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August 23rd, 2009

10:42 am: Little posting
Those (four) of you in the habit of checking this blog will have noticed that I haven't posted here in quite a while. This is intentional, and likely to continue. With what little blogging time I have I am trying to post more often at BlogOfScience!

Please come on by.

P.S. I will be in California Sept. 1-5th, then off to Germany.

June 28th, 2009

01:06 pm: 10 Suggestions for West African Email Scammers:
1. Avoid mentioning West Africa, Nigeria or related places in your emails. The main thing most Americans know about Nigeria and West Africa is that that is where most email scams come from.
2. Avoid long rambling messages. The more text you write the less realistic it seems.
3. Use proper English sentence structure, including punctuation, capitalization and tense. If your English is sloppy, which it is, stick to short simple sentences.
4. Spell check.
5. Avoid excessive formalities or familiarities in what are intended to imitate small business emails. Don't start with "My darling" or end with "Most cordially and humbly yours." Better to keep it short and simple.
6. Remember that you are trying to trick the American into thinking you are another American. Look at how Americans write and imitate that.
7. Don't make the deal much too good to be true. If someone offers you ten times as much money as you asked for, doesn't that make you suspicious?
8. Don't ask me to list what country I am in. Remember, you are pretending that we are both Americans.
9. Make the story plausible. If you want to buy a common small item, why would you try to buy it from a stranger several states away?
10. If you have the skills and intelligence to pull off all of the above, you can probably make more money in a real job than you ever will emailing out petty scams.

June 9th, 2009

It 3:40 AM in the peaceful hamlet of Berkeley. Iris and I are sounds asleep, and a couple of cats are snuggling us. Outside an engine revs loudly  "rrrRRRVVVV" and a car-horn blares, "EeEEEEEEEEE." The revving lasts only seconds,  the car doesn't seem to move, but the horn keeps on going "EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE." We wait, it continues going.

Iris curses a dark blue streak. I mumble something. Five minutes have gone by, with no quieting. I slam the bedroom window on my thumb.


Iris gets an icepack for me. As long as she is up, she calls the Berkeley Police non-emergency number, and hands the phone to me.

"Hello, Berkeley Police Department."

"Um, hi. I have I guess a non-emergency. We're on Channing Street across from the high school. There is a car across the street from us whose horn has been blaring for the last ten minutes. It is really loud."

"Is there anyone in the car?"

"We don't think so, but we aren't sure which car it is, we haven't gone out to investigate. We'd appreciate if an officer would come by."

"Alright, someone will be there in a few minutes."

The police station is only a couple of blocks from here, so before we even peer out the window there is one patrol car stopped, and a moment later there are two. They get out, shine their flashlights into the offending SUV. Nobody there. They get the door open and poke around, but can't get the horn to stop. Popping the hood, they look with some bewilderment at all the mechanical bits, call for backup.


We decide this may take a while, and that we can't possibly sleep with that noise. We have tea and scones instead. A half hour later a mechanic shows up and disconnects the battery.

"EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEeEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee...    ee..  e..                                     "

4:35 and Berkeley is peaceful once more. We sleep.

"                                                                                        "

Until 5:30 when the tow-truck comes and tows the SUV away. For some reason before towing it they reconnect the battery.

"       e e eeE  EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee........           ".

June 8th, 2009

02:36 pm: Phishing Forecast

Omar Bongo, Gabon Leader for 41 years, Dies at 73, thousands of Nigerians look up name of his widow.

May 27th, 2009

06:08 pm: Pakistan
Things in Pakistan have changed rather rapidly since the change of Administration in the US. For most of the Bush Administration, the main Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, seemed to be doing more to help Islamic extremists as to fight them. ISI has long-standing ties to the Taliban, and to extremist groups in Kashmir. The response of the Bush Administration was a combination of saber-rattling and propping up an unpopular military government that it hoped could reign in extremists, including those inside the government. Predictably, this failed miserably.

Obama's people have been taking a very different tack. Supporting a new elected government, sharing intelligence and planning with the ISI and acting respectfully towards the Pakistani government and people have changed things very rapidly. The ISI has changed enough that the Taliban has now made multiple attempts to take out ISI's leadership. The Pakistani military is aggresively taking back territory it had ceded to the Taliban. Taliban and al Qaeda fighters who had previously fled from Afganistan to Pakistan are now thought to be moving back to Afganistan, even as the US military builds up its forces there.

Not to say things are going great. They are a bloody mess. The government in Pakistan is still weak, vulnerable and nuclear armed. The government in Afganistan is still weak, trafficing opium and very corrupt. The US military still doesn't seem to have a clear plan for defeating the Taliban. But I am enourmously more hopeful about that part of the world than I was a year ago. I think Pakistan may finally be getting some rule of law, and realizing that internal exremists (as opposed to India) are its most pressing threat. The US military seems to be focussing more on providing security for Afgans rather than fighting endless skermishes with the Taliban. And the area between US forces and Pakistani forces where the Taleban can move with impunity seems to be shrinking. Now if only Afganistan could have a decent government with popular support, there is some chance things in that region could approach some semblence of stability.

