Saturday, December 31, 2011

My little bit

Charlie telling me it's time for his walk
Every morning, I walk our dog, Charlie, about a mile. I've invited other members of the family to join us but it is almost always just Charlie and I. We walk about 100 yards down the busy, noisy road by our house and brave the fast traffic to cross over to a nice, quiet side street. We do most of our walk there. It's a tree-lined street with nice wide sidewalks. I'm one of the few people who walk this street that cleans up after his dog. Besides it being the law, I consider it the proper thing to do - especially on this quiet refuge of a street. I also pick up some of the trash we see as we walk along (if it will fit in the plastic bag I've brought along). I pick up bottles and cans and discarded cigarette packs as Charlie points them out to me. Someone throws wine bottles a couple of times a week. There are also leftover McDonald's, Burger King and Dunkin' Donuts packaging. Someone left the insides of a tape measure laying on the walk and we've seen a lot of those tiny liquor bottles the airlines sell (one of the local food stores sells them, too). I pick up whatever fits in the plastic bag and that isn't too hard to pick up with the scoop I use to clean up after Charlie.

As happens every year, the leaves and pine needles fell along this street this fall, too. Woods line a long section of the street and the leaves cover a good portion of the sidewalk. So, another thing I do is to push the leaves and pine needles off the sidewalk and back into the woods. I can't uncover the entire sidewalk during one walk, though. I'd have to stop for too long and Charlie won't have that. I just kick a little debris whenever Charlie stops for a sniff or other activity. And I'm getting pretty good at kicking a little bit as we walk along. I know I'm not doing much each day as we walk but since Charlie is insistent that I walk him every day, I get to do my little bit every day. Rain or shine. With no snow on the ground this year, we've had a longer time to work on the leaf cover and the sidewalk is almost entirely leaf and pine needle free.

As this year draws to a close and I think about my place in the world, I feel like this is a metaphor for my life. I'm not one of those people who can organize a great movement to change the world. I'm not one of those tireless people who help others everyday and can balance their private lives well enough to do a full time job and still find time to work toward a larger goal. I'm just someone who is tired all the time. I'm disorganized and I can't see solutions right away like other people. I'm not really smart and can't finish one project and dive into the next one right away. I just plug away at my projects at work. I'm thorough and responsible but I never seem to get too far ahead. I don't have great projects lined up for my children and my wife always needs to keep after me to get projects done around the house. I finally put some shelves up this week-end that have been in the works for months.

But I'll just keep kicking small piles of leaves back into the woods every day. Maybe I'll have an impact some day. Not right away but some day. Have a Happy New Year. May the Lord bless you and your family and friends this coming year.

[Update -  I didn't mean to imply that I push the leaves off the sidewalk all along the mile my dog and I walk. Also, only about a section about 200 yards long has enough trees to make enough leaves to cover the sidewalk so that's the section I work on. And we walk a half mile out and then turn around and walk back the same way. So, I get two chances to push back the leaves each time.]

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Christmas gift

An Arduino Uno board
I will try to have a few posts about some of the gifts I received for Christmas but I want to start out with a gift I recommend to anyone with an interest in making electronics do things. This is opposed to writing programs for a computer that just displays things on a screen or the Internet (not that there is anything wrong with that). I'm talking about being able to write programs for a system that gets information from the outside world through sensors (like reading temperature, humidity, pressure or light) or making things move (with motors) or turning on switches.

I got an Arduino kit. The Arduino is a small, inexpensive computer board (costs about $30 - pictured here) with an extensive community where you can share ideas about hooking up various sensors, transducers and actuators and controlling them with small programs stored on the Arduino. The software for controlling the board is free and runs on any Windows, Macintosh or Linux computer. The schematics for the boards and the firmware (the instructions for running the board itself) are free and open source, too. You could build your own boards if you wanted but it's much easier, quicker and less expensive to get a ready-made board.

I got the Inventor's Kit from Sparkfun Electronics which includes an Arduino board, a small solderless breadboard (for building your own circuits) and a number of sensors (temperature and light), motors (a DC motor and a servo motor) and other interface components (switches, buttons and potentiometers). There are also a number of components to allow for hooking those devices up to the Arduino's inputs and outputs. It comes with book detailing fourteen experiments to familiarize yourself with the Arduino and the various components. You might ask, "Why would someone who has a degree n Electronics Engineering need or want to get a beginners kit like this?"

For one thing, it's been a long time since I've really done any electronic work. I've mostly been doing Software Engineering for the past 15 years or so. So, I'm out of practice. Another reason for doing this is that I wanted parts that would work with these boards. Not all motors or sensors can work with the voltages and currents available with all boards. This kit is "guaranteed" so to speak. I don't have to worry about looking for and buying the right components right away. I can just start trying things. And now that I've got a nice oscilloscope (see my post, Birthday gifts - part 1), I can see what's going on electrically with the board and the surrounding parts. I'm finally building up a lice little lab. It only took me 60 years to do it. You are never too old to get started on something new.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

We enjoyed "The Adventures of Tintin" ... 2D. It wasn't easy to do. The studio really wants people to watch it in 3D and only offered one showing in 2D. But while we've enjoyed a number of movies in 3D (Avatar and Puss in Boots to name two), we've seen others (and paid extra) for some movies that had no reason to be in 3D. So, while many reviews of The Adventures of Tintin said the 3D was done well, we find ourselves 3D-sceptical.

So, we went to the one showing expecting it to be packed but my son Evan and I were the only ones in the theater (my wife and daughter showed no interest in coming with us). It was amazing. We could talk to each other during the show and not disturb anyone. Of course, we're hypocrites because we were pleased than no one was there making noise and talking during the movie. I suppose it's OK to be hypocrites when it is out of our control. What were we supposed to do? Go out and recuit people to come in and watch the movie with us?

Well, in a way, I'm doing that here. We both thoroughly enjoyed this movie! It had mystery, action, terrific characters, wonderful music, humor and an intricate plot. The animation was superb. I often forgot that we were watching an animated feature. The detail is amazing and I can't help but feel that it wouldn't have been as clear in 3D looking through those glasses. One of the hallmarks of a good movie, in my mind at least, is how much you think about it and talk about it after you've seen it. Well, we discussed it the whole way home. And I'm still thinking about it.

I was not familiar with the Tintin series of comic books by Belgian Georges Remi. This series has been going since 1929 so it has a long history and people who are familiar with it may have different opinions from us. But film critic Roger Ebert was familiar with the original books and he wrote a glowing review that can be found here. So, I think the only reason you shouldn't go to see this movie is if you don't like action, good animation or a terrific story. Also, if adventure and humor mixed together don't appeal to you, you shouldn't go to see this movie, either. But everyone else should see this movie - now that we've been to the theater alone.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

It's winter?

Today is the first day of winter this year. The temperature started out in the upper 30's (Fahrenheit) and ended up in the mid 50's! It was so nice, I rode my scooter to work. My scooter rides have dropped off in December but I've been riding it to work an average of two or three days a week since Thanksgiving. The reasons for not using it, though, have mostly been the rain and not the cold. Other folks who ride their motorcycles to work have been riding in, too. One guy tells me the cold isn't what stops him in winter. He's learned to dress warmly and he stops when he sees salt on the roads that can get on his bike and ruin it.

