Wednesday, December 31, 2008

More snow on New Year's Eve

We got some more snow today. We were going to go out to lunch and then take in a movie in a town about 10 miles away (the closest theater now - there was both a movie theater and a drive-in theater in town when I first moved here 30 years ago). We brushed off the car and got to the Chinese restaurant for a nice lunch buffet. After lunch, we had a tougher time clearing off the car to head to the movie. It took about fifteen minutes to get about two miles down the road so we decided it wasn't worth it to see the movie. We'll just go another time. The snow wasn't really that bad but people must have been rushing home early from work (I'm still on vacation) and caused the traffic back-ups. We only got about 4 - 6 inches but it came down heavy for a while and scared us a bit.

I feel sorry for the folks who had parties to go to tonight or who were hosting the parties. I don't think a lot of folks ventured out. The road in front of our house was pretty empty after the "rush" hour. Here's another picture of our house in the new snow. I'm looking forward to the new year. I'm hopeful that we'll have a better year than last year. I pray for those who suffered hardship this past year that they will have a better year coming up. We had a pretty good year - especially compared to the people in war zones or who lost homes or money or loved ones.

Monday, December 22, 2008

"The True Meaning of Christmas"

The title of this post is in quotes because I'm quoting one of the stories you always see on TV and in newspapers this time of year. Every year around this time, every TV station and newspaper I have ever seen or read has a story about people helping other, less fortunate, people. It's nice to see or read these stories. I like the fact that people go out of their way to help other people. I like the fact that people in need are being helped. I like the fact that we see right then that peoples' lives can be improved - if only for a short time. Then comes the part I disapprove of - the announcer or writer states that, "This story illustrates the true meaning of Christmas."

No, this is not the true meaning of Christmas. What it illustrates is something we should all be doing all year long. What it illustrates is people in need being helped who may be back in bad shape the next day. What it illustrates if that, in a country as rich and capable as ours, there are still people in need and they can only be helped by individuals or small groups who, at this particular time, are willing and able to help those people. The unfortunate people being helped at this time of the year have probably needed help for a long time and will need steady help for a while before they can get back on their feet.

There are other people who are against any kind of organized help for the unfortunate people other than by private groups or individuals. There are people who think that any organized help by a government is bad and a waste of time or money. Unfortunately, many of the people who object to this organized (government in this case) help are Christians. They either feel that the unfortunate people are in their situation because they aren't working hard enough or are being punished for being bad. If the government helps the unfortunate people, they are taking money away from all the hard working people and giving it to people who are lazy or choose to be homeless. I know one guy who, being against any government aid to the unfortunate, said he was more likely than most to put money in the cup of some poor beggar than most other people. Does he think that is really enough? Does he not see that to really help someone, it takes a concerted, continuing effort - something that is organized and not based on the whim of someone passing by?

Well, the true meaning of Christmas is that a baby was born of a virgin in a stable. That baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit and was God with us (Immanuel). His name was Jesus and he was born to give us hope and to show us that God would forgive our sins (we are all sinners, by the way). He was, and is, God incarnate. He said the greatest commandment was to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind (Matthew 22:37). He also said that the second commandment was like it: to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). For the passage in context, see Matthew 22:36-40 NIV. If we truly believe that this country and its government were founded on Christian principles, we as a country need to repent of our sins and start loving our God and our neighbors. We need to be helping our neighbors in an organized way. We can do great things if we can work together. If we insist on doing everything our own, disorganized way, we cannot accomplish the things we are capable of.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

First big snow of the season


I'm dating this post December 20, 2008 because that's when we got the snow (actually starting December 19) but this really loaded on December 26.

I know this isn't much snow (6 - 8 inches) in other places but it's a lot to us. Here is a picture of our house with the snow framing it. It wasn't bad shoveling it - until you got up near the road. That's where the snow plows throw all the heavy, watery, salted and sanded snow from the road. It takes as long to shovel the last six feet of the driveway (near the road) as it does the rest of the driveway because the snow is so heavy and there is so much more of it.

You can't see our Christmas tree in the front window in this picture. I'll try to get one at night and add it to the this post later.

[Updated, December 28 with a picture of our house with the Christmas tree "visible" through the front window. Unfortunately, it's not very clear. One of these days I'll learn to take good pictures. You can see that in the eight days since the original post, all the snow has disappeared.]

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

December 17, 1777

One of my favorite places on the Internet is the This Day in History page at the History.com website. It used to be referred to as the History Channel website because it was supported by the television network of the same name. Today's entry made me stop and think. One of the events they highlighted today was that on this day in 1777, France recognized the United States of America as an independent nation. If this hadn't happened, you have to wonder if we would have won our independence from England.

Of course, our winning our independence depended on a number of things. For one thing, the open support from the French depended on our being able to convince them that we had a chance of winning. The huge victory at Saratoga in October of that year allowed that. Also, the fact that Benjamin Franklin was our "ambassador" helped a lot. He captivated the French with his knowledge and his charm. He was able to convince the important and powerful people in the French court that their helping us was a way to get back at the British for France's defeat and losing its North American territories in the Seven Year's War.

It troubles me that some "super patriots" in our present day are often willing to complain about France when they disagree with us and to put down the French as when they insisted on renaming French Fries to Freedom Fries. Yet they are willing to look back at the American Revolution for guidance in how we should be running our country now. But they forget about the help the French gave the Founding Fathers during the Revolution. We wouldn't have won our freedom without the sacrifice and dedication of the Founding Fathers but we also may not have won our freedom without the help of the French.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Working at home

Actually, I should title this, "Working from home". I've had a real awakening. I've had a desktop computer at home since I built my first one from a HeathKit (PC compatible with an Intel 8088 processor) in the 80's. I could log in to the Unix computer at our office at the US Geological Survey and get some work done after hours or on week-ends. I didn't do it a lot but when something needed to be done or I had a sudden thought about a problem I was working on, it was nice to have the flexibility to do that. When I came to my present job, I couldn't do that but I could still bring work home (on disk or by e-mailing it) but it wasn't as convenient. For years, though, our network administrator has set up a Virtual Private Network so that we could log in from home and use the company network. I haven't had a high powered computer at home for a while, though, and didn't think I could ever do that. But recently, I got a new, fast computer with plenty of memory, a quad-core processor, a large screen and plenty of disk space. So, I was ready to install the VPN client and get to work!

When I tried to install the software, though, I got a rude awakening. My new computer was too advanced. The software couldn't run on my 64-bit operating system (Windows Vista 64 bit - it's not as bad as I'd been led to believe). So, what to do now? Was I reduced to bringing home work on my thumb drive or e-mailing it back and forth?

Well, the network administrators had an idea. They asked me to try Log Me In or as it is usually "spelled" LogMeIn, (my first thought was that it looked like a Chinese noodle dish). I heard about things like this where you can access your computer through a Web browser as if you are at your desk. But I didn't think it would work very well. Boy was I wrong. It's really great. It is literally like you're sitting at your desk at work. There is a little delay as you type or click the mouse but, for the most part, everything just works. I highly recommend this. There is nothing fancy to set up and you don't need to have a high powered computer to use it. I do recommend having at least as large a screen at home as you have on the work computer, though. My screen at home is a 24" wide screen monitor while my screen at work is "only" a 22" wide screen monitor.

