Electric Cars and Wikipedia

I’m going to kill two birds with one stone in this post.  I started out researching electric cars and quickly discovered one of the best sources of information on them is Wikipedia.  Since this came just after seeing a major attack on Wikipedia the contrast of the two stories is too hard to ignore.  If you have time, look at this video “The Truth According to Wikipedia.”

These people think Wikipedia is evil but my experience is just the opposite, I think Wikipedia is very positive and creative, and represents a new paradigm in thinking and transmitting knowledge.  I wanted to find out about electric cars and Wikipedia provided a very comprehensive survey of what’s going on with that technology, and had links to more information and related articles.  I jumped over to the Encyclopedia Britannica and found zip – well that’s due to the fact that it’s a sales site and doesn’t offer a way research electric cars without paying.  I bought the deluxe DVD of the EB over a year ago and it included one year’s access to the online version of EB.

For awhile whenever I looked up something I’d check EB first and then Wikipedia and in all cases I preferred the information I got from Wikipedia, so I stopped using EB.  I could check my DVD copy of EB for what it says about electric cars, but I didn’t reinstall it on my new machine and I don’t feel like hunting down the DVD right now.  And it will be out of date.  In other words, if Andrew Keen and company want an authoritative encyclopedia to compete with Wikipedia it needs to be on the web and free.  I can understand EB wanting to make money but can’t it make money like all the other commercial Internet sites through advertising?

Even if you aren’t interested in electric cars, look at the Wikipedia entry for electric car and plug-in hybrid.  I found the stub for electric cars at EB and it promises 227 words if you buy the online subscription.  Wikipedia is offering thousands of words of info for free.  Sure there’s a chance that some of Wikipedia’s facts might be wrong, but I think the group effort looks extremely good.  I learned all I needed and wanted to know and more.

The major criticism for Wikipedia is it’s written by amateurs – but the results look very professional to me.  I was quickly able to learn about the different types of electric cars, their histories, and the planned models on the drawing boards.  For the plug-in hybrid, the technology I’m most interested in, Wikipedia gives continuously updated listing of press reports.  Other than finding insider blogs from fanatics about electric cars, I can’t imagine needing more information than what Wikipedia is presenting.

I learned quickly from Wikipedia what kind of electric cars are for sale.  The ones I can afford, I don’t want, and the ones I want, I can’t afford or they aren’t in production yet.  I also learned that certain types of electric cars have restrictions to driving on roads with 35mph or less speed limits, which is another reason why I don’t want the affordable electric cars.  The information was so good at Wikipedia that I don’t even feel the need to search further.  Wikipedia is even supplanting the Internet. 

My conclusion is I need to wait for the automobile industry to come up with a good solution.  Not only that, it looks like it will be a long time before Detroit or Japan offers a $20-25k plug-in hybrid that will be practical for the average driver.   It appears for the next few years the best electric cars will compete in price with the more expensive models of Mercedes.

This brings me to the second bird I wanted to kill with this stone.  If global warming is the crisis that scientists are saying it is, why hasn’t our government and others around the world jumped in a created a crash program to manufacture low cost plug-in hybrid electric cars?  If what scientists are saying about global warming is true it’s far more terrifying than anything Osama bin Laden plans to do, or more threatening than Iraq five years ago.  Why is Muslim terrorists more scary than a threat that promises to grind civilization down world-wide?

Politicians who avoid the issue of global warming do so because they fear fighting it will hurt the economy.  I would think one major solution to keep the economy stable and fight global warming at the same time would be the development of an ecological car.  Plug-in hybrids appears to be the next intermediate solution – they still use gas, but much less, so they will work with the existing infrastructure of gasoline supplied energy stations.  Plug-in hybrids will also benefit from people who install solar energy panels on their houses.  If you create a Marshal Plan like effort to promote both technologies we could lower our oil consumption and lower our use of coal in electrical production and thus find two major ways to lower our carbon footprint.

I think our leaders are still in the authoritative mindset of people who are attacking Wikipedia, but the world’s population acts more like the human dynamics that create Wikipedia.  Car makers still want to sell expensive Encyclopedia Britannica editions.  What we need are leaders who can promote solutions to global warming in the same way Wikipedia succeeds.


My Perfect Routine Day

Daydreaming about retirement makes me wonder just what I would do if all my days were free from the 9 to 5 job.  My biggest fear is I would become a couch potato and die soon after retiring because I’d let myself go.  What I need is a good routine, a way to pace myself and maximize the use of my free time.  Now this is all speculation because I’m not going to get to retire soon.  If I’m lucky I could retire in another year and work part-time, but only if I’m brave enough to find a good part-time job.  It would be so easy to just keep working where I do because I like it so well.  Thus I want to contemplate this possible future to help make it happen.