I'm taking time off from work until January so it will really be a stretch to say I'll be riding my scooter to work then. But with this crazy weather, you never know. My scooter is always ready to go. But I may need to move it into my mother-in-law's garage if we get a string of really cold weather. I don't want to ruin it just for the fun of riding as often as possible. And I certainly don't what to have an accident due to surprise icy roads or ruin its frame with salt.

I posted this with the date of December 22 because that is when it happened and that is when I started writing it. I actually uploaded this to Blogger on Christmas Day.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas lights

We went to two places to see displays of Christmas lights this week. One was in our own town green where a Christmas display is set up every year. I'm proud of our town for including a Nativity Scene. Unfortunately, my picture of that didn't turn out very well. But here are some pictures of other scenes from our town's display. The first shows Santa and his sleigh being pulled by the eight original reindeer but led by Rudolph. Sorry, Rudy. I cut most of your head out of the picture but your nose still shows a bit.

The next two pictures show our children looking into smaller displays. Evan is looking at Santa making his list and checking it twice. We couldn't see either of our kids' names on the lists there so those must be the naughty lists. To see the details, you might want to click on the picture to see it larger.

The next picture, on the right, shows Emma looking at a little workshop display. The toys are helping to make other toys. That's good engineering practice - make one item (the bear in this case) that helps you make the next item (the truck) more easily. Who knew Santa had his workshop organized on sound engineering principles?

The next day, we traveled about 60 miles to Attleboro, MA to the LaSalette Shrine where there is a Christmas Festival of Lights. There are over 300,000 lights with many other displays to enjoy. We started by going to a concert by the resident singer-composer and LaSalette missionary Father Pat who has two concerts a day five days a week. I don't know how he does it. His songs always feature the real story of Christmas. There are also displays of nativity scenes from around the world, and one huge Nativity Scene shown here on the left.

The last picture, on the right, is my poor attempt at taking a picture of a portion of the outdoor lights around a pond. The weather was cold and the pond was frozen but the ice was flat and clear and you can see the lights reflecting off it. We were fortunate to be there on a night when it wasn't crowded. Other years, we've been packed in with huge crowds and it's hard to move. This year was a joy. We had a small meal in the cafeteria and Cindy had some hot chocolate. I always come home happy after visiting the LaSalette Christmas display. If you get a chance, I urge you to go.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Two government rulings I agree with - Part 2

Which drivers are not paying attention?
As I mentioned in my last post, Two government rulings I agree with, like most people, I'm not always happy with what our government does (or doesn't do). But sometimes, they do the right thing. As it happens, recently, two things happened that I'm happy with. The first was the Federal Communications Commission ruling that commercials must have the same average volume as the program they are running with. The so-called CALM act (Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation) won't go into effect until December of 2012 but you have to start somewhere. It will be a relief to not have to turn the volume up and down as much next year.

As I wrote up that last post, it seemed to go on too long (and some of you would say that all of my posts go on too long) so I left the second ruling for another post. Well, the wait if over. The next "ruling" that I agree with comes from the National Transportation Safety Board. It's not really a ruling because it does not have the power of law like the FCC ruling. But I believe the NTSB recommendation is more important. Here is a link to the press release introducing the NTSB recommendation that all use of portable electronic devices while driving be banned - except in emergencies. And here is a story about the recommendation from National Public Radio. I think there is going to need to be some clarification because I'm not sure they mean to ban all use of portable electronic devices - what about radios and music players? What about video players that cannot be seen by the driver? Maybe those aren't considered "portable" because they are part of the car. But so are some phones. There are phones that work through the car's audio system and are hand's-free. So, a lot of that needs to be hashed out.

But I would be happy to see all use of cell phones be banned. I know this is a very controversial recommendation. People say it can never be enforced and others say people will just not give up using their cell phones in the car as they drive. But my feeling is that it is just too dangerous to use a phone (or especially text which means you are using your hands while driving). Almost all of the people I see on the road who are casing other people to swerve around them are using their cell phones. Often, they don't even realize they've caused a problem because they are so distracted.The longer it is allowed, the more people will resist restrictions because they will feel it is normal behavior. It was also accepted that people could drink and drive, too. Where would be be if there hadn't been so much work at reducing drunk driving?

Here is a link to a report about a study done in California about how cell phone use and texting are causing more problems with driving than they have in the past. And here is another link reporting that auto insurance providers agree with the government's action. A little more moderate approach is suggested by the Governors Highway Safety Association. Perhaps if there is too much opposition to an outright ban, some of the suggestions from the GHSA could be implemented to at least begin reducing the amount of distracted driving going on. Something has to be done, though. Texting and cell phone use is not decreasing.

The picture here comes from this page.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Two government rulings I agree with

Capitol Building - image from Wikipedia
I know it is not popular to like things that the Federal Government does. I can see why that is. No one likes to be told what to do and nobody likes paying money for things they don't think they need. The problem is that this is a large and diverse country with a lot of people. If we aren't organized, some other country with good organization is going to start taking our business or, worse, taking our property or, even worse, taking our land. Being organized and making sure things get done takes time and money. It takes people and sometimes those people have to tell other people what to do. That's the way government works.

So, even though I don't like being told what to do and I don't like paying for things I don't think I need, I do see a place for our various levels of government. I get very angry at our town and state governments just as I often get mad at the Federal Government. The difference between me and a certain overweight, hard-of-hearing radio host is that I see good things in government, too.

Two of those things I like are represented by two recent rulings by two independent government agencies. They are considered independent because they are not directly under an Executive Branch department. For instance the US Geological Survey is part of the Interior Department and the Secretary of the Interior is in the President's Cabinet and it is not an independent agency. The National Transportation Bureau used to be part of the Department of Transportation but it is now independent. The Federal Communications Commission has always been independent of the Executive Branch. This independence lets them make tough decisions with less political pressure than if they were directly under a president's cabinet.

OK. Enough about the structure of government and on to the two decisions I liked. The first happened on December 13, 2011 (this year) when the Federal Communication Commission ruled that starting on December 13 of next year, 2012, commercials must have the same average volume as the program they are interrupting. It drives me up the wall when you're watching a show and the commercial comes on and blasts you with loud music or has someone shouting at you. Now, if we can just hold out for a year, that will be behind us. Sure, some smart commercial makers will figure out how to get the average volume to be low while still blasting us for part of the commercial. But now that this has been labeled as a bad practice, it will be harder for them to get away with it. It is called the CALM act (Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation - where do they get these stupid names?) and here is some information about it at the FCC site. Here is a link about how the CALM act will be enforced.

Now, if we can just get the FCC to make a ruling about channels that show little, moving images while we're watching the shows! I'm referring to those stupid little inserts that take up a part of the screen with some of the characters from the next show that will be aired who are dancing and jiggling around to get our attention to announce that they are coming on next and in the process they distract us from what we're trying to watch. Please FCC - get rid of those things.

Well, this is turning out to be longer than I thought so I'm splitting this up into two blog posts. The second will concern a recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Commission. I hope to post it soon. By the way, the picture of the Capitol Building here is from Wikipedia at this location. It has a much higher resolution image.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mistakes and experience

Here is a funny quote that I enjoy repeating:
Good decisions come from experience but experience comes from bad decisions.
Most places don't attribute this to anyone but some places claim that Mark Twain said it. It's funny and it seems true but I don't really believe it. It makes us feel better about making mistakes and it is good to turn bad decisions into something positive - a learning experience. But there are a lot of bad decisions that don't lead to something positive. Take my last post - A chilling story. The bad decisions the pilots made may have led to experience for other pilots but not for themselves. And it took a near miracle, the finding of the flight recorders, to turn it into a learning experience.