But everything just works. I didn't have to worry about connecting to the network. I didn't have to worry about setting up a link to our source control system (we use Subversion). I didn't have to worry about installing the compilers (we mostly program in Java and use IntelliJ but I also use CodeGear's C++ Builder and Delphi) or programming utilities we use like installer makers (we use Inno Setup for Windows applications). Even small things like screen capture and hex editors are already set up. It's amazing how many programs and files you use that make working easier or more efficient that you don't think about needing to be installed on a new computer.

Everything was already set up on my computer at work. I have access to everything from my old familiar Web browser bookmarks to our network as if I was sitting at my desk. Our company doesn't encourage us to work extra hours and I don't plan on abandoning my family to put in more hours at work. What this does is to give me the flexibility to work on something critical or to work on something as I get an inspiration. It also allows me to stay home when I'm feeling just a little sick. Normally, I'd force myself to go in. Now, I can still get work done but not infect everyone else at work.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Conjunction of the Moon, Venus and Jupiter


I see lots of pictures around the web of the Moon, Venus and Jupiter when they were recently near each other in the sky. So, I thought, "Why not add my pictures to the mix?" I don't know how it looked on Sunday, November 30, 2008 because it was cloudy here but by Monday, December 1, we had clear skies. I ran out of my office to snap a few pictures just in case the clouds rolled in before I could get home and get my tripod. So, the first picture is a far view of the three object over our office. I found a ladder to rest on but it was not stable and none of my close shots were any good. Look above and to the left of the peak on the front of our office. If you double-click the picture, it should show up full scale.

When I got home, I attached the tripod to my camera but there was a lot of light from cars on the road and the church on our street. Also, we're closer to town and the light from the businesses there drowned out the light a bit. But on the second picture, which is obviously the closer of the two, you can make out the irregularities of the sunlight on the Moon due to the mountains and craters on the moon. The crescent Moon is obvious in the upper left. Near the bottom is Venus and on the right about half-way up is Jupiter. The three brightest objects in the night sky all together as they won't be again (at night) until about 2052. Here's hoping we're all around to see it again!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Writing software and building a railroad

There are lots of analogies for writing software. Some people compare it to architecture (is Art Vandelay writing programs on the side?) and others compare it to bridge building. I'm going to compare it to building a railroad in a remote, harsh environment. What brought this to mind is that I've been reading a book by David McCullough called Brave Companions. It is a set of 17 essays on people (and some places) you may not be familiar with but who are important in history. One of the stories is about the building of the railroad across the Isthmus of Panama. As Mr. McCullough develops the story of how difficult a project it was, I started to see parallels between what the builders faced and how a software project is run. Not that we have to deal with danger, disease or hard physical labor but the methods of planning and executing the plan are similar.

First off, there was no support system in Panama for the men (construction workers and engineers) and the machinery (no supplies or repair facilities) so before they could even begin, they had to set up a support base. People had to eat and equipment needed to be sheltered from the elements. Managers like to talk about "building up the infrastructure" and engineers like to talk about building up the "support network" but it's all the same idea - you end up spending as much (if not more) time making things to support the work as you do spending time doing the work itself. In a lot of engineering projects this involves designing a testing system so you know what you're building will work correctly or safely.

Another similarity I noticed was their need to build the railroad so they could build the railroad. This sounds silly but what I mean here is that they used the railroad itself to transport equipment and men to the work area. This involved quickly building a not-ready-for-prime-time track into the wilderness to get rails, ties, ballast (the stones the track rests on), spikes and men that was just good enough to allow a locomotive and cars to run as far into the jungle as possible. Then, in parallel, they would go back and improve the track to bring it up to the level of what the railroad needed to be to operate commercially. We do similar things in our programming. We often write ugly, inefficient code just to get something running so we can test it and to enable us to write other code. Then we go back and make the code more efficient. We add more error checking and handle problems better. We make the user interface look nicer and make it easier to use. One fellow engineer used to joke that when you used the early versions of our software and firmware, it wouldn't run correctly unless you wanted it to work. For example, you had to know that only certain things would work or that certain values had to be entered that would work. Then we would go back and make it more robust.

They finally finished the railroad and it worked well for a long time. It was the most profitable railroad in the world for a long time. They could charge whatever they wanted because there was no competition. Another analogy between the railroad and a software program is the need for maintenance. You might think that once a program is written, it runs forever but that isn't true. The underlying operating system changes. The data the program works with changes. And the people who use the program think of new things they would like to do with the program. A good program is built so that it can be upgraded. Here is an interesting link about the Panama Railroad.

[Updated, Dec 3, 2008: It turns out that one of my favorite blogs, Coding Horror (it's in my list of "Other Blogs"), has a post about variousg analogies used to describe writing software (or Software Engineering as some people say). It starts by listing some of the other analogies and then adds another, programmers as farmers.]

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I see where I am wrong

Once again, I've let my blog go too long without an entry. But I'm starting to see what I'm doing wrong. One thing I found out a while ago was that I should never say what my next entry will be about. This would be fine for a real writer who can write on demand. But I'm a poor writer who needs to think about things too long in order to write about them. Realizing this mistake doesn't keep me from making it. I will try to just write what I want to as often as I can. I will try not to limit myself by saying beforehand what I'm going to write about next.

Today I realized another problem - I'm trying to write great, profound pieces each time I write. Again, that would be fine for a good writer but it doesn't work for me. I need to take a cue from my wife's blog and write more often about every day things. She has an entertaining blog and sometimes it is really profound. But she doesn't try to make every entry an opinion piece worthy of The Atlantic. It is nice to be able to look back at her blog and be reminded about something we did. It also helps us remember when we did certain things.

So, paraphrasing something we used to say in the 70's, this is the first blog entry of the rest of my life.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

My idea to increase voting rates

Well, this election is over and we voted in very high numbers. Some say it was the highest voter turnout in 40 years and others say it was the highest percentage in 100 years. But this was an especially compelling election with big problems to fix and with a big backlash against a very unpopular President. How do we keep these numbers up?

As I was watching the election coverage last night, I thought about how we divide up the electoral votes for each state and how we divide up the number of representatives each state can send to the House of Representatives. They are both based on the relative populations of the states. That's why the Census is very important that we run every ten years. Each state goes to great lengths to make sure all of its people are counted. But I was thinking that, even with the great turnout we had in this election (about 64% according to some), that means we are dividing up our representation by including 36% of the people who don't even vote. And that's on a record breaking year! If they don't care enough to vote, why should they count in deciding representation? Just because someone is sitting there taking up space shouldn't be a reason to give one state more representation than another. How do we get more people to vote?

My idea is to divide up electoral votes and Representatives to the House based on the number of people that voted in the last national election. Then it would be in everyone's interest to go out and vote. The states would do a much better job of encouraging people to vote and to make voting an easier and more pleasant experience. Another advantage to this would be that the representation would be recalculated more often and be closer to the real number. Right now we're working from data that was calculated during the last census in 2000.

One problem with this would be voting fraud. It would be much more important to guard against this and it would be tougher because the state government might be tempted to encourage it or at least not try as hard to stop it. There would have to be better ways to prevent voting fraud. But I think that is a problem that could be overcome. My idea is kind of like when Major League Baseball decided to make the All Star Game mean something by giving the league that won the game the home field advantage for the World Series. Now the players have an additional reason for playing hard in the game.

Anyway - congratulations Mr. Obama. I think you make a fine President and I will be praying for you and your cabinet.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A quick story

Yes, yes yes - I know- I've been lazy about my blog. I've got some great stories to tell but there just isn't time. But I just reminded myself of a story that I have to write down before I forget it again.

