Friday, February 27, 2009

Happy birthday to me

I'm 58 years old today and I don't feel a day over 57. We're going to celebrate my birthday tomorrow so it's pretty quiet around the house today. Except that last night, our dog Charlie who recently had a birthday himself, decided to get into the garbage and recycling last night. So, the first thing I did this morning, after telling my wife I love her as I do every morning, was to clean up the mess.

I noticed an interesting item on the This Day in History site. On this day in 1915, Arthur Conan Doyle published the Sherlock Holmes story The Valley of Fear in novel form. I don't think it was his first Holmes novel (there had certainly been earlier stories that appeared serialized in magazine format) but what got my attention was that as the article expands to include Arthur Conan Doyle's history in general, they state, "Conan Doyle created Holmes while practicing medicine in London, where his shortage of patients left him ample free time to write." If he'd been a more successful doctor, we might not have the Sherlock Holmes character. This is another case of someone making the best of a bad situation. It also reminds me of the series of stories that were featured on This American Life earlier this month. They were collectively titled, "Plan B" and were all about people who started off with a plan A for their life but for one reason or another ended up living out their plan B. Some were better off and some were worse off. But it doesn't always have to be bad.

I got to thinking about my own life. In one sense, I am living my plan A: I'm married, I have kids, I own a house (sort of - we will own it once the mortgage is paid). But as far as work goes, since high school I had planned on being an oceanographer of some sort. I got to do that for 10 years. But then I realized that going to sea all the time wasn't what I thought it would be. It wasn't the excitement of the Jacques Cousteau stories after all. I've now been at my present job for 21 years and I'm much happier. Going to sea for months at a time and visiting different cities, states and countries was exciting. I learned a lot and it gave me some good stories to tell but it wasn't the right life for me. The life I have now is the best I could possibly imagine. Thank you Lord. Thank you Cindy. Thank you Evan and thank you Emma. Today is the happiest day of my life - so far.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Mystery bird in the woods

While on my walk yesterday, I was paying more attention to the muddy path than I was in looking ahead of me. Just as I lifted my head, I saw a large bird turning away from me and starting to run away down the path. I was about 20 yards away but I could see that it was a big bird (no, not Big Bird!) of about 2 to 2.5 feet high. It was running! Fast! It reminded me of seeing ostriches running on television documentaries. I was so shocked at the sight that I didn't even think about bringing my camera up and turning it on. After about five seconds, it got to an opening in the tree cover and took off. Fast! No manic flapping of wings like I've seen with pheasants. This thing had big wings and it was gone in about four flaps of its wings. I never really got a good look at its colors or its head. My first thought was that it must be a wild turkey from its size. But I've never seen a wild turkey take flight or even run. I've only seen them walking around in petting zoos.

By the time I'd gotten to where the bird had been, it was long gone. But a few of its tracks remained in the mud of the path. So, the first picture on the right is the impression it left in the mud. The second picture, on the left, shows my boot next to it for a size comparison. My boot is 13 inches long.

As I looked around, I found a few other prints and measured the distance between them to see how long the bird's stride was. It was five and a half boot lengths long. That's almost six feet. The bird was really moving. I've included one more picture showing the stride. The bird's tracks are circled in red.

The puzzling part, to me, is the rear "toe". From all the pictures I've seen on the Web of wild turkeys, none have that prominent rear extension. So, I thought maybe it was a bird like a vulture or even an osprey that would have that opposing claw they use to grasp their prey. But I'd never heard of a raptor that could run like that. So, it remains a mystery. Most of the folks at work think it was a turkey. I may never know - it wasn't there when I went for my walk today. All I can say is I'm glad it was running away from me and not toward me.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Sometimes it's better to just keep moving

I shouldn't complain. The people were just trying to be nice. They thought they would make me happy. Instead, I just muttered under my breath as I started to go and grudgingly waved thanks and not really meaning it. What happened to set me off this time?

I was standing by the road waiting to walk across. I wasn't at a crosswalk where, in our state, it is mandatory for cars to stop for a pedestrian standing between the white lines. I was prepared to wait for the traffic to clear. The last in the line of cars stopped. They caught me off guard. I hesitated because I wasn't really sure of their intentions. Then, to make sure, they waved me across. At that point I felt obligated to not just walk across but to "jog" across so I didn't hold them up any longer than necessary. I've heard people complaining when pedestrians cross the street slowly. Now, my "jog" is much slower than other people's jog but it does take more effort than walking. I would have been glad to wait for just one more car to pass before taking my leisurely stroll but now I had to get myself moving and faster than I would have wanted to go. Rats.

This happens in my car, too. I'm waiting for a long line of cars to pass before making a left turn and I'm looking ahead to the approaching gap in the traffic. The last car in the line stops to let me through but I don't see it right away because I'm looking up ahead to judge how big the gap behind them is. So, we all sit there for a while until they either gesture enough to catch my attention or they honk or flash their lights. Usually at that point they've become angry that I haven't accepted their kind offer. So, I step on the gas to try to reduce their wait by a few milliseconds and everything in the car shifts around and I make my wife car-sick. No one is really happy.

