All posts by Ben

Filled

I got my first filling today. I opted for no anesthesia, mostly so I could get back to the office and not be half-paralyzed. Oddly, the only painful bit was the air jet that they use to dry out the working area. The drills and such … I hardly felt a thing.

Anyway, now a big chunk of one of my teeth is made of some kind of photo-cured resin. This is the first time that a part of my body has been replaced by a non-biological component. It’s hard to guess what the next one will be.

Olive Garden

I went with some friends for a post-Passover meal at the Olive Garden in Times Square. We stuffed ourselves with pasta and breadsticks, and remarked on the endless roiling LED twilight of Times Square. Also, I somehow wound up with a dozen Olive Garden-branded Andes chocolate mints. What are the odds that I’d be the only chocolate mint lover at a table of seven people?

Constitutional attitude

Section 8 of the US Constitution, written in 1789, specifically says “The Congress shall have Power … To establish Post Offices and post Roads”. This was uncontroversial; Benjamin Franklin had been the postmaster general of the United States since 1775 … before the United States existed. One of George Washington’s first acts as President was to sign the Postal Service act, which officially established the Post Office Department.

It seems to me that if we governed with the same spirit today, Congress would be empowered “to establish local and long-distance Internet services”, and we would have a cabinet-level Network Administrator General who was charged with keeping the lights on.

Budget Suites

In 1987, Robert Bigelow founded Budget Suites of America. Their minimal website proudly proclaims rates starting at $189.

In the 1990s, NASA started researching a space station construction concept called TransHab. It was ultimately killed by Congress in 2000, after substantial R&D but no launches.

Budget Suites of America, and Bigelow’s other investments, wound up being pretty darn profitable, and it turns out that Bigelow is a big space fan. He hired the TransHab team from NASA and bankrolled a little company for them, Bigelow Aerospace. For years, they posted pretty pictures of mockups, and even launched some empty test hardware … expensive, but hardly proof of much. After years of waiting for space launch prices to come down so that they could put real space stations in orbit, they admitted defeat in 2011 and laid off most of their staff. It looked like the end of an odd little adventure.

There was one ray of hope, though. In 2012 they signed a small contract with NASA to take their TransHab-derived space station module and bolt it onto the ISS, just as a proof of concept. Now it’s 2015, and that proof of concept is on schedule for this year. If it works, it will be Robert Bigelow’s first real estate investment in space … and probably not his last.

Science fiction is full of space hotels, but I don’t think anyone predicted that the first one would be built by the Budget Suites guy.

#2

Caught my second cockroach this morning.  I trapped it under an heirloom Bakelite soap dish and flushed it with some help from some junk mail.

There’s never just two…

Book: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

I’ve been flying a lot, and decided I should get a dose of Literature, so I went to my neighborhood library and scanned the shelves for anything recognizable. The selection was sparse, to say the least, but I managed to spot a few familiar titles and nabbed them. This was one.

The book starts out as an exercise in unreliable narration, with a narrator whose mental illness prevents him from distinguishing between metaphor and reality. In my mind’s eye, I saw scenes from Big Fish, which uses special effects to tell tall tales. As the story progresses, the narrator becomes more coherent, reflecting his personal progress toward wellness, which is also convenient because the later plot is thick enough that the book might otherwise be incomprehensible.

The unreliable narrator is a caricature of mental illness, but the author gets away with it by being sympathetic, even partisan, and never judgmental of the patients. This is a neat trick, because the author proceeds to get away with misogyny (by the ton), racism, and stereotyping of every kind, by putting those words in the mouth of a narrator, who is supposed to be insane anyway.

Ultimately, the story is a heartbreaking critique of over-treatment in insane asylums, which at the time of the novels were institutionalizing 0.4% of the US adult population. Today, that number has indeed fallen closer to 0.02% … and incarceration has more than made up the difference.

Be careful what you wish for.

The Taste Fork

I spent this week in Dallas at the Internet Engineering Task Force. It was my first time going.

Participating in the IETF has long been a dream of mine. Maybe something beyond a dream; it was only a few years ago that I realized this history-making council of knights was something that I might actually be able to join myself. It was an odd epiphany, like opening one’s mailbox and finding an invitation to apply for a professional masters degree program at Hogwarts.

For me, the IETF process, where any person can join, but no companies are allowed, and the most official decisions are called a “request for comments”, inspires a feeling somewhere between patriotism and religious fervor. I’m liable to interrupt family dinners to explain the IETF’s hum-based method of gauging consensus, or to repeat by heart Dave Clark’s famous quote

We reject kings, presidents and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code.

So, naturally, actually going to IETF would have to be a disillusioning experience, and in some sense it was. The meetings seem to be 40% bickering about minutiae and 60% talking to dead air. Obstinacy, pedantry, and obstructionism are in long supply. There’s essentially no educational component; no energy is expended to help attendees to learn about areas outside of their own bubble. I learned an important lesson there: review the agenda ahead of time, and study up on anything that piques your interest, or you will simply be lost!

The vast majority of people in each meeting are simply silent, and it’s impossible for me to know whether they are bewildered newcomers (like me) or some kind of passive expert observer. I spent the whole week in Dallas just to give two 10-minute presentations. And oh, by the way, proportionally, the men’s swim team at my high school had more women in it than the IETF.

On the other hand, it was also a fascinating, inspiring, and massively informative week. I met personal heroes and long-time collaborators by the dozen. I had lunch and dinner with a different group of grizzled experts every day, with plenty of time to hear old engineering war stories and ask all the unanswered questions from all of the day’s working groups. I might even have managed to drum up support for my very first internet standard proposal.

Most IETF attendees seem to be regulars who go to most of the meetings. Some people have been to practically all of them, since the beginning. I’m not sure I’m likely to become one of them … but I also get the feeling this won’t be my last.

First night

LetterMpress-Impression-20150321-030143597

The Dallas Museum of Art, as it’s properly known, holds a monthly late-night event on the third Friday of each month. Conveniently, that’s today.

Walking there, the city center (called the “arts district”) seemed dead. The sidewalks were empty, and the storefronts were shuttered.

Inside the museum, it was a different story. The sprawling, gleaming space was packed with a lively crowd that seemed diverse in every way.

This month’s theme was Jane Austen, and maybe there were a few more mother-daughter pairs than the average month. In keeping with the 19th-century literary theme, one of the many scheduled events was a simulated letterpress typesetting session. (It took me the whole hour to assemble this sentence above.) I also listened to a short lecture on marriage in the time of Jane Austen (fun fact: the average marriage was the same length then as today, despite virtually zero divorces, due to the high rate of mothers dying in childbirth).

The museum has a little bit of everything, and yet seems to have almost too much space for its collection. Maybe they just like to be a little less crowded down here than in those Northern cities.

Dallas

I’ve never been to Texas, outside of an airport anyway, but starting Friday I’ll be spending a week in Dallas. I know almost exactly nothing about the place, and since it’s for a conference, I don’t suppose I’ll have much of a chance to experience any culture. In fact, I might not ever leave the corporate hotel district, in which case I will still hardly have been to Texas at all.

Normally I would be irritated by this possibility, but any such concern is fully offset by the weather differential: high 60s in Dallas, snowstorm in NYC.

Anyway, lemme know if there’s something or someone I should wedge into my schedule next week. Could happen.