“No Engine Braking” Signs in Austin

•April 5, 2010 • 12 Comments

First of all… I understand that these signs are intended for semi tractors and not passenger vehicles.  However, the city ordinance (Austin, Texas City Ordinances) Title Twelve Article 3 12-1-33 indeed does not state that this is for large trucks and not passenger vehicles.


(A)     This section applies to a roadway or street within the corporate limits of the City, including a state maintained roadway.

(B)     A person may not use an engine brake or engine retarder to assist in slowing or braking a motor vehicle, except for a fire truck engaged in emergency duties.

Now, this is very interesting (or ridiculously stupid depending on who you talk to).  Austin, could (theoretically) mail a fine to every vehicle owner every month forever.  Why?  Because every vehicle and driver engine brakes every day.

By definition, if you are slowing down, without the clutch of a manual transmission car being engaged or an automatic transmission vehicle in neutral, then you are engine braking.

Have you ever taken your foot off the gas slightly to slow down?  Not even all the way off, just let up a little?  That’s engine braking.  You are using some of the power of your engine to slow the vehicle instead of accelerating or maintaining speed.

Now, will this law ever get enforced against a passenger vehicle?  Of course not.  If the police are pulling you over, then they have something bigger than engine braking on you.

On the other hand, it seems really stupid to create a law that every driver will break every day.  It just makes the rest of the laws look weak.  “Oh well, they can’t enforce this law, what else won’t they enforce?”

One of the first things I learned as a teacher (and put to use as a parent) is never say you’ll do something that you won’t do.  If you say it, you’d better do it.  Otherwise, the rest of your school year (or life) will be miserable.  Don’t threaten with anything outside your ability to do.  If you say that you’re going to spank, then you better freaking spank or your kid will walk all over you and not understand why you enforce some rules and not others.  Then you have the constant battle of the kid trying to find out which rules you’ll enforce.

The same goes for law-makers, especially at the city and county level.  This law is really for heavy trucks (ten wheel and above).  Change the law to read that and amend the signs to say that.  It just looks stupid to anyone who understands anything about cars… and especially those loud ass motorcycles that are way louder than engine braking trucks.  The police don’t do anything about them.


Are the Weeds in Your Yard Your Fault?

•March 27, 2010 • 2 Comments

Are the Weeds in Your Yard Your Fault?

Of course they are.


Because of evolution. Do you know where the greatest concentration of highly antibiotic resistant bacteria live? Hospitals. Why? Because of evolution. This is one thing that many people, just don’t understand. Even, unfortunately, doctors are not immune to this.

Let me describe the bacteria situation, then describe how and why it also affects your yard and then we can explore what to do about it.

Everyone knows the doctor tells us to take all the antibiotics even if we feel better. Why is that? Well, the bacteria that are making you sick are just like humans. Even though they may be the same species of bacteria, they come in many varieties. Just like humans. Some are stronger and tougher than others, some reproduce faster, some can survive in weird situations. That variety is what we call diversity within a species.

When you take antibiotics, the weakest bacteria (those most susceptible to the antibiotic) die quickly, maybe even after one or two doses. As I mentioned, some of those bacteria are made of sterner stuff and will not die even after a dozen doses. If you stop after a dozen doses of antibiotic, then which bacteria are left in your system to reproduce? Right, the strong ones. There may not be many left, but you and your doctor have killed off the competition and these are stronger bacteria. So you will get sick again, and the antibiotics might not help this time because most of the bacteria in you are survivors of the last round and they laugh at antibiotics.

This is why hospitals have such strong bacterial populations. Some of the bacteria literally live in a soup of dozens of antibiotics. Only the bacteria can survive in those environments are left, but they survived and are now, quite comfortable in some of the most inhospitable (no pun intended) environments for bacteria. [Look up superbugs on wiki for more info http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antibiotic_resistance%5D

Yards and Weeds
Now, what about the weeds in your yard? Same thing… you preferentially select the weeds that are best able to survive in your yard. You kill off everything you can and the weeds that survive, reproduce.

