Trayless Cafeterias

August 25, 2008

Colleges are going trayless.

At least at some colleges.  The Associated Press reports that West Virginia’s Glenville State College has eliminated all cafeteria trays in an attempt to conserve.  Colleges in Georgia and North Carolina, two drought-stricken states, are doing it to reduce water consumption.  Some college studies are finding that in addition to saving water and energy a side benefit is that it reduces food waste:  Students don’t/can’t stack up food while holding a plate like they can when they’re holding a tray; and maybe it’ll help fight the Freshman 15 to boot.

Cafeteria trays were very popular when I was in college, but not because they carried our food.

They were popular because they carried our asses down a small hill next to the Freshman dormitories, during the winter months when we needed a diversion from studying Differential Equations or any myriad number of engineering courses.  Those slick-bottomed trays didn’t take long to ice over the hill, which tended to make it all the more dangerous – and fun.

We learned physics (at least, acceleration and generally rapid deceleration) on cafeteria trays.


The Mission

August 9, 2008

I’ve had a darkroom since 9th grade.  (That’s not my darkroom above, it’s an attempt to dry some negatives in my study).  With the advent of digital photography the darkroom has been abandoned, but in the intervening years I took approximately 20,000 photographs, most of which never saw the light of day.  The negatives, however, were developed, dried and stored, and are now being digitized.  Slowly.  Agonizingly slowly.

My Nikon Coolscan V ED negative scanner takes about 2 minutes to turn a black and white negative into a 25 megapixel digital image, and about 5 minutes to render a color negative. The results are pretty impressive:  The scanner will capture every nuance of the negative along with every freakin’ scratch, dust speck and fingerprint I happen to leave on it.  So I have to clean – and usually re-clean – each strip before inserting it into the scanner.

Not even that is enough for my old negatives.  Kodak recommends storing your negatives “in a cool, dry, dark place”, and now I understand why.  Under not-so-ideal storage conditions, the film emulsion will retract from the acetate backing, basically leaving you with a mess that sort of resembles a web built by a spider on acid.  Most of my negatives going back more than 20 years look like this:

With a little experimentation and before I start scanning a group of negatives I’ve learned to soak them in a very weak and lukewarm Photoflo solution, then squeegee and dry them .  The emulsion, after wetting, tends to swell just enough so that the cracks all but disappear.  This is the result:

This is an impressive improvement but to my chagrin this is also meticulous work.  Emulsion – especially wet emulsion – is notoriously fragile and great care must be taken not to damage the negatives further.  So my project, which I thought would take a year or so, is now consuming the better part of most evenings and there is no end in sight.

To date I have only dropped two strips of negatives on the floor.  I’m sure that more will follow.

Death of a Cat

July 15, 2008

Mandy, our 20-something year-old cat, died in my wife’s arms this evening.

We knew she was going; she hadn’t eaten in a week, and was barely able to lift her head today.  Yet for some reason my wife (the chaplain and nurse) decided to pick her up and hold her, and 15 minutes later the cat was gone.

Eerie, but touching.  My wife was also present at her father’s and mother’s deaths, 11 years apart, at the hospital.  We knew that they appreciated her presence.  As for the cat, I think Mandy was holding out for my wife to hold her one last time.

I hope my wife is there when it’s my turn.

Sallie Mae and Freddie Mac: The Pending Bailout

July 10, 2008

For sale signs

For sale signs (courtesy

A frugal investor that I know very well, someone who doesn’t buy what he can’t afford, will once again pay for the sins of those less frugal than him.  That him is me.

I saw this coming five years ago and I didn’t try to do anything about it. My bad.

Congress is currently mulling a bailout for Sallie Mae and Freddie Mac which will, no doubt, get one unless the housing market does a huge turnaround in hurry (it won’t).  Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s told NPR:

“Unless you’re a shareholder I wouldn’t be worried because there is no chance that the federal government would allow these institutions to fail — to stop doing business. It would just be catastrophic for the system, for our economy. It’s just not going to happen.”

Bloomberg’s web site was a bit more cautious, indicating that a taxpayer-fueled bailout was a last resort:

“The government would not step up to support the enterprises until they’ve exhausted all options, including acceptance of significant shareholder dilution,” [Joshua] Rosner, whose research firm is based in New York, said in a telephone interview. “And if the government did have to get involved, I would expect equity holders would lose everything.”

What irks me is that this is a repeat of the S&L crisis of the late 80’s, prompted by the deregulation of the banking industry, which eventually led to 1) a recession and 2) today’s banking system where savings accounts earn a whopping 0.3% a year while credit cards cost you somewhere around 1 ½ to 2% a month for outstanding debt. The subsequent S&L $157 billion bailout plus interest, to save the industy, came courtesy of Congress.