For now, I’d like to imagine my perfect routine day.  To begin with I want to get up early – I don’t want to waste any precious free time.  If I had discipline, I’d get up at 5:30 and do yoga and Bowflex exercises for a half hour and then shower and dress.  To be honest, I barely exercise now, beyond walking a few times a week, doing some half-ass make-up-my-own yoga to help my back when it gets stiff, and a rare bout of Bowflex when my arms feel particularly flabby.

As you can see, my perfect routine day also involves becoming a new person.  I wonder if that’s possible?  I’ve been meaning to change myself since I was a teenager and it hasn’t worked yet.  A recent article in Wired, “Brain Scanners Can See Your Decision Before You Make Them” suggests that we lack will power or free will.  I’ve read other books about the brain that cover this territory, suggesting that we have subconscious actors in our head that make the real decisions and our conscious minds go along thinking they decided and are the real bosses.  Thus, I’d add to my morning schedule a bit of meditation hoping I could tune into these inner mechanisms and wrestle control.

I don’t know why, but I’m the most inspired with writing ideas during my morning shower, so I think my routine should be built around this.  I’d like to start writing right after getting dressed and maybe eat breakfast at my desk.  I start the day fully charged and slowly drain my mental batteries as the day progresses.  I’d want to use my best time and mental energy for writing.  Devoting mornings to writing and focusing on fiction is the key to optimizing my energy curve.  This should take me to nine or ten o’clock.

At this point I’d like to read a single non-fiction essay that has great inspirational impact.  Detailed facts are a major fuel for my mental fires, and I need something I can contemplate in my spare cognitive moments for the rest of the day.

About now, if I have to work part-time I’d like to go off for my four hours.  I should snack some because I’d want to work through the lunch hour.  It would be great if work was close enough to walk or bike so I could combine exercise with transportation time.  I’d also listen to books on audio while commuting – thus providing triple multitasking.  During this phase of my life I will be getting most of my book reading done through my ears.  I’d listen to books during housework, yard work, travel and exercise.

Even if I could afford to quit work full time it might be good for me to have one or more part time jobs.  Working in a library or bookstore might be rewarding.  Computers are my work life now, and it would be good to get away from them and do something different, but on the other hand I could be very useful as a Old Geek Computer Fix-It man, and it might be more profitable.  On the other hand it would be more of a challenge if I could start a business developing custom software.  However, running a business usually means 60-80 hour workweeks, and I most definitely do not want that.  I think whatever I do, my perfect daily routine would want me to work more with people and less with machines.

After work I will need a small meal and a nap.  Currently I need two naps a day and I don’t expect to change.  I wish I was one of those people who can sleep five hours and run like a race horse until the wee hours.  I’m not.  Currently I need to nap in the early evening so I can stay up late.  I can’t stay in bed 8-9 hours at a stretch because of the arthritis in my hips.  I get pretty stiff and hurting after 5-6 hours, and I even have to spend part of my night sleeping in a La-Z-Boy.  Getting old and breaking down presents some interesting problems to deal with, and sleeping and living with a growing pain load are two of them.

I know my perfect routine days will coincide with the slow downward slide of health.  I’ll be Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill and to beat the system I’ll have to squeeze as much positive life out of the time I have.

After I get up from my nap I’d like to have some socializing time, either with my wife or friends.  This will be a good time to watch TV or movies, and eat dinner together, or even play group games or share hobbies.

I’ve always loved television, but I don’t know if I want to waste too much of my freedom on the tube.  I love having a good show to look forward to, like Lost or John Adams.  I like watching television with other people.  For each day I wouldn’t want to watch more than one show or movie, which means devoting no more than 1-2 hours to sitting in front of my HDTV.  I’d want about one-third fiction to two-thirds non-fiction mix.  The world of documentaries have gotten to be a fantastic genre in recent years. 

Shows like The Universe, Planet Earth, Frontline, NOVA, The Miracle Planet, Independent Lens, Naked Science are amazing sources of information and entertainment.  I can’t believe I know so few people who watch these shows.  I’m surprised so many people as they age lock into their favorite entertainments and hide from the current world.  Modern cable television with its hundreds of channels is a sixth sense that allows us to roam the globe and keep up with countless human endeavors.  The Internet gets all the press about social change, but cable television is just as powerful.  Its another medium that brings the people of the world together.  I expect to be watching cable television when I pass on – I want to go out knowing as much as I can before I die.

