How I Beat Insomnia (Updated)

Posted on September 29th, 2015 in Commentary by EngineerBoy

Don’t watch this to go to sleep…

Update 2015-09-29: This post is now over four years old, so I wanted to come back and update it. Happily, I still have no problems with sleeping (knock on wood). Second, the technology originally described below has been updated. I now use a small tablet (an old Microsoft Surface RT) that I sit on top of the open middle drawer of my nightstand, and still use the Sleepphones plugged into the Surface. I then use our NetFlix, Hulu Plus (now commercial free tier!), and Amazon Instant/Prime Video for my viewing selections.

I have all of the video players configured to only play a single episode, then stop, which prevents video from playing all night. The position on top of the middle drawer means the screen is lower than my body line in bed, so there is no direct light shining over to Marie’s side. And I still keep the brightness at the lowest setting, to reduce flicker.

Over the years I have gone through a number of different series as my sleep-shows. The rotation has included Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, The Larry Sanders Show, Community, and 30 Rock. Suffice it to say that I have seen every episode of those sitcoms several times, so watch out if we ever play trivia games about any of them. To reiterate, the selection of viewing choice, for me, is based on the following criteria:

Something I already know, so it’s not engaging in the sense of keeping me awake to find out what happens next. I already know all the details of all the episodes for these shows, so I’m never kept awake waiting for a narrative surprise.
Something that’s funny. There are certainly dramatic/scary shows that I enjoy, but they don’t relax me and, for me, don’t hold up on repeat viewing in the way that a well-done sitcom can. Plus, I’d much rather go to sleep smiling and laughing as opposed to grimacing.
Something I like and that holds up to repeat viewings. This narrows it down to the shows that are, to me, reasonably timeless with their sense of humor.
No current events. If they are fresh they stir up my righteous outrage, and if they are old they irritate the heck out of me.
Nothing violent or scary, even if it’s funny. I’m a regular consumer of shows and movies that contain violence, horror, and scares, but not as a sleep aid, thank you very much.
No movies. This is a more recent guideline. Back in the day I used to watch movies to fall asleep all the time, but that was when I was just learning this technique and my sleep routine was still subject to regular disruption. The comfort of a two hour movie gave a nice runway to insure that I had enough distraction to get to the sleep part, even if it took a couple of hours. Now, however, I go to sleep within

Life on Mars (!)|(?)

Posted on September 28th, 2015 in Commentary,Engineerboy,Science by EngineerBoy
What's up with water on Mars, Doc?

What’s up with water on Mars, Doc?

Back when I was in college, I had a professor who had worked peripherally on the Viking Mars lander project in the 70’s. He said that before the probe was launched, the teams had decided that if the chemical and biological tests came out a certain way, that would be declared a positive test for ‘life’ on Mars. Lo and behold, the tests came back with the positive result. They all rocked back on their heels, told the White House, and were told in no uncertain terms to not release a statement saying there was life on Mars until there was absolute certainty – a prudent response.

The team went back over their protocols and said, hey, look, the test was positive, what do you want us to do? The powers-that-be then asked for some details, and it turns out that there were three separate and distinct experiments to test for ‘life’ using different methods, and the scientists had agreed that if any one (or more) of them came back positive, that was ‘life’. Well, what had happened is that only one had come back positive, so the powers-that-be said, nope, you only got one positive result out of three so that’s not enough to make such a momentous call.

Over the intervening decades, further analysis of the ‘failed’ tests resulted in a hypothesis that they had failed because at that time we didn’t know that the Martian surface contained a certain substance…my feeble memory wants to say some kind of chlorate? In any case, when the two failed tests were re-modeled taking into account the now-verified existence of this substance in the Martian soil, the two tests also came back positive.

