Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Why we put mercury in vaccines...

Why we put mercury in vaccines...  A deep dive for a lay audience, which I found very interesting...

Southern cops have a way with words...

Southern cops have a way with words...  Via my card-carrying ancient-American mom, this collection of quotes allegedly transcribed from the dashcam videos of South Carolina State Troopers:
"You know, stop lights don't come any redder than the one you just went through."

"Relax, the handcuffs are tight because they're new. They'll stretch after you wear them a while."

"If you take your hands off the car, I'll make your birth certificate a worthless document."

"If you run, you'll only go to jail tired."

"Can you run faster than 1,200 feet per second? Because that's the speed of the bullet that'll be chasing you."

"You don't know how fast you were going? I guess that means I can write anything I want to on the ticket."

"Yes, sir, you can talk to the shift supervisor, but I don't think it will help. Oh, did I mention that I'm the shift supervisor?"

"Warning! You want a warning? O.K, I'm warning you not to do that again or I'll give you another ticket."

"The answer to this last question will determine whether you are drunk or not. Was Mickey Mouse a cat or a dog?"

"Fair? You want me to be fair? Listen, fair is a place where you go to ride on rides, eat cotton candy and corn dogs and step in monkey poop."

"Yeah, we have a quota. Two more tickets and my wife gets a toaster oven."

"In God we trust; all others we run through NCIC."  (NCIC is the National Crime Information Center)

"Just how big were those 'two beers' you say you had?"

"No sir, we don't have quotas anymore. We used to, but now we're allowed to write as many tickets as we can."

"I'm glad to hear that the Chief is a personal friend of yours. So you know someone who can post your bail."

"You didn't think we gave pretty women tickets? You're right, we don't. Sign here."

Programming sucks...

Programming sucks...  I suspect every software developer has trouble explaining to non-developers how challenging it can be to write programs.  The intangible nature of software hides its size and complexity to anyone who isn't themselves a programmer, unlike just about any other trade you can imagine.  A carpenter, for instance, can point to a cabinet he just built – and anybody can see the heft and quality of his job.  Not so with a programmer.

This article attempts to cure that problem, and I think it does a pretty good job.  I'd love to hear whether my non-programmer readers think so, too.

There are quite a few passages in the article that I quite enjoyed.  Here's just one:
Every programmer occasionally, when nobody's home, turns off the lights, pours a glass of scotch, puts on some light German electronica, and opens up a file on their computer. It's a different file for every programmer. Sometimes they wrote it, sometimes they found it and knew they had to save it. They read over the lines, and weep at their beauty, then the tears turn bitter as they remember the rest of the files and the inevitable collapse of all that is good and true in the world.

This file is Good Code. It has sensible and consistent names for functions and variables. It's concise. It doesn't do anything obviously stupid. It has never had to live in the wild, or answer to a sales team. It does exactly one, mundane, specific thing, and it does it well. It was written by a single person, and never touched by another. It reads like poetry written by someone over thirty.

Every programmer starts out writing some perfect little snowflake like this. Then they're told on Friday they need to have six hundred snowflakes written by Tuesday, so they cheat a bit here and there and maybe copy a few snowflakes and try to stick them together or they have to ask a coworker to work on one who melts it and then all the programmers' snowflakes get dumped together in some inscrutable shape and somebody leans a Picasso on it because nobody wants to see the cat urine soaking into all your broken snowflakes melting in the light of day. Next week, everybody shovels more snow on it to keep the Picasso from falling over.
Yes.  Exactly right! Well, except for the Scotch bit...

Tolls on the Interstate highways?

Tolls on the Interstate highways?  The long-standing prohibition has been removed by the Obama administration.  The linked article talks mostly about the fact that the gas tax (a fixed rate per gallon) hasn't been raised for over 20 years, and more gas-efficient vehicles use less gas and therefore contribute less gas tax.  That's all true, but leaves out another factor which is even larger in financial terms: the federal highway trust fund has been increasingly used for “green” that have nothing to do with highways, including projects like trains and metropolitan bus systems.  When the highway trust fund was initially established, it was envisioned as a way to maintain and extend the Interstate U.S. highway system, period.  It has since been “raided” for all sorts of stupid (but politically attractive) ideas.

I'd like to see the trust fund restored to its original purpose, and the gas tax switched to a tax based on mileage times weight.  I can see people throwing things at me already, as my notion would kill a few sacred cows.  However, the current tax system has two enormous distortions in it.  The biggest is that trucking is vastly under-taxed – trucks do the majority of wear-and-tear damage to our highways (because of their weight), but they don't pay a proportional share of the highway tax.  Second, the fuel-based tax effectively subsidizes alternative fueled cars, especially all-electric cars.

There's a refinement to my weight formula that's worth considering, too: using the load per square inch, rather than the total weight of the vehicle.  Such a refinement would encourage trucking companies to use vehicles with more tires (and lower air pressures in those tires), which cause much less wear and tear on the roadways.

But of course none of this will actually happen.  The politicians will keep raiding the trust fund, because it gets them votes.  The taxes will continue to be levied in an irrational way, because it costs less votes (and gathers more campaign contributions from special interest lobbyists).  And I'll continue to wonder whether Winston Churchill was actually correct when he said:
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Putin threatens astronauts...

Putin threatens astronauts...  Well, that's the headline on Drudge.  Reading the article, I get a slightly different impression: we're imposing sanctions on Russia, and Putin is letting us know that there are consequences to those sanctions to us.  That's something that is obvious to anyone who hasn't been hiding under a rock since about 1991 – ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian economy has been more and more tightly integrated with that of the rest of the world.

The rationale behind “smart diplomacy” is, fundamentally, that we have more tools than just military might to change the behavior of other countries.  Exercising military force has a heavy price in blood and treasure.  Exercising “smart diplomacy” has a heavy price in economic terms, usually very unevenly distributed.  That's the case here.  For example, western Europe has been buying cheap natural gas and oil from Russia for over 20 years.  Cut that source off (because of sanctions), and the price of energy in Europe will spike – and because energy markets are global, we'll feel it here as well.  However, if the sanctions are well-chosen the impact on Russia will be far larger, proportionally.

So who would expect Putin to just accept this?  The “smart diplomacy” rulebook says that Putin would see what the sanctions are going to do to him, and he would back down.  Putin's actual reaction is to strike back, by hitting back at us anywhere he can that would hurt, short of overt military action.  One place he can do that is with our manned space program, which is currently utterly dependent on Russian rockets and the capsules that return astronauts to earth.  I find his threat here to be completely predictable.  I think the right answer is simple: cancel the manned space program.  Abandon the ISS.  That will save the U.S. taxpayer a boatload of totally wasted money, while simultaneously cutting off a source of revenue that Putin is using to prop up an otherwise failed space program...

Some branches of science have challenges...

Some branches of science have challenges ... with valid, replicable studies.  It's a long, but fascinating piece...

Color me unsurprised...

