Sunday, June 29, 2008

Movie Review: Wall-E

Wall-E = Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class. It's also a very good movie. Most of the reviews I read about the movie have marked it as 3 1/2 stars or better (out of 4). I took all three of my children (a very remarkable thing, considering the price of movie tickets these days), ranging from my almost-9-year-old to my 3-year-old, and they all were absolutely enthralled. I was, too. The movie started off beautifully illustrating a lonely Earth with just one last, surviving robot.

This little robot, in it's solitude, had developed strategies for survival that were clever, but unsustainable in the very long run (using spare parts from it's broken peers only works until they run out ...). His solitude is rudely interrupted by a far more advanced visitor, to whom he quickly gets emotionally attached. Needless to say, soon Wall-E is far from home and finds himself in all sorts of wacky situations.

My favorite scenes involved a beautifully-rendered and emotionally-moving "dance" scene in space between Wall-E and another robot, and another scene which made me laugh out loud involving a "medical ward" for broken robots. While the movie did introduce humans with, shall we say, certain physical deficiencies, I was very pleased that the creators of the movie chose not to portray them as either stupid or inept; they could have played a much heavier hand with the themes of human laziness and short-sightedness, but didn't, and that was notable.

We stayed through to the end of the credits, and that was worth it. I discovered that the creators of the movie had help from my place of business -- I'm assuming it was either to realistically design the robots, and/or to get the astrodynamics right. Either way, as an extraordinarily nerdy engineer with an eye for finding flaws of that nature in movies, I was duly impressed and nothing stood out that detracted from the story. The movie wasn't entirely kid-centric (as Pixar films usually aren't) and there were plenty of funny little quirks that only adults would get (and some others that only nerdy engineers would get).

Indeed, I really want to see it again (and probably again, and again) so that I can look for more hidden gems and more closely watch the eye-candy in the backgrounds. We will definitely be buying it when it comes out on DVD. All in all, I give it a good 4 star rating (out of 4) -- a very fine G-rated film that the whole family can enjoy (mine did!).

Friday, June 27, 2008

Ridiculously Excited

It's ridiculous. No, really, it's absolutely ridiculous. I just can not wait to go see Wall-E. Seriously. I'm just a big kid. We're going to it tomorrow, and my wife hasn't bought tickets, yet, and what if they're gone, and we don't get in, and we have to wait 'til next week?! Seriously, I'm excited. A science fiction Pixar movie about robots that's received nothing but glowing reviews -- really, what's not to like? My productivity here at work has tanked and it's still mid-day ... I'm going to have to leave early, I guess, that's all I can do ...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cousins and More Cousins

I come from a big family. I have 6 siblings, which by themselves are awfully hard to track. My parents, combined, have 5 siblings who lived to adulthood, each with their many children. This means that I literally have dozens and dozens of first cousins. Stepping one generation higher, I have, to my knowledge, 13 grand-aunts and grand-uncles on my father's side (only two of whom are still alive) and another 13 grand-aunts and grand-uncles on my mother's side (I don't know of any that are still alive). You can imagine the plethora of relatives that could come from all those people!

Therefore, rather than trying to keep track of everybody, me and my siblings have pretty much drifted off and we feel pretty lucky to keep track of each other. There are no "big" family reunions anymore that include anybody other than me, my parents, and my siblings and their families; and even those only come every few years.

However, lately I've been looking into family history, and I've been working to piece together some of the mysteries around my paternal ancestors. Apparently, the first one to bear my family name from my father's side who came to America was actually a fellow who was conscripted into the British Navy and jumped ship when they made landfall in the States. He hid out in the back-hills of Virginia the rest of his life, living a humble life and having many children. This story is family folklore, and nobody can seem to find any evidence of it's truthfulness.

So, I've been trying to gather as much as I can about the family -- including looking for some evidence of this story. I called my father last night, and he told me to call somebody that I'd never heard of before. Turns out that the woman he told me to call is his first cousin who lives in southern Utah. That makes her my first cousin, once removed. I called her, and she was delighted to hear from me, but couldn't help me. She told me to call her brother, yet another one of my first cousins, once removed. I called him and we had a very nice little conversation. He's in his late sixties and actually his own mother, a 98-year-old woman -- the last of my paternal grandfather's siblings that still lives -- was staying with him for a short time. I didn't have the chance to visit with her, but he did tell me that he has a binder full of loose pages about the family.

