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