Color me unsurprised...  How the U.S. Post Office killed digital mail – an object lesson in how a government bureaucracy can crush an innovative entrepreneur.

One quote from U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe in this story really caught my eye:
“You disrupt my service and we will never work with you.  You mentioned making the service better for our customers; but the American citizens aren’t our customers—about 400 junk mailers are our customers.  Your service hurts our ability to serve those customers.”
That's enough reason right there to privatize the U.S. Post Office.  A private vendor would very quickly figure out who the real customer is, once that bulk mail subsidy disappeared.

And it occurs to me that one of those “junk mailers” would be the U.S. Congress with their franking privilege (free mail).  I see red every time I get one of those in my mail ... my tax dollars paying to help a bozo incumbent  stay in office...

You've probably never asked yourself...

You've probably never asked yourself ... where the world's longest conveyor belt was.  Recently I read another interesting factoid about conveyor belts (I can't locate the source right now): that around 90% of all the material used by mankind rides on a conveyor belt at some point during its manufacture...

World's deadliest killer...

World's deadliest killer...  It's not our fellow man (though he runs a close second): it's the mosquito.

There was a time, in my youth, when mankind was on the verge of winning the war against mosquitoes.  Then Rachel Carson's exaggerated (and sometimes outright false) accusations about DDT led to political action to ban DDT, and that ban indirectly killed more people than all the wars in the 20th century combined.  The effects of that ban are still killing hundreds of thousands of people every year...

Pro tip:

Pro tip: don't mess with Jerry Mitchell...

Oh, my...

Oh, my...  This raises all sorts of emotions and reactions in me...

While it's not especially surprising that the average American citizen doesn't know much about his or her own country, it's still disappointing and depressing to watch.  Even more depressing when you consider that these are the people who elect our federal government (which goes a long way toward explaining how we got the knuckle-headed bunch of evil clowns we have).

Is education the cure?  I think not, as I strongly suspect the real issue isn't a lack of opportunity to learn, but rather a lack of interest.  Does that make them “bad citizens?”  Not necessarily – but maybe it makes them citizens who shouldn't have a say in how this country is run.  I know some will think this heretical, but ... the more I watch my fellow citizens, the less appealing “one man, one vote” seems...

Excellent!

Excellent!  I was really disappointed when Mia Love lost in 2012 – but now it looks like she's clinched the Republican nomination, and therefore likely the 2016 election for Utah's (conservative) 4th District.  She impressed me with her no-nonsense views, excellent communications skills, and a brain that's still working well (a few years in Washington might change that, dang it).  The 4th District is an odd-shaped district just south of the Great Salt Lake – not far from our new home in the 1st District.  Conservatives are making a big deal of the fact that she's a woman, and black – but I wish they'd make a big deal of her competence and small-government stance...

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The social sciences...

The social sciences...  There's good reason to be suspicious of its results...

I am very happy to escape California...

I am very happy to escape California ... but I will miss these:


Geek: integer overflow checking...

Geek: integer overflow checking...  This morning I ran across this short article that describes how to implement integer overflow checking in languages that don't expose the underlying hardware's overflow flag.  Java is such a programming language, and CERT has a fine implementation of routines that provide the check.

I've long been surprised that Java doesn't include such checks, at the very least as options.  In general Java tries very hard to be “safe” (for example, with array bounds checking and stack overflow checking) – but not on something as common and pernicious as integer overflow.  It's a mystery to me.

Probably because of my “upbringing” on computer hardware and assembly language programming, I've always been very conscious of the possibility of integer overflow in my own code.  Despite that, I've been burned by it several times, most especially with numeric comparisons (which I've blogged about before).

Just a few weeks ago, a colleague from a job I had almost 15 years ago contacted me out of the blue.  This fellow happens to be Russian, and worked with me on Java code back then.  He asked me if I'd ever heard of “integer underflow”, and if I could explain it to him.  I could, of course, and I did.  But once again I was shocked to discover that a well-educated, experienced, and superbly competent software engineer didn't know about something so basic.  I engaged him in an email conversation about it, and I think I know now how such a thing happened: his education in computer science assumed the presence of a high-level programming language, and he only learned how computers actually work in broad, abstract brush strokes.  Once again, what surprises me the most about this is just how productive a software engineer can be with such a (to me) gaping hole in his knowledge...

Synaesthesia beneficial?

Synaesthesia beneficial?  Ever since I first heard about this condition, some 40 years ago, it's fascinated me.  I've met just one person who had it; when he heard certain sounds (especially pure notes), the colors he perceived changed.  I'd love to experience it myself, though I'm not at all sure I'd want it permanently :)

Oh, noz!

Oh, noz!  No more fireplaces?  Them's fightin' words!

“Man posters”

“Man posters”  Via my card-carrying ancient-American mom.  I couldn't possibly pick a favorite out of these :)


Monday, April 28, 2014

Eight inch floppies still in use...

Eight inch floppies still in use ... in our ICBM silos.  They're older than the young men and women stationed there.  Does anyone still make those things?  All I could find were a few on sale, as rare antiques :)

California leads the way ...

California leads the way ... in attracting businesses to other states!  Some big employers are picking up and moving out, often to Texas.  What big businesses?  Well, how about Toyota America

Vintage stewardesses...

Vintage stewardesses...  Back in prehistoric times, before the oh-so-politically-correct term “flight attendants” entered our lexicon, there were “stewardesses”.  Generally they were attractive young women.  Oh, how sexist!  But rather nice, actually :)

Americans who haven't traveled outside this country might not realize that in much of the world, such stewardesses are still the norm.  That's especially true in eastern Europe and Asia...

Binary fractions bit Donald Knuth!

Binary fractions bit Donald Knuth!  At infrequent intervals, Donald Knuth publishes notes on TeX updates.  Even though I haven't used TeX for years, I always read these because, well, Knuth.  This one has a passage that tickled my fancy, as it's about one of my own pet peeves: the use of binary fractions (including binary floating point numbers).  It seems that Donald Knuth, one of the pantheon of computer science gods, was bitten by them, too:
I made the foolish mistake of using binary fractions internally, while providing approximate decimal equivalents in the user interface. I should have defined a scaled point to be 1/100000 of a printer's point, thereby making internal and external representations coincide. This anomaly, which is discussed further in [5], is the only real regret that I have today about TeX's original design.
The gods are fallible, too :)

Companies I worked for have been burned by this issue a surprising number of times.  The most memorable case I ran into was a company that implemented an electronic stock and option trading platform that used binary floating point math to hold monetary values.  Big, big problems resulted.  To fix it, I had to do battle with a dozen or so senior engineers – very experienced and generally competent folks – who had a great deal of trouble accepting the simple fact that binary floating point numbers are incapable of exactly representing a great many decimal fractions...

History of computers in space...

History of computers in space ... NASA's pages.  Lots of good stuff for technology history geeks here...

Nutrition “science”...

Nutrition “science” ... is modern, politically-correct snake oil.  The more it is seriously examined, the less valid it gets...

