Over the weekend I decided that instead of a substantive amount of money, I would like to have a ridiculously awesome telescope. Actually this was not an impulsive decision, but the culmination of several years of longing and the internet’s remarkable ability to let you spend as much money as you have as quickly as possible.

Some background. Once upon a time I was an astronomy major, trading in the lucrative and highly employable field of computer science for something cooler that I thought I’d like better that I would ultimately bail on just one year into a PhD program, leaving myself floundering for an adult identity for years and years. In fairness, astronomy’s lack of an appealing career path was not the fault of the HR diagrams and globular clusters I was studying, but the fault of an oppressive and fiercely competitive academic environment I didn’t dig nearly as much as the diagrams and clusters. So I didn’t stick with it, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it or wouldn’t miss it.

I certainly wanted to have a good telescope even when it had some tenuous relation to my field of study (yes, tenuous: modern professional astronomers don’t exactly spend their nights in the backyard with flimsy paperboard star charts). Only, as a college student, it was a few thousand dollars out of my grasp. Instead of the necessary $1200 or so, I had more like $12. In astronomy courses, they teach you about orders of magnitude. A worthwhile telescope was two orders of magnitude too expensive for the likes of me. The mindset of “this will happen some day” was established.

So: years later, I have a house and a real job. Despite a rigorous morning routine of grousing and whining about having to get up and go to work, I understand I am lucky to have navigated a recession and have a job to go to, and I want to keep it, so I go. A result of such is that I had accumulated a bit of savings. The financial barrier to telescope ownership was broken down. And…nothing happened. Because the “some day” mindset persisted. A number of times this winter, K and I have gone for our evening walk and I would say something like how great a night it would be to have a telescope. She would contrast staying up late and standing out in the cold to use it with not having it and getting to be in a warm bed inside and shrug, but at least give me the supportive wifely, “Yeah.” Then for some reason last week it just clicked. What the heck am I waiting for? This could happen!

I had enough residual knowledge of telescopes to narrow the search quickly. I generally knew I wanted something of pretty high quality and had some basic specifications in mind. It was just a matter of deciding how much I was willing to spend and to do some research. With the obsession switch kicked on, this took relatively little time.


Excitedness has achieved CONDITION RED. Here is a brief rundown of the conditions:

  • Blue: You are surprised when it was delivered because you forgot you even ordered it.
  • Green: You know it’s coming at least but aren’t too worried about it. It’ll get here eventually.
  • Yellow: You are aware of the scheduled delivery date and are on the lookout for it. You would be mildly disappointed if it doesn’t show on time.
  • Orange: You leave work a few minutes early hoping to be home for delivery. If you miss it, you are willing to go pick it up from UPS/FedEx during the 30 minute opportunity window in the middle of the night.
  • Red: You refresh the tracking site hourly. You take the whole day off on the scheduled delivery date and sleep by the door the night before just in case of early arrival.

Condition Red has been achieved only twice before: when I bought a particularly exciting new computer once, and when I got the drum kit for Guitar Hero (I dunno, I just got really wound up after playing around with it at Best Buy). UPS currently reports that a shipping label has been created but they do not yet have possession of my shipment. So I’m guessing I’ll see it Friday or Monday.

Anyway, this has gone on long enough but I’ll keep you posted. Next time: scope specifics.

I just finished a re-read of Don DeLillo’s White Noise and my rambling about him got too long for a reasonably-sized Goodreads review. So, some more general thoughts about DeLillo’s style.

There are a number of Goodreads reviews complaining about his style in a very literal way, like how the dialogue fails to be realistic. Which to me is sort of like going to a rock concert and being upset that they’re not playing any of your favorite Beethoven pieces. Such reviewers are certainly free to not like how he handles dialogue, but they’re also sort of missing the point, I think. He’s not a literal writer. His dialogue is really an internal one, but to make it into interesting writing he has some characters saying these things out loud as conversations, and that’s how things work and people talk in the DeLillo universe.