Part of my perfect routine day will involve blogging.  I hope as the years go by blogging becomes even more sophisticated.  Probably after my social time I’ll take another nap and then get up and spend the rest of the evening blogging and working on hobbies.

I have a number of hobbies I’d like to pursue, but the one that I think would be the most fun is to recreate the experiments from the old “Amateur Scientist” column in Scientific American.  I bought a CD-ROM that collected them years ago and put it away for my retirement years.  Amazon doesn’t seem to sell it anymore, but v. 3 appears to be still for sale here.  I think it would be a fun hobby to work out lesson plans for schools on how to do basic scientific experiments.  Combine the Make impulse with Teach impulse.

I’d also like to experiment with robotics and artificial intelligence, but on a kid level, something like Lego Mindstorms kits.  I guess when guys get old they want to play with toys again.

Finally, I’d like to close out my day by reading a short story.  I find short stories to be intense compact communiqués from deep within the souls of other people.  I’m surprised they aren’t a more popular art form.  To me short stories offer the most bang for the literary buck.  Short stories combine feats of imagination with encapsulated emotion – and a good story should bring tears to your eyes, whether it’s dramatic or comic.  Great ones should make the top of your scull feel like it’s lifting off your head, like the rush of an intense but quick acting drug.  Short stories should leave you drained like you’ve just mind-melded with another human for an hour.

I’d want to leave this fictional rush to just before bed time hoping it would affect my dreams.  I’d like to get to sleep by 11:30 so I could get a good six hours sleep and be up and at it again by 5:30 the next morning.  As you can see I expect to cram a lot into my retiring years.  I’ve been working for decades, during the best years of my life, and this has been zapping all my energy.  I’m hoping my golden years are ones I can get a lot done and make up for all those years I was too tired to do anything but veg out in front of the boob tube.


52 Essential Astronomy Lessons

A couple weeks ago at a meeting of my local astronomy club I heard a talk about the upcoming International Year of Astronomy 2009.  This reminds me of the famous International Geophysical Year when the U.S. and Russia first launched satellites into orbit back in 1957-1958 and brought about the Space Age and the amazing explosion of knowledge about our universe. 

If the IGY was about new discoveries, it seems the purpose of IYA2009 is to celebrate the 400 years since Galileo started using his telescope and to enlighten the worlds billions to the great discoveries of the science of astronomy.  We are currently living through a renaissance of astronomical exploration and I think most of the world’s citizens are missing out on the excitement.  This is a great time to throw a year long party for astronomers.

At my astronomy club meeting and at the IYA2009 web site there is a great push to find ways to get people to an eyepiece of a telescope so they can experience observation first hand.  I think this is a grand goal, but we should push people further than just showing them the rings of Saturn.  There’s a lot more to astronomy than pretty stellar tourist sites – astronomy is a long succession of conceptual breakthroughs that have changed the course of history and philosophy many times and is the foundation for the scientific age.

I think one project for the IYA2009 is to define the essential lessons needed to understand the science of astronomy.  Since we have eight months before IYA2009 begins this would be a good time for amateur astronomers around the world to tally what those lessons should be and campaign with the IYA2009 to find scientists and educators to develop those lessons to distribute all next year. 

Wouldn’t it be great if we could find 52 essential lessons of astronomy that could be taught across the web each week.  Using web pages, podcasts, videos, computer programs and any other instructional tool to let as many people as possible try than hand at teaching these 52 concepts.  Use astronomy as the subject to show off the potential of the web to teach millions.

Lessons is astronomy are all around us.  PBS, Discovery and History channels have astronomy related shows almost every week.  Bookstores have shelves of new astronomy books and sell several great astronomy magazines.  The Internet is loaded with diverse astronomy sites.  The question is how many people know about the essentials of the science?  It’s the 21st century but I think most of the worlds billions think of the heavens only in terms of the speculations taught by ancient religions or from misinformation brought about from science fiction movies.

How many of the nearly seven billion inhabitants of Earth really understand that our planet orbits the sun?  And how many of those know how to theoretically prove it?  And even still, how many from the last group could actually prove it?  Astronomy is the history of those people who could figure out ways to test and prove observations about our universe.  What I’d like to see the IYA2009 do is teach people the most important 52 scientific techniques used in understanding what we know about the Universe today.

