camp is over!

My hectic, crazy, stress filled summer is still months away from giving way to a cold beer enjoyed somewhere in the Outer Banks, but one milestone has passed.

My camp finished today (ok, my *primary* camp -- my secondary one is in August). We had 66 kids for a raucous week filled with astrobiology goodness. They even found some *great* examples of micrometeorites (ok, ablation spherules).

I'm wiped out. I wish I could sleep for a month, but because I have not yet learned how to say "no", I am giving a talk tomorrow at a venue 2 hours away from here (that is, 4 hour round trip, 1 hour talk -- smart, huh?) and then I leave Sunday for a 3-day workshop I'm co-teaching in Philly.

If I survive 'til Wednesday evening, you may see another post, but right now I'm only giving 50-50 odds.


Two DVDS everyone should buy

I don't have too much free time these days, so I haven't seen much TV or any movies (the last one was X3 -- not too bad).

Anyway... I did buy two DVD sets recently, and highly recommend both of them.

First off -- get Samurai Jack, season 3. It is a cartoon, but it is amazing. Some of the episodes are downright silly, but some of them are better than $100 million dollar Hollywood productions.

Secondly -- get Firefly, the series. I never would have seen this if N8Ball hadn't suggested we rent Serenity (the movie they made after the series ended) many weeks ago. When I saw how cheap the whole series was (I think I paid $24 from Amazon), I bought it. I'm about halfway through, and each episode so far has been great.

On Student Loans

I've found it hard to write too much lately -- work is interfering with blogging!

Anyway, this one has been percolating for a while. I've hit a milestone, and I need to shout it from the blogaintops.

When I graduated from Penn State with my bachelor's degree, I was the proud owner of a little more than $34k of student loan debt. I had $23k in "NJCLASS" loans from the NJHEAA, and a little more than $11k in Federal Stafford Loans. I used to complain about the NJCLASS loans -- the price to be paid for being able to take out larger loan amounts was an upfront fee, having to pay interest quarterly as soon as the loan was issued, and higher interest rates. I needed the money to go to school, though, so I had to do what I had to do (I'll omit the obvious joke about stripping). On the contrary, Stafford Loans let you defer all payments until you graduate (including graduate school), and had decent interest rates.

I've been paying on my NJCLASS loans for about 8 years, and in those 8 years, I've managed to pay down the $23k down to just about $6k. I've always overpaid just a little bit (usually just rounded to the nearest multiple of $10, but more recently, I've been overpaying by $20 - $60 a month). The reason for my excitement is that I took out four separate loans (one for each year) that added up to the $23k, and I just paid off the first one. One loan -- gone.

As long as I'm talking about loans though, I get to rip on Sallie Mae -- this is my soapbox, after all. Five years ago, I consolidated my $11k of Stafford Loans with Shannon's, and the total for the consolidation loan was about $17k. Sallie Mae seems to go out of their way to make it difficult to repay on their loans, even simple stuff like changing each year who you're supposed to make the check out to (first it's SMSC then Sallie Mae Servicing, then just Sallie Mae, then whatever else they want you to call them). The thing that always got me, though, is that it says explicitly on the coupon that if you want to overpay, their default is just to advance your due date, unless you send them a letter requesting differently. This seems to me to be code for "we are going to do our best to keep you from paying down your principal". Since I only have a fixed amount I could afford to overpay on my loan payments, I overpaid on the NJCLASS loans instead of the Sallie Mae loans, just because of the ease (no stinkin' letter required!). The result is that I've paid, as I mentioned, $17k off of my NJCLASS loans, but only $3k off of my Sallie Mae loans. The monthly payment to Sallie Mae is lower, so I expected to pay down the NJ loans faster, but still, the fact that I was discouraged from even making little overpayments has kept me from paying off my Stafford Loans as quickly as I think I could have. Every time I see my balance from Sallie Mae I get angry.

These days, people in PA are questioning how PHEAA is being run, and good old Sallie Mae even tried to take over this organization, claiming they could run it more efficiently and make more money for the state. I don't disagree -- I'm sure they *can* make more money, by making it harder on people with outstanding student loans to pay them off. This is the first ever issue that made me write a letter to my state legislators -- I advocated strongly for keeping Sallie Mae away from PHEAA, and thankfully that is the decision they made. If this ever inches forward towards happening again, you can bet I'll be first in line in Harrisburg to lobby against them.


Astronomers on TV (and not PBS!)

First Martin Rees was on Letterman (was that like 3 years ago now?).

Now Steve Squyres is on Colbert. I'm jealous. I guess I need to write a book. I guess first I need to be the PI on a billion dollar class mission to Mars. I'll get right on that.


