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July 30, 2005

The Half Blood Prince

While in Perdido Eric bought this book on the first day it came out and finished it the following day. Then David read it in two days and I was able to start it, but then had to buy a copy myself when I got home so I could finish it.

This might be the best-written book of the series. All of the characters are given depth in this go around instead of the usual flat side characters that have been typical in past books. Here the adults largely act like adults and even Harry's arch-enemy, Draco Malfoy, shows a human side. The interactions among the chief players are well done and certainly the majority of the book is more concerned about Harry, Ron, and Hermione's love lives than anything else. Although all of that was enjoyable, nothing really happened for most of the book either. We get some tantalizing clues about the identity of the title character, and still more about the mysterious comings and goings of Dumbledore. However, none of these things are resolved until the last few chapters. I'm not about to give away what happens in the book, but the seventh (and allegedly final) book will have to be awfully busy tying everything up, including a new mystery involving the initials R.A.B. in the last couple of pages. There are also a number of sub-stories about the origins of Voldemort which serve to better develop his character although he is largely absent here.

There is nothing here to compare to how all the clues were neatly tied together at the end of the third book. And the action probably lags the fourth book. But this is still a much better book than the disappointing fifth and, as stated earlier, it is probably the best-written of any of them. The crimes of the Death Eaters certainly parallel that of terrorists today, especially with the recent London bombings.

I still have a few quibbles. One relates to the puzzle over the identity of the Half Blood Prince. Harry seems to ask around to just about everyone except the one guy who would probably know, Dumbledore. And this despite the fact that Harry has more access to Dumbledore than in any previous book. Also a few new wrinkles in wizarding magic that are thrown in that were missing from previous books, but that really change the base rules. One is apparating which allows a wizard to transport themselves nearly anywhere they want instantly, a la the TV series Bewitched. Another is the use of silently cast spells which could change a lot of things as well.

So, all in all, this is a very satisfying read and, as the penultimate part of the series, leaves the reader impatient for the conclusion which I am guessing is still a couple of years away.

July 22, 2005

Dots on Soda Cans

At Perdido, Kelly pointed out that there are colored dots on the bottom of soda cans. Different cans have different colors. I checked all the cans and they all had a dot of some color on the bottom. Even cans from the same 12-pack will have different colors. I thought there had to be a reason, but didn't know what it might be. I did a search on Google and had the answer in minutes:


In a factory there might be several machines printing the cans and each machine uses a different color. This way, if there is a problem they will know which machine to shut down while the other machines continue working.

July 12, 2005

Happy Birthday Blogmaster!

Big daddy blogmaster
Spares us from disaster
He's vector-based or raster
And fights off the evil Blaster

Happy Birthday Jeb!!!!

July 5, 2005

Retirement Savings

In April of 1992, as a still fairly new employee at the DOT, I started contributing to the state version of a 401k: a deferred compensation plan. I started pretty small and put my money in Fidelity Magellan. This was my first exposure to investing in the stock market. I have been contributing ever since, slow and steady. By January of 2000 I calculated that my savings had doubled in value and I had more in gains than I had invested. But by September 2002 that gain had been completely wiped out and my savings were worth *less* than what I had put into the account.

The amount of my contributions varied over time so it was hard to calculate an average rate of return to see how I was doing. I finally figured out a way by guessing an interest rate and applying that to every quarterly balance in my spreadsheet. If the total of all those quarters of interest and my contributions adds up to what I actually have in the account, then that's my number, otherwise I just guess higher or lower until I zero in.

My original estimate when calculating the hundreds of thousands I would have saved up by retirement was 7% which reflects the historic stock market return of 10% minus 3% for the historic inflation rate. I have been investing now for 13 lucky years. And I finally have the answer for the average annual rate of return during that entire period: 1.75%.


While watching Avondale's excellent fireworks with Mom (down from 16 people) last night I saw some kids playing with sparklers. For years sparklers were the only fireworks you could buy legally in Georgia and we got to play with them when we were kids. But I got hurt worse and more often from sparklers than any kind of firework I can think of. Sparklers consist of a flaming hot wire spewing sparks that kids wave around while burning each others retinas out. Meanwhile with regular fireworks everyone knows the rules: light fuse and get away. What could be simpler than that?

July 4, 2005

Gadget Convergence

Once you get enough gadgets you can do just about anything. For example, on Saturday I got a new smart card for my satellite receiver to replace my old one which was probably too easy to hack into. When I replaced the card about a quarter of my stations disappeared. I ran some diagnostics and figured out that half of the stations from one satellite (the "odd" transponders, the "even" ones came in fine) were not coming in at enough strength (the dish receives signals from satellites at two different locations in the sky about 9 degrees apart which I think is amazing). Technical support said I needed to fine tune the aim of the dish, which made no sense to me since the only thing that had changed was I put a new card into the receiver. And since I was getting the even transponders it didn't make much sense that I couldn't get the odd ones. But it's hard to argue with people who know what they are talking about.

There is a diagnostic screen that tells you the strength of the incoming satellite signal. It has a bar meter and also has a sound that is low for a low strength signal and gets higher pitched as the signal strength increases. It's very helpful except of course that you have to be on the roof to move the dish and you can't see or hear the TV from the roof. The repair guys have a handheld meter that they can pinpoint the best settings with, but I don't have such a gadget.

On the old dishes there were two settings: one for horizontal and one for vertical (azimuth and elevation) that were held in place with bolts that you loosen, move a tad, and tighten down. With the new dishes that point at two satellites you can also rotate the dish itself (pitch).

Anyway, the support guy said I probably needed to move the dish about an eighth of an inch (no telling which way). But I needed a way to see or at least hear the signal from the TV. I could get someone to watch the TV and call my cordless phone on their cell phone to give me the readings, I guess. In the past I had called Susan on a phone that I put in front of the TV and then I listened in on a cordless phone on the roof while Susan complained about the high pitched noise.

But now that I have a FM transmitter that I got for the iPod, I figured I could use the Y connector that hooks the iPod to the stereo, but in reverse, connecting the RCA jacks to the audio out of the satellite receiver and then plug the headphone jack into the FM transmitter's input. Then all I had to do was dig out my old Sony Walkman and tune to the FM station where the signal was being broadcast. I was barely in range, but it worked out fine and I was able to lock in a satellite signal at a better strength than I had ever had before (without messing up the reception from the other satellite). Better living through gadgetry.

July 3, 2005


When I was at Petsmart recently a funny thing happened. I don't bring my dogs, but it is allowed, and I always like seeing people bringing their dogs to the store. I noticed a lady there with a boston terrier near the toy section as I was going back to get food. When I came back she was trying to pull a toy away from her dog. I don't know if she gave the toy to the dog or if he got it off the shelf but he was loving pulling on that toy. Somehow before I got to the checkout this lady and her boston terrier were in front of me and the dog still had the toy in its mouth. I guess the lady had decided to buy the toy. As they were checking out the dog tried to walk out the front doors with the toy without paying for it, but he was on a stretchy leash and was stopped before he could get out the door. He really wanted to get out of there with the toy. His owner paid for everything else and now the cashier needed to scan the toy. But the dog wasn't going to give it up. The owner tried to get it from him but he just pulled on it and growled. So the cashier just leaned over and scanned the tag on the toy while it was still in the dog's mouth. And finally the dog got to leave with its toy!