I was ecstatic! I didn't want to seem too eager, but he did promise me he'd look through what he has and mail me some of the family stories. I asked about pictures, and he says he has a photograph of my paternal grandfather and all of his 10 siblings and his parents. What a treasure! ... if I can actually get it from him. He was quite reticent to actually send any photographs. (Sidebar: You see, that's the problem -- nobody's willing to share their family heirlooms! What a shame! I don't want to keep it, I just want to digitize it, then I'll send it right back!! Sorry, sore point there ...) He said he could copy some of them, but I know that photocopies of photographs don't usually turn out very well. With my intention of taking all this material and putting it online, I really need digital copies of everything. *sigh* How am I going to get that?!

Well, in any case, I've connected with a family member I didn't even know existed, and I have begun a dialog with him about family history. Hopefully something great will come of it!

Friday, June 20, 2008

There's Ice On Mars!

Yeah, believe it! Check it out here.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Baby Hummingbirds

I went out front to bring the trash cans in, and while I was returning around the front of the house to go back inside, I noticed some dead leaves and spots on the bushes in front of me. I stopped to look, and was surprised to find this large cream-colored thing hanging off one of the branches. At first, I was afraid it was a hornet's nest in the making, but upon closer inspection, I realized it was a hummingbird nest! In it were two very adorable little birds. I called my wife and children out to come look at it (quietly!) and grabbed the camera.

Awesome. I'll be carefully watching their progress every day.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The 3,000 Mile Oil Change Myth

So, it turns out, according to this article "The 3000 Mile Oil Change Myth", that you don't have to change the oil in your car every 3000 miles like every single money-grubbing oil change person wants you to.

In fact, doing so is usually unnecessary since most auto makers now recommend changing your oil at 5,000, 7,000, or 10,000 mile increments under normal driving conditions. Even more, changing it more frequently ultimately eats up more of the oil that is so costly and precious these days, harming our environment, costing us extra money, and it will eventually result in aliens taking over our world after we complete spoiling it.

Believe it! Now I don't feel so guilty about delaying getting that oil change ... so, just you figure out how to calculate the permittivity of your oil and quit wasting time, money, and the environment!

One Crazy Week

I haven't really posted in over a week, because it's been crazy. A few tidbits:

-- Last week I was sick. Not badly, but enough that I ended up working from home on Tuesday, took a sick day Wednesday, worked on Thursday, and then worked from home on Friday. All in all, it was a relaxing week. Work has been good, but busy. And, thankfully, weekends are finally looking free again!

-- Saturday my wife gave me an early Father's Day gift: a new body board for use at the beach. We then headed there and had a wonderful time. I spent most of the time out in the waves with my oldest, who came back bruised, but happy. It was a blast.

-- On Saturday night, we went to a movie night at the church. There wasn't a very good showing of people, but it was a lot of fun. We watched the Disney/Pixar movie Ratatouille, and the kids consumed mass quantities of popcorn and other junk food. I hope we do it again.

-- Sunday was Father's Day, and it was quite nice. I called my own father and wished him a Happy Father's Day, and had a great conversation with him -- my wife found a great book to send to both of our fathers called "Supersonic Saints", that he seems to be enjoying. Church took a lot of time, as usual, but the evening was mostly clear to spend with the kids -- it was a nice day.

-- The kids had their last day of school last Friday. We're delighted for them to be moving on, my oldest so he can hit the "reset" button on his social life, and my daughter so she can have a new (and, hopefully more conscientious) teacher. My wife is excited about having the summer with them, and their lives are already full of swimming lessons, karate, gymnastics, and ... something else I forgot. With gas prices as high as they are, we probably won't be traveling much, but we will probably hit the beach more often (which I wouldn't mind at all, with my new body board).