One of my (minor) responsibilities at work is to handle the installer for our software product for the Apple Macintosh. Whenever we release a new version, I have to make sure we can install it on OS X - the operating system for the Macs. One day, we were having trouble with the installer on a certain version of OS X and we had one test machine with that version. I hadn't used that computer before so I had to create an account for myself. I noticed that two of the other guys in our group already had accounts on this machine and they had small pictures by their name in the start-up screen to help identify their accounts. I liked that and thought I'd add a picture to my account when I was ready.

I went through the set-up procedure and when it was done, it offered a picture for me to use for my account. It was the picture of a not very nice looking old man who seemed to be in a bad mood. "Why in the world would they offer me that picture?", I fumed. Then it dawned on me - this nice, new Mac monitor had a built-in camera and, while I was setting up the new account, it had taken a picture of me setting up the account! It offered my picture as the one to identify the new account.

I shifted from admiration for Apple's software for setting up a new account to disgust for what I've come to look like in unguarded moments. When did I become an old man?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

My Train Trip

We usually go to visit my mother once a year. It is a long trip, over 600 miles by car, and the kids don't handle it well. My wife doesn't like it much, either. We often convince my mother-in-law to come with us, too. She helps keep everyone happy and keeps the kids occupied but sometimes even she can't help when we're stuck in miles of traffic waiting for construction work to clear. So, this year, we decided that I would go visit "The One Grandma" by myself. An aside: My son gave her that name (he was very young then) when he realized that she had no one living with her (my father died the year before Cindy and I were married) and she was alone.

I thought about driving or flying but with the price of gas so high and the airlines raising prices and charging for everything from check-on luggage to pillows, I decided to try something different. The bus is less expensive but is cramped. So, I thought about taking my first long train trip since I was eleven. The price was amazing. The round-trip fare from Providence, Rhode Island to Pittsburgh was only $120 (with a small discount because we belong to AAA). The amount of time I would be on the train would be a little longer than if I drove - but I wouldn't be driving. I'd be sitting back, looking at the scenery, walking around, eating food from the train's snack bar and reading. Could it really be this good?

There used to be many more trains stopping at Pittsburgh. Now, there are only three - one to Chicago, one to Washington DC and one to New York City. But the timing was good for the New York City train. I would have to leave Providence at 7:30 AM and would get to Pittsburgh around 8 PM. We had to leave our house at 6 AM to get to Providence in time and I'd still have to take a bus from Pittsburgh to my old home town about 45 minutes south of Pittsburgh but, as I remembered from 33 years ago when I still lived near Pittsburgh, the bus station was right across the street from the train station. This was going to be so much more convenient than the airplane! The picture on the left shows the roomy seat I had from New York to Pittsburgh. There was room to stretch out. The meals I bought in the snack bar were not expensive and I had a seat to myself most of the trip. If you have the time, I highly recommend taking the train. The conductors and the the folks working in the snack car were very friendly. The announcements of stations were clear and timely. And when we got to interesting sights along the way, for instance, this picture shows Horse Shoe Bend near Altoona, PA, the conductor even gave a little talk about its history and significance. Did you know that it was considered significant enough in the transportation of troops and goods during World War 2 that the Germans sent saboteurs to destroy it?

This is the first of at least two articles about my trip. The next one will be about what happens when things change in a place you thought you knew.

Friday, August 29, 2008

My "bug" collecting story

A while ago, I said I was going to write a funny story (to me at least) about how I tried to get more insects for the collection that was due before the end of the semester. Well, here goes:

This first part is boring and not funny at all.
I was taking a course in Invertebrate Zoology. This is the study of all animals without a backbone. That's the huge majority of animals in the world. It includes everything from single-celled animals like the amoeba and paramecium to the mollusks like the clam and octopus. It includes the insects and many others. It's kind of like dividing all the people of the world into two groups - the citizens of the state of Massachusetts and NOT the citizens of the state of Massachusetts!

Our professor, Dr. Daniel Hoffman, had lowered the number of families we needed to have in our collection from 100 to 50. Family is the name given to a level of classification in biology (here is a Wikipedia article on the hierarchies of classification in biology). For instance, all the bees are in one family - Apidae. So, you couldn't have a bumblebee and a honeybee in your collection. They are both in the same Family. The size of the collection was reduced early in the semester so, of course, I assumed that since we only had to do half the work it would be a piece of cake. I didn't rush right out and get a bunch of specimens. I had all semester. If only I had thought for a minute. This was the fall semester. It got colder as the semester progressed. Insects don't like the cold. How many insects have you seen in penguin or polar bear movies? It didn't take too long for me to panic. It was October and I had less than half the specimens I needed. I was looking everywhere. I was digging under the bark of decaying trees, I was scouring the basements of all the labs, I was searching through the botany lab's greenhouse. I was running out of time and was nowhere near the end. The funny thing about panic is that it caused me to miss a lot of good places where I would go in later years for non-panicked insect collecting.

Every day after dinner, I'd climb on my bicycle and go for a long ride that ran along the river. There were a lot of low, wet areas and one particular day I had to ride through clouds of various kinds of insects. So, I came up with the great idea to attach some sort of bag to the front of my car and drive along this same road at night. I'd get more specimens in an hour than a student could hope for! So, I got a coat hanger and my laundry bag, slid the hanger through the place where the draw-string went to close the bag and wired the bag to my front bumper. That didn't work because the bag had nowhere to open - it bumped into the grill of the car. So, then I moved it up and attached it under the hood so that the bag was above the hood. I put it on the passenger side of the car so it wouldn't block my view but I had to keep looking over at it to see if I was getting anything and that was as bad for my driving as a blocked view. So, then I moved it to the driver's side of the car. This way I could "aim" the car at promising things that showed up in the headlights. There didn't seem to be many insects that night, though. I kept pulling over to check the bag and I saw nothing. Talk about panic. I was wasting my best chance here. So, after checking the bag once more, I stopped to think for a minute. In the headlights I could see that I seemed to be on the edge of a large grassy field. I had this vision of thousands of insects laying low in the grass. From what I could see (not very far - you idiot), it looked flat so I got into the car, pulled off the road and started driving through the field. The results didn't match my imagination. There was no cloud of insects rising from the grass as I plowed through it but I could have been missing it because I couldn't see well over or around the bag that was flying in front of me. So, on I drove hoping to hit the spot where all of the insects must surly be hiding.

As I craned my head to try to see around the collection bag ballooning out in front of me, I noticed the grass getting higher and I could feel the ride getting rougher. Now, the grass had become high weeds that were higher than the hood of my car. Now I had no idea where it was or how far I was from the road. I thought I'd better turn left and head back for where I thought the road must be. Still the weeds grew higher and higher. Now I was really having trouble controlling the car. Finally, I came out on the road. The last 20 yards or so I couldn't see where I was going because the weeds had gotten so high. I stopped on a wide part of the shoulder to inspect my collection bag. Nothing! I was devastated. As I stood there next to my car, I looked over at the field I'd been driving through. I could see a barn off in the distance and the glow of lights in the house next to it. Then, as my eyes adjusted to the night after turning off my headlights, I saw that I'd been driving through the edges of a corn field. I couldn't believe how lucky I was that I didn't run into a fence or a ditch as I had driven. It didn't look like I'd gone through the main part of the field but just on the edges that weren't tended. Perhaps seed was carried there by animals or scattered by the wind. I must have turned off just in time.

