Technical Difficulties from on Top of the Mountain
2004-12-29
  Successful Burning
Last week I was looking at all of my workstation disks, and as they're all filling up with various things, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and try and burn some disks.

I put the new combo DVD-RW/CDR drive in my resurrected workstation months ago and its been taunting me ever since.

I started out pretty slow, just doing a speed test for burning a 698MB file over the network off of my server to a 700MB CDR blank. With a little bit of trouble due to Roxio reseting the burn parameters on the preparations dialog every 2-5 seconds, I finally got it started and it zipped through the test successfully in three or four minutes. Very cool.

Disc recorders have gotten a bit more sophisticated since the early days of the $2,500 pioneer 4X SCSI frisbee maker. Getting a success disk out of that monster was a black art of defragmented partitions, optimized layouts, and rube goldberg vibration dampening isolation platforms. (we eventually ended up with a sandwich of mouse pads and 35 pound free weights off of a used exercise gym.) Even once we had a successful receipe, the experience was complicated and painful enough that we didn't make very many. With the cost of the media relatively high, and the low number of disks made (divided into the cost of the machine), on average each disk cost us about $22.

Now, my new $80 recorder does CDs & DVDs (even dual layer), and has buffering circuitry smart enough to slow down and speed up dynamically so that it stays in sync with data delivery.

Unfortunately the free software wasn't really worth what I paid for it, and it proceeded to annoy me repeatedly.

First I tried a speed tested a DVD (after resolving the fact that a 4.7GB disc only holds 4400 MB). The recorder throttled down to between 1.9-2.3X speed (from a possible 4X selection), and after five minutes, I figured it was probably going to work, so I hit cancel. That was a big mistake.

I don't know if it was the software or the drive, but the entire thing jammed up completely. Even killing the software and restarting didnt help. Eventually I gave up and rebooted the whole thing. Unfortunately there was more fun to come.

I setup a set of files again and decided to take the plunge. Pulling up the settings page, I selected disc-at-once, and hit go. Unfortunately at the last moment it flipped all the settings back to its defaults, and it was about to start burning. I pounced on the cancel button, but the dumb GUI then popped up a "are you sure" dialog while the burn started on the disk. I followed through on the confirm, but it was too late. The disk was toast, and we were all locked up again.

After another reboot, I collected what wits I could find and readied for another try. It seemed like there was sort of a pattern to the reboots, though only sort of, so I watched for an opening and took the plunge. Amazingly, I hit it.

Twenty five minutes later it was done, and after a brief check out, I declared success. I managed to get three disks in total, freeing up quite a bit of space and archiving stuff I'm not likely to need anytime soon. My favorite disk was the last one: "Movies I'm Never Going To Watch"

I really collect too much stuff.

 
2004-12-26
  Just too cool
Besides needing a soft cover for my Treo to protect it from scratches and the occasional drop, and a USB charging cable; now thanks to James, I need a virtual keyboard as well.

This little widget draws a virtual keyboard on any flat surface and then you tap the key spots and it tracks your fingers and figures out what you are typing and sends it to you phone/pda. That's soo cool.

Now I have to find it (it seems to have launched in singapore two weeks ago), and figure out if I should really be spending $200 on it.

 
2004-12-20
  Hints for revising
Brian Marick (my so-called advisor on the Masters of Fine Arts in Software pilot project) has a Great List of Hints for Revising documents.

I've had to do a lot of writing over the last two to three years (and I'm not just talking about the 60,000 words I've written on this blog), and his rules resonate with some of the things I've had to do to turn business documents from mindless zombie lists to engaging narratives that the reader might survive reading. Business plans of course are the worst. Trying to create an executive summary that will hold an investor's interest for more than 30 seconds is a black art, but one of the key's is critical review and constant editing.