Week 1 – The Stick

I’ll start off with an example of what I’m talking about.  Recently, while reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book Death by Black Hole, I was enchanted by his chapter about how much astronomy can be taught with a stick.  Most people have heard of stories about ancient cultures building monuments like Stonehenge or the Pyramids that scientists have reported were used in observational astronomy, but do you know how they worked?

Astronomy began long ago by people watching the sky.  I’m not sure modern kids understand that thousands of years ago they didn’t have television or even electricity, so the night sky was a lot more captivating then now.  You also have to understand these ancient dudes didn’t have clocks or even concepts like years, months, hours, minutes, and seconds.   They did have seasons and days, which I hope you can understand why.

It doesn’t take much observations skill to notice that day and night repeat, but it takes a little more brain power to notice the seasons coming and going and how to reliably predict them.  If you plant a stick in the ground and make notes about its shadow you’ll eventually start learning some cool stuff.  The National Science Teachers Association even offers lesson plans for elementary school kids and you might even like to take a look at what they do.  Sadly, these simple astronomy lesson plans seems to be singular, with most other web sites referring back to them.  A search of “Teaching astronomy with a stick” should bring up hundreds of unique individual pages, but it doesn’t.

Modern classroom teaching is mostly cramming kids full of words and numbers with the expectation they can puke them out later in the same order they were shoved in.  Instead we should be teaching kids how to learn on their own.  The tests should ask – 1. Prove how you know the seasons change, 2. Prove how you know the Earth is round, 3. Prove how you know the Earth orbits the Sun, and so on.  Then expect the kids to explain how they learned these truths from their own various experiments, including planting a stick in the ground and watching it, taking notes and making observations for years.  Make them work at learning, force them to develop discipline, expect more from them than memorization.

Great Expectations

Of course I know I’m asking a lot of IYA2009 – but hey, they brought up the idea.  Is IYA2009 going to be some PR fluff for telescope sales, or should it do something profound?  Maybe 52 lessons in science are too many – we could lower our sights to 12 monthly lessons.  I’m fond of the The Teaching Company that offer college level lectures for fun learning.  They build their courses around collections of 30 minute talks that come on audio and video and can include supplemental books.  52 thirty minute lectures would be 26 hours of teaching for the whole year.  About one college course taught in a semester spread out over a whole year.  I don’t think that’s too much.

It would be great if IYA2009 or its supporters could offer podcast subscriptions so people would automatically receive a 30 minute lesson each week of next year.  The audio lessons could point to a web page with supporting material, and if we’re lucky, maybe even downloadable videos that expand on the teaching.  And to make things perfect, I think each lecture should have lesson plans for teachers in K-12 classrooms.  Finally, a complete DVD course from the year, like those sold at The Teaching Company, could be given away as .iso downloads.

For this idea to work I think it would take something like the open source software paradigm to get people started.  Build it from the ground up with contributions.  There are countless astronomy clubs around the world that want to participate in IYA2009 and each could promote and campaign for particular weekly lesson and how to support them.  There are also countless academic professionals that teach astronomy and physics that could join in.  And there are countless instructional design professionals that could aid in the development of the lessons for the web.  Teaching astronomy would be a very good way to marry the potential of computer based instruction with a specific learning goal.  The emerging RIA (Rich Internet Applications) programming tools could be used to demonstrate their power.

I like this idea of an international year to learn something new.  It’s like when a city starts a community wide book club.  I think 2008 is unofficially the year of climate studies, or maybe 2010 should be the official year.  The idea of the world getting together to studying something globally sounds like lots of fun and I hope they pick a new topic every year.


Do not go gentle into that good night

The title above comes from the Dylan Thomas poem and I encourage you to take a moment and follow the link and listen to it.  It’s about death and dying, not a particularly popular topic for the young, but the ghost that haunts anyone past fifty.  I am only fifty-six but thoughts of Social Security, Medicare, retirement and getting old invade my thinking regularly.  We Baby Boomers tend to believe everything is about us, but I’m finding it interesting to watch the generation before ours get old and see how they face death.  This generation is sometimes called The Silent Generation, but I’m starting to hear quite a racket from them.

The Baby Boomers were born from 1946-1964, and the Silent Generation are from 1925-1945, basically from Paul Newman through Pete Townshend, giving a whole new meaning to the song, “My Generation.”  The generation before them were the G. I. Generation (1900-1924) that included my parents.  So the Silent Generation are those people who were college kids when I was little, and the driving force of the pop culture we Boomers grew up with.  Now they are number one on the runway ready to take off for that famous unknown destination.  I, and all of my generation, have a lot to learn from them.  And what got me focused on this group, is this bit of humor.

