Geeky Birthdays

It was my friend D’s birthday yesterday.
A pi?ata was involved.
However, the kite string that we originally intended to suspend the pi?ata with proved to be insufficiently strong and kept snapping under the weight of all the tasty candy…so we used a Cat5 ethernet cable instead.
You know you’re in the presence of geeks when nobody found the utterance, “Crap! The string broke again! Does anyone have any ethernet cable?” unusual. I suppose that’s the case when a bunch of physicists, astronomers, and computer engineers get together.

An Interesting Day

I haven’t been to Sportsman’s Warehouse in a long time, so it was pleasant to visit with a few friends today, including two female friends who are interested in buying guns for themselves — one hitchhikes around (she’s the adventuresome type) and wants to have something in case she needs to protect herself, the other is interested in fun Shooty Goodness trips at the range. They got to handle a few different guns, but didn’t buy anything today.
Interestingly enough, powder prices have stayed the same over the last year or so — it’s about $21 for one pound of IMR 4064 (Is there a more versatile powder? I think not.), just as it was a year ago. Not bad for retail pricing; I’d have to buy a considerable quantity of powder online to save any money per pound, and with a limited budget I simply can’t afford to save that much money. 🙂
In addition to the pound of powder, I also picked up a 12 gauge boresnake, as my poor Mossberg 500 is in need of some attention. I haven’t cleaned it in about a year…of course it still works flawlessly, but I think it’s been long enough.
After returning, I had a date with the kitchen: a bunch of friends came over to my tiny studio apartment and we were going to make pies (I make a pretty tasty apple pie, if I do say so myself).
Unfortunately, the pie-making was delayed by an hour due to freakishly intense thunderstorms. One friend was trapped in her car in a parking lot a few blocks away due to flash-flooding of the streets around her — Tucson has very few storm drains, and flooded roads are quite common. After nearly an hour, the waters subsided enough for her to travel the few remaining blocks to my apartment.

(Photo credit: Tucson Citizen)
Another friend was delayed as the storms prevented him from crossing the 100 yard distance separating our two apartment complexes. The rains were simply too intense, and the lightning too close.
In getting from their cars to my apartment (maybe a 25 yard walk), a few friends got extremely soaked (I said the rain was intense!) and had to borrow some clean, dry clothes. Fortunately, I just did laundry the other day, so I had plenty…though it was rather amusing to see two slender females wearing me-sized t-shirts and shorts. My garments were entirely too large, but they were evidently preferable than wet clothes.
During most storms, I take no additional precautions, but this one was different. My Honda generator was prepared and waiting by the door, computers were shut down and unplugged, and the only things plugged in were the lights, fish tank stuff, and the electric ignitor for my gas oven. One of the lights was plugged into a UPS so that if the power was to go out, there would be sufficient light for us to locate the flashlights and get the generator running. Fortunately, the power only flickered a few times, but never actually went out. My compliments to Tucson Electric Power.
I also need to find a way to protect the generator from the elements while it’s outside. During moderate storms, I have it sit under the overhang outside, where it’s protected from falling rain. However, with the intensity of the wind this evening, there was no place untouched by rain. I should look into securing a small umbrella to the generator with duct tape, so as to keep water away from its sensitive parts.
I discovered a troublesome vulnerability with my apartment: intense wind-driven rain can flood the track in my sliding window, and thus flow into the apartment itself. It required several towels to absorb the incoming water, though at the time it was not possible to actually stop the water from entering in the first place. When the rain subsided a little, I fashioned a small deflector shield with duct tape and affixed it to the outside of the window so as to direct rainwater away from the window track. This seems to have been successful: when the rain returned later, it did not enter the apartment. Since I rarely open the window (air conditioning doesn’t work well with an open window, and I use AC about 80% of the year), I should see if there’s a better, semi-permanent way of sealing the window track. Any suggestions?
As for the pie, my friend Louis made his chilled pumpkin cream pie, which was quite delicious. Since it’s a “cold” pie, no cooking was necessary — simply combine the ingredients, mix, and place in the freezer for an hour or so. My apple pie was moderately good, but in my haste (never make pie when hungry!) I prepared it in a somewhat sub-standard way: the butter in the handmade crust was not distributed evening, and so there were a few spots in the crust with excess butter. Additionally, we ate the pie shortly after it came out of the oven, so it didn’t have time to cool properly, and so lacked some of the distinct apple pie texture. Oh well. It seemed to go over well with the guests, particularly when combined with Blue Moon.
More smokeless powder, a big storm, friendly guests, tasty pies, and ale: what more can one ask for?