May 19th, 2009

10:20 pm: Initiatives
As expected, all of the California ballot initiatives failed by very wide margins, except the one limititing pay raises for legislators, which passed overwhelmingly.

This is entirely unsurprising. It does however mean that the University of California (along with most everything funded by the state) is screwed. Screw-Ed.

With the semester ending this week, and graduations and finals actively going on, I expect UC Berkeley to wait until next week before announcing the first of several new waves of lay offs. The other UCs are on the quarter system, so their semesters end a bit later. I don't know what to expect in terms of timing of lay-offs. I do expect that people I know will soon be out of work.

May 17th, 2009

09:09 am: Parting exchange
I (in mock Austrian accent): I'll be Bach.
D:  I'll be Hayden.

May 15th, 2009

09:56 pm: For all you thrifty cat owners
Iris and I, for the last few years have been using a kitty-litter called Feline Pine. It is made from waste sawdust, compressed into pellets and is easily compostable. It doesn't make silica dust and reduces cat-box smell wonderfully. The only problem we had with Feline Pine was the cost. A 40 pound bag is about $25.

Earlier this year, passing through a hardware store, I noticed a product that seemed to be almost identical to Feline Pine: Wood pellets. Also made from waste sawdust, and also pressed through a 6mm die into pellets of identical diameter, wood stove pellets are nearly indistinguishable from Feline Pine. Only a 40Lb bag costs $6 instead of $25.

We bought a bag, and have now switched to using wood pellets as litter. The cats don't seem to notice the difference and the smell is basically identical. These particular pellets are fir instead of pine, so the color is slightly different, but beyond that I can't tell the difference. This works well and is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than any commercial kitty litter I've seen. I feel a bit foolish for buying all those bags of wood pellets for $25 a bag.

07:46 pm: cutting costs
The museum where I work is removing the phones from most of the offices to save money. They are also bringing in fewer students than are graduating, and not filling vacant faculty and staff positions. If, as expected, the California state budget deficit continues to increase, further, more painful cuts are likely. I'm glad to be getting out when I am.

08:40 am: Comcast doesn't care
Yesterday, after describing how badly Comcast's system works, I got a message from comcastcares5  telling me how much Comcast Cares and offering to help me process my payment and get my service up and running right away.

This would have been possibly useful, except that as stated in my previous post, I spent much of yesterday morning talking Comcast through the process of accepting my payment, and as a result my service is still up and running.

What is potentially more interesting is just how dumb this is. comcastcares5 's journal is blank, and the journals of comcastcares4 comcastcares3 comcastcares2 and comcastcares1 have all been suspended by livejournal.
comcastcares5  clearly didn't read all two paragraphs of my post. So presumably Comast has decided that rather than designing a system that doesn't make things unnecessarily difficult, it costs less to assign a few people to limiting the negative publicity by responding to blog posts using the word Comcast. Comcast! Comcast!

The problem with this strategy is that it makes no sense. It isn't a Herculean task to design a phone system that allows people to sign up for service with only one call (It took me 8 calls to get to talk to someone when I wanted service). It isn't hard to design a credit card system that processes a payment in less than three months. Most companies do not have trouble with this. But it doesn't seem to occur to Comcast to actually improve their system. Instead they put that energy into telling us that they care, after they have already screwed us. What they don't seem to get is nobody cares if they claim to care. We know they don't care, because if they did they would build a decent system. They are a telecommunications company, it can't be that hard for them to build a functional phone service system and a functional online payment system. If they cared, they wouldn't consistently screw these things up. Furthermore, I don't care if they care. I don't want my internet service provider to be my BFF, I want them to provide consistent service and stay out of my hair as long as I pay my bills. I want them to make it easy to sign up, to know how to process a payment without me holding their hand, and to not pay people to skim my blog and then send me an email lying to me about how much Comcast cares.

May 14th, 2009

07:46 pm: Day Off
I took the whole day off from working on my thesis today. Well, except for responding to emails from my students.

After my battle with Comcast, I did laundry, took out the garbage, compost, kitty litter and recycling, did the dishes, cleaned the surfaces, vacuumed, swept, washed the floors, paid my bills, organized my desk, decided on a wedding present, wrote a get well card, made the bed, trimmed the kitten's claws, bought kitty-litter (actually wood stove pellets that are just like the compostable kitty litter but cost ¼ as much), made plans to see my cousins and made soup for dinner. What an incredibly relaxing day.

10:54 am: I am rapidly coming to understand why Comcast has the reputation for the worst customer service around.

Click to read about Comcast's criminal idiocyCollapse )

How do these people stay in business?

May 8th, 2009

09:55 am: Another reason not to go to the doctor
"UC Berkeley computer administrators determined on April 21 that electronic databases in University Health Services had been breached and data stolen by overseas criminals.  The databases stored personally identifiable information used for billing such as Social Security numbers, and non-treatment medical information such as immunization history, UHS medical record numbers, dates of visits or names of providers seen, or for participants in the Education Abroad Program, certain information from the self-reported health history."

My information was stolen, and now I have to go through the whole song and dance to inform the credit agencies and such kinds of related crap. The break ins occurred repeatedly from October through April, and they figured it out three weeks ago, but they are just telling me now.

