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June 23, 2003

Star Trek, The Dynamic Society

Andrew Sincic recently extolled the virtues of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, as portrayed on the season 5 DVD. As a science-fiction fan, I’ve always enjoyed the show for its clever stories and interesting special effects. But Andrew alluded to something else in Star Trek that has always appealed to me, too: It portrays an open, dynamic society in which the amazing opportunities of the universe are explored. This is an important and encouraging vision in today’s world.

The openness of the Star Trek society can be seen in several ways. The most apparent is the inclusiveness of the Federation of Planets: It seems like any species can join, as long as they are willing to work within the governing framework. Many species are represented within the Starfleet, which implies that racial differences are irrelevant to the job of exploring. Even artificial creatures, such as the android Data, participate with their own unique talents. Subtler, the Star Trek society encourages innovation and risk taking. Why risk the dangers in the darkness of space, if not for the potential of transforming one’s life? The inventors and scientists are clearly respected and honored, and learning in general is encouraged. I get the impression of hope and boundless expectation, that every day is better than the previous.

Star Trek is often compared to its peer, Star Wars. Consider the general world-view of Star Wars: The past is often regarded as superior than the present or future, with previous governmental organizations (e.g. “the old republic”) wistfully remembered. Authoritative figures are often in their place due to the vagaries of birth. (Consider that Luke Skywalker’s parentage is the key reason that he is special.) Technologists are portrayed, not as heroes, but at best the maintainers of the warriors’ equipment, and at worst, grubby rat-like hoarders that can barely communicate (such as the Jawas). The general impression is that the people of the Star Wars milieu happened to stumble into the machines of their vanished betters, and have neither the will nor the ability to move forward. (This impression is probably intentional, to better serve its story.)

Thus, we can see contrasting visions of society in popular culture: the dynamic society of Star Trek (science-loving, progress-orientated, and risk taking), and the static society of Star Wars (with its ambivalence towards science, yearning for past glories, and concern about lineage).

It does not appear that either vision fits the traditional dichotomy of “right / left” or “liberal / conservative”. Maybe that particular dichotomy isn’t relevant anymore, now that socialism is dead as an ideology. (Let me poke its body with a stick, just to make sure. The 20th century was socialism’s chance, and it is not surprising that it was also the bloodiest century.) Virginia Postrel, the editor of Reason Magazine, argued such a hypothesis in her essay After Socialism. Now that nobody seriously argues for a “fairer distribution of wealth” (as the socialists argued), traditional political lines are blurred. The new opponents of freedom talk about “stability” and curbing the dynamism of markets. A right-wing commentator might join a left-wing critic in decrying the evils of international trade, due to the changes it brings in expanding and contracting industries. Conversely, a liberal might join with conservative colleagues to start a new business, to demonstrate the virtues of creativity and choice.

A dynamic society, by definition, changes. This can be frightening to some, as displacements can be hard to predict. People will almost certainly make different choices than those expounded by a central planner. Some of those choices may even turn out right, though, and there is evidence that dynamism works. Dinesh D’Souza argued that the West grew rich because of our embrace of science, capitalism, and democracy (core tenants of the dynamic society). Advances in complexity theory, ecological science, and organizational theory indicate that self-organizing systems can often be more stable than more rigid structures.

So, let us draw encouragement from depictions of a risk-taking, science-loving society. The universe is an adventure, and a dynamic society enables us to play in it.

June 21, 2003

Email Colorizer

A friend sent me an email that I wanted to quote on my blog. I could save the email text to my server, but it would certainly not look appealing on a web browser. So, I wrote a little Perl script that takes email text, and formats it with HTML. Perhaps other with a similar problem will find it useful.

The Perl script reads and writes to the console, so the typical way of using it would probably be something like:

colorizemail.pl < msg.txt > msg.html

The resulting HTML file will have the email headers (i.e. to, from, server info, etc) in a greenish box at the top, and the main text will be in a sans-serif font. (I'm a big fan of Arial.) The script contains a CSS style-sheet description at the top, so one can customize the output for specialized needs.

An example of the use of this can be found here and the code itself can be downloaded from here.

Enjoy! If you have any questions or comments, please post them here.

June 17, 2003

Mexico Cruise, part 2

The previous entry showed pictures from the start of our two-day voyage from Los Angeles to Ensenada, on the Royal Caribbean cruise line. This entry has pictures from the second half of the trip (Saturday and Sunday).