Awhile back I discovered a great site, Time Goes By, to observe this generation, the brain child of Ronni Bennett and her promotion of Elder News.  She doesn’t like the label elderly because it implies frailty, and prefers old or elder.  Ronni focuses on elder blogging and through that I am finding doorways to the people of the Silent Generation.    Interestingly, Ronni lists Auxiliary Memory in her blog roll called ElderBlogs – and by her definition I’m in the elder group, and I’m happy to be so.  Her site is for the Silent Generation but includes us Boomers who right behind them.  The Internet is generally thought of as a hang-out for the geeky young, but Ronni often points out her elder crew are one of the largest growing segments.

I wished I was retired and had all the time in the world to read all the RSS feeds from Ronni’s ElderBlogs.  These are people I identify with, and people exploring issues and experiences I’m exploring now, or better yet, people who are going through experiences I’m will soon experience.

I constantly tell friends my age about blogging but they say they don’t have time, or they aren’t into computers, or friendships you make online aren’t real – but I’m finding the movement of Elder Blogging to be a major cultural trend and feel my friends are missing out.  It makes me think back to high school days when my hippie friends felt too cool to go to the proms.  I know now I missed out by being too cool.  I think my friends are missing out by thinking the blogging world as being too young, too geeky, or even too impersonal.

Ronni is onto something by making her reporting beat the elder bloggers.  I think the people expressing their feelings on her ElderBlogs sites represent a new social bonding that is just as real as any connections made at church, bridge clubs, retirement homes or in bars.  Sure, it lacks the warmth of intimate friendship, but so does most of our day to day social contacts.  Where blogging shines is hearing the deeper thoughts of people, thoughts beyond the surface topics you often hear at work like “did you see the game last night,” or “think it’s going to rain tomorrow.”  Blogging allows you to get to know a lot of strangers in a way you’d normally not in real life – just click down Ronni’s list of Elder Bloggers and see what I mean.


Virtual Astronomy

There are few things in this world that has more sense-of-wonder impact than standing out in the dark nighttime and seeing the Milky Way.  Now, the key word here is dark.  You can’t do this from the city, so that means most people have never experienced this wonderful view of the night sky.  One of my most vivid memories is sleeping on the beach in the Florida Keys when I was a boy and waking up to see the Milky Way overhead.  The sky was gray with stars.  Amateur astronomers lament the growing light pollution we live with.  If you want to see the stars you need to visit the country.  Pretty soon people living in urban areas will be as bad off as the citizens of the planet in Isaac Asimov’s classic short story, “Nightfall.”

Last weekend I was out at the local star gazing site of the Memphis Astronomical Association.  I had taken two of my friends, Linda and Carolyn, to see through my telescope, but in the end it was more exciting to just stand and look up at all the stars.  The Milky Way isn’t up this time of year but we had plenty of constellations to see like Orion, Leo, Ursa Major, a setting Cassiopeia, Virgo and Gemini.  The challenge of astronomy is learning the night sky and developing a sense of where we are in the universe.

When you are outside at night it feels like the universe is slowly spinning around us, and if we could turn off the sun, in each 24-hour period we’d see the parade of constellations march overhead.  Of course it’s us who are spinning, and we can’t turn off the sun, so each evening of star gazing only shows us a portion of 360 degrees of one plane of the stellar map we live in.  To really learn the sky you have to go out regularly all year round, and even then you won’t know the stars of the southern hemisphere if you live on the northern half of Earth and vice versa for those living down under.  There’s a lot of sky to learn and it’s very hard to grasp, being three dimensional.  Most people fail at two-dimension geography, so it’s easy to understand how hard it is to learn your way around the celestial sphere of the universe.

One solution is virtual astronomy.  In this day of computers and Internet there are plenty of programs to help you visualize the sky.  Most people know about Google, and a large subset also know about Google Earth, but do you know the latest versions of Google Earth has a menu option to turn your sights away from Earth to look out at the universe?  Just run Google Earth, go to the View menu and select Switch to Sky.  [For those who do not want to download and install Google Earth, there is a web version of Google Sky – but all my instructions below are for the full Google Earth version you download.  Google Sky is lots of fun but is less dynamic – just type what you want to see in the search box.]

