Monday, February 29, 2016

Undo

As a software engineer and a computer user, one of the things I am used to having is the ability to undo an operation. It's just second nature for computer users. There are so many places where you can make a mistake that you need the ability to undo the mistake. There are many places in life that you can't undo your mistakes and I understand that, too. Get off the highway at the wrong exit? You've got to navigate the unknown roads until you get back on the highway going the right way. Drop something in the toilet, without noticing it, and flush - there is no undo for that. But something we use all the time that surprised me that should have an undo that doesn't is an elevator.

I happened to be using one the other day and mistakenly hit the wrong button. It was easy enough to then hit the right button but there was no way to undo hitting the wrong button. It's not the end of the world but it would be so easy to add that feature that I'm surprised no one has. At least no elevator I've ever seen has that undo capability. In my case, I was alone and the floor I mistakenly pressed was beyond the floor I wanted. But it meant that someone trying to use the elevator after me was going to have to wait as the elevator went one more floor  in the same direction as I was going (down in this case). So some poor (or unfortunate) person above was going to have to wait just a little longer for the car to come back their way.

Like I said, it's not the end of the world. It's just one more inconvenience in our day but those things add up. I wonder if the elevator manufacturer would mind not having an undo after they mistakenly delete the pictures they took on their last vacation? I think not.

Happy Extra Day, by the way. What are you planning on doing on your free day that only comes once every four years?

Saturday, February 27, 2016

65

Today is my birthday. It's a big one. Today, I'm turning 65 and that means I must register for Medicare. At least for Part A. I don't have to sign up for Part B only because I am still working and have insurance there. But if I didn't, I'd need to register for Medicare Part B, too.

But beside that, 65 doesn't seem any different than 64 and that hasn't seemed any different than the last 5 or 6 birthdays. In many ways, I feel better than I have in years. It takes me a little longer to stand up when I've been sitting for a while and I can't reach as many places on my body as I used to and I don't hear things as clearly in my left ear (and the ringing, or tinnitus, is pretty bad in that ear, too). But other than that, I'd don't feel that bad. I'm not taking any pills other than a multivitamin. My heart is in good shape and I can still walk for miles and lift things without hurting myself.

This year, I got some nice books, a very nice movie on DVD, some nice coffee and some money. The movie I got is From Up on Poppy Hill. It is an animated movie from Studio Ghibli in Japan. Our family has loved the Studio Ghibli movies since we first saw My Neighbor Totoro. From Up on Poppy Hill is now one of our favorites. It's a wonderful story of two high school students who meet and fall in love only to find out that they may not be able to express their love as they would have hoped. But there is even more to appreciate about this movie with it's interesting situations and eccentric characters. It's lovingly drawn images of Yokohama as it existed in 1963 make me wish I could have visited Japan at that time. It also mixes in a theme that we can relate to now with worries about balancing progress with preserving the past.


The first book I got is The Finest Hours. You may have seen my earlier review of the movie The Finest Hours. It was seeing that movie that made me want to read the book so I asked for it for my birthday. It goes into finer detail and covers more aspects of the amazing story of the Coast Guard rescue of the men from two ships caught in a terrible storm in 1952 off the coast of Cape Cod. As books can, this one covers more of the back story of the characters in these events and gives more details about what happened and who these people really were. Now that I've seen the movie, I'm sure those images will be running through my mind as I read.



The other book, I know much less about. I've been hearing about it for years and have A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is about a young man taking over the raising of his younger brother (with help from his sister and some friends) when their parents both die within a month of each other. I can't tell you much more about this book (unless I just parrot back other reviews) because I haven't read much of it yet. But just reading the section titled "Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book" and the Preface has been excited about what lies ahead.
meant to buy it myself but when you have a birthday coming up, why not get someone else to buy it for you?