I think another goal of this quote is to get us to try things. You can sit around and worry about something and never come to a decision and that's a bad thing. But I don't want to believe that the only way to gain experience is from making mistakes. I think that's one of the great advantages we have as human beings - we have the chance to learn from other people's bad decisions. That brings to mind another funny quote:
Just remember that it's possible that your whole reason for existing could be to serve as a bad example.
That's pretty pessimistic, too. I don't think anyone has that as their sole reason to exist. Everyone has a chance to do good and everyone can be redeemed and can be forgiven:

This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth. 1 Timothy 2:3-4 New Living Translation

Yes, God would like all of us to be saved but that probably will not happen. We've been given free will and everyone does not have to accept the free gift of forgiveness. But remember, especally at this time of the year, that the gift is offered. We just have to accept it!

[Update - Boy did I mess up that second quote! I made it sound like everyone exists to be a bad example! Pretty stupid. Although, at one time or another, I guess we all do serve as bad examples.]

Friday, December 09, 2011

A chilling story

Stall diagram from FAA manual
About two and a half years ago, a loaded Air France passenger jet plunged into the Atlantic Ocean. It had been through a very turbulent storm at night but other airliners had gone through (or around) the same storm with no problem. What had happened? The airplane had an advanced method of automatically sending information about its situation and its controls back to a receiving station in France so even though they couldn't find the data recorders on the plane itself, the company had some ideas about what went wrong.

But in April this year, amazingly, the flight data recorders and the voice recorder were found and recovered. And they still worked! That enabled a piecing together of what caused the crash. An article in Popular Mechanics magazine titled What Really Happened Aboard Air France 447 by Jeff Wise is a well written summary of what has been found from the recovered recorders. It mixes excerpts from the voice recordings of the pilots with facts from the data recorders to tell what it was like in the cockpit of the doomed jet. The writer is not only a pilot but has also written books on human reactions to fear. Reading the story is like reading an adventure novel but it's scarier because it really happened. The only complaint I have with the article is that there should be an illustration showing how stall works in airplanes and how the plane could have its nose up and yet be losing altitude. I've included the image here to help with that a bit. Imagine that the plane is no longer moving forward fast enough to produce lift at its wings. In a stall, it is falling down while pointing up - almost like a leaf falling from a tree.

Learning about the human reactions and why they may have made them was enlightening. The author gives some possible explanations why the least experienced pilot made the mistakes he did and why all the pilots may have acted so illogically. But, as an engineer, I found that the human interactions with the plan's controls were just as interesting. The pilots made many mistakes but they were made worse by the design of the airplane's control system.

From my perspective, the design of the Airbus 330 is flawed. The plane is controlled through a pair of sticks at each pilot's seat (pilot and copilot). They don't use the familiar yoke or wheel and they are not physically tied together. So, one person can be doing one thing with the controls and the other can be doing something else without realizing what is going on. And even more perplexing, the Airbus averages the values if the two controls are different! This isn't a political process where compromise is important - it is a precise technical activity.

I don't bring this to your attention to scare you or to keep you from flying on commercial airlines. It is still safer to fly in an airplane than to travel in just about any other way. But it scares me a bit that technology can be so advanced and still allow things like this to happen. As I said in my post "This day in engineering history", it is important that we learn from mistakes like this. And we all need to learn how to act in an emergency without panicking. It could save your life.

Picture from Federal Aviation Administration publication Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge - Chapter 4

[Update - The final report, in English, on this tragedy can be found in a PDF file at this link. This is from the French Office of Investigations and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety called the BEA, Bureau d'EnquĂȘtes et d'Analyses]

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Decorating for Christmas

My wife, Cindy, gets so excited about Christmas. We begin decorating our house for Christmas right after Thanksgiving. We have an artificial tree that we've used for over seventeen years. We can leave it up as long as we like. We haven't been putting up lights outside since we moved to this house five years ago but this year, we have a few lights out on the porch. Those are the showiest of our decorations. But some of my favorites are the small, unassuming things we place around the house. The first picture on the right is a modern, simple manger scene that we place in the window.

The next picture shows a choir. Presumably, they are singing Christmas carols. I'm not sure that's true but who's to say they are not? This collection started when I was the choir director at our old church. The choir bought me the director figure one year. I even have a hat like that but I never wore it while conducting. Cindy liked that figure and bought singer figures over the years. I enjoyed being the choir director but I don't think my musical selections were very popular. I tended to like classical music or more modern pieces with complex harmonies. I liked the idea of our singing Christian music that forced us to work and stretch our abilities. The minister and many of the younger, active members of the congregation wanted more contemporary music with unison singing and less part singing. So, I stepped down after about six or seven years and just sang in the choir under the direction of others. Now, there is no choir at that church which is one of the reasons we left. I'm not involved in the music at our new church. They have very talented musicians and I don't know where I'd fit in. Also, it's nice to be able to sit back and worship and enjoy the service without being responsible for anything.

The last picture shows my favorite piece. It is Santa kneeling at the manger and worshiping the baby Jesus. Jesus is the reason for the season, after all. I wrote about The True Meaning of Christmas about three years ago so I won't write about that here. I'm not one of those who get angry about the commercialization of Christmas and rail against those who buy presents and decorate and have parties. I'm just against doing all that and forgetting about why celebrate Christmas. We need to first, bow down at the feet of Jesus and thank God for sending him. We need to help our fellow humans who need our help and then we can go and celebrate any way we want. Of course, no one is going to worry about getting my approval.

Friday, December 02, 2011

The open parking space

This image is from Wikimedia Commons
Now that we're in the Christmas shopping season, I thought another story from my old college friend, Jim, would be appropriate. He was coming out of the mall with his arms full of packages and was heading back to his car to leave. As he walked, a car slowed down and motioned to him indicating he would like to take the space Jim would be opening. Jim nodded and walked on. The car followed him with the driver assuredly smiling broadly. He had just made a smart move. "All the other folks driving around blindly looking for spaces should be so smart," he probably thought.

As Jim walked, though, he became less sure of just where he had parked his car. It wasn't a parking garage like the episode in Seinfeld but it was a huge, single-level parking lot (larger than the one in the generic picture here) and he was now sure that he was heading in the wrong direction. How does he tell the driver behind him what's going on? He can't really, without going over to talk with him. So, he keeps walking with the driver following with the driver's smile fading rapidly. Finally, after a few changes of direction and waiting for the driver to catch up, he found his car and blocked the way for the driver to claim the spot so no one else would grab it first.

When he told me this story, we laughed and thought of how a TV situation comedy might expand it. We imagined that another car would see the first car following Jim and assume they knew where parking spaces might be so they would follow the first car. Then another car, seeing the first two obviously heading to an open space, would join in the line. Maybe they could grab the space before the other two pulled in! Then, in our imagined TV show, we'd pull the camera back and show a long line of cars following Jim around the parking lot as he searched for his car - knowing that only one space was going to be opening up.

