Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wind power

Yesterday was a big day for our area. The United States' first offshore wind farm was approved by the US Department of the Interior.

For almost ten years, plans have been in the process of being drawn up to put 130 wind turbines off the coast of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. The location of the wind farm would be in between the Cape and the Islands in Nantucket Sound in an area known as Horseshoe Shoals. The water there is approximately 8 to 55 feet deep. Due to a large number of environmental, water traffic and air traffic studies, as well as many lawsuits brought against it, the project seems like it will never end. Yesterday's decision does not allow construction yet but it does clear a lot of hurdles.

I'm personally excited about the possibility of the wind farm. I like the idea of clean energy. I don't think the turbines themselves are ugly (the picture here is of a wind turbine used to power our town waste water facility and is, obviously, not in the water). But, the turbines will be so far off-shore that you won't see much of them anyway. But the thing that excites me the most is actually the opposite of one of the arguments used by opponents of the project: They argue that the turbines will ruin fishing in that area. In reality, the existence of the turbines will enhance fishing by creating mini-reefs that will create breeding grounds for fish. The turbines themselves will be one-third to one-half a mile apart so they won't keep people out (although only shallow draft vessels could ever get in there anyway). For more and better arguments of this type, see this article.

To be fair, I'm putting links to the organization promoting this project, Cape Wind, and the major group opposing it, The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. We'll see how things go. Perhaps in a few years, I'll be writing this on a computer running on electricity generated by the wind.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The day I almost met Steve Jobs

I was just reminded of this story when one of the engineers in our company announced he was leaving to go to California to work for Apple Computer. Steve Jobs is, as you may know, the chief executive officer of Apple. He was one of the founders of Apple but left the company in 1985. He started a new company called NeXT Computer (yes, spelled with three capital letters) that had a lot of advanced hardware and software features that were appealing to the guys who ran our company and they decided that, besides being developers for Apple Macintosh computers and computers that run Microsoft operating systems, we would become NeXT developers, too. To get the special deals available to NeXT Developers, we would have to send someone to a week of intensive classes to learn how development was done on this innovative platform. I was picked to go. I was very happy to go because of all the new things I would be learning.

One of the first official things I did when I got there was to go to dinner with some of the other developers and the NeXT staff that would be teaching us. Also, I was surprised to find out, Steve Jobs himself would be there. He was going to give a talk after we ate and before the formal introductory lesson was given and our course materials were handed out. We were just finishing our meal and Steve walked in. He started walking around and greeting the NeXT people and introducing himself to the developers. He seemed happy to meet each of the developers and was asking what they planned to do with their NeXT machines. As he worked his way around the tables, I rehearsed what I'd say to him and what I'd ask him. I didn't want to gush and make a fool of myself but I wanted him to know what an honor it was to meet him. I also wanted to let him know what we'd be doing with his machines. From what I could tell from hearing what the other developers were saying, we would have a unique application for the NeXT computer.

Finally, he got to our table (why did I always have to sit in the back?). He seemed genuinely interested in everyone he talked with. I made sure to finish my meal early enough to ensure I was not chewing when he came to talk with me. Then he got to the guy next to me and they started talking. Steve had spent no more than two or three minutes talking with the other developers and I prepared to talk with him soon. But the guy next to me was one of these blowhards who seem to think they have all the best ideas in the world and whatever they are working on is the most amazing stuff anyone has ever done. Steve was very polite and attentive. He answered all the guy's questions. Meanwhile I'm thinking, "OK, enough. Let the poor guy go. I only want a minute." On and on the guy went. I'm sweating with the strain of holding myself back from shouting at the loud-mouth. Finally, the guy stops talking and Steve heads around to me. I'm just putting out my hand to shake the hand of Steve Jobs and one of his staff comes up and says, "It's time for your talk, Steve." I could have cried. I toyed with the idea of jumping out of me seat and hip checking the loud-mouthed guy next to me as I ran to introduce myself to Steve but it all happened too fast.

Steve Jobs gave an interesting and enthusiastic talk. I had mild hopes that he would continue meeting us after his talk but he had to go right after the talk. That was it. I almost met one of the most famous technical entrepreneurs in the world. But I didn't. But I will tell you - I never sit in the back of the room anymore.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Venus and Mercury - 12 days ago

I wanted to write about this back on April 10 or 11 but I didn't get a good picture of it so I didn't think it was worthwhile posting about it. But today, a friend pointed out a series of pictures taken by a much better photographer that shows the event beautifully. I don't want to show the picture here because it is copyrighted and is shown on another site by permission. I will post a link to it so you can see it in all its glory.