One idea he mentioned I found especially useful, because as you edit the text, you tend to forget about the bigger picture:

Print the piece with a wide margin on one side. Next to each paragraph, scribble a few words about the paragraph's topic. Now read the scribbles. Do they form a progression of thought, a developing story of explanation? Or are they more like a bunch of thoughts hitched together in any old order? If so, shuffle them into a better order. (Some people cut the paragraphs out and move them around; I usually draw arrows from where the paragraph is to where it should go. I suspect the other people do better.)
One of the things that made one particularly long and dreadful project turn out pretty well was that I was writing it with a business associate. It wasn't so much that we complemented each other, but that each of us tended to zero in on the weakness of the other's writing and pound it into submission until neither of us could find fault with it. While I could have given up on many sections long before they were done, having my already weak writing re-organized and (in my opinion), redone worse, motivated me to try and redo the section in such a brilliant way that there could be no further complaint about it. The results were pretty good, but it got pretty arduous working on that document as long as we did.

But that's how you produce quality work. If you read about writing, you find that nobody writes a masterpiece the first time around. Even the classics were unbearable in their early drafts. Good writing is a process of revising, clearing out the unnecessary, and focusing on the key ideas. Its said the difference between a best seller and a timeless classic is nine revisions vs twelve. Its just a matter of patience and putting the amount of time in in proportion to your goals.

Of course, these thoughts are brought to you fresh from the keyboard and without any editing altogether. Reminds me of the old sign at Me-n-Eds Pizza:

Quality food takes time to prepare.
Your's will be ready in minutes
 
2004-12-17
  Another bit of advise from the [grid::fatherhood]
I've been pretty lucky so far with parenting, I have a 2 & 4 year old and so far they seem pretty well adjusted and the number of trips to the emergency room has been kept to a minimum. I also am able to remember a fair amount of my childhood which is a good guide for understanding my kid's point of view.

But there's a concept or two I've had to work out that would have been nice to know back at the beginning.

There's a couple basic roles the parents are responsible for: nurturing, worrying, learning and nudging. Now in the beginning, the baby is so cute, the nurturing is pretty easy; and starting day one the mom starts right in on worrying part (is the baby warm enough, is he going to roll off the bed, should I take him to the doctor for that rash ...), I think it's pretty much instinctive for the mom. So the dad has it pretty easy at the beginning, just keeping the diaper pail emptied on schedule and foraging for supplies.

If your wife has traditionally done the grocery shopping, there will be some adjusting as you learn what brand of dish soap she has been buying for the last ten years and discover there's actually a difference between those thirty cuts of beef. Luckily, you'll also learn that grocery stores actually take back food, however embarassing the reason (kind of like how Circuit City will take back that gadget you're wife got you for your birthday that uses compact flash instead of SD—I mean, they're like completely different interfaces...)

But as the kid grows a little bigger, there's all these thing that we expect them to be able to do: crawl, walk, eat solid food, sit at the table, walk on the sidewalk instead of the street, pickup their toys, play nice with others, use the bathroom, drive a car, be a productive member of society (ok, maybe I getting a little ahead of myself). But the reality is that your little baby has no desire to do any of those thing. Eat & sleep is a great lifestlye, and your job is to nudge the little runt into the big world of society.

It's not an easy job. You're going to be fighting tantrums, throwing, hiding, redirection, and any other trick they can think of. You're going to have to put your foot down, starve them, freeze them, harrange them, bribe, yell, threaten, and anything else you can think of to get them to move out of their comfort zone. It gets pretty difficult sometimes to find the right timing though. My little one is right at the point where anytime I want to do anything besides play, he'll throw a tantrum, kicking and screaming on the floor. But that only lasts a minute or two. Though the crying doesn't change in pitch, the intent changes as he changes from defiance to sadness. At this point he need a big hug and then he's ready to go with me to face the next terrifying challenge of the day.

My job is to make sure they get where they need to go, while always being there. Check back in a couple of years and I'll let you know how its going.

[reference]
This post was all Dave and Tim's fault.

Not that I haven't written about my attempts at being a parent before.

 
2004-12-16
  Original intentions
I tend to reconfigure/reprogram/customize any gadget I get my hands on. On my Treo, thanks to multiple complete resets, and a hardware swap; I've had multiple opportunities to change the settings. One thing I've changed is what applications the buttons launch, and from that I've be able to guess a little about the politics that go into the phone.

Besides dumping the calendar app (I'm never going to be that organized) and putting the camera app there; I moved the mail app to the front right button (it was option-mail before), and in the process of using it for a couple weeks, I discovered it was designed to go there.