The coffee I got is from our favorite coffee roaster, Green Mountain Coffee.  Unfortunately, Green Mountain Coffee bought the Keurig single-serving coffee makers and most of their website is devoted to those. I guess you can make more profit from a device instead of the actual coffee so I can't make too much of a fuss about that. But if you want to get to the real coffee (ground coffee or whole beans instead of the pods used in the Keurig coffee makers), you can go to this page. The two I got are Mocha Nut Fudge (pictured on the left which I've never tried before) and French Vanilla flavored coffee. I've had their French Vanilla (and hazelnut and many other varieties) and love them all. I've loved Green Mountain coffee since I had it in the inn my wife and I stayed in for our honeymoon. Whenever I have Green Mountain coffee, it reminds me of those wonderful days - 22 years ago.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Feedback

I wonder what would happen if you had a car with a voice-activated entertainment system and someone on the radio said, "Turn off the radio?"

That's it. That's all I've got for now.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Everybody else is wrong

I can no longer hold my tongue. This has been driving me crazy for years and I have to speak out. I've held this in because I can find no one who agrees with me. At first I thought I might be wrong. I really tried to adjust how I felt about this but now I find I cannot. It is just wrong and that's all there is to it.

What I am talking about is the phrase "one-off". It is used to mean something that is done or made once. It's like making a prototype of something just to see if it will work. Then, once the point is proven, a better product will be made and multiple copies produced. Or maybe a play would be written, produced and performed for a special occasion never to be performed again.

This article in the New York Times on July 2, 2010 written by Ben Zimmer talks about the origins of the word in Britain and says that its use can be traced back to 1934. Well, that use of the term was just a mistake then and has been propagated incorrectly through the years. After all, these are the same people that misspell "color"! How could you trust them with a phrase like this?

The real phrase is "one-of" as in, "I'm only going to make one of these." You know I'm right. You (and everybody else) just won't admit it. As you know, just because there is no proof that a conspiracy is true doesn't mean that there isn't a conspiracy. The conspiracy, in this case, is to drive me crazy. There are those who would say that it has worked.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Another good movie

We're on a roll with seeing movies. We've seen two in a week. The one we saw this week-end sounded interesting but we weren't sure it would live up to our expectations. But it did. Risen starts with the idea of looking at the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the eyes of a skeptical Roman tribune. At first, he is to go to the crucifixion to just handle any last minute details so that the people who are following Jesus won't disrupt the peace of the city before the coming visit of the Emperor of Rome. Pontius Pilate does not want the Emperor to see him as an ineffective governor. So, Clavius, though whose eyes we see this event, first sees Christ on the cross. It is he that gives Joseph of Arimathea permission to bury Jesus.

Then word comes that Jesus has told his followers that he will rise from the dead. Neither the Romans nor the Jewish priesthood wants that to appear to happen. Of course, they don't believe it will really happen but they don't want anyone (especially Jesus' Disciples) to steal the body from the tomb and make it appear that Jesus has risen. So, Clavius is further tasked with guarding the body so that won't happen.

Well, then Jesus does rise and there is no body in the tomb. Once again, Pilate calls on Clavius to investigate this and find the body and show everyone that Jesus has not risen after all. Now the movie turns into a mystery - almost like an episode of Law and Order as suspects are hunted and witnesses interviewed. It's all very interesting and you see how it would have seemed to most people who were not followers of Jesus. How could this fantastic thing happen? Who would risk his life saying that it could happen? Who would defy the power of Rome and the Jewish priests to make something like up?

I thought maybe Clavius would continue to chase the truth throughout the rest of the movie and always be a step behind Jesus and his disciples but he finally does see Jesus, risen and alive, for himself. I liked the idea that the moment he sees Jesus alive, Clavius is changed. It just shows the importance of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection to the entire idea of Christianity. As one character says, "This changes...everything!"

This isn't the perfect movie. I didn't like the scene where Clavius saves the disciples from being captured by the Romans. And I wished that more of Jesus' teachings during the forty days from the resurrection and his ascension had been shown. And there is one scene where Clavius is alone with Jesus and has the opportunity to ask him anything. Boy, I was almost drooling thinking what I would have asked. But maybe I think too much of myself. I may have been just as dumbfounded as Clavius.

Anyway, I highly recommend this movie. You don't learn anything new but it makes you look at a familiar story in a new way. You can't asked for more than that.