May 4th, 2009

12:38 am: It would be a vast overstatement to say that Detroit is a decaying corpse of its former self. Rather I would say that Detroit has lung cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, dementia, some sort of wasting disease and is entering cardiac arrest. The stated reason for holding the conference there? They chose the location five years in advance.

The conference was in the Renaissance Center, a 73-story monstrosity located between old one and two story brick buildings. The $5 Billion building in an area of old parking garages and apartments that have been converted to self-storage was built by Ford and then sold to GM, which spent half a billion dollars in 2003 on renovations to make it nearly impossible to reach the second floor.

The closest neighborhood that doesn't seem dead is Greektown, a bit less than a mile away. It is dominated by a Casino and restaurants specializing in accepting "casino comps." 

We went to the Detroit Institute of Arts which is a lovely big museum with impressive holdings. It is a stark reminder of how rich a city Detroit once was. At the center of the museum is a very large room of murals by Diego Rivera (Frida Kahlo's husband) celebrating Detroit Industry. The murals are impressive, and the museum has a very good set of audio tours explaining the murals in great detail. The murals are a celebration of big muscular workers and big gleaming machines, but also warn of the dangers of industrialized war and resource extraction. Unfortunately, the murals did not warn of the dangers of foolish executives building over-sized unreliable vehicles and ignoring changes in the market and society.

April 30th, 2009

08:21 am: Bizzarobuilding
This hotel where the conference is happening is one of the strangest buildings I have ever encountered. For starters, it is a hotel, convention center, shopping mall and General Motors International Headquarters all mushed into one building. Trying to find my way from the poster session to the cafe I find myself in a completely abandoned display hall with spot-lights pointed at GM's 2010 lineup of cars and trucks. This room is carpeted, but the carpet is asphalt colored. I eventually find my way back to the hotel lobby and ask for directions, and am told that there is no connection from the third floor where I am to the second floor where the cafe is. I need to take the elevator to the first floor, cross into the GM headquarters, take the escalator up one flight then cross back into the hotel, turn left at the CVS and a right past the bathrooms. All this while I can see the cafe from where I am standing.

April 21st, 2009

10:26 pm: Quick, read this lie to me!
Apparently former Bush Administration officials responsible for the torture of terror suspects are planning to use the excuse that their legal, military and intelligence advisers didn't give them the freely available information that the methods they wanted to use had previously been ruled bot ineffective and illegal. They feel betrayed and let down. This is an odd argument, given that these advisers were chosen specifically because they would give the desired advice, were instructed to find ways to give that advice and were believed over other advisers who actually did provide complete and accurate information. It is a bit like sending yourself an email saying that you are snowed in, not going to work for a week even though you can see it is warm and sunny out, then suing your internet service provider when you get fired, on account of it delivered false information.

It is scary how much Kool-Aid these people were serving themselves.

April 20th, 2009

10:32 am: If you love somebody...
set them free. But first tickle them.

April 18th, 2009

02:45 pm: I came out from under my desk.
I checked the recent earthquakes site and saw that we hadn't been having earthquakes. That's when the building started shaking again.

I heard my upstairs neighbor say, "Oh. You scared me, I thought it was an earthquake."

It turns out that the reason the building was shaking was because the guys doing the roof were bouncing their rolls of left-over materials down the steps. Each large roll of roofing paper (and apparently they had brought several too many) would hit each step on the way down. The vibration was enough to get this old building shaking, and it sounded and felt a lot like a moderate earthquake.

I will be happy when the construction is done.

April 17th, 2009

11:14 pm: I miss my wife.
My aim is lousy at this distance.

09:21 pm: Last 11 weekends in California
In case you were wondering what Iris and I are planning for the rest of our weekends before moving back east and thence to Germany:

11 weekendsCollapse )

You will note there are no weekends dedicated to seeing our friends. That said, we hope to see y'all before skipping town.

April 16th, 2009

11:01 am: Good Morning!
I awoke this morning to the sound of a couple of hundred pounds of roofing landing a few feet from my head. It took me a moment to comprehend that it was not a giant earthquake. Rather the roof of our building is being replaced, and at 8AM sharp the workers started pealing off large sections of roof and dropping them into a dump truck parked just outside my window. Iris was spared, having left the house at 7 to head to a conference in SoCal.

Once I had figured out that my life was not in danger it occurred to me to look for the cats, who were both all the way in the back of the closet. Every ten to thirty seconds, another rain of gravel would herald the falling of another giant chunk of roof. This started to become routine enough that the kitten came out of the closet and I picked him up. I was carrying him down the hall when one of the chunks of roof came in through the bathroom window, spraying glass everywhere. I found I was bleeding from a couple of spots, not from glass, but from the kitten who may never come out of the closet again. The truck had gotten piled too high and a piece of roofing bounced/slid/flopped off the pile and through the window. The bathtub is covered in glass, gravel and roofing tar.

I called Iris, got our landlord's cell phone number from her, and got a promise from him that the bathroom would be cleaned up and the window fixed by this afternoon.

09:25 am: Pop Quiz
What industry is this?

