Monday, July 17, 2006

You went to college why?

The new University of California campus in Merced opened last year, and apparently part of the first freshman class is already ready to bail:
"In college, you want to meet different people, but there were only 800 of us, so after the first month, we all knew each other. It was like summer camp. There are no sport teams and nothing was established, and there is no tradition. It is not the college experience you hear about."
I won't use the young lady's name; I don't need to, you can find it in the article in the San Francisco Chronicle, right here. I realize she's only 19, but honestly, what has she been reading? Nancy Drew books? Did it not occur to her that you go to college to get an education? To broaden your mind and learn to think? Possibly even to prepare for a job somewhere? (That last point didn't occur to me until my senior year in English literature, but that's another issue.)

This young lady evidently went to college intending to party hearty. I'm impressed with her ability to remember (and immediately get bored with) 800 people, too - there were 750 in my high school graduating class and I remember maybe a dozen of them. (This is because I ran into them again at the reunion last week. Of course, high school was a few years ago.)

I have a dreadful feeling that all this means that she just hasn't met Mr. Right yet. I keep waiting for her to complain that she'll never get her M.R.S. in this dull school. I thought the feminist movement had taught us to look beyond marriage as the single goal of any young female.

The real statement about college is, what you get out of it is directly related to what you put into it, like most experiences of value. If all this young woman is willing to put into it is rooting for sports teams and participating in rituals that would be more evidently silly if they weren't so old, she's not going to get much out, even if she does transfer. But then, maybe I'm expecting too much from a 19 year old. I also hope that, if she does leave this new campus of my alma mater (full disclosure, but the campus was Berkeley), her place will be taken by someone who will really benefit from what the University of California has to offer.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Right to What??

One of the articles I read recently on the gay marriage flap quoted a judge who asked on what basis the state of California could refuse to extend "the right of marriage itself" to same-sex couples. Not the rite of marriage, but the right.

Now, just a minute here. Americans talk a lot about their rights (and not enough about their obligations, but that's another post); but where do we get a right to marry? Marriage is a voluntary contract between two people; marriage is a rite, as in a ceremony or ritual; when did it become a right, as in, something we are all entitled to have, like iPods and stereos and double cappucino no-fat lattes? If marriage is a right, how come I spent 10 years as a single divorcee?

I asked my co-worker Mike
this question, and he said, "Marriage became a right when it became a tax break," and the awful thing is, I'm afraid he's right. Correct. The marriage relationship and the property and tax codes of this country are wound together in a way that makes a mockery of the separation of church and state. Married people pay fewer taxes. Married people have the right to visit each other in the hospital if they're really sick. Married people inherit each other's property, even when they're too lazy or scared to make wills. We seem, thank God, to have quit blaming children for being "illegitimate" when their parents don't bother to get married, but we still regard people who aren't married as somehow less fit to raise children. And the 50% divorce rate doesn't seem to affect any of these opinions.

A few days ago, the San Francisco Chronicle printed a wonderful opinion piece on this subject by Robin Lakoff, a U.C. Berkeley professor of linguistics; I strongly recommend it. According to Ms. Lakoff, the purpose of a constitution is to define the agreed relationship between the government and the governed. That being the case, she argues, it has no place for rules about relationships between members of "the governed" - that would be us. She states, "Marriage is a relationship in which the government is not a direct participant." The proper place for rules governing relationships between individuals, such as marriage, is in statutory law, not in the Constitution. At that point you get to argue about whose statutes, federal or state; but the Constitution is clearly the wrong place for anything to do with marriage.

But is she right? When you go down to city hall and get a marriage license, the government issues it; and you do that even when you're getting married in a church. Then there are all those tax laws; not to mention our Fearless Leader trying to make learning how to stay married a condition for getting welfare. This could go on and on; but the more I think about it, the more I think I want the government to get its nose out of the personal relationships between human beings, except in cases of domestic violence.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Scientific Research and Me

I've just done something new, which I'm disproportionately excited about. You'd think that volunteering to let someone else use my computer would be a problem. However, I've just signed up for Rosetta@home, and what I'm letting people use my computer for is to run complicated algorithms to try to determine how proteins fold and what is the lowest energy configuration for a given protein. These solutions are used by researchers to try to figure out ways to combat diseases like malaria, HIV, and Alzheimer's.