The big ship, the Monarch of the Seas, was docked in Ensenada, Mexico, when we awoke on Saturday. It cost $2 to take a shuttle to the downtown area, and $1 to get the shuttle back. We did not take any of the optional tours, as they would have been an extra $30 per person.
Large gold busts of important Mexican politicians.
The Carnival Ecstasy was also docked in Ensenada. They have a similar three day tour. While that may be cheaper, most reviews seemed to indicate that Royal Caribbean provides a better cruise. I can't judge that, but I can say that our cruise was quite good.
The author, in Ensenada. Notice the stop signs, which were mysteriously spelled "ALTO".
Elizabeth at the ship pool.
The captain of the ship, during his "welcome aboard" speech. The ship contained a large concert hall, which could fit all of the passengers.
The Saturday night dinner was formal, so we slipped into our evening wear and presented ourselves to the photographers.
They took pictures of us at the dinner table, too. The food was usually decent, and very plentiful. The service really stood out, though, as any request was quickly and cheerfully met.
Elizabeth and I, in our cabin, after the formal dinner. Notice the reflections in the mirror. It's like two pictures in one.
The last night, we were treated to a strange little towel animal on our bed.
On Sunday, we were returned to the real world. We had only one bag each and carried them ourselves, so we were able to walk off the ship without having to wait.

It was a fun trip and an excellent way to see new sites together.

June 16, 2003

Mexico Cruise, part 1

This past weekend, Elizabeth and I took a three-night cruise with Royal Caribbean from Los Angeles to Ensenada, Mexico. This was an excellent weekend getaway, as we were fed, pampered and entertained throughout the voyage. We could find many good reasons to sail away for the weekend: The completion of the semester, the beginning of summer, a little anniversary of our dating, my acceptance into MBA school, the fact that neither of us has done such a thing, etc.

This first entry will show some of the ship, and I will include some pictures from on-board in a subsequent entry.

The Monarch of the Seas was docked in the San Pedro harbor, just off the 110 Freeway. This massive cruise ship could carry 2,744 passengers (along with 820 crew), although I believe that our particular cruise had around 2100 passengers. The ship is 880 ft long (which is much longer than the little boats that I sailed in the UT sailing club).
Bon Voyage!
We were provided lifejackets, and a safety drill was run before we left the harbor. Each jacket contained a whistle (think of the movie Titanic), and a water-activated light. Neither of these, nor the months of swim training, turned out to be necessary.
Our cabin had an ocean view. We were on deck 3, which was not very far above the water. This was good, in some ways, because we had a good view of the waves. More expensive rooms were higher off of the water.
The first night, one of the swimming pools was not yet filled with water. Even though the ship was inaugurated in 1991, it had just gone through a $30M renovation. As it turns out, the pool had just been repainted. The pools, as we discovered, seem to use filtered (treated?) and warmed seawater, as the water was very salty.
The prow of the "Monarch of the Seas", bravely thrusting forth into the dangerous waters of the Pacific.
Sunset Friday night, on the deck of the ship.
The moon rising over the deck. There were a number of night-time activities available, including gambling and several dance floors.

June 10, 2003

Mount Saint Mary's

Several weekends ago, my girlfriend and I went swimming at Mount Saint Mary's College. Elizabeth is an alumna, as she received her nursing degree there. She often swims at their pool, and I took the opportunity to see the inner-workings of a woman's college.

Because the campus is in the hills, we were above the low-level (sm/f)og of the city. The surroundings include chaparral-filled canyons. I've hiked in the nearby Santa Monica mountains extensively, and find it surprising that a sliver of wilderness can be found in the middle of one of the most populated areas in the United States.

The approach to Mount Saint Mary's College, through Brentwood, along Bundy Drive. The campus must have been purchased quite a while ago, as the land now must be valuable. The houses along the approach were very well-kept and sizable, but their value probably lies in the good neighborhood. (Location location location)
The campus had nice landscaping. The pool, too, was well-maintained. It was relaxing to be in a less-populated pool, as it was not so apparent that I cannot swim very well. Of course, Elizabeth swam circles around me, but that was to be expected. This can be contrasted with other local pools, in which I thought that the lifeguards regarded me as the greatest risk in the pool. (That said, I believe that the best way to learn something is to be around people who are good at it.)
The main gates of the campus. There are about 2000 students (including graduate students).

June 08, 2003

Electronic Toys, followup

My system, as previous described, as been installed. The picture and sound are excellent. (The attached picture is from the movie Gattaca.) Now I want (need?) the surround-sound speakers and subwoofer. Dolby 6.1 or bust.

MBA Offer

I received the acceptance letter from the UCLA Fully-Employed MBA program on Saturday. This is excellent news, as it is a new challenge and a great new opportunity.

I have questions, though: Is it the best opportunity available to me right now? If I were to accept this offer, would I get enough out of the experience? Would it be worth the time commitment? Am I doing this too early in my career, when I should be concentrating on growing other skills (e.g. technical abilities)? Where does it fit in my scheme of values? The world is large, and there are many interesting things to do.

I had spent some time on the application, even though it was submitted at the last minute. The essays are available at here, here, here, and here. The GMAT test required some preparation, too, and I am proud that my scores were quite high.

