Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Gas mileage

At lunch today, instead of going for my usual walk in the woods behind the office, I went to fill up the gas tank on my new scooter. The gas gauge showed that I was down to a quarter tank after all. This was the first time I'd put gas in the tank since I bought the scooter. I knew how to get to the tank but I wasn't sure how well I'd be able to see the level of the gas. The first obstacle was that you have to pay first. Since the tank only holds 1.6 gallons, I gave the attendant $5 knowing that would cover the full 1.6 gallons if necessary.

As I slowly filled the tank (I didn't want it to overflow and ruin the nice new finish), I kept checking the readout of the pump. I got a shock when I saw "1.70" at one point. I thought the tank was supposed to only hold 1.6 gallons. It turns out I was looking at the price and not the number of gallons. I carefully put gas in until it reached the bottom of the filler tube (as stated in the manual). When I looked up, I saw that I'd put in 0.843 gallons! I'd put 84.9 miles on the bike since I bought it with a full tank. That means I got 100.7 miles per gallon! The scooter dealer may not have been as careful as I was and maybe he'd filled the tank up to the top of the filler tube. So, I may not be getting mileage that high. Now, the next time I fill the tank, I'll fill it to the same level and I'll get a better estimate of the mileage.

The other nice thing I learned was that when the gas gauge shows only a quarter tank of gas left, I know I've really got almost a half a tank of gas left. If the mileage is really about 100 miles per gallon, that means I could still go another 76 miles. We'll see. It sure was nice to get $2.65 in change from my $5.

Monday, June 28, 2010

I made it to work on my new scooter

I made the 12 mile trip from home to the office this morning on my new scooter. It only took about 5 more minutes than it would by car. That's mostly because I took back roads instead of the more direct four-lane highway. Technically, my scooter could go 55 MPH to keep up with traffic on the highway but I'm not experienced enough to do that. Even when I get more experience, I don't think I'll try that. It's just a bit too scary thinking about all of those cars passing me and wondering which of them are distracted by talking or texting on the their cell phone - among other distractions. On the back roads, I saw very few cars and none of them needed to pass me because I was able to travel fast enough to keep up.

We'll see how I do on the ride home tonight!

[Update - Rather than make a whole new post, I'll just update this one. Yes, I made it home yesterday (Monday, June 28) and now I've made it to work again successfully (Tuesday, June 29). The worry yesterday was that a storm was heading our way and was supposed to arrive about the time I would be heading home. But the storm was late and wasn't that bad anyway. The bottom line is, I love riding this scooter and I will be writing more about it in the future.]

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Back from vacation

We're home from a four day vacation. We went to our usual place - Santa's Village in New Hampshire. This picture of my son Evan, my wife Cindy and my daughter Emma was taken under one of the covered foot bridges in the park. We had a wonderful time. The weather wasn't perfect but the fact that it drizzled rain for most of two days just kept the crowds down - it didn't prevent us from doing anything there.

We love the relaxed atmosphere there, the kindness of the workers and the good-nature of the other visitors. And this year, Cindy made reservations at the Evergreen Motel that is just across the street from the amusement park. We assumed it would be expensive or not very nice but we were wrong on both counts. They had a free miniature golf course and free DVD movies for the evening. Also, they provided a free continental breakfast. I hope to get back into writing more and longer posts in the coming days.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Motor scooter

I've been thinking about getting a more fuel efficient way of getting to work. I used to have a small pick-up truck that I used for work while we have a minivan for the family to use. But the truck is gone now (I should write about that some day) and we tried just using the minivan for everything. Usually, I just took the minivan to work and Cindy and the kids borrowed my mother-in-law's car when they needed it. Or Cindy would drive me to work and pick me up again at night. That was twice the miles per day to get to work, though. Also, the minivan gets pretty bad gas mileage. So, I'd been thinking about getting a motor scooter to use on days when Cindy needs the car. I shopped around and priced them and weighed the various benefits of different models and decided on a Honda Elite 110cc motor scooter. Being over 50cc engine size means I have to register it and get a motorcycle license but the mileage is incredible. The cost of the scooter, the insurance, the registration and the license fee (not to mention the cost of gas) are MUCH less than what we'd need to pay for a small, fuel efficient car.

I bought the scooter two days ago, on June 19. I've registered the bike and got a learner's permit for a motorcycle license. That's me and my son Evan in the picture. He's only 13 years old and won't be driving it - yet. I'm sure to have some stories to tell as I learn to ride it correctly and get my full motorcycle license. It's already been an adventure just getting the learner's permit. They give you a test of 25 multiple choice questions. I thought it would be easy but I studied the motorcycle handbook published by the registry of motor vehicles. You only have to get 18 answers correct to pass and get the learner's permit. A piece of cake.