Google Earth will spin out to look at the constellations for a moment and then spin around and zoom in on a galaxy shot they use as a menu with an artificial constellation of icons now strewn across the screen.  By clicking on these icons you’ll be instructed through a series of pop-ups about the program and astronomy.  Clicking on the small >> next page buttons in the pop-ups will cause the view to spin dizzyingly to new vistas and more lessons.  You can by-pass these instructional features by using the navigation controller up in the upper-right hand side of the screen.  Just hold the – button down to zoom out until you see just the constellations again.

Once you are in the constellation view you can move around the sphere by clicking on any portion of the sky and holding down the left mouse button and just sliding the sky around.   If you have no knowledge of the constellations this will be confusing because your view is one of being inside of a sphere.  Go up to the View menu again and select Show Grid.  You can then push the sky around and find the poles.  If you watch the navigator icon at the top right you can find your way to the north pole.  Find the constellations Ursa Major and Minor, the old Big Dipper and Little Dipper.  This is the beginning of learning your way around the sky.  It’s like navigating on Earth, find North first.

If you can see any stars at night where you live you might want to try and match your outside view with your virtual view.  If you have a good view of the north the Big Dipper shows well in urban skies this time of year.  The easiest constellation to learn in the overhead sky is Orion – even in a heavily light polluted city skies Orion will stand out.  Look for three stars close together in a line, that’s the belt of Orion.  Orion is up now but sets early.  A good free program to simulate the sky in relation to time and day is Stellarium.  Once you configure it for your location and time the program will start by showing you the sky in real time.  So if it’s daytime, you see simulated daylight and if it’s night you see the dark sky with minimum stars, like you would see in the city.  Stellarium has just a few iconic controls.  At the bottom right are video player buttons that you fast forward and reverse through time letting you jump ahead to plan your night-time viewing.

The Internet provides a wealth of free virtual planetarium programs that you can try out.  Some of these programs are very serious tools with catalogs of millions of stars that allow you to print very detailed maps of the sky for telescope observation.  Programs like the open source Stellarium and the commercial Starry Night programs offer great introductions to learning the sky with software.  Both the free Google Earth and the most expensive edition of Starry Night marry astronomical photography with celestial maps that allow you to zoom in and see photographs of famous cosmological tourist sites.  Most people love looking at the beautiful Hubble images but they don’t know where in the sky these photographic subjects are – these programs can show you.

The hardest part about learning astronomy is knowing where you are in the universe and which way you are looking.  An Atlas of the Universe is a site like the famous Powers of Ten video I used in explaining What Shape is the Universe?  Essentially all directions look the same when you observe the universe at large, it’s like being a grain of sand and trying to tell someone how to find another grain of sand.  For local viewing we use the Earth’s poles, the plane of the ecliptic, and the center of the Milky Way for orientation.  Advance students of the cosmos learn the various astronomical coordinate systems.

Most people think of astronomy as looking through a telescope.  Telescope viewing can be fun and exciting – especially the first time -but I personally find it frustrating and disappointing.  Except for a handful of objects all I see are countless little points of lights and occasionally some fuzzy smudges.  My advice to people thinking about buying a telescope is to learn the sky first.  Join a club and drive out to the dark sites.  Just learn the sky by looking up, and then get free views from members with telescopes.  If you want a telescope, wait to buy one until you find out if you like learning the sky.  The real fun of using a telescope is finding hard to find objects and that won’t be appealing unless you also like learning your way around the sky.

My advice is study virtual astronomy, books, magazines and learn the sky with your eyes first.  Then get binoculars with the widest field of view and study the added detail they bring.  There are plenty of people with telescopes that will give you free views.  Learn from them before buying your scope.  If you live in the city and seldom get to dark observing sites considering getting a scope that works well with urban views.  The  Moon and planets do well with small scopes.  You can get special filters and scopes for observing the Sun.  Start with a scope that’s easy to grab and carry outside for a few minutes observing – such as to check on Saturn or Jupiter, or gaze at the Moon for awhile.

The International Year of Astronomy is coming up in 2009.  This will be a great time to take up astronomy as a hobby because it will be getting lots of attention.  Starting off with these virtual astronomy programs will help you develop a foundation for learning the sky.  Astronomy is a vast field of study.  Our ancestors always lived with dark skies which they read like clocks.  The history of mankind has been the study of the sky.  Us modern folk have tuned out the night sky by constantly living with artificial light.  Learning astronomy is a way to tune back in.



Retiring While Oil Prices are Rising

Remember the 1970s?  You personally might have been discoing, but the economy had a heart attack.  Two oil shortages.  Inflation.  Stagflation.  Recession.  Investments took a dive way before the fifteenth round.  Luckily the rise in oil prices were artificial due to political influence, and they settled down to allow us to have two decades of growth and relative prosperity.  We baby boomers have been building for our retirements during a time when the investment future always looked rosy.