-- Yesterday (Monday), I took the day off work (mostly) and we went over to Magic Mountain. We don't have season passes this year, so it was probably the first of maybe two trips we'll take this year. We all had a great time. We rode some new rides, spent a lot of time in the new "Thomas the Tank Engine" area of the park, and my oldest son earned five bucks for going on Goliath with me -- he didn't want to go because he doesn't like the lift hill (yeah, I had the same thought ... "What?!"), so we bribed him. He was happy, I was happy, it's all good. With my brain rattled three times on Revolution, my feet sore from all the walking, and the summer heat -- it was an exhausting, but happy day.

-- My daughter is now reading like her older brother -- anything she can pick up she'll read, and she reads a lot. She's even begun reading The Book of Mormon with me at night. I'd be lying if I said this didn't please me.

-- My youngest is now effectively potty-trained. He still won't actually go into the bathroom by himself (but he can be left once there), and he can't get his underwear and shorts back on by himself (we've seen a naked bottom running around our house far too much lately), but other than that, he's fully self-sufficient.

-- My wife and I are having pretty good success with Weight Watchers. We've both lost about 7 pounds and are feeling pretty good about it. We're learning the ins and outs of the program, and developing good habits about what to eat and portion control. I still really, really want a massive, chocolate-slathered banana split, though, but the "points" for that would be too high ...

One Year of Blogging

So today marks the one year anniversary of my very first blog entry. It's been an illuminating year. I've written 213 (this makes 214) entries during that time, which have illustrated an evolution in what and how I write the material herein.

I began the blog with the intention of keeping it completely anonymous -- no names, no cities, no personal designators -- all with the intent of keeping a secure on-line profile. As time went on, I found it nearly impossible to maintain that anonymity since I did link to the blogs of family and friends who don't necessarily keep things as private, and also because so much of what I wanted to write about would require me to specify place-names. While I have managed to not reference the names of any of my family members, any reasonably intelligent person could put the pieces of the puzzle together (so maybe I'll abandon that philosophy ... hmmm).

Along the way, I have struggled with the level of detail to include in the blog relating to my personal life. What I found is that I really don't have much to hide. This blog has turned into my journal -- a glorious tool which is ever-accessible to me to both write and to read. I post far more frequently, with far more interesting material than I have in many years in any journal. I love being able to include pictures, comment on current events, tell silly or simple stories, or even to wax eloquently (or not!) on things about which I deeply care (or not).

What has vexed me most recently is my struggle to determine the appropriate amount of detail to post about my professional life. This blog is indeed in a public place (I could change that, but would prefer not to), which then makes me, as somebody recently pointed out to me, a "public figure." To complicate matters most, I have come into possession of a policy document (okay, it was specifically handed to me) entitled "Release of Information to News and Information Media" that is considered one of the guiding "rules" of my workplace to the public. I was blissfully unaware of this policy, and ignorant of its contents.

Basically, it says that I should keep my mouth shut. Which sucks, big time. What I want to post about my work is the interesting or timely goings-on that are either quite important to me or that I deem to be of particular interest to any of my (three or four) readers. However, the policy basically says I can't share any first-release news (good or, especially, bad), talk about any of my colleagues (even in the most abstract sense), meter out information only when pre-approved by our public affairs office (which is a tremendous pain in the neck), and not post anything that would break any ITAR rules or short-circuit the public release of scientific information.

Okay, so how do I do keeping to this policy? I thought I was doing pretty well. I have always been gun-shy about publishing anything that was not already in the public domain (and I usually link to the source). I have also been extremely conscientious about not sharing scientific data before it was released and I never, ever break ITAR constraints. Nevertheless, with the craziness of the past month I have made a few mistakes in the other matters ...

What I struggle with the most is the balance of being able to post material that may not put my workplace in the best of possible light. I love where I work and I love what I do. I don't think anybody could draw any other conclusion based upon my posts. And, clearly, any workplace wants to look good, so readily and rapidly releases good news to the public. However, any workplace also doesn't want to look bad, so doesn't exactly make a habit of releasing bad news; we're all a little too hyper-sensitive about looking bad. In my posts, though, I don't think I have ever said anything that could be construed as being downright negative, but rather I always have hope that whatever problems we face, we will overcome.

Nevertheless, I must be more cautious in the future, as my job means far more to me than being able to post work details on this blog. *sigh* So, it'll be sanitized a bit of work details. Rest assured, though, for all my (three or four) loyal readers, I will continue to share all the other fascinating and riveting details of my life.