In White Noise, DeLillo is trying to describe the dread and anxiety inherent in modern life. We’re all trapped in an overwhelmingly complex system and rely on the system to provide for our health and well-being. For food, we go to the supermarket where the fundamental choice is between a colorful familiar product you think you know well (thanks to ultra-ubiquitous advertising) or a bland generic you don’t (even though it’s largely the same thing). Either way, you don’t know the origin of the products. You don’t know what’s in them really. For your health, you go to doctors who know more than you about your own body in an objective way, but they’re also separate people with their own communication issues, so how can they really get to know you and every risk factor you encounter? For safety, we rely on governments that we can’t entirely trust, and they are made up of uncertain mortal people just like us.

So, something about DeLillo’s style particularly rings true in White Noise, I think, because the book is so much about how your own internal thoughts find no reconciliation with the outside forces of commercialism and authority and government that affect you.  The same is true for another book of his I liked, Mao II. But it doesn’t always work, especially when the story is more plot-driven and less about what people are thinking.  It was good and bad in Libra and in the film Game 6. And I thought it was largely a miss in Running Dog, which I think was something of an attempt to write a kind of spy-thriller, and didn’t click at all with his style and became a slog. (I have yet to attempt the ambitious [read: long] Underworld.)

Here is where I remind you I am no literary scholar. Thank you.

Do the thing with your fingers53. The Ultimate Computer. This episode gives me a chance to tackle two Trek things worth discussing.  First, more than just a trope, but as an overriding theme of the show, TOS spends a lot of time addressing the increasing human dependence on technology.  Household computers were 15-20 years away on Earth, but automation was a serious worry already for a lot of people who didn’t feel like being rendered obsolete.  A classic TOS maneuver is to set up technology as a savior, then have it fail where only a human can succeed.  “The Ultimate Computer” is exactly this: an incredibly advanced newfangled computer, the M5, is given free reign to run the Enterprise autonomously, much to the immediate disdain of everyone who isn’t a Vulcan or the guy who designed the computer.  For his part, Spock doesn’t like the situation much either, despite McCoy’s continued baiting of him to admit that he does.  In fact, Spock gets a perfect chance to clarify his feelings on computers: that they are simply more efficient for some tasks and always give you the logical solution, which is not always the right solution.  Anyway, of course the M5 malfunctions almost immediately (hey, I feel like I’ve written about such things before…) and begins attacking the wrong targets with overly lethal force, and the humans are all proven right, only they can’t shut the thing off until Kirk talks it into a logical trap. Of course.  Humans win again!  The other thing to bring up regarding “The Ultimate Computer” is that it forcibly addresses the convention that all away missions are headed by the most senior officers on the Enterprise, namely Kirk and Spock and whomever conveniently fits that show’s plot.  Of course this is stupid and totally unrealistic.  But, if you want to have lead characters with the most exciting jobs, this is what you do.  It’s a TV convention and we’re cool with it.  Yet during the integration of the M5, it overrides Kirk’s decision on one member of a landing party (by having a better command of some geologist’s personnel file–computers can do magic!!) and, more important, cuts McCoy and Kirk himself out of the action, deeming them “non-essential personnel.”  However, the show doesn’t attempt any, “Hey, maybe this thing’s right–we shouldn’t send the Captain on every maniacally dangerous away mission…” Instead it just says, “Computers, what do they know?” and opens the door up for more of the general thematic discussion.  Killer Spock line: “The most unfortunate lack in current computer programming is that there is nothing available to immediately replace the starship surgeon.” Overall: it’s a given that folks in the 1960s were scared of computers becoming too integrated into our lives and then malfunctioning and killing us, so the plot here is about as predictable as they come.  Nevertheless, TOS makes it a generally intelligent discussion by strong characters. 4 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Computers can be buggered by logical traps (1)
  • The indomitable human spirit conquers all (3)
  • Recent Earth history will always be relevant (6)
  • They’ve gone to the trouble to develop an override but it doesn’t work (1)
  • Anonymous redshirt killed (5)
  • Only Kirk can truly make command decisions (3)
  • Lighthearted banter to close episode (5)