“Our operational model is sound,” Thomas H. Nolan Jr., the company’s president and chief operating officer, said on a conference call early Thursday morning, citing “the unprecedented disruption in the real estate financing markets and the need to extend maturing debt” as the reason the company filed.

“We made extensive efforts to modify existing maturing debt outside of bankruptcy,” he added.

Banking? Construction? Real-estate? Auto? Airline? Insurance? 

Nope.  Malls.

The story is ever the same. We did everything right but the big bad market got us, so no need for us to find a more sustainable business model. Bailout! Bailout!

April 15th, 2009

11:30 pm: Hillariously Depressing
Someone in the Republican Party has figured out that if they are to be useful or regain power, they have to do more than object to Obama's proposals and hope that he fails. Unfortunately, Gov. Pawlenty in this interview in which he argues that Republicans need to have their own ideas, fails to offer any ideas. He goes back and forth between saying, "feeding off what they [Democrats] do wrong is not a strategy,” and feeding off what he sees as Democrat's chances for failure "directly attributable to the misguided and over-baked fiscal policies that you are seeing right now.” Nowhere in the article does he offer a positive idea about what should be done, even though he explicitly states that is what he needs to do.

I guess if your party is fresh out of ideas, even the mention of trying to have an idea counts as having an idea. One of these years the GOP may have an idea again. Until then it is nothing but teabagging.

April 14th, 2009

09:37 am: Fun with Photoshop

April 10th, 2009

08:58 am: My brother
My brother, who has been working at a DC think-tank, has just started a job in the Obama administration, in the Treasury department. He now reports to someone who reports to Geitner who reports to the President. He is one of only several thousand people with that close a connection to the president. How's that for bragging rights? 

I am glad he is working there, as I see my brother as just about the smartest, most competent and hardest working person I know, with integrity for three, and we need the Treasury Department (central to efforts to fix the economy) to have people like him. On the other hand, I know that my brother will take this opportunity to work even harder than he usually does, and we may not see him for the next few years.

April 8th, 2009

02:10 pm: Feelings of Big Head Insufficiency
I once bought an XXXL hat that was still too tight. I have gotten used to wearing hats on the top of my head, instead of around the top of my head as most people would. So it is with some relief, and disappointment, that I have found bigheadcaps.com. My head is 24.25 inches around, but they advise buying a hat whose band is one inch larger, so I need 25.25 inches. They sell hats for people with head circumference of up to 26.75 inches. This is a relief, because now I know I can order a hat big enough for me, but is disappointing because now I know I am not especial. My head is only freakishly large (in the top one percentile), not the biggest around. Somewhere out there there are people with heads even gianter than mine. My ego feels smaller already.

10:43 am: Puppy Phishing?
What, are they going to ship the puppies from Nigeria as soon as I send them money for the chartered jet?

The Puppy PitchCollapse )

It is amazing that the Engish is so good and yet so bad.

March 31st, 2009

01:58 pm: moved
We have now successfully moved into a smallish studio apartment in downtown Berkeley. It was big obnoxisousacioius pain in the rear, and took far to much valuable time, but we are out of an uncomfortable situation and managed to go through most of our stuff and send a large portion of it away. Iris's mom is currently driving north with a very heavily packed pickup-truck of our stuff to store, we put several large boxes of stuff out and threw out or recycled many bins full. The idea of actually leaving the state this summer now seems much less daunting, although I am sure at least another vehicle load or three will end up stored at Paca's house.

The last thing that needs to get done to allow me to resume being highly productive is having internet at our new house. The comcast guy is supposed to come by tomorrow morning to hook us up.

March 27th, 2009

12:15 pm: Sea gulls
I: Oh, do you hear those sea gulls?
D: Sea gulls? No.
I: Don't you see, them, they're on top of the light poles.
D: Where?
I: They're right there. Why won't you admit they are right in front of you?
D: I believe the best policy is to hear no sea gull, see no sea gull and speak no sea gull.

March 24th, 2009

01:41 pm: You can tell we got a little desperate at the end there

$1000 2 cats seeking temporary home for our humans (berkeley)

Hi, we are looking for a place in Berkeley for ourselves and our two humans. They are both graduate students who never do anything but sit in front of computers, typing their theses, and they won't even let us help.

We prefer a place with lots of mice, or near a fish-packing plant, but the humans, who write the checks, say that is not their top priority. They prefer a "quiet place to work." This is not the only way our people are boring. They don't drink, smoke, watch TV, have parties or eat spiders. And they never let us destroy furniture.

Anyway, if you want to rent to us and these boring humans, we're going to need at least one good window that provides a sun-spot to nap in. They say we are "moving back East" (where we hear the mice are slower) at the end of June, so we just need a place for April, May and June. Oh, and they insist it be walking distance to a BART stop on the Richmond Line. Sigh, you have to put up with humans' oddities as long as they keep bringing home the kibbles, cleaning the box and swinging those toys.

Happy napping,
FeLion and Tigrinum

01:33 pm: 2nd notice of this scam getting old
Iris and I have each received dozens of calls on our cell phone informing us that "this is the second notice that the factory warranty on your vehicle may be about to expire." We aren't too worried about it though. First, We don't own a vehicle. Second, neither one of us has ever bought a new vehicle, or had a factory warranty. Third, they obviously define "about to" very loosely, as we have been receiving these calls for over two years now.