One year ago today, in my very first post, I said "Let the journey begin ..." Now I can firmly say, "Let the journey continue!"

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Life Moves On

It seems that the past few weeks have been nothing but work. This is evident by the paucity of entries herein that are about anything other than work. Nevertheless, life does move on. For example, last night, after we had gone to bed, we got a call from our neighbor. His wife had gone into labor with their third child and my wife had previously offered to watch their other kids when that happened. Well, here it was 11 pm at night and they needed to drop their two boys off so they could get to the hospital. All went well and the boys passed out right away in our currently unused bedroom. However, my wife and I were so stirred up that we couldn't go back to sleep for about an hour.

Well, about 2:15, my youngest, who is potty-training, woke us up to tell us he had to go to the bathroom. Happily (for me), he insists that his mother help him on the toilet in the middle of the night. (The last time I tried to help him instead of my wife, he screamed bloody murder, and it just isn't worth that kind of noise in the middle of the night to try to let my wife, who gets woken up anyway, try to go to sleep sooner.) Add another 30 minutes of non-sleep time in the middle of the night.

Then the neighbor boys woke up at about 6:00 to go to the bathroom, and they didn't go back to sleep -- and woke up our youngest in the process. So, in what would have been more than a nice 9 hours of rest (from 10 pm to 7 am) turned into 6 1/2 hours of sleep. Since I'm already sleep deprived from the week's work, I'm pretty beat; I've been moving in slow-motion all morning.

So despite the fact that my work life may be chaotic and busy, outside life still goes on. Kids potty-train, babies are born, the sun comes up and goes down every day (though I missed noticing a few of those in the past few weeks ...). Today, I still have to face the facts of home life -- the lawn needs mowing, our strawberry patch needs to be harvested, everybody needs haircuts, my car desperately needs to be washed, and the check engine light on our van turned on yesterday ... and this is what needs doing on the rarest (really, it happens, like, twice a year!) of Saturdays with nothing on the calendar.

It's a busy life, but a good one.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Odyssey's In Safemode

You heard it here first, kids. -- written at 6/4/08 at 11:57 AM.

Okay, so I published too early. My project manager got a call from headquarters that wasn't happy the beans had been spilled before lots of other people had been notified and so I pulled this post down. Ah, well. I'll be a little more gun-shy next time, I guess.

Anyway, so my previous point (and the reason I wrote this in the first place), was not to advertise that Odyssey was in safemode, but rather to lament that PHX had pretty much been systematically gutting their plans to use MRO because of the uncertainty with our radio's behavior. At this time, the radio hasn't had an "incident" in over a week, which is pretty good, but I can understand their concern. The problem is that with Odyssey going into safemode, they aren't immediately ready to relay with MRO. It's going to take an awful lot of effort (I'm writing this at 9:55 at night, and will likely be here another hour or two) to get both projects talking to each other.

It was a little short-sighted, but what can you do? We (and they, being Phoenix) are learning. Unfortunately, I, personally, am bearing much of the burden here ... *sigh* I need a nap.

The Phantom Weight Watcher

My wife and I both concluded that we needed to lose a little weight. I am smart enough to know that I should not indicate how much my wife intends to lose, but as for me, my "ideal" weight is nearly 40 (!) pounds lighter, if you believe what they say for my height. I don't, so my goal is not to lose 40 pounds, but instead 20, which would take me to where I was in my early 20s when I was pretty fit and trim.

To this end, my wife has joined Weight Watchers. I've refused to join, primarily to save myself time and money, but I have willingly been reading up on all the strategies and tips that it takes to be part of the program. Yes, I am a "Phantom Weight Watcher!" (This term is now trade-marked, so you can email me my royalties when you use it ...)

I've been "on the program" now for over a week, and have lost somewhere around 3 pounds. The program itself doesn't really have any magical ability to make you lose weight -- instead it makes you mindful of your portion sizes and the calories that are contained in everything you eat. Using a funky chart that matches calories, grams of fat, and grams of fiber, one can deduce how many "points" everything you eat is worth. Yes, this completely ignores protein and salt intake (yeah, go ahead and drink that gallon of soy sauce, it's okay!). Then, by taking into account your current weight and average daily activity, you can determine how many "points" you should consume in any given day. Ideally, consuming fewer "points" in a day should result in a net loss of weight.