I did finish the insect collection but just barely. I was a day or so late as I looked for one more specimen to fill out the collection to 50. I expanded my search and finally one day, when I had the hood of my car up to check the oil, I noticed a horrible, mangled grasshopper-like insect stuck in the radiator of the car. I did a cursory classification and stuck it in the collection. The funny thing is that it was probably there from my drive through the field and was the only specimen I got from that adventure.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cows facing north?

I was reading a news item on the CNN website (it can be found other places, too) that has the headline, "Cows' compass is pure animal magnetism". One of the quotes in the article, though, has the scientists saying, "The magnetic field of the Earth has to be considered as a factor." So, in other words, the cows' sensing and reacting to the Earth's magnetic field is just one of the possibilities. Other possibilities that are mentioned are that the cows are just trying to stay cool by exposing a smaller dimension to the sun. Another possibility mentioned in the article is that perhaps the cows are aligning to the fences which may tend to be aligned north and south. But the editors just couldn't resist all the puns that go along with cows lining up with the compass.

It reminds me of a story I heard at our college. Supposedly a guy at our school, who was an avid outdoors man, always slept with his head oriented North. He supposedly did this to "tune" his body to the Earth's magnetic field so that someday he might be able to sense North if he was lost, without a compass and unable to see the Sun or the stars. It is probably just a story but it's fun to think about.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Well, we enjoyed "The Clone Wars"

My son, Evan, and I had been very excited about the new Star Wars: The Clone Wars movie after seeing previews for it. We are big Star Wars fans and we're big animation fans so it seemed a natural for us. When it was finally released last week (August 15), we went to see it the next day. I decided to read a few reviews before we went so I could help Evan figure things that that might be confusing. I will never learn. If the reviews are glowing and build my hopes up too high, I can be disappointed by the movie because it doesn't meet my expectations. But if the reviewers pan the movie, I may not go to see the movie or just wait for it to come out on DVD where it is never as exciting as in the theater. But, in this case, we were going to see it no matter what. As Evan said, "I'm so excited. This is my first chance to see a Star Wars movie in the theater." He's had to see all the others at home on our standard definition 27" TV.

So we went on a Saturday afternoon and Evan got his usual small popcorn and a small drink. We settled back, enjoyed the previews and waited for the movie to begin. I was so worried that he wouldn't like it. The reviews talked about how this movie was too complex ("Where", they said, "was the simple joy of the first Star Wars.") or the animation was not as good as other recent movies (we'd just seen WALL-E) and some reviewers were complaining about the fact the animation director had been influenced by the old Thunderbirds marionettes. With the movie starting, I was very tense. Would this be a big disappointment for my son?

I didn't need to worry. The action started at the very beginning and rarely stopped. And yes, that was another complaint of the reviewers. Too much action? That sounds like the famous complaint from Amadeus where Mozart's rival complains, "Too many notes." These movies are all full of action and this one just has more of it. And, in my view, the action here is much better explained. They actually take the time to explain what they are trying to do and what they need to do to counter the enemy's moves. It makes the weapons they have seem more real - the weapons have advantages and limitations. Also, you learn much more about the Clone Troopers. We learn about the selfless devotion and the duty they feel. They are human but they are brave beyond measure (as opposed to the 'droids they are fighting who are just mindlessly following orders and programming). The plot is very intricate but my 12-year old son was able to follow it. While it didn't have the simple story of the original Episode 4 Star Wars, it was no more complex than the Episode 3 Star Wars. And how could this have been a complaint (and it was) of the reviewers? How many times have you heard reviewers complaining that movies today are too simplistic? How many times have you heard reviewers complaining that animation is just cartoons - that serious animations are lacking? As far as we're concerned, this is a fine movie and a really fine example of modern animation.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A visit to the pet store

I usually go to the pet store with my wife and kids (we sometimes take our dog to the stores that allow leashed pets) but the other day I needed to stop off after work and pick up a few things so I was there alone. Not that being there alone made much of a difference but it gave me more time to reflect without needing to answer questions with, "Yes, they take good care of the animals here" and "No, I don't think the cats would like it if we got a tarantula."

I've always enjoyed going to the pet store. I like seeing all the different animals and especially when the store has a section for adopting cats or dogs. We don't have fish or birds in our house so it always seems so exotic to see them. I like seeing the other pet owners, too, because people with common interests always seem friendlier to each other. There is a bit of guilt involved in visiting the pet store, though. I wonder what will happen to the puppies that aren't bought before they get too big. Also, I wonder if I am lying when I tell my kids, "Yes, they take good care of the animals here." Most pet stores seem to take good care of their animals but I always remember the old Woolworth's Department Store in our town (before they went bankrupt and closed). The cages were dirty and the animals were listless. I was tempted to buy them all just to get them out of there. But then, of course, I wouldn't be able to take any better care of them than the worker the store had doing the job. But, for the most part, going to the pet store is a happy experience.

Until one day. The four of us were in the store and we had made the rounds of all the different types of animals and were looking at the fish. The kids were playing the game of seeing who could see the biggest fish. Then who could find the tank with the most fish. We were at the tank with the most fish when one of the employees came up with a net and opened the tank. I thought this would be great, the kids could see somebody buying the fish and putting them in the little baggie to carry them home. But something was wrong. No one else was there. Where were the people buying the fish? Where was the baggie? Before I knew it, the employee had scooped up a bunch of the fish and plopped them into another tank. My first though was, "Oh, that's nice. They were all crowded into that tank and now they'll have more room." I didn't have that thought long. As soon as the fish hit the water from the net, they scattered. I'm not one of those people who thinks fish are very smart and I don't think I've ever thought about them showing emotion but I could tell right away these fish were terrified. And they had a right to be scared. No sooner had they started to dart for cover than the fish that were already in the tank took off after them. It didn't take long for the larger fish that had already been in the tank to eat all the smaller fish that had just been thrown in the tank. There was nowhere to hide. One or two of the new fish managed to last longer than the others (maybe ten seconds) but they had no chance. Now, every large fish in the tank was after these few darting, turning, terrified small fish. Then it was over. I felt sick to the stomach. I couldn't talk for quite a while after that.

Why should I have been surprised? Not all fish are herbivores. This is the way the world works. The bigger, stronger, faster animals eat the smaller, weaker, slower animals. A lot of animals won't eat dead food. It made sense for the pet store to grow its own food. But I just wasn't prepared for it. If the employee had said, "Would you like to see me feed these fish to the other fish?" I would have just walked away. But it would have happened anyway. The bigger fish had to eat or they would die. I just can't help it. I'd never make it if I had to kill my own food.

So, when I went to the pet store alone the other day, and saw the fish tanks, this all came back to me as intensely as it did the day I first saw it with my family. I don't know if I'll go into the pet store alone again. I think I'll be happier answering the questions with, "Yes, the snake looks like he is well fed." Oh no! There's something else I don't want to see!

Friday, August 08, 2008

Looking at what you can't see

My son, Evan, has been fascinated with astronomy since he was just two or three years old and first noticed the Full Moon. He saw it out a window in the back of our house and came running into our living room shouting, "The Moon...the Moon" and made my wife and I follow him so he could show it to us. After we looked at it and acknowledged it, we sent back to the living room. But he was so excited, he ran back in exclaiming, "The Moon, Mommy. The Moon, Daddy" and insisted we follow him in to the back room to see it with him again. We could not figure out what he wanted us to do but just watching it and agreeing that it was the Moon was not enough. We just didn't get it!