It absolutely charms me that the software you download, to run these problems, is called BOINC (that's Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing). BOINC runs in the background using CPU when you aren't using it. It's absolutely zero maintenance: it goes out to the Rosetta server, downloads as many problems as it thinks my computer can handle (seems to be two), chews through them, and then when it's done, uploads the results to the server. I have a Rosetta account and get credit for problems solved - think karma, it's not money.

So far I haven't noticed much effect on web browsing and email, although it takes a little longer to open files. Plus, it acts as a screen saver showing you how it thinks the current protein it's working on might fold. Rosetta always needs more computing power - this is an active research facility. So if any of you would like to let the CPU you probably don't use much contribute to serious medical research, let me encourage you to check the site out and sign up. They have BOINC clients for Windows, Mac, Linux, and Solaris. Also, there are other projects you can sign up for once you have the client - SETI@home for instance.

Thursday, July 06, 2006


I had a very odd conversation with my sister today. She lives on the outskirts of Las Vegas, and their phone service has been interrupted lately; she wanted to know if I'd been trying to reach her. (No, I was working.)

When this first happened, last weekend, she said someone had "cut the phone cable". I assumed accident, but it seems to be a form of semi-organized crime: the price of copper has gone high enough, and the rural phone lines in Nevada are installed carelessly enough, that some people are driving around in the small hours, and stealing the phone lines to sell for scrap. Seems like it's time to upgrade to fiberoptics?? Also, isn't this carrying good old American initiative a little too far?

Monday, July 03, 2006

Unclear on the concept

The ever-reliable (as a source of weirdness) San Francisco Chronicle had a lead article today in the business section on the joys of broadband wireless. This is a wireless card for your laptop that talks to your cellphone, so you don't have to waste time finding and negotiating a Starbuck's hot spot: you can sit down right there in the parking lot and email away. You'd probably be more comfortable at Starbuck's, but that's a detail.

We used to do something like this back in the day when I was on 24-hour pager support. Of course, at that time the duty cell phone was a brick that weighed 10 pounds (we bought a luggage cart for it), and the connection with the laptop was a phone cord plugged into a dial-up modem; but I remember one of my colleagues troubleshooting a mainframe problem with this rig while seated cross-legged on the grass at a company party. Since this was not only pre-wireless but pre-Starbuck's, it was pretty fardling advanced. (Full disclosure: I stole the epithet from Anne McCaffrey's Ship who Sang series...)

Anyway, back in the story about the 3G broadband, I loved the last quote in the story:
"It's phenomenal," Ask said. "It's great being able to open your laptop and get Internet access and not get nickel-and-dimed for service everywhere you go."
This was from someone who is paying $60 a month for access. Yeah, I guess it's fair to say she's not being nickel-and-dimed...

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Business travel isn't anything remotely resembling fun, but at least you get to look at new places from the window of the taxi, coming in from the airport.

I got a look at San Antonio, Texas this week, and found it rather charming. Unlike Dallas, San Antonio has resisted the urge to tear down all their old light industrial buildings and put up glass towers, so there are only a few skyscrapers, and lots of older few-story brick and stucco buildings with interesting architectural details, plus some pretty churches. The town was more relaxed than Dallas, too, with lighter traffic. They've done fairly nice things with their river: it's nothing resembling a riparian habitat, since the channel is bricked in solid (sigh), but they've turned it into a pleasant "river walk", below street level and lined with trees and shrubs. If I'd had time, I could have taken a water taxi along the canals; but I was in the town less than 48 hours. For that matter, if I'd had time, I could have toured the Alamo; it's easy to find, right next to the mall.

The heat was appalling, in the high nineties; with the usual corollary that the air conditioning was so cold you needed a jacket indoors, which you immediately had to shed when you left the building. They haven't had any rain for awhile, and the taxi driver said they'd been on the verge of water rationing. The hotel had signs saying we won't change your towels during your stay, and you have to ask for water in the restaurant. One of these days our tendency to use water as if there were an infinite supply of it, is going to catch up with us.