March 23rd, 2009

05:03 pm: Apartment hunting hell
After trying to find an apartment in Davis, then deciding we couldn't move to Davis after all, I'm feeling enormously stressed about the amount of time this has all taken away from what is supposed to be my sole activity, writing my thesis. Looking in the Bay Area is more satisfying, in that the apartments are less awful and the management less deceptive, but it is still a bureaucratic nightmare. Spending hours on the phone trying to get credit reports (TransUnion insists that you buy from them an up to date deep rectal scan to confirm your identity before they will give you the free credit report they are required to provide), getting conflicting information about whether cats are allowed, constantly scanning craigslist for available properties. I haven't not had a headache in at least a week.

Last night I dreamed that I had just published a book on apartment hunting strategies, but that someone was on the phone to tell me I had all my information wrong.

So we were very surprised today when the owner of a building in Berkeley met us on time, showed us a very nice apartment, confirmed that it actually is available for a short-term lease, said that cats truly are no problem, and said that we could start moving in tomorrow if we got a few papers together, but not to worry too much if we didn't have every bit of information. It makes me suspicious for it to be so easy all of a sudden. We aren't canceling any of our other appointments until the papers are signed.

March 22nd, 2009

09:13 am: Tauscher
Our Congresswoman, Ellen Tauscher, has been appointed Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, and will be leaving congress. I am happy to see her go. In addition to frequently voting with the Republicans on the close votes, and generally championing the wrong approaches to things, her staff do a terrible job of pretending to read my letters before sending a form letter reply. I'll write a letter urging a bigger, stronger, longer-lasting stimulus package and get back a letter some weeks later explaining the need for having a bank bailout. If no one in her office actaully reads correspondence from the constituents, can it really be said that she represents us? I won't feel any less represented by not having a congressperson at all. I hope when we have an election to replace her the Democrats ut forward someone more interested in being a representative, and not just a Representative.

March 20th, 2009

10:21 pm: Probably not moving to Davis
Davis is a hole. Let me rephrase that. Davis was a hole, and then they made it much, much worse.

Imagine a small agricultural town in the middle of an huge flat valley.  Then, over the course of just a decade or so, build the cheapest possible housing for some tens of thousands of undergraduates, sprawling outward into the valley into whichever agricultural fields come up for sale. Sprinkle in some strip-malls and clusters of houses for university faculty and staff. Fail to maintain for three or four decades, and develop no amenities beyond those designed to part undergraduates from their parents' money. In all commercial communication, refer to 'floorplans' rather than to apartments. "We have the great floorplan you've been looking for!"

Pretty much every available rental in Davis is in a building that looks more like a failing motel than an apartment building or a house. They all have the nastiest possible carpet, the cabinets that smell of formaldehyde, the management used to hiring students to deal with other unreasonable, unreliable and easily exploitable students. The apartments are dark, smelly and charmless. The shadeless grounds consist of over-fertilized lawn and pavement, and are charmless. No housing is available within two miles of the campus. Renters hoping to sublease openly complain about their property managers, and the property managers complain about the renters. Leasing offices post signs offering free candy, popcorn and cookies to entice gullible students to come in and sign a lease. The terms of the lease are altered through the course of the conversation under the assumption that the students won't notice. Potential renters are generally shown only the 'model' floorplan until after a lease has been signed. Davis has a truly unique mix of high prices, low qualities, inconvenient locations and ubiquitous culturelessness.

After spending the last two Fridays wandering Davis to see apartments, and spending evenings for the last two weeks emailing people about apartments, we are convinced that Davis is devoid of rental properties fit for adult habitation. We will look for a new place near Berkeley.

March 17th, 2009

12:45 pm: deposit
Iris and I are looking at apartments in Davis. One building willing to rent to us for the period we want seemed fairly reasonable until they mentioned that in addition to the normal deposit and the key deposit, there is a $1000 per cat pet deposit. I spent a portion of this morning interviewing one of their staff people, but could not get a straight answer on how much of this we should expect to get back under the best-case scenario, or even how that would be decided. I told them it sounded like a scam and we would look elsewhere.

08:52 am: Могилев-Подольский
My paternal grandfather, Louis L, came to the US from the Ukraine as a teenager, about the time of the Russian Revolution. I heard very little about his life before that, other than that his family lived in a town called Mogilev Podolsk. He didn't want to talk about the Ukraine.
I know that his family fled the Pogroms, was smuggled across the Dnestr river, made their way to England, and got shipped to Ellis Island.