On April 7, the morning TV news weather forecaster mentioned that Venus and Mercury were going to be visible just after sunset that evening and they were going to appear close in the sky. My son Evan loves the stars and planets so we decided to try to see them. We first tried to see them that evening but clouds on the horizon obscured them. Then it rained or was overcast until April 10. That night, the conditions were perfect. We went to a west-facing beach so nothing would be in our way. In was cool and a strong wind was blowing in from the water. Also, it was high tide so there wasn't much beach to stand on. But we were patient. Finally, stars and planets began to appear. We saw Venus first. Then we saw Sirius, Rigel and Mars. It got darker and chillier as the wind picked up. Then we could make out Saturn and Betelgeuse (it hasn't gone supernova yet).We were so intent on looking up that we didn't notice the waves coming in and we got wet a few times. But it didn't matter. The wonder of looking for a planet we'd never seen before was more important.

Finally, we saw Mercury, too. I have looked for Mercury for as long as I can remember but this was the first time I'd seen it. You can barely see Mercury in these pictures. You'll easily see Venus in the top picture. Look in the lower right of Venus and you'll see Mercury. You can click on the picture to see it a bit better but, as I said, my pictures are pretty bad.

The second picture, shows the still-glowing horizon along with Venus and Mercury. You'll see some lights along the horizon. Those are from the towns across the bay from the beach. You'll never see Mercury without clicking on this picture and even then it is faint. If you click on the picture here to expand it and look to the lower right of Venus, you'll see a little red circle. No, Mercury doesn't have rings like Saturn (and Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune) - that's a circle I drew on the picture to show where Mercury is. I love my camera (a Lumix (Panasonic) DMC-FZ7) but it doesn't do very well in low-light situations. I even used a tripod and let the camera extend the length the shutter was open to gather more light but it was just too dark and the image is grainy. Plus, the strong wind was moving the tripod!

Now for the picture that got me to make this post. It is on the Astronomy Picture of the Day website at NASA. The particular picture related to this post is here. It is a composite of eight pictures taken from April 4 through April 15 with the crescent Moon making an appearance on the last day. The clouds and horizon must be from just one of the days or the clouds would not be as distinct as they are. Isn't it amazing? You can almost see the orbit of Mercury. It's much further from the Sun than I imagined. God has made a fascinating, wonderful place for us to live to see things like this. Praise the Lord!

It happened again

I just had a great idea for a post and was going to start writing it. I was just going to start the post. This would remind me of the idea so I could finish it later. I went to get to the New Post page and...I forgot what the idea was.

I should have talked to myself so I would have remembered it as I said here

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Update on a previous post

About two years ago, on May 5, 2008, I wrote a post about the town of Greensburg, Kansas, and how inspiring it was to hear the townsfolk talk about rebuilding after devastating tornadoes ripped the town apart. Today, I saw a report on the CNN website about how the town rebuilding efforts are progressing. The report is titled "Tornado-hit town forges green comeback" and the video report can be found here. Here's the introduction in text:

"What if a city could rebuild itself completely from scratch starting from square one using all available modern technology and knowledge?

You might get Greensburg, Kansas, which has recreated itself as a model of green efficiency and sustainability after a mile-wide tornado nearly wiped it away in 2007."

It's very encouraging. They repeated what was said two years ago that the town had been dwindling for decades. It took something like this to force the people and their leaders to think in a completely different way. The best news is that they didn't waste this opportunity. They are doing it right. They didn't just re-build. They are building differently.

Another thing to remember is that they didn't do it themselves. They have had outside help from the state federal government and from local and national businesses. They weren't just handed money (remember, you can't just throw money at a problem). There had to be planning and commitment. Hats off to the people of Greensburg.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Why am I here?

No, this isn't a great religious or philosophical question. It's what I sometimes say when I've just entered a room, "Now, why am I here?" In the few minutes it took to walk to the room, I've forgotten why I wanted to go there. As I've aged, I don't think these types of things are happening more often - I just worry more about them more. I wonder if I'm starting to get senile. I'll forget someone's name that I've known for years. I'll forget that I left the kettle on the stove heating water for tea or I'll put a box with cables and electronics in our basement, forget I put it there and blame my wife for throwing it away. I just chalk it up to getting older.

