Some years back I visited my mother when she lived in a house in Green Valley, Arizona.  From the back yard you could see the MMT Telescope up on the top of Mount Hopkins.  The MMT was originally the Multiple Mirror Telescope, with six mirrors that, uh, happened to be available, combined into one telescope.  Since then the art of making Really Big Mirrors advanced and the six 1.8 meter mirrors have been replaced by a single 6.5 meter mirror, but they were unable to replace the name with a new one, so it's still the MMT.  (I understand that they tried, but astronomers aren't very good at naming telescopes, as evidenced by names like "very large array" or "overwhelmingly large telescope.") It's DARK there.  Even down in the town.  Really, really, dark.  I grew up in Cook County, Illinois.  Chicago, famously, is in Cook County.  I thought Milwaukee was dark.  Cook County is like standing on the daytime side of Mercury compared to Green Valley.

Anyway, I saw the very obvious Milky Way, the bazillion stars in the plain of our own galaxy.  Back when I was younger, I thought of the Milky Way as something you could detect using binoculars, a region of many faint stars.  I didn't realize until later how obvious it is in the dark.  More interesting than that, I found and pointed out to Mom something just a bit harder to see, M31, the great galaxy in Andromeda.  From 2.5 million light years away, you'd think it would be very faint, but the combined light of a trillion stars adds up to a lot of light.  From such a distance, you'd think anything would look like a point, but galaxies are very, very big, and it appears even to the naked eye as an extended smear of light even though you can only see the brightest part.  There weren't even really humans as we know ourselves when light from those trillion stars left there.  And, of course, it's headed right at us.  In three or four billion years the galaxies will pass through each other and stars will be thrown out in vast bands and eventually the two supermassive black holes will merge, an event that I assume would be best observed from a Safe Distance.  I'm pretty sure in the case of supermassive black holes a safe distance is a very long distance indeed.

And, you know, Andromeda is part of the Local Group.  You can see it just by looking (if you get the hell away from Chicago).  It's not like it's far away or anything, as these things go.

(That photo of me with a Nikon film camera reflected in the 10 meter array of mirrors was taken up at the Whipple observatory.)

"I declare I will be whole again"

This afternoon I found myself sitting somewhat awkwardly on the edge of the car door frame, putting on a boot before driving away.  I did that a lot last month, exchanging the Aircast for a normal boot so I could operate the pedals in the car, then back again so I could walk, possibly with the aid of crutches.  Today was a bit different: The boots I was taking off were ski boots.  I went around the pink loop at Lapham Peak twice, the second time making an extra loop around via the connection by the butterfly garden.  The total distance was 7.5km, and while this is one of the easy loops, it does involve climbing something called "Asthma Hill."  My peak heart rate at the top of the hill was 187 the first time and 189 the second.  Proper exercise indeed.  The right foot isn't quite right yet, but clearly it's getting better.  Heck, by the end of the skiing both legs were so tired it was hard to say if the right was worse than the left.

(Post title taken from Jen Midkiff's "Long Time Comin'")

The experience of attracting attention to myself

At Capricon I tried something new to me, trying to dress up in some sort of recognizably fancied-up manner.  As you may know, it's not like I have some keenly tuned sense of fashion, or even the vaguest sense of color coordination (even though the actual color-sensitive receptors in my eyes work just fine).  So, you know, adventure!  The new wardrobe components consisted of a pair of black just-below-the-knee boots from Minnetonka Moccasins and a kilt from Alt.Kilt.

One thing that surprised me was the reaction to the boots.  I expected the kilt to attract attention (duh), but I also wore the boots with just plain black jeans and a shirt from Patagonia and I actually got a number of comments out of the blue from people - both friends and also total strangers - about how they liked the boots.  Honestly, I'd have expected it to take more, you know, effort to get dressed up enough to actually get comments on it.

I'm basically speculating here, but I suspect that playing dress-up works a bit like an athletic competition in which you are competing against your age group or your weight class.  You don't get compared to the best-dressed human being on the premises, you get compared to whatever group people group you into.  If you look like a man (I have a beard, it cements the look), you'll get compared to the median man.  I'll pause while you imagine the straight cis dudes you've seen recently.  Right!  It's not really going to be that hard to look more dressed up than that.  And indeed, apparently not!