54. Bread and Circuses. Seriously, TOS needs to figure out which side of the fence it’s on with regard to the Prime Directive.  This keeps coming up. Half of the episodes I’ve watched so far have either had a clear violation of it, or a thorough discussion on why you should never ever violate it.  If they want to keep harping on how important it is and expecting to get any believability mileage out of it, they need to not immediately break all the rules the next episode, or even later in the same episode.  “Bread and Circuses” tries really hard to show the consequences of total loyalty to the code, only, you know, all of the above.  If I pretend I have never seen another episode of TOS and treat this as a self-contained unit…I guess it succeeds.  They spend some deliberate time rehashing what the Prime Directive is and its overarching importance, and then a cunning bad guy essentially holds Kirk hostage and forces him to sacrifice Spock and McCoy based on the fact that Kirk would have to violate his sworn principles in order to save them.  Yet somehow Kirk gets out of it anyway, largely because he’s Kirk.  But given the overall context of the show, it’s a misfire plot-wise. Anything Prime Directive based is marginalized. So what we basically have is an action-heavy fightin’ episode that gives us a chance to have the crew be Roman Gladiators. One positive is its take on what was essentially Reality TV. The Roman bad guy is about good ratings above all else, no matter how vile the content gets. Interesting thought – I mean, is ultimate fighting or a lot of Reality TV substantively different than what the Romans used to do? (At least there’s a line just before death these days.) Finally, the show makes a disconcerting attempt to justify itself by mentioning “Hodgkin’s Law,” a theory that worlds can evolve in parallel, explaining how the Enterprise just happens to run into so many human-like civilizations. I think generally if you have to make up goofy science you’re better off just leaving things mysterious and unexplained. Killer Spock line: “Doctor, if I were able to show emotion, your new infatuation with that term [logic] would begin to annoy me.” Overall: a good character episode for Kirk, and otherwise solid but treading some tenuous ground. 3 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Violation of Prime Directive (6)
  • Recent Earth history will always be relevant (7)
  • Only Kirk can truly make command decisions (4)
  • Kirk hits it off with alien babe (5)


Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ep. 506. Trials and Tribble-ations. Took a brief detour to watch the DS9 Tribble episode. Haven’t watched any DS9 for years, and even then I watched them irregularly, out of order, and without the cache of Trek viewing that I have now. When I was doing Next Generation reviews on the ol’ LiveJournal several folks told me DS9 is the best Trek series, so I imagine I’ll get to it more fully later on, once I’m done with TOS and probably after a detour into Babylon 5.  Anyway, this gave me a taste of DS9 while being an homage to the recently watched Trouble With Tribbles.  Bottom line, mixed feelings. It’s a fairly fun episode and certainly well-done. Really seamless effects and integration into the old series. It’s clearly a labor of love here. But I couldn’t help but think the DS9 crew is a bunch of stiffs. Especially compared to the rollicking stories and characters in TOS. A lot of the humor was awkwardly done and didn’t really work. But then, I gather DS9 isn’t really that kind of show and this is well off-formula for them. Anyway, I’m glad they made the episode and it was worth the watch. It might be interesting to see if it’s more or less enjoyable once I get back to it during a full DS9 watch, around, I dunno, 2014 or something. Overall: 4 out of 5.

And back to TOS to finish up season two:

