Saturday, August 27, 2005

Sharing information -- I'm grateful for tips on Roomba repair.

We got a Roomba (robot vacuum cleaner) about six months ago. It does a remarkably good job of cleaning and it's very entertaining (a bit like I imagine having a pet trilobite might be) but I'm discovering that it's not a lot less work because it requires much more maintenance than our vacuum cleaner. This is where the power of blogs comes in (see my previous post). After opening it up for (necessary, not scheduled) cleaning, I found that I could not get it back together! The reason turned out to be lint/dust/hair packed tight into the brass hole of a removable cap. This I removed with my awl on my pocket knife, but only after convincing myself by reading "Kevin's blog," what the problem was. I could not find information with nearly so much useful detail in anything that came with the Roomba or on the irobot web page. I guess the point is that blogs are great. Given powerful search tools, we can all provide each other with useful information without having to put a lot of effort into structuring that information ahead of time.


Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Is sharing bookmarks a social revolution?

Nature has an editorial in the new issue advocating Connotea and related services for sharing bookmarks. This is clearly something that is coming, but I'm not sure what form will ultimately be popular. I've been sharing my own links and key literature with students and others for while; I've noticed that other people do similar things and I have bookmarked some of them.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Team Orwell vs. the mothers of U.S. troops

I try to stay away from the overtly political pages of the newspapers. Reading them can be a distraction, and it's not good for my digestion. But a recent development in the Cindy Sheehan story has made me angry. Apparently (I don’t listen to them or read them, so this is admittedly based on second-hand information), the Republican attack dogs (Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and other assorted liars for hire) have started attacking Cindy Sheehan personally. What message does that send to our troops? "If you do die, make sure that your mother doesn't cry too loud, because if she does, she will get disrespect like you've never seen." From the beginning of the Iraq war the message seemed to be along the lines of "Dear Mrs. Smith, We regret to inform you ... supreme sacrifice … but, hey, let's just keep this between you and me. You must understand that giving your son [or daughter] the honor that we both know that he [or she] deserves would hurt our recruiting efforts." Examples of this include rules about what pictures can be shown (e.g. no caskets) and opposition to honoring the dead by reading their names. It seems like they have now gone too far. Certainly, insulting the mothers and families of our servicemen doesn't seem like a real good idea to me, but I guess George W. is counting on Karl Rove to make it all come out OK in the end.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Rio de Janeiro

The weekend that Janet and I spent in Rio is now two weeks ago, but I just posted the pictures. It's possible that they will be revised once Janet returns from Asia, but perhaps not (she will have new pictures!).

My first flight into Rio was on July 14, at dawn, and I watched a layer of clouds stretching out to sea pierced by mountain tops, and then a valley looking like the caldera of an extinct volcano, but filled with city. After changing planes there three times in two weeks, parts of the Rio airport became as familiar to me as La Guardia once was. But finally, we actually visited for a few days (Aug. 1).

Rio de Janeiro is a real city with spectacular views, (sort of like putting Manhattan in Yosemite!). The Ipanema neighborhood where we stayed is full of coffee shops, news stands, high-rises, buses and cabs. On Sunday morning I ran along the beach between 8 and 9. A haze was lifting, and many steep hills coming into view. The ocean side of the road that runs along the beach was closed to traffic but already crowded with people. The mix was remarkably familiar from New York: old ladies getting some exercise or just chatting, couples strolling, runners, including a few true athletes laying down 6 minute miles for their morning run. Parking on the far side of the road was lined with VW buses unloading beach chairs, coconuts, beer, and other things to be sold from tents on the beach. Ice was sold in large bags to these entrepreneurs from a truck that ran down the open side of the street honking its horn, a man hanging out the open side door yelling "gelo," or from bicycles equipped with side baskets carrying impossible loads of ice.

Later in the day, we took a ride in a taxi up to Corcovado, which is famous for the statue of Jesus that looks down on the city. Later, we rode up to Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf Mountain) and then briefly visited the Museo de Terra (perhaps the most striking thing is the exhibit of Brazilian granite in the lobby). We ate with Jonas and Leonora from the top of the Hotel Everest (spectacular views) and then had snacks and chopp with Andreas Valentin. On Monday, we took the ferry to Niteroi, where we saw an exhibit of Andreas' work and the “Museo do Arte Contemporanes” designed by Oscar Niemeyer. Later that afternoon, I came home.

Friday, August 05, 2005

'March of the Penguins'

'March of the Penguins' is beautiful and romantic, a celebration of the ultimate altruism of parenting set in the beauty of Antarctica.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Joy Luck Club

From the time it came out, everyone has been telling me that The Joy Luck Club is a great book. Janet has used the book for teaching and often refers to stories from it. In her nonfiction memoir, The Opposite of Fate, Amy Tan impressed me very much with her ability to see and articulate the truth of things. Finally, the idea of connections between mothers and daughter, "like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way" appealed to me. So, I brought it along with me to Brazil, in the form of a conveniently compact paperback, and read it on planes. To be honest, I was disappointed. The connections between the mothers and their daughters were not as compelling as I had expected, and I kept looking back to see who went with whom. My guess is that most of the middle of the book was written as short stories, with the names changed, and a few bits added, later, in order to make them fit together. However, the last quarter of the book is the best, and stories are brought together with compelling force.

There is also the way men are depicted in this book. There are no love stories here; few of the men even know anything about their wives. The Chinese husbands of the mothers in China are all self-absorbed and distant, philandering or asexual. The American husbands are benign at best. An exception may be Waverly Jong's husband Rich, but we don't really get to know him, and the only time that any father or husband plays a truly meaningful role comes in the last chapter, when Canning Woo relays his wife's story to their daughter.

Lest I be misunderstood, The Joy Luck Club is a great book, but it is not so good as I had hoped, and not as good as The Bonesetter's Daughter, which Janet and I listened to on tape during one of our many trips from Miami to Washington. I can even enlist support from the author herself, who makes a case for The Kitchen God's Wife in her memoirs ("regardless of what others may think, [The Kitchen God's Wife] is my favorite" – The Opposite of Fate, pg. 333). Perhaps that is the book I should have read.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Newark airport and home

I have yet to post my comments on Rio, so this is a bit out of order, but brief. I cannot remember the last time that I was away for this long (19 days), and I appear to have passed some sort of threshold regarding familiarity. American money looked a bit odd at first, and I stalled my car the first time I tried to drive it because the clutch action was unfamiliar. I also noticed things in my house that I stopped seeing years ago.

10-15 years ago, when Janet and I were traveling back and forth between New York and Miami, Newark airport resembled a bus terminal with planes. Changing planes there yesterday, I can report that it looks much nicer than it did. The overall appearance and shopping are certainly improved, but I am not sure that it functions any better as an airport. The air train between terminals is great, but is treated as a closely guarded secret -- in any case there was no announcement about it on the plane, nor any signs in customs, in the ticketing area or at the entrance to the terminal where I went to look for a shuttle bus. While waiting, I noticed that the terminal had a strong wireless signal, but the server was apparently down (my browser was redirected to a dead URL: " can not be found").

The biggest problem with Newark is that it has much longer lines at security than any of the roughly two dozen airports I've passed through in the last few years. It took me nearly an hour to get through the line in terminal A and I saw a similarly long line in terminal C. Fortunately, I had three hours to make my connection, but I saw airport personnel tell the parent of an 11 year old who was going on unattended that he had to wait in the line, even if it would mean missing his plane. This person eventually just went up the front of the line, and endured the verbal abuse of another passenger while he waited to see his child clear security. The fact that he had an international connection didn't seem to matter. This is not a good airport to make connections.