While it was really quite fun to be complimented on the good-looking boots, the kilt did attract even more attention.  Fellow men: If you have been wondering if wearing a kilt will tend to attract extra attention from women, the answer is yes.  Yes it does.  Which, obviously, tends to be fun, especially if you have a thing for women.  I have a number of friends who are sort-of known for appreciating a man in a kilt, and their reactions were very entertaining.

(Here is where I launch into an extended string of thoughts:)

You also get some possibly excessive attention.  Possibly a tiny taste, you know, a few tenths of a percent, of the sort of thing women get subjected to all the damn time.

There is a very very well-known line of thinking, joking, teasing, story-telling, song-writing, etc. about the age-old question of what is worn underneath the kilt.  (Nothing is worn, it's all in perfect working order!  Har!)  I'm not sure I'd really thought about whether women would actually ask me about my underwear.

In the culture around here there is an expectation that all men are always up for anything sexual anytime, anywhere, with anyone of a gender they fancy.  This is a harmful notion in all sorts of ways, but I think that one of them is in the area of just thinking about how some things might actually feel.  How would I like it if random women I don't even know asked me if I'm wearing underwear?  Well, I don't know, but I do know that I'm supposed to say that it sounds like fun.  Right?

Well, in fact, I did get asked about my underwear.  Repeatedly.  Yes, it's all just in fun, it's in fact a well-known stereotypical joke, and, yeah, it's not a big deal.  It's one thing with actual friends, but honestly, when someone I don't know asks if I'm wearing underwear, it really does feel kind of weird, with the added weirdness that while I don't necessarily have to actually answer the question I do have to think up something to say.  (I settled on a standard answer of "I don't ask you about your underwear, do I?")  And the other thought I had just after "this is weird" was to wonder what things I've said to women over the years that were intended to just be playful jokes of the standard sort that actually came off as weird or creepy.  I'd imagined that I'd been trying not to be weird or creepy, but now I think I should try harder, just to be sure.  Because honestly I'm pretty sure I wasn't trying hard enough.

By the time a woman who had reasonable standing to ask me about my underwear got to ask - given a history we have that's left her with some specific knowledge of what might be seen under there - well, she was about the fourth woman in thirty minutes to ask and really, by then, the joke just didn't feel as amusing as it had sounded like it might be.

None of which is to say that I didn't have a fun time.  I think most men get told they look good from time to time, but normally only by certain people under certain circumstances.  Never, for example, by whoever happens to in the elevator when they step in.  So, given that I did go well out of my way to attract attention to myself, it was indeed fun to have succeeded.  Of course, the way that works for men is if I got tired of it I could always put pants and normal shoes on and resume being an invisible default dude, with no worry that people might tell me I look too plain, should do something about my hair, and should smile dammit.  Aside from fun, I do suspect that being on the receiving end of that sort of thing for a while is likely to leave one more skilled at giving out compliments in a pleasing manner at appropriate times and places, as opposed to awkwardly or creepily.  There's no other education that's quite the same as experiencing something yourself, even just a very tiny bit of experience.

Superbowl announcers?

I watched some of the Superbowl American football game on TV, partly to see if my vague impression from not watching very much American football is correct, and unfortunately it was.  I do in fact waste spend a significant amount of time watching sports on tv and also sometimes in person.  On TV there is always an announcing team, and there's usually someone at the live events, too.  The announcer...tells you what is going on.  That's what they are there for.  It's their job!  In particular, they constantly slip in some explanations of the rules of the game, a bit about the strategies being used, some notes about technique, and so on.  They repeat basic information about how the event works, because new viewers show up or tune in and it's obviously very important to make sure they know what's going on.  Otherwise, they'll just sit around befuddled for a while and then leave.  That's why we have announcers!  So that the audience isn't befuddled!

Indeed, even at a local random Saturday morning speed skating time trial, you'll hear some explanations about how the time trial works even though, let's be honest, the only people there at eight in the morning are the skaters themselves, and possibly some parents or siblings of skaters.  We all know how the race works, right?  But that's what announcers are for!  To explain stuff!  They can't resist!  It's a fascinating pedagogical challenge, repeatedly explaining the basics to the new viewers without aggravating the former new viewers who are now dedicated fans who know all that stuff.