Corporate Idiocy

I wrote to my ISP (a major cable company) yesterday informing them that they were vulnerable to a serious security exploit and that they had not yet patched their systems (even though patches had been out for some time).
On the first line of my message was the statement “Please direct this to your security/network operations staff. Front-line customer support will be unable to address this serious security problem.”
I received their response today: “We apologize for your connectivity problems (?!). Please reset your cable modem.”
Idiots. I wrote back, LARTed them for not actually reading my message, and again requested that they direct the message to the suitable department. We’ll see what happens.
I know that customer support folks have to deal with a lot of crap from users (I know, I’ve been there), but this is a serious security issue and there’s no other means that I know of to contact their security staff.
Is it too much to ask that they actually read my message before replying with boilerplate?

The Last Straw

The Wall Street Journal reports on my personal “line in the sand”:

This morning, US Airways began charging fliers $2 for bottled water and sodas and $1 for teas and coffees. First class members, trans-Atlantic passengers and a select group of others are exempt from the extra fees.

While I’m certainly not going to start shooting over this, I did utter quite a few choice words at the computer monitor. Also, I won’t book another flight on US Airways. I already have a few already booked — visiting family at Thanksgiving, for example — but those are the last.
Granted, I don’t fly all that often, so this might not mean much to them, but if they’re getting desperate enough to start charging people for water (particularly when the TSA confiscates all liquids from outside the security checkpoints), I think even my lack of flying might be noticeable.
When I was a child (not that long ago…), my father used to take me up to the cockpit when the plane was at the gate. The pilots would let me play with the controls, and would even push some test button that would cause a mechanical voice to say “PULL UP! PULL UP!” I’d even get a little pair of “junior pilot” wings. Silly, perhaps, but it’s a pleasant memory from my childhood.
I remember when all the airlines would serve food on flights more than an hour or two. When they stopped serving food on domestic airlines (or worse, charging separately for the meals), some part of my brain thought “I have a bad feeling about this…”
I knew that Foul Things Were Afoot when the airlines started charging for luggage. This, combined with the absurd restrictions on carry-on items implemented by the TSA, made me seriously consider cutting back on flying. I don’t go anywhere without at least one folding knife and my Leatherman. They’re not allowed in a carry-on, and I’m not going to pay $15 just to check a bag with the tools in it.
Charging for sodas and water crosses the line. It’s simply absurd — how much money could it possibly be saving them? US Airways charges $212 for a round-trip mid-September flight from Phoenix to San Francisco and back. This includes a weekend stay. Southwest charges $106 for the exact same flight. The staff at Southwest are more pleasant, sodas and water are free (and they still serve actual peanuts instead of the ridiculous “snack mix”, allergies be damned), and I’ve never had Southwest lose a piece of luggage.
If I were to drive, gas would cost about $135 (assuming $4.50/gallon gas, which is considerably more expensive than the current price of $3.70/gallon here in Tucson, and my Camry getting 30mpg on the highway, which it does) each way. That’s $230 in gas. Let’s round up to $300 to take into consideration wear-and-tear on the car, tires, maintenance, etc. That’s $88 more expensive than US Airway’s cheapest possible flight for those days…but I get to sit in a larger, more comfortable chair, eat and drink whatever I wish, enjoy the open road, and transport all the sharp and pointy objects my heart desires. If one counts the $15/bag fee ($25 for the second bag) per passenger, the difference is quite a bit less.
Granted, it’s a 12 hour drive from Tucson to San Francisco, but with a passenger or two, it’s much, much cheaper to drive than fly. Adding a couple passengers and a few bags to the car slightly reduces its fuel economy, but the cost-per-passenger-mile decreases greatly. The cost savings compared to flying totally offsets the slightly reduced fuel economy.
I know that jet fuel isn’t cheap these days, but rather than nickel-and-diming passengers, why not raise the ticket fare a little to make up for the increased costs? I doubt that most passengers would notice a $20 increase in their ticket price, but they’ll sure as hell notice when they need to pay that amount for drinks, food, and checked bags
If anything, they should try to differentiate themselves from their competitors by offering better service (comfy seats, free booze, etc.) for only a slightly increased fare.
Trying to become the Greyhound Of The Skies by racing other carriers to the bottom is a recipe for failure, espescially when carriers like Southwest are charging less, offering more, and still making money.

