Saturday, February 14, 2009


This post is coming to you from a super-fast Fiber Optic internet connection. It won't make things any quicker at your end, I know, but hopefully me having faster upload times will encourage me to post more frequently, more imaginatively and with more photos. Lets start by recalling the process of having FiOS installed.

The 3Mbps down and 1Mbsp up I was getting with DSL was probably sufficient for my needs, but then Verizon screwed up my account and I got stuck with 768Kbps which really sucked. Then my landline inexplicably packed in and I decided it was time to upgrade to the 21st century. I canceled all my previous Verizon services and signed up for FiOS online. I was pleasantly surprised to find that a technician was available two days later to come set up the service. He arrived right in the middle of his allotted window, at 3pm. I showed him around the house and he seemed to think it would be a simple job getting me hooked up.

The thing with FiOS is that they don't tell you about all the hardware you're going to need until you already confirmed your order. The next thing you know, you get an email that explains what you have to do before the technician arrives. This includes running Verizon's virus and spyware scanner on your PC, and also finding a location in your home for the terminal power source. You see, the Optical Network Terminal (ONT) they install has to plug into a regular three-pronged outlet. This turns out to be a tricky proposition since the obvious place to put the ONT is where your existing telephone terminal is, but since telephone don't need a power supply, the telephone terminals usually aren't conveniently located near an outlet. I get the feeling that how smoothly your installation goes depends on how inventive your technician is. I sussed out the situation a little beforehand, and with my suggestion and his ingenuity, we came to an easy solution that looked like it would work well.

Dude set to work installing the power supply and battery backup in our bedroom closet. He did a really nice job of stapling the power cord to the base board and up to the outlet. That accomplished be went out and installed the ONT on the back wall. I was quite impressed that he took the old AT&T terminal off, since the evidence suggested that all previous technicians had left old, obsolete hardware in place. He used an existing Coaxial run to get from the ONT to the router. I realized too late that the router didn't need to be in the bedroom as well, but dude had seen the coax there and I guess jumped at the chance to make the install job as easy as possible for himself.

Once it was all hooked up, we connected my laptop to the router with an Ethernet cable and begun the software side of the installation. Dude plugged a USB dongle in to run the setup program. I respected the fact that the technician unselected most of the dumb stuff that Verizon tries to install on your computer at this point. It went really smoothly, and the router comes WEP enabled so that reduces the hassle of trying to set up wireless security yourself. Once the internet connection was up and running the job was done and dude went on his merry way. I made sure to ask some ambiguous questions about what would happen if certain items were powered down, just so I could play around with them if I wanted. This morning I moved the router to my office, which involved opening the ONT and swapping over the coax. I had to go under the house to find the right cord, and was shocked to discover that dude had screwed my crawlspace hatch shut. Not only that, but he had snipped off the head of the screw, making it virtually impossible for me to open the hatch. I don't know if this is common practice, but it pissed me off. In the process of trying to open the door, I snapped the handle off, but in the end my tenacity and a variety of levers got me in.

I was very please to find that once I hooked everything back up and powered on the router, my connection was instantly restored. All my other experience with cable company-supplied router is that they are totally unreliable. Verizon supplied the Actiontec MI424, which I've never heard of, and is kinda big and ugly, but as long as it works. I can probably find someone to give my old D-link router to.

Monday, February 09, 2009

New Flag

The year is 2009 CE. Virginia is entirely occupied by the Americans. Well, not (very) small village of an indomitable Brit still holds out against the revolutionaries.

Just call me Mykingdomforanos.

The flag that Kris bought me for my one year anniversary in the States was beginning to show it's age. Sun, wind and rain had put a serious dent in the color intensity. Plus I invested in these clever anti-furl flag holders that are meant to rotate all the way around the pole. But the dowel became swollen by moisture and the free rotation was lost. The flag would wrap around the pole, snag on the wing nut on the bracket and start to tear. So, it was time for a new one. The old flag has been retired to our tool cupboard, where it now helps hide the hot water tank.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Marine Corps Training Exercise

I've been meaning to post these photos for a while now. They were taken from outside my house on January 11th. For several days these scary looking aircraft would come skimming over the trees in pairs. One day they came over for three consecutive passes, right over our house! In fact, I saw them all over the city. You'd here them long before you ever saw them, particularly given the low altitudes they were flying at. Unfortunately I never had my camera ready at the best moments but still got a few shots. I later heard that some kind of Marine Corps training exercise was going on in the area, which makes sense given the models of aircraft involved.

The first picture is a rather distant but beautifully framed shot of a Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion. It's the largest helicopter in the US Military inventory, and is used by the Marine Corps as a heavy lift helicopter. I was disappointed not to see it flying over with a M198 Howitzer slung underneath, but I guess there are some safety concerns when operating over friendly residential areas.

