Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Coming to the end of a very tough year

I have not abandoned this blog. It may seem like I have because my posts have been infrequent this year. But I'm always thinking about it. Every day at least one thing happens that I think I should write up and post but often, I only take notes about it and don't finish it. Most of my ideas, though, leave my head as soon as they enter it. One of the best "explanations" of this I know about is in Stephen King's book The Tommyknockers where an alien spaceship is influencing the minds of the people who come near it. The influence involves the people coming up with brilliant ideas or knowing how to do things they couldn't do previously - especially technical things. They start to invent things no one could have imagined before. But people only traveling through the area get fleeting ideas that they lose when they pass out of the influence of the spaceship. They try hard to remember their ideas but can't. That's because the original influence is lost.

That's how I often feel when I walking or driving along and have these incredible, lucid thoughts. But if I don't write them down immediately, I seem to pass out of the area that influenced my mind. It's not an alien spaceship, of course, that caused the idea in the first place. I'm not sure if it's Divine influence or just randomly varying ideas in my mind coming together in a once-in-long-time conjunction that causes the ideas to appear and then disappear. All I know is that if I could remember a tenth of the ideas I have and then lose, I'd have written hundreds of posts a year instead of the 34 I've written so far this year.

If the ideas come while I'm driving the car, I would have to pull over at the side of the road to write them down. Fat chance of that! I'm always late or near to running late. So, if I'm in the car, I never pull over when ideas come along. Usually, though, I'm riding my scooter and I'm used to pulling over to let faster, impatient drivers pass me. So, pulling over to write in a notebook shouldn't be that hard. Honda was even nice enough to have a glove box that is easy to get to without needing to open up the seat or dig through my jacket for a notebook (see the area circled in red in the picture here). But I don't do it because, as with the car, I'm usually running late or close to late.

In an earlier post, "My thoughts on walking", I mention that it's a good idea to write down the ideas that come while you're walking (item 6).

"I find I get some really good ideas while I'm out for my walks. But I also find that these ideas are fleeting. I get so many thoughts and see so many things that the ideas can fly away as fast as they alight. It's great to be able to pull a small notebook and pencil out and jot down the ideas before I forget them."

I don't do that enough, either. And how many times have I gone back through the pages and pages I've filled in that walking notebook? Not as many times as I should. But that is going to change.

This is one of my New Year's Resolutions. I am going to try to get back to my old frequency of writing posts in this blog. My first few may be about what kept me from writing more this year. Other posts may be about projects I've worked on, books I've read and movies I've seen. There have been some wonderful sermons from the pastor of our church I'd like to highlight and the Lord has taught me some important things this year. My son and I sang in our church's Christmas program again this year. That was fun and enlightening. There are so many things to write about! To paraphrase the old hymn, "How can I keep from writing?"

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Machines as Best Friends - 2

Fisher Price Rockin' Tunes Giraffe
In my previous post, Machines as Best Friends, I mentioned seeing advertisements for two toys that made me think about whether we are setting ourselves up to prefer machines as friends over real human friends. Of course, I'm not really worried about it but it is something to think about. Well, today, I saw the commercials again and realized I had many of my fact wrong. It wasn't a horse the the child was riding in one ad. It was a giraffe! How could I get that wrong? The picture of the Rockin' Tunes Giraffe is the first image in the upper right. I did get some things right. It makes pleasing sounds when the child does certain things. And when it rocks fast enough, the clopping sounds start. So, we can begin to train our future equestrians (or giraffe riders) to prefer the higher speed gaits of those animals.

Fisher Price Crawl Around Car
The other toy I was thinking about was a small car that the child can crawl around in . As you can see from the second picture, on the lower left, the part that tells the child they have selected the sunny day is showing.So, I was wrong about this one, too. I didn't remember it being a car. That is all after seeing both commercials that day. How many other things do I get wrong? Did the Red Sox really get into the play-offs this year?

As usual, I'm late to the party on this. There was a Twilight Zone episode ("I Sing the Body Electric") back in the 60's about a father who, upon his wife's death, goes out and purchases a robotic grandmother to take care of his three children. She never gets tired. She always encourages. She never dies and is always friendly. The episode didn't show them preferring the robot to other people but it is the robotic grandmother that the children spend most of their time with. And there is a sub-plot in the story about the oldest child being upset with her mother for dying. She's just a child and can't help being selfish. But when she finds that the robotic grandmother won't leave her like her mother did, you can see how happy she is. It's almost as if they are saying the robotic grandmother is better than the child's mother.

We need to concentrate on getting along with our fellow humans, first:

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Romans 12:17-18 NLT

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Machines as best friends

i-Cybie, robotic dog
I was watching an advertisement about some toys for babies at the age when they are just starting to crawl around and walk. The toys, one was a horse the child could ride and the other was a set of smaller toys combined into one set, respond to things that the children do. When certain buttons are hit, a message of encouragement is played. When certain other things are selected, they get a few words of explanation - like when a wheel is flipped over to a picture of a smiling Sun, the happy voice says, "It's a sunny day!" When the child rides the horse faster, clopping sounds like a horse trotting will play. It all sounds fun. I wonder what would happen if we took this to the extreme and older children started to be taught by machines. Would it get to the point where children (and later, as they grow up, adults) would prefer the company of machines because they react more reasonably? You don't have to worry about a machine having a bad day. And, probably, the machine wouldn't say anything bad about what you were doing. It would just always encourage you. Machines could be the perfect companion if they were complex enough.

I already see this happening in my own life. I turned on the Spelling Check for this blog entry and it gently told me which words were probably misspelled and what possible correct spelling might be. It didn't tell me I was stupid. No one had to know that I misspelled "advertisement" the first time (using a 'z' instead the 's'). Is this part of our problem with human relationships? Married folks bristle when their spouse disagrees with them. Workers react poorly when given a bad review by their boss.Friends fall out with friends when they don't agree about something. Have we all gotten a little too sensitive? Are we ready to replace our dogs with cyber dogs because we don't have to take them for walks and they don't need to be house broken? The picture above is from Wikipedia and the article about this particular machine friend is from this article at Wikipedia.

