Nostalgia/book review

When I was maybe 9, my parents got me a children’s picture book called Hello, Mars. It was beautifully illustrated in watercolor and came with an audio cassette, which I guess was an audiobook of the text. I saw it on the shelf, and had to pull it out to refresh my memory.

I was astonished. In the introduction, for example, it talks about satellite launches:

It’s no big deal now. If ISSA—that’s the Inner System Space Agency—has to put up a satellite, they pack it in a scramjet cargo hold along with the tourist baggage, then turn it over to a launch team after docking at the space station. The launch team just pushes it out the door into space.

On the future of medicine:

Progressive kidney failure detected at age five. Temporary treatment commenced August 3, 2063. Standard CK-201 Hopkins-Muer cell generation commenced September 1, 2063. Medibot organ-implantation March 2, 2067…So, you had a bad kidney and they grew you a new one. And since it was cloned from your own cells, there were no organ rejection problems.

Of course, it’s unfair to call the book prescient. It was published in 1989, and even cites its influences, with space stations and bases named Clarke, Sagan, and Bradbury. Still, I think it’s amazing. I’ve been obsessed with scramjets for as long as I can remember, and now, in 2009, they’re finally beginning to come online. Tissue engineered organs are a major topic of research, thanks to the discovery around the year 2000 of adult stem cell plasticity, and I have friends who are doing active research on specifically this issue.

The book, maybe a total of 30 pages, has all sorts of great stuff for kids, introducing conservation of momentum, Lagrange point libration, hydroponics, light-time communication latency, bone loss in zero-G, and more. I don’t recall absorbing this stuff consciously, but I that doesn’t mean it didn’t have a big effect.

There’s one passage, though, that I know had a big effect, because I never forgot it:

The Medibot is like a doctor’s office, examination room, medical laboratory and surgery all in one. … I stepped inside the transparent cylinder and the lid snapped shut. … the Medibot was scanning, probing, and looking over, under around, into, and through just about every part of my body … But it didn’t hurt, and it only took around two minutes.

This is what I have always wanted to build. This is what I am building.


I was working yesterday on the scanner, and everything seemed to be running fine. Then halfway through, my heisenbug reappeared, and nothing would work. I rebooted the system (a complicated process), but that didn’t fix it either.

I had the presence of mind to try to extract some information about the bug, though. I poured out the raw data stream into a file, and then took a look at it. The raw data includes the (X,Y,Z) coordinates at which the scanner is supposed to be imaging. I had specified (0,0,0), which means the center of the scanner, right in the middle of the bore. The data’s indicated location: (0, 0, NaN).

NaN means Not a Number, and it’s what modern computer systems output when you try to perform a computation, like division by zero, that has no right answer. I have no idea what is generating this, since I’m not doing any divisions, but at least I have my first clue.

Melt away

Last week, I tried to test my new pulse sequence (now with sub-millimeter precision!), but it wouldn’t run. Actually, that’s not quite right. It would run fine, and make the usual extremely loud MRI buzzing/banging sound, but no data would come out, and the console showed inscrutable error messages. I was feeling sick, so I gave up.

This week, I planned to do battle with this mysterious bug. I even brought a slice of fantastic Chocolate Melt-Away cake to keep my spirits high. Then, on my first test… it worked perfectly. No problems. I tried every invocation I could think of, and no bug appeared.

There are worse kinds of bad news, I suppose, than having your bugs disappear so you can actually acquire data (to fix other bugs…), but it’s still a bit irritating. In the back of my mind, I will always be worried that the mystery bug will reappear, and my sequence will cease to produce data.

Sometimes, when we are particularly angry at a system, programmers describe these sporadic, random, unpredictable problems as “Heisenbugs”.


Caroline: Did you see our new stove? Are you excited?
Me: I’m having difficulty getting excited about the cheapest stove that Sears will sell you
Caroline: It’s the cheapest stove Sears will sell you in 2009, which is a big upgrade from our previous stove, which was the cheapest stove Sears would sell you in 1981.

We have a new stove. It has a clock, and a timer, and is presumably less broken than its predecessor. Three cheers for the Cantabrigian Trust real estate management corporation.

I hear we’re getting a new toilet too.


I got a bright yellow envelope last week from the Republican National Committee. “2009 Obama Agenda Survey” it said in bold all-caps. “Do Not Destroy” it said, revealing some insecurity, in still larger, bolder capitals. The included four page cover letter dated “Monday Morning” was no less exuberant in its use of bold capitals and underlines. It opens

Dear Friend,

Your immediate action is required.

Please carefully read and complete the 2009 Obama Agenda Survey which is REGISTERED in your name and affixed with a tracking code to ensure that it is accounted for in the tabulated results.