Most people do the same thing year after year. The same chemical, the same fertilizer, the same weeding technique. You’re just making the weeds that survive stronger. If you miss even one plant, it will be back and will be tougher and tougher every year.

I got to thinking about this while mowing for the first time this year and here are a few of the scenarios I considered.

Clovers and other ground cover
First clovers and really good for your lawn, they replace nitrogen in the soil, which other plants use for growth. This prevents you having to fertilize. However, most people want pure grass in their yard and clovers are thick, hard to mow, and very short plants. And that’s the key to their survival.

If you follow the standard rules of mowing, then you should be mowing using a higher setting on your lawn mower. This gives you better grass cover, better water retention, and you have to mow less often. On the other hand, a high setting on the lawn mower means you may miss some of the shorter clover. They just get hit with a blast of air as the blade passes a quarter inch over them.

Short clovers and other ground covers preferentially survive in your yard. Soon, all the clovers are shorter than your normal mowing height and they take over.

Let me pause a second here to talk about something very important in evolution. It only matters what happens to you before you have children. Once you have had all your children, you are evolutionarily dead. So as long as the plants reproduce before you do whatever it is you do to them, they have survived. You can cut, poison, burn, whatever… as long as those seeds were made, then the weeds will be back.

So as long as the clover reproduce while they are shorter than your average mow height, you’ll have an invasion of clover.

Flowering weeds
Have you ever saved a weed from the mower? You knew it was a weed, but it had a pretty flower on it, so you saved it. Congrats, you have just preferentially selected weeds with pretty flowers. In my experience, weeds with pretty flowers generally also have spines or thorns and are very resistant to the mower. But that’s OK, you have a few pretty flowers… and you’ll have many, many more next year.

Weeds that Pop-up Quickly
Yesterday afternoon your yard was the perfect place of soft grass, this morning it’s choked with 2 foot tall weeds. How did that happen? You made it happen.

How often do you mow or fertilize or weed? Every time you mow, you are selecting weeds that reproduce faster than you mow. If you cut the plant down before it produces seed, then good job. You’ve killed that plant and all future plants that would descend from it. But if it already produced seeds, then it doesn’t matter what you do now.

If you mow every two weeks, then you are preferentially selecting for weeds that germinate, grow, and reproduce in less than two weeks. Pretty soon, you’ll have some fast growing weeds in your hard.

Weed killers are exactly the same situation as the antibiotics. If the poison doesn’t kill every plant before it reproduces (or kill the seeds too), then you are selecting for superweeds.

Oh Crap, Now What Do I Do?
Fortunately, evolutionary principles give us some tools to help out with our problems. We can do the same things to our weeds that HIV patients do to their viral infection. Hit it hard, with many different things, then change it up after a month or two.

Consider those pop-ups I mentioned. They appear really fast and grow fast and reproduce fast. These plants must have an accelerated metabolism. They need lots of nutrients and must bring lots of water and sunlight to grow so fast. So use that against them. This is when you use the poisons. They grow so fast, that they will intake lots and lots of poison. If it’s a halfway decent chemical, then it will not only kill the plant, but interfere with its reproductive system and stop them right in their tracks.

What about the pretty flowering weeds? Simple. Kill them. Plant some perennials that do well in the local environment and have pretty flowers. Don’t give the weeds a chance. We just spread a couple pounds of various flower seeds out at the beginning of the season. Those, I mow around. Plus, they will use up some of the nutrients that the weeds like.

Also consider not investing in one of the ‘designer’ grasses. They are like heavily inbred species of cats or dogs. They look nice, but require a lot of work to keep them up. Ask someone at a local nursery what an appropriate grass type is for your yard. Bring them a soil sample, tell them how often you water. Then ask for the toughest, least maintenance grass they have that will work. You save watering, mowing, and it’s environmentally friendly. It may not be the lush, deep green of your neighbor, but you can sit inside with a beer watching the game, while he spends the whole weekend taking care of his $15 per square foot grass.

