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After moving to The Couve and finding ourselves living in an apartment complex that seems full of kids, we were expecting to finally get a lot of trick-or-treaters. Sadly, we were mistaken! Now the only way to manage our disappointment is by eating all of this candy.


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Uncle Trouble

My dad’s older brother, Michael Ward, died on Wednesday. While my dad told me the news yesterday morning, I don’t think it entirely hit me until I saw his obituary, though I had partially processed the idea that the man we knew was largely gone after his massive stroke almost six years ago. Uncle Mike is also the first close relative (i.e. my grandparents and their descendants) of mine who has died in my lifetime, an unusual streak. With that bit of context out of the way, I wanted to share a few memories that I have of him, mostly from when I was a kid.

First up is his mischievous grin, which has something to do with the nickname “Uncle Trouble”. Second, his joking nature, with a touch of sarcastic wit. Third, during family visits, mostly at Christmas or Fourth of July, he always found time to play with us. He taught me to play pool, to play cribbage; he showed me how to shuffle cards properly (with bridging). I suppose that was a mildly corruptive influence? Still a skill I’m glad he taught me.

He was very much into gadgets, and was one of the few grownups I knew in the ’90s who always seemed to have the latest Mac or a nice camera. I remember visiting him once in Chicago, where he was a news director, and being amazed by his TV that could tune 16 stations at once. He was an encourager of my own interest in technology, and was responsible for the infamous Zip Drive photo (by giving me one for Christmas one year). He also played a lot of golf, which somewhat influenced my own interest in the game.

Even after his stroke, I liked sharing pictures with him, and he loved to see them. I ended up returning an old favor by helping him keep his Mac organized and up to date whenever I visited them in DC.

Uncle Mike was always quick to chuckle. I will miss him greatly.

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Ex Astris, Scientia

“From the stars, knowledge.”

This happens to be the Latin motto of Starfleet Academy, but it’s a phrase that’s stuck in my head as reflection of where I think our future as a species lies. Few people embodied that spirit better than Dr. Sally Ride, who died yesterday at the age of 61 from pancreatic cancer. She was a huge influence on my early childhood dreams of becoming a scientist and astronaut; outside of my parents, she was absolutely one of my heroes.

Grief at a Distance

I first found out about the death of Dr. Ride on Twitter, by someone retweeting Boing Boing. This news came as quite a shock, as she was relatively young, and had kept her cancer diagnosis private. I even experienced the denial stage a bit, seeking to verify that she had in fact died; I suppose it’s not fair to Boing Boing that I didn’t trust a retweet of theirs, but Twitter is not exactly the place to get reliable information about celebrity deaths.

This affected me emotionally far more than the death of Steve Jobs did, a comparison I can’t help but make since I wrote about his death as well. I was finishing up work, and didn’t get much done for half an hour or so as I found myself suppressing tears, and reading a few of the early obituaries. I didn’t jump into the discussion of her life on Twitter, but I did write a brief tribute on Facebook, and hammered out some quick thoughts on Google+ while I was in the moment (all of which are replicated here in longer form).

There were a couple of factors that made this harder for me – the first I think was the surprise element (whereas Steve’s illness had been fairly public, if spun in favor of recovery). The second was that, as influential as Dr. Ride had been on me as a kid, I had been pretty disconnected from her post-astronaut career in science education. I was brought back to how I felt about her when I was little, while The Steve was indirectly present in my recent day-to-day experiences. The last aspect is that Sally Ride inspired my childhood dreams on a path that I did not end up following.

Hero in the Blue Jumpsuit

I was a huge fan of Dr. Ride when I was little. I knew enough of her biography that I had decided, by age 5, that I would go to Stanford, get an engineering degree (aerospace if possible), become an astronaut, and then settle down to design airplanes for Boeing. When I got my own bedroom around that time, my decor of choice was a floor-to-ceiling photo wallpaper of one of the space shuttles gliding in for a landing. My recollection is that in 2nd grade, I did a presentation on Dr. Ride, complete with blue jumpsuit, velcro, and NASA patch that my mom had sewn for me. I thought I also wore it for Halloween that year, but my mom checked the photo albums and I must be misremembering.