The IPCC report is worthless...

The IPCC report is worthless...  That's not really news, if you've been listening.  The latest revelation just adds to the pile of evidence...

The future of orthopedic casts?

The future of orthopedic casts?  3D printing and 3D scanning are going to change a lot of things...

“Sometimes, it makes my blood boil...”

“Sometimes, it makes my blood boil...”  I'll say!  It's hard to believe this lawsuit could succeed, even in Canada.  I sure hope it doesn't...

The first practical RAM...

The first practical RAM... This is a short interview with one of the MIT engineers who helped develop magnetic core memories.  These were the first practical RAM devices, reasonably fast and reliable, unlike everything that came before them.

The first computers I ever worked with (Univac CP-642A) used exactly this kind of magnetic core bit plane memory – 30 planes, each with 32,768 bits.  They occupied about one cubic yard of the computer, packed with not only the bit planes themselves, but lots of both analog and digital circuitry.  They required constant adjustment (read and write current levels, pulse length and timing, and sense line gain), a tedious and involved procedure that was part art and part science.  In the U.S. Navy school that taught me how computers worked, and how to repair them, I also learned about older technologies: storage tubes and mercury delay line memories.  Weird stuff, by today's standards – but exotic and bleeding edge stuff back then...

Along the same lines, this video talks about “rope memory” the first practical ROM.  The first computers I worked on had something even more primitive: plugboard ROM, where the bits were programmed by placing pins in a “plugboard”.  Those computers had 32 words of 30-bit ROM, and somehow we got a bootstrap loader in that tiny bit of space!  Later I worked on computers that had capacitive ROMs, where the bits were programmed by the presence or absence of small circular areas on printed circuit boards.  Those ROMs had 64 words of 30-bit ROM – double the size.  Woo hoo!

The first microcomputer I built used a 1702 UV-erasable EPROM, with 256 bytes of ROM – more than the biggest mainframe ROM I'd worked on.  Those chips, as I recall, cost about $50 then – which seemed dirt cheap to me.  My first digital design project was a programmer for those 1702 EPROMs, so that I could enter two hexadecimal digits for each byte on a keypad and automatically program it.  Before I built this programmer, the only way I could “burn” code into a 1702 was to mail it off to a friend in San Diego who had a programmer, along with a hand-typed listing of the code I wanted.  When my ship was floating around in the Indian Ocean, the round trip could take several months!  I had a big incentive to build that programmer :)

Another gray-haired programmer ...

Another gray-haired programmer ... describing what his early days as a programmer were like.  Most programmers my age seem to have similar experiences. 

My own programming beginnings were much different, primarily because I had no access to programming tools (compilers, assemblers, linkers, debuggers, etc.).  In the early '70s I began programming on Univac “mainframe” computers owned by the U.S. Navy.  These were in a lab used for training repair technicians.  The only way (initially) to load a program was by using the switches and lights on the front panel to load the program's machine code, one 30-bit word at a time.  I wrote that code on lined paper, assembly mnemonics on the left, octal machine code (hand-assembled!) on the right.  When I modified code, to avoid re-assembling all that by hand, I'd put a jump instruction at the first modified line of code, to jump to a patch that implemented the change, and then jumped back.  After a few rounds of debugging, my code could be quite a mess :)

Later, out of sheer desperation, I developed my own software engineering tools.  At the time, I had no idea that better tools existed elsewhere; I was just trying to save myself from the tedium of manual machine code entry.  I developed tools that were the rough equivalents of monitors, loaders, assemblers, debuggers, and linkers, though I didn't know them by those names.

I went through the same sequence when I first started programming microcomputers, in 1975 – though by then I knew of the existence of commercial tools.  However, those tools generally ran on minicomputers (like the PDP-11) that I had no access to and couldn't possibly afford to buy.  Even the software tools were out of reach financially.  So once again I wrote my own tools, for several microcomputers (especially the Motorola 6800, RCA 1802, Intel 8080, and Zilog Z80). 

Today very few people would consider writing their own software development tools.  For one thing, excellent tools are readily available on the Internet for free, thus removing all the things that might force one into writing one's own tools.  It's also true, though, that the tools have become far more complex as the CPUs have become more and more powerful.  In 1975, one could write a functional assembler in a few hundred lines of code over a week or two.  A really nice compiler might be three or four times that effort.  A nice assembler for today's Intel chips would probably take several years of work.

I've often noted that having had the experience of writing my own tools gives me a much different perspective on programming than many younger programmers have.  Mostly this manifests in having a reasonably good understanding of how those tools work, whereas for many perfectly competent programmers, the mechanism by which their (say) Java source code actually gets executed is a complete mystery – and one which seldom needs to be explored...

A British foreshadowing...

A British foreshadowing...  Many American liberal academics (“liberal” is almost redundant in that phrase) point to Britain's less-than-absolute free speech as a model for the United States.  They'd like to enshrine a new right: the right to not be offended.  That British way has led to an absurdity that I find appalling, though I'm sure many on the left would beg to differ.

In Winchester, England, a British political candidate stood up to speak.  He quoted the great British leader Winston Churchill – and was arrested.  Really.

That's where we're headed.  Elements of this kind of speech nannyism are already in place on American college campuses, where such a speech would be similarly banned.  One more progressive on the Supreme Court and such arrests are likely to become possible here...

Cliven Bundy...

Cliven Bundy...  I haven't said anything about this incident because I was completely uncertain what the heck was going on.  Some time has gone by now, and it looks to me like most of the salient facts are public.  They are:
  • Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher, ran his cattle on BLM land
  • BLM charges a fee for this privilege, which Bundy didn't pay for 10 years
  • Bundy refuses to recognize federal ownership of that BLM land
  • Bundy claims “ancestral rights” to graze on that land, a privilege non-existent under long-standing U.S. law
  • Bundy made (and continues to make) overtly racist comments in a public setting, instantly causing his (mostly libertarian or conservative) supporters to backpedal like mad
  • the Desert Tortoise, listed as endangered, is native on that land
  • Harry Reid and his relatives have no personal interest in the land Bundy was using, breathless Internet reports and Harry Reid's unsavoriness notwithstanding
  • the BLM decided to take action to evict Bundy from its land; the reasons for its timing are unclear
  • the BLM used massive, near-military force to seize Bundy's cattle
  • the BLM unilaterally suspended ordinary civil rights (such as the freedom of speech) in the process of its eviction
I think the main problem with all this is the last two bullet points and the simple fact that the federal government owns so much land in the west.  The former is simply inexcusable, and the latter is already under pressure through normal legislative and political means.  Dave Carter, writing at Ricochet, says it much better than I can...

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Centimeter resolution GPS?

Centimeter resolution GPS?  Japan is deploying it.  Where's mine?!?

Economists v. Ecologists...

Economists v. Ecologists...  Interesting article by Matt Ridley, who is a generally interesting writer...

Can kittens cure constipation?

Can kittens cure constipation?  Uh, no.  But that sure would be the most pleasant medical procedure I ever heard of!

