A boy and his dog, part 1: Pittsburgh to Bloomington

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series A boy and his dog

Fifteen years ago today, I got into my car, the Uffish Thought, a gold 1984 Toyota Corolla. Beside me was Alex the dog, barely three and a half years old, strapped securely into the passenger seat like Chewbacca to my Han Solo. Behind me, wedged into the hatchback and backseat, was a substantial fraction of my worldly belongings. In front of me, rigged to the center of the windshield and aimed through it via a complicated system of suction cups, S-hooks, turnbuckles, and twine, was a big 1992 videocamera borrowed from my friend Steve. We were two hours behind schedule. It was late in the afternoon. With a final kiss and a wave goodbye to Andrea, we pulled away from the curb on Beacon Street in Pittsburgh and began driving to our new home in California, six days distant.

I’ll be blogging about each leg of the trip, one per day.

Our first destination was Bloomington, Indiana. It seemed slightly out of the way in my Rand McNally Road Atlas, but it was the right distance for a day’s drive and it contained my college friend “Tall” Steve Volan, whom I hadn’t seen since he belatedly finished his CMU education and left Pittsburgh for his home state.

(Tall Steve was especially dear to me for his gift, on one occasion, of the book The Eudaemonic Pie. The book was moderately interesting; it’s the true story of a team of MIT nerds in Las Vegas, using microelectronics to beat the house at roulette, back in the 70’s when that took big brains [pushing the edge of the technology envelope] and big balls [thumbing noses at the Mob]. But it was Tall Steve’s inscription inside the front cover that earned it a place in gift-giving history: Accomplish something, dammit. It is now possible to report that the inscription unquestionably has had the desired effect.)

I had called ahead to a motel in my AAA Tour Book and confirmed that they allow pets. The plan was for me to arrive in Bloomington some time in the early evening, give Tall Steve a call, and meet him to hang out somewhere.

After just a couple of hours on the road, night began to fall, and it was clear I would not be arriving by “early evening,” though when I stopped to call Tall Steve from a pay phone (and walk Alex) I had no idea just how late I would finally get there — around 10:30, as it turned out.

Not Alex

Alex was strapped into her seat with a doggie seatbelt, but was accustomed to napping in the backseat on long car rides while Andrea and I sat up front. Somewhere just past Columbus she decided to turn and leap between the bucket seats into the back, and was brought up short by the harness. She was trapped awkwardly in a tangle of straps, unable to move, and I was doing sixty on the interstate. I couldn’t stop or pull over or even do much more than glance Alex’s way, but with just a few moments of fumbling and Alex whining, I freed her by releasing her seat belt — and then just a few moments more and I belted her back into her seat, all without taking my eyes off the road. It was a tricky maneuver but I got good at it over the next few days.

When we finally arrived at the motel in Bloomington I called Tall Steve to convey my regrets. He tried to persuade me (and Alex) to come out anyway despite the late hour, but Alex was extremely excited to be in a new place and in my exhausted state I dreaded the thought of having to restrain her in any of the places we were likely to visit so late at night. I begged off and we planned to meet the next morning instead.

I set out Alex’s food and water bowls and got ready for bed. I flipped through the AAA book to find a likely next stop and a dog-friendly motel. And then I fell right to sleep… for the first of about a dozen times that night.

(…to be continued…)

Disney coming in from the cold

A big step on the road to corporate redemption.

The Walt Disney Co. has changed its policy to allow same-sex couples to participate in a popular Fairy Tale Wedding program it runs mainly at its two U.S. resorts and cruise line, a Disney spokesman said on Thursday.

(via Salon, via BoingBoing)

Also, Mark Halperin is gone.

This is to be encouraged. Everyone go to a Disney park!

Credit next to where credit is due

Earlier today I was walking through my office when I saw this written on the whiteboard in a co-worker’s cubicle:

The most likely way for the world to be destroyed, most experts agree, is by accident. That’s where we come in; we’re computer professionals. We cause accidents.
— Nathaniel Borenstein

Small world. Nathaniel Borenstein was the professor of a comparative programming languages course that I took in the spring of 1987 at CMU (and later became my manager, mentor, and friend). He uttered this now-Internet-famous saying while teaching that course, and I am the one who originally propagated it on to the Internet.

Thought you should know.

