Thursday, March 31, 2011

Another lesson in gambling

While I was writing my That's entertainment post last week, I was reminded of another time I went "gambling". This time it was at a dog racing track. Coincidentally, I was with one of the guys I had been with in the casino in Atlantic City. Well, it wasn't really a coincidence because he liked to gamble and he had asked me to go with him. This was a few years after the Atlantic City trip and we were in Florida where dog racing is big business. At that time it was also legal in Massachusetts (it has since been banned) and that's where my friend did most of his betting. He knew I didn't gamble but he said we'd have a really good meal there and he would be doing all the gambling. I could just chip in with some money if I wanted to. There I was again - trying to justify what I did.

We got there and it looked pretty seedy to me. I've never gone to a horse racing track but from what I've seen on TV and the movies, they look pretty well maintained. The casinos we visited in Atlantic City were modern, clean and bustling with energy. This dog track was old and not well maintained. The people at the dog track looked to be either bored or desperate. We sat in the dining room overlooking the track and my friend explained how he was going to pick the dogs he would bet on. He went through an elaborate explanation of the program that detailed each dog's recent racing history and he told me how he watches the dogs as they walk around before the race. "See, that one has his tail up. He's ready to go!" And he seemed to place a lot of importance on how the dogs reacted to each other, too. He liked aggressive dogs. He seemed to be all set to make a lot of money that night.

I don't remember how many bets we made that night but, once again, I put a strict limit on what I was going to spend that evening. If I lost it all, I figured it was like going to a baseball game and not expecting to get money back as I left the stadium. All I remember is that we lost all of our bets but one - and that one was a big one. It was a trifecta (where you have to pick the top three finishers in one race in the exact order of finish) and, since it is very hard to do and pays very well, it paid for our evening (entrance fee, lost bets and meal). But the funny part is that it was a mistake. My friend bet on the wrong dogs. He got his numbers mixed up and we only won because he didn't make the bet he had wanted to make. I've decided that gambling is not for me. The only kind of "dog racing" I want to see is the kind pictured on the book cover here. Now, that would be something to see!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Big Moon again, or How a Tripod Helps Get a Great Picture

Over a week ago, I wrote about our going to the beach to see the moon rise when the moon was going to appear especially large and how I wasn't able to get a good picture of the event because I'd forgotten to bring my tripod. Well, on the NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day site you can see a terrific picture of that same moonrise. This one is over Boston. I've got a smaller version of that picture here but you really should go to the NASA website and see this picture full size. The picture is copyrighted by Dennis Di Ciccio.

Something I learned at the NASA site was that this large moon will repeat as soon as next year on May 6! I'll have my tripod with me when I go to see that one. I just hope the sky is clear again.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

That's entertainment

Some of the guys in our office just got back from a programming conference that was held in Las Vegas. They were busy going to lectures and taking classes most of the time but they did have a little free time to wander around and try the entertainment but they all came back with their wallets intact. They were smart and allocated just a small amount to spend on the entertainment there. Yes, I'm calling the gambling entertainment. That's because I look at it as just spending money. I believe anyone who goes there and assumes they'll make money is deluding themselves. If you enjoy playing the games and like the glitter around you, I guess you can be entertained but you pay for it. I never go to see a movie assuming I'm going to come out with more money than I had when I went in. That's entertainment.

It reminds me of a time I went to Atlantic City for a conference. We also wanted to see what it was like in the big gambling casinos and three of us pooled $10 each to see what it was like to play roulette. One of us was a mathematician and he had a "system" he wanted to try. This was back in the 1980's and I forget most of the details but I do remember that we never saw that $10 again. We won a few times but we lost a lot more times. I can't remember if we ever got ahead but if we did, it wasn't by much. We walked around and looked at the sights. There was a huge variety of people there and I probably could have been just as entertained by not spending any money and just watching the people. Even just the expressions on their faces was entertaining. They went from people who were smiling and just enjoying themselves to people with intense, gotta win expressions to people with lost, desperate looks. I wanted to just grab those people and drag them out but of course you can't do that.

But the most interesting thing to me was our own discussions as we were losing our money (oh, OK - spending our money on the entertainment). We started to justify our loses. "We were doing pretty well until they changed the croupier [the guy who spins the ball around the wheel]," we said. "If we'd have stopped then, we might have done better at another wheel." or "We didn't follow the system exactly when we won." or "If we had a little more money, we could have come back." That last one is the killer. That's the one that makes this not really entertainment. It's just asking for trouble. And this is why I hope our state never legalizes casinos. The lotteries and scratch tickets are bad enough. We don't need to make it worse.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Big Moon, or Why You Need a Tripod In Low Light

We were excited to hear about the news of the larger than normal full moon last night, March 19. So, my son and I (and half the town) went to the beach around moon rise and waited to see the spectacle. It was a beautiful, clear night and we were not disappointed in the sight. The moon was especially large and seeing it near the horizon made it appear even larger. And it was tinted red which made it even more thrilling. But I also brought my camera along and thinking that since the full moon rises at the same time as the sun sets, it would still be light enough to not need my tripod.