So, for me, my original early 1980’s college class sowed the seeds of doubt for me, and I felt that there was a pretty good chance there was at least some kind of microbial life there. The intervening re-analysis of the two previously-failed experiments solidified this belief, for me, but again who was I to think I knew better given the lack of any unambiguous confirmation from the powers-that-be. However, from the late-80’s on, I have been pretty sure that a) there was life on Mars and b) the powers-that-be knew it but didn’t want to unleash the sociological impact that such an announcement could potentially engender, and so figured they would gradually work up to the announcement, and hopefully keep the info ambiguous enough to delay things long enough for it to become someone else’s problem.

Which brings us to today, when NASA announced the confirmation of flowing liquid salt water on the surface of Mars. The scientist releasing the findings (Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta) had this to say:

“If the water is completely saturated with perchlorates, then life as we know it on Earth wouldn’t be able to survive in that

Goodbye, Jon

Posted on August 10th, 2015 in Commentary by EngineerBoy
Benefits for First Responders

Benefits for First Responders

Where to begin with Jon Stewart and The Daily Show? From a personal perspective, I remember the time before his tenure as host of The Daily Show, and it was a very different time. Yes, there was political satire, but it fell primarily into one of two varieties:

Toothless: Johnny Carson, Saturday Night Live, etc.

Cancelled: The Smothers Brothers, Dick Cavett, etc.

The one semi-exception was David Letterman, who over the years became more outspoken when calling out BS simply because his stature combined with his I-don’t-really-need-this-job-anymore attitude gave him latitude that few others had. But his was a variety show, and the political commentary was intermittent and brief.

For you youngsters who have always had The Daily Show around, it might be hard to imagine, but back in those days politicians were essentially untouchable, and were allowed to spout their BS without much of a challenge, except by their opponents who, by virtue of also being politicians, knew better than to lift the curtain and show the backstage tomfoolery involved in staging political theater.

If someone or something got too far out of hand, the ‘serious’ journalists would jump in (e.g. Woodward and Bernstein, 60 Minutes, etc.) and break the story, but the day-to-day flow of baloney went relatively unexamined by the average American.

But then along came Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. When Stewart took over as host he transformed the show into something that had never quite existed previously – a show dedicated to politics and humor, with a primary focus on clearly pointing out the enormous truckloads of BS that are the main ingredient in US (and global) politics.

Not only did the show x-ray politics, but it was also activist when it needed to be, such as when Stewart lobbied heavily for benefits for the 9/11 first-responders on the eve of a critical Congressional vote, and very likely changed the outcome of that vote through his actions. Stewart also acted to improve, every so slightly, the level of political discourse, such as when he went on CNN’s Crossfire, eviscerated the hosts over their ridiculous political-jousting theater, and then kept the heat on until the show faded into cancellation a few months later, with the head of CNN directly called out Jon’s criticisms as a factor.

But he was always self-deprecating, and quick to mock grandiose claims about the impact of his show. I think this was partly due to natural modesty, but also partly due to the fact that The Daily Show could only do what it did if it was ever the underdog. If he and the show had become full of their own power and began wielding it un-ironically they would have lost their edge.

Personally, I was familiar with Jon prior to The Daily Show primarily from his recurring appearances on The Larry Sanders Show, where he played a slightly fictionalized version of himself who was

Goodbye, Dave

Posted on May 18th, 2015 in Commentary,Entertainment,Television by EngineerBoy
Goodbye, Dave

Goodbye, Dave

Dear Dave,

In my youth I was a big fan of the Tonight Show, and watched Carson most nights. Then one day something strange happened – a new show appeared after Carson, with a new guy doing a new kind of show. The show was raw and unpolished compared to Johnny’s show, as was the host, a laconic smart-ass from Indiana called David Letterman.

But the show was funny. Laugh-out-loud funny, back in the day before LOL was a tingling on anyone’s typing fingertips. So my routine changed – whereas I used to stay up to at least see Johnny’s monologue, I started making sure I stayed up to see yours, which in many (if not most) cases led to me watching a good portion of the rest of your show.