Picture from Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Checking your speed

The weather has been so nice and the temperature so warm, that I'm still riding my scooter to work when it doesn't rain. The other day, as I rounded a corner, I noticed that one of those portable, automated radar speed indicators (like the one pictured at the right) was just ahead. It flashed my speed but I was caught off guard and I didn't check the speed on my speedometer in time. I was past the trailer before I could check it again.

I have wondered how accurate the speedometer on my scooter is. If we are threatened with being pulled over for going too fast, you'd think we'd be able to check the speedometer in an easier manner than looking for these radar indicators or finding marked sections of highway that let you check them. I've found that most of those marked highways are in areas of heavy traffic and it's almost impossible to keep a steady speed so you can time it correctly. Someone is always forcing me to change lanes or slow down. It just doesn't seem right.

I thought I'd be ready for it the next day so I could really check my speedometer correctly. As I got to the place where the radar trailer had been, I checked my speed and then looked up to see what the display showed. But it wasn't there. The trailer had been moved or just taken away. About mile later, though, I saw the trailer up ahead. Just as I was getting close, a car pulled out in front of me and I had to slow way down. As I passed the speed indicator, it didn't register anything. I was going less than the speed limit so I figured maybe they only flash a speed if you're going faster than the speed limit.

So, today, I saw the speed indicator in the same place it had been the day before. This time I was ready and raised my speed just above the speed limit and, sure enough, it flashed a speed very close to what my speedometer read. So, I finally knew that my speedometer could be trusted. And it only took me three tries.

Monday, November 28, 2011


A Sigma 7 system
Here's a short, funny (or maybe just mildly amusing) story I remember from our introductory programming course in college. Yes, back in 1970, most of us didn't learn to program a computer until we got to college. And then, it was on a large computer that everyone had to share. No one had a personal computer at that time and there were not even minicomputers in any of the departments. Our school, Bucknell University, was more advanced than most, though. There were computer terminals all around the campus for us to use to interact with the main computer, a Scientific Data Systems Sigma 7. SDS was later bought by Xerox.

We first learned programming using BASIC and once we got to needing to write larger programs, we switched to FORTRAN. That was FORTRAN IV. I remember one of my big hurdles to learning FORTRAN was that you didn't need a line number for every line like you did for BASIC.

Anyway, our teacher was writing down three qualities of a good subroutine. I'll list them similarly to how he listed them. The explanations are my ideas from what I know now (this all happened 41 years ago - I'm lucky to remember that he made three points!). Back then, he just wrote three words and then explained in the lecture what he meant.
1) A subroutine should be reusable. The idea was to not have to rewrite code and a subroutine allowed you to use one piece of code over and over. While it might help to organize your code to write a subroutine for a piece of code that was only used once, you generally didn't want to do that.

2) A subroutine should do only one thing and do it well. This meant it should be simple to understand and simple to test. This allowed you to use it with confidence in other places.

C) A subroutine should be consistent. For instance, you shouldn't have a bunch of subroutines that take their arguments in degrees (for angles, not temperature) and then have one subroutine that takes its arguments in radians.
A few people noticed the problem and then, in a matter of seconds, everyone was enjoying the joke. Everyone but the professor! He didn't see the problem until one of the students pointed out the in-consistency of his list. But once he saw it, he, too, enjoyed the extra joke that the error would come on the Consistent item.

By the way, the picture here is from the CR4 Blog entry "On This Day" in engineering history for October 29, 1969. It talks about what many consider the first message sent between computers on the U.S. Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency network (ARPANET) - the precurosr to the Internet. The message was between a SDS Sigma 7 and a SDS 940.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Tiptoeing dog

Charlie NOT tiptoeing
Our dog, Charlie, has taught himself to tiptoe. Since it's a holiday today (our company gives us the day after Thanksgiving off) and my wife and daughter are out shopping and my son is not yet awake, the house if very quiet. I'm working on my computer (out of site of the dog bed) and Charlie is supposed to be on his bed - waiting for me to take him for a walk. But the left-overs from yesterday's wonderful meal are beckoning and the cat food dish is full and calling to him.

Charlie knows it is wrong to eat food that is not in his own dish so if he wants to get at the other treats, he needs to do it without me finding out about it. So, he tiptoes. His version of tiptoeing is to move very slowly and put his paws down as gently as he can. But his toenails give him away. If the house wasn't so quiet, I might have missed it but I heard the ticking of his nails and caught him in the act.

Only a hound dog can give you the look he gave me (similar to this picture I took a while ago ). He didn't scramble back to his bed (although he sometimes does that when I catch him off his bed). He just looked up at me mournfully. If he hadn't already had his breakfast and a treat, I would be tempted to give him something to eat. But both he and I know that he just wants more to eat. Yes, dogs are a lot like humans. Good and bad.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Driving isn't hard enough?

My title is a little misleading. If there had been more room, I'd have said, "As if driving before the Thanksgiving holiday isn't hard enough..."

I saw a report about a tanker leaking a tar-like material over a forty mile stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. This report at National Public Radio has a bit of video with it. There is a another angle to the story in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette where people are blaming the turnpike authorities for not closing down the highway. Finally, here's another version from television station WPXI in Pittsburgh that has some pictures of the mess.

People were not aware of what was going on until their cars started handling badly. Then they noticed that other people were pulled off on the side of the road. What a mess. From the pictures, I don't know how no one was seriously hurt. It looks like one of those things that happens suddenly and it certainly wasn't something that you would have experience driving in. You'd never know how to handle the situation before it happened.

I often wonder about this. You try to be careful and figure everything out and practice and learn and study and prepare yourself for the troubles you'll face in life. And then somebody pours tar on the road in front of you.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The joke that couldn't miss

Once again, I'm writing a story that I was reminded about when I went to visit some old college friends last month. That visit is mentioned in my post Too much to write.

My best friend Nick was in ROTC in college. He heard a joke there that he thought was great and told everyone. Here it is.

A really tough lieutenant was in charge of his platoon and had them all assembled. Word came to him that the mother of one of his men, Private Smith, had just died. Instead of dismissing the men and telling Private Smith of the tragedy in private, he announced, "Private Smith, front and center." Private Smith stepped forward  and the lieutenant announced, "Private Smith, your mother has died." Knowing his lieutenant didn't like his men showing emotion, Private Smith simply answered, "Yes sir!" The men were then dismissed. The captain saw this and talked with the lieutenant. "Don't you think that was a little harsh, lieutenant? I would like you to show a little more tact in situations like this in the future." "Yes sir," answered the lieutenant.

It so happened that a few days later, word came that Private Jones' mother had died. Remembering what his captain had told him, the lieutenant assembled his men and said, "All you men with mothers take one step forward." As the men complied, the lieutenant said, "Not so fast, Private Jones!"

Nick told this joke every chance he got. I thought it was funny but I didn't think mentioning death in a joke was a good idea. Weeks later Nick and his girlfriend (and future wife) Andrea went to see a performance in the campus coffee house. As they told the story, during a break in the acts, to take up some time as the next group set up, the master of ceremonies asked if anyone wanted to come up and tell a story, sing a short song or tell a joke. Nick raised his hand and Andrea knew right away what he was going to do. She tried to dissuade him but he jumped right up and told the joke. She said he was so excited about the joke that he had a hard time containing himself. As he finished the joke, "Not so fast, Private Jones!", she said no one laughed. There was dead silence. It was agonizing for his friends to think about but it was a good lesson, too. That's why people can earn a living telling jokes. If it was easy, everyone would do it.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why didn't I post this earlier?