I'm an electronics engineer and I should be happy about all this. I will admit that I'm impressed with what the toy makers have been able to do to produce these things and keep the price reasonable. And their little toys are not going to turn these children into adults who cannot cope with the vagaries of human relationships. But it still worries me. I know people who prefer to text their friends instead of visiting them and having a discussion with. The friends might disagree with them. Better to go home and have a nice discussion with an android friend who will tell you that you're the smartest person they know. I hope and pray this isn't the way we are headed.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Starting up again

Trying to get it started again
It's been too long, of course, since my last post on May 21, 2013. There were reasons for the slowing down of my posts on this blog but as I gradually decreased the frequency I was writing, it fed on itself. Drafts of posts backed up and I found it harder and harder to finish them. As it stands now, I have over 20 posts I started recently but didn't finish. There are those that would say, "None of your posts look like you put much time into them." While they may look like that, I do try to put enough time and effort into writing these blog posts to at least satisfy my own standards.

As I've said before, this blog is not really about writing for others to read. It's about getting things down before I forget them. I want to be able to look back on thee short articles to remind myself of what my family and I were doing and various times in our lives and what we were thinking about. There are also the rare occasions when I comment on current events in our country and the world. Not that I have such great insight into those event but I just want to remind myself about what I was thinking about those events.

So, here I go. I've done the hardest part - I've started again. Let's see how this goes. I hope that now that I've started again, it will be easier to keep it going. At least I haven't gone the whole summer with posting. I got this one in between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

The picture of the guy trying to start a car by hand cranking it is from the  DenLors Tools Autoblog and this article in particular.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Everything is harder than you think

From Wikipedia Commons
My title is a cliche, of course. Everybody knows this. Whenever you try to do something, especially something you've never done before or haven't done in a long time, it takes much longer than you think it is going to take. I was just struck by this fact again today when one of my fellow engineers mentioned what a hard time he is having with the project he is working on. Then, just an hour later, another engineer mentioned the hard time she is having with another project. So, I wrote this to them:

I've come to believe that EVERYTHING is ten times harder than you think it will be. And twenty times harder than everybody else thinks it will be for you.
The second sentence is not really new, either, but it makes everything more interesting. We all know we have trouble estimating how long an unfamiliar job will take. That's because we don't know enough about it. As you dig into a problem, you discover nuances neither you nor anyone else thought about when the job was first proposed. But it's even worse when someone else, who doesn't have to actually do the job, is saying how much effort will be involved. There's just something about not having to do a job that makes the job seem so much easier. Trying to estimate the time a job will take is like only relying on what you see in the rear view mirror of your car before backing up. But when someone who won't be doing the work is estimating the effort of the job, it's more like not even looking in the rear view mirror before backing up. Just put the car in reverse, hit the gas and assume everything will be OK! "People will get out of the way if they need to."

I think we all do this to some extent. None of us put the effort into imagining how hard a job will be if we don't have to do the work. It's more critical when that other person estimating the work is your supervisor. But our opinions can carry weight when we are part of a group of "non-workers" telling the "worker" how much effort we think it will be. Our numbers make it hard for the "worker" to disagree. The group's estimate carries more weight.

No matter how carefully you plan something, there are always hidden aspects to the job. I believe this is called The Iceberg Principle. Most of the iceberg (89%) is below the surface so you can't see it. Just like a new project. My conjecture is that when someone else is deciding the effort a job will take and is not doing the work themselves, that number rises to 94% of the job being hidden for that person. But I have resolved to try to cut down on this. When I am estimating the effort for a job someone else is going to do, I am going to try to imagine how I would do that job. I am going to actually think about the steps that will need to be taken. Maybe others will return the favor.

The image is from Wikipedia Commons. Doesn't look that big, does it?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Happy Mother's Day

I was so proud of myself. I found the perfect gift for my wife for Mother's Day. The kids already had their gifts for her and I already a gift for my mother. My gift was something I knew she wanted but I wasn't expecting to find it. It was one of those exciting times when you just bump into the right thing. I wasn't out looking for it. It just happened. I was in a store and I turned around and there it was!

We were out one day a few weeks ago and Cindy mentioned that she wished she had a small purse. Something that would just hold a little cash, some credit cards and her keys. She has some nice purses but they are all large and, "sometimes they're just too much to take where you're going," she says. So, here I was in a store, turned and saw the little bag in the picture in the upper right. It was one of her favorite colors and it was small. It had a few compartments so she could organize things. I was set. I was the perfect husband (for a little while). It was going to be a great Mother's Day. Then it happened.

We all went to church this morning. That's a good thing, isn't it? Recently, our church has been giving out small little gifts to the mothers on Mother's Day. That's a good thing, isn't it? Guess what they were giving out today? Today's gift was a small purse that could just hold a little cash, some credit cards and her keys. I was floored. The little purse they gave out is in the picture on the left. And it's one of her other favorite colors. How could God let this happen? Hadn't I done all the right things?

So, was the day going to be ruined? Well, I had sold myself (and my wife) short. She loved my gift. My bag came with a little strap and the church bag didn't. My bag had compartments and the church bag had just one zippered pouch. My bag was a little larger but not too large. She liked it so much, she took it with us when we went out to dinner at noon. To tell you the truth, I'm not exactly sure Cindy likes my bag that much better but she likes me that much better. She knows how to make me feel like I'm the King of the World. And I'll love her forever for it. Happy Mother's Day, Sweetheart.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Are we under too much stress?