And your show struck a chord with me. I mean, hit the nail right on the head. I love absurd humor. I don’t hold celebrities in reverence, and prefer to see jerks and idiots treated as such, as long as they are willing participants. Your show became the double-edged sword of entertainment – anybody who was anybody needed to go on your show, because it was good business. But, they got no guarantees that they would be treated to softball questions or fawning segments, but instead got pulled off-script and into who knows what.

And it was great television. One segment that was particularly memorable for me, and which I think illustrates the kind of thing I loved most about your show, is your visit to the GE headquarters with a fruit basket to say ‘hello’ after they purchased your employer, NBC:

It was kind of a dick move on your part to show up in the GE lobby unannounced with cameras and a fruit basket, but it was also genius. And the message it sent to everyone (stars, agents, guests, executives) was that the show was first and foremost about being entertaining, and that everyone involved with or participating in the show needed to understand that the guy in the host chair had no hesitation to publicly piss off his new bosses, who sign his paycheck, so imagine how little he’s going to care about fluffing your ego when you’re in the guest chair.

Interestingly, over the years I derived a certain set of manners that you exhibited on the show, that belied your reputation:

You were unfailingly nice to children and did your best to make them feel successful and comfortable
You were unfailingly acerbic to jerks and idiots and did your best to make them feel ill at ease and unsuccessful
A guest’s reputation as a human being, not as a ‘star’, dictated your treatment of the guest
You treated your audience as if they were intelligent beings, and did not pander to a least-common-denominator that might improve ratings at the cost of toning down the show
Sometimes…well, sometimes you were just a jerk, but aren’t we all, sometimes?

In short, the ethos embodied

Kingsman: The Secret Service (***½)

Posted on April 7th, 2015 in Commentary by EngineerBoy
A Gentleman's Closet

A Gentleman’s Closet

3.5/4 stars

We went into Kingsman with moderate expectations – I had heard some interesting buzz, but the thought of Colin Firth as an action star left me a bit incredulous.

However, I stand corrected. Kingsman is one of the more surprising and entertaining films we have seen in a *long* time. It is a funny, charming, exciting, and at times hyper-violent homage to the spy films of the 60’s and 70’s, updated with the effects and production values of the biggest of Hollywood blockbusters. On top of all of that, the acting has that impeccable British air to it, where you can tell that the cast members were actors first and celebrities second, unlike the all-too-common reverse of that in the US.

Leading the acting gravitas is Sir Michael Caine, playing Arthur, the mysterious head of a mysterious organization called Kingsman, composed of mysterious latter-day knights who mysteriously protect the world from mysterious mysteries.  And let me tell you, nobody plays a Michael Caine-like character better than Michael Caine.

Then we come to Colin Firth, usually known (to me) as the cuddly and befuddly love interest in some offbeat rom-com. Well, he is completely different here as the archly mannered and highly lethal (and highly believable) Kingsman known as Galahad. His nemesis is Valentine, played by Samuel L. Jackson with a deprecating lisp that hides the enormity of his mysterious plan.

Throw in some gratuitous Mark Hamill and a great supporting cast of newcomers and unknowns (at least by me) and you’ve got a terrific ensemble. The story is fairly original, and turns in directions that I did not see coming, which was quite refreshing.

It’s difficult for me to talk about the film without giving away key plot elements, but I’ll try to minimize the spoilers. The core of the movie is an evil plan that has worldwide implications, and also has the complicity of much of the world’s leadership, making it that much more difficult to stop.

The team of Kingsman fighting the evil plot are sort of a Non-Governmental Organization of Righteousness and Justice, dispensed by well-tailored members/knights with equal doses of wit and whoop-ass. Speaking of, this movie has one of the more intensely violent sequences I have seen in a mainstream film, so watch out. It’s actually well-done and integral to the plot, but that doesn’t make it any less surprising or disturbing, so be prepared.

Put it all together and this is one entertaining film. Marie and I have now seen it twice, and I’ve actually seen it solo as well. Given that we have a 4 year old and parental-movie-nights are a precious rarity, it says something that we chose to expend multiple of them on this film.

