Friday, March 31, 2006

Happy Birthday to me

So, for my birthday, Mary got me hammered dulcimer lessons. A new song comes each month on it's own CD, it's a full lesson with sheet music and a track with the guitar/fiddle playing backup. And you get to choose which song you want, there 33 to chose from. Pretty cool.

Ooh, and she also got me a pair of hammers with leather on the business end. This causes the music to be a lot softer - somewhat piano-like (its hammers are also padded).

And best of all, she helped me learn how to play "Happy Birthday" on the dulcimer. I'm tone deaf enough that I couldn't figure out why things sounded so off when I was playing the wrong notes. Hopefully that'll get better with age.... more age.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

NOVA | The Great Robot Race

Last night I watched NOVA | The Great Robot Race | PBS on TV. I'd heard about the challenge two years ago when none of the robots did very well.

You see, DARPA decided to host a challenge to anyone who could build a robot that could complete a 130 mile trek through the Mojave desert. And last year, the "best" team made it 7 miles.

The show (the entire hour is available on-line - PBS rocks) follows a number of the teams, discussing their different approaches, and then covers the race itself.

CMU has two robots, and Stanford has one - they were the main focus of the show. While I like CMU a lot, I think the Standford team's accomplishment was much more impressive. Of course, they won the competition, but it's not that they won, it's how they did it.

Stanford's robot, Stanley, is pretty much just a VW fitted with robotic controls and some off the shelf electronic components. On the other end of the spectrum, the CMU vehicles are Humvees with a lot of custom-made electronics. Stanford's robot was the only one to complete the qualification round without touching any of the obstacles (pretty impressive). And, when given the race course (a set of GPS coordinates), the Stanford team just uploaded those and let the robot go. The CMU team on the other hand, had a team of 30-50 people break the course down into detailed positions and contours, basically programming the path and speed for the robot for every inch of the race. So Stanford's approach seems more general and thus more powerful.

The Mother Lode

Yesterday I posted a link to a really cool optical illusion.
Well, this web page is the mother lode of optical illusions (or visual illusions, as the author points out):

Optical Illusions and Visual Phenomena

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Amazing illusion

This illusion just boggles the mind:

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Houston, we have power

Wow, way back in September we blew what I thought was a fuse while using the concrete saw to cut pavers. The circuit included the two outside outlets, and both of the bathroom outlets. None of the outlets had the little 'reset' switch, and none of the breakers in the electrical panel had been tripped.

I searched high and low, but found no outlet with one of those little reset buttons. I tried replacing each and every one of the breakers in the panel in case I'd actually fried one of them w/out causing it to trip. No luck.

Months pass. We didn't have our outdoor Christmas lights on this year (no power), and couldn't use the pretty outdoor lights Mary had hung up on our back porch. Mary couldn't use her hair dryer, and I couldn't recharge my electric toothbrush. Not a life changing issue, but a definite annoyance that we reminded ourselves of almost daily.

Well, today we were cleaning out the garage. Mary noticed an electrical outlet in the garage that I'd obviously missed. She pressed "reset" and we were back in business.

I swear I never saw it. It must have been covered by our skis leaning on the wall, or tools, or something. I'm sure she would have found it in 2 minutes if she'd looked after I did way back in September.

The stupidest thing is, the outlet can't be more than 3 feet from the electric panel.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Even more unbelievable

This column details how President Bush has officially stated 82 times that Congress has now power over him.

The science thing makes me pity Bush and worry for our children. This, on the other hand, simply stuns me. This above all else make me want him to be impeached. I can't believe that people who supposedly want to uphold the Constitution actually stand behind this bozo.

Friday, March 24, 2006


This whole country is going anti-science. We're pretty much dooming ourselves to being a has-been in the world if we don't have the knowledge required to stay on top of scientific research (among other things).

We're supposed to leave the world a better place for our children. Instead, we're wrecking it, and we're keeping them ignorant so they won't know it.

This is an interesting story about what kids are (not) being taught in Arkansas.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

I'm a wanted man

I just got a call from one of the guys I played basketball with last season at Timberhill. He's forming a team and he wanted me to join. woo-hoo. If I placed the voice correctly, he was the nice point guard who seemed to be overshadowed by the other point guard on the team. Whatever happens, I'll know at least one person on the team.