Iris and I were discussing our move to Germany, and she asked if I wanted to visit Mogolev Podolsk. She reads Russian and figured out that it's Russian name is Могилев-Подольский, Mohyliv-Podilskyi. We found it on Google Maps, and it is 'only' 1000 miles away. It looks much more like a sprawled-out industrial town and less like an ancestral home than I had anticipated. I don't think we will visit, but I did look it up on wikipedia.ru (the Russian languge version of Wikipedia) Here is a version of that page, with a rough autotranslation by Google Translate.  There is a large section on the rise and fall of the town's Jewish population. Here is the part most relevant to my grandfather:

Since 1796, Mogilev-Podolsky - the town of Podolsk province. In 1808 the father and the son of D. and J. Stein, T. moved from Slopkovits in Mogilev-Podolsky his publisher of books in Hebrew. Publisher operated until 1819, producing 24 books. In 1847 in Mogilev-Podolsky 5411 Jews lived, in 1897 - 12 344 Jews (55,3% of the population). In 1867, in Mogilev-Podolsk operated 16 synagogues and prayer houses in the 1851-74 biennium. there was a Jewish state college. Among the Jews there were many artisans and merchants.

Mogilev-Podolsky there were six Jewish male and female school, Talmud Torah, a synagogue, and 17 houses of prayer, the Jewish Hospital. October 1905, the city has a Jewish pogrom. In the period from mid-19 century. of 1927, rabbis of Mogilev-Podolsky were representatives of the well-known rabbinical dynasty hasidskoy Bull. The last rabbi of the family in Mogilev-Podolsky was S. I. Bull (1883-1971) in the 1921-27 biennium.

During the civil war in Russia in the 1917-21 period Jews had suffered greatly from the action of changing the authorities.. In December 1917, in Mogilev-Podolsk Massacre took place, arranged by soldiers of the Polish Corps Yu Dovbor-Musnitskogo. In autumn 1918, during the pogrom lasted for three days, which is organized by the Armed Forces of Southern Russia. To stop the pogrom, the Jews had to pay a large contribution.

No wonder he didn't like to talk about his childhood. Things got even worse during WWII, and not much better after that, and there are not many Jews left in that area.

March 15th, 2009

06:03 pm: Unstable instability
This is the scariest, and most promising, thing to happen in Pakistan in a long time. It could end with the best government Pakistan has had in a long time, maybe ever, or in restored military rule, or in total chaos. Hard to say.

March 11th, 2009

02:07 pm: Smaller, lighter, faster, safer, higher energy density
and ready for market in "two to three years."

It also washes windows and tastes smoooooth.

March 3rd, 2009

09:42 am: Nigerian Housing Scam
Iris and I saw this housing ad on Craigslist and decided that it looked to good to be true, but we would investigate.

Here is the response we got:


My name is Mac Donald  the owner of the 2bedroom Cottage  and also
want you to know that it was due to my transfer and also  due to my
wife's Sickness that made us to leave the Home and also want to give
it out for rent and looking for a responsible person that can take
good care of the Home that makes me my wife and Son to leave the House
and also want to give it out for rent and looking for a responsible
person that can take very good care of it as we are not after the
money for the rent but want it to be clean at the time and the person
that will rent it to take it as if it were its own. So for now, We are
here in west Africa, our new House and put all my worries off
concerning the maintenance of the Home for, since i am not residing
there for now.I left behind some Facilities and electonics which
include the rent, and a DVD player, air conditioning, alarm system.
The kitchen is fully equipped with all necessary cooking utensils,
arefrigerator-freezer, four-hob and oven, microwave,dishwasher and
washing machine, My Computer Connected with Internet Acess Also the
keys to the Apartment are right here with me, and the lease document.
Which i can send to you after all necessary agreement has be accepted.
Also i will like you to know that the rent charges is not really the
issue,Hope you are okay with the price of ($845) with hydro,heat
laundry facilities,air condition and so on,but your absolute
maintenance of my Home is most important thing so will want you to get
back to me with the Application form below.

Here is the House  address :5459 Poinsett Avenue, El Cerrito CA
94530.. Pls note that you will be viewing the House  from outside and
won't be able to inspect the Interior because the keys and the
documents to the House  are with me here in Africa and It is located
on a cool, quiet and safe neighbourhood.

          ===========  RENT APPLICATION FORM ============
                                  PRIVATE & CONFIDENTIAL

Also,Pls answer these questions below:

1)Your Full Name______________________________________

2)Present Address(where you reside now) & Phone

3)How old are you _____________________________

4)Are you married ______________________________ _____

5)How many people will be living in the Home___________________________

6)Do you have a pet _________________________________________

7)Do you have a car __________________________________________

8)Occupation _________________________________________________

9)How long are you willing to stay _________________________________________

10)When do you intend to move in _________________________________________

11)1 month Or 2 month deposit needed ______________________________________

12) Pictures of all the Occupant that will stay in my


The accomodation comprises; entrance hall/landing (21'1x5'10),
reception room (17'0x16'0), kitchen breakfast room (13x11),

bedroom 1 (12'10x10'5), bathroom and separate WC on the first floor.

Landing  22'1" x 5'10" ( 6.73m x 1.78m )
Reception room  17'0" x 16'0" ( 5.18m x 4.88m )
Kitchen  13'0" x 11'0" ( 3.96m x 3.35m )
Bathroom  6'10" x 5'10" ( 2.08m x 1.78m )
Guest WC  5'0" x 2'10" ( 1.52m x 0.86m )

One Mr John called me about the Home,I told him that I can't give him
the Home because he loves smoking,drinking and dont want him to get
drunked and damaged my property one day so If you are still
interested, No extra fees.I will like you to give me a call on this
effect to know how serious you are,Here is my Contact Number
+2347089897727 or 0112347089897727, I personally will actually come
visiting you sometimes during the year as our new tenant.Looking
forward to hear from you with all this details so that i can have it
in my file incase of issuing the receipt in your name and contacting
you.Await your urgent reply so that we can discuss on how to get the
keys and the documents to you,please we are giving you all this based
on trust and again i want you to stick to your words,We are putting
everything into Gods hand,so please do not let us down in this
property of ours and God bless you more as you do this.