Over the years, we've bought him "space things." His grandmother (my mother in law) bought him a nice Meade telescope. We've bought him books and have taken him to a planetarium. For his last birthday, we bought him a set of the planets that you can blow up and hang from the ceiling (the set includes Pluto as a planet which gratifies Evan - he didn't like it when Pluto was officially demoted). He used his own money to buy the set of DVDs for the History Channel series The Universe. I also found a nice utility for his computer named Stellarium. The screens shots (below) come from Stellarium. It's free but amazing. It lets you enter your position on the Earth and shows you the sky at the time on your computer's clock. You can change the time to any date and time to see what the sky will look like then. In the screen shots here, you can see a red line curving up from the horizon. That is the ecliptic line where you usually find the planets (notice how far Pluto is from the ecliptic).

We've used Stellarium to predict what the skies will look like when we think the sky will be clear on certain nights. A few nights ago, we noticed that Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, Pluto and Neptune would all be "visible" on one evening. The top screen shot shows that part of the Stellarium display. Notice that it allows you to "draw in" the constellations and writes in the names of stars of a certain magnitude (you can adjust this setting along with tons of others).

Now, of course, we knew we wouldn't be able to actually see Neptune and Pluto. But being able to know that Neptune and Pluto were out there in the direction we were looking was fascinating. We took our dog, Charlie, with us and he had no idea what was going on. It was just a big adventure for him to go out in the car at night and be with his people. Charlie enjoyed sniffing around while Evan and I let our eyes adjust. As time went on and it got darker and we saw more and more stars, it almost seemed as if we just might get to see Neptune and Pluto after all. Maybe if we just relaxed and stared long enough, we'd see them glimmering out there. I remember reading a novel called Starmaker by Olaf Stapledon. It starts with a man laying down on a hillside to look up at the stars. As he gazes out into space, he finds the stars seemingly coming toward him. Then he realizes that he he has left the earth and is speeding out through space toward the stars. This begins his epic journey through many worlds and many universes.

Evan mentioned to me that it takes about an hour for the light reflected from Saturn to reach us. We figured the light from Neptune and Pluto would take a really long time and, after assuming the closest approach of each to the earth, we were right. It takes about 6 hours for the reflected light from both (their orbits cross and sometimes Pluto is closer) to reach Earth.

Well, it turns out that tonight, even Venus and Mercury will be visible (if only briefly because they are near the horizon and will be tough to see against the sun). The second screen shot shows that (notice the red 'W' centered on the bottom, that shows you're looking West).

While I was writing this, something from what I learned in high school seemed to be nagging me about whether you are supposed to capitalize Earth, Moon and Sun. At first I did. Then I changed them all to lower case. Then I decided to look it up. It looks like it's a confusing area even for the experts. As I interpret the "rules" I found, you don't capitalize "earth" when you're speaking about "dirt" but you do capitalize it when speaking of it as the planet Earth. So, I've gone back through the whole article and tried to do it correctly. Complain away if you think I am wrong.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

What is that thing?

This blog is certainly lacking in the "Engineering" part of its title. While I hope to rectify that in the coming weeks, I don't want to miss a good topic when it comes along. And, once again, my topic is an insect! Of course I didn't realize it at first.

When I first saw this thing zipping around, hovering, visiting and (apparently) drinking nectar from flowers, I thought it was a hummingbird. But as I chased it around, it seemed to act more like a dragonfly. It was fast, agile and had clear wings. But dragonflies don't sip nectar. For a while, it looked like a flying crayfish but it didn't take long to change my mind about that - only because it seemed like such a ridiculous idea.

I was on one of my lunch walks in the woods behind our office. Here is one picture of "the flying thing". You'll probably recognize right away that it is neither a hummingbird or a dragonfly or even a crayfish. But would you guess that it is a moth? All the moths I'd seen previously were pretty bad fliers. They flop from place to place seeming to have a tough time steering. All the moths I'd seen previously had relatively large wings covered in scales. None of the moths I'd ever seen before actually fed on flowers (although I'm sure they do - I'd just never seen it). And the body of this thing was big! It seemed to be over a half-inch wide or more. While moths are more thick-bodied than the butterflies, I'd never seen one this big before.

When I got back from the walk and studied the pictures (during my afternoon break, of course), I saw a few clues to start a search on the Internet to find out this was a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth. These are in the same family, Sphingidae, as the Sphinx and Hawk Moths. They all seem to have the same, sleek shape to their wings that differs from the other moths. A lot of these moths only come out and feed at night but I was fortunate that these particular moths feed during the day. I was also fortunate that there were so many of them. I saw one earlier in the year but it was so fast that I only got a glimpse of it. Was that what I think it was? Do crayfish fly? Well, here's another shot that makes it look a little bit more like a crayfish. I'm not crazy, you know!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Mushrooms

I don't just limit myself to taking pictures of my family, our pets, birds and insects. I actually have taken pictures of other things. :-) Here is a strange, to me, mushroom I saw on a recent walk at lunch. I've never seen such a pure, white mushroom before. And the shape, with the protrusions, is new to me, too.

Here is another picture from another day of some strange mushrooms that look more like pancakes that someone dropped by the trail. These were all together in this one spot and I could see no more of this type anywhere around. That is the surprising thing about mushrooms. So often you see just one in an area. Mushrooms aren't plants so it's not really correct to compare them with trees and bushes but usually, you see large clusters of things that grow out of the ground. And, of course, there are types of mushrooms that do grow in groups like the Fairy Ring Mushroom. But most often, you just see one, lone mushroom. I wonder why this is.

Here is another one my daughter found in our backyard. I love the shape of mushrooms. There is just something about the smooth, streamlined shape that appeals to me. They look modern and ancient at the same time. They seem alien when compared with the plants, trees and bushes with which they usually growing.

Here's a final picture taken near our office but not out in the woods. These grew up, overnight, right next to our parking lot. That's another interesting feature of mushrooms; they grow up so fast and look "grown up" from the beginning. They don't seem to start out as "seedlings" (or would you call them "spore-lings"?) and then mature. The colors are so varied. For such simple organisms, you'd think there wouldn't be so many different colors. I wonder how much it depends on the soil in which they grow and how much sun they get. I'm sure genetics has something to do with it but how important are the growing conditions? Cultivated mushrooms are pretty uniform but that's what the growers want, I suppose. They keep them in a known type of "soil" and in the dark so they don't get any surprises. Well, I like the taste of mushrooms but I only eat cultivated ones. I don't like too many surprises when I eat. Just when I take pictures.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Last Cicada

The cicada "invasion" I wrote about in June finally came to an end a week or so ago (around the Independence Day weekend). It didn't end abruptly but over the last few days, you noticed the level of sound drop each day until there was no "alien spacecraft" sound coming out of the woods.

On July 10, last week, I went for my walk in the woods at lunch and heard a really sad sound - one lone male cicada making his call for a mate. The poor guy! If he'd just emerged a week earlier, there would have been thousands of female cicadas flying around listening for his call. After waiting seventeen years, he'd have been able to fulfill his existence, mated and helped to create the next generation of Periodic Cicadas. What a sad situation.