So, if you’re in the mood for a big action movie that’s also a well-crafted film, this could be the ticket. Highly recommended.

Goodbye, Ruckus

Posted on April 6th, 2015 in Commentary,Engineerboy by EngineerBoy
Ruckus considering a squirrel

Ruckus considering a squirrel

Today we said goodbye to Ruckus, our beloved rescue. We had him genetically tested and it came back that he was 75% Rottweiler and 25% Standard Poodle. I’m not sure how accurate those things are, but it fit. He was strong, smart, and handsome, and he was a great, deep soul.

Figuring out the smart part took me a while. Rux was cool and calm almost 100% of the time. Yes, as a puppy he was a galloping galoot who loved to get into mischief, but when Weagle passed away and Rux became the alpha, he matured almost overnight into a gentle guardian. What I had initially interpreted as him being a goofus was actually just him having fun while there was fun to be had, while it was not yet his job to maintain the safety of the pack.

But once he took over he developed a regal bearing. Not superior. Never menacing. Cool, calm, collected, and capable. He was benign with visiting dogs even when they misbehaved. He was an angel with children, and we never for one second had any concern with him around Avelynn when she was a baby – he loved her from the moment she came home.

He was also at his happiest when Annalisa was at the house, and the pack was complete – he would greet her enthusiastically each visit, then snuggle in next to her for as long as he could.

He was brought down by a 1-2-3 punch over the last few weeks. First, we learned he had Addison’s Disease when he collapsed in the throes of an Addisonian Crisis. As we nursed him back from that they discovered a splenic tumor. And, finally, his hind legs simply stopped working to the point where he couldn’t even get up.

Sadly, prior to his decline we had recently made the decision to get a new puppy that we could bring in for Rux to train up to become the new security chief of the house. We had just gotten to the point of making a choice of pup when Rux’s health started to fade, so we held off on introducing a new puppy into his convalescence. So, speaking selfishly, we have lost out on having Rux pass down his teachings to a new pup.

But, he did confirm that we love Rottweilers, particular after how great Weagle was, and our next dog will almost certainly be mostly or all Rottie. They are marvelous dogs, and any issues with Rotties will almost certainly be issues with the owners, not the breed itself. On the rare instances when I had to travel solo, it was comforting to know that Ruckus was at the house protecting the family.

He was a good dog. He almost never barked, except in extreme instances. He never snapped or growled, again, except in extreme circumstances. He had a built-in genetic drive to hoooooooowwwwwlllll any time he

How I Fixed My Overly-Sensitive Car Remote With Plasti-Dip

Posted on June 23rd, 2013 in Engineerboy,Product Reviews by EngineerBoy
Plasti-Dip Car Remote

Clear Plasti-Dip Car Remote

DISCLAIMER: I have no specific knowledge of car remotes nor the short or long term effects of coating them in a rubberized substance, and the consequences could be dire (void warranty, damage, remote-freak-out, etc).  This post represents steps I took for my own remote.  They may not work for you and may have unintended consequences, so if you decide to try something like this it is at your own risk!!!  

We recently purchased a new vehicle (2012 Toyota Sienna), and I found that whenever I had my key chain in my pocket (which is always), I would regularly activate different, random remote buttons on the fob.  Some mornings I would go out and find the car unlocked (when I knew I had locked it), other times I’d find one (or both) of the side doors slid open.

I’ve had car remotes on my key chain for decades, and while on some rare occasions (like climbing under the sink to fix plumbing) I might incidentally have activated the remote, it was only once every great while (e.g. every year or two).

But with the Sienna remote it happened multiple times a week, sometimes multiple times a day.  Something as simple as getting up out of a chair or even just putting my keys in my pocket would result in an unexpected (beep) followed by a slow (and, seemingly, mocking) mechanical response from the van.