March 1st, 2009

08:14 pm: Health Insurers: worse than worthless
It is an open secret that the United States spends more per person on health care than any other nation ever, but achieves shorter and less healthy lives than many other countries. We spend more per health improvement achieved than any other rich nation, and some not as rich nations, such as Costa Rica, achieve lifespans as long as we do at a small fraction of the price. We spend a lot on healthcare, but a small portion of that actually goes to accomplishing improved health. Where does the rest go? Administrative costs, corporate profits, healthcare inefficiencies (treating uninsured people only once their problem becomes a multi-thousand dollar emergency) and "induced demand" (a term that means something along the lines of "if you install the fancy new machine, you can find patients who desperately need to be charged for using it, even if there is no health benefit.") No other country comes anywhere close to the US in administative costs or induced demand. Why are we so bad at translating healthcare in health? Two words: insurance companies.

The role of an insurance company, as far as I can tell, is to fight government efforts to provide affordable healthcare so that the insurance company can then force us to buy unaffordable healthcare, and then do everything in their power to avoid actually spending money on improving health. And because they have written most of our healthcare laws, they can do things like take your fees until you get sick, then stonewall paying until you try to switch to another company, then refuse to take care of people switching from other companies because they have pre-existing conditions. Once a consumer has signed up for insurance, our laws create no incentives for insurers to provide decent costomer service, improve the costomer's lifespan or provide preventative care. Having had more than my share of interactions with insurance companies, I have yet to meet one that didn't trying to frustrate me into going away before reluctantly paying for some healthcare.

As the Obama administration is considering revamping our healthcare system, the big for-profit health insurance companies are worried that the government can build a healthcare system that is faster, more efficient, more responsive, cheaper and more condusive to health than anything they have come up with. This does not sound hard. So far I have heard only two reasons offered why this is a bad idea. "Socialism!" is the first. This is easily dismisable. Every country that achieves more health for less money than we do has a more socialized healthcare system. Just like a system of roads works better when run by the government than when left to the free market, healthcare has proven to work better when socialized. The second objection, mentioned in this NYTimes article, is that it is "unfair" to the private companies to have to compete with a government system. This is the sound of the world's most administratively inefficient violin playing just for them.

07:45 pm: My friend Terry is a bioengineer.
Why his nefarious (and imaginary) plot to bioengineer a longer-lived human is doomed to failure.

05:23 pm: Pain in the rear
This walking up the hill every day thing has become a real pain in the butt. My behind literally hurts from the combination of walking up a steep hill and spending the rest of my time sitting in front of computer or microscope. It is a great way to get a good workout in very little time (walking to the top takes 10 to 15 minutes of hard work, walking back down takes 5 minutes of good balance). The problem is after I get back I'm so tired and achy I want to go to bed, instead of continuing working. In the short run, I'm not sure this strategy is boosting my productivity. In the long run, I hope I will get into good enough shape that a little bit of exercise each day isn't such a big drain.

February 28th, 2009

04:00 pm: Mission to the plaza
We're moving. Probably to Davis at the end of March. My lab work will be done and I won't need to be on campus more than two days a week, while Iris will still need to be in Davis 5 days.
Next weekend we're taking a bunch of stuff up to Iris's mother's house for storage. To accomplish this, we needed boxes.

We got a CityCarShare car for two hours and cruised El Cerrito Plaza. Outside Trader Joe's we found a cart full of flattened cardboard boxes. We asked if we could take them, and the cashier came outside and loaded them in the back of the car for us. We visited their wine section and got another pile of boxes. We wandered from store to store asking for more boxes, but most of the places that use a lot of boxes have big crusher machines that squish all the cardboard into an unusable mass. We tried Starbucks, and the guy there told us where the dumpster was where the smaller stores throw their flattened boxes. We took a few from there, but most were dirty or broken. Driving back towards home, we stopped in near the El Cerrito Natural grocery. Across the street we found several dozen empty cardboard boxes left on the sidewalk outside a baby-stuff store. We took the ones that seemed appropriate for our stuff, as many as we could fit in the car. We unloaded them into our living room and took the car back to its home at the El Cerrito Plaza BART. Walking toward home we heard frogs calling in the yard two houses from Brent and Dawn. We tried calling them and got no answer, but then we saw Brent on the steps. He invited us inside for tea. David was there, and we talked about science and writing a thesis, and people doing their math wrong. Dawn made tasty ginger tea, and Brent told us his good job news.

We walked home to find our living room filled with boxes.

February 24th, 2009

07:15 pm: Listening to the President's address with Iris
"I don't know why Mass. gets all the transit."

"Oh, he's a gonna fierce them bankers. He's gonna shake em around."