But was it? Maybe there a was a lone female cicada who had also missed the party. She emerged from the ground, climbed to a tree branch and shed her skin, carefully letting her wings dry and preparing to fly to the sound of a male. She waited and waited. No sound could be heard. She flew from tree to tree - expanding the area she could hear. Waiting and waiting for the sound that she feared would never come. Then, on Thursday, July 10, she thought she heard something in the distance. She flew one direction and sound grew fainter so she turned around and the sound grew stronger. As she flew, she prepared to fulfill the thing she'd been waiting seventeen years for. As she neared the sound of the male, a big, ugly thing with a camera around its neck frightened her and she hid in a tree until it passed by.

Finally, after the ugly camera-wielding thing passed, she left the leaves and flew to meet her mate. They joined and fertilized her eggs. Then she carefully selected an oak branch in which to make a small slit to deposit the eggs. The branch would soon die, fall off the tree and land on the ground where the eggs would hatch and the young cicadas would dig into the ground and wait for seventeen more years. Meanwhile, the male and female cicada would finally tire, stop flying and die having kept the cycle going.

Here's a short video I made of a male cicada making its call from a tree branch. You can see the abdomen lift a bit as it makes the sound. This isn't the lone male I heard last week - you can hear the sound of the thousands of other males in the background. This was made during the height of the cicadas' emergence last month.

video

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

More Dragonflies

I last posted a picture of a dragonfly back in August last year. Since then, I've seen and photographed more but yesterday, I got a great picture and just needed to share it. I also got another dragonfly later on my walk. Since I'm back in dragonfly mode, I'll include some dragonfly pictures I've taken over the last year but just didn't post. First, the magnificent, dark, blue dragonfly that caught my attention yesterday.

I remember seeing these around swamps in central Pennsylvania (near where I went to college) when we'd go out on "expeditions into the wild". My group of friends and I had had a really terrific professor for our invertebrate zoology class and we'd all had to do the mandatory insect collection. We had to collect and identify 50 families of insects (remember, spiders, ticks, centipedes etc aren't insects) . So, you couldn't just catch fifty flies that were all in the same family (also remember that you normally start with species and work up through genus and then to family, see this article on biological classification, so family includes a lot of different species that may look quite different). It was a struggle but our professor just got so excited about the subject that he got us all excited.

The second picture is another one I got yesterday. This dragonfly wouldn't stay still for long but it kept coming back to the same place after each its excursions so I was finally able to get a picture. I remember one of the books we used to classify our insects as saying that often dragonflies, which are very good fliers and quite fast, are often caught because they are so curious. That when the net first comes down and misses them, they will turn around and come back to see what was happening - giving the collector another chance at his prey. For insects, the dragonfly is quite intelligent though you could say, "If they're so smart, why would they come back and get caught?"

These next two pictures are from last summer. The first was a lucky shot with the wings of the dragonfly angled so you can see through them from the front. This picture doesn't show it but it was turning its head from side to side. I'm not sure if it was studying me and evaluating the threat I posed or if it was looking for prey. Whatever the reason, it added to the feeling of intelligence about these insects. The only other insect that comes close is the praying mantis but I don't have any pictures of those.

My final picture isn't all that good but I've seen and photographed many of these but, for some reason, the view of the abdomen always seems distorted. It's almost as if it glows because it always seems to be overexposed. This is the best I've been able to do with this type of dragonfly.


I'm not going to lock myself in by stating a specific date when I'm going to do this, like I did before, but some day soon, I hope to write up a funny (I think so anyway) article about the time I was doing my insect collection in college and was having trouble getting enough variety.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Short term memory loss and kids

Now I understand why we are driven to have children. It's for our long term survival.

My five-year old daughter likes following me around and "helping" me when I do odd jobs around the house (just like my, now, eleven-year old son used to do when he was five). While this can be very distracting (there are questions every ten seconds and observations about what I'm doing every fifteen seconds), it makes her really happy to be helping dad. This week-end, one of my jobs was to reattach a large mirror to the bureau in our bedroom. My daughter helped by handing me various tools as I needed them and by making up a story about how the mirror was talking to her just like in the fairy tales we read.

This morning, I needed to go to the basement for something and noticed that my tool box was open. I soon realized that it was open because I hadn't put back the screw driver I'd been using for the mirror. I panicked! Where had I left it? My first guess was in our bedroom where I'd been working but that was wrong. I hated to admit I left it out because I'm always the one running around accusing everyone else about leaving their toys, socks, cameras, whatever out and not putting them away.

Finally, I had to admit defeat and asked my wife if she'd seen it. She said no but then my daughter piped up with, "I know where it is!" She ran to the drawer on our kitchen where we keep a variety of tools that we might need quickly without running down to the basement where the "good" tools are. She pulled out the screw driver and handed it to me. I was amazed and thanked her profusely. I must have been distracted (or I just wasn't thinking) and mistakenly put my "good" screw driver in the "in case we need them" tool drawer. I think I will buy her a little gift on the way home from work today.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Vacation

It seems funny to live in a vacation area but, when the time comes for a vacation, to go somewhere else. It seems that a big part of a vacation is going somewhere you are not used to seeing. In our case, since we live near the ocean, we head to the mountains of New Hampshire. Our kids love Santa's Village in Jefferson New Hampshire so we usually go there once a year. It's relatively inexpensive and it's only a five-hour drive away.

You'd never know the park is so pleasant by looking at it from the highway. But once you enter, at least for us, it is like entering a magical, imaginary realm. You have to like Christmas music and Christmas themes but, if you do, there is a little bit of everything there. There is Santa, of course, and reindeer and elves and lots of friendly workers. There are amusement park rides that range from a small roller coaster and a log flume (picture here from the top of the drop) for older children and adults to toddler rides like cars that need to be steered but can't go too far. There is a wonderful scale train you can ride and "flying" sleighs to show you around the park. There are a lot of shops and food stalls that are reasonably priced, too. And, if you like live music, singing and dancing, they have professionally produced Christmas-themed shows.

For us, it is a relaxing time in a comfortable surrounding that we only see a limited number of times. If you go at the right time, like we did the week before summer officially starts, there are almost no lines and it seems like the park was opened just for us. The weather is usually cool and dry even into later June. We talk every year about trying other places for vacation but every year we return to Santa's Village. At least for the last seven or eight years. Here's one more picture from the top of the Ferris Wheel. You can see the White Mountains in the background and a few of the buildings in the Village through the trees below.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Cicadas and baseball

Our area is in the midst of the emergence of a huge swarm of 17-Year Cicadas. It's amazing how many of them there are and how noisy they can be. Here's an interesting article [updated to a better article]. One of the folks at work was out for a walk and saw the one pictured here - just emerging from its exoskeleton (there's a picture of that below). Just after I took these pictures and sent them around, another friend from our office stopped off at my desk with a gift of the fourth edition of the ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia (his wife had received it as a free gift and he knew how much I like baseball). I saw that the records in the book went back before 1900 and one of the guys in my office suggested looking up "Moonlight" Graham who was mentioned in the movie Field of Dreams. Sure enough, there was a Moonlight Graham who got into one game in the major leagues but never got an at-bat (it's explained in the movie). Archibald Wright Graham was born in Fayetteville, NC on Nov 12, 1877 and died in Chisholm, MN on Aug 25, 1965. He played his one game for the New York Giants in 1905.