BTW, if you haven't read Mary Roach's books, you're missing a treat...

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Geek: a video on compression and Kolmogorov complexity...

Geek: a video on compression and Kolmogorov complexity...  It's sort of a video abstract of a paper.  These guys had more fun than I'd have expected in such an effort :)

Why are ferns still alive?

Why are ferns still alive?  It's an interesting story, involving botany, detective work, an unlikely accident, and DNA analysis...

Holy rotating air foils!

Holy rotating air foils!  I had no idea these things were possible in a helicopter.  My mind boggles at the stresses on those rotor blades.  You'll definitely want full screen for this one...

The wisdom of centenarians...

The wisdom of centenarians...  It may not be what you expect :)

The elephant in the room...

The elephant in the room ... for manned space travel outside the Earth system (such as a trip to Mars) is the effects of cosmic rays on humans: basically the same as any other high doses of energetic ionizing radiation.  Think cancer and ugly deaths. 

The van Allen belts around the Earth protect our astronauts in Earth orbit, and the trip to the moon is so short that total exposures are small enough to not be life-threatening.  None of this is true on long and distant voyages, and nobody knows how to fix that.  This is a good backgrounder on the topic, which seems to be studiously ignored in all of NASA's breathless pressers. 

Personally, I think all manned space exploration should be stopped until and if a solution for this problem is found.  The presence of this problem is enough of a reason all by itself to have NASA (and any other government-funded space program) to focus exclusively on robotic exploration.

Not that either common sense or my opinion counts for anything, of course.  I'm just whistling in the wind here...

I miss my dogs...

I miss my dogs...  But not as much as these dogs missed their soldiers...

Friday, April 25, 2014

The scoop on poop...

The scoop on poop...  I learned a few things in this article

The Army reference, though, was totally familiar: the Navy used the same three S's – along with a slew of more nautically-oriented “sayings” that were quite a bit, er, saltier...

The story of gold's origin...

The story of gold's origin...  Also other heavy elements.  You may already know, but if not – this is quite nicely presented...

Bad news: habitable planets being discovered...

Bad news: habitable planets being discovered...  Huh?  Why is that bad news?  The answer involves the Great Filter, the Fermi Paradox, and the total failure (to date) of the search for ET...

Jimi Hendrix they ain't...

Jimi Hendrix they ain't...  But they're better than you might expect.  We're talking about the world's first flying robot rock band, of course!

Random is much harder than people think it is...

Random is much harder than people think it is...  Good article on the topic...

A bulletproof sandwich shop...

A bulletproof sandwich shop ... and it's not in Syria, Iraq, or Yemen, it's in America.  The one in the photo is in Chicago, but San Diego has had several of these for years.  I still remember being shocked – and worried – the first time I walked into one of these...

I'm with the 53%!

I'm with the 53%!  Why is it only 53%, anyway?  Isn't it completely obvious to everyone that both parties are broken?

Busy day again today...

Busy day again today ... and I'll be on the road much of the day.  I'm meeting with our flooring guy to settle on wood and tile, with the guy making our new bathroom cabinets to settle on the wood and style, and with the place that will be milling the granite for the new bathroom cabinets to pick the granite.  Somehow all of this managed to converge on the same day!  And as if that wasn't enough chaos for me for one day, this morning at 8 am a concrete contractor will be here to talk about repairing the patio and rebuilding our spring development.  The water for our home comes from a spring that's been turned into a fully developed water source, but it's been neglected for many years and is badly in need of repair.

So you won't hear much from me during the day today :)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Bonnie Scotland...

Bonnie Scotland...  From a collection of photos passed along by my card-carrying ancient-American mom...

Only in America...

Only in America...  Reader Jim M. sent this along:
Only in America ... could the rich people - who pay 86% of all income taxes - be accused of not paying their "fair share" by people who don't pay any income taxes at all.

Great gobs of groaners...

Great gobs of groaners...  Don't blame me!  Reader and friend Simon M. passed them along...
I tried to catch some fog. I mist.

When chemists die, they barium.

Jokes about German sausage are the wurst.

A soldier who survived pepper spray and mustard gas is now a seasoned veteran.

I know a guy who's addicted to brake fluid. He says he can stop any time.

How does Moses make his tea? Hebrews it.

I stayed up all night to see where the sun went. Then it dawned on me.

The girl said she recognized me from the vegetarian club, but I'd never met herbivore.

I'm reading a book about anti-gravity. I can't put it down.

I did a theatrical performance about puns. It was a play on words.

They told me I had Type A blood, but it was a Type O.

I dyslexic man walks into a bra...

PMS jokes aren't funny. Period.

Why were the Indians here first? They had reservations.

Class trip to the Coca-Cola factory. I hope there's no pop quiz.

Energizer bunny arrested: charged with battery.

I didn't like my beard. Then it grew on me.

How do you make holy water? You boil the hell out of it.

What do you call a dinosaur with an extensive vocabulary? A thesaurus.

When you get a bladder infection, urine trouble.

What does a clock do when it's hungry? It goes back four seconds.

I wondered why the baseball was getting bigger. Then it hit me!

Broken pencils are pointless.

Adventures with ObamaCare...

Adventures with ObamaCare...  So yesterday I sat down with a local (to Utah) health insurance agent (Sam), and went over my options.  Our timing on this is driven by both our move to Utah and the fact that my COBRA coverage (on my former employer's plan) is expiring in July.  Sam went over several available plans, all of which were both considerably less expensive and better (lower deductibles and caps) than anything I found in California.  He then advised me to create an account on the federal ObamaCare site (healthcare.gov), as that would be the simplest way for me to see all the plans available to me.

We went through the initial signup together.  It was fairly straightforward: we entered my email address, a password, and provided the answers to three security questions.  One of those questions asked for a date that was significant to me.  We chose a date and entered it as "mm/dd" (with a numeric month and day supplied instead of the letters).  Then the site told us that I'd be getting an email to validate my email address within 24 hours.  Sam told me what would happen after that, we shook hands and I left.

Later that day, I did get the validation email.  It had a link to click on to validate my email address.  I clicked, and instantly got a screen telling me that the server could not be contacted, and to try again later.  This morning I tried it again, and this time it worked.  Progress!

Then the site led me through a process to verify my identity.  This all worked fine until we got to the part where it asked me three security questions.  When I typed in the answer to the "significant date" question, an error immediately popped up telling me that my entry was invalid.  WTF?  I played around a bit with different values, and quickly found out that the "/" was causing that error.

So...

The ObamaCare site let me enter the answer initially as "mm/dd", but then when it was asking me the question again to verify my identity, it wouldn't allow the "/".  That means it is impossible for me to enter an answer that matches what I initially entered – and that means I always fail the identity verification.  And, naturally, that means I can't do anything else with my health insurance.

I've turned that problem over to Sam for resolution.  I hope he's got some trick up his sleeve, because I'm not seeing any way out of this Catch-22 situation.