As you can see in this picture, I was wrong. It gives us a reminder of the big event but it's not going to end up as a picture in The National Geographic or even our local paper. And now that I see it again, I see that the tripod would have probably helped me take a level picture, too. It looks like the ocean is tilted. Don't worry. The ocean isn't draining to the south.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Software Engineering and NATO

Today, I saw the beginning of a series of articles about where the term "Software Engineering" comes from. It seems to have first been coined in 1967 or 1968 by a NATO science committee (yes, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization - the alliance of armed forces that was organized after World War 2). They were responding to NATO's increased use of computer software but with a lack of tools to manage the projects that created the software. I hope to learn more about this as more of the articles are posted. The first article can be found here.

But what I'm writing about is a quote in that article from someone in the Air Force leadership (I don't know which country). It shows why they felt they had a crisis on their hands.

"You software guys are too much like the weavers in the story about the Emperor and his new clothes. When I go out to check on a software development the answers I get sound like, 'We’re fantastically busy weaving this magic cloth. Just wait a while and it’ll look terrific.' But there’s nothing I can see or touch, no numbers I can relate to, no way to pick up signals that things aren’t really all that great. And there are too many people I know who have come out at the end wearing a bunch of expensive rags or nothing at all."
An Air Force decision maker

Boy is this true. This is why it is extremely important for software projects to have specific goals and requirements. It is also very important (maybe more important) to have a number of demonstrations of the project as it is being developed. Software is just too easy to change and that is its strength and its biggest weakness. If you don't have a specific list of requirements, it is too easy to say, "What about if it did this?" All of a sudden, you're off on a tangent. The periodic demonstrations force you to have something that works - at least partially. It also helps to actually see what the requirements are talking about. If the requirements say you have to show something like a list of items, it's easy for it to be shown in an awkward way or hidden among a lot of other lists. When you do the demonstration, you get to see if you can really see what you are supposed to be showing.

Writing software is intellectually stimulating and useful. It can also be a lot of fun. But you have to have a plan or it's like walking down a road with no destination. You might have fun but you won't get anywhere. And you may get lost!

[Update - And it's a little like writing in your blog without thinking first! Of course if you're walking down a road with no plan you are going to get somewhere. But where? Why somewhere down the road. I should have said, "'s like going for a walk with no destination. You might have fun but you don't know where you might end up." It's kind of like Frodo Baggins quoting Bilbo Baggins,
"Remember what Bilbo used to say: It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."

Monday, March 14, 2011

Happy Pi day

March 14 is Pi Day. Yes, it is officially Pi Day. The text of the bill, passed in the House of Representatives on March 12, 2009, can be found here. Today is Pi Day because today's date, written in the form we use in the United States 3/14 where we put the month first, contains the first three digits of the number representing Pi (the Greek letter) - the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. The true number? You can't write it fully because it has no known terminus. You can write it forever and people have tried to do that. It has been calculated to 2.7 trillion decimal places (as of Dec 31, 2009) but no end has yet been found. Pretty amazing to me.

There is an entertaining article on the CNN website about Pi Day. In the article, though, they mention that a number of people think that instead of praising Pi, we need to be paying tribute to Tau (another Greek letter) - the value of Pi times 2 (approximately 6.28) because so many formulas make use of that number. It is the ratio of the circle's circumference to its radius (not its diameter like Pi). If you're interested, there are a number of articles about why Tau makes a better choice for fame. One of the better ones is found here (this is an Adobe Acrobat, PDF, document).  I'll leave it to you to decide. As a certified old fogie, it's too late for me to change. But the arguments given in The Tau Manifesto (that's what the link points to) are pretty compelling.

[Full disclosure addition - I've actually posted this on March 15 (ooh - the Ides of March) but since it's about March 14, I've listed it as being posted then.]

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rode my scooter to work

Well, winter is over! It was nice enough (just barely) to ride my scooter to work yesterday. And, to prove it wasn't a fluke, I rode it in again today. I put it away for the "winter" in November. I started it up a few times during the cold weather to make sure the battery hadn't died but after a string of really cold weather, I couldn't get it to start. I moved it from the shed to my mother-in-law's unheated garage where it is a little warmer (it's attached to the house). Even then, it took about 20 minutes of cranking to get it to start on Saturday (March 5). The temperature was in the 50's and I took it for a short ride to make sure everything was OK. It was so much fun. I couldn't wait for some nice weather during the week to ride it to work. Finally, after a return to cold temperatures on Monday and Tuesday, it warmed up to the 30's on Wednesday and I was ready.

But, except for my short ride on Saturday, I hadn't been on the road with it since November and I was a little worried. Not only had it been a long time but I was still a little nervous after the spill I took early in November (I wrote about it as A Little Trouble). What if the roads were still icy? What if sand was still on the roads from what the snow plows had used to help during the snowy winter? What if it was colder than I thought it would be? It turned out to be no trouble at all. I did take it very slowly - never going above 35 miles per hour. I kept pulling off the road to let cars pass me. I got to work about a half hour late but I made it safely. I think I was smiling the whole way. I had forgotten how much fun it is to ride my scooter.

