Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Swingin' to the oldies (with the oldies)

Ladies and gentlemen, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, playing such hits as "In the Mood", "String of Pearls", and "Stardust".

We had a great time listening to this band as well as the Four Aces (Love is a Many Splendered Thing). We even got to dance - see our happy feet - as the last part of the show. It's always more fun when you can dance to the band rather than just listen. We can cut a rug with the best of them, but the other dancers, which I must say were a bit older (than dirt), were pretty cutthroat on the dancefloor.

The show was at Three Little Bakers, which is apparently a Delaware institution. The most I can say is that it is no Bimbos 365. If you want to go swing dancing in this area you take what you can get.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Tubing down the Potomac in Harpers Ferry

Today we were tubers. Not potatoes - we went tubing down the Potomac river near Harpers Ferry at the confluence of the Shenandoah and the Potomac rivers. The day was nice and the sun came out and we had a great time shooting through the rapids in our inner-tubes.

The other pictures are the Shenandoah and the Potomac from Harpers Ferry and the abandoned train bridge.

Leaving Las Vegas

I also promised to tell you if I won anything. This is a wad of cash just before it goes into my bank account. I was a little uncomfortable carrying all this cash around Vegas. I wasn't so unconfortable as to not be glad I won! Next stop, the racetrack.

This is what Las Vegas looks like from a suite atop one of the hotels. Pretty nice.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Our New Spokes-Robot Overlords

You know you live in a dark distopian future when even the pretty spokes models at the tradeshows are being replaced with talking robots.

This robot (on the left in the picture) is what you get when a bunch of engineers have a bunch of components left over from their work and they decide to do something clever with it. This robot's arms, hands, mouth and even lips moved and gestured as he hawked the products he was selling. It is fasciinating to watch. Unfortunately he is taking a job away from some beatiful spokesmodel. This is just the wages of progress.

I for one would like to be the first to welcome our new mechanical spokes-robot overlords.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Viva Las Vegas

The lights are so sparkly and twinkly here in Las Vegas. I have landed here to do some work instead of having too much fun.

However, the shiney machines keep drawing me over to play video poker. The one armed bandits have become no-armed bandits since you only need to press buttons to play.

I haven't won anything yet. You will be the first to know if I do.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Old tech is the best tech

Delaware has been home to the DuPonts for more than 200 years, so they and the company they founded have left their mark on the area, from our corporation friendly laws to their mansions dotting the landscape. I like to call their former homes, YADM's - Yet Another DuPont Mansion. It is really nice that they donated the land because we have an abundance of very nice parks and greenways in the area because of it.

I had the chance last week to go the Hagley Museum, which is the site of the first DuPont company powder works and is where the company started all that time ago. The Hagley Mills are actually several acres along the Brandywine river and contain the mansion that was the first DuPont home and office and all of the gunpowder mills and machine shops. The DuPonts made gunpowder, which was very dangerous, but the company safety policy was in place even then, and they were able to make it safer and more economically than their early competitors.

The mills are on the Brandywine like many other mills were because the Brandywine river provided a ready flow of water with a steep descent over a short distance that could be used to power the mills since water was what they had for energy back then.

My favorite place on the museum grounds is the machine shop. This shop was run back then using water power, and eventually steam power. It is a marvel of early engineering because it is all run from a water turbine and the machines are connected to the power by a series of belts drive from a main drive shaft. Engage the clutch on a machine and the belt moved from a free wheel to one that powered the device. Twist the belt before you loop it and engage that belt and the machine runs in reverse.

They even have a variable speed drill driven by two cones which connect with a belt between them. Belt at one end contacts the thin part of the driving cone with the thick part of the machine cone and the drill runs slow. Move the belt to the other end, thin part of driving cone moving the fat part of the machine cone and it runs faster, with continuous variation in between.

The shop has a drill, lather, grinders and other assorted tools. For demonstration these days they use an electric motor to drive the main shaft. I wish I had more and better pictures of the equipment but the lighting in the room is very poor. Back in the late 1800's when they used this room it was lit only with oil lamps even though it ran overnight shifts. You can imagine how much of a strain that was on the operators. With many lamps in the room they achieved the power of one fluorescent light tube, how many lights do you have in your workshop when you are working? The tour guide also pointed out that the entire room was about four horsepower. How many horsepower was the last drill or saw you purchased? Certainly machine work is much easier and fast in the modern world than back then, but this shop is an achievement in its genuine ingenuity in power transfer and was very modern for its day.