My out-of-box experience with ObamaCare is bad.  I have fears that this won't end well...

So Obama flew over an Oklahoma Indian Reservation in a small private plane...

So Obama flew over an Oklahoma Indian Reservation in a small private plane...  Click to embiggen.  Via my card-carrying ancient-American mom...

Dalles Mountain Road...

Dalles Mountain Road ... is beautiful this year.  Via BPODMap...

The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project...

The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project ... isn't going to stop with Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery!

Germany discovers a sense of humor...

Germany discovers a sense of humor ... and loses faith in green energy.  Delingpole...

Obviously, there are more crazy people in the world than I had thought...

Obviously, there are more crazy people in the world than I had thought...

What are you going to do about it?


What are you going to do about it?  If a leopard steals your video camera, you're just going to have to hope the leopard tires of playing with your toy...

If you're struggling...

If you're struggling ... with what to get for my birthday or Christmas present, you wouldn't go wrong with one of these.  Turn your volume down before you watch it, unless you enjoy mind-numbingly bad sound tracks...

A collection of striking chemical reactions...

A collection of striking chemical reactions ... like the fantastic four color oscillating chemical reaction in the video at right...

Cool visualization of π...

Cool visualization of π... 

Trust me...

Trust me...  Watch this to the end – you'll like it!

The Obama administration leads the way...

The Obama administration leads the way ... to voodoo economics and the usual leftist dismissal of the idea that people will react to incentives.

Some day I will once again be proud of my government – but today is not that day.  And I fear that by the time that fine day arrives, the socialist wealth-redistributors will have redistributed my retirement savings to pay for their idiotic, ineffective, and expensive socialist schemes...

Cats are beautiful animals...

Cats are beautiful animals ... but they care about pleasing us (their owners) about as much as Obama cares about pleasing me – and that is very little!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Wow!


Wow!  Robots sure have come a long way.  I was particularly impressed with the segment wherein Asimo fills a paper cup...

Cholesterol killer?

Cholesterol killer?  This sounds very hopeful...

California leads the way...

California leads the way ... in egregious financial shenanigans and unabashedly stupid spending by a state government overloaded with debt.  No surprise there; it's par for the course for the Democratic super-majority.  Such a waste of a beautiful and bountiful state!  This sort of socialist, central government thinking is a big part of why we're leaving California for the notably more sanely governed Utah...

Slow blogging alert...

Slow blogging alert...  I have a very busy day today, so I may not be able to do much blogging.  At right is a photo taken out our second-floor office window early this morning.  It snowed last night, but it's supposed to get to 70° today, so this should all melt off quickly...

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Remodeling update...

Remodeling update...  The “tapers” are hard at work, finishing up the wallboard job.  I was amused to see that they use stilts to work on the ceiling!  As usual, click on the thumbnail to embiggen it.

The plumber is also here, working in our basement to rough in the water feed and sewer connection for a new sink.

Progress!

Reason for time's arrow discovered?

Reason for time's arrow discovered?  One of the strangest unknowns in physics (and cosmology) has been the reason why time always progresses “forward”.  It seems obvious and self-evident to our senses, but it's not at all obvious and self-evident from the mathematics that underlies our understanding of physics.  Now scientists have some evidence that quantum entanglement is the cause of the one-way nature of time.  If so, it would make time's arrow the most obvious macro-scale manifestation of quantum physics...

Common sense on climate change...

Common sense on climate change...  Steve McIntyre and Bjørn Lomborg are my two favorite writers on the subject of climate change.  The latter has a new article up that provides a sober and high-level view of the climate change debate.  Lomborg is interesting in that he doesn't really dispute most of the climate science – instead, he disputes the idea of spending huge amounts of money trying to mitigate something that's not obviously bad in the first place. 

These things worry me...

These things worry me...  The world is full of people (and the countries they govern) who are perfectly willing to use military power to expand their sphere of control and influence.  For decades now, the United States has been the only power willing to stand up to such tyrannical behavior.  Our willingness hasn't been consistent or constant, but it's been there often enough to keep anything really awful from happening.  I'm not so sure these days, unfortunately.  China and Russia are too damned eager to just how far they can push a United States led by That One...

Venture capitalists are all over marijuana opportunities ...

Venture capitalists are all over marijuana opportunities ... though generally with a wink and a nudge.  A couple of years ago, long before Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana, a VC I had a casual conversation with mentioned several investments he'd made in the sector – he didn't think legalization was coming, and didn't think it mattered to the business plans of the companies he was investing in.

Debbie and I will be in Colorado for our vacation this year.  It will be interesting to see what differences we'll see from our previous visits...

What could possibly go wrong?

What could possibly go wrong?  The FDA has approved Palcohol: powdered alcohol.  Just mix with water and you've got an instant alcoholic drink.  Or add it to food for that unexpected kick...

Book: When I Fell From the Sky...

Book: When I Fell From the Sky...  By Juliane (Koepcke) Diller.  This is the book I mentioned a week or so ago, about the young girl who survived falling 10,000 feet out of an airplane into the Peruvian jungle.  I just finished it last night.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It turns out to be much more than the story of her fall and subsequent survival in the jungle – it's also a story of overcoming the misadventure, of a passion for science, and of the successful establishment of a nature preserve just a few miles from where she fell in 1971.  Highly recommended for anyone interested in science and inspiring human experience...

Monday, April 21, 2014

Spring in Logan, Utah...

Spring in Logan, Utah...  I parked in front of the tabernacle in downtown Logan, this morning, on my way to get a haircut.  This was the view (click to embiggen) as I leaned on the passenger side of my pickup...

Excellent...

Excellent...  Explaining how the world worked was not one of my dad's major skills :)  Sometimes he would explain it well (and correctly), sometimes he would get it wrong (occasionally spectacularly so), and often he'd make up a hilarious “explanation” that even as kids we knew wasn't right. 

For instance, when I asked him once why clouds were different shades of white or gray, he told me that it depended on what kind of birds were pooping on the cloud.  Pristine clouds were pure white, he said.  The really nasty gray clouds were the victims of mass Canadian geese poop attacks.  I was probably 7 or 8 at the time, and even then I wasn't buying it.  But we got a good laugh from it.

Goat, sneeze, terrified girl...

Goat, sneeze, terrified girl...  Awesome.

Smithsonian's photo contest finalists...

Smithsonian's photo contest finalists...  Here's one example (my mom will like this one!).  You can find all of them here...

Baltic Sea time bomb...

Baltic Sea time bomb...  I don't know how close this is to my Estonian friends, but it sure doesn't sound good...

Geek: one-bit computers...

Geek: one-bit computers...  This was a new one to me, and I'm a little surprised by this because I used to do a lot of work in the controls area.  I found the ideas fascinating.  Follow the links in the article I linked above for more information.  I just might have to build me one of these!

A Finnish back yard...

A Finnish back yard...  My father and I hiked through a forest that looked very much like this, but in a vastly different place: Hawaii.  Specifically, on the Awini Trail as it transits the east side of Pololu Valley on the Big Island...