If they had just kept moving, everything would have been fine. Am I getting old and cranky or what?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Happy Pluto Day

Today is the 79th anniversary of when Pluto was first observed on Earth by Clyde Tombaugh. It was thought to be the mysterious Planet X which seemed to be tugging on Neptune and Uranus. According to an article on This Day in History, some astronomers doubted that Pluto had enough mass to do that, but in 1978, when its moon Charon was discovered, it looked like their combined mass was enough to cause the effects on the two large planets.

You probably know that the International Astronomical Union officially demoted Pluto from being a full-fledged planet but I and many other people (and many astronomers) disagree with this. An interesting blog dedicated to Pluto can be found at Laurel's Pluto Blog. It's written by an amateur astronomer who is an entertaining writer and has a passion for Pluto's being reinstated as a real planet. The picture here is from the Hubble Space Telescope. We should know a lot more about Pluto and its moons (yes, they've discovered more) around July 14, 2015 when the NASA probe New Horizons reaches Pluto.

Monday, February 16, 2009

New versus old

One of my projects over the three-day holiday (President's Day or is it?) was to put up shelves in my daughter's room like I did in my son's room a few months ago. I'm not the world's best handyman but I know how to do some jobs around the house. I know how to find a stud in the wall. I know to use a level and I know how to measure correctly. Putting up the shelves in my son's room took longer than I thought it would but they ended up looking nice. They're not fancy. They have two metal support rails vertically mounted to the wall and the brackets clip into those support rails and the shelves rest on the brackets. They look like the picture to the right. I got them at Lowes but I could have bought them at any number of places.

When it came time to do the ones in my daughter's room, I figured I'd done the hard parts in my son's room. As with all my "engineering" projects, making decisions about how to do the job are really the hardest parts of the project. In this case, the hard part was deciding how high to put the shelves and where to put them along the wall. My wife and I decided that the shelves in our daughter's room could go in the same same way as in our son's room. So, it was going to be quick. And it was. The picture on the left shows how they turned out. They won't show up in a magazine or anything but they're useful. You can see one of our cats, Rosie, inspecting my work. As a side note - if you look closely at Rosie in the picture, she seems to be tinged in pink. Don't worry. She didn't rub up against a newly painted wall. It's just a strange effect caused by the light of the flash bouncing off the pink walls.

The funny part, to me, was how much easier it was to put up the shelves in the two rooms in our new house than it would have been in our old house. The old house was built over many years starting in 1928. It was an old farm house (a strawberry farm) for a long time. Then it was rented out as a group home for special needs children and, later, as a halfway house for runaway girls before I bought it. There were very few level or plumb walls in the house. And they didn't have any idea of keeping even measurements for the studs in the walls (as we do these days with 16 inches between studs in the wall). Sometimes, I'd locate a stud in the wall only to find that it didn't go all the way down to the floor or up to the ceiling. There would be unexplained gaps in the wall or extra studs when I was expecting a open space. If I'd been putting the shelves in the old house, it would have taken three to five times longer! I thank God for this new house all the time but especially on days like this. Everything is where it is supposed to be in the new walls. It is almost a pleasure to do jobs like this now.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Update on a merger

Back on March 1, 2007, I went on a rant about the pending merger of Sirius satellite radio and XM satellite radio. I was complaining that in spite of the fact that the merged company would be the only satellite radio company (is that called a monopoly?), [updated - they were arguing that] they should be allowed to merge because they had a lot of competition from free (although commercial) radio which would force them to keep their prices low. They said that merging would make them stronger to meet such competition. Well, I guess it didn't work.

I heard this morning that the combined company may be forced to file for bankruptcy. I guess they weren't stronger after all. You could just chalk it all up to the recession we find ourselves in but the chief executive had said that the weakening economy wouldn't affect them. I wonder if they had stayed separate if this would be happening? We'll probably never know. I wonder how long it will take them to blame the government for allowing them to merge?

I do have to admit that the purpose of my rant two years ago seems to have been wrong, though. According to the New York Times article the link above points to, "But satellite radio failed to win over many younger listeners, and competition from other sources slowed subscriber growth." So, I guess they were competing with free radio after all. Or were they competing with the Internet. Or maybe they were competing with TV. Or maybe even people who decide to read books. Or maybe...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A funny, geeky story

When I first started to learn the C programming language, like almost everyone, I read The C Programming Language by Kernighan and Richie (the link points to a later version than I used). After programming in C for a while, I bought another book which had a great section near the back covering common mistakes C programmers often make. I found this valuable as a way to look at my programs and see problems coming before they happened. I wish I still had that book but I gave it away (surprisingly, to the precocious son of one of my co-workers who was writing programs with one hand as he clutched his teddy bear with the other). I don't even remember the title or author.

But the one thing I remember from it was this line, "You'll find that as you learn more about the C programming language and write more advanced programs, the errors you make will be more subtle and hard to find."