This decade the mortgage credit industry learned to wrap their riskiest tranches in sweet-smelling language, leaving the rotting carcasses for whatever investor was at the end of that food chain.  Typically, that is the small investor, you and me.  (Stan O’Neal, Merrill Lynch’s former CEO, only got $161 million when he resigned after leading his company to an $8 billion dollar loss in a single quarter; his shareholders got coal in their stockings.)

I am unclear on the concept of not letting foolish investors suffer the risks of foolish investment.  I am unclear on why one should receive any kind of reward for buying a house that wasn’t affordable in the first place.  Is there something wrong with a free market economy? Congressional attempts to prevent the greedy from taking advantage of the less-greedy seem filled with loopholes that allow the greedy to 1) become greedier and 2) shoot themselves in the foot knowing that they’ll probably get some kind of bailout anyway.

Today’s mortgage crisis was perpetrated by greed all the way around.  Any bailout will guarantee that I will pay for that greed twice, by living through the recessional fallout and paying for the bailout.  Ugh.


July 9, 2008

I got my first chance to use a Nintendo Wii a couple of weeks ago when my wife and I had 4 other couples over for dinner.  We bowled and we boxed, and our guests left sweaty and sore.  For a few hundred dollars, the electronics technology that goes into the playstation is pretty amazing, not to mention the physical workout one can get.

The Wii Remote, in particular, has captured the imagination of many games developers, and some have garnered a bit of fame making the Wii do things that it was never intended to do.  Take Carnegie Mellon PhD Johnny Lee, for example.  As one of the more (if not most) notable Wii special effects developers, he’s not only created some really neat software but then he puts it on YouTube for all to see.

The links from Johnny Lee’s website at CMU to other sites get pretty techy, pretty quickly, and are even for me a bit overwhelming and dry.  However, what fascinates me is the capability built into the Wii Remote:  A 1024×768 infrared camera with hardware blob detection and a 3-axis accelerometer, both running at 100 Hz sampling.  All in a device weighing a few ounces.  For about $39.99 retail.

Even if you don’t understand infrared, blobs and accelerometers, suffice it to say that this technology combination appeals to many:  space exploration, especially the use of robotic spacewalkers, just got easier and cheaper.  Intelligent automobiles that not only know how to maintain proper stopping distance from the car in front but also understand lane changes.  Total immersion into a 3D virtual realm running off a standard video display.  Completely foldable, interactive displays.  Motion capture.

All of this innovation has led both Microsoft and Sony on a fast track to catch up and maybe surpass Nintendo’s capabilities.  As a result of this competition the games industry will shortly turn Bioshock and Unreal Tournament into your grandmother’s Oldsmobile overnight.

After years of ho-hum single-person shoot ’em ups, gaming is interesting again.

On Bicycles

July 7, 2008

The social popularity of any one particular athletic activity is fleeting at best.  It used to be that baseball and softball were so popular in Western New York that there weren’t enough diamonds to go around; today the number of leagues continues to decline.  I remember when racquetball was greatly in vogue; today the former Waterfront Racquet and Fitness Center is a post office. Recreational soccer reached its apex about 10 years ago and its numbers are slowly declining.

In this decade bicycling has picked up considerable steam, and in particular, this year there is no end to the number of articles and blog postings giving credence to its popularity.  It too will have its heyday, and then taper back down to the diehards as the next sport du jour gets press time.

I’ve been a serious cyclist for most of this decade.  My desire to cycle has to do with my inability to run long distances anymore – too many knee surgeries.  Cycling is therefore merely therapeutic for me, never meant to be a means to save fuel costs.  In fact, I would argue that consistent cycling is more expensive in the long run because

  • good bicycles, which you’ll need if you bike a lot of miles, are not cheap; and
  • the extra food that you consume because of your increased metabolism will bite your pocketbook as much as a tank of gas will.

Nonetheless, we may soon be reaching a tipping point where the popularity of cycling will induce changes to transportation infrastructure that will further encourage cycling, such as biking lanes or just wider, smoother shoulders on roadways.  As its popularity continues to increase I can only hope that drivers start paying a bit more attention to whom they share the road.  I mentioned this before:  I have no desire to become road kill, so vigilance is a very important part of my exercise.

I do not get a thrill from sucking exhaust and dodging traffic, so my trips take me into the back roads of Wales, Holland, Aurora, Colden, Cowlesville, Sheldon and other small country towns where I breathe fresh air, enjoy the scenery and take on the hill climbs.  I have no desire to commute to work on bike, even less desire to ride a long, flat street from one suburb to the next.

Biking will never save me money nor help me reduce my carbon footprint.  It will keep me fit, that’s all.

Cutting Someone Loose

June 23, 2008

You\'re FiredI hate firing people.

As necessary as it sometimes is for the sake of both the employer and employee to part ways it is never easy nor fun.  I abhor that part of my job.

My former employee and I will both go home tonight lost in thought.