Monday, May 28, 2007

Mountains of Uselessness

I usually let my incoming (physical) mail stack up quite a bit before I pay attention to it. That may not always be a good thing when it comes to paying bills on time... I realized just now why I resist paying the bills. It's not the pain of actually paying the bill, but rather the hunting through mountains of crap mail to find the good stuff and real bills. The photo above shows three weeks of junk on the left, and the important stuff on the right (it's almost imperceptible).

It doesn't stop with the two or three "Pennysaver" fliers per week. Nor does it stop with the actual junk mail. Nor the credit card offer from United Airlines every week for the past three years! No, even when I open actual bills, there is more junk mail inside. My phone company keeps urging me to sign up for DSL service even though I tried them, their service quality was crap, and I canceled my account with them. Thank goodness my family doesn't send me junk mail too!

I probably get more than 500 pages of junk material per month. That's a whole ream of paper! In comparison about 20 pages of that is stuff valuable to me: letters from friends or important bills. If we are ever serious about becoming a "green" society, we really need to get rid of junk mail. With over 105 million households in the US, there are probably about 3 million tons of paper going to waste every year.

We talk about email "spam" filtering. I would really like to have physical junk mail filtering as well. But unlike spam which usually gets filtered at the receiving end, I think junk mail should be filtered at the sending end. I get so much repeat junk mail, it would make sense to have a little box on the envelope marked "⊗ RETURN TO SENDER, DON'T EVER SEND ME THIS CRAP AGAIN."

I realize that this is not a new topic, but I just had to vent for a moment. Now I know how Andy Rooney feels.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Police Release Me

Yesterday I was waiting at a traffic light to turn left. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. For three full cycles I waited with another car in front of me while all the other traffic directions were allowed to pass, but we were not. Finally both of us realized that something was wrong with the traffic light (or the sensor), and decided to turn left against the red light, when the way was clear.

Of course, a police car appeared out of nowhere immediately and chased after us. Not surprising since it's next to a police station. I pulled over, but the police car zoomed past and snagged the first guy. At first I drove away, but eventually I realized it wasn't fair for the other guy to get tagged for a defective traffic signal1, so I drove around and talked at the officer. I say "talked at" because he wasn't really interested in hearing anything I had to say. After I explained my version in twenty words, he ignored me for about fifteen seconds, and then blurted some kind of joke (I guess) which was meant to get me to leave (I guess). Me, being Mr. Slow-on-the-uptake, took a little while to figure this out. I did park and give my phone number to the guy being cited, in case he needed a witness for court.

Later the guy in the other car did call me to thank me. It turns out the officer did not cite him for a moving violation, but did write a citation for some other minor infraction. It turned out mostly okay.2

The thing that ticked me off was that we could have been waiting at that light for 20 seconds, or 20 minutes, and no matter when we finally decided turn, that cop could have showed up just at that moment. Police officers do a great service to our community, which I appreciate. In principle he did the right thing for pulling (one of) us over. On the other hand, it's pretty unfair that citizens should be punished for a defective traffic signal.

1 - The other man was African American so I was a little concerned he would be arrested for DWB, while I got a free pass.
2 - The other man wondered if the traffic light problem was a set-up. It is the end of the month. Did officer have to meet a quota?

Friday, May 11, 2007

Secret Easter Service

Goddard was swarming with Secret Service agents during the visit of the Queen. It turns out that they are locals: their training facility is just north of Goddard. Many Goddard people have seen a mysterious black SUV if they leave the Center on Soil Conservation Road. That SUV is guarding the Secret Service facility. Let's take an interactive tour:


Click for detail: Fake Town | Fake Airport | Driving Range | Performance Range | Underground Storage | Obstacle Course | Black SUV

The fake town and fake airport are for "real-life" exercises involving urban and airport situations. You can see that there is a simulated half of Air Force One, but not the whole airframe. I've seen a television program where agents were shown practicing various security activities (VIP arriving by airport, bombing in an urban environment).

The driving test range appears to have different kinds of paved street configurations, presumably for practice cornering and turning. The "performance" range, as I called it, is probably for high performance manuevering practice, like "J-turns" (you can even see the turn guide lines painted on the tarmac). It also appears to have a heli-pad.

I'm guessing that point E is some kind of underground storage, perhaps for munitions (especially considering the Jersey barriers obstructing the entrance). The obstacle course is not so obvious, but it's easier to see on Microsoft's Live Map of the location, and it contains a bunch of different swings, pits and balancing obstacles. It looks challenging!

Finally of course, the Black SUV (or maybe it's a van on the day this photo was taken) is present near the intersections of Soil Conservation Road and Powdermill Road.

There are probably other Easter Eggs to find, it just takes some diligent scanning. For example, the old Beltsville Agricultural Center airport is just to the southeast, and I believe the Secret Service uses that for training as well.

By the way, none of this is particularly secret. All these maps and satellite photos are available to the public via Google Maps, and several of the locations listed above were showcased on a recent Sixty Minutes story about the Secret Service.
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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Crack (juice) is good for you!