It's always bothered my that the National League has one more team than the American League. It's also bothered my that the National League Central Division has six teams while the American League Western Division only has four teams. I know there has been talk about realigning the leagues but the arguments against it were always that this would lead to an uneven number of teams so there would always be one team in each league that couldn't play on a given day. Also, there is the inertia of the owners and fans not wanting to change things.

There have been articles written for years about moving the Milwaukee Brewers back to the American League (they started in that league), just swapping the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Kansas City Royals (but what would that solve?), moving the Florida Marlins to the American League (so they could have a rivalry with the Tampa Bay Rays) and moving the Houston Astros to the American League (where they could have a rivalry with the Texas Rangers). Actually, I hadn't heard about the Astros move - it was something I thought about myself. As a matter of fact, I've had a draft of an article sitting in my Drafts folder for quite a while but never finished it. My answer to the problem of uneven numbers of teams in each league is easily handled by those two extra teams playing each other. The extra teams in each league would rotate. Baseball has had interleague play for years now so the "extra" teams would fit in with that nicely.

Well, now, the word is that the Houston Astros are going to be moving to the American League and into the same division as the Texas Rangers. That would mean that all six divisions of Major League Baseball would have five teams. Just as I thought they should! Why oh why didn't I finish my post and publish it even just a few days ago? I could have been famous! People from all around the country would have pointed to me and said, "See, this guy had the idea before anyone!" But I blew it. Once again, I've missed my chance at fame and fortune.

Thank goodness.

[Update - I looked back in my records and found that I first started working on a post about moving the Astros to the American League in May of this year! I can't believe I waited so long.]

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Surprise visitors

Here is yet another story I was reminded of when I went to visit my old college friends last month as mentioned in my post Too much to write. This story is a another one about one of my best friends, Jim. I told a story about him before in two parts, Unintentional practical joke - part 1 and Unintentional practical joke - part 2, because the story happened in two parts - separated by about a year. This story happened in two parts, too, but it wasn't nearly as intricate and didn't happen over the course of a year. So, I'll just tell this one in one post.

My friend Jim was very busy and  a little absent minded. He would sometimes lose his phone bill and his phone would be shut off. This didn't happen often but it happened two times that I remember. As I mentioned in the previous story about him, we were living near each other for about three years after graduating. He lived in a high rise apartment in Washington DC and I lived in a suburban apartment in Northern Virginia. As luck would have it, our good friends Nick and Andrea stopped in to see us. This was very unusual because Andrea was still finishing up her last year of college and Nick was serving in the Army in Germany. But Nick was home on leave so they decided to surprise us. Well, they were able to call me and we decided to surprise Jim in Washington. We couldn't call him ahead so we just showed up at his apartment building. There was always someone at the front desk and they sometimes wouldn't let you just go up to see someone. They liked to announce you or let you call before going up. We decided to not let Jim know that both Nick and Andrea were there. So, I called him (apparently the phones worked as an intercom even if he hadn't paid his phone bill) and told him that Andrea had made a surprise visit and we'd like to come up. He was a little upset because his room was a mess and if we'd wait a little while, he'd clean up a bit. We gave him time and then went up. Andrea and I made sure he was in another room and brought in Nick and hid him under the messy covers of the bed. When Jim went to straighten them up, Nick jumped out at him and we all had a good laugh at Jim's surprised look. I remember us having a great time that week-end. Then they had to leave and we went back to our regular schedule.

Weeks later, Jim told me a funny story that was funnier because of our surprise visit. He said he was sleeping soundly when he got a call from the front desk in the middle of the night. The desk clerk said that there were visitors on their way up to his room. If we hadn't done the same thing to him weeks before, he would have thought nothing of it and assumed it was just a mistake. But because we'd surprised him once, he figured we were doing it again but at a worse time. So, he rushed around the apartment getting it straightened up. He cleaned what he could and made himself as presentable as he could so early in the morning. He was surprised it took so long for the visitors to arrive but was grateful for the time. He finally decided he'd done enough and sat down to wait. And wait. And wait. After a while, he knew something was wrong. When he called down to the desk to see what was going on, they knew nothing about it. Either they'd changed shifts or had called the wrong room and didn't want to admit it or - it had all been a dream. But if it was a dream, he must have dreamt the phone call and then woke up. But he said it seemed so real, he didn't think it was a dream. It was just one of those mysteries in life. But he'd never forget the foolish feeling he had of being all dressed and ready in the wee hours of the morning. He went to bed early that night.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Secret experiment

This is another story I was reminded of when I traveled to see some old college friends last month. That trip was mentioned in my post Too much to write. In my group of close friends, we all, at one time or another, took a class in psychology. But Andrea took more than most of us because she was majoring in animal behavior - a mixture of psychology and biology. So, she was given many projects where she needed volunteers for experiments. She usually asked her boyfriend Nick, one of my best friends and her future husband, to help but sometimes she needed more than one person or Nick was busy doing something else. So, this time, I was the subject.

She told me that she would be asking me to make up sentences given a verb as a starting point and using a subjective pronouns like "I', "we", "he", "she" etc. which I could choose. She didn't tell me the purpose of the experiment because that would have biased the outcome. She started by giving me a verb and I made up a simple sentence. Next verb - another sentence. As I spoke my sentences, I noticed that she would seem to approve of some of them with, "Good," or "Yes.". It seemed like she found some of my sentences interesting so, I started to make up more elaborate sentences.

Sometimes, when I thought I'd made up a really good sentence, she would say, "Good," but other times, she'd say nothing in response to what I thought was one of my better offerings. Or I'd even get a, "Hmm," as if I'd made a mistake. I was getting desperate and was almost reciting small short stories with a single sentence. I was determined to find out what subjects she was approving of. Was it when I talked about personal things or should I make sentences about world affairs? Maybe she'd respond better if I threw in a little romance. But that didn't seem to elicit as much response as when my sentences were about food - but then a sentence about dessert got a, "Hmm." Then I thought she responded better to sentences about sports. No, I think she likes funny sentences better.

Well, I was so wrapped up in my search for approval of my "story telling" that I was surprised when Andrea announced that the experiment was over. Once we finished, we were able to talk about the purpose of what we'd just done. It turns out, she was seeing if she could affect my choice of subjective pronoun and specifically the gender I chose - "him" or "her". So, when I started the sentence with "I", "we", or "you", she wouldn't say anything. If I used "she", Andrea would give some sign of approval. If I used "he", then some form of disapproval was used. Sentence structure, depth of the story or subject had nothing to do with it. She said that she didn't seem to be able to correlate any of my pronoun choices with her influence. But I said, "You certainly did influence me. Just not in the way you intended."

This happens so often in our lives. We don't want to overtly influence people but we try to do it in a "nice" way by implying things. But usually, in my experience, the person we're trying to influence gets the wrong idea. It's better to just come out with it.

Monday, November 07, 2011

This day in engineering history

Today is the anniversary of the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State in 1940. It's a sad day, of course, because it commemorates a failure. Fortunately, no was was hurt but it was still a waste of both money and time. And it could have ended terribly. I won't go over the whole story. It's documented many places as well in this Wikipedia article. But the importance of remembering failures is to learn from them. It doesn't help anyone to just say, "It was their fault." The failure of this bridge led to changes in the way bridges are designed and made everyone a bit safer.