I searched the Web and also solicited advice in related forums, but the universal feedback I got was ‘take your keys out of your pocket when you get home’.  Er, yeah, gee, I had never thought of that (rolls eyes).  The lone helpful suggestion I got was to try to find a silicone cover for the remote.  I searched online for one, with the thought being that adding some thickness around the remote such that the buttons were a bit more inset would reduce the frequency of unintended activation.

Unfortunately, while there are plenty of places that sell covers for Sienna remotes, none that I could find sold one with our particular button configuration.  However, I still liked the idea of somehow reducing the sensitivity of the remote with some type of rubberized coating.

It occurred to me that a potential solution was to use Plasti-Dip.  I’ve used the black version in the past for coating tool handles, and I even dipped a USB drive into it to block the blinking LED it had that bothered us in the car (it holds music and plugs into a port on the dash of our other vehicle).

I searched online and found that they also made a clear version.  I could picture in my head that dipping the remote in Plasti-Dip a couple of times would create a thicker protective rubberized coating that might reduce incidental button presses.

I’ll stop here and refer to the disclaimer at the top of this article.  Although I consider myself a handy guy,

Let’s *Really* Solve Health Care in the U.S.

Posted on June 15th, 2013 in Commentary by EngineerBoy
Sick Profits

Sick Profits

The Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is the latest MacGuffin in the decades-long struggle to figure out health care in the United States.  Meaning, in the current debate it appears that the key to solving health care lies in enforcing and/or fixing and/or repealing Obamacare.  However, I think our focus has been misdirected from the true underlying issue, which is that over the last several decades we have moved to a health care infrastructure that is primarily for-profit.

To illustrate, picture if you will a theoretical health care organization, let’s call it Proactive Preventative Health Associates (PPHA).  Now picture that PPHA lives up to their name in that they proactively manage the health of their patients and foster proven preventative measures to significantly reduce the incidence of manageable health issues (cardiovascular problems, diabetes, cancer, etc).

If PPHA is a for-profit organization, their success in creating a healthy customer base will result in a reduction of profits, and the better PPHA does at reducing or preventing recurring, long-term, expensive health care issues the worse they will do as a business entity, until such time that they could conceivably put themselves out of business by being good at what they do.

If PPHA is a non-profit organization, however, the improvement of the health of their patients means they are successful, and frees their resources to focus on more urgent or needy patients and issues, because there are no stockholders or investors watching the bottom line.

So, a for-profit health care organization has two conflicting and irreconcilable motivations.  First, the (assumed) goal of maximizing the health of their patients, and second, the fiduciary goal of maximizing the health care expenses and profitability of their customers.

These two adversarial forces cannot be reconciled – they simply cannot.  Health care and profits do not go together, because if they are combined we are creating a situation where those who we trust to keep us healthy will actually be motivated to maximize our healthcare spending.

These are not theoretical noodlings, fyi.  If you were to read this article, you would find a case of a for-profit hospital that was allegedly sedating patients until they had trouble breathing, and then performing unnecessary tracheotomies at great expense (and profit).  Not only would this constitute fraud, it also may have resulted in the deaths of patients who would have otherwise survived.

Less sinister, but also illustrative, this article discusses (among other things) a study that indicated that for-profit nursing homes appeared to use significantly more sedatives and significantly fewer staff to manage those in their care.  While this might be good news to a profit-motivated investor, it would be disheartening if it were your mother they were keeping sedated because it was cheaper than creating an active and engaging environment for her.

You may find the concept of a completely

Strange Bedfellows – Sequester and Marriage Equality Edition

Posted on May 9th, 2013 in Commentary,Engineerboy,Politics by EngineerBoy
The Birth of a New Political World?

The Birth of a New Political World?

Disclaimer: the article below represents the noodlings of a dumbass who is talking about things way over his head, but which he nonetheless found interesting as a mental exercise.

There’s an old saying that ‘politics makes strange bedfellows’, meaning that the alliances and enmities that occur in politics are often highly situational and transient, resulting in kaleidoscopic political theater where it’s difficult to tell the players without a constantly updated program.

