Technical Difficulties from on Top of the Mountain
2020-05-20
  The internet and struggles of discovery.
If anyone thinks that all the problems in search have been solved, well let me tell you a quick story.

I was reading yet another article about the depressing future of open plan offices: Even the Pandemic Can’t Kill the Open-Plan Office (disclaimer citylab is owned by my employer).

And part way down, there was a picture of an open plan office spaced out more, at the Oakland offices of Gensler, an architectural and design firm. What was interesting to me was not the spacing, but chairs pictured.

gensler-oakland-office

I am kind of a chair junkie. I owned five or six different kind of Herman Miller chairs I picked up on ebay over the years. Mirra is actually my favorite, and I just can't stand the Envoy though it could be I don't have it adjusted right. Now that all my co-workers are working from home, I've recommended the chairs to them, but like cheap web-cams, they're a little hard to come by at the moment. So I'm always on the lookout for other interesting options.

These chairs in the Gensler office, looked interesting. But what were they?

Several searches on common office supply sites (and the borg of e-commerce, amazon) were useless. They kept circling back to cheap hundred dollar chairs I wouldn't be caught dead in. There's no good way to search for "high end office chair where the arm rests attach to the seat back". I started looking for the most expensive chair I could find, and then search the entire inventory of that online catalog for something that matched. I searched for mesh chairs, task chairs, white chairs, executive chairs, all sorts of combinations of the above and others.

Useless. Hours wasted.

Finally, in frustration I searched for anything that mentioned chairs in regards to that office:

"Gensler Oakland chair"
And I got back a breadcrumb:

located in Oakland, California. Gensler's Oakland office is characterized by. ...
Haworth Collection by Forest Side Chair · Forest Side Chair
Now what I did not realize was that officesnapshots.com where this link came back, had the picture of the chair I was looking at, and was annotated with its name. Instead I focused on the brand mentioned in the quoted text, hoping that the humans at that office were as predictable as most humans were, and if a site carried the Haworth collection, then it might also carry the other chair.

That landed me on modernplanet.com. Under office::task chairs, I started getting pretty close. There were a bunch of chairs from Knoll called regeneration that had what looked like the right back, but the arm rests were wrong. Then near the end of page two (who ever goes past page one on search results?), there it was "Knoll Generation Chair". At a modest price of $635, though when you add all the bells and whistles, its more like $930.

They even have a few on ebay, though the selection of colors is a little limited, and the most interesting one is local pickup in Dallas. Now who do I know that I could bug in Dallas ...

So once again, it comes as no surprise (at least to me) that the internet is terrible at helping you discover things that you didn't know were there. Discovery is a second class citizen. Even tools we had, we've lost. My college library back in the day was modernizing to add the ability to search for books on the mainframe (ya, I'm that old), and one of the features it had was the ability to see what books were next to the one you looked up on the bookshelf. I've never seen that feature since. Part of the wonder of the human brain is its ability to make connections between things, and through sharing those connections, create discovery. We have not even scratched the surface of how technology could support and strengthen that process.

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2020-04-18
  Strong curiosity
We were driving in the car a few weeks back, taking Zak back to the airport. Economic activity had started to decrease, so traffic was light, but there were plenty of trucks on the road. As I passed one, I noticed a diamond hazmat symbol on the side:

dot_2880
Which is a bit specific. Now I didn't remember how to read the hazards directly off this form, because I'm more familiar with the generic form:

dot-3-0-1-oxy
which explains that whatever the truck is carrying can react somewhat with other chemicals, and can cause a significant health issue.

Never one to pass up an educational opportunity, I had the kids look up that particular hazamat number, to find out its Calcium Hypochlorite. Now I know what Calcium Choride is, its a salt (CaCl2). You can use it for ice melt because it will reduce the freezing temperature of water down below -40° and I also use it in my pool to increase the hardness. Its one of like eight crazy things you have to keep track of in order to have your water neutral so it won't start dissolving the walls of the pool or leaving scale on the ladders. The crazy thing is if you buy it from the pool supply store in their fancy packaging, you'll pay $3-5/pound, but if you just by the pro-ice melt which is 100% the same thing, its fifty cents a pound.