Is (climate) science actually settled?

Is (climate) science actually settled?  No! says Dr. Craig Idso, in a guest post on Watts Up With That?

Not so rare after all...

Not so rare after all...  Asteroid impacts, that is.  If these articles are accurate, the Earth is being smacked upside the head by a couple of asteroids every year.  That's not quite as scary as it sounds, though.  Remember, roughly 3/4 of the earth is covered by ocean, and about 1/40 of that 1/4 that is land is covered by cities – so each asteroid has only about one chance in 160 of actually hitting a city.  That means we should expect an asteroid to smack down a city about once every 80 years.  If an asteroid landing outside a city hurt or killed anyone, well, they were just having a very unlucky day.

There are days when the idea of an asteroid taking out Washington, D.C. is an attractive one.

Most days, actually.

Maybe every day.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Every home has its quirks...

Every home has its quirks ... and Friday I found the first big one in our new home, up here in Paradise, Utah.  It's a doozy :)

I did some electrical wiring work in our TV room because of the new piece of ceiling that now covers the previously-exposed heating duct.  All of this work was simple, straightforward wiring – Romex, wire nuts, and junction boxes, nothing fancy.  The biggest part of this work was to wire up four new recessed lighting fixtures, and that all worked on the first try.  I also wired up a new utility box for our (wired) fire alarm in that room.  When I finished wiring it, I re-installed the alarm to test it before I buttoned up the work.

The test failed – there was no “juice” to the alarm.  I figured that I must have somehow blown a circuit breaker while doing the wiring, so down to the electrical panel I went.  No joy – none of the breakers had blown, nor were any of them off.  Now I noticed that all the fire alarms were without power.  Yikes!

My next thought was that maybe they were powered from the relatively new sub-panel in the basement.  Down the two flights of stairs I went, and searched the sub-panel.  No joy, again.

Then I remember that I had done some really minor work in another basement room (the big room that we're going to use as an indoor cattery), removing a bunch of duplex outlets that were poorly installed, and that we'd never use.  Maybe I accidentally disconnected the fire alarm circuit!  Down into the basement I went again, and checked that circuit.  No joy, again – it was reconnected correctly and had juice.  I noticed, however, that the lights in that room, and on the basement stairway, were no longer working.

What the heck was going on?

I climbed back up to the second floor, where Lane and Pasquale were working hard, and decided to just sit and think for a few minutes.  It acted exactly as if a breaker was blown, or a circuit disconnected – but I couldn't find any place where that had happened!  Lane came over to commiserate, and offered to talk it over with me in the hopes of coming up with an idea.  In the course of doing that, he asked if it was possible that a GFI (ground fault interrupter) device had tripped somewhere.  I couldn't imagine that anyone would be crazy enough to put fire alarms and lighting on the same GFI circuit, but Lane said he'd seen much worse than that.  Then both of us remembered, at the same moment, seeing a GFI outlet in an unlikely place – near the floor in the big room that we're going to use as a cattery.  We went down there, and sure enough that GFI was tripped.  I pushed the little red button ... and the lights came back on in that room.  Next room over, the fire alarm's green LED was glowing brightly.  We ran back upstairs, and – all the alarms were now happily glowing green again.  Even the one I had just wired was working correctly.

So someone, sometime, had wired two duplex outlets, the track lights in the cattery room, the basement stair lights, and all 10 fire alarms in the house onto the same circuit – all “protected” by a single small GFI device.  Oh, my.  That's another thing on my long list of things that need to get fixed :)

More remodeling progress...

More remodeling progress...  Left-to-right below: a crazy little nook in our entrance hall, now enclosed to make a linen closet on the other side; our TV room's 2" floor height difference fixed with a pony wall and ramp, and exposed HVAC duct-work covered over; the one unfinished room in the house (a small storage room) now finished.

The only thing left to do on these items is to “tape” the wallboard and apply orange-peel finish, and to paint.  The “taper” (a fellow named Nemo :) visited yesterday to estimate the job; he'll do it this coming Tuesday.  The painting will be done along with the rest of the house in the last step of our remodel...

Progress – it's a good thing...

Former nook, now closet
TV room completion
Last unfinished room

Blooming in Paradise...

Blooming in Paradise...  I found this lone flower in front of our new home in Paradise, Utah.  Click the thumbnail to embiggen.  I have no idea what it is, but I see many more that will be blooming in the next week or so – they're planted all around the house.  It has no bouquet that I can detect.  If you know what it is, please leave me a comment...

Cat and ducklings...

Cat and ducklings...  A sweet story, via my lovely wife.

Awesome!

Awesome!  Lightning and ash over the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull as it erupted in 2010.  Click to embiggen.  Via APOD, of course...

Digital imaging (photo geek)...

Digital imaging (photo geek) ... more than you ever wanted to know about noise, dynamic range, and bit depth.  The article's headline implies that the discussion is specific to DSLRs, but it actually applies to any digital imaging system.

Stock photos that don't suck...

Stock photos that don't suck...  Another great web resource.

101 useful web sites...

101 useful web sites...  This is a great list!  Over half of these are sites I'd never even heard of before...
1. http://www.screenr.com – record movies of your desktop and send them straight to YouTube.

2. http://www.ctrlq.org/screenshots – for capturing screenshots of web pages on mobile and desktops.

3. http://www.goo.gl – shorten long URLs and convert URLs into QR codes.

4. http://www.unfurlr.com – find the original URL that's hiding behind a short URL.

5. http://www.qClock.com – find the local time of a city using a Google Map.

6. http://www.copypastecharacter.com – copy special characters that aren't on your keyboard.

7. http://www.icerocket.com/ – a better search engine for Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

8. http://www.lovelycharts.com – create flowcharts, network diagrams, sitemaps, etc.

9. http://www.iconfinder.com – the best place to find icons of all sizes.

10. http://www.office.com – download templates, clipart and images for your Office documents.

11. http://www.followupthen.com – the easiest way to setup email reminders.

12. http://www.jotti.org – scan any suspicious file or email attachment for viruses.

13. http://www.wolframalpha.com – gets answers directly without searching - see more wolfram tips.

14. http://www.printwhatyoulike.com – print web pages without the clutter.

15. http://www.joliprint.com – reformats news articles and blog content as a newspaper.

16. http://www.ctrlq.org/rss – a search engine for RSS feeds.

17. http://www.e.ggtimer.com – a simple online timer for your daily needs.

18. http://www.coralcdn.org – if a site is down due to heavy traffic, try accessing it through coral CDN.

19. http://www.random.org – pick random numbers, flip coins, and more.

20. http://www.pdfescape.com – lets you can quickly edit PDFs in the browser itself.

21. http://www.viewer.zoho.com – Preview PDFs and Presentations directly in the browser.

22. http://www.tubemogul.com – simultaneously upload videos to YouTube and other video sites.

23. http://www.dabbleboard.com – your virtual whiteboard.