Now oil prices are climbing up again and the future is returning to the past.  This time oil prices are rising, blowing through the top of the derrick, and it’s not artificial.  The only way oil prices will ever go down is if demand goes down.  And how likely is that?  A big recession could take a bite out of prices.  Everyone could start driving an electric car and put solar panels on our roofs like Jimmy Carter wanted and demand would go down, but how likely his that?

We constantly hear promises that oil prices will drop to the good ole days of $50 a barrel or less, but it’s not happening.  Remember inflation and how fun those times were?  Our leaders claim there are no gloom and doom shortages of oil.  They’ve been promising things should be stable for decades to come.  Then why is oil over a hundred dollars a barrel?

Our retirement future is based on a steady but reasonable growth that nurtures our savings and investments.    If inflation returns we’ll have less to live off of from our fixed incomes.  As long as oil prices rise we’ll have inflation, and maybe worse.

We can effectively cut the price of oil in half by being twice as efficient or using half as much.  If we had followed the policies set up in the 1970s – yes Jimmy Carter was right – we’d have pushed this current crisis ahead in time two generations.  Instead we bought SUVs and drove them fast and now it’s time to pay for our speeding tickets.

I don’t know about you but I don’t like getting old, besides the growing aches and pains I don’t like uncertainties and becoming dependent.  I want to stay in control.  78 million of us are in the home stretch for the Medicare finish line.  As we all queue up waiting to blast off to heaven we’ll have ten, twenty, thirty and maybe even forty years of living off our fixed incomes, savings and investments.  It now appears that the quality of those years could be directly related to the price of oil.

Is there anything we can do about it?  Maybe.  The price of gasoline has always been unnaturally low to begin with because of government subsidies.  With oil production leveling off and new demand from India and China, it’s really a matter of supply and demand which might be beyond our control.  

It is possible if our society quickly switches to alternative forms of energy that we’ll beat the oil crisis and maybe spur continued economic growth so our investments will grow as we age.  If our leaders drag their feet like they have been doing since the 1970s when the problem was obvious, we’ll see some very bad economic times.  In essence, back in the 1980s we collectively said, let’s party while we have oil and then worry. 

Having a society built on irrational greed hasn’t helped.  The housing market soared off the charts with unrealistic values.  The Bush years of wars and occupations, Katrina and Rita, the housing loan crisis and Republicans spending like Democrats has left a big debt.  In other words, there is no trend to believe we’ll suddenly start acting rationally.

So how do rational individuals plan to retire when oil prices are rising?Can we get AARP to promote energy efficient, conservation and the development of alternative forms of energy?  The issue doesn’t seem to be a major topic in the presidential debates.  Does buying solar panels and an electric car make economic sense during retirement years.  I could retire early, next year after 30 years on the job, but I doubt it’s practical.  I’m thinking I should retire and get another full time job to save money for another ten years before thinking about retirement.  I’d like to retire and write those science fiction novels I’ve always wanted to write, but that won’t be practical now.

And if the cost of living is going to shoot up, where’s the best place to retire?  And do I need to rethink our 401k programs?  Planning for the future seems to have suddenly changed.


Imperfect Memories

As anyone who regularly reads my posts knows, I have an obsession about memories.  This post is about remembering a NPR radio show about remembering.  It’s even more complicated than that, because it’s about finding that radio show from This American Life for a second time.  My friend Connell called me up a few weeks ago and started telling me about a show he heard on NPR – but after a little bit I interrupted, “Hey, I heard that show years ago and I tell people about it all the time!”

Connell told me where to find the show but I promptly forgot after getting off the phone.  Now three weeks later I remembered and called him back and he patched up my leaking memory.  It didn’t take long to go through the back shows and find “Ich…bin…ein…Mophead” by Alex Blumberg, from 03-07-08.  It took a little Googling around and I found the episode where I first heard the show on 03-23-01.   The Internet is such a wonderful auxiliary memory – still imperfect, but retains data much better than my old noggin.

I highly recommend that you take the time to go listen to this show – use the 2008 link because it’s the second story in the lineup, and the first story is great too, about a seventh grade girl going back to the fifth grade and realizing how much she has forgotten and wisely noting how much she will forget in the future.