Friday, February 19, 2016

A great book about the Python programming language

...and now, back to the engineering portion of this blog.

Yes, The title of my blog is very misleading. I think most people seeing the title would assume that I'd be writing about my job as a software engineer at a computer hardware company. I'm afraid I have too many outside interests, though and I worry about giving away company secrets. So, I ignore a wealth of interesting topics (if you like engineering) for more generally interesting topics. But today, I'm going to start a series of posts on my deciding to add another programming language to my repertoire.

For my job, I mostly write in the Java programming language. I also write in the bash scripting language and some in C and C++. I even write a little in the Pascal programming language. But I see a lot of interesting examples written in Python. It seems that it's easier to write a simple program in Python to not only demonstrate a concept but to try things out. One of the regrets I have in my programming life is that I know little about databases. I've tried to get a simple set-up going in Java but you have to have a fairly complex program and set-up to start learning about databases.

So, I bought the book Practical Programming: An Introduction to Computer Science Using Python 3 pictured above. There are a number of reasons I chose this book. Number one is that it shows you, in a simple, straight forward way, how to create and test a database. Use of SQLite is built into Python so there is nothing to add or set up. The second reason I picked this book is that it teaches some of the basic concepts of Computer Science. While I have a lot of experience in programming, my degrees are in Electrical Engineering and Biology. I don't have formal training in Computer Science so this book introduced me to concepts any software engineer should be familiar with. The final reason I chose this book is that it is meant to teach you a good working knowledge of Python without going into details. Now that I've been through this book, I can write good Python programs but there is still a lot more to learn. I will be reading more advanced books in the future and I'll write about them. But this book teaches you everything you need to know to get started with Python.

One bonus feature I liked about this book is that it takes the time to show you how the values and data structures are stored in memory. While this seems like it should be a basic idea that anyone who has written programs as long as I have should already know and I do know it - for the languages I already know. But each language represents data and data structures differently. This book shows that when you store a value, how it is actually stored on the computer. So, when you change a variable one place, you should know if you are also changing the value somewhere else or if the value you are changing is just changing in one place. This is a problem that causes tremendous problems if you don't understand it and is the source of a large percentage of bugs. This book really helps you understand that.

So, if you are considering learning Python, I suggest using this book and I suggest learning Python version 3 instead of learning the older version 2. You will be happy you did.


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

"The Finest Hours"

My family and I went to see the movie The Finest Hours this week-end. It's based on a book of the same name about an actual event back in 1952. It's the story of a small Coast Guard boat going out into a storm to save the crew of an oil tanker that had broken in two during that storm. From what I understand, the movie did a pretty good job of keeping things true to the book. This article, from The Navy Times, found only a few things that were changed for the movie. And the book's authors went to great extremes to get the real story. They weren't satisfied with just interviewing the survivors who were still alive. While they did interview those people, they also scoured the newspapers from all over the country for interviews with local men made soon after the events in this story.

I've always been fascinated by stories of heroism and real stories are especially interesting. It amazes me what some people are capable of doing even when the task seems impossible and their own lives are at stake. One scene of the story involves some fishermen (who knew that the task was nearly impossible) giving the leader of the rescue attempt, Bernie Webber,  a chance to save his life by suggesting that he just attempt to get out to the ocean from the harbor and then turn back saying they couldn't get over the sand bar to the sea. The fishermen say that no one would blame him because he should have never been asked to do such a thing in the conditions that existed. But Webber does not to that. He has accepted his duty and the fact that other people's lives were in danger compelled him to go.

There are many intertwined stories going on during the movie. One involves the commanding officer of the Coast Guard base, Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff, who is not a local. He is not as respected as he should be because he doesn't speak with a New England accent (I know that feeling). He makes the decision to send his men on this seemingly suicidal mission and everyone thinks he is wrong to do it. But if he hadn't done that, the men on the ship would have certainly been lost. Another interesting sub-plot was that the man, Carl Nickerson I think, who sees the stricken ship off-shore and tells the Coast Guard commander about it blames Bernie Webber for not doing enough to save Nickerson's brother in an earlier storm. It's because of Nickerson's seeing the ship that someone has to be sent out for the rescue.Although Nickerson didn't know that Bernie Webber would be the one chosen to lead the rescue, you can see that he would be blamed for getting revenge if Webber didn't come back.