I heard a very interesting story on National Public Radio on the way into work this morning. It was encouraging in that it seems that research is showing that yes, some things decline in our brain as we age but some things actually get better. And we can help our brain out. The radio story, "The Grown-Up Brain: Sharper Than Once Thought", was an interview with Barbara Strauch who has written a book titled The Secret Life of The Grown-up Brain. In the book, she tells how scientists point out that while our brain may slow down as we age (like the rest of our body) it doesn't have to be an inevitable decline. There are things we can do to improve ourselves. And part of what seems to be forgetfulness is really just our being distracted because, after all, we have more on our minds now than we used to. When we were young, we didn't have to worry about our spouse, our children, our house and our jobs. We were lucky if we had one or more of those things.

On a blog I read, the author was writing about talking to himself and how it can be embarrassing. I wrote a comment to admit that I also talk to myself but part of the reason I do it is so that I will hear my own thoughts. That way, my thought is not only in my mind where it originated but now, since I just heard myself say it, it is in that other place in my brain reserved for things I've heard someone say. Right there I've doubled my chance of remembering the thought.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What an idea!

I was reading the paper at lunch today and one of the letters to the editor struck my fancy. The writer was commenting on the fact that the phone company, the cable provider and the electric power company were not being very responsive. For instance, after fixing a bad land line, the phone company ignored followup calls to bury the line so it wouldn't be damaged again. Also, the power company was going to be spraying herbicides along its lines in spite of requests not to do it (because it damaged neighboring vegetation). I know from personal experience that the cable company keeps raising rates while taking channels away. What can you do? Well, we're told that if the company won't cooperate, we can stop buying their product. But what if you need that product? What if there is no alternative? What if the only alternative (in the case of cable TV or phone service) is to switch to the other company which is just as bad? The companies, of course, try to please their customers and if you leave them, they will suffer.

That's not really true. Companies will only suffer if enough of the their customers leave or complain. If it's just a few of us, they can just ignore us. So, the letter writer ends with this (I've edited out a couple of things):
"Unfortunately, [these companies] have become too powerful, so powerful they have forgotten customers are supposed to come first. As an individual, I can't do much to change the way these companies behave, but [...] , if ordinary people like us unite, we have power."
What a great idea. We could all get together and make the companies acknowledge our requests. We couldn't all go there, like a mob, so we could get together and select people to talk for us. Maybe we could have a vote to select those people. Maybe, since things like this continue to happen, we could select the people to do this for a few years at a time. Maybe, since it will be time consuming to get all the facts straight and define reasoned arguments, the people we select should be paid. We could all chip in a little money and if enough of us do it, these people we select could afford to do this full time - like the companies we are dealing with. Let's come up with a name for it. Let's call it a government.

I don't know. The letter writer was probably being subtle. The letter writer probably assumed we would all recognize what he was describing. But when a non-subtle person like me reads the letter, he just can't help making a non-subtle blog posting about it.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Who did win?

This is a follow-up to my last post, "Who's going to win?", where nine sports writers were asked who was going to win the Master's golf tournament. Only two of the nine experts correctly picked Phil Mickelson to win the tournament. I'm not one to rub it in. Also, I know so little about golf that I would have never considered picking a winner in that tournament. But it is a good lesson to remind ourselves about how decisions and predictions can be made. Seven golf experts were wrong about this. Yet, they will probably still be considered experts and will probably be asked the same question next year. Maybe they will pick the winner correctly in a majority of tournaments. Maybe they won't. It doesn't matter! These kinds of predictions only matter if you are in charge of making t-shirts that are printed with the winner's name on them and you have to finish them before the tournament ends. And even then, if you're stupid enough to spend money on that ahead of time, you deserve to lose the money you wasted.

Later this week, though, I am going to make a prediction about a technology that I think will make a big difference in the fields of computers and embedded electronic control. Here, predictions can be helpful to get you to look into something that may be important in the future. I want to work on this for a while to make sure I write it well. And no, I am not going to be writing about the Apple iPad!

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Who's going to win?

This happens more with sporting events but it also happens with elections and even with stories (or movies or TV shows) where it gets changed to "What's going to happen? Does this guy get caught?"

I was looking over the news at lunch today and one of the headlines was, "Who is going to win the Masters" (link to CNN story). What is the use of this? If someone really knows the answer to this, would people who would normally watch this golf tournament not watch it now that they know who is going to win? Or are they going to bet on that person and win a bunch of money? Does it make them feel better if the golfer who is going to win is a golfer they like so they can be assured he is going to win?