Five people in the Software Group have recently (in the last three months) had to get repairs for damaged teeth. I am one of those people. We've had to get crowns because a tooth broke or cracked. That's five people in a group of fifteen. Does that seem like a lot to you? It does to me. And I think I know the reason.

We are all under a lot of stress. We're under pressure to not only get our work done but to get our work done quickly. We not only have to get our work done quickly but we have to think ahead and plan the work we do so that we don't make things harder for ourselves or others in the future. That means the whole time you are designing your software, you have to be thinking how it might be used in the future. You have to think about how the hardware might change and you have to think about what features the Marketing folks might want to add.

And all the time, we are constantly being reminded of the schedule. We plan our work over a period of months and then set the schedule. The actual writing of code starts and we will work on it for another period of months. But just before we start the coding, we publish a schedule and no matter what happens after that, you get sick, your car breaks down, an asteroid hits the Earth, Jesus returns and takes us to Heaven, all that the directors of the company remember is that first schedule that was shown.

We develop our software using Agile Software Development. I'd like to write more about this methodology in the future but I only have time to write the short description here. Agile Development is meant to help you make schedules that are flexible and to increase the communication among the programmers of the team. It is a really good system but I don't think its ideas have sunk into the people that run companies (not just ours). In previous times, schedules were set and that was it. People treated software (and all types of design, really) like you were stamping out parts that have been made for years. Times have changed and what we produce has changed. When we run into things like illness or problems keeping us from work, Agile handles those well. Every month (or even more often in some cases) you rearrange your schedule. The important thing is to know what you are working on, that everyone else knows what you are working on and what parts depend on other parts.

But old ideas are hard to change. We are all under a lot of pressure and we've been clenching our teeth as we try to deliver good products on time. I go in tomorrow morning to get the permanent crown for my tooth that broke. I hope it lasts. Maybe I should get a mouth guard. Who would have thought that writing software could be as tough as playing hockey?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

"There's a good boy"

That's how my grandmother used to end every sentence to me when I was a little boy and she was asking me to do something. "Would you bring that bag of groceries into the house? There's a good boy." When she would be babysitting me, she'd say, "It's getting close to bed time. Go take your bath. There's a good boy." I always did what my grandmother asked me to do.

I remember this like it happened yesterday but that would have been over 50 years ago. And I remember the thought that went through my head when she used that phase. "Well, she's already acting like I'll do it and that I'm a good boy. I guess I have to do it now." It was her expectation that I'd do my duty and she was rewarding me for it that got me to never refuse to do what she asked. I didn't want to disappoint her. She never bribed me with treats or told me about a punishment if I didn't do it. She just assumed I would and let me know that.

Or it could have just been a phrase she used. I never noticed her saying it to my cousins, my parents, my aunts and uncles or my grandfather but maybe I just didn't notice. Besides, I was just a kid. I couldn't have been more than 8 years old at that time. I like to think she really did think I was a good boy and that she could depend on me to do the right thing. I wasn't perfect but I always tried to make her proud.

I've always said that we all have regrets in our life. Maybe I'm being pessimistic and some people regret nothing they've ever done in their life. But I do have some regrets. One them is that when my grandmother died and we all got together for her funeral, I didn't tell this story. There was just a small ceremony in the funeral home and just grandma's surviving children and my cousins were there. The minister gave a short message and then asked if anyone had anything else to say. Were there any stories anyone wanted to tell? None of us said anything. I always regret that I didn't tell this story. For one thing, it might have prompted the others to tell stories of their own. But mostly, it would have been nice to share this simple case of someone expecting the good from someone else and encouraging it.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

I have not given up on blogging

It's been 18 days since my last post. There is no one reason for it. It just sort of happened. I have a lot of posts in the draft stage but I haven't been able to work on them long enough to be ready for publishing. I've always been torn between the idea of just getting thoughts down or spending the time to make sure a piece is thought out and well written. I seem to have a hard time finding the middle ground. And no matter what I do, I'm never quite happy with the result.

In the past, I've said, "This is just a diary. I should get things down quickly so I don't miss events that happen in my life. The important thing is to be able to go back over these posts and remember what was going on. I want to recall my thoughts - not create the great American novel."

But I've also said, "The idea of this blog is to help me to learn to write better. Just writing down my thoughts could be done in a paper diary. The idea of doing it in a blog is to allow for the possibility of other people reading it, too." That means I may need to explain things that I understand but other readers wouldn't. That means it needs to be written well enough to be understood. It should make sense. Also, I'd like other readers to be moved by my writing. We all have some knowledge that other people don't. One of the reasons God put us all together here on the Earth is to share what we know and to help each other.

The idea that other people might read this blog is both scary and exciting. It's scary because it opens me up to criticism. It exposes things I wouldn't normally share. But with criticism comes improvement and that's the exciting part. Is it better to have an idea that is wrong and hold onto it no matter what or is it better to find out that ideas you think are true and important that turn out to be false or useless? I'd rather try to correct the things that are wrong. I guess that's the engineer in me. And maybe that's how my title Adventures in Engineering is really about my adventure in correcting my own mistakes. Not to create a great piece of software or a product for sale but to create a better me. To extend my knowledge by coming up with an idea, getting it down on paper and then finding the problems with it and correcting those problems. Engineering isn't always about creating things. It can also be about improving yourself. So, I'm left with the difficult balance of trying to write as often as possible but to write as clearly and thoughtfully as I can. Bear with me. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Not our normal walk

You don't expect a problem when you go out for a walk with your dog. Every morning, Charlie (our dog) expectantly looks at me until I take him for a walk. He's 14 years old and can't walk far but we walk slowly for about one mile each morning. We take pretty much the same route every day so we know what we're going to see and what we're going to do. Charlie has his duty and I have mine. Nothing much happens. Except for this morning.