Anyways, Calcium Hypochlorite has some oxygen mixed in, so its Ca(ClO)2, and it turns out you could add it to the pool to increase the calcium as well, while getting lots of free Chlorine for sanitizing. Its a regular ingredient in pool shock, which luckily I never have to use. I have a salt pool, which has an electrolyzer which constantly splits the salt into sodium and chlorine, and its a beautiful thing. While the neighbor has to check and add Chlorine to his pool a couple of times a week, this thing runs for weeks at a time unattended.

But usually you don't use a huge amount of Calcium Hypochlorite, because the calcium will build up and make the water hard. However its good in water treatment plants, where the water is eventually consumed and replaced with new stock from underground or lakes or wherever. So now I know, now my kids know; and I can move onto wondering about the next thing that wanders by.

 
2020-03-27
  Working remotely.
I've been working remotely for a very long time. Decided to read The year without pants, which is free right now. Some of it is kind of cheerleading and fluf, but as the author explores his clash of experience with how the new company worked, he realized a few key things. "The problem with modern work is how loaded workplaces are with cultural baggage. We faithfully follow practices we can't explain rationally." "All traditions are inventions; it's just a question of how old the invention is. There is nothing wrong with tradition until you want progress: progress demands change, and change demands a reevaluation of what the traditions are for and how they are practiced." "Anyone who eliminates superfluous traditions takes a step towards progress." "Once you take responsibility for your own future, you must work to continually eliminate useless traditions and introduce valuable ones. An organization where nothing ever changes is not a workplace but a living museum." Now I've changed the wording some here, because the original writing put this responsibility only on "managers" and "leaders". But anyone who works to be good at what they do and passionate about how its done is a leader. Maybe not on their business card, but those things don't always tell the full story.
 
2020-03-26
  Surviving in Florida.
So life in central Florida is pretty quiet now. With the spring-breakers spreading contagion across the country, we've gone back to getting by as best we can. Co-workers from up North ask me how we all cope, and I explain that we usually have a natural disaster come through here every other year or so. This is kind of like an hurricane, only:
Now thankfully, I'm able to work from home, and I know that's not the case for everyone.  And people in the medical field are dealing with a lot of stress.  But for the time being, we're getting by, cooking with the BBQ not because we have to, but because its nice out, watching the rocket launches, and just keep'n on.
 
2019-12-28
  Chemists help the world go round.
In high school chemistry, there wasn't a lot of time spent on how much Chemist actually have done to advance the bounds of knowledge when it comes to various molecules. How was super-conducting discovered? Chemists basically took every single element they could get their hands on and cooled them down to the coldest temperatures they could achieve, and then measured the various properties (including resistance) under those conditions. The book "Ignition" is full of lots of crazy chemists who studied the behavior of various "fuels" under less than optimum conditions. Spontaneous disassembly was a frequent outcome.

Even in modern times as we work to find ways to store and transport energy that doesn't involve carbon, chemists provide the map of the landscape. In a paper discussing the use of ammonia for hydrogen storage, they present a graph of all different compounds I had never even heard of, and plot out their hydrogen capacity and density:

hydrogen carriers

Does a good job showing that N is the next best thing to carbon if you just want to keep a lot of H around. My hat goes off to the chemists that sat down and classified all these various things over the years. Sure, there's probably different uses for things like Aluminium borohydride, so they needed to know tis properties anyways, but its probably not the kind of work that leads to a Nobel prize. Just filling in the details so that others that come after can build atop that, or avoid what's going to be a dead end.

Doesn't mean that this is the end of the story though. Just look at what Acetylene went through.

Acetylene (H2C2) is a welding gas, but is unstable in its pure form (ie, if you try to cram a bunch into a pressurized tank, it just explodes). Originally if you wanted a supply for welding you used a gas generated that combined water and calcium carbide. Finally, chemists figured out you could safely dissolve acetylene into acetone. So they started filling up canisters with acetone, and then pushing acetylene into that. Unfortunately, as you drew the acetylene out, you also got acetone vapor, which eventually depleted the acetone in the bottle, and again *boom*. Finally, they figured out you could lock the acetone in chalk, and it wouldn't evaporate; so a modern acetylene is actually full of chalk, which is full of acetone, which is full of acetylene.