Change the fertilizer, chemicals, and plants that you plant each year. Don’t give the weeds a chance to get used to anything. Vary your mowing times. One Thursday night, just for the heck of it… mow real fast. Then you have the whole weekend to play.

Finally, encourage the local wildlife to be in your yard. Natural predators are much more effective than any chemical, poison, or even mowing. A family of bunnies can eat a lot of plants in a little time. Many fast growing weeds require a lot of light, so plant some trees. Any spots that don’t have grass, need to be planted with grass or mulched.

I hope that helps you. Remember, use science to your advantage. Evolution works, use it to your advantage.

HEB (and other off-brand / store-brand) Colas

•December 20, 2009 • 6 Comments

When HEB first appeared, I really didn’t think much of it.  Most of the reason comes from the tiny store they built in Port Arthur.  They bought a parking lot because the building wasn’t for sale, but the parking lot was owned by someone else.  It was a tiny, crappy store.

The HEB stores in the Austin area are amazing.  Like most stores these days, they off a store brand for many items.  In fact, in some cases, you can’t get what you really want because the store brands take up room that other varieties of the standard brand would take up.  Take, for example, Pop-Tarts.  If you want anything other than brown-sugar cinnamon or strawberry Pop-Tart, you’re out of luck at HEB.  Believe me, the store-brand Pop-Tart equivalents are terrible.

The trick economically, is to find as many store brand products as you can stomach.  My family has dropped our weekly grocery bill about $50 by substituting many name-brand items for store-brand items.  Especially things with guaranteed content like cold medications and shampoos.

One of the strangest substitutions like this (at least for me) is HEB Colas.  I tried them for the first time because they were 8 bucks for four 12-packs and cokes were 12 dollars for three 12-packs.  Now that’s economically sound… even if they aren’t perfect.

However, I was amazed.  The HEB cola is full-bodied, not to sweet, but sweet enough and it has that pleasant bite to it that a strong coke has (you know, like the ones from Mexico that don’t have to deal with all the FDA crap).  When cold, they do make have that satisfactory quality of being easy to chug and are generally smooth.

Plus, there are some flavors I like.  I have very rarely seen an HEB cherry coke, but not often.  The Dr. Pepper equivalent (Dr. B of all things) is excellent and really tastes better (and is smoother) than Dr. Pepper.  The HEB Orange Soda isn’t perfect.  I find it a little too sharp and tangy to be really satisfying.  The sugar content is a little high too.  My wife loves the things though.  I tolerate them so I get a case every now and again.

The story only gets better…

I’m approaching middle age (approaching like a skydiver whose chute has failed to open) and I now have a very sedentary job (welcome to the cube farm).  So I’m a little concerned about my expanding middle section.  I’ve tried diet Cokes before and found them nauseating at best.  So one day, while Lexie and Xander were out and about, I grabbed a $0.50 20-ounce HEB Diet soda.  I was amazed!

It totally lacked that bitter aftertaste from Diet Coke.  In my opinion, it is actually smoother than any regular cola.

So, I have switched entirely to HEB Diet Colas (with half of my colas being the caffeine free variety)… yes, I’m getting older dammit.

Thank you HEB.  My waist line, my family, and my pocket book appreciate the HEB Colas.  I used to spend five dollars a week on cokes (5 20-ounce).  Now between 5 and 4 dollars (depending on the sales) will get me over two weeks of drinks (24 12-ounce drinks at two a day means 12 working days of cokes for the same price).

Try store-brands, find the ones you like and stick with them.  I’ve dropped my grocery bill 33%.

Chumley the Troll in Shadowrun

•December 14, 2009 • 1 Comment

About 16 years or so ago, we had a fairly regular Shadowrun game going.  For those not familiar with Shadowrun, it was basically what happened when you combined the (slightly) future world with the fantasy world.  There are/were cyborgs, robots, very modern weapons, cars, AIs all combined with magic, elves, dwarfs, shamans, dragons, gods, swords, etc.  Very neat and the books aren’t too bad either.