I highly recommend this movie. I know some critics fault it for seeming to clean up a gritty story and I'm sure there would have been a lot more swearing in the real event. But that doesn't diminish the fact that people actually did these amazing things and the Coast Guard continues to put their lives on the line for other people. This just gives us a taste of it and an appreciation for their sacrifice. If the critics what a "truer" story, let them jump in the boat in the storm and save some people themselves.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Happy Valentine's Day

 I used to resent this day as forced, insincere, showy love. Because so much fuss was made about it, if you didn't get the people you loved something, it made you a bad person. And as you heard tales or saw stories about the lengths to which some people showed their affections, it seemed that if you didn't meet that bar, even if you did show your affection, it wasn't enough. It seemed you could never win. I know that competition is one of the things that made this country great but can't we have a break from it? Do we always have to do things at certain times and do them better than everyone else? And what does this have to do with being in this country?

Then I wised up. It's hard (but not impossible) for someone to put pressure on you if you don't allow it. I'm sure there are cases where someone doesn't do enough to shower love on their Valentine and gets punished for it. But if that's the case, those two people are not really in a loving relationship. I love my wife so much that I really look forward to chances to let her know it. I'm not one of those guys who gets flowers for my wife all the time but I do my best. The picture at the top is a portion of the bouquet I got her this year.

And the picture on the left is a picture of one of the little "Just Add Ice" orchids I got for my daughter, my mother and my mother-in-law. I like these little gems. They are easy to take care of and it's nice that they continue for a long time after you give them. This is a wonderful time of the year. I'm glad it happens during the winter weather because it helps to brighten up a dreary time of the year.

And  our showing of earthly love is a way for us to understand the love between our Heavenly Father and us. We shouldn't be competing to be the most religious person or the best rule follower. Following rules and doing good deeds is not how we show our love for God. We do what he wants out of our love for him. We must not be forced to do good or it means nothing.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

My favorite pair of shoes

Once in a while I like to highlight some product that I really like. Normally, I'm pretty cheap but if I find something that does what it is supposed to do and does it well, I think it's worth paying more for it. Also, if it lasts, I think it's worth paying more. So, with all of that behind me, I want to tell you about the best pair of shoes I've ever owned.

The Merrell Moab Waterproof Hiking Shoe. I bought mine at Eastern Mountain Sports but they are available in a lot of different places. I wasn't even really shopping for a new pair of shoes. We were just looking around but I was dissatisfied with the shoes I had and had previously suffered from Plantar fasciitis (as I mentioned here and again here) and so when I saw these shoes, I thought it might be worth trying them on. From the beginning I liked them. For one thing, they are wider than normal. For another, they have a sturdy sole but they are relatively light - I didn't feel like they were holding me down. Even without arch supports, I felt good when I wore them and walked in them. I have added arch supports but I'm not really sure they are needed. But once you've suffered with Plantar fasciitis (or twice in my case), you don't mess around and just try things. You stick with what you know will work.

I wear these shoes everywhere and I've had them for years now. And the only thing I've seen take wear are the laces. I did have to get new ones recently. But the sole is still holding up. I highly recommend them. They are great fro walking, hiking and even help when you are just standing for a long period of time. That brings up another subject for a later post - I am volunteering in our church's café every other Sunday. We serve regular coffee, espresso, latte, cappuccino and pastries (including toasted bagels). We're on our feet for a few hours and these shoes let me do that with no pain or stress. That deserves a blog post of its own some day.


Tuesday, February 02, 2016

So many planets

Starting around January 20 and continuing until mid-February, the five classical planets are all visible by eye at the same time well before dawn. The reason I say "well before dawn" is that Mercury disappears pretty quickly once the Sun gets bright enough. And, of course, they are all impossible to see once the sun comes up. The view to the right is a screen capture of today's view in Stellarium, the free planetarium you can use on your computer to see the positions of the planets, stars and other objects in the past, the present or even the future.