But the first two questions were about the penalties to junior operators (16.5 to 18 years of age) when operating a car. That wasn't in the handbook that I'd studied! So, I got the first two answers wrong. I had to get 18 of the next 23 questions right. They threw in a few more questions about penalties that I hadn't studied and I ended up having to get 4 of the last 5 answers right to pass. I got exactly 4 of the last 5 questions right and ended up with 18 correct answers - just enough. I'd passed but I was completely embarrassed. The lady at the counter said they didn't care. She tried to make me feel better by saying they threw in those "penalties to junior operators" questions because they think learner's permits will be taken by young people and they want to warn them about the consequences. Well, all it's done is make me really nervous about the final written test. And what about the road test? I thought it was going to be easy. But now I'm not so sure.

[Update - Well, there was no "final" written test. This was the one and only written test. I wish I'd known that when I went to take my road test. More about that in this post.]

Friday, June 18, 2010

A new bird (for me)

Yesterday, I saw a bird I've never seen before. It's a Ruffed Grouse (pictured here). Notice the crest (on its head) and the short fan tail. According to my bird book, they don't usually perch in trees like this but I startled this mother and her chicks and she didn't want to fly away too far from them. She made a strange crying sound and I'm told they do this to lure predators away from their chicks. The predator hears the sound and thinks the mother is wounded and will be easy to catch.

The funny part of this is that the Ruffed Grouse is the state bird of Pennsylvania. I was born and raised there and stayed for 24 years and never saw one in that time. It took moving to Massachusetts and waiting another 32 years (plus another 3 years in between while I lived in Virginia) before I saw a Ruffed Grouse. Seeing the state bird of Massachusetts is much easier. I see Black-capped Chickadees all the time. I posted pictures of them before (here and here) so I won't bore you with another one.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What a trouble maker I am

I recently read an article on the Electronic Design website titled Broadband for Everyone. It talks about a report by the Federal Communications Commission (available here) to bring broadband technology (that is, fast network access) to more of the country. The Electronic Design article says that our country is progressing well in spreading fast Internet access to more people in the country and that government interference will only hurt our progress. The article also cites a study (available here) that says that most of the people that don't have broadband either don't want it or wouldn't be able to use it.

Well, I couldn't sit still for that. I had to write a comment:
"There are two problems with your article. First, you only paint the rosy picture that broadband and Internet use are growing in our country but you fail to mention that we are behind or not far ahead of other countries - our competitors. We should be further along than we are.

Second, you seem to be saying that most of the people who don't have broadband and Internet access either don't want it or couldn't use it. How many people had no use for the automobile and the telephone when they first came out? Cheap oil and Henry Ford helped the auto take hold but it took the government to help spread the telephone. Many people don't know what they are missing because they've never seen what a good broadband + Internet connection can do. Don't treat these people like some of our conservative friends treat the homeless - "Oh, they're homeless by choice. They wouldn't know what to do with a place of their own. They LIKE their freedom."

Simply leaving things to private industry is just handicapping our progress. Private industry, with help (or incentives or regulations) from the government, is a potent combination to move forward in technology. Checks and balances don't just work among the three branches of government. They help keep our government and our industries honest, too."
I can sympathize with people who don't like government interference. No one likes to be told what to do. It just drives me crazy, though, when people blindly reject any kind of government involvement. I used to work in the Federal Government (the United State Geological Survey - for 13 years) and I know how screwed up a government agency can be. I also know the good it can do. I have also dealt with large private companies and I know how screwed up they can be and I know the good they can do. I do not want to see the government, Federal, state and local, take over our lives but I also recognize that we need a balance to companies and industries (and foreign governments) that would like nothing better than to have unfettered influence over us. At least with our own government, we have a say and we can vote out a bad government. Try that with the directors of the company that built that refrigerator you bought that never worked right.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Baltimore Oriole

No, not a member of the baseball team. The real thing. Every year, I see at least one Baltimore Oriole but only once and only one day. Previously, they always seemed to be passing through our area heading north in the spring. I know they have to head south in the fall but I never see them at that time.

So, this year has been especially exciting. I've seen many Orioles and they've stayed around for days. Of course, the jokes around the office are that the baseball team in Baltimore is having such a bad year that the bird they are named after is leaving town. Not so funny if you're a Baltimore baseball fan.