Weather

It’s 2:20am and still 80F+ outside.
It’s expected to get around 100F tomorrow (not too hot), but up to 105F on Friday.
And that, gentle readers, is why I don’t get out to the range as often as I’d like.
That, and the fact that I have essentially no money with which to buy more ammo.

Ugh

Saturday night was the celebration of a good friend’s birthday. All went well until one of the fellows there had a wee bit too much to drink and decided to demonstrated this by (a) jumping into the swimming pool fully clothed and (b) upon returning to my friend’s apartment suffered an urge contrary to swallowing. On the carpet. In prodigious quantities.
Ugh.
To make matters worse, my first aid kit was back at my apartment in my Europe travel back (still need to unpack) instead of in my car. Cleaning up various bodily fluids (and the occasional solid – yuck) without nitrile gloves is Not A Pleasant Experience(tm). Fortunately, the apartment owners had a considerable quantity of plastic grocery bags*, and those served reasonably well as makeshift gloves.
The fellow in question then remained in the bathroom for about three hours (while I tended to him for about two and a half hours) before sobering up enough to be driven home without befouling my car.
Morals of the story:

  • Always keep a basic first aid kit handy. While the numerous bandages and whatnot would have been useless, the three pairs of nitrile gloves would have been excellent. I should see about putting a few extra pairs of gloves into my car.
  • Don’t be That Guy. Birthday parties are fun events, with good friends, good food, and plentiful drinks. Having a few drinks can be relaxing and help liven up the mood a bit…but don’t be a bonehead and knock back 14 shots of vodka after drinking several beers and alcopops. It will be coming back up again.
  • Don’t barf on someone else’s carpet. The only thing that I can imagine as more rude is trying to grope the hostess who is trying to help you to the bathroom, clean you up, and clean up your mess.
  • Don’t grope the hostess. Or her female friends. Really. Not a turn-on.

* Note to Hippies: Plastic bags serve useful purposes. A cloth bag would be totally inappropriate here.

Small World

Time: 0200
Place: US Airways Baggage Service Office, San Francisco International Airport
Background: Short of the wings falling off and the plane plunging to a fiery crash, pretty much everything that could go wrong with the simple Munich-Philadelphia and Philadelphia-San Francisco flight yesterday happened, including missing a flight (and worse, multiple screaming babies crying in a harmony that would make John Williams listen in awe). More later.
Anyway, at 2am at the luggage counter in the otherwise closed-for-the-night airport, another traveller inquired where I was coming from and why. When I replied, “Munich, after visiting other cities in Europe on vacation”, he mentioned that he spent a few years in Germany back in the late 90s. When pressed for more details, it turns out he was a tank crewman with the US Army and was stationed there.
He’s the first armor crewman I’ve met who I didn’t personally serve with. Very cool.
That reminds me, I should see if I still have all the phone numbers and whatnot for the guys from my old armor unit. It’d be fun to meet up and share some beers again.

Scooter Purchased!