First, let’s summarize the time commitment aspect. The FEMBA program is three years long, and my normal job with Honeywell would continue during this time. The first year, my classes would be during one of three sections: Thursday evening (3:30pm-7pm) / Saturday morning (8:30am-12pm), all day Saturday (8:30am-5pm), or Monday night (7pm-10:30pm) / Saturday morning (8:30am-12pm). That’s seven hours of classwork each week, and I would anticipate maybe double that for studying and projects (a total of about 20 hours per week). There is also an intensive course at the beginning (August 28 through August 31, and September 13, all day). In the following years, the electives and such are at different times during the week, but I believe that they with the full-time MBA students. Even though Honeywell will pay for the entire thing, the tuition is $22k per year. It would require that I stay with Honeywell at least one year beyond graduation.

Okay. I know what I wrote in my essay, but is it REALLY the right time to be doing this? I’m not really making many financial decisions for my company, or plotting out the course of the business. My work is entirely on the engineering support side of things. In other words, I cost the company money and time, but do not bring in any revenues. But that’s okay: I would like to think that my work improves the productivity of the engineering organization. Three years is a long time, and I could imagine that I would have a larger role within the engineering community by that time. Yes. The studies will help me make better decisions when the time comes.

Perhaps it would fit well with a future at Honeywell, but does it work in the larger scheme of things? In general, I want to be good at EVERYTHING. (Could my entire post-college life be summed by the battle between that holy urge and the realization that I really don’t have time / ability to be the master of all skills? This might deliver a righteous blow but the enemy is insidious. [I have no problem with mortality in an abstract sense, but, oh, I really could use a little bit more time than just a century.]) What is the long-term vision? I would like to be a good man (i.e. good at being a man): Productive (offering / implementing innovative solutions to difficult problems), independent (clear thinking and dedicated to acting on my thoughts), graceful under pressure, interested in and joyous at what I do, loving to my friends and family, a good co-worker and leader, and known as someone who makes good decisions. I hope that the MBA program would help to grow some of those virtues. In particular, I hope that it could give me tools to make better decisions (e.g. incorporating a larger picture), a wider background to draw on for ideas, and experience at being a leader. Given the recent wave of corporate scandals, I recognize that business school is not a course in ethics. (Still, it seems reasonable to believe that an ethical man has a better chance at being successful in the long run than an immoral man, as an ethics [properly understood] helps one to grow the kinds of virtues that lead to [long-term] success.)

So the MBA is a good thing, and fits in with my goals. But it is only one of many possible paths out there. Is it the best thing? (This is sort of like thermodynamic system design: The MBA is like a potential system sizing, out of many, but is it the optimal? Where is my Newton-Rhapson solver or my Simulated Annealing algorithm?) I’m afraid that I don’t have the good answer for that right now. My course of action should be: List some alternatives (three, say), determine their strengths, and then compare them to the MBA.

  1. Do nothing (for now). Continue in my job at Honeywell, and work my various projects. This is the easiest of the alternatives, I suppose, as it requires no major change in my life. But I fear that I would be missing growth opportunities.
  2. Interview for other engineering jobs, perhaps with other large organizations. There are other firms that do similar work to Honeywell, and I believe that I could fit in well. But what would be different, in a fundamental way?
  3. Interview for other jobs, perhaps with consulting firms. I suppose that I want to move towards this alternative. I could offer IT or aerospace experience, as well as some general cleverness. I believe that the MBA could help with this.
  4. Start my own business. This is where I should end up. But I fear that I don’t have anything special to offer right now.
  5. Go back to school full-time. I could get the doctorate in engineering (mechanical or computer). This would be an opportunity to student a different field (biomedical engineering, or take actual computer science classes, or something else). Maybe later.

It would seem like my best alternative to the MBA (at the present time) would be to interview with consulting firms. I should think about how to investigate this idea, as it would be a sort of "due diligence" before embarking on a three-year commitment. But writing these entry has helped to gather my thoughts about this opportunity.

June 02, 2003

Blog Upgrades

It is somewhat embarrassing that I haven't written anything in such a long time. Today, however, I've upgraded to Movable Type 2.64. I've also moved the sidebar to the left side (in case you haven't noticed). I had hoped to accomplish that without the use of HTML tables, but I wasn't happy with the use of DIV tags and CSS. I know, I know, layout tables are depreciated by the W3 standards, but I just wanted to move the sidebar.

The monthly archives were updated, to output comments and trackbacks, too. (Previously, comments did not show up.) I used Andrew Pearson's MTEntryIfTrackbacks and Stepan Riha's MTEntryIfComments plugins.

I also upgraded the individual entry archives, so that they display the Trackback links, as well as the comments. There have been several interesting Trackbacks recently, most notably to the MT-MostVisited Plugin and Icehouse Canyon entries. Thanks for all of the interest.