(emphasis removed)

Here is the “Questionnaire”:

  1. Do you agree with Barack Obama’s budget plan that will lead to a $23.1 trillion deficit over the next ten years?
  2. Do you believe that the federal government has gone too far in bailing out failing banks, insurance companies and the auto industry?
  3. Do you support amnesty for illegal immigrants?
  4. Should English be the official language of the United States?
  5. Are you in favor of granting retroactive Social Security eligibility to illegal immigrants who gain U.S. citizenship through an amnesty program?
  6. Are you in favor of the expanded welfare benefits and unlimited eligibility (no time, education, or work requirements) that Democrats in Congress are pushing to pass?
  7. Do you believe that Barack Obama’s nominees for federal courts should be immediately and unquestionably approved for their lifetime appointments by the U.S. Senate?
  8. Do you believe that the best way to increase the quality and effectiveness of public education in the U.S. is to rapidly expand federal funding while eliminating performance standards and accountability?
  9. Do you support the creation of a national health insurance plan that would be administered by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.?
  10. Do you believe that the quality and availability of healthcare will increase if the federal government dictates pricing to the doctors and hospitals?
  11. Are you confident that new medicines and medical treatments will continue to be developed if the federal government controls prescription drug prices and sets profit margins for research and pharmaceutical companies?
  12. Are you in favor of creating a government-funded “Citizen Volunteer Corps” that would pay young people to do the work now done by churches and charities, earning Corps Members the same pay and benefits given to military veterans?
  13. Are you in favor of reinstituting the military draft, as Democrats in Congress have proposed?
  14. Do you believe that the federal government should allow the unionization of Department of Homeland Security employees who serve in positions critical to the safety and security of our nation?
  15. Do you support the Democrats’ drive to eliminate workers’ right to a private ballot when considering unionization of their place of employment?

Reading this list, I at first assumed that this was just some weird sort of push-polling, though it seemed a bit blatant even for that. It was only when I got to the end of the poll that I understood what was going on. At the end of the poll is a “Contribution Reply”, with nice little checkboxes so you can indicate how much money you want to give. In other words, this isn’t a push-poll. This was supposed to be sent to the party faithful, to get them riled up so they donate money. It’s a “pull-poll”.

I was very briefly registered as a Republican in Massachusetts, and they must somehow still have me in their system. I’m considering sending them back their poll with a nice liberal set of answers in their helpfully included business reply envelope.

Somehow I doubt anyone even looks at the survey, though.


For the third year running, my parents are hosting a Chinese exchange teacher, and for the last two years, Rosh Hashanah has fallen just as the new teachers are getting comfortable in their new role. Both years, the teachers have been sufficiently curious about Judaism that they wanted to attend a service to see what it is like. This seems sort of bizarre to me — surely it’s incredibly boring! — but I suppose that if I were in China, I would jump at the chance to attend a ceremony by a minority religious group little known in the US.

The teacher this year said that two things struck her particularly about tonight’s service. One was the simplicity. The service had 6 dedicated musicians and countless songs, ran in two languages, and employed straight sermons, call and response in English, and a number of other patterns, so I was a bit surprised by that description. I suppose it’s true that the space, a middle school auditorium, was not ornate by any measure, and the most physically elaborate act was probably the lighting of a few candles.

Her other observation was a favorite passage from the text. It’s a silent prayer that reads

O God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from deceit. Help me to be silent in the face of derision, humble in the presence of all.

She certainly has an interesting perspective.


I’m headed home to CT for Rosh Hashanah, and all the usual family traditions that have been going since long before I was born. The weather forecast is clear for tomorrow, so I might also get a chance to go sailing with my parents. It should be a nice weekend.

In other news, my mystery ailment has resolved itself into a minor head-cold. My only concern now is how to safely blow my nose on the freeway.

Down with the sickness

What causes fever, occasional dizziness, slight stomach upset, and a mild headache? Whatever it is, I seem to have it. I’m tempted to label it the world’s mildest case of flu, but it’s probably something else entirely, because according to wikipedia, only 14% of patients with “flu-like symptoms” actually have an influenza infection.

Anyway, it provided a fine excuse to sit around and watch The A-Team, which, as it turns out, was an absolutely terrible show.


This weekend was the RSI/CEE 25th Anniversary conference/reunion. It was a lot of fun. Imagine a weekend of hanging out with your friends and counselors from high school summer camp, except now they’re all academics, engineers, entrepreneurs, and quants. There was a speech by Dean Kamen (of Segway fame), a panel with four Nobel-prize winners, and a black-tie dinner (note to self: make sure cufflinks and tux are in the same state). There were also lots of informal parties. In short: a good time.

Yesterday I played ultimate frisbee for the first time in years, instigated by a friend who plays for a club in Japan, so I am totally sore and a little dizzy. Adding to the soreness is the 20 miles I bicycled yesterday, mostly due to getting terribly lost on the way to a small dinner party. I may have visited Newton; I’m really not sure.