We have to cross a fairly busy road but there is a crosswalk there. In Massachusetts, a vehicle has to stop if a pedestrian is standing between the white lines of the crosswalk. We usually let the cars go, though, because they always seem in such a rush and we are not. Right after the crosswalk, there is a house with a chain-link fenced in yard that has a bunch of (at least five) yappy Boston Terriers that love to bark at us. If they are out, they usually sense us before we get to the crosswalk and start barking before we even get to their side of the road. This morning was one of those mornings.

One thing wasn't the same as normal. I noticed a fellow about 20 feet off to our left obviously looking for something in the woods. He was whistling and calling but I didn't think too much about it. I was concentrating on the traffic that was approaching the crosswalk and the noise being generated by the yappy dogs. As we waited by the road to let the traffic pass, the car closest to us stopped and motioned for us to go. I looked over at the other lane to make sure the car coming from the other direction was going to let us go, too. Then, everything happened at once.

The car going the other way did stop but you could see he wasn't happy about it. The first car that stopped was motioning, impatiently, for us to get going. The yappy dogs were excited that we were coming their way. The guy looking for something was raising his voice and I was tempted to look over at him. But to make the drivers happy, Charlie and I started to run. Well, Charlie is 14 so we trotted, across the road. Just then, the guy looking for something shouted. Loudly! I looked over and my heart stopped. A Pit Bull was running toward us! Our running (trotting) had caught his attention and he left the woods to run after us. We were out in the middle of the road with nowhere to go. The yappy dogs were getting louder. The drivers were getting mad and I was scared into inaction. Then a miracle happened.

The guy who was obviously looking for this Pit Bull yelled and the dog stopped dead in his tracks. He kept his eyes fixed on us but he listened to his master. We continued across the road and got safely to the other side. The cars continued on their way and the yappy dogs continued to get louder as we approached and then passed their yard. I didn't look back. I assume the guy put a leash around his dog and walked him home. I was shaking but Charlie calmed me down with a look of, "Don't worry, I'd have protected you."

I wouldn't have been so scared but a fellow I work with was attacked by a Pit Bull just a couple of weeks before. Actually, there were two Pit Bulls but only one attacked. He described his struggle to free his dog from the grip of one of the attackers while yelling for help. He would get his dog free only to have the attacking dog grab her again. Even though the second dog never attacked, my friend had to keep an eye on him. Finally, a neighbor heard his yells and came to help. His neighbor was able to take his dog away to safety. With his dog gone, the attacking dog focused on my friend. Fortunately, it was cold that day and he had a heavy jacket on. The dog shredded it. He was finally able to pin the dog down until the police came.

That story flashed into my mind as I stood in the middle of the road in panic. I am so thankful I didn't have to really deal with anything beyond fear. I will be looking around a little more cautiously tomorrow morning.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

"He arose!"

"He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!" Christ did arise and is still alive. If he hadn't, there would be no Christian religion. If it was proven that he didn't rise from the dead, the hopes of Christians everywhere would end. It ain't gonna happen, though. People have tried disproving Christ's death and resurrection for centuries.

The words at the beginning of this post are from the old Robert Lowry hymn "Christ Arose". I enjoy singing it, along with a lot of the other great hymns. But now, many churches have switched to more contemporary songs. Eventually, they may prove to be as long lasting and insightful as the old hymns but I miss singing hymns from a hymn book. With the music in front of you, you could sing in parts (what's that?) and it helps to have an organ or piano leading the music because that helps pick out parts to follow. And being a bass (that is, singing in the low range of male voices - not a fish) makes it hard to sing along on songs that are mostly pitched for sopranos and tenors. But I don't want to come across as an old curmudgeon. I do enjoy the newer worship songs, too. I love the songs of Paul Baloche, Chris Tomlin, Amy Grant, Michael Card and the artists of Hillsong. Their music is inspired and inspiring. They are all terrific musicians and their songs are deep and worshipful. It's just a shame that churches seem to go all one way (with older, traditional hymns played on organ or piano) or the other (contemporary music played on guitars and electronic instruments).

Our church does include an old hymn once in a while but it's hard to be able to sing parts when all the instruments are just playing chords as accompaniment. But the enthusiasm and musicianship of our church's worship band is remarkable. It really does lift our spirits and helps our soul worship the Lord. I don't want this to come across as a complaint against the use of contemporary praise and worship songs in church. I just miss the old hymns and the loss of the more classical instruments. Why does everything seem to have to be one way or another?

This year, Easter is early and it's still cold outside. To save from the usual crush of people in church on Sunday, we took advantage of our church having a Saturday evening Easter service this year. It was still crowded but it wasn't overwhelming. This morning, we're going to wait for it to warm up before starting the Easter Egg hunt.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Suspended Coffee

I read today about "Suspended Coffee" and thought I'd pass it along. As usual, it's a practice that has been going on for decades (at least) and I'm just finding out about it.

Each day, I check the "What's New" section of the Snopes website and saw this article talking about Suspended Coffee. My first thought was that it must be a way of brewing coffee - you know, like leaving the grounds "suspended" in the boiling water (like tea) instead of running water or steam through the grounds. I was wrong. It's a very nice tradition that apparently started in Italy after World War II.

After the war, many people had lost everything. Most people didn't have much but some people still had enough to enjoy a cup of coffee. They saw people who couldn't even afford that. So, in the city of Naples, a few people who had the means would buy a cup of coffee for themselves and then pay for another cup and tell the owner it was a suspended coffee. They called it "caffe sospeso" (suspended coffee or pending coffee). Later, if someone came into the shop who didn't look like they could afford a cup of coffee, the owner would ask them if they'd like a cup. This was a nice way of telling them that a cup of coffee had already been bought for them. By staying anonymous, the buyer didn't embarrass the person who got the free coffee and there was no worry about the receiver of the gift needing to reciprocate.