Anyway, my character in this game was my favorite all time character I ever played in a role-playing game… Chumley the Troll.  Chumley was a fairly likable fellow.  Part of Shadowrun was that a person could be born a human, then change into a metahuman (elf, dwarf, wendigo, whatever).  Chumley was born a man and joined the British Army as soon as he was able.  He went through special forces training, until an injury changed his MOS to armorer (fixer of guns).

Then, he changed.  It started by eating two or three times normal at chow.  He’d sneak in an extra MRE or two each day.  This gave him about 8000 calories a day.  Then the pain started.

When he came to a few weeks later, he was 8 foot 6 inches and weighed almost 400 pounds.  He had lost many, many IQ points, but was epically strong.  He had become a troll.

Over the next few years, he made his way to Egypt… Britain being a proper civilized country wouldn’t allow to him to remain in the country must less the military.  He worked odd jobs and made some good money.  Then he joined a group of thieves.  That’s when the fun began.

He carried a pair of shotguns, but his favorite weapon was a titanium rod tht was five feet long and two inches in diameter.  When he hit things, they went flying.

For one mission, the team had to infiltrate the magical material storage lab of the University of Cairo.  The client wanted a particular bunch of stones… part of the teams payment was anything else they wanted to take.  The lab was guarded by some serious nastiness.  We had a pass key, but it could only be used by someone magical, but a mage or shaman would be too powerful and easy to spot.  Everyone turned to the only metahuman in our party… Chumley.

So he walks in with three of the team behind him, dressed in lab coats with an illusion spell on everyone.  We get past the human guards and into the back area and come to the first door.  Chumley, whose hands are the size of small watermelons is trying to slide a magical key card through a slot in the wall.  In real life I was rolling a bunch of dice.  The first roll failed, we made it by one on the second roll and narrowly missed setting off the alarm.  Everyone (RL and game character) breathed a sigh of relief.

Then we came to the second door into the lab proper.  Again I had to make two rolls (two was all we had or alarms would sound).  We were sweating at this point.  Finally the storage room door.  We dropped the illusion and I prepared to swipe the card one last time.

I rolled… counted up the 6s and failed… by a  lot.  The team was freaking out at this point.  It was actually quite comical.  The battle-hardened role players wouldn’t hesitate to send our characters into a major fire fight with impossible odds, yet we were all sweating as a troll swiped a magnetic card through a door.

I made the final roll and missed… by one 6.  One of the team mates reminded me that once a night, I could change one die to a 6 if I used a karma point.  Everyone held their breath as I check my character reference sheet to see if I had a Karma point.  I did.  We were in… at least I was.

So a truly gigantic troll eases into this tiny little storeroom.  The door closes behind me so no one else could get in.  I had a giant bag and was staring at hundreds of tiny little drawers with magical materials, stones, and metals of various purposes and properties.  Then I realized the fundamental flaw in our little caper.  I was playing a British troll… who, while quite smart for a troll… well that’s like being the best hockey player in all of Ecuador.

The drawers were covered in funny little squiggles.  I turned my head to the team and said, “I can’t read Arabic.”

The team totally erupted.

Eventually, I ended up dumping almost everything in the drawers into the bag and one of my teammates managed to find the Arabic symbol for the material the client wanted.  He drew it on paper and I held up drawers until the rest of the team said that they matched.

That entire night, not a single shot was fired from any player and it was the single most stressful role-playing game I’ve ever been in.

Chumley ended up having a wizards ensorcell the titanium rod so that it was really potent.  We’re talking knocking down small buildings here.

I’m Scared for the Future of Our Country

•November 11, 2009 • 1 Comment

Here’s the thing:

The democrats are in charge.

The republicans are batshit insane.

No one trusts the libertarians.

Everyone thinks the greens are totally nuts.