If civilization ever fell, you could go out to this museum, rip out the electric motor, reconnect the water turbine (it is still there) and run an 1800's machine shop. For this reason the Hagley Museum machine shop is on my apocalypse team, and so are the docents that know how to run the place if I can get them.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Rules for Living

When we were younger, my twin sister and I had a variety of rules that we devised for living. Don't get too excited that you have found the key to life here, they were narrowly defined rules for certain situations that we memorized for quick action.

Rule 1: Your objective is length.

When you are in high school everyone has to write the dreaded essay for whatever class. I was comfortable with writing and with reading lots of books, if that was required for the book or lab report, while my sister found these things less enjoyable. I don't ever think we ever stooped to reading books for each other, but we definitely proofread each other's reports so the other could help with the writing and getting to that critical word count or page length requirement. Whenever we did this she would ask that I help increase the length of the report. "Your objective is length." As you have guessed I can be wordy when required and I would go through the report and replace one word with two, or a phrase and bulk up the report.

The problem with being wordy is that when you get to the next level they don't like that style of writing and you get to learn again. It also turns out that wordy writing is bad style. In college all the lab reports and projects needed to be written in cold third person and passive voice so I learned that. In graduate school my advisor only wanted active voice and to lose the wordiness. This time the relearning process was extremely painful. I probably took an extra year in graduate school just because of that.

I hope this current writing foray will help me learn the new style.

Rule 2: Make the light.

Taking advice from teenagers on driving is probably a bad idea. Please go take a defensive driving course, I did. Also, don't try to extract any deep meaning from this one about light or knowledge or anything like that, it merely refers to stoplights.

Rule 3: Never get behind a Strohmann's truck in the left lane on Ridge Pike.

You can see here why we stopped making rules. They became too specific and not general enough. Strohmann's was a bread company with a factory on Ridge Pike. If you got behind one you would be stuck because they were always making left turns into the plant and it took forever because traffic was shooting by at high speed. It was a good rule for its time.

I am sure there were other rules that I don't remember anymore. Do you remember any similar rules from childhood?

Monday, August 15, 2005

Zombie Weekend

It was a zombie kind of weekend. It was certainly too hot to do anything but sit inside and wait for fall. While no actual undead appeared, there were many references and coincidences regarding them.

Firstly, I am reading a terrific series of online novels, Monster Island, Monster Nation and Monster Planet, centered around a zombie-caused apocalypse. They were written as a serial novels last year (Monster Planet is in progress) by David Wellington and they have a great short chapter suspenseful feeling in each post reminiscent of the movie serials from the early days of movies.

On television, in cableland, where every movie is on sometime, somewhere, we happened to catch a lot of zombie movies this weekend. The 2004 remake of "Dawn of the Dead" was on, so was "Resident Evil 2: Apocalypse" with Mila Jovovich (just say the name a few times slowly, trippingly on the tongue). A hilarious send up of the zombie genre, "Shaun of the Dead" was also playing. I recommend this movie, as it has some great deadpan british humor, and is set in England, which greatly diminishes your access to guns should a zombie breakout occur. This leads to some constrained and difficult weapons choices (a cricket bat for instance). The zombie movie that started the modern myth is George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and is available at the Internet Archive.

Other zombie resources on the web include the Zombie Infection Simulation, a little JAVA applet that lets you simulate a zombie breakout in a city, very useful for planning purposes. There is also the Zombie Preparedness Initiative or the The Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency, both with helpful survival hints in the event of a zombie incident. In fact zombies are a potential major cause of the apocalypse and one of the reasons I suggest having an apocalypse team picked and ready to go.

Just remember, aim for their heads.

Friday, August 12, 2005

My Apocalypse Team

I play a little game for fun at party's sometimes. If you find yourself in a post-apocalyptic wasteland who do you want by your side and what skills do you think are going to be important? It certainly depends on the cause of the apocalypse. Is it nuclear or biological, aliens or zombies, rapture or rupture? I think it is important to plan and have an apocalypse team in mind on the off hand chance that you might need one.