That started a discussion about how frustrating it would be to work so hard toward the goal of getting to be a major league ballplayer and coming that close only to just miss the dream. "Moonlight" Graham never played in the majors after that. I said it would sort of be like living in the dirt sucking plant sap for 17 years only to emerge and not be able to find a girlfriend. Then we decided that would make a great Country and Western song. The other options were to have the cicada die on the windshield of a car rushing to this area to see the cicadas emerge.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Promises and monkey wrenches

I've learned another lesson in life - Don't promise something in such a way that it keeps you from doing other things. In my last entry, I said I'd say more "in my next entry" about how to select a high definition TV with at least the height of your current standard monitor. After writing that, I moved to a new computer that didn't have the drawing program I used to make the illustrations I wanted to use. So, by promising what I did, it seemed wrong to write other entries before fulfilling my promise. So, while I figure out how to make the drawings I want to make, I'm held up on adding another entry.

Well, that's not completely true, is it? I'm writing this entry - but it's not much of an entry. We have the expression of "throwing a monkey wrench into the works". This means that you've put an obstacle in the way of completing something. The British say "throwing a spanner" with the same, or similar, meaning. I imagine it is similar to the scene in the movie Chicken Run when the two lead characters, Ginger and Rocky who are chickens, are trying to stop the pie machine, which takes chickens and vegetables in and turns out chicken pot pies. Rocky throws a wrench into the gears which brings the machine to a halt giving the chickens more time to figure out how they're going to escape from the chicken farm.

So, in one sense, my statement about what my next article would be about (high definition TVs) was a monkey wrench in the flow of my articles. But this article is also a monkey wrench in that it gives me a little more time to come up with that high definition TV article.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

High Definition TV Screens vs Conventional TV Screens

I have not seen anything written about this anywhere. So, I thought I'd take a crack at it. There are all sorts of places offering help in choosing the size of TV (both High Def and Conventional) that you ought to buy given how far you sit from the screen. There are also a number of sites offering help in figuring out all the abbreviations and buzz words that surround the changes due to TV technology improving in the digital and high definition realms. But one thing hasn't been covered and it is going to lead to a lot of disappointment to people moving to a new high definition TV from their old conventional TV.

I noticed the problem when I got a new computer at work. It was one of the new wide screen monitors that has the same proportions as the new high definition TVs. You can see in the diagram at the right that conventional TVs have a width to height ration of 4 to 3. That means if you divide the width by the height, you get the same value as if you divide 4 by 3: 1.333 but the manufacturers sell them by measuring from the upper left corner to the lower right corner. But no matter what size TV you buy, the proportions are always the same. So, if you buy a 27 inch set, the width will be about 21.6 inches and the height will be about 16.2 inches. Divide 21.6 by 16.2 and you get - 1.333 ! No matter what size TV you buy, the width and height will have the same ratio.

Now, for high definition TVs, the ration is 16 to 9 (similar to the proportions for a movie screen). With these proportions, the screen is a little wider compared to the height. This all fine but you have to realize that the manufacturers still tell you the size of the screen as measured from the upper left corner to the lower right corner. So, if you buy a 27 inch high definition TV, you might think you're getting the same area of screen as you would get with a conventional TV. But instead, you get a TV that is about 13.23 inches high and 23.49 inches wide.

Compare the areas. The conventional TV area (width multiplied by height) is 349.92 square inches. The high definition TV area would be about 310.77 square inches! The conventional TV is about 12% bigger for a given diagonal measurement. The thing I especially noticed, with my new computer monitor, was the missing height.

Next time I'll write a bit more about how to get the same height in your new high definition TV as you now have with your conventional TV.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The King's Stilts

Well, perhaps I shouldn't have started making entries in this blog again. Each of the recent ones has been about bad news or disaster. And I'm at it again today. I'm sorry to be depressing. I will try to make my next entry a happier one.

A terrible storm, Cyclone Nargis, hit Myanmar (Burma) on April 27 and it looks like the worst is yet to come. While the storm has gone, the ruin it left is not being cleaned up and help is not getting to the people who need it. A lot of the trouble comes about because of the repressive government in that country. Government officials worry about outsiders coming into the country to "stir things up" (my quotes for emphasis, not to quote a person). Those leaders are willing to trade the death and misery of their people for holding on to power and keeping outside influences at bay. But my entry today is more about the past and about how current events sometimes mirror fiction.

I read a report today from the International Herald Tribune. The report, titled "Before cyclone hit, Burmese delta was stripped of defenses" by Michael Casey of The Associated Press, says that one of the reasons the storm was so devastating was that the mangrove forests along the coast have been stripped away. They haven't just been destroyed all at once but over the years since 1924. These massive forests, with their twined and entangled roots that can grow in salt water, could have impeded the water and lessened the damage.

The idea of these trees with their entwined roots holding back the water to save the country reminded me of a story I read to my kids (over and over again:-) - The King's Stilts by Dr. Seuss. In the story, the low lying Kingdom of Binn is protected from the sea by a row of Dike Trees whose roots are thick and entwined and can grow right at the edge of the sea. Sound familiar? In this case, though, the threat to the Dike Trees was not pollution or humans chopping them down to build condos. The threat comes from Nizzards - birds that look like a cross between vultures (or buzzards) and crows. They like eating the roots of the trees. To guard against the Nizzards, the Kingdom has its Patrol Cats. One thousand trained cats work twelve hour shifts (five hundred to each shift) chasing away the Nizzards. The King, Bertram, is in charge of all this and is responsible for organizing the Kingdom's defenses against the sea and the Nizzards and it takes most of his day to get everything done. The title of the story comes from the fact that after Bertram has worked so hard in the defense of his kingdom, he takes some time every day to get out his stilts and enjoy himself. When he works, he works hard and when he plays, he plays with abandon. One of his ministers doesn't like the spectacle of the King acting like a child and gets rid of the stilts. Bertram is so overworked and depressed that he can't do his job right. The Patrol Cats get lazy and don't do their job and the Nizzards start eating away the Dike Trees. Everything is made right when the King's page boy gets the stilts back for the King which lifts his spirits and gives him the will to get the Patrol Cats back into shape who drive off the Nizzards and save the Kingdom. This story has a happy ending.

In real life, it's too late to grow back the mangrove forests - for this storm anyway. There are many groups from all over the world trying to save the mangrove forests we have and help the ones that are destroyed to make a come back. We can't just count this up to some poor countries having to make choices between saving their natural resources or surviving. We're doing the same with our salt marshes and our own mangrove forests (they're often called mangrove swamps here - it lessens the outrage when they are destroyed). We humans have a very hard time seeing trends and acting on problems before disaster strikes. Think about bridges collapsing; fuel in short supply and prices rising, food prices rising, rain forests disappearing. And those are the obvious things. Dr. Seuss wrote this story in 1939. The mangrove forests in the Irrawaddy Delta were probably still in pretty good shape then.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Words can inspire - part 2


As it happens, it was around this time last year that the town of Greensburg, Kansas was completely destroyed by tornadoes. The photo at the right shows part of the town from the air. The credits for this photo are for Jaime Oppenheimer of the The Wichita Eagle newspaper. You can see other pictures of this type here. I've never seen a tornado nor seen the devastation first-hand but this photo just shocks me. I've always heard how capricious tornadoes seem to be where a path of destruction can be seen through a town. Here, the whole town (with minor exceptions) was destroyed. Of course, tornadoes aren't really "capricious". We just assign that behavior to their actions.