No one seems quite sure how it got started. Why would people who couldn't afford a cup of coffee come into the cafe in the first place? How would the people who paid for two coffees know that someone might come in later to claim it? I don't know either but somebody started it. Perhaps it was a marketing scheme. The cafe owner would look like a nice guy if he spread the word that he would offer that service. I prefer to think that kind people suggested it - remembering the words of Jesus:
Then he turned to his host. “When you put on a luncheon or a banquet,” he said, “don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.” Luke 14: 12-14 NLT

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

I can make all the coffee I want

Our company provides free coffee and tea for us. The coffee comes by way of a coffee maker and it is up to us to cooperate and make a new pot when it runs low. For the tea, the company just provides free tea bags. I mostly drink tea and make a pot in the morning and drink it throughout the day. I sometimes drink coffee, though, so I take a turn making coffee when I see that the coffee is low. Some days it feels like I'm the only one making coffee because every time I walk into the cafeteria, the coffee pot is nearly empty and I end up making a new pot.

Today, I happened to be in that area more often than usual and, again, the coffee was almost empty each time I was there. Making a new pot is simple and takes only a minute or two. That's because the coffee comes premeasured in bags and the water is plumbed right into the machine. You just put a clean filter in the basket, add the coffee grounds, put the empty pot under the the basket holding the grounds and hit the switch. If it's so easy, why don't more people pitch in to help? I don't know.

I get the feeling that no matter how often you make coffee, it would still disappear quickly and there would be almost no coffee left the next time you came in. The faster you make it, the faster it disappears. My theory is that people rush to take coffee when the pot is nearly full for two reasons:

  • So they won't have to make a new pot
  • Because they think it is fresh

Otherwise, they will skip having a cup and wait for someone else to make the new pot. I used to get really upset about the number of people that act this way. But you can't change that behavior in people. So, I changed my attitude to look at the good I am doing. It's good to be helpful. I feel like Thomas the Tank Engine. He's happiest when he's being, " a really useful engine". As long as I don't spend too much time doing it (that's not why I am employed here), I'm being a really useful engineer.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A book I know I'm going to get

Earlier this year, I wrote about Nellie Bly's trip around the world (my post was "Nellie Bly returns"). Yesterday, there was a fascinating show on National Public Radio's The Diane Rehm Show. Diane Rehm interviewed Matthew Goodman the author of a book titled Eighty Days. In it, he recounts the race around the globe between Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland who was working for a rival publication and traveling the other way around the world. I learned that Nellie didn't even know she was in a race with a real competitor until she was half way around the world. She thought she was only trying to beat the eighty days it took the fictional Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne's story.

I told you a bit about the story in my earlier post as well as a bit about Nellie herself (born Elizabeth Cochran, later changing the spelling to Cochrane and then later taking the pen name Nellie Bly). I even pointed out how to get Nellie's own account of the trip but I think you'll enjoy this book even more. It goes into much more detail and also tells the equally interesting story of Elizabeth Bisland and her trip the other way around the world. Mr. Goodman also tells a lot about how newspapers were run back in the late 1800s and while a lot of things have changed since then, he points out that a lot hasn't changed much. He researched this topic extensively and reports from primary sources and can be a bit more impartial than Nellie can be about her own trip. It sounds like I've read the book already but I haven't. I got all this from the show.

If you go to this link at The Diane Rehm Show, you can listen to the story by clicking on the Listen button. You can read the transcript by, surprisingly, clicking on the Transcript button on that same page. You can read an excerpt from the book there, too. I know I'll be buying it the next time I'm book shopping.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

I rode my scooter in today and...

Finally, it seems that the weather has broken and I can safely ride my scooter to work again. I need to do some work on it before too long but for now, it's fine. After not using for over a month (I last rode it into work during a thaw in January), it started right up! Honda sure knows how to build a reliable scooter.

The work I need to do on it is:
  • Change the oil
  • Change the air filter
  • Change the spark plug and adjust its gap
  • Check and adjust (if necessary) the valve clearance.
They are all easy, step-by-step jobs and I have the service manual to help me along.

I used to really enjoy working on my car but now the engines of automobiles are so complex that I don't feel competent to work on them. But this scooter is manageable. And everything is smaller so I can work on it in a smaller space (our shed for instance) and I don't need help to move big parts. Also, you're not reaching down into a "box" to get to parts (and scraping your knuckles when the wrench slips). You just remove the side panels and everything you need to get to is right before you.

The numbers are the right of way priorities
And now for the "and..." in my title. Notice the traffic drawing here. I've put numbers next to the vehicles showing their relative right of way with '1' having the most right of way.

On the ride in today, I was ready to turn left onto a side road (on the left in this drawing)  from the highway I was traveling on (running vertically in the drawing, my little red Honda scooter is the red ellipse marked with a red '2'). The traffic was heavy and I was waiting for an opening. There was also a car in the side road waiting to pull out on the highway (marked with a '3' in the drawing). I noticed the car but, having the right of way, knew that I has first chance at a break in the traffic. Lots of times, I'll give the other driver a break and let them pull onto the road first and then make my turn. But this morning I was running late and decided that I'd better make the turn as soon as possible. BUT - as usual on my scooter, I know to be careful. In an accident, I'm the one who is going to be hurt. And it's a good thing I did.

The car coming toward us (marked with a '1' in the drawing) was also making a turn onto that road and he definitely had the right of way over both of us. But he slowed way down and flashed his lights to "go ahead". Just as I was starting to make the turn, the car on the left, '3', pulled out without even looking at me. Sure enough, that driver was on their cell phone and didn't even look my way. Fortunately, I was ready for this and there wasn't even a close call. I should have beeped but I figured that would just make them slow down or stop and that would make things worse.