In reality, no one knows who is going to win this tournament. Nor does anyone know who is going to win the World Series (now that the baseball season has finally started) but that doesn't stop people from making these predictions. Usually, it's the experts that make these predictions. But what is really interesting is that these experts differ on who they think will win. For instance, for the two (interminably long) weeks before the Super Bowl is played, there were articles (by the experts of course) about why the New Orleans Saints were going to win. Oh my goodness, they were right! But the funny part is there were also articles (by different experts) about why the Indianapolis Colts were going to win. Are those guys no longer considered experts? I'll bet they will still be making predictions next year.

I think what it comes down to is a feeling of comfort. My wife and son will often ask me how a story we are watching on TV will turn out. I say, "Won't that ruin it for you?" "Why don't we just watch the rest of the story and you'll find out?" I usually end up saying. But I think they get nervous when they don't know what is going to happen. Especially if it is a suspenseful story. If I tell them that Grace Kelly will get caught in Raymond Burr's apartment when she is snooping around for his wife's jewelry does that ease their minds or do I need to say that yes, she will be found out by Mr. Burr but the police will get there in time to help her? I'm talking about the movie Rear Window and I hope I haven't ruined it for you. It really is a great movie.

I remember seeing the movie Zulu on TV with my father (who had seen it before) and every time the Zulus would attack, he'd say, "Well, I think this is when the Welsh regiment is wiped out." I hadn't asked him what would happen. He just offered this information and each time I was prepared for the small group of soldiers to be killed and every time, while some of them would die, the group survived. Until the next attack and my father would say, "Oh, now I remember. This is the time they are all killed." And once again, I'd be looking for the end. And it didn't happen. In fact, the regiment survives through the movie and the Zulu warriors move on - after saluting the soldiers for their bravery. This is just the opposite of wanting to know "how it ends". But I have to say, that this was one one of the most exciting movies I've ever seen - perhaps because of my father's unsolicited comments. Maybe the people watching the Masters will say the same thing when the experts are wrong.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Unintentional practical joke - Part 2

As I prepare to finish up this story, I realize that what I should have done was wait for a year to finish this. That's the way it happened in real life. But that's impractical - mostly because I'll forget to write the second part after that long of a wait. I forget why I've walked into a room for goodness sake!

As I left the story last time (link to previous part), my friend had moved 1500 miles away to enroll in graduate school in Colorado. In the meantime, I was still working outside Washington three months later but changes were afoot and my job was going to be moving to Mississippi. They made the mistake of sending us down there in the summer to see if we'd like to move. It was hot. It was so hot, no one came out during the day. I only saw people around at night when it wasn't quite so hot. I declined the move but I was fortunate because I worked for the US Geological Survey and they needed an electronics engineer in two other locations that didn't get as hot as Mississippi in the summer - Woods Hole, MA and Denver, CO. They would be transferring me to the Denver office for a week to see if my skills fit in with what they were doing there. I figured it would be a good chance to see my friend again.

He was very busy and was never in his apartment when I called. The arrangements were made pretty quickly and there wasn't time to write, either (this was in the 70's - no cell phone and no e-mail). So, I'd have to "pop in". I drove into town one evening and found his apartment building. You had to hit the buzzer near the individual mail slot to get in but he didn't answer the buzz. Out again. So, I figured I'd leave him a note to let him know I was in town. But writing an "I'm here and here's how to reach me" note seemed so boring. Two things went through my mind:
1) My friend always said he could tell my writing and
2) Wouldn't it be more fun to make in mysterious?
So, remembering the events from the previous post, I wrote this (or something like it - this was a long time ago):
"At last I've found you. You thought you could get away with cutting in front of me in your car in Washington. But I've tracked you down. We'll see who is laughing now."
In my strange, warped mind I just assumed he would know it was me. The next day, I called his apartment again and this time he answered. "Did you get my note?" I asked. The mixture of relief, anger and exhaustion in his voice were apparent over the phone. "I can't believe you did that", he said. "Do you know I called your apartment at 3 AM last night to see if you were home?" sounding a little more mad than relieved. "If you would have answered, I think I'd have had a heart attack," he said barely able to control himself. "How did you remember about the car, anyway?" he finished.