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2019-04-20
  How I discovered my future
I learned about computers in the summer 1978. My father had used them previous at work, but I had no idea what they were, or that I wanted to spend the rest of my life playing with them. But thanks to a young school district that still had money after paying its teachers a pittance, the GATE program bundled me up in with 40 of peers on a school bus and sent me to Berkeley for a week. (GATE stood for Gifted ad Talented Education, a name they quickly had to come up with after we took the previous acronym: MGM and turned it from Mentally Gifted Minors into Mentally Gifted Morons, an insight that our slightly elevated intelligence was in some ways a hindrance in the social torture program society called school.)

So under the expert driving of our bus driver Dan "the oil pan man"*, we were whisked away to Lawrence Hall of Science for Astronomy, Earth Science, some other forgettable classes; and "Computer Lab". The computer lab was a giant concrete walled room, two stories tall, with rows of teletypes connected to a time share system, and a pen plotter at the far end.

teletype machine

We were shown how to log in, send messages to each other, access the central store and print out files (mostly ascii art), and create our own files. One of the files we could create, was a set of instructions for the pen plotter to draw a picture. Some of the other students drew their initials with it, or some interesting geometric shapes, but I had bigger ambitions.

Star was had come out the year before, so I wanted to draw space ships and laser fire. Major production value. Some how I got ahold of some graph paper, and drew out a ridiculously complex scene for a junior high school student with only a few hours to enter it in, and I spent every free minute I could typing in all the pen up/down and move commands to render my masterpiece. I get all the instructions typed in by the last day of the class, and command the printer to go, setting the pens to dance around and draw each segment painful step by step, when suddenly it all goes horribly wrong, and through some mistake in my instructions a large errant line is drawn across the entire page. There's less than 10 minutes left in the lab and the picture is ruined. I must have looked pitiful, because a sysop took pity on me and told me to follow him. We walked up the stairs to a mezzanine above where the sysops could watch over the room and do work. The sysop sat down and something completely strange which he referred to as a "glass teletype", opened up my file on the screen, pressed a magic key called a cursor key, and moved through the file to the line with the errant digit in it, which he replaced with the correct one I supplied, and then saved it.

glass teletype
I had never seen a mistake so quickly and effortlessly corrected. My picture printed out, correctly, though its since been lost to the sands of time; but more importantly after staring at that glass teletype, I knew with a certainty that I wanted to spent every possible moment of the rest of my life in that alternate universe where ideas could be constructed almost as easily as though, there was no entropy, and changes could be made in an instant. Looking back, it seems I have been fairly successful doing that.

* A story for another day, though I will give the hint that everyone on that trip learned that the lowest point on the underside of a bus is the oil pan, but he is the only bus driver who's name I can still remember 40 years later.

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2019-02-23
  Why we write.
I have written a number of stories, and have more still yet to write. Not expecting to become famous or rich, I write, as many others do, because its part of my nature just to want to tell these stories. As Ferris Jabr wrote in Harpers:
Stories sustain us: they open paths of clarity in the chaos of existence, maintain a record of human thought, and grant us the power to shape our perceptions of reality.
From The story of storytelling
 
2019-01-28
  Sanity
Some days will be good, a few will be great.
Some days will be a step backwards, a few will be disasters.
A few days will be memorable, many will not be.

rollercoaster

One must remember that no extreme will last forever, the market will not always go up, there is no such thing as the new normal.
Believing otherwise leads only to despair.

 
Life in the middle of nowhere, remote programming to try and support it, startups, children, and some tinkering when I get a chance.

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Blogroll
Paul Graham's Essays
You may not want to write in Lisp, but his advise on software, life and business is always worth listening to.
How to save the world
Dave Pollard working on changing the world .. one partially baked idea at a time.
SnowDeal
Eric Snowdeal IV - born 15 weeks too soon, now living a normal baby life.
Land and Hold Short
The life of a pilot.

The best of?
Jan '04
The second best villain of all times.

Feb '04
Oops I dropped by satellite.
New Jets create excitement in the air.
The audience is not listening.

Mar '04
Neat chemicals you don't want to mess with.
The Lack of Practise Effect

Apr '04
Scramjets take to the air
Doing dangerous things in the fire.
The Real Way to get a job

May '04
Checking out cool tools (with the kids)
A master geek (Ink Tank flashback)
How to play with your kids

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