It just drives me crazy how many people are talking on their cell phones while they are driving. And it's not just on long stretches of open highway. They are on their phone in tricky situations. And the really sad thing is that most of the time they don't even realize the trouble they have caused and how close they came to causing an accident. That's why I thought about beeping - to make them aware of what they just did. But, as I said, if I'd have beeped in that situation, I'd have probably just made it worse. What do you do? Just stay alert I suppose. It looks like no one is going to give up their "right" to be distracted while driving.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Pedometer or petometer?

I opened a new bag of dog food the other day and inside I found a prize. But instead of the usual useless toy or coupon for more dog food, it was a pedometer. As you can see from the picture here, it is from Purina® and is part of their Project: Pet Slim Down™ program. I get more out of our morning walks than my dog Charlie does, though, so I think of our morning walks as something good for me. Charlie does enjoy inspecting the neighborhood and making sure everyone is doing things right. He especially enjoys garbage day and smelling what everyone had for dinner during the past week.

I used it on a few of our morning walks and found we went about 2400 steps. Well, I took 2400 steps. Charlie took at least twice as many (having twice as many feet as I do) and he has shorter legs so he has to take more steps to keep up. Maybe I'll attach it to him and see what it reads. I took it to work one day to see how far I walk around the office. Also, I wanted to make sure it was working so I was looking down at the display (in the picture to the left) to see if it was incrementing for each step. I had to hold my belly in to be able to read the display. It took so much effort and concentration that I almost ran into someone.
As you can see in the last picture on the right, if I don't hold my belly back, I can't read the display. Obviously, I'm in very good shape. I do try to walk a lot but this winter has made that difficult and it's been very busy at work so I've been missing a lot of my walks at lunch. But now I realize the real purpose of this pedometer. Its purpose is to encourage me to walk often enough and long enough to get my belly size down so I can read the display of the pedometer without needing to push my belly back out of the way.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Another photo tour

For this photo tour, we went to the Coggeshall Farm Museum in Bristol, RI. The picture on the right shows one of the farm's ewes and the two lambs she had recently (one is shy, you'll see it if you click on the picture to expand it). And, once again, it was my wife who signed us up for this fun event. This was a special day at the farm where they showed us how they made maple sugar back in the 17th Century. They told us that the use of maple syrup is a relatively new phenomenon (as far as its every day use - native people knew how to make maple syrup before the Europeans arrived). But the need for sugar and the difficulty of importing cane sugar caused the making of maple sugar (not maple syrup) to be a rising industry in colonial times. Places far from sea ports couldn't get the sugar from the Caribbean as easily so they made maple sugar. Another interesting fact was that they used sugar more as a spice back then rather than the over-used ingredient as we do today.

First, you have to tap the tree. Interestingly, you don't need Sugar Maple trees for this. Almost any maple will do and here on this farm they have stands of Norway Maples so that's what they use. Here's my son, Evan (in the green cap), taking a turn at screwing in the auger Notice it is angled up so the sap flows down. The auger makes a small hole in the tree. The folks at the farm said they don't need to worry about damaging the tree as long as the holes are small and there aren't many taps. The trees will heal themselves and there is no need to patch up the hole later. In fact, patching the hole seals in any bacteria or molds that may have gotten into the hole during the process.

Next, you have to put in the spile which is the name they give the small drain that transfers the sap out of the tree and allows it to run out of the tree far enough to drip into a collector. Here our friendly farm worker (how could he be so nice when it was so cold that day?) carefully taps the wooden spile with a wooden mallet. Modern farms would use stainless steel spiles but the Coggeshall Farm tried to be as authentic as possible and makes their own wooden spiles. The wooden mallet lessens the chance of splitting the wood. Notice how he angles the spile at the same angle the hole was tapped. You have to get it right or the spile will break or split.
This next picture shows that they really go all out to be authentic and make their own collecting bucket by hollowing out a large piece of tree trunk. They used an adz to remove pieces of wood bit by bit. These guys must have incredible patience. This tap has been going for a while and the drips were coming about once every two seconds. It would take quite a long time. You can see that these wooden farm-made spiles aren't perfect and allow some of the sap to leak down the trunk of the tree. You can see that, as with all technology, there is always room for improvement and there are always lots of areas for creative people to improve products.

The final picture shows the two farm workers stoking up the fire. They will have to boil down the sap (in large cast iron kettles) for a long time to end up with maple sugar. Plus, it was a very cold day and the fire helped to warm up glove-less fingers. I don't know how they did it. I had a heavy jacket and gloves and I was freezing.

In case you are interested in tapping your own trees and making syrup, here are a couple of links.

Making Maple Syrup at University of Cincinnati Clermont College

Tap My Trees

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

I'm 62 years old today

The cake for my 62nd birthday
This has been one of my longer droughts in writing blog posts. I wrote my last one 9 days ago. Where has the time gone? Well, I could say that for my whole life. Today is my birthday and where have the last 62 years gone?

For the first 24 years of my life, I lived in Western Pennsylvania. I was born, raised and went to school there. I also got my first traffic ticket there. I only lived outside Western Pennsylvania when I went to college in Central Pennsylvania. Then, after graduating, I spent the next 3 years in Northern Virginia. I moved because my first real job was there. I also got a traffic ticket there. Finally, I moved to Massachusetts and have lived here ever since. I bought my first house here, met and married my wife here and we had our children here. I also got a traffic ticket here.

An interesting fact is that all three states I've lived in do not call themselves "states" but commonwealths. Did you know there is one more commonwealth in the United States? In case you don't know, and you haven't clicked on the link yet, it's Kentucky. I've never been there and may not ever get there - I don't need another traffic ticket.

I feel happier than I've ever felt in my life. I have a wonderful wife, two terrific children, a lovely mother-in-law and, if I could get my mother to move here from Pennsylvania, I'd have it all. Getting her to pull up roots and move here is tough, though. I don't think she wants a traffic ticket, either.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A nice place to stay in Boston

Continuing on my theme of the two days my wife and I spent in Boston for a battery of tests my wife had to undergo at the Boston Medical Center, I want to show you where we stayed the night during that trip. As you can see in the picture, our hotel was called The Roundhouse Suites. Yes, it really is round. It is part of the Best Western franchise. It was originally built in the 1800's to store gas for use in Boston. I don't know when it was converted to a hotel but it wasn't recently. I didn't smell any gas.