Also, it's going to be a B-4 league team, which means I'll be playing at the same level. When I signed up as an individual, I opted for B3-B4, so I'll have to wait at least a season to find out what the better league play is like.

Tuning helps

So, I've been a little out of practice with my hammered dulcimer. Part of the issue was that it was starting to get out of tune - to the point where even I could tell.

I was waiting for a local shop to get the electronic tuner I ordered. I wanted to go through a local shop b/c I like to support the local guys. This shop was very friendly, eager even, to put in the order. Well, I got tired of waiting. I called them, and even stopped by in person. The response was always, "it'll be in next week."

After a month and a half, I figured they'd had their chance. So I found one of the cheaper online shops (with a good reputation), and ordered it from there. Even after shipping it was about 20% less than what I would have gotten it for from the shop.

I fiddled with it, and spent about an hour tuning the dulcimer. No one note was off by very much (well, maybe one was), but pretty much every string needed to be tuned - they were all a little flat.

Wow, what a difference that made. Even with my limited skill, I could totally hear the difference in how the instrument sounded. The songs were brighter and more musical.

Now I just need to learn some more songs.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Organic versus Local

Slate has an interesting article highlighting how the store "Whole Foods" has been misleading its customers by emphasizing the "local" aspect of food, when in fact, most of its food comes from far away (but is organic).

A couple of things come to mind. While Whole Foods may be misleading people about the locality of the origins of their produce, organic is better than non-organic (all else being equal). It's entirely unreasonable to expect a nation-wide chain (they're even in the U.K.) with 181 stores to buy food locally. People want to buy tomatos year-round, and it's just not possible to grow them "locally" year-round, especially for such a large company.

So, if you really care about this, go to a smaller, local, shop that actually can provide you with organic and/or locally grown food. Our co-op provides us with that information for all produce. Find a co-op near you.

New Bed

Mary and I bought a bed frame over the weekend. We'd purchased a new queen-sized mattress a few years ago, but hadn't ever found a bedframe we could both agree on.

Well, we found one at The Joinery in SE Portland. Mary likes to read in bed - and prefers to sit upright while doing so (I probably prefer reading lying down), so we'd looked at their Lorelei bed on-line because the headboard has a curve that makes sitting against it comfortable. But, the picture on the web page is pretty boring - it has a minimal footboard - so we'd discounted it from our search.

However, the quest for a chair for Mary lead us to The Joinery to check out their rocking chairs, and we looked at the beds as well. In one of the rooms they had a "special order" bedframe that a customer must have decided against after ordering it. It was a Lorelei frame - with the "Deluxe" footboard, and it was made with Madrone wood. It also had some modifications from the standard Lorelei - with some non-uniform spacings between the vertical rails and panels.

Needless to say, Mary and I both thought this was a very unique and interesting bed. So we hemmed and hawed, and decided that we're just going to continue our collection of interesting furniture, and this piece must be in it.

Here are some pictures taken with my new phone. Note the exquisite photo quality.

The first is the bed, fully assembled, in our bedroom - including Jupiter.

These next two images are what we saw in the shop. You can get a good feel for the look of the headboard and footboard that you can't in the fully assembled bed. That's part of what threw us off in the first place - on the web the picture had so many pillows in front of the headboard that you were unable to get a sense of the look.

We also did really like the look of the Madrona's colors and grain. The side rails are also reddish and very unique.

This shows a nice (blurry) close-up of the grain.

The Joinery makes beautiful furniture. All of their pieces are sanded so smooth that you just walk around the shop touching everything you pass. They make all the furniture in the shop itself - you can even watch. And, their wood comes from The Collins Companies, a company which practices sustainable foresting techniques that have left their forests containing as much wood as when they first started logging.

Funny Guy

A couple of different sources have pointed me to Ze's page. He's got a bunch of amusing videos, and has been doing a blog for some amount of time (so I don't know how long he'll keep updating), but he appears to be doing daily videos rounding up the news. I found today's pretty funny.