One day while already in the mail app, I accidentally pressed the button again—and it did something useful: it switched to the next mailbox (my mail is setup with three accounts: sprint, extreme, and gmail). The alternative methods are less than ideal, especially if you don't have the stylus out, so its pretty obvious that this method was designed to be the main way to switch.

So why didn't the phone come that way? Cause its a phone, and not a handheld. SMS & MMS are more important services to the carriers (especially with how some of them charge per message), so they naturally want their apps out in front and the more generic apps (like email) behind. Heck, I'd probably even put the web in front of the phone app if I could (which I can't-darn it).

 
2004-12-14
  Amazing potential meets mundain reality
I spent a number of years working with a startup company that was going to change the face of advertising and possibly even communication. At least that's what the press releases they were handing out to potential investors said. Sounded good to me.

The major premise was that with digital signs (plasma screens and computers), you could create relevant, topical, localized, fresh advertising and content, and capture people's attention. Some early tests done by the company showed that with the proper design, placement, and content; people did notice.

But even the coolest technology can be screwed up, given enough incompetance.

While waiting in line for the bus, I noticed this sign inside, tucked away in a dead-end corner where no one would be walking past it, flashing this very important message:

Security Notice
The white zone is for dropping off passengers only. No parking

 
2004-12-13
  Being flexible
Surviving travel is one part stamina and two parts flexibility. Today was no different. After having the web-checkin make discouraging comments about my reservation and informing me that I was doomed to present my case in person to the gate agents, I left myself a little extra time in getting to the airport. This ended up meaning that when I arrived at Flagstaff International Airport it was a complete ghost town. My ride was even surprised, and offered to hang around for a minute while I wandered up and down the hallway looking for any sign of life. After convincing myself that the airport had not been completely abandoned, I grabbed my gear and headed in to wait.

This provided me with enough time to break out my tech gear and do a dry run on my mobile warrior settup. I had meant to test it all out this afternoon while at home but of course that didn't happen. It is a miracle that I got out the door without forgetting anything (that I know of).

My first discovery was that the $6 adaptor for my headphones from RadioShack did work (even though the highly knowledgeable professional sales droid said it wouldn't). Second discovery was that the hot-sync cable for the laptop wouldn't fit beside it. Subsequent pondering of this problem led to the realization that if I was trying to plug my laptop into my phone then I could also listen to tunes on the laptop as well. (This mental glitch also reminded me of the old illustration of narrow thinking: being across the street from a bus stop and wishing you could teleport in order to catch your bus. But I digress.)

Any ways, there I was, geeking out, having so much fun comparing throughput rates at two bars vs three; that I was completely ignoring the airline people until they got so frustrated at me that one of them got on the airport intercom and told me to get my butt in gear and show up at security, because everyone else had already checked in and she wasted to close the gate. (It's not my fault that America West Express has such bad service and odd schedules that there were only 7 people on this flight.)

So, on the plane, in the air, a hop and a skip, and down in Phoenix where it was a very pleasant 65 degrees (ok, what is the stupid keyboard shortcut for degrees anyways. Alt-d would make sense, but it's not that. I mean if there's a keyboard shortcut for a smileyface then you'd think they'd have one for degrees. Oh well.)

I get into the terminal and check the boards for my flight, and it says "San Jose: Boarding". So I do a doubletake: ok, its not my flight, its the one before mine. Then I do another take because it says the boarding time is 8:28 but it's now like 8:50. So its either extremely out of date or delayed. I check its gate assignment and the one for my flight and start moving. After doing some quick calculations while juggling several other tasks, I figure its in the same concourse, and even on the way. So its worth trying for.

After a brisk walk across the airport (the odds weren't great enough to justify a run), I turn the corner and spot Gate A18, as well as the tail end of a line of very bored and slightly annoyed travellers. Catching the eye of the gate agent, I enquire about catching a ride.

"Any chance I could go to SJ?"
"Are you on a later flight?"
"You bet, ten pm."
"Any bags?"
"No, of course not."
No self respecting business traveller checks bags. That's just a recipe for disaster. Besides you can't switch planes if you've checked bags: some sort of security nonsense that wouldn't hold up to even three minutes of scrutiny, but those are the rules, and one is not going to profit by getting into a debate with the gate agent about the logic of them.