The room was wonderful. It was really two rooms with a small sitting room with a couch, large screen TV and small stand with a refrigerator and microwave. The bedroom had a smaller TV and the bathroom was quite nice, too. It was kind of sad that we only got to stay there one night. And we were so exhausted from having to get up at 4 AM that morning to get there for the first round of tests that we didn't stay up long after the final test of the first day. We did go out to eat that evening and had a great meal but couldn't wait to get back to the room and go to bed. It was going to be another hard day the next day (for my wife at least) and it was going to be a great night for sleeping.

Until the fire alarm went off around 10:30 that night! We were both asleep. We heard a funny noise outside our room first. Then the alarm in our room went off. We both groaned, "Oh, no! It can't be." But it was. At first we thought that it must be a false alarm or a test of some sort. But it kept going and going. We dragged ourselves out of bed and grabbed our bags even though they tell you not to stop for anything. At least we did one right thing - we didn't try to take the elevator down the four floors to the street. We took the stairs. When we got to the lobby, everyone was standing around so we knew it must be a false alarm. We waited for a few minutes as the firemen double-checked and the manager told us that it was just a false alarm and we could go back to our rooms.

I have to admit that if it had been a real fire, we could have possibly been in a lot of trouble. Thankfully, we just got a warning. We'll do better next time. We were both exhausted the next day because, of course, we couldn't go right back to sleep after being startled like that. It never felt so good to get home to sleep in our own bed.

Friday, February 08, 2013

The best calzone I've ever had

My wife, Cindy, had to go to Boston on Monday and Tuesday this week for medical tests at Boston Medical Center and I went with her. She had to deal with the annoyance, discomfort and, sometimes, pain of the tests while I sat there reading a book. These were follow-up tests to the ones I mentioned  in my post "Amyloidosis".

So, after the first morning's tests were done, we had hoped to go somewhere nice so Cindy could relax. But we didn't have enough time to go far and it was very cold and windy so we didn't want to walk far, either. We saw the place pictured here and thought it looked good. I ordered a Greek calzone and I have to say it was the best calzone I've ever had! The crust was fluffy and light, it was sliced into manageable pieces and it had cheese dribbled over it.Cindy just had a tuna sandwich and enjoyed that, too. But that calzone!

So, if you're ever on Harrison Avenue in the Roxbury section of Boston, it's at #851 just off Massachusetts Avenue. Give it a try. They were so nice and seemed genuinely pleased when I told them how much I liked my lunch. Here is their website (not much there) and their menu at grubhub.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Groundhog Day

Yesterday, I (jokingly) wondered if I could get out of Groundhog Day because I'd been kind to my neighbor. But in reality, we aren't saved by good works.
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT
But, of course, we should also be doing good works because of so much good that has been done for us. We prove our faith by the actions we take.
But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. James 1:22 NLT
Escaping Groundhog Day isn't the same as being saved. In the movie, Phil got to continue his life because he learned lessons about life and learned to love. We are saved because we are loved and given the gift of salvation and we accept it. We do good because we believe - if we truly believe.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Groundhog day?

"Then put your little hand in mine
There ain't no hill or mountain we can't climb.

I got you babe.
I got you babe.
I got you babe.
I got you babe ..."

Good grief. I can't stop. Can I help someone? I did sweep the snow off my neighbor's porch this morning. Is that enough?

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Groundhog Day

We just finished watching the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell and Chris Elliot. Again. We've been watching it on Groundhog Day for the last few years. It is one of my (and my family's) favorite movies...

Sorry, this is kind of a dumb joke. I'll stop now.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Groundhog Day

We just finished watching the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell and Chris Elliot. Again. We've been watching it on Groundhog Day for the last few years. It is one of my (and my family's) favorite movies. I only saw part of the movie the first time and I was very confused. I didn't know the story beforehand and thought they were making a mistake in showing the movie. I thought the TV station got the parts mixed up! Once I realized what was going on, I really enjoyed it. It's part comedy but it also has some deep parts. As I've seen it through the years, I find new things in it to appreciate each time. This is the first time, for instance, that I realized that no matter how long he tried, he was unable to save the life of an old homeless man.

There are a lot of fun facts about this movie but one of the most amazing was that in his DVD commentary for the movie, I've heard, director Harold Ramis says that at one point it was envisioned that Phil's stay in Groundhog Day and in Punxsutawney lasts about 10,000 years in real time. He would keep track of time by reading a page of a book a day and eventually would read through all the books in the town's library. This was later changed to be 10 years (although that is never explicitly mentioned). Later, Mr. Ramis says he thinks it would take more like 30 or 40 years for Phil to learn all the things he does in the movie. Still quite amazing.

Another of the appealing aspects to this movie is that I think a lot of us have felt we're living out Groundhog Day ourselves. Doing the same things over and over and trapped into a routine. The way Phil finally breaks out of his loop is a good way for us to break our bad routines, too - becoming less self-centered, realizing his 'curse' is really a chance to help others, and find true love.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Another horrible day in history due to an engineering failure

STS-107 flight insignia
I didn't realize the two Space Shuttle disasters happened around the same time of the year. The Challenger Disaster happened on January 28, 1986 while the Columbia Disaster happened on this day - seven years later in 2003. The time between the two was long enough for us to think all the problems had been solved. The problem that destroyed Challenger and killed her seven astronauts had been solved. But a new problem arose with Columbia.