No place for common sense

Not that this is especially deserving of a reasoned rebuttal:

Peanut butter disproves evolution

…A (serious) Creationist clip showing how peanut butter disproves the theory of evolution…

The video explains that evolutionists claim that energy plus matter sometimes results in the creation of life. But since no one has ever found spontaneously-generated life in a jar of peanut butter, that means that matter plus energy from the sun couldn’t have caused life on Earth… Link

…but I just happened to have one handy in some old e-mail. An outspoken creationist friend of mine wrote:

there are over 200 million different species on this planet. Since each is (presumably) evolving differently and over time, it seems reasonable to expect that one, only one, just one tiny one, of these 200,000,000 species would have “sprouted wings” in the last 150 years

where I understood “sprouted wings” to mean “underwent a significant, observable evolutionary change.” That may be a common sense outlook, but this is no place for common sense. Common sense breaks down when dealing with fantastically large numbers and fantastically small odds. Here is how I replied:

Let’s say the earth is 4.5 billion years old, and it took all that time to produce 200 million existing species. (We’ll treat the many other species that have come and gone as statistical fluctuations.) That’s 0.044 species per year on average. Over 150 years you should then expect to see the emergence of 6.67 new species on average, which is .00000334% of the total number of species. Easy to miss.

Let’s do it another way: 0.044 species per year is 22.5 years per species — that is, we should expect a new species every 22.5 years. Assuming each of the existing 200 million species is equally likely to spawn that new species, each species must wait an average of 3.12 billion years to have a 50-50 chance of creating a successor.



1-1/200000000 is 0.999999995, which are the odds of a species not spawning a new species in one year. 0.999999995×0.999999995 are the odds of not spawning a new species for two years in a row; 0.999999995×0.999999995×0.999999995 are the odds of not spawning a new species for three years in a row; and so on. How many times must you multiply 0.999999995 by itself to get to odds of 0.5? That’s what log1-1/2000000000.5 tells you.)

That’s by no means a rigorous analysis — it’s full of extremely coarse assumptions, among other things — but it should be at least accurate enough to convey the vastness of the timescales involved, the number of species, and the odds against having any particular evolutionary expectation met.

Or, as Darryl Zero said,

Now a few words on looking for things. When you go looking for something specific, your chances of finding it are very bad, because of all the things in the world, you’re only looking for one of them. When you go looking for anything at all, your chances of finding it are very good, because of all the things in the world, you’re sure to find some of them.


Speaking of superheroes, my wife Andrea has a few amazing superpowers. For instance, she has the power to make strangers tell her intimate details of their lives. I’ve seen it happen! Perhaps on another occasion I’ll write about that power at greater length, but I fear that if the government ever gets wind of what she can do, they’ll ship her undercover somewhere and we’ll never see her again.

One of her lesser superpowers was demonstrated a couple of years ago when I bought the DVD set of HBO’s Harold and the Purple Crayon series for my kids. The day it arrived from Amazon I unwrapped it and played the first episode. The kids were delighted. When the end credits rolled, I was mildly surprised to see Sharon Stone’s name as the narrator.

A little later, while we were watching another episode, Andrea came home. I asked her, “Can you guess whose voice that is doing the narration?”

Andrea listened for a few moments and thought, then said, “Sharon Stone?”

You could have knocked me over with a feather.

Now, Sharon Stone is a beautiful woman and a fine actress. But I think even her most ardent fans would agree that her voice, while pleasant, even attractive, is not particularly distinctive. It’s generically feminine, with no unique accent or timbre or phrasing. To my ears, the voice reading that narration in a soothing, maternal fashion could be anyone’s. Furthermore, Andrea — unlike me — is conspicuously inattentive to the world of Hollywood and celebrities. Movies, to her, are to be watched, hopefully enjoyed, and then largely forgotten. Movie stars mean almost nothing to her, and with the hoopla surrounding Basic Instinct and Casino more than a decade in the past, Sharon Stone in particular was not readily brought to mind. (Sorry, Sharon.)

If I hadn’t known it was Sharon Stone, and someone had asked me to guess whose voice it was (indicating, by the very asking, that the answer must be a surprising celebrity), I would have said Meryl Streep or Madonna or somebody. But in under ten seconds Andrea came back with, “Sharon Stone.”

I have satisfied myself that Andrea had no secret foreknowledge of the answer, and that no ordinary human (who’s not a friend or a devoted fan of Sharon Stone) could have gotten the right answer so quickly, and on the first try. The only remaining explanation: it’s a superpower.

Now all that remains is figuring out what possible application this power can have in the fight against supervillainy.

Plotting Pirates

Mystery Man On Film is sponsoring a screenwriting blog-a-thon this weekend. Here’s my contribution. It’s about the script for Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott.

(By the way, I also have a very different kind of analysis of the same movie.)

Spoilers ahead, says I! Ye be warned.

Continue reading “Plotting Pirates”