This is one of those things that is true for engineering and true for our life in general. While it is important to get to the bottom of a problem, it doesn't help to just punish the people responsible. You need their cooperation in getting to the bottom of the problem. You need them to be open about the problems they faced and why they made certain decisions. I'm not saying you don't punish people who willfully disregard good design practices. But when someone is trying to do something no one else has done before, you must take into consideration that they had no path to follow for part of their project. Simply looking for scapegoats and making a big show of punishing them doesn't prevent future problems. It might cause people to be less willing to try things that are absolutely assured of success but it doesn't help us progress.

This is one of the nice things I like about the company I work for. When problems arise, everyone works together to solve the problem and learn why it failed and how to keep it from happening in the future. Sometimes, people are punished or fired when their methods were way outside normal engineering practices or they were intentionally deceptive in their methods. But nothing slows down innovation that making a big show of punishing people who were just trying to do something new.

Here's an interesting website. Learning from Failure, if you'd like to learn more about this.

Sunday, November 06, 2011


Well, we've moved the clocks again. Where sunset was around 5:30 PM yesterday, tonight it was at 4:30 PM. The people who make up these rules (and change them) are not morning people. Well, yes, switching back to Standard Time in the fall is a good thing for morning people. But the whole concept of Daylight Saving Time does nothing for morning people. It was nice to see the Sun at 6:23 AM this morning instead of 7:22 AM as it was the day before. But that's just because we put it back where it should have been.

We didn't save any daylight during the summer and we didn't save any energy by changing the rules in 2007 (Congress passed the law in 2005 but didn't enact it until 2007). All switching our clocks twice a year does is disrupt our lives. I've heard people claim that the idea of Daylight Saving Time was to help the farmers but I don't believe that. The animals don't respond to our changing our clocks. My dog got me up at 4:30 AM this morning needing to go out and wanting to eat. Do you think the cows all shifted their schedules this morning when the farmers in Vermont wanted to sleep an hour later?

As a side note - isn't it funny that 500 years after Copernicus first proposed the idea that it was the Earth that orbited the Sun instead of the other way around, we still refer to our first view of the Sun in the morning as Sun Rise and our last view of the Sun in the evening as Sun Set? Even scientific journals and papers use these terms. If you need a good Sunrise and Sunset calculator, you might try the Time and Date site or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration site.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

What we did for Halloween

This year, instead of going to the houses in our area and the kids asking for treats, we participated in our church's Trunk or Treat event. These are found many places and done in different ways but at our church, families sign up to decorate their cars' trunk (or pick-up truck or van) to a theme and offer candy to passers-by. The vehicles are all parked in the parking lot so this is a safer way for the children to trick-or-treat and it lets families in our neighborhood get to visit our church in a less "threatening" atmosphere. In our case, we all dressed up as Nintendo game characters and decorated our car to the theme of Luigi's Mansion.

Luigi's Mansion is a game for the Nintendo gaming console that my son has enjoyed. In it, Luigi's brother Mario has been  abducted and turned into a picture (?!?) by the king of the ghosts. Luigi must find clues and track down his brother while fighting off ghosts and other bad things as he finds his way through the mansion. It's an adventure type game and really makes you think. In the picture here, you can see Evan dressed as Luigi (notice he has a vacuum cleaner - that was used in the game to capture ghosts) and Emma is dressed as Toad - a toadstool from the Mushroom Kingdom who helps Luigi. My wife is dressed as Princess Peach, also of the Mushroom Kingdom. I was dressed as Luigi's brother Mario but I was taking the picture. In the second picture, on the left, you'll see a young fellow who also dressed as Mario. We had a good laugh over that and he was a good sport about it.

It was a great time for all of us and over one thousand people visited our Trunk or Treat that night.There was free popcorn, hot chocolate (it was pretty cool that evening) and other free food. There were other activities for the kids, too, like dancing games and inflatable bouncies. The fire department was there to display one of their new fire trucks for getting into wooded areas that aren't normally accessible to fire fighting equipment. The next picture, on the right with the Statue of Liberty, was another of the more than 25 decorated trunks there. You can see that people really got into it!

The last picture shows our scariest visitors. I remember looking up from something I was doing and seeing those two faces staring at me. I took a step back before I remembered what we were doing and laughed at my own surprise. Many Christians don't like Halloween because lately, it has been co-opted by people who consider themselves witches and pagans. But they forget that this holiday, while similar to celebrations of pagan people, gets its name from the All Hallows Evening prelude to All Hallows (or All Saints) Day on November 1. There are no pagan celebrations for the Saints. I have always looked at our celebration of Halloween as showing our lack of fear of the dark powers of the Earth. We look to Christ for our power and nothing can harm us if we put our trust in Jesus. Even these scary folks!

I'm marking this as being posted on November 1, when I started this post, even though I finally posted it on Sunday, 

Monday, October 31, 2011

Cat story

I was reminded of this story when I got together with my old college friends a few weeks ago as mentioned in my post titled Too much to write. I was spending part of the summer on campus because I'd gotten a chance to do some extra-credit biomedical research. Since that was the field I wanted to go into when I graduated, it seemed like a good idea. By good fortune, my two best friends were also going to be on campus, too. One of my friend's girlfriend (who he would later marry and who would organize our get together in Too much to write) would stop by to visit during the summer, too. She was working at a resort in the Pocono Mountains not too far away. During one of those trips, she brought along a little kitten she had adopted. I was never crazy about cats but I liked all living things and could tolerate cats as long as they didn't bother me.

Well, she had a problem. She couldn't keep the cat in the dormitory on the resort and my other friends were going to be going home for a while before classes started for the next semester. So, since I was going to be staying on campus until everyone came back for the fall, she asked if I could keep the cat for the few weeks left on summer. "Taking care of cats is very simple, " she said. "Just put out some food and water and have a litter box in another part of the room and he'll be happy. And if he turns out to not like being inside all the time, you can just leave him outside and put food and water out for him. Cats are very smart and he will come back to the food and water and you can bring him in when you want and leave him out when you want." She finished with, "You won't have any trouble."

You probably know where this is going but I'll fill in some details. He was a very nice cat but he was a little too affectionate. He was busy all night and wanted to play. No matter how many times I put him on the floor, he jumped back on the bed. So, then I decided to move to the upper bunk of the bunk beds in the room. He still managed to jump up and get on the upper bunk - of course making a lot more noise as he "rope climbed" up the blanket and grabbing onto me as he finished his epic climb. So, then I locked him in the closet but he cried and cried until I let him out. So, the next day, as much as I was afraid to, I put him outside the dorm with some food and water. I stayed there with him for a while and played with him to familiarize him with the area. He cried a little as I walked into the dorm and closed the door behind me but I couldn't help it. I had things to do.

When I got back, I went to see if he was there but he was gone. I filled the food and water dishes and went on my way. I checked back the next morning and he still wasn't there. I don't remember, after all these years, whether the food and water were being used. I just remember the panic I felt. I'd lost my friend's cat! I walked all over looking for him. I had a lot of things to do but I couldn't think about anything besides finding the cat. I asked all around and walked and walked. There wasn't much time until classes started and I was sure the cat was either dead or had been adopted by someone else.