Our memories are so imperfect, so untrustworthy, but so loved and trusted.  Alex Blumberg’s story is about being nine and having a memorable babysitter.  Twenty years later he talks to his mom and sister about her and finally decides he wants to talk to the babysitter herself.  After a lot of amateur detective work he hires a professional private eye and he finds Susan, his old babysitter, and they have a three hour phone conversation reconciling memories.

I tell people about this story all the time, so it was fun to hear it again, especially since I was able to learn how much I had remembered correctly, and how much I had forgotten.  Our minds are like sieves – we just can’t hold memory details worth a damn.  The moral of this story I got right – that different people remember things differently, and even when we remember something significant to our lives, other people won’t remember that significance.  The story is also about reconnecting with long lost friends, and I think that’s something we’d all like to do.

This month I was also asked to join Facebook by my friend Dario that I met while at Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2002.  I did join and also got connected with other people from the workshop, as well as getting people I haven’t talk to in years asking me to be friends again.  I’m not sure exactly what I’m supposed to do on Facebook – a technology up to now I considered for young people, but it is neat.  Facebook found three people from my high school class of 1969 at Miami-Killian.  Sadly, I remembered none of these people.  Even more sadly, I could have known them and have forgotten.

We meet so many people in our lives, and many of them we think about from time to time.  There’s a reason we forget people, so I’m not sure if maintaining acquaintances through Facebook is good or not.  But like Alex Blumberg I would like to track some people down and ask them their view of past memories.  Even in his piece about Susan he realized that Susan worried she had affected him badly in some way and was hesitant to recall old memories.

I remember my babysitter from when I was nine years old.  I don’t remember her name.  I don’t remember what she looks like.  I have only sketchy memories of what she did while taking care of me and my sister.  She sometimes dumped us on her parents, and mostly she spent her time with us hanging out with her boyfriend.  The last time I saw her was when she ran out of our house bawling hysterically and jumping into her two-seat sports car to zoom home.  She had been wailing because I had punched her in the face.

I suppose I should get a private detective and find her and apologize, maybe even see if I had inflicted any permanent psychological memories on her.  She probably even gave up her career in babysitting because of me.  However, I still feel justified in my action.  She had kept my sister, who was seven, and I, out all day at the beach in Hollywood Florida while she spent time with her young beau.  We were burned to a crisp, cranky, and hungry, and it was time for The Flintstones.  Our fight was over The Flintstones.  She wanted us to come back over to her house and hang out with her and her boyfriend, I wanted to see the cartoon.  When I dug in my heels, she leaned over and put her screaming face a little to close to mine, just close enough for a good poke in the kisser.  She should have known better to get to close to a wild brat.

If I was going to call someone from my lost memories I think it would be Charlotte Travis my 12th grade English teacher.  I owe her a big thanks.  Every week she’d tell me about a classic novel that I would go to the library, check out and read for the next week.  Then we’d talk about it on Fridays after class.  She got me to read books other than science fiction.  Miss Travis treated us kids as adults and gave us a lot of good advice.  She was the kind of teacher that all teachers should be – inspirational.

If Facebook was a perfect technology and I could see listings of all my classmates from first grade to twelfth with the teachers – how many would I really want to talk with?  And what would I say?  I don’t know, but it would be cool tech.  It would help if Facebook collected photos to prompt our memories.  Here’s a good idea for that company to really get some some attention.  Borrow, buy or steal all the high school annuals and grade school photos and put them online.  Everyone with any kind of large group shot should register their photos with Facebook and ask viewers to help attach names to faces.

Another thing Facebook could do is to allow more school networks, including options for all classes back to Kindergarten.  Not everyone lived in one place and graduated together with their childhood friends in the 12th grade.  For every academic year you should be able to register up to three schools.  I say three because I went to three first grades and three seventh grades.  If anyone went to more schools in one year they should put in their own request.  Then allow people to attach class photos to those years and schools.

Another good idea for Facebook is allow people to register neighborhood streets and years, and encourage people to register photos of them too.  I’d love to see photos from Maine Avenue at Homestead Air Force Base for 1962 and 1963 and Air Base Elementary for 1961/62 and 1962/63 academic years.  Hurricane Andrew blew away Maine Avenue, and all that is there left of my cherished neighborhood is a mown field and decaying asphalt.  (At least, that’s how it looked the last time I saw it.)

Our memories are imperfect.  They are fleeting.  We baby boomers are getting old – so chances of finding people who can collaborate and corroborate memories are disappearing.  Most people can’t afford detectives, so Facebook may be a wonderful tool.  Then again, maybe we like living with our faulty memories.  Maybe they are good enough.