When you add money to the mix, it tends to accelerate the wackiness even further.  I think that two recent political theater productions are both ultimately being driven by economics. There’s another old saying that if you want to understand something in the political (or business) world, your best bet is to ‘follow the money’, so here’s my decode based on that precept of two recent omnipresent political issues:

Issue #1: The Sequester
Remember a couple of years ago when the US faced a debt-ceiling crisis, and ultimately the compromise was to extend the debt ceiling, with the proviso that a ‘poison pill’ called the ‘sequester’ would kick in if the Executive and Legislative branches couldn’t come up with a mutually agreeable budget by 2013? Good times.

The sequester was essentially a set of automatic spending cuts that hit at the sacred cows of all the players, meaning the Republicans put the defense budget on the table, while the Democrats put entitlements on the chopping block, etc, and if the two sides couldn’t agree on a more rational budget, these automatic cuts would trigger. The goal was for the cuts to be so painful for both sides that they’d be forced to put aside partisan bickering and actually cooperate for the good of the country.

Well, that didn’t happen, and the sequester has begun to kick in, causing budgetary pain throughout the government. Each side is loudly blaming the other, but nobody seems to be doing anything meaningful to fix things.

But stop for a moment and consider, what if this was the exact goal from the outset? Think about it – we (the United States) needed to drastically reshape our governmental spending, and it needed to cause pain for areas which are staunchly defended by either the Democrats or the Republicans (or both).

If the two sides had cooperated and jointly passed a bipartisan budget that instantiated these sweeping cuts, they could be vilified by challengers in the upcoming elections because they were ‘soft’, and ‘compromised’, and ‘sold out’ the ‘core values’ of their own constituency.

But with the sequester, the cuts are getting made by some mysterious ‘automatic’ process, while both sides get to blame the other for being obstinate. So in the upcoming elections, the incumbents can say, hey, put me back in the ring to go another 15 rounds against those evil other guys who forced the sequester by being big dummies and hating everything that *we* stand for! I’ll show

Kay’s Cuisine for the Soul, Brenham, TX – highly recommended!

Posted on May 8th, 2013 in Brenham,Engineerboy,Restaurant Reviews by EngineerBoy
Kay's Cuisine for the Soul

Kay’s Cuisine for the Soul

We moved to Brenham from Houston over six years ago, and while we love it out here, one thing we have missed is a selection of fine dining establishments.  Houston is a cornucopia of restaurants, and after a while you get spoiled having multiple fantastic options for anything that you crave.  Not so in Brenham, where the fine dining pickin’s are slim (to say the least).

Enter Kay’s Cuisine for the Soul.  The location opened about six months ago, and tonight was our first visit there.  We had heard good things, but hadn’t been able to make the stars align on getting there until now, and we’re sorry we waited so long.  The restaurant is in an old Victorian house, with high ceilings, multiple rooms (presumably an artifact of the original home’s layout), and tasteful, subdued decor and ambiance.

The menu is short but sweet, with a fusion of Asian and Latin American themed selections.  We started with the pork dumplings and homemade egg rolls, along with soup for Avelynn.  We then moved on to our entrees – I got the tempura shrimp, which came with a cucumber-potato salad and a side of shredded onions and carrots, also tempura style.  Marie got a spicy rice bowl with fresh and pickled veggies, seared sirloin, covered with a fried egg.

It was all *fantastic*.  We gorged ourselves to the point that we passed on the tempting desserts, which Kay assured us were all made in their kitchen as well.

They’re less than half a mile south of the historic heart of Brenham, on Market Street, an easy jaunt if you’re downtown antiquing, and well worth the minute or two drive.  So, if you’re a Brenham-ite looking for an amazing and unique local dining experience, or a visitor from Houston or Austin looking for something with some panache and eclecticism, make sure to keep Kay’s in mind as an option.

You can find more information at their web site and Facebook page.


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