The second aircraft pictured in a V-22 tiltrotor aircraft. These things are scary to behold, I think because they can drone around at low altitude like a helicopter, then tilt the rotors forward and take off over the horizon like a regular aeroplane. The Marines use the MV-22 variant, and were the first to deploy them in combat in Iraq.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Bass Pro Shops

Recently opened near Ashland is Richmond's new Bass Pro Shops store. While it is essentially just another store for outdoor activities with an emphasis on fishing and hunting, we had heard that it also had quite the theme park atmosphere going on. In other words, despite the fact that we had no interests in buying any outdoor equipment, it was worth going to take a look around simple for the entertainment factor.

You know something is different when you have to go through a turnstile at the main entrance. At least they don't charge an entry fee! We arrived around lunchtime, so decided to have a bite to eat at the attached Islamoranda Fish Restaurant. There was a short wait for a table and we begun to browse the store. Its really a Mecca for all that's tacky about rednecks. I don't have a problem with the redneck lifestyle. Nor do I even object to 'weekend rednecks' who live in the city but go huntin' and fishin' in their spare time. But neither group really has any need for recliner furniture upholstered with forest camouflage print fabric! But then you knew the chain dedicated to the commercialization of outdoor activities when you saw the alcove dedicated to NASCAR.

Lunch was very pleasant. The dining room had a huge reef-themed fish tank (although the coral fake) which helped you forget that the view out the window was I-95. I got a Smoked Wahoo Wrap, although I still have no idea what a wahoo is. After lunch took a closer look at the main attraction of the store, a huge indoor freshwater pond full of local varieties of fish, complete with cascading waterfall that comes down from the ceiling. The pond is built above the floor with a plexiglass front so you can see all the fish, and every so often a member of staff does a quick educational session about the different species.

Next we headed upstairs to check out the camping section, which is all we would seriously be interested in. Unfortunately they don't really cater to real outdoors types. The first thing you are confronted with is their range of huge gas and charcoal grills, fryers and other cooking equipment. It's all ridiculous technology that is in no way easily portable - more for the type of people that go camping out the back of their F-150. The only thing we saw that we liked was a two person kayak.
For the fun of it we wandered over to the hunting section. I'll admit it: I like to look at guns and fantasize that I have some legitimate use for one in my life. In fact, not just one, but several, such that I would need a $3000 gun safe in my office for my extensive arsenal. But I don't, so I have to be content with watch other people who don't need guns try to buy one despite having no criteria for choosing a weapon other than which one looks the coolest. Or on the case of one gentleman, without the proper ID. "Don't worry" says the salesman, "We'll get you squared away".

Monday, February 02, 2009

Stem Meme

In the news today the possibility that President Obama may reverse his predecessor's ban on stem cell research. I considered writing a piece on the science behind stem cell research and the possibilities that would open up if and when the ban is removed. But another story caught my eye, that Geron, a biotech company in the US, has been given approval by the FDA to proceed with a clinical trial treating paralyzed patients with stem cells. What really stood out for me was that the proposal document was approximately 21,000 pages long. The BBC reports that this is the largest application on record.

Herein lies a challenge for scientific progress, as the boundaries of research stretch into ever more complex territory. I would contend that most of the controversies science is facing, in the fields of stem cell research, climate change, evolutionary biology and other, emerge because the topics are so complex that most contributors to the debate are barely able to scratch the surface of understanding. I could have written a short piece about the possible benefits of extensive stem cell research, but in order to summarize such a complicated subject, the facts necessarily become watered down.

Clearly scientific progress in the modern era relies on public support, which in turn requires that the public have some understanding of what they are supporting. But is this feasible? Obviously good communication between the science lab is key. When, though, is someone completing the arduous education required to practice stem cell biology expected to find the time to also become a master communicator?

Ultimately, with such a large public body to communicate to, memes become a vital tool. A meme is a package on knowledge in the same way that a gene is a package of genetic information. Memes are replicated when one person tells another, and like genes, they are subject to 'natural selection'. Successful memes become an ubiquitous part of our culture. For example, everyone knows that Neil Armstrong said "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" as he set foot on the moon. This meme is successful because of the inspirational nature of the message, because the words are cleverly arranged, but simple and because of the way it has been communicated: that video clip of the man in a space suit, complete with the beeps and whistles of the comm system.

Memes, like genes, are also prone to random mutations. People make mistakes when they re-tell the story, or deliberately change the facts to make the story more appealing. The success of a meme has nothing to do with how true it is, only how well it is spread throughout a group of people, and eventually the entire population of a country of the world. Think of the show Mythbusters, who every week deal with successful memes that often turn out to have no basis in fact. Richard Dawkins, who coined the phrase 'meme', contends that religion is the most successful meme of all human history, and in his opinion, is completely false.

Back to stem cell research, how can the researchers control the stem cell memes that proliferate? Is there some way to selectively breed a meme that is not only robust and successful, but also true!? Unfortunately, sound scientific knowledge isn't easily transfected into a popular meme. Scientific fact is not usually catchy, universally inspirational or expressed accurately in a poetic form. We shall have to see how the population of memes changes now that the POTUS looks set to throw his support behind this valuable and interesting line of research.