No one likes communists.


Now that I’ve pissed everyone off.  Everyone agrees that a monopoly is a bad idea.  Competition is good for consumers and no competition is bad for consumers.

The same thing is true for politics.  Democrats are in the ascendancy.  That’s fine, at least they aren’t (mostly) batshit insane like the republicans, but without the competition from the republicans, there will be no efforts for the democrats to change.  Instead, there will be a huge play for control.

Why aren’t the republicans a threat to the democrats anymore?  The Bush years and Palin episodes are going to taint the republicans for some time to come.  A large number of republicans have completely gone over the edge into religious fanaticism.  Everything from a congressman asking permission of their bishop to vote for a bill.  [Which incidently is basically giving control of the US to an agent of a foreign government.]  To some recent episodes in Texas with a republican trying to have Joe McCarthy taught as a great American heroHere are some fascinating quotes from Cathi Adams, new chair of the republicans in Texas.

So, where do we fit in?  Well, it’s very simple.  We are screwed.

Our educational system is really feeling the pain of this.  Health care is even worse.  Civil liberties are not improving under Obama as he told us.

I’m scared.  I really am.

Who will I be voting for?  I’ll want to interview the Libertarian candidate heavily, but libertarians are my play book right now.


•November 7, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The Secret Life of a Teacher - Blogged

Battlestar Galactica vs. USS Enterprise

•October 21, 2009 • 21 Comments

Science fiction fans often pit their favorite hero/ship/weapons against each other in to see who would win and it invariably comes down to who talks loudest.  I attempt to match two fairly common vessels against one another.  In point of fact, I dislike both series slightly so I’m not nearly as biased as most.

The Contenders

In one corner of the solar system, we have the USS Enterprise, a Constitution class Heavy Cruiser of the United Federation of Planets.  For the purposes of this post, I will be using the Constitution class ship from Star Fleet Battles with the + refit.  For those that aren’t familiar with Star Fleet Battles (shame on you), the Constitution CA+, has 4 forward firing photon torpedoes.  These torps fire in a 60 degree arc centered on the centerline of the ship.  It also has eight phaser-1s.  These are the large, heavy phasers that you generally see in the various series.  At least two phasers can hit any target around the ship.  Directly forward, six phasers can be brought to bear.  Finally, as far as weapons are concerned are a pair of phaser-3s.  These are light phasers primarily for missile and fighter defense.  Defenses include some quite heavy energy shields that are effective against energy and particles.  Maneuvering is provided by both impulse and warp engines.  In Star Fleet Battles, all combat is conducted at low FTL speeds.

Constitution with + refit

In the other corner, the Battlestar Galactica, a Galactica class battlestar.  For the purposes of this post, I will be using the re-imaged battlestar.  The ship is nearly a mile long and contains a minimum of 80 active fighters.  Weapons include 24 twin mount anti-ship gun turrets, some 514 twin mount point defense guns, and at least 12 launch tubes for nuclear and (presumably) non-nuclear weapons.  Defense is mainly heavy, dense armor, capable of withstanding a strike from a medium range nuclear weapon with the ship remaining functional.  Maneuvering is provided by large, powerful engines and a separate FTL jump drive.

Galactica class battlestar

The Battle

If these two belligerents happened upon each other in deep space, the battle would very likely be a total draw with the more damaged ship escaping at FTL speeds.  Since the two ships have completely different styles of FTL travel, there is almost no way for one ship to chase the other, provided it can go FTL.

The battlestar will have the maneuverability edge in non-FTL combat.  That’s what it’s designed for after all.  However, it is much easier for the Enterprise to make very short FTL hops to gain position.  Edge to the CA+ here.