The gate agent puts down the pile of little papers she was counting or sorting (or whatever it is that airline people do with piles of little squares of papers); taps on a terminal so ancient that my *phone* could run circles around it, and hands me a ticket. Very nice, and a window seat even. I complement her on her superior abilities to procure such a wonderful arrangement from a system designed only to thwart and frustrate travellers (which gets me a little smile) and join the boarding line which has dwindled down to two others in front of me. Thirty seconds later I have cleared the gatekeeper and the door to the causeway is closed right behind me.

100 other passengers are fighting the frustration of the delay, but I was quite pleased with the outcome. It's all a matter of perspective. Not that my patience wasn't tested as well.

Several hundred of us seem to arrive, just as the shuttle buses to the car rentals are on break or something. And when I finally do manage to get on the bus and to the rental counter, I sit there waiting behind two other people while three more buses show up. Forty minutes later the man at the counter has managed to complete the paperwork for one entire rental, which he did by hand because the computer went down.

Of course during this time, I'm playing with my phone, tracking down a previous case entry in bugzilla that matches the new issue filed against lobby_server (a module I am responsible for). So not only am I being productive (and remaining in good spirits), but its billable time. Most excellent.

 
2004-12-09
  Mysteries of Google
Well we put up a web site for Cirxit.com several days ago, but for some strange reason it doesn't show up on Google yet. I wonder if they ran out of space. Anyway, just mentioning it here to blip it on the radar. Anybody else bored enough, should also mention it and lets see if we can google-hack the rankings.

Power to the bloggers.

 
2004-12-08
  I got my welders today
Picked up my welders today over at the dock at Southwest wind power where Mike agreed to receive them.

I ended up getting the Invertig 201 which is a little strange as there's almost no information available about them on the web. The web site isn't much use, and now that I'm reading the dead tree owner's manual, its not much more informative. They should really take a look at what Miller and Lincoln do on their sites. Heck on the web I can download the 86 page manual for the Miller Dynasty 200 including mechanical diagrams and electrical schematics.

Next step is I have to get some 8 Ga wire to run from the power panel in the garage to the place where the welders will run, and put some plugs in and wire up a plug on the welder. Right now the power cord just has bare wires on the end. Hmmm. Just the right size for a pair of jumper cables, I wonder ...

 
2004-12-07
  Staying Cool
Ok, so you've got the workstation all setup, the toons going, the desktop printer (which is eating its weight in toner on a regular basis), and you're all set. Except you're drink needs ice. What are you going to do?

Have no fear. Desktop ICE machine is here.

Faster than a speeding bullet. Able to make 30 pounds of ice per day. Stores 150 cubes. Local water reservoir, no water lines or drain required. Ready to go in less than 10 minutes. Adjustable ice size.

What will they think of next.

 
2004-12-06
  Getting our energy
While I don't like the idea of hydrogen powered cars (with their big bulky high pressure tanks), I do think hydrogen is going to play a part somewhere in the fuel chain, even if its created and then combined with carbon (charcoal) to make synthetic fuels and oils. To get the hydrogen, some people talk about wind power driving electrolysis, but that's pretty ugly. Creating it directly from sunlight is better.

Direct photoelectrochemical separation of water into Hydrogen and Oxygen is already pretty efficient and getting better by the day. It can use the entire spectrum of light (unlike solar cells which typically only use the IR and red, except for the super expensive multi-band-gap kind used on satellites), and sample implementations up until now have not involved super exotic materials or precious metals like electrolysis does.

According to Nathan Lewis, professor of chemistry at Caltech (and big naysayer back in the days of Cold Fusion, much to the disappointment of us undergrads), it would only take 57,600 square miles of a thin membrane version of this converter to supply the country with all the hydrogen power it needed for transportation and building use. Of course that's more than a couple rooftops.

To give you a sense of scale, Kramer Junction which operates five 30MW power stations and is the biggest solar farm in the world, covers approximately two square miles.

[reference]
Wired Article: Sunlight to Fuel Hydrogen Future, through Fuel Cell Works.

 
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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