So who do we choose and why? I have my fiance on my apocalypse team. Not for the obvious reason that she would be mad at me if she wasn't, but because she has important talents for after the apocalypse. She knows about plants and knows how to grow things well and cooks great meals, she is good with tools and can build shelters, she can ride a horse and she's pretty tough. I have two other friends at work that I want on my team because they can hunt and fish and know something about dressing and butchering animals.

Why am I on the apocalypse team you ask? Well, I can ride horses, and I can make the ruthless decisions that will need to be made for the sake of survival. I also came up with the idea. I mean, we will need management even in a post-apocalyptic future, right? I'm a people person (or a zombie person if necessary).

'Negative' Space Support Our ... Ribbons'

Here is a documented sighting in the wild of a "support our troops" ribbon magnet with the extra added cleverness of using the "negative" space in the loop to make a heart. This way the supporter can "heart" the USA at the same time.

I have also seen them with crosses in the "negative" space as well, but I have yet to capture one. I do plan on putting together the cladastics of this meme soon. As you can see, I am gathering data.

By the way, this van had two of these ribbon magnets in different colors. Of course, you can't just have one!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Shuttle has landed!

Just in from NASA's website -

8:12 a.m. - Touchdown! Discovery is rolling out on runway 22 at Edwards Air Force Base!

More kudos to NASA for providing a website so that I could keep track of the landing by PDA. Congratulations on a successful mission.

Next step is to see how long it takes for another mission.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Shuttle Mission Watch 6: The Slightly Longer Road Home

I was hoping to report on the landing of the Shuttle today but we have another day to wait due to the weather. I am glad that I didn't buy my tickets to go see the landing at Kennedy because the Shuttle may land tomorrow at the backup location at Edwards Air Force base. They get all the fun. The image at left is another great photo courtesy of the NASA website, which has provided such good coverage of the mission, especially on NASA TV.

The Shuttle has four chances to land tomorrow, two in Florida and two in California. I am guessing that has to do with its orbit. I know that I will be watching and wishing them luck. I hope you get the chance to watch too.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Space Shuttle Mission Watch 5: The long road home.

The Space Shuttle is scheduled to return home Monday and the crew continues to prepare. We have seen some great pictures(this one also from the NASA website) from this mission, especially during the Shuttle examinations and the space walks. I do fervently hope that the reentry is uneventful and safe. I will certainly be watching.

Information just wants to be free! Free as the bird flies.

There has been much discussion of municipal free wi-fi over the last few weeks. I have been bored watching the discussion for free wi-fi in Philadelphia because I have yet to see an article that points out that downtown Wilmington, Delaware has had free wi-fi for almost two years. You have to scour the Wilimington city website for a press release on free wireless access and then finally this past May the local hip free paper(Spark) associated with the local crappy paper (The News Journal) had an article on it (no link for you, they made their archives pay for view; this is a subject for another time).

I wish I lived close enough to one of the access points to benefit from it, but I have seen people in both locations sitting and using their computers taking advantage of it. I think that access to the Internet is very empowering and is becoming more and more necessary as more government and private services are delivered via the internet and sometimes only through the internet. Not everyone can afford to DSL or cable modem access so I don't think it is unreasonable for a municipality to provide access if they choose to.

This is why I become incensed when I see bills to prevent municipalities from providing free wi-fi. The Preserving Innovation in Telecom Act of 2005 does has nothing to do with preserving innovation (I love the names of these bills, by the way). It has everything to do with making sure that U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), who is a former employee of SBC, the phone company that serves the nation's Western and Southwestern states, pays back his former employer for their financial support. Also I might ask why the federal government would be involved in limiting a local governments rights when interstate commerce or civil rights are not involved. The idea is that free wi-fi is unfair competition for companies which must sell their services in the same market. I think that free wi-fi is public good that municipalities should provide if they want to and that the decision is local not federal.

On the other side us free wi-fi advocates have Community Broadband Act of 2005 co-sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D- N.J.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ari.). This bill's title is more reflective of its intent, which is to prevent the state or federal governments from preventing local municipalities from offering free internet access. The same objections about the federal government being involved apply here but this is better government in the sense of preserving a right rather than restricting one.