But not in American football.  I don't think I heard those guys explain one single thing.  It was just a steady mumbled stream of football jargon.  (Is it just me or were they actually hard to understand at all?  Isn't that an issue for a professional speaker at a major event?)  Isn't the superbowl the game with the largest audience of people who don't watch a lot of football?  Wouldn't we expect even more explanation of the game than usual?   Anyway, I sat here befuddled for a while, then moved on to something else.

Out of practice

After breaking my ankle in a speed skating fall at the beginning of November, I'm finally just about nearly almost able to walk again. At any rate, I can walk awkwardly wearing a rigid plastic boot, or with just a bit of help from crutches, and I can drive a car since my right foot works plenty well enough to operate the pedals (though of course I have to change into a normal shoe from the Aircast boot, and then back again at my destination).

I ended up spending 26 days without leaving home, so it's been awesome to get out. I went 48 days without driving a car myself, though I got some rides during part of that interval. So now I notice that I'm a bit out of practice. Now, I'm 7 weeks out of practice, not 7 years, so it's not that bad. I did seem to forget the amazing laziness of the modern car-driving experience. Anything that could require some sort of physical effort (and did back in the day) has been motorized for your convenience. I actually had this moment of thinking that maybe the steering wheel had broken free of the steering mechanism and I was going to inevitably sail off the road into a crash until I remembered that it's not supposed to take any real effort to turn, there's a motor in there to help out. (I actually get that feeling when I'm quite in car-driving practice, after doing something arm-intensive like kayaking or skiing and suddenly I'm holding this tiny steering wheel and applying very minimal forces to it as the motor helps out with any actual work that might be needed).

The thing I really noticed while sailing down the highway at 88km/hr today is that I'm not so much out of practice at actually operating the motorized metal box as that I'm out of practice at that car-driver mental state of thinking, hey, I'm just operating a powerful multi-ton high-speed vehicle in close proximity to other people and objects, it's not like anything could go wrong or anyone could get hurt. No need to worry!

Clearly, a lot of people don't worry at all. You can tell by the stupid things they do! I've never been that unconcerned and I don't want to be, but I was extra worried today. You could get hurt doing this! I just spent two months sort of disabled after hitting a protective safety pad after falling without the aid of any motor, just pure human power.  I was going at best a hair over 40km/hr when I fell and slower by the time of impact after sliding some distance, and it wasn't by any means the worst possible body position for the impact, either.  (Turned the other way, I'd have needed neurology instead of orthopedics, right?)  You could get seriously mangled at 90km/hr, and take out a bunch of other people with you using that big heavy metal box on wheels!



I found that old flashlight pictured on the right recently, and I remembered that way back when I bought it, probably over twenty years ago now, that I thought it was a very good light. Sturdy plastic, the switch has a positive action and seems durable, it includes some colored filters, and the reflector is better than average for the old days, producing a beam we wouldn't describe as even these days but at least much more like a source of illumination and less like a projector set up at an abstract art installation to throw a complex pattern of swirls and blotches on the exhibit. But, wow, now it is an enormous, very heavy, clunky device that emits a feeble, poorly-focused yellow glow.


Oxycodone is in the news from time to time due to people having addiction problems and illicit recreational use. Well, I used it for about four days last month after surgery, and I guess that's a different scenario from long-term use, and I assume the recreational users don't stick to the officially prescribed dose, but anyway, I'll tell you my experience. I assume it helped with the pain, but in accordance with the advice I got from all the medical people, I started taking it before the nerve block wore off and didn't reduce the dosage until two days after the surgery, so I assume that uncomfortable day after the block wore off and before things got more healed would have been a lot more uncomfortable without it, but I didn't try the alternative. It indeed may cause drowsiness. And constipation. But by far the most notable side-effect, which I see listed as a "less common side effect," was hiccups. In me, it does that. It's basically a hiccup pill for me. Beats pain, I guess.

Handedness and such

I got to thinking about handedness and and thought I should see what sort of scientific tests for left/right handedness in humans have been developed. Back when I was a child and was learning to write, I don't recall being tested to see if I was left or right handed, they just went with the right-handed idea and I guess anyone who complained loudly enough about that would get reclassified as left handed. But handedness feels very subtle to me. Few tasks seem any easier one way or the other. I shoot bows and guns either way, depending on how the particular one I'm shooting at the moment was designed, and it just doesn't feel like it makes any difference at all. I'm quite a bit better at writing right-handed, but the bulk of my practice has been that way, and I didn't start doing any writing left handed until I was somewhere in my late teens. It's not at all obvious it wouldn't be as good or better left-handed if I'd been doing it that way since childhood.