He had been up most of the night worrying. My not answering when he called my apartment in Virginia didn't necessarily mean I'd traveled to Denver and slipped an ill-advised, idiotic, threatening note into his mailbox. He didn't know for sure until I called the next day. But I'd been right about one thing - he was pretty sure he recognized my writing.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Unintentional practical joke - Part 1

I'll tell this story in two parts because that is the way it happened. Two events that were separated by over a year.

The story starts when one of my best friends (we had been roommates our freshman year in college) was living and working in Washington DC. One day, as he was pulling his car out of the parking garage of his apartment building, he happened to pull in front of another car. It wasn't like he cut the guy off but the guy apparently thought my friend should have waited to pull out. Maybe the guy was in a hurry. Maybe the guy didn't like to have anyone driving in front of him. Maybe the guy was just a jerk. Whatever the reason, the other car pulled right up behind my friend and started beeping his horn. My friend felt bad but had no room to pull over to let the guy get around him. He figured that sooner or later he would turn one way and the guy behind him would go another way. So, at the next turn, he was a little dismayed that the guy following turned the same way. "Oh, well," he thought, "he'll turn a different way at the next turn." To help things along, since my friend was in no rush, he turned onto a little-used street. The guy behind turned the same way. Now he began to worry. Finally, after making a few more turns, with "the guy" following on each one, they came to a red light. Now, with both cars stopped, my friend was able to see that there were two people in the car and the passenger seemed to be writing something down. When the light turned green, the guys in the other car sped around my friend's car and finally left him alone.

My friend was worried, though. Had they copied his license number and had some access to the license database? Of course, they had seen which apartment building he was leaving. They wouldn't know for sure if he lived there but it was another worry. But nothing ever happened and, as time passed, my friend thought less and less about it. He had been thinking about going back to school to get his master's degree for some time and months (or may a year or more) after this incident, he was accepted into a master's program at the University of Colorado. It was a sad day for me (I was living in Northern Virginia at the time and we hung around together often) but it was good for him and his career. He was going to be very busy with school and, as it turned out, would be meeting his future wife there. So, the last thing on his mind was a road rage incident 1500 miles away.

That's the way this part of the story ends. All was fine until I traveled to Colorado for a possible new job. We'll finish the story next time.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

It's the Easter Hound Dog, Charlie Brown

Happy Easter. Christ is risen!

We have our own little Easter Egg hunt before going to church and our dog Charlie helped me distribute them. Here he is resting from his work. He's making one, last check to make sure they are all in place. He enjoys helping the kids find them, too.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Practical joke

Earlier this week, I was reminded of a practical joke that was played on me when I was a freshman in college. Since this is April Fool's Day, I thought this was an appropriate time to write about it. But don't do this to someone who may get mad at you!

I had come into the cafeteria late one evening just before closing time and sat down at a table with people I didn't know. I remember thinking that there were a lot of people sitting at the table who had finished their meals but weren't leaving. And they weren't talking either. They were just sitting there. Then, as I ate, I noticed people at surrounding tables who had also finished their meals and weren't leaving. They didn't seem to be talking, either. They all seemed to be waiting for something.

After a while, someone at my table asked if they could have the sugar. As I reached for the sugar dispenser (similar to the one pictured here), it didn't register with me to question why someone who was finished with their meal would need the sugar. I just reached for it (on one side of me) and passed it to them (on the other side of me). I immediately noticed three things:

  1. The dispenser got lighter very quickly.
  2. The metal top of the dispenser fell off.
  3. A sort of cheer went up at the table where I was sitting and at a number of tables around me.

I looked back at where the metal top landed and saw the contents of the sugar dispenser spread out over the table. I went to turn to the fellow who had asked for the sugar to apologize but he was already getting up to leave with a big grin on his face. The memory is a little hazy after all these years but I seem to remember about half the people in the cafeteria getting up to leave at this time. I think it may have been as many as 20 - 30 people. Apparently, word had spread of the imminent practical joke about to be sprung and those folks had been waiting around for it. It wasn't personally aimed at me - it was set for whoever sat down at the table after it has been set up. Someone had screwed off the top of the dispenser, put something over the top (something thin like a piece of cardboard), flipped it over onto the table and slid the cardboard out so that the table was now holding the sugar in. They then placed the metal cover on the "top" of the dispenser to complete the illusion. This type of dispenser makes it easier because it looks the same when it's upside down.

I had to admit, it was a pretty good joke and the large number of people cheering and the suddenness had startled me enough that I didn't get angry. I was more upset by the fact that I felt obligated to clean the mess up. Oh, that and the waste of the sugar.