Friday, March 17, 2006

Great visualization of our tax dollars

This page has a great graphic visualization of where our federal tax dollars go. I wish I could dial this up for each state as well.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Quote of the day

From Bill Maher's New Rules. It might take you a second read to get it...

New Rule: Stop saying "Brokeback Mountain" lost Best Picture because of a homosexual backlash. The only homosexual backlash in Hollywood involves an actual homosexual literally hitting you on the back with a lash. Besides, if "Brokeback Mountain" taught us anything, it's that there's nothing wrong with coming in number-two.

What's up with Iraq?

So many things about the current administration piss me off. But the war in Iraq has just gotten to the point of stupidity.

Bush and Rumsfeld are both saying that they're not near a civil war - but the US ambassador to Iraq and many other people directly involved with Iraq say it's either started or very close. The death rate to our troops has only risen since we started the war. And we just launched the largest air strike in the war!!!

When we took over the friggin country we didn't need as much air-power as we do right now.

That's not even talking about all the money that's gone missing that was targeted to help fix things in Iraq. The death squads and mass graves are just disgusting. People are still without power and clean water.

Let's just hope Bush doesn't decide to invade Iran as well.

March Madness

It has begun. I don't always get to watch many of the games, but I caught some of them today (the first day of it all). As usual, the games were generally close - providing some good, close games. Mary even got into the games a little bit.

Luckily Gonzaga made it through the first round. For whatever reason, I seem to resonate with them. I pull for the Pac-10 teams, but Gonzaga is just a nice underdog (not that they're underdogs any longer). Oh, and I like Duke because of coach K.

Anyway, I'm hoping to catch more of the games this year than last, because it's about the only sports they show on normal TV that I enjoy watching.

Work Update

This year at work started off like the past few. Lots of last-minute issues and a release expected by the customers to solve all their problems. And, true to nature, we delivered the release late, and missing a critical feature that just sent the customers through the roof.

But things began to change. The department decided to reorganize for a variety of reasons. My manager swapped places with another guy, and one of my colleagues moved up to co-manage the group. The change promised to lead to good things. The whole team got all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, those of us who could look forward to new and better things (some were still tied to fixing the horror that was our late release).

And things are a little better (though I think our new managers are getting hammered by the customers (hi boss!)), but the department just has a crazy build/release process that really doesn't match the customers' needs (nor ours). So we're thrashing with things that we don't need to be dealing with.

Luckily, I've got some newer things to work on which actually gives me a chance to do something that is interesting for the first time in as long as I can remember. The tough part is actually remembering what it is to do real work.

One bonus of the new managers was that I was able to go to a conference for the first time. It was a two day class of sorts, talking about the history and future of the C++ language. What was nice was the reflection on why the language is the way it is. I've often griped about the language - the hoops you have to jump through to get basic "features" that have been in languages since computer languages were first designed (in the 60's). But Stroustrup spoke well and said something that made the lightbulb in my head turn on. I'll still bitch about the language, but I understand now. One thing that did hit a cord was the phrase, "there are languages that are idealistic, and there are language people actually use."

The other speaker was much more dynamic - kind of a cross between a motivational speaker, a professor, and Carrot Top. His big revelation was that we're all going to be writing software for multi-processor platforms. It's the first time since computers were invented that pretty much everyone will not be using Von Neumann machines. And the main problem is that nobody has languages that really help with that (that is, languages that are actually used by people).

Not that I needed more ideas to work on at work, but I got all excited about writing error safe C++.

Anyway, work is looking up, it's no longer like it was before.

First Season

Well, my first season of basketball at Timberhill just finished up. We went 5 and 3, and then won our first two games in the playoffs. We lost in the semi-final game because we couldn't shut down the other teams two stars (who scored 25 and 27 points respectively). So we were 3rd/4th best in the league of 12 teams. Not too bad considering we were just the left-overs who didn't have teams of our own.

All in all, I'm pretty happy with how the first season went, considering that I haven't played a real game of basketball in at least three or four years. Officially I averaged 9.6 points per game, and had a total of 63 rebounds. The 63 rebounds was enough to give me the third most in the league - and that's with one of the games not recording rebounds. So I came close to averaging a double-double.

I'll sign up for the next season and see if I can better that.