24. http://www.scr.im – share you email address online without worrying about spam.

25. http://www.spypig.com – now get read receipts for your email.

26. http://www.sizeasy.com – visualize and compare the size of any product.

27. http://www.myfonts.com/WhatTheFont – quickly determine the font name from an image.

28. http://www.google.com/webfonts – a good collection of open source fonts.

29. http://www.regex.info – find data hidden in your photographs[/url] – see more EXIF tools.

30. http://www.livestream.com – broadcast events live over the web, including your desktop screen.

31. http://www.iwantmyname.com – helps you search domains across all TLDs.

32. http://www.homestyler.com – design from scratch or re-model your home in 3d.

33. http://www.join.me – share you screen with anyone over the web.

34. http://www.onlineocr.net – recognize text from scanned PDFs - see other OCR tools.

35. http://www.flightstats.com - Track flight status at airports worldwide.

36. http://www.wetransfer.com – for sharing really big files online.

37. http://www.hundredzeros.com – best-sellers on all subjects that you can download for free.

38. http://www.polishmywriting.com – check your writing for spelling or grammatical errors.

39. http://www.marker.to – easily highlight the important parts of a web page for sharing.

40. http://www.typewith.me – work on the same document with multiple people.

41. http://www.whichdateworks.com – planning an event? find a date that works for all.

42. http://www.everytimezone.com – a less confusing view of the world time zones.

43. http://www.gtmetrix.com – the perfect tool for measuring your site performance online.

44. http://www.noteflight.com – print music sheets, write your own music online (review).

45. http://www.imo.im - chat with your buddies on Skype, Facebook, Google Talk, etc. from one place.

46. http://www.translate.google.com – translate web pages, PDFs and Office documents.

47. http://www.kleki.com – create paintings and sketches with a wide variety of brushes.

48. http://www.similarsites.com – discover new sites that are similar to what you like already.

49. http://www.wordle.net – quick summarize long pieces of text with tag clouds.

50. http://www.bubbl.us – create mind-maps, brainstorm ideas in the browser.

51. http://www.kuler.adobe.com – get color ideas, also extract colors from photographs.

52. http://www.liveshare.com – share your photos in an album instantly.

53. http://www.lmgtfy.com – when your friends are too lazy to use Google on their own.

54. http://www.midomi.com – when you need to find the name of a song.

55. http://www.bing.com/images – automatically find perfectly-sized wallpapers for mobiles.

56. http://www.faxzero.com – send an online fax for free.

57. http://www.feedmyinbox.com – get RSS feeds as an email newsletter.

58. http://www.ge.tt – quickly send a file to someone, they can even preview it before downloading.

59. http://www.pipebytes.com – transfer files of any size without uploading to a third-party server.

60. http://www.tinychat.com – setup a private chat room in micro-seconds.

61. http://www.privnote.com – create text notes that will self-destruct after being read.

62. http://www.boxoh.com – track the status of any shipment on Google Maps – alternative.

63. http://www.majorgeeks.com – Download the top 1% of freeware and shareware plus news, occasional reviews and computer help.

64. http://www.downforeveryoneorjustme.com – find if your favorite website is offline or not?

65. http://www.ewhois.com – find the other websites of a person with reverse Analytics lookup.

66. http://www.whoishostingthis.com – find the web host of any website.

67. http://www.google.com/history – found something on Google but can't remember it now?

68. http://www.aviary.com/myna – an online audio editor that lets record, and remix audio clips online.

69. http://www.disposablewebpage.com – create a temporary web page that self-destruct.

70. http://www.urbandictionary.com – find definitions of slangs and informal words.

71. http://www.seatguru.com – consult this site before choosing a seat for your next flight.

72. http://www.sxc.hu – download stock images absolutely free.

73. http://www.zoom.it – view very high-resolution images in your browser without scrolling.

74. http://www.scribblemaps.com – quickly create custom Google Maps online.

75. http://www.alertful.com – quickly setup email reminders for important events.

76. http://www.picmonkey.com – Picnik is offline but PicMonkey is an even better image editor.

77. http://www.formspring.me – you can ask or answer personal questions here.

78. http://www.sumopaint.com – an excellent layer-based online image editor.

79. http://www.snopes.com – find if that email offer you received is real or just another scam.

80. http://www.typingweb.com – master touch-typing with these practice sessions.

81. http://www.mailvu.com – send video emails to anyone using your web cam.

82. http://www.timerime.com – create timelines with audio, video and images.

83. http://www.stupeflix.com – make a movie out of your images, audio and video clips.

84. http://www.safeweb.norton.com – check the trust level of any website.

85. http://www.teuxdeux.com – a beautiful to-do app that looks like your paper dairy.

86. http://www.deadurl.com – you'll need this when your bookmarked web pages are deleted.

87. http://www.minutes.io – quickly capture effective notes during meetings.

88. http://www.youtube.com/leanback – Watch YouTube channels in TV mode.

89. http://www.youtube.com/disco – quickly create a video playlist of your favorite artist.

90. http://www.talltweets.com – Send tweets longer than 140 characters.

91. http://www.pancake.io – create a free and simple website using your Dropbox account.

92. http://www.builtwith.com – find the technology stack of any website.

93. http://www.woorank.com – research a website from the SEO perspective.

94. http://www.mixlr.com – broadcast live audio over the web.

95. http://www.radbox.me – bookmark online videos and watch them later (review).

96. http://www.tagmydoc.com – add QR codes to your documents and presentations (review).

97. http://www.notes.io – the easiest way to write short text notes in the browser.

98. http://www.ctrlq.org/html-mail – send rich-text mails to anyone, anonymously.

99. http://www.fiverr.com – hire people to do little things for $5.

100. http://www.otixo.com – easily manage your online files on Dropbox, Google Docs, etc.

101.http://www.ifttt.com – create a connection between all your online accounts.

Meatball police taking action...

Meatball police taking action ...  and Delingpole is not happy about it...

Honey badger escape artist...

Honey badger escape artist...

Obama's latest trick...

Obama's latest trick...  Here was Obama's dilemma: Congress overwhelmingly passed a law that called for barring an Iranian diplomat from entering the U.S. to attend his mission at the U.N.  Why?  Because this particular diplomat was one of the Iranian terrorists behind the raid on the U.S. Embassy to Iran back in 1979, and the subsequent holding of American hostages for over a year.  The problem for Obama is that he doesn't want to bar this diplomat, and Congress easily had enough votes to override his veto.

So Obama signed the bill, then immediately announced that he wouldn't enforce it.  Seriously.

I can't help but be reminded of Hugo Chavez's executive overreach on his way to overtly seizing power in Venezuela.  As the linked article also notes, the action drips with hypocrisy, as Senator Obama harshly criticized George W. Bush for doing the equivalent.

What the hell has happened to my country?

RIP, John C. Houbolt...