Chris Nolan writes an excellent article in eWeek presenting these two sides of the municipal wireless issue. I haven't seen an action alert from EFF on this issue but there is a short blurb that they have noticed it. Let's all keep informed on this issue and prevent Sessions from getting his way and preserving the rights of local governments.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Shuttle Mission Watch 4

Today, astronauts repaired material sticking out between loose tiles on the Shuttle's belly. This was an interesting spacewalk because no one has ever worked on the underside of the Shuttle in space. The image comes from NASA TV. Each step of this mission has provided great examples of the increased capability of Space Shuttle crews to meet the difficulties of the Shuttle design and address the problems of ensuring a safe reentry.

I personally can't imagine flying into space and being in free fall. I don't think I would like free fall and weightlessness much.

I will be most comfortable after a successful landing and I continue the mission watch. Do you understand why we must teach science and not superstition in schools, otherwise we won't have the tools to explore the universe.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Teach science in school, not superstition

After that last one about my senator, I have to write about the President now.

In case you missed it, the President feels that intelligent design should be taught beside evolution in schools. I cannot begin to tell you the problems with this. I whole-heartedly respect the office of the president. I hate talking about politics because it can be so divisive. I must, however, offer an opinion on this intelligent design debate.

Firstly, others have covered this ground far better than I and in more detail (see Slacktivist post 1, 2, 3, 4). However, I will not stand quietly while wrongheaded thinking occurs around me. Be warned that intelligent design is just a new package for creationism. The creationists can be very clever in their marketing of their ideas.

Aside from the fact that creationism is wrong it also poses the wrong question. Nothing I say in this post prevents the existence of a Creator. But in science that isn't the right question. I thought that we are teaching our children things in school that will allow them to grow up and be productive members of society. The scientific method outlines a process for finding out things and generates models of our world that are good enough for us to act on them and depend on them.

Propose a hypothesis, test it by performing some experiments, check to see if the data support the hypothesis, if not alter the hypothesis, if the data supports the hypothesis come up with some more experiments. Wash, rinse, repeat. This is how we do science. Nothing is sacred, we test the theory to see if it holds up. The ones that hold up we keep testing and a body of evidence builds as we do this. The ones that don't hold up to scrutiny we throw out. The tested theory provides a model we can use to predict and understand the world. We have built the greatest civilization that has ever existed in human history using this process.

Evolution is just one of many theories that has withstood the process and is supported by evidence piled on evidence. Your cell phone works because Maxwell wrote some equations down and others tested them. Every call you make tests them. Your car engine follows the laws of thermodynamics as Gibbs wrote them, every mile you drive confirms the rightness of the theory and of the scientific method as a way of discovering a true model of how the world works. Intelligent design and creationism is more about ignoring uncomfortable data and a hypothesis that is untestable and so useless for relating to the world around me.

This is all becoming more important as humanity wrestles with how our actions affect the planet and the ecosystem we depend on to live. It is very important that we have the correct models so that we can do the right things to improve our lives and others, not wrong ones that may lead us to ruin.

How the world came to be is a topic that science and religion can both address. Science does not preclude a Creator, but incorrect models of the world prevent us from understanding the world and thriving in it.

What are Senators for?

I think that I might be very naive about politics.

I understand that our elected representatives go to Congress and try to do things that will get them reelected. Often these are things that bring money back to the state, or actions that they feel there constituents would approve of. Many members of Congress genuinely want to represent their districts or states. But...

What is up with Senator Carper of Delaware, my home state? I voted for him because he has a reputation as a moderate and most especially because I liked what he said at my graduation from University of Delaware. He cut taxes in Delaware when he was governor and I think that is a good thing. Delaware politics is marked by good cooperation between the two parties, often state offices change back and forth between the parties and since it is a small state there is a round robin effect between the Governor seat, the single representative seat, and the two senatorial seats. I don't claim to be an expert on this but it lets me set the scene.