Finally, the day before my friends were to get back to campus, I heard a cry. It was my friend's cat! He was on the other side of the building but at least he'd found the right building. I ran around to get him and took him to my room. That night, I didn't have a problem with him wanting to play. He was exhausted and slept all night. He was hungry and thirsty too. He'd had quite an adventure. The next day, I took him and all his stuff down to where my friend's girlfriend would have her room. She wasn't there but my friend, her boyfriend, was there setting things up for her. I gladly handed him the cat and his stuff and told him the story. As I helped him get the room ready, we turned our backs and the cat jumped out the window! We were on the second floor and he jumped into a bush. We ran down to look for him but he was gone. We never saw that cat again. But I'd done my duty and had passed him off to my my friend. As bad as I felt, I'd done my duty.

It would take sixteen years for me to learn to love cats. I got a cat of my own at that time and she changed me forever. But until that time, I swore I'd never have anything to do with cats again.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

It happens every fall

My title is a bit of a play on the movie titled It Happens Every Spring which was one of my favorite baseball movies when I was growing up along with Angels in the Outfield, the 1951 version, because it was about the Pittsburgh Pirates. An interesting side note is that Paul Douglas is in both movies. He plays a catcher and friend of the lead character in It Happens Every Spring but he plays the manager and a lead character in Angels in the Outfield. But this post has nothing to do with baseball. It has to do with our gas fireplace. Boy, talk about getting off topic.

We have a wonderful gas fireplace. This thing is so good you could almost heat the entire house with it. And there is no smoke, no wood to split and did I mention no smoke? We don't have to worry about a chimney fire and don't have to get the chimney cleaned. We don't have a flue to worry about and no air leaks during the winter. Too good to be true? Almost. Its one problem is that every fall (see how the title works?), we have to light the pilot light and I can never remember how to do it. It's just too long between lightings for me to remember this. If it was once a month, I'd probably be OK. But doing something once a year gives me too much chance to forget how to do it. And this morning, I once again showed how well I can forget things.

The first problem is getting the glass cover off. I tried sliding it up and lifting it out like I thought I remembered doing last year but it didn't budge. Then I remembered it had something to do with getting into the lower metal grate and releasing it. How to get the metal grate open? That turned out to be the easiest job - it just tilts out. I did that after yanking and pushing and sliding the grate to no avail. Then, with the bottom grate opened and no apparent screws holding the glass cover I realized that there were two latches that held the bottom and flipped those which released the bottom of the glass cover. With the glass cover just hanging there, wonder of wonders, the glass did slide up and lift out as I remembered doing last year. My confidence took a big boost. I was going to do it. But then I couldn't remember why I needed to get the glass cover off in the first place. All the controls were in the bottom part covered by the metal grate - which was open already!

So now I had to figure out how to light the pilot. Well, actually, I first had to figure out how to get the gas flowing so I could light the pilot. And this, I'm ashamed to say, was where I finally got stuck. There were three or four knobs and switches down there and I had no idea which order to do them in. There was a knob that had three positions - "off", "pilot" and "on". I moved it to "pilot" and heard nothing. I was afraid to leave it like that because maybe the gas was flowing slowly. I finally had to ask, "Where is the manual?" I know my wife had the manual last year but she wasn't sure she remembered where she'd put it. Then she had a great idea. "Let's look it up on the Internet." We knew it was a Vermont Castings fireplace so I went to their site but they seem to make a million different gas fireplaces and none looked like ours. So now, to look up the particular manual for our fireplace, we had to find the paper manual to know which one to look for.

Finally, after I'd tried a few more configurations of knobs and switches, my wonderful wife found the manual. Then it was simple. You not only turn the knob to "pilot" but you push the knob in which starts the gas flow. Then you light the pilot either with a match (that's the only reason to remove the glass cover) or with the handy igniter switch in the lower panel. You continue to hold the knob in with the flame burning for a minute until the safety allows the flame to burn on its own. The safety causes the gas flow to stop if the pilot light goes out because it's no longer producing heat. Holding the knob in overrides the safety until there is enough heat to keep it on. After you release the knob, you turn it to the "on" position and you're done.

So that's it for this year. After getting everything back together, the very next thing I did was look for the electronic manual for our fireplace since we now had the model number from the paper manual. The electronic manual is now safely saved on my computer and ready for next fall when this will all repeat. But next year, I'll bring up my handy electronic manual and review it before attempting this again. If I can remember where I stored the manual a year from now.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Harvest time again

Just like it happened about this time last year, see Cranberries, I saw a cranberry harvest as I was returning from work. I was heading home to a nice meal and the welcome of my family and these poor folks were rushing to finish before dark. I stopped to snap a few pictures and saw more activity this year. Last year, I only saw the machines that shake the cranberry plants that allow the berries to rise to the surface. This year I also got to see corralling of the floating berries into a section of the pond where they would then be pumped into trucks to be hauled to storage or processing buildings. The first picture is a good overview of everything. Click on the pictures to see larger versions. To the right of center in the picture, you can see the harvesting machines getting the berries to separate from the plants and rise to the top. To the left of center, you can see the guys in waders corralling the berries and dragging them to shore.

In the foreground, you see the berries that have been brought close to shore for pick up. In the picture on the left, you can see a closer picture of the berries themselves. They don't look so appetizing floating in the not-very-clear water with all the other material floating around them. These guys don't worry about that. That's for the processors to worry about. The water is actually very clear. It has just freshly flooded the bog.

The next two pictures show closer views of the workers. The guys corralling the berries look like they are having fun but it is really hard work. If they mess up and let berries escape their nets, they have to go to a lot of work to get them back. The berries are a lot heavier than you'd think because there are so many of them.

The picture on the left is a closer view of the harvesting machines. I used to think the harvesting machines were boats but now I see that they are not. They have wheels and ride on the cranberry beds. That's another reason the bogs are only flooded with 6 - 8 inches of water. I couldn't stay to watch them finish and it's a good thing I didn't try. I saw them at the same bog finishing up their work. There are no lights on the bogs so I know they didn't work through the night. They just got up much earlier than I do and got to work much earlier than I do. I'm glad I have the job I do!

The last picture shows a non-human cranberry harvester. It was moving very fast and I wasn't able to get a good picture but I was lucky to get a picture at all because it swam under water for long periods and I was only able to follow it by walking very fast and following the trail of bubbles. I'm guessing it is a muskrat but I'm not sure. It was too small for a beaver and not as long as an otter. I'll probably never be sure. Click on the picture to see if you can figure out what it is.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The boys went to see "Real Steel"

I've always been fascinated by robots and it seems like my son is taking after me. My wife and daughter weren't interested in the least. So, we had a boys day at the movies.

Most of the time, robots are misrepresented in movies and books and are used as artificial (ha ha) villains. They always have to be menacing and they don't follow orders and attack the people or they do follow orders from evil people and hurt the good people (whoever they are). But in the movie Real Steel, although the robots are menacing, they always follow orders if they can. The story is set in a near future when boxing with human participants has been outlawed and boxing matches now consist of two robots bashing each other until time runs out or one is knocked down for a count of 10. The concept is a little like Robot Wars with much more sophisticated robots. The story, though, is more like Rocky.