I remember, at first, being surprised by this statement. "What a strange thing to say in a book that is supposed to be helping me learn a programming language", I thought. Then I realized what it meant and I laughed. In a sense, this isn't really a geek joke but a universal truth. It's also a little like my earlier article about the difference between two-wheel drive vehicles and four-wheel drive vehicles. As we learn to ride a bike better, the further we go on our trips. As we get more wheels driving our vehicle, we tend to go further off the road. As we gain more faith, we try to live our life more in line with the teachings of Jesus and attempt bolder projects in His name. Hopefully, we're constantly learning, getting better and reaching further. We just need to be prepared that the problems we face are going to be tougher to solve and more subtle to see. But we're better, too!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Charlie's birthday

Yesterday, we celebrated our dog Charlie's birthday. He is ten years old. This is a picture of him enjoying one of his birthday treats. He's a funny old dog, though. He kept looking around and whining. When we didn't respond correctly, he got up and headed for the door. He wanted to go out and enjoy his treat without needing to worry if the cats or anyone else in the family was going to bother him. Plus, he was probably already planning where he was going to bury it.

No matter how domesticated we think our pets are, it is often surprising to us that they are still not human. They are animals. The cats have never gotten to the point where they really trust us, either. If they think we're not carrying them to the window sill correctly, they'll claw their way to the window in the way that minimizes their worry. Not the way that hurts us the least. And Charlie, while he is a very well behaved dog and is an extremely loyal one, will take off like a shot (no matter who is in his way) if a rabbit runs out of the underbrush in front of him. They can't help it. They're still animals. And I think that's part of the fascination of having pets. There is a sense of having a wolf or a tiger living in your house! There is a sense of having something not quite tame around. We're a little bit closer to nature when they are around.

Friday, February 06, 2009

A problem is easy to fix

I was reading an electronics trade magazine recently and one of the articles really hit home. The magazine, EDN (I think it used to be called Electronics Design News), has a regular feature called Tales from the Cube. They are stories about interesting problems that readers have had and their solutions to the problems. All in one page. The article I read that got me to write this was called "All fail down" and it was about an electronic product that failed in areas that are dry (that is, they had low humidity - not that they restricted alcoholic beverages). This is usually a sign that static build-up is getting from the case of the device to the electronics and this causes the a malfunction. The writer of the article was brought in as a consultant and he'd seen things like this before but as he looked over the design of the product and offered suggestions, the engineers would just say, "We already tried that. We've tried everything." He puzzled over it for a long time until he realized that the company's engineers had tried each one of the fixes and then removed it to try the next fix. So, our consultant hero realized that there was really more than one problem that had the same result. When he applied all six of the fixes at once, everything worked. Then it was time to remove the fixes to see which ones were needed to solve this problem and it turned out that only two of the six fixes were needed to solve the problem. But the fact that it was two problems was what made this such a tough thing to solve.

This is what I've seen in my work, too. Usually, fixing one problem is fairly simple. It's when you have two or more problems that interact that you have a real problem. I recently found and fixed a problem in our products that appeared to be one problem but turned out to be two things that weren't really mistakes - most of the time. I was called in because one of our devices failed to run because our software couldn't read information from it correctly. It looked like a bug in our software. But when I tracked it down, it turned out that the information in our device was incorrect. But when the hardware guys loaded a new copy of that information into the device, it continued to fail. How did our devices ever work? The same information worked when loaded into brand new devices. It turned out that the information was slightly wrong but it didn't matter when it was loaded into a brand new device. But when it was loaded into a device that had some other slightly wrong information in it (from a power glitch or mishandling), it failed. The original information was never meant to be used in anything but a brand new unit. It took the interacting problems of the slight error in the original information, the unit that failed in a certain way and the using of the original information in the wrong circumstance to cause the problem.

These kinds of problems are what keep engineers up at night. And it is the solving of these kinds of problems that gives engineering the satisfaction that makes it exciting to come to work each day.

I'm sorry if this was boring. I'm working on trying to get more stories on engineering into this blog. After all, I call it "Adventures in Engineering". I want to make the explanations understandable by non-engineers but detailed enough to give the real story. It's not easy but I will be a better engineer if I can balance these two things.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

February does not bring an end to winter

We had some more snow on Tuesday and into Wednesday. I didn't get out for my walk on Wednesday but I did get out today. It certainly is lovely but it's cold and the wind is picking up. Here is a picture showing that, although the snow was light, we continue to get thawing and freezing cycles that allow the snow to build up on the trees making them bend. As with all the pictures in my blog, just click on it to get a larger view.

Notice that there are no footsteps in the snow here. I was the first to pass this way today. I find it exciting to be the first one to walk a path. I think it makes me feel like I'm one of the intrepid people who first explored our country and opened it up to the others. Of course, I'm nothing like those guys and I'm one of the "others". I take my exploring and suffering in half hour doses. I take hardship for, at most, a week at a time. I enjoy getting back to my warm house and eating the delicious food my wife prepares. I like my easy life too much to be a real explorer.