I'm turning into a volleyball snob (+ lots of history)

Here's some pre-rant history -- I started playing volleyball at 14 in a tournament at my high school. There was no high school boys team, so I fell in love with the sport by playing in this tournament once a year for four years. I was never coached, so I didn't know what I was doing at first, but by my senior year, my team was ok, and I think we finished in the top ten. When I came to Penn State as an undergrad, I was starving to play more often, and found a group of guys who would play on the asphalt court (seriously -- asphalt, whose idea was that?) outside North Halls. I was not as good as the other players, but I was willing to learn. I remember almost getting in a fist fight with a guy I hardly knew, because he didn't like playing with me because I wasn't as good as he was. We didn't come to blows, but let's just say neither of us went out of our way to say hi to each other after that. I told everyone who would listen that if they just gave me some advice instead of yelling at me, I would try to get better. By the time I was a junior, I started playing pretty regularly on the "Diffraction Spikes" -- the astronomy department team led ably by Lee Carkner. Lee was great as a captain -- he was willing to take anyone on the team and give them pointers and help them to improve. I think I took a big jump forward those last two years at Penn State playing with Lee.

When I moved to Virginia, I started playing pick-up games at a local gym, and wound up playing in the city league. I was so desperate to play, as always, that I would play anywhere, anytime, with anyone. I played in the B league on a horrible men's team (one guy was a soccer coach, and at random times, he would head the ball just to make himself laugh), I played on a bad B co-ed team where I think one of the women quit because of me (more on why she quit later). I eventually wound up on the "Fruit Eating Bats" (never got an explanation of where that name came from), and played with an ex-high school coach named Lance. Lance gave me some more tips, and along with that and just playing more frequently, I think I took another step forward.

Volleyball has always been both a stress reliever and an addiction with me. If I know a game is going on somewhere in my vicinity, I will usually do whatever I can to play. In CVille, when I dropped off of my co-ed team, I started a co-ed team in the lowest division with me and 5 beginners. It was picnic level, but it was another chance to play once or twice a week, so it was fine with me. It was also the only time I've ever been able to get Shannon to play, and although she denies it, she was actually pretty good.

Since moving back to State College, I have probably played more often than ever before. Gordon Richards got me started at the YMCA, where we play pick-up games every Tue/Thu. I've been playing there for 4.5 years now -- I don't think anyone else among the regulars has been playing there as consistently as I have for as long as I have. It's very cyclical, there have been weeks where we struggled to get 5 players, and there have been times where we would have 20 people show up for 1 court, and we've had to rotate teams on and off the court. We've had nights where most players couldn't hit the ball over the net, and we've had nights where everyone was playing their A game, and it was more competitive than some of the leagues I've been in. Unfortunately, we've hit a bad stretch at the YMCA, hence this post. But again, more background is necessary.

I should give my philosophy here. Because I've never had a coach and credit a lot of improvement I've been able to make to people giving me pointers, I'm always willing to help any beginner interested in getting better. My philosophy of playing is very offense oriented -- I am agressive and will hit the ball hard at every opportunity. I don't believe in hitting finesse shots like dinks or dumps unless absolutely necessary. This is what gets me in trouble, some people believe that playing this way isn't "smart", because its a higher risk play than hitting dinks. But like most things, my feeling is being aggressive hitting is high risk, high reward. It's much easier to defend a dink than a hard driven line shot. This is why Janet quit that co-ed team back in CVille (she thought I hit too many shots in the net or out of bounds). I will admit that I didn't have a .500 hitting percentage, but the only kills we usually got in games were mine. If I'm hitting more errors than kills, I'll be the first to admit that it's time to change tactics, but I always start every game planning to play aggressively -- high risk, high reward.

Ok, so now it is time for the rant. Like I said, with volleyball, it is anytime, anyplace, any game. However, I have finally gotten to the point where I have enough opportunities to play and have played with some great players, I'm less willing to play with newbies. For the past few months at the YMCA, there have been a number of newbies that have been driving a lot of the regulars away. The big problem isn't their lack of skill, but their absolute unwillingness to accept any constructive criticism. You try to give them pointers about where to position themselves, how to hit the ball, etc., and they get annoyed. It has gotten to the point where it can even be dangerous. If you go after a ball in an aggressive manner, if you are expecting that it is your ball (and it is), and they are going after the ball (when it isn't theirs) and you run into each other at high speed, it can be bad. One of the newbies ran into Frank about 20 times in one night, and he finally snapped after the 20th time.

(This post got delayed by two weeks because of work -- time to pick up where I left off).

I played for about 45 minutes last night, and it was pretty sad. Only six of us showed -- Jason, Frank, and Steve got there early and were playing with two noobs, and I showed up late to make it 3 on 3. Steve probably was able to do a better job than anyone else getting the beginners to take *some* advice, but both of them were still completely out of control. Not surprising that a bunch of the other regulars decided to stay away. Once the league season starts again in September, I may really quit the YMCA for good.