55. Assignment: Earth. My favorite part of this is the first line. Fade in: Enterprise is orbiting Earth. Kirk says something like, “Captain’s log, we went back in time and are observing 20th century Earth.” Wait, what? I had to look this up, but they did do this before, albeit accidentally, in a first season episode that I hadn’t watched recently and of which I had forgotten the specifics. But anyway, talk about a quick establish. We’re not going to dwell on how we got here, but we’re in the 20th century, got it? Got it. But actually it gets weirder. A sort of superspy government agent, Gary Seven, accidentally beams onto the ship, as he’s been traveling to a far-off advanced civilization and has returned to Earth to prevent some calamity. Of course Kirk and company can’t be sure if he’s telling the truth or not, so they don’t let him proceed, pending further discussion. Naturally he escapes anyway and much of the episode is spent on Kirk and Spock trying to chase him around on Earth without quite knowing if they should even be doing so. So the overall ideas here are fun.  There’s a time travel thing, complete with the ol’ “If I break something in the past, do I destroy the future? Or was it always supposed to be broken, by me, in the past, and if I don’t break it, THAT’s what destroys the future?” paradox question. There’s Kirk and Spock running around in modern suits on 20th century Earth, though of course Spock has to wear a hat the whole time. (I’m retroactively adding the trope about how they send Spock into a place where any non-humans will be highly suspicious, but for some reason they send him anyway rather than anyone else.) The Seven character is really intriguing because we don’t really learn a whole lot about him, his strange companion cat, or this mysterious planet he’s been visiting. (See, Hodgkin’s Law? This is how it’s done. The less said, the better.) All that said, the whole thing does sort of fall apart in the details. The plot has a lot of long segments that ultimately go nowhere. There is an embarrassing reliance on fantastically coincidental timing or naive characters accidentally hitting secret knobs just the right way. Seven uses his sonic screwdriver thing to knock out everyone in his way except the one spunky girl who ends up causing him all kinds of trouble. (I just realized Seven has these traits: he travels through time and space at will, he has a little penlike device with a ridiculous array of powerful functions, he has a ID card for every situation, he has adventuresome companions…where have I seen all this before…?) Anyway, in general, it works well, with an intriguing seed of an idea that Seven lives to shepherd Earth though a dangerous adolescence, and will continue to do so. (Apparently he does so directly in a number of spin-off novels.) Killer Spock line: “Without facts, the decision cannot be made logically. You must rely on your human intuition.”  Overall: generally a winner if you don’t look to closely. 4 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Recent Earth history will always be relevant (8)
  • Spock’s suspicious Vulcan nature can be disguised with a good hat (3)
  • They’ve gone to the trouble to develop an override but it doesn’t work (2)
  • In the future, computers are magic, but still make teletype sounds (2)
  • Only Kirk can truly make command decisions (5)

Thus ends the second season.  That was fast!  Of course, I started in the middle.  It’ll be on to season three next, then I’ll circle back around and re-watch from the beginning through episode 37.

Yesterday I was browsing through the different Super Bowl logos on wikipedia (having learned that they are standardizing the logo starting this year, rather than having a new design every time). While interesting, what was even more fascinating was the history of Super Bowl halftime performers. I never really realized that it took until the early 1990s to figure out that they could leverage the ridiculous Super Bowl audience and bring in some major entertainers.  Up until that time they usually just had a college marching band, or an old-school musician doing some Vegas-style show, or Up With People (four times!).

Check out Pete Fountain at Super Bowl XXIV*:

So gloriously quaint.

*Super Bowl XXIV: San Francisco’s ridiculous beatdown of the Broncos, 55-10. Not enough Pete Fountain in the world to salvage that.

ONE: online commenters.

Often when I read a story online, particularly on a site with a known rabble of unbelievably horrible commenters, like, let’s say Yahoo, I sort of accidentally drift into the comments area without really thinking about it.  I certainly don’t think: “Hmm, that was an interesting story.  I wonder what a gigantic anonymous horde of semi-sentient trolls have to say about that?”  I just kind of keep reading, as if the story was continuing, and I’m in a bit of a passive reading trance.  Of course, things go from professional writing to barely-literate cave scrawl, usually in all caps and laced with profanity, so it’s not like I don’t notice.  But it takes a few comments to snap out of my reading trance, as the overwhelming depressing horror of them all pounds me back into active thinking.  By then it’s too late, of course, as I’ve just read something so profoundly stupid I barely want to live anymore.  I liken this to coming to the realization that the room you’re in has been slowly filling with poison gas.  By the time you realize what’s happened, the damage has been done.

TWO: food processors.

Cooking without having a food processor is like going into battle without a weapon. You won’t necessarily die but it sure won’t be easy to win. Even the most basic $20 Black and Decker thing you can get at Target is at least like having a slingshot.  In this analogy my new KitchenAid 700 watt 12-cup food-chopping monster is like having a helicopter, equipped with a rocket launcher, that is invisible to other humans.