Suffice it to say, I was, and still am, a huge fan of space exploration, and Sally Ride was for me a role model who had gotten that opportunity. Obviously I haven’t become an astronaut, but I still plan to go into space one day, even if it’s just as a tourist. I never went to Space Camp, and I didn’t major in aerospace engineering, but I think that fundamental spirit of scientific exploration is still with me, and Dr. Ride’s example was part of my inspiration in that area.

I’ve noticed a lot of the coverage mentioning that she was an inspiration for women in the sciences. While that’s true, I feel like that makes it sound like she wasn’t trying to be an inspiration to the little Nicks of the world. I don’t want to make this tribute political, but I think that young children can learn a love for science long before they develop a gender identity, and that Dr. Ride shouldn’t be remembered merely as a role model for girls or as the first American woman in space. She was a scientist, an astronaut, an educator… a hero.

Tonight, I will look up to the stars, and remember.


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Stranded in Westborough

On Friday, Andrle and I took a Zipcar out to Worcester to see a friend’s band, Wilderun, open for Turisas at Paganfest 2012 at the Palladium. It was a fun show, and others agreed. I’ve had some exposure to metal and folk metal, although more with some of their origins in prog rock’s folk experiments, but this was my first concert of the sort. I think we were the only ones there with earplugs :oD. I also saw my first mosh pit, and confirmed that I would never want my wee frame in one.

The concert, however, is not the focus of this tale. On our way home to Boston, on Route 9 about 20 minutes outside of Worcester, the Brake Warning Light came on in our Mazda 3, so we immediately pulled off the road into the parking lot of the Westborough McDonald’s to check the brakes and then call for assistance. Through a comedy of errors, we did not make it home until almost 4 hours later. Zipcar did a good job taking care of us in spite of a number of things outside of their control, and have compensated us for the inconvenience, but I do have a few suggestions that might help avoid big waits and a total of 19 incoming and outgoing phone calls. Details below the cut.


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Reality Distorted

I had just gotten home from work on Wednesday night, when I read this tweet from my friend and fellow Apple fan Andrew. It was certainly a surprise, to the point where I initially doubted it (or perhaps hoped it wasn’t true), but the stream of traffic from my tech-oriented Twitter feed made it fairly clear that Steve Jobs had died. This news affected me more than I expected.


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Set course for Marriage Prime, Love Factor 6: I asked Andrle H. Pence to marry me, and she said yes! Woohoo!

This all went down the Wednesday before last (July 7th, or 7-7-2010… seven might be her favorite number…) while we were visiting a friend’s cabin in northern Minnesota.

Now, below the cut, some (goofy) photos of us on the dock where I proposed under the stars…


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Going Home

Last weekend I attended my five-year reunion at Swarthmore College. I graduated in 2005, and it was my first time back on campus since I attended the 2006 graduation to see off friends from that year. I think I had somehow forgotten how beautiful the campus is (being a national arboretum will do that).

Campus hasn’t changed much since I left; the Parrish remodel I had seen in 2006 makes a much nicer first floor lounge, New New Dorm is in place next to New Dorm (where I lived senior year, now called Kemp and Paul respectively), and the arboretum building got expanded. The newest trees planted around the science center (which was completed my senior year) have grown a fair bit. The napping couch in Hicks (the engineering building) was reupholstered. Otherwise, the campus is a very familiar place.

My sense of calling Swat home really struck me Sunday morning, as several of us met up to go to brunch at Java Joe’s. Since my parents moved to Seattle, I haven’t had a sense of permanent home. There’s not much tying me to Minneapolis other than high school friends I visit occasionally, and while my parents are associated with home, their current condo is largely unfamiliar. It probably also doesn’t help the sense of home there that my sister is still far, far away! I like Boston a lot, but I don’t feel Bostonian in a number of key ways. Swarthmore, however, is where I spent a good chunk of four years of my life (almost straight through in the last three years, since I did summer research twice). Now that I’ve been back, I can see myself returning more often, if for no other reason than to keep an anchor there; conveniently however I can expect to see a lot of old friends every time I go.