RIP, John C. Houbolt...  A sad item in the news this morning – John C. Houbolt, a childhood hero of mine, has died at the ripe old age of 95.  He was a NASA engineer in the early days of the agency, when the Mercury and Gemini programs were just getting underway, and when JFK committed the U.S. to putting a man on the moon and bringing him safely back to Earth.

Back in the early '60s, I was avidly following the U.S. space program.  My discovery of libraries (first in the school system, later the County library) gave me access to the closest thing in those days to the Internet.  I realize this concept will be foreign to many of my readers, but back then if you wanted up-to-date information on science and technology, you simply couldn't get it from your home.  It wasn't possible.  You had to go to a library that subscribed to the (very expensive) science and technology journals.  Fortunately for me, even the elementary school I went to had some subscriptions to such journals, including some that were written in a way that was accessible to someone quite young.

In those journals I learned about the story of the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) mode that was eventually selected for the Apollo moon landings, and of John Houbolt's passionate advocacy for it.  When NASA was deciding which mode to use, the direct ascent mode was the obvious one that most people assumed is what NASA would do.  In that mode, a gigantic rocket (called Nova) would launch directly toward the moon, land on it, take off from the moon, and head directly back to Earth.  This seemed the simplest and safest route to just about everybody – except John Houbolt.  He did the math, and realized that it would be possible for a rocket less than half the size of Nova to take astronauts to the moon and back – but only if they did this crazy thing called LOR.

LOR, which is the mode used on all the Apollo lunar missions, required many more steps and complex-sounding maneuvers.  First, a Saturn V rocket would launch the Apollo spacecraft into Earth orbit.  It included a Command Module (which had the re-entry shield), a Service Module (with a rocket engine, fuel, and other supplies), and the Lunar Module (encased in an aerodynamic shroud).  Once in orbit, the shrouds around the Lunar Module were blown away with explosives, and then the combined Command Module/Service Module would pull away, turn around, and dock with the Lunar Module.  This combined spacecraft would then blast away (using the Service Module's rocket) toward the moon.  Once at the moon, they'd use the Service Module rocket again to slow the spacecraft down for injection into lunar orbit.  At that point, two of the three astronauts would crawl into the Lunar Module, undock from the Command Module, and use the Lunar Module's rockets to land on the moon.  Meanwhile, the remaining astronaut stayed in the Command Module, orbiting the moon while his two companions explored the lunar surface.  When the lunar mission was finished, the two lunar astronauts would climb back into the Lunar Module, and the top half of it would blast off back into lunar orbit, where they would rendezvous with their ride home (the Command Module).  This was always the most frightening part of those missions for me, following closely here on Earth.  If those lunar astronauts couldn't rendezvous with the Command Module, they were doomed to an awful fate, orbiting the moon forever.  That rendezvous worked every time, though.  Once the Lunar Module had redocked with the Command Module, the lunar astronauts would crawl back into the Command Module.  Then they'd undock from the Lunar Module, and light off the Service Module's rocket to blast them back toward Earth.  Once they neared Earth, the Command Module would disconnect from the Service Module, and just the Command Module would safely re-enter Earth's atmosphere and parachute down to an ocean landing.

If you manage to make it through my description of LOR above, I'm sure you'll recognize just how complex and Rube Goldberg-like LOR sounded to all the NASA engineers other than John Houbolt.  On more than one occasion, people called him crazy and much worse.  But with sheer persistence and a stubborn refusal to be silenced, John Houbolt eventually persuaded the rest of NASA that LOR was actually the only mode that had a chance of meeting JFK's goal for a man on the moon by the end of the '60s decade.  Why?  There were two main reasons.  First, NASA's engineers realized that they couldn't possibly build the gigantic Nova rocket in time.  Second, they realized that all of the maneuvers required for LOR were actually practicable in the time provided.  The challenges there were actually easier, engineering-wise, than building Nova.

John C. Houbolt's story was inspiring to me as a young man, and most especially, as a wannabe engineer.  His careful marshaling of facts and evidence to support his proposal fascinated me.  After LOR was selected, he led the engineering team that actually developed it – and that was another fascinating story to follow.  For nearly ten years, I devoured stories about he and his team as they developed the LOR systems.  On Apollo 10, the Lunar Module first flew separately in lunar orbit, and the crew successfully did the first lunar orbit rendezvous – and I remember reading about the relief and celebration in John Houbolt's team.  LOR worked!

That moment when something you imagined, designed, and built actually functions as intended – for me, that's the essence of what it means to be an engineer.  It's the kind of achievement that I find most satisfying and fun.  John C. Houbolt was the embodiment of that for me, in my youth.  His story inspired me, and I often thought of him when people told me I couldn't do something or other (which happened rather a lot :).  Though I've never met anyone else who said the same, I'd bet there are a lot of other engineers roughly my age who would.

RIP, John C. Houbolt.  That's a helluva a story you've left behind!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Speaking of the Post Office...

Speaking of the Post Office...  I received a very official-looking letter from the Post Office (photo at right, with my address obscured), with a big banner saying “Verification Required” and “Do Not Discard.”  This immediately triggered my junk mail detector – that's exactly the sort of thing they do to get you to open the envelope.

I flipped it over, and it tells you right there that you're about to be subjected to direct mail marketing (aka “junk mail”).  Note that nothing listed on the back indicates any action is required on my part.

So I opened it up.  Inside were a number of coupons and advertising circulars, and the confirmation letter (see below) – which required no action on my part.  After pawing through all the coupons, I found exactly one coupon that we might use: 10% off at Lowe's, on up to $5,000 worth of merchandise.  The rest were all junk.

The Post Office – which my tax dollars subsidize – has become a junk mailer.

Can we just outsource the Post Office, please?  


Through a Google Glass, darkly...

Through a Google Glass, darkly...  Matt Labash on Google's wearable computer...

Success!

Success!  SpaceX's F9R just had its first test flight - and it was completely successful.  Make it full screen...

Elon Musk and his SpaceX team is making a very visible demonstration of the innovation and nimbleness of free enterprise, as compared to the government-run space programs that used to be the only way to get into space.  If I worked for NASA, I'd be aching to get a job at SpaceX – a place where they actually, like, make things happen...

You're not really surprised, are you?

You're not really surprised, are you?  The Obama administration has delayed a decision on the Keystone pipeline, again.

It really doesn't matter that most Americans want the pipeline built.  The technical arguments for and against it are also irrelevant.  Realistically Obama only has one option: to kick this can down the road by making no decision at all.  Why?  It's simple: his most generous liberal supporters are almost evenly split between being adamantly opposed to building it (that's the environmentalist wacko wing of the Democratic party) and fervently for it (that's the union wing of the party).  The majority of Democrats – who are in neither of those wings – support building the pipeline.  But their support comes with very little in the way of campaign contributions, so their voice is heavily discounted.

Kick the can, Barack.  It's what a Big Government politician does when faced with the need to make a controversial decision.  Nobody who knows you at all would expect anything else – and certainly nothing that required bedrock beliefs, courage, or even common sense...