So, the big news is that you can see five planets at once in the coming weeks. But I've managed to see six planets at once and I'm going to let you in on the secret to doing this. As you can see in the image (click on it to see it better), the ecliptic is marked in red.  That's the imaginary line that is the path of the Sun as it passes through the sky. But it also marks the path most of the planets take (plus or minus a little) across the sky, too. So the planets are kind of lined up. So, starting from the East where the Sun will be coming up, you can see Mercury followed by Venus (the brightest one) then Saturn then Mars (the red one) and finally Jupiter on the right. Of course, the Moon is there, too but that's not a planet. Now, if you wanted to cheat, you could say that Pluto is there, too. And it is - between Mercury and Venus at this time. But there are two problems with Pluto being the sixth visible planet - "visibility" and "planet". I know, I like to think of Pluto as a planet, too, the big shots have decided Pluto is not a planet and it is definitely not visible to the naked eye so Pluto is not the sixth planet I saw. Even most telescopes have a hard time finding Pluto. Neptune and Uranus are below the horizon and they are not visible either.

So, how do you see the sixth visible planet? Concentrate and follow my instructions. Take your sunglasses off if you have them on and stand very still. Make sure you don't look around too much or get dizzy in the dark. Now, lower your eyes gradually until you're looking down where your feet are. Now, change your gaze just to the left or right of your feet (whichever is more convenient) and look. Look hard. You may just see it - the Earth! The sixth planet you can see along with the other five. Congratulations.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Two critical months

I've found that in past years, I always seem to write plenty of blog entries in January. But when I have a bad year, as the last three years have been, it's in February or March that the number of posts drops off. Here's a table of post totals since 2012. I list the total for the year and the total for the first three months of each of those years.






































Total type20122013201420152016
Year106352622??
January910879
February59104??
March8644??


I really had high hopes in 2013 that my dropping to 106 posts in 2012 was going to be an anomaly. After all, I wrote 10 posts in January 2013 and 9 posts in February 2013. But then the bottom dropped out in March (only 6 posts). Likewise in 2014. I was going to turn it around that year and wrote 8 posts in January 2014 and 10 posts in February 2014. Then March hit and I only wrote 4 posts. Last year was the worst. Only 7 posts in January 2015 and then 4 posts in February and 4 posts in March! Last year was my worst year since the beginning of my blog.

So, I've made it through January. Let's see if I can keep going this month and again in March. Then I think I'll be able to relax. Or maybe I'll just create a new pattern for failure! But I have a lot of ideas for blog posts. Some are already outlined and some are just a sentence or two of an idea. But they are started. As a matter of fact I have about 250 draft posts saved up over the years. Even if I have no more ideas this year, I have enough material to have a record year. We'll see.

Some of the things I hope to write more about this year:

- I'm learning a new programming language and I intend to write a few posts about it. Python, the programming language, has been around for about 25 years but I'm just now getting around to learning it. I'll be writing about why I chose this language and how I went about learning it. I'll recommend at least one book and a number of websites. I may even teach you a little about it.

- The minister of our church continues to give terrific sermons that I want to highlight here. Doing that helps me dig deeper and get even more out of the sermons. So, writing about them here serves two purposes.

- I want to write more about what it was like to move my mother from her home in a tiny town south of Pittsburgh to small town on Cape Cod. This will also be about her heath challenges, about being an only child, about having some wonderful cousins and about the state of health care, telephone service and road repairs in this country. Yes, they are all related.

- I continue to work for the same company I have for the last 28 years. I can't talk too much about what I am working on now but I certainly should be able to write about things I've done in the past for products that have been released. There are a lot of interesting stories that could be written about a company that has distributors all over the world and whose product has been used in an amazing number of places from Antarctica to the bottom of the sea. From mountains to deserts to the insides of crocodiles. They've been in the Space Shuttle and on ice flows. They've been used in cranberry bogs and have survived hurricanes.

I'll leave you with a quote I think I wrote this week-end. I hope I'm not just remembering quote someone else quote:

There are two ways to keep your hands clean. One is to do nothing with them and the other is to work hard, get them dirty and wash them afterwards. jed