It's actually pretty straightforward. By considering everything that you can eat as a specific number of "points", you can remove some of the emotional aspects of eating. For me, this has meant that I now have the willpower to move past the secretaries desk without grabbing a handful of peanut M&Ms from the bowl she sets out. For my wife, this has meant spending more time doing meal planning and being a more conscientious shopper. While it does introduce a bit of frustration -- I really do still want to eat those M&Ms -- so far it seems to be working.

My wife and I also recently purchased "Wii Fit". This is a handy little tool that, among other things, measures your Body-Mass Index (BMI) and tracks it over time. My wife and I both get on it about once a day and it has served as a remarkable reminder of why we're doing this (since our BMI is considered "overweight", our little avatar on the screen is portly!). It helps with the accountability, and is far more accurate than our old scale in the bathroom.

One thing that I stumbled across the other day was an article on a recent study on fat cells. According to the article, even with major weight loss, you retain no fewer fat cells throughout your life than you had when you were 20 years old. This is bad news to those who were overweight at that age, as it makes re-gaining lost weight easier. For me and my wife, however, this should be pretty good news. At 20 I was a missionary biking my fanny off in the summer heat in Texas. At 20, my wife was, well, she was looking good. (Not to imply that she doesn't, you know, ... um, well, she looks pretty good now, too, come to think of it. You know what, I'll just shut up now.)

So, this should give us hope. If we're stuck with what we had at 20, we should be able to shed the extra weight we've gained since then. It's a good theory, right? I'm going with it.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Fathers and Sons

My oldest son and I went to the annual "Fathers and Sons" campout last Friday. Since I had to stay to work until later that evening, we didn't get on the road to get up there until 7:15 pm. Luckily, the season being what it is, the sun was still up by the time we got to the campsite at Castaic Lake and put up our tent. We didn't take my younger son since he's still potty-training and we didn't want to mess with that routine.

When we first showed up, I was a little apprehensive. Last year, my family and I went camping up to Lake Piru, just a little further to the west, and it was desolate and hot and miserable and we'll probably never go back. When we showed up at the Castaic Lake campsite, I had similar reservations. Happily, we were in a group camping site which was 7 acres (!) of cleared area with a few trees, fire pits, covered picnic tables, and flush toilets. All-in-all, it was a pretty good place to camp. The temperatures were not the miserable ones that we had last year, either.

My son helped me put the tent up, then pretty much took off to play with the other boys. We had about 50 men and boys there, and the boys played "capture the flag" nearly the entire time. With so much space to run around, they went crazy. Of course, we also had a campfire, s'mores, and a little program about the Aaronic Priesthood as presented by our Ward Mission Leader. My son wouldn't sit still for the life of him. I think he consumed about 20 marshmallows, burned twice that in the fire, and ate two or three candy bars worth of chocolate. Since I let him run around 'til about 11:30 pm, he was in heaven.

As for me, it should have been a relaxing time. I was able to sit back, not worry about my son, and just visit with people. Had it not been for the fact that everybody there knew where I had been the previous week and wanted to know all about the landing of Phoenix on Mars, I might've been able to forget about work altogether and just be mesmerized by the flames of the fire. Nevertheless, it was good just to socialize for a change. It was really great to totally go glassy-eyed while some people droned on about golf, how to set up corporations to avoid legal liabilities, and about local high school football (these topics are not my thing ...).

The next morning, we had a great breakfast -- scrambled eggs (with various garnishings) in tortillas, pancakes, and orange juice. I ate way too much, but it was sure good. My son ate only a few pancakes and then started running around with the other boys again. While a bunch of other people started a game of frisbee golf, I rekindled the fire. The boys went dumpster-diving for anything that would burn, and we built a beautiful bonfire. One boy found a long box that used to contain a camp chair. I centered it in the fire and it was soon a six-foot tower of raging flames. It was awesome!

It was a great campout. My only regret? I forgot to take my telescope with me ...

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