A number of people came up to me yesterday remarking about how they know spring is coming now that they see my scooter in the parking lot. That's how I feel, too. It won't be long before the Red Sox start to play regular season games.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Birthday gifts - part 3

It's time to talk about the gift my daughter got me for my birthday. I previously talked about my 60th birthday here and two of my other gifts here and here. My daughter got me the 1967-1968 volume in The Complete Peanuts series. I've got all the previous volumes. I love this series. I like getting the books one or two at a time because it gives me time to go through them before getting the next one on the series.

I previously blogged about this series here.  One of the things I appreciate about Peanuts is how it still seems so fresh forty years later. I consider Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, to be a genius. But I wonder if he thought about writing these cartoons with the idea that they would be loved by people in so many different cultures and well into the future? Or did he just write at a level that is universal? Perhaps that's how he did it. I'd think it would be too distracting to be constantly worrying about whether something you just wrote would be appreciated in 40 - 50 years. He would never get anything done if he had to worry about how a certain line would be interpreted in Australia or Russia. I'm just so thankful he did it the way he did it.

[As an aside, it has taken me three days to get the image of the front cover of the book into this post. I don't know what's going on in Blogger. It seems harder to get uploaded images to show up in my posts. I hope to solve this problem soon. It certainly makes it hard to post when I feel inspired. That doesn't happen that often and if I don't do it when I'm inspired, it might never happen!]

Friday, March 04, 2011

Birthday gifts - part 2

I wrote about my 60th birthday on February 27. Now I'm writing about three of my birthday presents. The first one was discussed here. Today I'm talking about the present my son bought me. It's something I mentioned back in November, 2009. He bought me my own copy of the game Pikmin.

I love this little game. It's a puzzle. It's beautifully rendered. It is very easy to get drawn into the narrative. I explained the story in the previous post (Nov 2009) so I won't repeat that here. But what I like about this game is the feeling you get of trying to protect the little Pikmin from harm. As you can see on the cover art here, there are plenty of creatures that will eat them if you're not careful. This picture shows a small Bulborb chasing some Pikmin. The Bulborbs (pronounced various ways) are the first of the non-Pikmin creatures you run into the game but they are certainly not the most fearsome.

I like games where I can pretend I am in the game. I like the way it makes you look differently at your own life. I really believe it is a learning experience. That's why I don't mind our children playing these types of games. They are interacting with the entertainment. It is not the passive "sitting and watching" of television. The good games demand a level of strategy and planning. Reactions are important but they are not the most important thing. Using your brain to figure out problems is a worthwhile way to spend time. You have to use your imagination or you won't survive.

I played this game a little on my son's console but I didn't get too far because I didn't want to take time away from him. Now that I have my own copy, I'm really looking forward to getting into the world of Olimar and the Pikmin. If I can just find out where the Blue Pikmin are located!

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Birthday gifts - part 1

It's like a microscope in the hands of a biologist. It's like a telescope in the hands of an astronomer. It's like the remote sensors on Star Trek and it's like Sherlock Holmes' magnifying glass. That's what an oscilloscope is to someone working in electronics - it helps you see things you couldn't see any other way.

This was one of the gifts I got for my birthday. I've wanted my own scope for as long as I've been out of college but I could never afford a good one. Now, really nice oscilloscopes are available and they are relatively inexpensive. I first got a Tektronix digital oscilloscope (I think it was the TDS 1001) at work and I loved it but its display was only monochrome. Now, this scope has a color display and it costs about one fourth as much. The model I got is the Owon PDS5022S which is a two-channel, 20 MHz bandwidth model. Yes, 20 MHz isn't great but it is fine for my purposes. It has nice variety of triggering modes and you can store the waveforms for later analysis and comparison. You can hook it up to a computer for even more options. It's very flexible and has a number of different menus that show up on the screen to help you set it up correctly. It has a rather large manual but a lot of the functions are easily figured out by going through the options in the menus. It's very easy to use and I recommend it to anyone who would like a Tek scope or a Rigol scope but can't afford it. We bought it from a company named Saelig that is worth checking out, too. Their banner says, "Unique Electronics" and it's true. They have some very interesting products.

It's not perfect, the display can be hard to read under certain conditions, but for the price, it is hard to complain. I can't wait to start some small projects and to be able to trace the signals through the circuit to see what is really happening. Those electrons are tough to follow any other way.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Sorry, St. David

I'm listing this as being posted on March 1 but I'm actually writing and posting this on March 2. That's because I missed writing a post about March 1 being Saint David's Day. He was (or is) the patron saint of Wales. I've misplaced my Welsh flag which I usually display on this day. I was going to make leek soup but didn't get out to buy the leeks. I really messed up this year. I hope to do better next year.