Over the last few days, I spent a considerable amount of time evaluating different means of two-wheeled transport. From little 50cc scooters up to 500+cc road hogs, I considered them all.
I ended up settling on a Kymco “Bet & Win” (who names these things?) 150. I bought it “new” from the dealer (ScootOver here in Tucson — I highly recommend them.), and it has 135km (83 miles) on the clock (mostly low-speed test-drives in the parking lot behind the shop). No previous owners. It has a 150cc liquid-cooled four-stroke single-cylinder engine, a 2.6 gallon fuel tank (at 84 miles per gallon, it can go quite a distance), front and rear hydraulic disc brakes, and ample storage space. There are no gears: it has a continuously variable transmission, which makes riding it smooth and simple.
This scooter is basically a the .22 Long Rifle of two-wheeled vehicles. It’s compact, simple, easy to learn on, fun, and has all sorts of uses. I got it up to about 50mph today (it could go faster, but I was limited by posted speed limits) and it handled smoothly and comfortably. It’s no speed demon or beauty queen, but it’s functional, has plenty of storage, and if the reviews (I read dozens of reviews on numerous websites) are to be believed, reliable and durable.
After riding it about 10 miles today, I discovered a small quirk: the engine stalls out when idling at a stop. Thus, the bike’s in the shop overnight, and they said they’d have everything adjusted and in excellent working order tomorrow morning. Of course, the adjustments would be at no charge.
Kymco was offering a fantastic offer on financing: 1.9% for 48 months, with no penalties for pre-payment. I’ve budgeted things out so I can pay it off within one year, rather than four, saving a few tens of dollars in interest.
I won’t be winning any races with it, but that’s not why I bought it. Now, to see about mounting a rifle case and open-carrying while riding…after I get back from Europe, of course.
Update: I went down to the shop to collect the scooter today. It turns out that the scooter had been sitting on display in the shop for a few months with the gas tank full. Of course, after all this time the gas had “gone bad” and gummed up the carburetor and other important parts of the fuel system. They’re going to drain the bad fuel, clean everything (and replace parts as needed), and get it back to “brand new” condition. Of course, there’s not going to be any charge for all this work. It should be done by Saturday, but by that time I’ll likely be in Phoenix and getting ready for my flight on Sunday. The shop said they’d have no problem with storing? the scooter for me until July at no charge.

Traveling

Starting this coming weekend, I’ll be traveling around Europe (England [London], France [Paris], Germany [Munich], and Switzerland [Bern]) until mid-July.
As such, I’ll likely not be posting nearly as often as I’d like. I’ll see if I can get some photographs up here, much like how Kim du Toit posts photos of his travels.
If any of my readers live in those cities, please feel free to contact me by email. It’s quite possible that we may be able to meet up and get a drink sometime.

Two Wheeled Vehicles and Firearms

I’ve recently been looking at purchasing a two-wheeled vehicle, like a scooter or motorcycle. I’ve been looking at scooters in particular, as they tend to be smaller, less expensive, and more fuel efficient. The fact that I could tinker with a small engine and save on maintenance costs is also a plus, as is the cost for insurance (about $100/year rather than $1,200/year for my car).
Obviously, I wouldn’t give up my car (an ’06 Toyota Camry), as there are many situations where having a car is useful. But there are many situations where it’s not terribly efficient to lug around a few extra thousand pounds of metal. As a physicist, I need to do my part to minimize my contribution to increasing universal entropy, and thus help stave off the heat death of the universe.
This brings me to the following two questions:

  • Are there any readers in the Tucson or Phoenix (Chandler/Scottsdale, specifically) metro areas who are looking to sell a scooter like the Honda “Elite 80” or something similar? I’d prefer widely-known brands like Honda, rather than essentially no-name Chinese scooters. I also like the styling of the Elite 80 over the more curvy Vespa-style scooters.
  • Any recommendations on transporting firearms, particularly long guns, on such a vehicle? I know that rifle cases exist for ATVs, but I have no idea if any solutions exist for scooters/motorcycles. Obviously one could carry a slung rifle or shotgun on one’s back, but I’d imagine that’d be potentially hazardous if one were involved in an accident.