I was imagining some sort of series of tasks to be performed by left and by right hand, scored for accuracy and timed for speed, with some sort of statistical analysis to determine if you are more left or right handed. The sort of thing that in my mind I imagine sensible people running children through before starting to teach them to write, so you could start them with the better hand. Because how would you know unless you do some sort of careful test?

Anyway, I went looking and found the Edinburgh Handedness Inventory, which is just an amazingly pathetic inventory. Try this slightly expanded version. For one thing, it starts off with things obviously influenced by the do-this-right-handed world around you, like the overwhelming majority of scissors not really working left-handed. A handedness inventory that asks if you've gotten so fed up with trying to use right-handed scissors that you went and obtained special left-handed scissors isn't going to tell us anything we didn't already know. We don't need a test for the really obvious cases.

The other thing is, wow, those are some "handed" activities? Using a spoon? Opening a box? People actually do those consistently left or right handed? Brush or comb? Surely you tend to use the left hand for the left side of the head, right hand for the right side? Unlocking a door? Wouldn't that just depend on which side of the door the lock is on, and from with side you approach the door, and which hand you happen to have the key in when you get there? These seem to me like an entirely different order of tasks from handwriting, seemingly far below the threshold of caring which hand you use.

Eye dominance tests, those are also a mystery to me, setting me up to see a perfectly matched symmetrical pair of images and implying vaguely that I should be seeing something different. As far as I have seen, eye dominance tests are scored on a 100:0 or 0:100 or else "no dominant eye" basis, apparently no one has been interested in taking the time to develope a test carefully crafted enough to score you as a 48:52 or whatever.

I'm also left thinking there is some sort of metaphor for gender in this, that there are exactly two and everyone is obviously one or the other. (I'm starting to wonder if maybe there are some aspects to gender that are as mysterious to me as handedness. I suspect there may be.)


This is how you sell detergent...

I promised I was going to rant about this, so here goes:

As someone who spends a good bit of time doing athletic stuff while wearing colorful lycra clothing, I also spend a good bit of time washing colorful lycra clothing. It turns out, yes, there is special detergent sold to this market. I just bought a different brand (it was what the running store happened to have) and I noticed something similar in both: Both labels feature a photo of a woman running, apparently on a warm summer day judged by what she's wearing (photo below the cut). Now, sure, I'm a straight dude—as I guess the label designers seem to be—I get it, I like looking at women (I could look at a woman's body all day! Ask my girlfriend!) but it's not obviously sensible to sell laundry detergent by showing a skinny woman displaying the highest possible ratio of uncovered skin to actual clothing that might need detergent.  Penguin brand has their logo over her bellybutton, 2Toms goes for a bigger photo and the full 'her bellybutton, let us shows it to you' look.

It seems like when you see a generic-athlete photo of a women, she's usually a runner.  A man, he usually looks like some sort of bodybuilder.  Because runners tend toward the teensy-weensy, which I guess is officially what women are supposed to look like.  Men, apparently, are supposed to be incredibly skinny too, but also super-muscular.  You only see teensy-weensy marathon-running men when they are selling running-specific stuff.  If you put me in charge of selling sport-detergent, I'd probably suggest you need photos of speed skaters in our full-body-coverage skin suits.  Now, there's a bunch of fabric that needs detergent!

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One thing I noticed this summer is that women's legs seem to have gotten longer.  This is an illusion caused by the combination of some women wearing very, very short shorts (other women, of course, wear long shorts, capris, long pants, loose pants, tight pants, short skirts, long skirts, or just about anything else you can think of) while darn near all men are wearing long baggy shorts in a range of lengths that ranges from 'technically, are those actually shorts?' down to 'technically, those are not actually shorts.'

On the one hand, I guess it's great that evidently men are allowed to wear capris now.  On the other, "cargo capris."  Seriously guys, I shouldn't be literally the only man wearing something like an actual bathing suit to the beach.   By next summer I expect to see the bell-bottom bathing suit.

Of course, even the guy in cargo capris can rest assured that no one will criticize him for dressing funny (well, possibly his actual friends might) while women, whatever they wear, can expect some random total stranger to complain publicly.  So, you know, I guess there is that.