I liked the movie for a number of reasons. First of all, the robots were terrific. I don't know if real robots could take the punishment these do but it sure looks convincing. Another reason I liked the movie was that in one scene, when a creditor finds the hero and beats him up (with some thugs to help), the fighting robot owned by the hero does not start on its own to defend the hero. That would have been ridiculous (even if it would have been satisfying to see the bad guy get beat up). Another good scene from the movie was when the underdog robot (owned by the hero) is able to stay in the fight with a much more advanced robot because the advanced robot was losing power. Being bigger with more advanced capabilities would use up a robot's stored power more quickly. And, if the robot was as good as the story implies and its previous matches didn't last long, this wouldn't have shown up before. One last thing I really liked about this story was that the hero was an ex-boxer. His son discovers that their robot has a mode where it can match the movements of a human and this allows the robot, with less sophisticated equipment, to beat more advanced opponents being operated by people who weren't boxers themselves. I liked the fact that just knowing how to operate the robots was not enough. It took skill and knowledge to do it right. I find this to be true in real world engineering, too. Just knowing the equations and how something works isn't enough. You have to understand what you're trying to do. You can just plead ignorance and barge ahead with a plan. You've got to know what you're doing and what the customer wants.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Too much to write

My title tells two tales. It explains why I hadn't written to my friends in so long and it explains my dilemma in writing this post. This post is one of of few posts that I'll write about visiting my best friends from college who I hadn't talked with in over five years.

They are my best friends - aside from my wife who is my very best friend. I think college friends become such good friends because you meet them under circumstances when you're on your own for the first time and you come to depend on them as you learn your way around in this strange, complex, adult world. I especially depended on my new college friends because I'd led a sheltered life in a small town. I was an only child with just a few close friends. No one in my family (including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins) had ever been to college. Even though it scared me to death, I felt the need to strike out and face the challenge of being away from my parents. Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA was a four hour drive away from the 400 or so people in Finleyville, PA. My friends and I helped each other along. We were all in the biology program but two of us combined that with electrical engineering. As we each got married later, we were all in each others' weddings. As the years went on, we didn't keep in contact as much as we'd have liked. So, when one friend's wife called recently, it was a pleasant surprise. He was turning 60, as I'd done earlier in the year, and she wanted to have a surprise for him. I missed the call and couldn't call back because it might ruin the surprise if my friend answered. So, I would send an email. Then I realized the problem - the same problem that had kept me from writing or calling for the previous five years and the problem I have now with this post. There was just too much to say. How could I organize it all? Each time I went to write a line, three more stories flooded into my mind. I couldn't stay organized long enough to get a coherent message written.

But then, like facing a new project at work where I didn't know quite where to begin and didn't even know what I didn't know, I had to ask myself, "What is it your are trying to do?" My goal was to answer the simple question, "Could I get to their house for the week-end?" In this case, the question may have been simple but the answer wasn't. Cindy was still going through day-long tests in Boston, I was trying to find time to visit my mother who I hadn't been able to see for over a year and my mother-in-law had collapsed and been to the hospital and was still resting at home. While I'd love to go see my friends, I wasn't sure I could commit to going. Even if I could go, I wasn't sure if my family could go with me. And, in the end, that is what I said. I just answered the question, "Did I want to go?" with a resounding Yes. But the answer to, "Could I go?" had to be left open. All I could do was to go down the list of high priority things that needed to be handled first and then say, "I'll be there if I can."

In the end, I got to see my friends but I had to go alone. It was a terrific week-end but I missed my family. While I was having a wonderful time catching up on my friends' lives, I was anxious to get home to my wife and kids (and yes, even the cats and my dog). I'll tell a few stories from my trip. There is too much to write but I've got a start. Even if I can't write it all written down, whatever I do will be better than nothing. Or putting it off again!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Riding the 'T'

In Boston, when you refer to the 'T', you're talking about the transit system but especially, the subway system. I've loved streetcars and trolleys since I was a child. Then my parents took me to New York City and I fell in love with the subway. When I moved to New England and made trips to Boston, I was pleased to find that Boston has both trolleys and subways. It's an old system, the Boston subway was the first subway in North America, but that just adds to its charm. It's not as efficient as newer systems but it sure is fun to ride and explore.

So, when my wife needed to go to Boston for two days of tests, we took the kids. Rather than drive around, we took the 'T' and my children enjoyed it. We rode on four of the five color-coded sections of the system. But just for fun, without needing to go there, we decided to ride to the end of the Blue Line. I'd always wanted to do that. On the map in the picture, that's the end on the upper right of the Blue Line. We got out and walked around. There used to be an amusement park there called Wonderland. Then it closed and a dog racing track, by the same name, was opened there. Then dog racing was banned from Massachusetts but the station kept the name. That's not the first time the thing that gave a station its name has gone away. There used to be a department store called Lechmere at the end of the Green Line. Even after that chain of stores closed, though, the station kept the name.

Maybe, one of these days, we'll go to the end of each of the lines on the Boston subway system. That would be fun. I don't know why it's so much fun but it is.


Well, I've finally published all the posts I mentioned in Another long time between blog posts but... last month. It took longer than I thought it would but at least I finished. I've updated that post with links from each of the 10 posts I said I'd publish to their eventual location. It's always nice to do something you planned to do. If I can do that more often, I'll be a happy guy.

Monday, October 10, 2011

New England Aquarium - part 2

In my previous New England Aquarium post, I mentioned that I had more pictures from our visit there that I was going to post this time. After a long week-end of driving (more about that some other time), I'm finally going to show them.

The first picture is in a new part of the aquarium that is quite exciting. If there aren't a million people at the aquarium (like there were by the time we got to the tank) and if they aren't a bunch of children who never learned to take turns (as there were when we got to the tank), you can actually step up to the edge of this tank and touch the rays and sharks (!) as they swim by. In the Shark and Ray Touch Tank this day, the sharks were few and far between and when they came by, I was usually being pushed out of the way by kids and their parents who also didn't know about taking turns. But the rays were much more numerous and I was able to sneak up close enough for a photo this one time. This is such a beautiful scene to me. Just as the penguins seemed to be flying in the water, these rays seem to fly rather than swim.The contrast of the sandy bottom in the foreground and the light blue further back makes it seem like they are leaving the sea and flying into the air.

The last picture I want to show you is of the Sea Anemone tank. The colors are amazing and I wish I had better skills at photography to get them into my pictures. If I'd had a tripod, I could have set the camera for a long exposure to get more light. But I didn't have my tripod so I just have to be satisfied with what I was able to do. The fact that the picture is taken through the glass of the tank doesn't help, either. I wonder if a polarizing filter would help there? I'm going to look into techniques for taking pictures through glass.

Isn't it funny how so many things in the sea are named after something on the land? Sea Anemones are named after the Anemone flower. We have Sea Cucumbers, Sea Lions, Sea Horses, Sea Urchins, Sea Weed and even Sea Monkeys. Then there is the Star Fish with its doubly removed name. It's not a fish and it only looks like a caricature of a star but that's what we call it. With the vast expanse of the sea and the myriad creatures in it, you'd think we could be a little more creative in our naming.
Here is the ocean, vast and wide,
teeming with life of every kind,
both large and small.

See the ships sailing along,
and Leviathan,
which you made to play in the sea. 

Psalm 104:25-26  New Living Translation