There's an interesting story about how I got these pictures, though. In my usual style, I had chances to take pictures of these birds earlier but I kept missing them. Either I'd be too slow or the camera would be in the wrong mode and it wouldn't focus correctly. But the day before I took these pictures, a co-worker saw them around our parking lot. I rushed outside (quickly but quietly) to snap a picture but I missed them. But I did hear them calling. I'd never heard the call of the Baltimore Oriole in isolation before but now it was obvious that it was the orioles making that sound. So, I sadly went back in the office.

The next day (yesterday) when I went out for my lunch walk, I heard the call of the Baltimore Oriole. I hadn't seen them up in the trees but knowing they were there got me to stop and take a better look. Sure enough, they were flitting through the trees. I'd have missed them if I hadn't learned the call the day before during my "failed" picture taking session. I have to remember this in daily life. God teaches us lots of lessons during what we think are trials and mistakes. As our pastor said in his sermon a couple of weeks ago, when we are going through bad times, we need to pray to God and ask Him what he wants to teach us.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Another visitor to our office

Here's a little guy I saw on my walk at lunch today. I've always liked chipmunks. I think it all started when I saw Chip and Dale in a cartoon where they were driving a train. It was a toy train, of course, because of their size. What could be better? Two cute animals and a train. I was hooked.

Also, I think I liked chipmunks because they were so rare where I grew up. We saw lots of squirrels but only a few chipmunks. I hope this little fellow and its family will stay away from our other visitor. As you can see, I wasn't as intimidated by the chipmunk as I was by the coyote. I was able to get much closer this time.

A visitor to our office

We get lots of visitors to our office. Now that we are a larger company (130+ employees), visitors must sign in and wait for an employee to meet them at the front desk. But we had a visitor yesterday that did none of that. In fact, the visitor wasn't really interested in coming into the office. He (or she) was just interested in poking through the bushes around our parking lot. The picture at the right shows our visitor.

Yes, it's a coyote and there are a lot of them around here. They used to regularly run through our yard at our old house. We could hear them howling in the woods at night. While this is the first time I've seen one around our office, other folks tell me they've seen them here before. It makes me wonder about my walks in the woods behind the office. Maybe in addition to my camera I'll take along a stick. As you can see, this is a pretty hazy picture. That's because I took it from inside our office from about 80 yards away from the coyote. I like taking pictures but I'm not crazy.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cops and robbers

It was a busy morning tracking down the felons and calling for back-up. Even the K-9 Unit thought it was busy. And you know our K-9 Unit (Charlie), he usually takes everything in stride. It didn't have a Hollywood ending but maybe it's not over yet!

What in the world am I talking about? I'll start at the beginning (cue the Clunk-Clunk sound that begins each Law and Order segment). It was a hard night to sleep and I woke early to a dreary, wet day. Far off, I could hear the foghorn sounding a mournful dirge. I knew I wouldn't be taking the K-9 Unit for his usual walk so we walked around the backyard. We live next door to a lot used by a landscaper. He lives in another town. His employees often show up early in the morning to get their equipment so I wasn't surprised to see two guys getting things out of the shed on the lot. There are a lot of guys working for the landscaper and the turnover is pretty high so I wasn't too concerned when I didn't know them. The K-9 Unit didn't act like he was worried either so I let it pass. The K-9 Unit later apologized saying he was distracted by squirrels chasing each other in the trees.

I didn't think about the guys next door until I noticed they didn't have a truck to haul all the equipment they were pulling out of the shed. Instead, they were piling it into a wheelbarrow. My K-9 partner and I started walking toward the fence but I noticed the "workers" were walking away. Not just from us but from the shed...they were splitting the whole scene, man (not only do I watch a lot of Law and Order but I saw an old episode of Peter Gunn over the weekend). The K-9 Unit and I walked around another part of the yard. Then, as we walked back over toward the fence and closer to the shed, I noticed the locked latch had been pried away from the door and the door had been left open, slowly flapping in the breeze (Am I sounding enough like Raymond Chandler?). It finally dawned on me - those two guys had broken into our neighbor's shed and had been stealing his equipment. They left when we hung around looking at them.