So we elect Carper to the senate and he suddenly does some weird things. Did you know that Delaware doesn't have a national park? No? Who cares? Yet Carper is working on getting us a national park so we can get more tourists and some federal pork. You don't think that all of Washington that has a beach house at Bethany, knows where the state is and comes to visit. What about the entire east coast bitching about the toll at the Delaware state line on I-95. They know where we are and they will stop if they want to. If you want to improve our lives and the economy of Delaware try broadening the industry base instead of the same old increase tourism chant that every state tries.

Then yesterday is the announcement that Senator Carper supports a 25% tax on internet porn. Apparently Senator Carper has done what no municipality or government has been able to do before him, and that is to figure out who is buying what on the internet and tax it. Maybe he is the one sending me the web hoax about taxing the internet. The senator says that the bill will keep children away from internet pornography, instead of perhaps the more practical method of having their parents do that. Of course I can't go against his bill because then it look I support pornography on the internet (none of my business) or that I don't want to protect children (do I have to answer that really, does this really have to do with that, won't somebody please think of the children!).

Perhaps I am embarrassed by the senator's actions because I voted for him and feel somehow responsible. Maybe I am against his latest crusade because (1) it is unworkable, (2) I don't agree that one should use taxes to engineer social change, (3) I believe in free speech even if I don't agree with what you are saying, (4) more laws to cover the same stuff that is already illegal is overkill (5) many, many more reasons.

I like it better when Senator Carper works on retaining funding for Amtrak which is vital to transportation in the Northeast. I don't care of the rest of the country wants it, there are 50 million of us here. Preserving Amtrak is useful to his constituents. I expect him to act the moderate and hold the line on government excess budget spending and taxing, and also on budget cutting in the wrong places.

I daresay that I would prefer inaction to the two crazy items I have listed above. The senator should be careful that the things that get him recognized nationally are not crazy fringe issues. I know being a moderate isn't as sexy as being a radical righter or a crazy liberal but that is the direction I expected him to take and I hope to see some evidence of it.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Space workers unite!

I wonder if construction in space will ever become common enough that they will form there own union? This past weekend the crew of the Space Shuttle replaced a gyroscope on the International Space Station and did some construction work in space. They performed a space walk and there is some cool footage on NASA internet TV.

In the meantime, scientists are increasing the scope of NASA's future missions by discovering potentially planet sized objects beyond Pluto in the Solar System. They totally spin the story by saying a "Tenth Planet" has been discovered. How many times can they do that before we stop getting burned? I am not going to get all weak kneed at the possibility that these objects are larger than Pluto and constitute a tenth or eleventh planet, until the study is confirmed. Back when Sedna was discovered, it was explained that the Oort cloud is a big place and that there is likely a whole family of objects with a distribution of sizes, of which Pluto is on the large end, floating out there, waiting to be discovered.

I hope some day we can go out to see them.

What the hell is a skipjack?

This past Saturday we were invited on an afternoon cruise of the Chesapeake Bay near Havre de grace for a friend's 30th birthday. Happy Birthday!

It was a beautiful day. I got to add the Concord Point Lighthouse, (another) oldest continuously operated lighthouse in the United States to my list of lighthouses. We actually set sail and didn't just cruise around on the motor. My gung-ho fiance helped to hoist the mainsail while the lazy party goers (my disinterested self included) watched.

The funniest part of the day was getting there. The directions were a little inconclusive and I was driving and looking for a lighthouse instead of paying attention to the task at hand. I must always listen to the navigator. We made it to the dock and the final advice, as if to clear things up, is to look for the skipjack, it is the only skipjack in the harbor, and one of the last working oyster dredger skipjacks.

Excuse me? What the hell is a skipjack? How does that instruction get me any closer to the destination? We found a sign and looked for people to complete the mission. Clever fiance that I have did finally ask Cap'n Bill what a skipjack was and we learned a dark secret - the boat was actually a bateau! Scandalous. Conveniently, that term also means nothing to me. I imagine, for those boat geeks really interested in this sort of thing, that I have made a horrible faux pas at greatly belittling a controversy which has existed for years and on which civilization depends.

What is a skipjack or a bateau you ask. Who cares. We had a nice sail on a sailboat, and I wouldn't eat oysters from the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay anyway. (Authors disclaimer: I do not like oysters.)