Like with Challenger, Columbia's problems started at launch. With Challenger, though, it didn't take long for the problem to escalate from a leak in a tank to the destruction of the vehicle. With Columbia, the initial problem went unnoticed for 16 days - until the craft had completed its mission and was on its way home.

On launch, a piece of insulation broke off and hit the heat shielding tiles on the wing of the spacecraft damaging one of them. With that damage, the wing was no longer protected from the heat of re-entry. Hot gasses entered the wing through the damaged area and destroyed the wing from the inside. Once that happened, Columbia's fate and the lives of her crew were sealed.

This was another case of an engineering failure that was made worse by bad decisions from the managers. As I said in my previous post about the Challenger Disaster, "It seems that disasters of this magnitude are not usually the result of one mistake. They are the result of cascading mistakes." Damage from dislodged insulation was known to happen before this time. It should have been studied and solved then. But even without that, the dislodged piece of foam was observed on launch day and some engineers were concerned about it but, again, nothing was done. There is a very good write-up of this disaster in the Wikipedia article, "Space Shuttle Columbia disaster". There you will see that if the investigation had been allowed to continue, they could have found ways to either repair the damage or save the astronauts by allowing them to stay on the International Space Station until another Shuttle could come to rescue them.

I'm sorry that so many of my articles about the history of engineering are about engineering failures. I do believe it is important that we learn from our mistakes. But, I will try to focus more on the triumphs of our profession. It's also good to celebrate the things that go right. We need to face the future with the hope that we can make things better.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Parental Guidance

It's been quite a long time since I wrote a post about the fine sermons we hear at our church. I hope to do a better job about that in the future. But what I'm going to point out today was a series of six sermons that were given last year from September 16 through October 21. The subject is raising children. The theme is guiding our families to God's best. I know - a lot of people are turned off already. Well, I can't control that. Give me one more argument before you tune this out completely.

Well, two arguments. The first is that I think this fits in with my last post where I stated that there are some things we need to teach our children that we often overlook. We just assume that our kids will figure out how to set up a cleaning routine for their room or apartment and stick to it. And, if they don't, we sometimes think that repeatedly harassing them about it will get them to figure it out. Well, these sermons are much better than that. And this is the second argument for your not just dismissing this series - it is very practical. This is not just a bunch of Bible verses from Proverbs with no application to modern families. These messages were written and presented by our pastor, Ben Feldott, who has raised (and continues to raise:-) four children. Well, I can't just say that. Ben wrote these messages with input from the Bible and the Holy Spirit. Nothing we do worthwhile as Christians comes solely from our own understanding. Anything we do that is lasting and good comes from God.

Here are links to the six sermons with a short description of each one. I've also included links to study notes for each sermon. Those are written by another minister in our church, Ken Hart.

1) What Guides Do, September 16, 2012
As parents, we have "signed on" to be guides for our children. What do professional guides do that we should be doing for our children?
    The message (video)
    The study notes

2) Priorities, September 23, 2012
Is giving our kids the best of everything the best path? We try to give our kids more than we had. We desperately try to have them not miss any experience or we feel they will miss out on life.
    The message (video)
    The study guide

3) Friends and Influences, September 30, 2012
While parents have the ultimate responsibility for their children, they are going to have other influences in their life, too. Whether we like them or not. We have to be careful to not let these other influences reduce our role in their lives. 
    The message (video)
    The study guide

4) Raising Kids Who Live for God, October 7, 2012
We can't force our children to love God and we wouldn't want to. They depend on us to act as role models. How do we get them to depend on God and to love him?
    The message (video)
    The study guide

5) Healthy Discipline, October 14, 2012
Discipline is NOT being beaten into submission. It has three factors, the law of consequences, the power of being forgiven and the privilege of trust.
    The message (video)
    The study guide

6) Prodigals, October 21, 2012
Children must be raised to prepare them for making their own choices. The choices they make don't always turn out well. We can't control their hurts but we can help them when they occur.
    The message (video)
    The study guide

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Learning to live on your own in 31 days

A manly man from the Art of Manliness site
I'd like to let you know about a very interesting website - The Art of Manliness. I'm adding it to my list of blogs (on the right of this page in the Other Blogs list). I mentioned this site once before in my "Chestnuts bursting out the oven door" post. The Art of Manliness had a post about how to roast chestnuts that I recommended in my post. But I'd seen The Art of Manliness before and wanted to write about it but I just forgot. The post that introduced me to this site was its "Heading Out on Your Own: 31 Life Skills in 31 Days" posts. It's a lot of useful information gathered into one place. Some of it may seem silly to those of us already on our own. But to someone heading out for the first time, these are very valuable lessons. How to Do Laundry. How to Make a Bed. How to Shop for Groceries. All simple tasks that most of us take for granted. But what if you'd never done them before? Too often, we just assume our children will pick these things up as they help us and watch us do them. But have you ever taken the time to show your children (or young friends or nieces or nephews) how to do these?

Another manly guy from the Art of Manliness site
There are some items in the list that would be useful for anyone to review. How to Jump Start a Car. Establish an Exercise Routine. How to Manage Stress. Create a Budget - wow there's one some folks in our state capital and in Washington should read! There are some geared toward men (Essential Etiquette for Young Men for instance) but this is a site about manliness. And it wouldn't hurt for young women to know what to expect of a young man. Too often our young women just accept what they are given. I think it would help if more girls demanded that their boyfriends treated them with respect. And the same goes for young men. We've gone too far down the road of acting any way we want and expecting everyone else to just accept it. We all need to learn to be more civil with each other.

Take a look around this fascinating site. Learn four rules to get the most out of life. Or learn how to use a fire extinguisher. The women can skip Testosterone Week. And don't be put off by the preponderance of mustaches to be found around the page. Some of this stuff will come across as old fashioned. And I'm not one of those who says that things were so much better way back when. Some things were better and some things were worse. But we have the good fortune to be able to pick and choose which things we want to believe and which things we want to act on.