I found this interesting article on CNN, that pure fruit juice supposedly does not "cause" children to become overweight.

There is something fishy going on there. Both pure juice and artificial juice-flavored drinks contain a lot of sugar. It shouldn't matter which kind of juice a person drinks.

My guess is that there is a selection effect going on: that parents of children who desire or can afford pure juice, are the ones that pay more attention to the total diets of their children, and thus prevent them from becoming overweight. The implication of the article is that we should "drink more juice" because it's good for us. But I suspect the reality is more simple than that... If you drink more sugary juice -- no matter what kind -- you will get more overweight!

I'm sure I could devise a study that could conclude that crack makes children more alert and active... but that does not mean that cocaine is "good for you."

The fact that the obvious question was not discussed, whether children who drank water instead of juice were healthier or not, suggests that the researchers came to the study with an agenda. I found it interesting that there is no sponsorship information about the study.

According the study, children who drank more pure juice ate less fat and other bad stuff. However, is that really a cause and effect relationship? Do children really desire to eat less fat because they drink "pure" juice? I doubt it. I think the two are correlated, but not causally related.

To be fair, the author of the study does say that parents should look at the "total number of calories that the child is taking in ... and ... the activity level of the child." Good points. I suspect that these two factors are the important ones, and the kind of juice is irrelevant. This "total calorie" information is buried in the last paragraph of the press release. It's just that a headline like, "Children Who Eat Fewer Calories and Exercise More are Healthier," is not very sexy for the industry.

There was another article about a week ago, "New Study Shows Citrus Juices Have the Highest Nutrient Content," which suggests to me that the Florida juice industry is engaging in a media campaign.

Updated (3:04pm): added cause and effect paragraph.
Updated (11 May): my friend CW corrects some of my erroneous assumptions (see comments).

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

A Royal Flush

Her Majesty the Queen of England paid a visit to Goddard Space Flight Center today. I don't have any pithy insights. We waited outside near Building 3 for about an hour and then she and her entourage passed by on her way from talking to the Space Station to a presentation in Building 8. She was within lunging distance, but not grabbing distance.

She paused and chatted with some women close to me. Her demeanor -- or should I say deQUEENer -- was aloof, yet kind. People around me (and myself) offered comments like, "Good morning!" or, "Welcome!" to tempt a response, but she did not make much direct eye contact or physical contact with anyone specific. A queen isn't meant to connect too closely with the commoners. She apparently did have more personal contact during other parts of the visit.

We also had a short glimpse of her at the Goddard Visitor's Center, where she "planted a tree." Which means, she and NASA Administrator Michael Griffin each turned over about a teaspoon full of soil. A good thing too, since they will move the tree from its photogenic ceremonial position to someplace else where it won't die so quickly. Gardening was never so easy for the Queen.

Prince Phillip seemed more chatty. As I mentioned before, I think the Goddard visit was probably his desire. He stopped and had more direct conversations with the crowd in front of me, and was definitely intrigued by the astronauts. Good for him, a Prince should have some hobbies too.

I'm not a big one for pomp and circumstance, but it was still a special moment for the place that I work. None of my photos turned out very well, but thankfully I was with a group that got some nice shots. Aside from the enjoyment of the moment, the most substantial thing I came away with was a hefty sunburn on my face.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Queen for a Day

The Queen of England is coming to Goddard Space Flight Center tomorrow. I don't really know why... I suspect it's because Prince Phillip wanted to see something spacey. The royals are in the US for the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement. Anyway, it's sure to be a zoo tomorrow at the center. There are whole parts that will be blocked off, and the Queen's motorcade will cause all the major streets and highways to be blocked too.

The Queen is giving a short address to a small group of people that were selected by lottery. I was not in that group (harumph). But I'm still interested, so I will try to catch her as she walks between buildings, or plants a tree at the Visitor's Center. She plants enough trees, she could probably open a shovel store.

A brief note to employees suggests that as we "wave and address Her Majesty ... as 'Your Majesty' or 'Ma'am;' address the Duke as 'Your Highness' or 'Sir.'" They make it sound like we might bump into her on the way to the jacuzzi.

Of course, Goddard has spent the last week primping. All the pavement lines have been repainted, the shrubs have been shorn, and the lawns have been flattened. Well, the parts the Queen will see have been primped, that is. Other parts of the center have almost knee-high grass. Budget cuts you know.

It occurred to me that maybe the Queen has never seen anything bad or nasty. She always has an advance entourage which makes sure everything is just perfect before she arrives, so maybe she simply has no concept of "dirty" or "disrepair." Maybe she thinks that all paths are paved with red carpets, and all the toilets are gilded.

For that matter, she doesn't have to deal with money or passports. One of her attendants surely takes care of all such mundane matters. We all laughed when President Bush, Sr., was amazed by laser bar-code scanners at the local grocery store. But has the Queen ever even been to a grocery store? Food simply appears in her larder and is prepared by her expert chef.

I think it would be cool to trade places with the Queen for a day. I would experience the luxury of unlimited wealth and power, and the alien world of pomp and protocol. She would experience life as a commoner, and have to work for a living. That would be cool. For a day.