There have been many news stories recently about how the town is rebuilding but, as usual, my favorite report came from Nation Public Radio. The Friday, May 2 report on its evening news show, All Things Considered, had this to say, quoting Mayor-elect Bob Dixson, "It's sad that the tragedy of the storm came through and wiped us out, but that presented us with a golden opportunity." The report went on to say, "Amazingly, many people here speak with gratitude about the storm that crushed the town. Greensburg had dwindled for decades, and the storm offered a fresh start." This is the same attitude found in the essay by Dr. Donald Rosenstein I quoted in my last entry. The people who are staying and rebuilding in Greensburg are adapting to the new situation. Of course they are sad at the destruction and loss of life but they realize you cannot turn back the clock. They haven't become inured to disaster and are obviously not condoning destruction. They are taking what God has wrought and making something new of it. I admire them for moving on.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Words can inspire

On the way into work today, I heard one of the essays from the new This I Believe series from National Public Radio. I've enjoyed most of the entries from this series I've heard and the one this morning (I think it was repeated from an earlier time) was especially moving. It was titled, "Adapting to the Possibilities of Life." It was written and narrated by Donald Rosenstein: a doctor who is the clinical director of the National Institute of Mental Health. He specializes in psychiatric care of the medically ill. He relates how, on seeing his young son's reaction to an exciting event, he realized that his son was autistic. This, of course, changed everything. It not only meant that he, his wife, his daughter and his son would now be forced into new ways of doing everything, it also meant that certain dreams they had about the future were never going to happen. As the title said, they were going to have to adapt to their new life.

But, some good things came out of this, too. New ways of looking at life. New ways to help other people with similar problems. Realizing strengths in themselves they might not have known about. So, that now, given the same stimulus, they have a different response. They no longer panic when their son acts a certain way. Their daughter is no longer embarrassed by her brother's behavior. The line in the essay that reached out and grabbed was this:

"I believe that "reframing a problem" can help to overcome it. But adaptation is not the same as becoming tolerant of or inured to something. Adaptation allows for creative possibilities." Our society is so obsessed with changing everything or controlling everything that we can't seem to acknowledge the usefulness of adapting. If the price of gasoline gets too high, we insist the only thing that will return our lives to normal is for the price to drop again. The other option is to adapt and change our driving habits. When someone acts in a way we don't approve of, instead of adapting to it (and thus "condoning" it), we insist on changing that person into our model of how they should act. Just because we learn to live with the situation doesn't mean we approve of it. If I break my leg, I would be foolish to refuse to walk with crutches and take it easy until the leg has healed. Do I wish I hadn't broken my leg? Yes, if I could magically change things, I wouldn't have broken my leg but I can't change the situation. So, in making the best of it, I sit around, with my leg up, and read some books I haven't had time to read before.

There is a real power in knowing when you should try to change a situation and when you should adapt and accept the situation.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I'm back

This is crazy. I can't believe my last post was in January! This post is going to be short but I just had to get something down. Every day for the last three months I would say to myself, "I'm going to write in my blog." Then, something would come up and I would put it off. So, this morning I said, "Whether I have the time to write anything meaningful or not, I'm going to write something in my blog!"

Just to catch up:
The big project that we had been working on for over a year finished in January and shipped. It has been mostly successful and customers are pleased with it. But right after that was done, I was put on a project that was behind schedule. It was supposed to have been released in January, also, but the hardware wasn't ready yet so there was some breathing room. Now, that project is finished, too. Then, I was given a brand new, fast computer with a 24" wide screen monitor, 300 GByte disk drive and 3 GByte memory! I was really pleased but I immediately had trouble moving my files, settings and programs from my old computer to this new one.

After installing a few programs, the new computer would fail to boot - the hardware boot screen, black and white, would show and the Windows splash screen would show but then I wouldn't get the log in screen. I would have to hold in the power button to force it to shut down. Then, when I reapplied power, it would come up in Safe Mode where I could attempt to run System Restore to get the computer back to an earlier, stable state. That wouldn't always work, though.

This happened a few times. The first time it locked up, I had to restore to the point when the computer was first given to me (after company-mandated programs had been installed). I would be able to install a few programs and then it would lock-up again. Then I'd restore and it would work for a while but it got harder and harder each time. I made plenty of Restore Points whenever the computer seemed to be running correctly and had been stable for most of the day. Finally, one day, all the Restore Points just disappeared. The guys who set up the computer took it back again and just wiped out everything and we started from scratch. Now it looks like things are working OK but I'm approximately three weeks behind schedule. I thought I was going to be able to relax a bit before the next big crunch but things aren't working out that way.

Anyway, there should be plenty of exciting things to write about in the coming weeks. So, this entry wasn't as short as I'd thought it would be. Note to self: Once you start writing, things come into your head to put down. The lesson to be learned: JUST START WRITING!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

My trip to the Big City

We (all the engineers in our company) made our trip to the Air-conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration exposition in New York City yesterday (January 23). We had to leave at 5 AM to get there by the 10 AM opening. I felt like a country hick going to the big city -well, I guess that's because that's what I was! As much as I make fun of New York City and people who live there, I have to admit that it is a great city and has a real character. Of course, many other cities have a character but New York City is special to our country. I'd like to take some time and go there with my family to explore. There is a variety of history, entertainment and interesting things to do that is hard to match anywhere else. I also love going to Boston. And I grew up near Pittsburgh. There is a wide variety of things to do there - especially for such a small city. But they don't have the variety of New York City. Near the convention center, you could see the Empire State Building (picture to the right). Even though it is not the highest building in the world anymore, it is still impressive. And there aren't that many larger buildings around the world.

Anyway, the expo itself was both disappointing yet very interesting. There were vendors for everything from large metal bending machinery to tiny sensors to measure a large number of physical properties (temperature, humidity, vibration, acceleration and various gases like carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and oxygen). There were huge machines and fans (yes, there was a company called the Big Ass Fans which made really huge fans) and welders along with tiny boxes to record the state of the air to measure how efficiently the big machines were running. There were lots of displays to show how well one pump or another was able to move water or air or one pipe configuration was able to reduce the force needed to move the water or air (one demonstration is shown at the right). We got to talk with a lot of people who could use our products and we saw the way a lot of other companies design and produce the same products that we do.

But, all in all, I have to say the trip was disappointing. Most of the seventeen hours we spent on the trip (eleven of those on the bus), I kept thinking how much I could have gotten done back in the office. Another thing I worried about, but didn't mention, was: What would have happened to our company if our bus had been in an accident a large number of us had been injured? The show lasted for three days. We could have at least split up into three groups and attended each of the days. Or have some of us go to different expositions. I think that those of us in the Software Department got the least out of this experience.

But it was nice that all of the engineers got to be together at one time. We had some good laughs and got to know each other a little better. And we got to watch a couple movies on the bus on the way home. I've seen bits and pieces of Cool Hand Luke before but now I've seen the movie all the way through! And I've heard about Caddyshack for years but had never seen it. Now I have. I won't be adding it to my list of favorite movies, though. Hey, there's an idea for another blog entry. A list of my ten favorite movies - with reasons why they are my favorites. And my lists of favorite books and favorite foods. Stay tuned.

By the way, on the bus ride to the expo, I got most of the way through reading The Children of Hurin, J. R. R. Tolkien. I highly recommend it. It is not easy to read and a tragic story but the complex storyline has a number of enlightening and satisfying themes. You wonder how Mr. Tolkien could keep every thing in his mind as he wrote it.