A more detailed rundown of the weekend is below the cut. Overall it was great to see everyone, but the official events were pretty lame. Apologies if I left anyone out!


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PAX East 2010

Best. PAX. Evar.

PAX East was my third Penny Arcade eXpo, and in many ways my best… but as others have addressed, also an unfortunate reminder of how hard it is to manage a convention hall full of geeks, nerds, dweebs, and all the rest. The whining has been handled by others, and I have a positive attitude and had a great time in spite of the logistical problems, so I’m not going to talk about those problems much.

For me, the two huge differences were location (that the event was local to me, in addition to not involving a visit to my parental units in Seattle) and people (in addition to more random run-ins, I spent most of the con with my old roommate Fritz and my girlfriend Andrle, as well as bringing my Little Brother on Sunday). Since it was a much more social event for me, I didn’t enter any gaming tournaments (as I did both of the last two PAX Primes, even placing in RoboRally last year and winning a PAX medal), nor did I attend any sessions (in part due to line issues).

As per my usual, I caught Paul and Storm and Jonathan Coulton in concert (the 6th time I’ve seen them play live!), as well as the opening act with the Video Game Orchestra. Like last year (but unlike my first year at PAX ’08), I watched the keynote by Wil Wheaton and the final round of the Omegathon (the third round of which was in this case was the opening for the Saturday night concert).

As always, amusing nerd-watching, interesting demos, tons of free crap, and good times gaming. A few pictures, some game and product comments, plus my concert videos, below the cut.


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RIP Bike

If you follow me on Twitter or are a friend on Facebook, you probably already heard that my bike got stolen. A brief memorial to my thorughly well-used 2005 Trek 7500 FX ::cue sappy music::…

My 2005 Trek 7500 FX, fresh of the moving truck, clean, and unused.

My 2005 Trek 7500 FX, fresh off the moving truck, clean, and unused.

It was a solid bike, and it served me well, in spite of occasional abuses such as forgetting to oil the chain often enough or wiping out on wet leaves and bending a pedal out of whack. I certainly put money into this on top of the base purchase price (adding cargo racks, new handlebars, replacing shifter cables, new brakes, etc.), but it is still well below the cost of dealing with a car… and I get some form of exercise, as well.

As for the theft itself, I have learned the hard way regarding cable locks. I had switched to one a while ago for the weight and convenience of being able to lock to more things, but they are of course eminently more cuttable. This particular one, a Kryptonite KryptoFlex 1218 6′, was sliced mostly silently right below the window of my girlfriend’s apartment, locked to a lamppost. I took a taxi home, and first thing in the morning filed a police report and an insurance claim.

Thankfully, my renter’s insurance from Liberty Mutual (obtained through work) covers loss, theft, or destruction of personal property even if it’s outside of my apartment; there’s just a $250 deductible (and potentially depreciation calculated) that comes out of the value of the item(s), which means it’s really only useful for replacing something on the order of a laptop or bicycle.

In the end, I’m getting a check for almost $500, which should mostly cover a new bike purchased during the Eastern Mountain Sports winter sale. My natural disposition then is to see the silver lining, and take this frustrating theft as an excuse to get a new bicycle for cheap (even after you amortize what I pay biweekly for the insurance).

Incidentally, while googling for the insurance quote, I discovered that when he still lived in Chicago, Obama rode a 7500 FX :oD.

Hopefully, the new bike (I’m currently leaning towards a Trek Valencia) will serve me as well as the last one.

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Nicolas Ward

Software engineer in Natural Language Processing research by day; gamer, reader, and aspiring UltraNurd by night. Husband to Andrle
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