The Enterprise should be able to shrug off most of the battlestar’s weapons.  Photon torps are matter/anti-matter and a CA+ can take 3 torpedo hits on the rear shield (the weakest) before damage can be transmitted to the ship.  However, the battlestar has LOTS of weapons.  If the battlestar can hit the CA+, then it should be able to do a lot of damage, pretty quickly.  Even if the 48 heavy cannons do 1/20th of the damage of a single torp, then a alpha strike hit on the CA+ will cause some significant shield degradation.  A hit is by no means guaranteed though and the estimate of the battlestar’s main cannons is probably very optimistic.  Nuclear weapons are another story and could cause serious damage t the CA+.  However, there are only 12 launchers and they are not FTL.

On the other hand, the CA+ doesn’t have nearly the weapons that the battlestar does.  Since photon torps are physical objects, then the sheer amount of point defense fire from the battlestar would make it very difficult for the CA+ to hit with missile weapons.  The phasers are relatively short ranged and weak.  A photon hit would cause significant damage to the battlestar, but the phaser hits might wipe out a weapon mount.  Since the main weapons of the Galactica did survive a direct hit from a nuke, phasers might not be nearly as effective here.  There are also very few weapons on the CA+.  For every phaser-1 that the CA has, there are 6 heavy cannons and there are 128 point defense guns for each photon torpedo launcher.

Edge:  This is a tie

Now we haven’t mentioned the battlestar’s primary weapon system here.  The 80+ fighters and raptor multi-role small craft.  In a strict space battle, these will be almost useless as the CA+ can just FTL beyond the range of the fighters.

No effect on outcome.

Fixed Defense

The previous describes a strict space battle… an encounter if you will.  Which would never happen between these two ships anyway because of the nature of their FTL systems.  Much more likely would be one or the other defending a fixed point (planet, space station, convey).

Battlestar as Defender

This is much more interesting battle as the FTL capable Enterprise can come from any direction and the battlestar will be forced to remain very close to the target.  If this is a space station, no problem, but a planet will cause a huge blind spot for the battlestar.  On the other hand, here’s where the Vipers and Raptors come into play.  The battlestar can create a sphere of small sensor posts (the small craft) at long distances from the target.  With the Raptor’s jump drive, they could actually beat the warp drive CA+ back to the target and the battlestar can jump or maneuver into position.

Basically, no matter what the warp drive ship does (theoretically), the battlestar can always preempt it, and with a little luck do some damage during each run in.  However, the battlestar must be lucky and stay lucky.  One mistake and it’s all over for the battlestar’s defendee.

CA+ as Defender

Again, the battlestar’s jump drive will play a huge role here as it can be in position and firing before the CA+ is aware that it is present.  This will give the battlestar an edge in any attack scenario like this.  If the CA+’s shields are down, a few lucky hits could cripple it.  The fighters provide a huge edge here.  They could be dropped and come in on a completely different vector from the battlestar, forcing the CA to accept one attack while dealing with the other (the smart CA+ will go for the battlestar here) or the fighters could lure the CA+ away from the target whlie the battlestar pops in to destroy it.  Again, the defender must be very lucky or the target will be crushed from many directions at once.

Other Considerations

The main factor outlining a duel between these two ships are the engines.  It is much more likely for the Enterprise to get a lucky hit on the engines, crippling the battlestar.  No matter what, the battlestar must work it’s way through the shields to get to the CA+’s engines.  In spite of the sheer volume of fire coming from the battlestar, this will be difficult at best because of the Enterprise’s warp drive system.

The battlestar’s fighters are almost useless against the CA+.  They just don’t have the speed and the CA+ can disengage at will.  If the Enterprise has damaged engines, then even with full shields, the battlestar will destroy it in seconds.

In a chase situation, I have to give the edge to the battlestar.  The jump drive is much faster than warp drive and can be used for many days at least 33 minutes apart.


Without a doubt, a fight between these ships would be interesting.  It really would depend on who makes the first mistake.  I must give a slight edge to the USS Enterprise though.  The always on FTL drive and shields give it a much needed maneuverability and survival time against the battlestar.  Please keep in mind that this is a very slight edge.  A combat between these ships will either end in a draw or be over in minutes at best.