doesn’t even begin to cover it. I got this image from NASA (click the image to the source… it’s big).

Hubble Deep Field Image, NASA.

Phil Plait, over at Bad Astronomy did a calculation to determine just how many galaxies Hubble could see. Note that isn’t all the galaxies in the universe, just the ones the Hubble Space Telescope could potentially see.

First he calculated how many galaxies were in a small piece of the above image. It’s about 50. That piece was 1/100 of the actual image. So, the image above contains about 5,000 galaxies.

Then he found out that the image is 10 square arcminutes. The entire sky is about 150 million square arcminutes, which means that there are about 15,000,000 pieces of sky the same size as the above image. At roughly 5,000 galaxies per, we get a total of 75,000,000,000 galaxies. That’s 75 billion visible galaxies with the Hubble.

The Milky Way has about 100 billion stars (though some estimates approach 400 billion).  If we assume that an average galaxy has 100 billion stars, which is fairly safe, then we get 100 billion * 75 billion stars in the universe.

That is 7,500,000,000,000,000,000,000 or 7.7×1021 stars.

How many could potentially support life? Well, a lot depends on A) how you define life and B) what conditions we consider for that life.

Right now, we know of only one planet that unambiguously has life. There is significant potential for life elsewhere in our solar system. Though it would likely be limited to the bacteria level or extraterrestrial equivalent. Still, if we find life on Europa, Titan, Enceladus, or even Mars, then the options for life on extrasolar planets just got even better.

But let’s talk about that life on other planets. How would life appear?

Well, that’s an entire topic of research called Origins of Life (OOL). The results are very impressive so far. There are multiple ways to get the basic organic compounds needed for life, without life needing to be present. One of the main sticking points has been ribose sugars, the main component in the backbone of DNA and RNA. Some new research suggests that is much less of a sticking point than previously thought.

Cornelia Meinert (Meinert 2016) and her team discovered that a relatively simple reaction, catalyzed by ultraviolet light, forms ribose and a variety of other sugars… in space.

Ice is common in space, we regularly track large balls of space ice and even landed on one of them. So, that’s water. Another needed component is ammonia, which seems to be common in space as well. Finally, we need a source of carbon and that comes from methanol (methyl alcohol). Which is, you guessed it, common in deep space. These are all inorganic sources of these materials, no life required.

The idea behind the paper is that a planetary nebula, that is a pre-solar system, has all these materials much more scattered than in a solar system with planets. There’s a lot of supporting evidence for this in our own solar system.

In our solar system, excluding the sun, Jupiter has 3 times the mass of every other planet combined. It has methane, ammonia (including ammonia ice), even benzene rings (link to Voyager probe results). So, in a pre-planetary nebula, all of these compounds would be present.

Much like the famous Miller-Urey experiment, the researchers took these compounds, exposed them to near space temperatures (78 Kelvin, which is -319 F), hit them with UV light, then warmed them up. The result was 56 unique compounds (not including the isomers of those compounds), most of which, we would think required life to manufacture.

The question then becomes, how did the material formed in space get to Earth. That’s where theLate-Heavy Bombardment comes in. The hypothesis is that between 4.1 and 3.8 billion years ago, the inner planets underwent a very heavy period of asteroid and comet impacts. The suggested impacts are stunning. By extrapolating lunar impacts to Earth, the estimate is over 20,000 impacts large enough to form a 20 kilometer diameter crater. As an example, Meteor Crater in Arizona is just over 1 kilometer in diameter.

Larger impacts would also have happened, including multiple impacts resulting in 5,000 kilometer craters.

This is in addition to other research about the common origin of RNA, lipids, and proteins.

The point is, we find these compounds all over the universe. And the universe is truly immense. It is the height of arrogance to assume that life only exists on Earth and that humans are the only intelligent species in the universe.

Now, a discussion about whether we would ever find that other life is a totally different prospect. But even with one planet per galaxy with life, that’s 75 billion planets with life in our universe.

My First Camera

It originally belonged to my mom. She gave it to me—or should I say she allowed me to start using it when I was 13 years old. It used large format 620 film, something that was becoming harder and harder to find even back then, but which had the potential for producing some amazing photos—even if you were limited to a maximum of 8 shots per roll. But I didn’t know or care anything about that. I was just beginning to get into astronomy at the time, and what fascinated me the most about this camera was the fact that you could leave the shutter open indefinitely, allowing you to create photos of star trails. Of course, it involved a lot of trial and error and I never really did succeed in getting the effect I wanted from those pictures, but it planted the seed that was to grow into a lifelong love of photography.

I still have the camera, even though it hasn’t been used for at least thirty years. It was supplanted by a Pentax 35mm in the 1980s and that was replaced when I went digital about ten years ago. I’d imagine I could get some nice coin for it now, but I can’t seem to part with it—not just because it belonged to my mom, but also because it has so many good memories attached.