"He'll ask congress to join him in whatever proves necessary, even if it's the polka!."

"We can't walk away from the automobile we invented. We can't even get the door open."

"Only commies use the term '95% of working families.'"

"The war is dead, long live the war!"

"We want those terrorists plotting from safe-havens right here in America!"

"I believe in elevating protectionism. It's more wheel-chair accessible than escalating protectionism."

"New drinking game: take a shot every time Jindal says, 'Americans can do anything.'"

05:02 pm: El Tigre
Iris often quotes her mother as saying that, "Youth and energy will never triumph over old age and trickery." Taking this message to heart, I nodded when she said that we should just walk to the top of the hill, not race. Then, when we were maybe 20 ft below the top, I stopped to lean against a tree, and asked Iris to come over to take my pulse. When she got distracted looking at something on the ground, I ran to the bench at the top and fell there panting and nearly fainting with exertion. Iris very reluctantly, and only after I admitted cheating, agreed that I won.

On Saturday, when Iris beat me to the top of the hill, I declared her El Tigre. Now I am El Tigre.

09:02 am: The NYTimes has an article on home prices, and how fast they are dropping

The article is summed up fairly well by this one quote: “'We continue to believe that it is unlikely that we are anywhere near a bottom in nationwide home prices,' Joshua Shapiro, chief United States economist at MFR, wrote in a note."

The argument given is that because people see home prices dropping, they expect them to continue to drop, and therefore hold off on buying, which lowers demand and causes prices to fall even further than they would have. One of the economists quoted in the article refers to this as "caught in a deflationary spiral."

It is not clear to me where the spiral ends.

It seems to me that a market can't normally take us below the value of the house to its owner assuming that nobody will ever want to buy it from them. If I can buy a house and live in it for ten years, and pay less for the house than I would for those ten years of rent (adjusting for my preference for spreading the expense out over the ten years rather than paying it all right now or trying to get a loan) then it makes sense to buy even if the resale value is zero. But if I expect to be able to get the same house for 30% less a year from now, it might make sense to rent for that year and then buy. But if the price is still dropping fast after a year, might was well keep renting and hope to get an even lower price. Even if houses are priced less than their direct utility to their owners, it the price is expected to continue going down, why buy now?

February 21st, 2009

09:20 pm: Brutal
Wednesday night I climbed the hill behind the house in the dark, but Thursday I didn't have time. So I climbed yesterday evening, and then I had to climb that stupid hill twice today to make up for not climbing on Thursday. That makes three climbs in under 24 hours. This last time  Iris climbed with me, and I told her I would beat her to the top. She stopped to look at mushrooms, admire the view and mock me, and was hardly out of breath when she got to the top long before I did. I stopped about 10 feet from the top and couldn't get my legs to carry me any more until I rested for a few minutes. I don't know how fast my heart was beating, but it felt a lot faster than the 190bpm that is the fastest I have measured at the gym. I eventually stumbled the last few feet and sagged for a good 15 minutes before I could get up the strength to walk back down. My legs are puddy-like and knotted, all at the same time.

The hill isn't actually that high; from here to the top is probably 250 feet up. But it is about a 45 degree slope, and there is no good footing, so every step feels like climbing ten feet. When I was young I would have run up the hill and been disappointed to get to the top so soon, but these days getting to the top feels like an accomplishment.

I'm going to have to climb again tomorrow, but will put it off until late afternoon to give my legs time to recover. Hopefully by then I'll have massively strong legs and won't find it too difficult.

February 18th, 2009

05:46 pm: Health Update!
I've not used my wheelchair for about a year. When I got back on my feet, I was 200lb, the heaviest I've ever been. I decided I needed to lose a lot of weight, as well as get my muscles, joints, heart and lungs in much better shape. Iris and I have been going to the gym a couple of times a week (well, some weeks) and going for occasional walks. When we were at the gym this week, I weighed myself. 199 lb. I managed to lose one pound in the last year. My joints, muscles, heart and lungs are definitely in better shape, but I've not much lost much fat. I may have gained 9 pounds of muscle and lost ten pounds of fat, but I need to lose another 40lb or so to be a healthy weight. Iris and I were talking about this, and she said I need to exercise more regularly, and I said I need to eat fewer fatty foods. We made a deal: I will either go to the gym or climb to the top of the hill behind our house 7 times a week (meaning that if I exercise one day, I have to it more than once the next day). In return, Iris promises to restrain herself to baking one desert a week, rather than the three or four per week she has been averaging in recent weeks. Iris's irresistible deserts are certainly not the only factor in my poor diet, but when she makes a tray of lemon-bars, I have trouble eating less than half a tray, so not having deserts in the house all the time should help me.

February 14th, 2009

07:55 pm: An evening at home.
"That's like saying, 'I'm not trying to paint you blue, I'm just holding this gallon of blue paint over your head and punching holes in it.'"- D

"I'm afraid of your mom without you close to me." -sung by I and D, spontaneously and in unison.

"I could take that cat. I could take her down using only my nose." -I

"Oh Darling, just imagine when we have kids and we say,
'Oh Kitten, Kitten!
Oh Kitten, Kitten!
Our kid will grow up real smart!" -I

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