We went in and called the owner on the horn (isn't that what Dashiell Hammett called the phone?). He said he didn't have anyone working that morning and thanked me for keeping an eye on his place. I was glad to have helped but had to get ready for work. In about 10 minutes, though, a copper came to the door. You know - a policeman. He asked a few routine questions and said something about no one getting into the shed and nothing was missing. I knew he was wrong but I have trouble with authority figures and can't argue with them. I offered to go to the shed with him. When we did, he was surprised to see me head a different way. He had gone to the wrong shed. Now I was feeling really useful. I was feeling like a part of the team. They needed me! As we walked toward the scene of the crime, I saw a sign and, acting the part of the wise-cracking Lennie Briscoe of Law and Order, I said, "Didn't they see that 'No Trespassing' sign? They shouldn't have been here." The policeman didn't think much of my joke. It was just like all the crime novels - the police never appreciated the private investigators. When I showed him the latch that had been pried away from the shed, I looked around and saw a tool. "I'll bet this is what they used to pry off the latch," I said proudly. I was going to crack this case in no time. Then he started to put the tools, chain saws and other equipment back in the shed. "Aren't you going to check for fingerprints?" I asked disappointingly. He looked at me for a minute and then said, "Well we could have but the rain has probably washed them off. We should get this stuff out of the rain." Did I detect the hint of a smile there?

He asked which direction the "perps" (he actually just said "the guys") had walked away. I showed him and then he said, "Maybe they were locals." Then, as we were walking back to the house he said, "You know, if you would have called us first, instead of calling the owner, I might have gotten here in time to find the guys who did this." So, there it was. My big chance to nab some crooks and I'd blown it. I guess I'll just have to be satisfied with reading about crime fighters instead of becoming one.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Recovering after the fire

About two and a half weeks ago, I posted a story about a fire in the woods behind our office. Then a week ago, I took this picture of things starting to grow again in the burned area. I also saw some burrows of animals (ants and wasps I think) but I didn't take pictures of those. You know that life will return to the area but it is heartening to actually see it happen. I'll try to take pictures of the area from time to time and post them here to show the progress.

I don't know much about this but I guess that the fact the plants and animals are coming back this quickly means the fire wasn't that intense and didn't last that long. If it had been hotter or lasted longer, seeds and roots deeper in the ground would have been destroyed and animals deeper in the ground would have been killed. But even with really intense and long lasting fires, life eventually returns.

I think about this now in light of the terrible devastation happening in the Gulf of Mexico (and especially the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida) due to the British Petroleum oil rig explosion and resulting oil spill. There have been other oil spills and they have been devastating. They have long lasting effects. But eventually, as the clean-up progresses, you can start to see improvements. There always comes a point when you can say, "Things are bad but they are getting better." But we haven't reached that point in the Gulf yet. As oil continues to gush from the well, healing cannot begin. Imagine if the fire in our woods was still burning. Nothing would be growing at this point and as it continued, seeds and animals deeper and deeper in the soil would be destroyed. The longer the fire continued, the longer would be the recovery. And, of course, fires don't just burn in one area. If the fire continued to burn, it would spread.

This is the worst thing about the oil spill that is going on in the Gulf of Mexico. It continues and no one knows when we'll be able to say, "It's bad but things are getting better." For as terrible as it is, it continues to get worse. That is the tragedy of this thing. There is no end in sight. Please join me in praying for the people whose lives and livelihoods are being ruined by this thing. And please join me in praying for the people trying to stop the leak. We need to see an end to this disaster.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Star Trek shirt

Speaking of T-shirts, here's a picture of me (taken by my son Evan) in the Star Trek shirt my family bought me. They saved up cereal box coupons for a long time and were finally able to buy the shirt. Except it didn't arrive for a long time. We waited for over a year! Finally, it arrived and I was pleasantly surprised at how well it fit and how comfortable it is. Boy, those tailors in the future (or will they be called textile engineers?) really know how to make a uniform.

Notice the color. We had a choice of blue, gold or red. I almost picked red because my wife says I look good in that color. Actually, my sweet wife often tells me I look good in many colors. As you can see from this picture, her vision is shaded by her love for me.

Anyway, back to the story. I didn't pick red because it's a bad luck color for the Star Trek characters who wore it. Here's a little article about it but you can get more information here and here. I don't believe in luck but I don't want to be associated with those expendable characters. That's all. And besides, I'm not planning on beaming down to any dangerous planets.

Friday, June 04, 2010

The NeXT T-shirt

As I mentioned last time, I wasn't sure the T-shirt I got when I went to the NeXT Computer programming classes (mentioned here) was still around. But I thought I'd given it to my son Evan. Sure enough, when I got home last night and asked him about it, he knew right away that he still had it. I wondered if he'd still be able to fit in it since he's grown so much over the last year.

This morning, he gave me a big surprise by coming down in the shirt. He can still fit in it - but not much longer. He's only 13 years old (he'll be 14 next month) and is already over six feet tall! I didn't reach that height until I was 15 or 16. He has just shot up over the last year. I think he's actually close to six feet two inches which is as tall as I am now. I guess he's going to be much taller than me when he's done growing.

I didn't notice the angel seemingly on Evan's shoulder when I took this picture. In Matthew 18:10, Jesus says that children have angels in Heaven who are in the presence of God himself. So, Evan's angel seems to be interested helping him grow. Not only his height but also his feet. We tried to get new shoes for him this week-end but we couldn't find the right size. He is already a size larger than my feet.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Gifts from Steve Jobs

This is a quick addition to this earlier post where I mentioned that I had gone to take classes at NeXT Computer to learn about developing programs for their computers. Steve Jobs, of Apple Computer fame, had started NeXT and gave a speech at the beginning of the class. I almost met him. You can read about that in the other post.

We got a lot of books and other useful information as part of the class. We also got some extra stuff, like a pencil, and notepad and a T-shirt. Here's a picture of the pencil and notepad. I stopped using the pencil a long time ago so I wouldn't waste it. I still use the notepad from time to time but I'll probably stop using that, too. Who knows, maybe they'll be valuable some day. Well, probably not since I went and used them.

But the T-shirt is a bit of a mystery. I think it's still in our house and I may have given it to my son, Evan. Finding it in his room, though, could be a problem. If I do find the T-shirt, I'll take a picture of it and put that in another post. I may not be able to get a picture of it with Evan wearing it, though. I stopped wearing it because I gained a lot weight since I went to NeXT programming class. I think I gave it to Evan because he was about the same size I was when I went to the classes (about 20 years ago). Since then, he's grown, too. I don't think the NeXT T-shirt will fit him anymore, either. We'll see.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Can't just concentrate on the fun stuff

Last week, we found a problem in our recently released software product. It looked like a problem with a part of the program I was familiar with so I was given the task of checking into it. It turned out to be a problem in another part of program that was affecting my part of the program. While I could fix the problem at that point, it meant that the corrected program wouldn't be released to our customers until the whole new version was ready. There are a number of things being added, improved or fixed before we release the next version.

But there is a nice feature of Object Oriented Programming languages like the one we use, Java. If you create a new section of code (called a Class in this type of programming) derived from an existing section (Class) in the code, you can override parts of the existing section of code. Another aspect to this is that there is a part of our program that is a separate plug-in to our main program and is stored in a separate file on the computer. This way, I would only have to change one small piece of the program and we could send it out to customers before the main program would be ready. They could easily update the program with this new plug-in file and fix the problem.

So, I worked on the plug-in, overriding the piece of the program with the error and made a new version of the plug-in and tested it. It worked! On my machine. But to fully test it, I needed to use a test machine that was in the same state as a customer's computer would be and then load the plug-in there. When I did that, it didn't work! Did I mention that this all happened on a Friday afternoon? I stayed as late as I could but I couldn't figure out what was wrong. So, I had to head home to worry about it all week-end. Normally, I could work on this from home but we already had a busy week-end planned (like going to the reunion as I wrote about previously). What little time I had, I used to scour my books and the Internet for reasons why my overriding code wouldn't do what it was supposed to do. How could I make such a fundamental mistake? Did I really understand these things as I thought?

Finally, Monday arrived. I was both worried about the fact that I didn't seem to know as much as I thought about this type of programming and excited about getting to it and fixing it. After a few more hours of looking for possible reasons why my solution wouldn't work, I decided to try it one more time to look at the symptoms. This time, as I went slowly through it (instead of rushing to just be done with it on a Friday afternoon), I noticed that when I added the new plug-in to the program, there was a check box in front of it when it shows up in the plug-in manager - and it was unchecked! The plug-in had been disabled so no wonder it didn't work. I checked the box to select the plug-in and everything worked as expected. What a relief.

So, another lesson learned in life. You can't just worry about the fancy, fun stuff. You have to think about the boring details, too. But I'm 59 years old. Shouldn't I have learned this lesson a long time ago?

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

What happened to May?

Well, the month of May had the fewest blog posts, seven, I've done in a month since December of 2008. The problem is, I don't know what happened. I had lots of ideas for posts and actually started a lot of those posts but I just couldn't get them to a point where they seemed finished.

I will try to do better this month.