Browse Month: January 2010

01/31/2010

For our continuing dinner series at home, we’re going to work on learning new languages. We’re concentrating on basic phrases like “Hello” and “How are you?” and “My name is…” and other exciting topics.

Tonight we started on French, since that’s the language Kyra is learning in school. I think next week will be German, which is Alex’s choice (and I know fragments from years past). And Spanish will inevitably be next since Laralee knows it. Eventually we’ll get to more exotic ones like Russian, Japanese, and Farsi.

01/31/2010

As of today we officially have a teenager in the house. Alex turned 13. Woo hoo!

01/29/2010

Today we were teaching our science challenge class and our topic was the solar system. I was explaining how Mercury is closest to the sun so it’s really hot– around 800 degrees, in fact. And it’s tidally locked to the sun, so the same side is always facing the sun. In other words, the weather on Mercury is really hot and doesn’t ever change.

“Like Miami?” asked one of the girls.

01/28/2010

Looking for an iPod Nano on Craigslist I came across this ad:

iPod Nano for sale. We have multiples and never use it.
Slightly scuffed on the outside but works perfectly.
Comes with charger and includes some pretty sweet tunes, including Bon Jovi.

Including Bon Jovi! Sweet!

01/21/2010

I just finished constructing the Wiimote glove that supplements the nifty pen to allow a sort of touchscreen interface for a big-screen computer. It’s basically a gardening glove with an infrared LED sewn into the index fingertip, a battery pack on the wrist, and a touch switch at the base of the middle finger. It looks vaguely high-tech with the wires and resistors, sort of like a poor man’s bionic hand.

By pointing to the screen and clicking the switch with my thumb, I can simulate mouse clicks and drags (the pen works the same way). It’s pretty fun, but honestly the pen is more accurate and a little easier to handle. I’d like to use both on something larger than my 50″ TV, though– I need a chance to use a projector and put up an eight-foot screen or something, and then “draw” on the wall with my pen or glove.

01/20/2010

Laralee and I just got back from seeing Avatar in IMAX 3D. I had never seen a 3D movie before, so after laughing at the goofy glasses I settled in and found it to be pretty darn cool. I’m not sure the IMAX part was worth the extra dollar (the screen didn’t seem that much larger) but it was certainly fun to be overwhelmed with sight and sound.

All in all, I enjoyed the movie. There are a lot of people saying it’s predictable (it is), that the environmental message is a bit heavy-handed (it is), and that the characters aren’t all that inventive (they’re not). Despite that, the special effects are so breathtaking that you get lost in the magic. I admit there have been plenty of movies with weak plots where they hoped the effects would save them and they didn’t, but in this case the effects really did turn what would have been a mediocre movie into something pretty special. The soundtrack is quite good as well, and many’s the movie that’s been saved (or sunk) by the music.

I’m not sure I’m going to rush out to the theater more often so I can see new movies in 3D, but it was definitely a nice evolution in the moviegoing experience. I hear rumblings that one of these days we’ll be able to play 3D content at home, and that’ll be fun. Hopefully they’ll have glasses that are a bit more stylish.

01/17/2010

La, Kyra, Zack, and I played a rousing game of Monopoly this evening. I don’t think Laralee has played the game more than maybe three times in her life, so she was kind of confused about what to do (general strategy: buy everything you can for the first ten or so turns). Once we started building houses she was in uncharted territory and had to leave anyway to pick up Alex at church, so I took over her position. She did pretty well for a while, but stumbled into my big hotel chain and fell fast.

Kyra managed to grab all four railroads and both utilities, which is a devastating combination. She racked up $200 every time someone landed on the railroads (which is surprisingly often) but in the end I pulled ahead by planting motels on my favorite properties of all: the orange ones.

I remember back in the late 1980’s I wrote a computer program that calculated the odds of landing on particular properties (I think many computer science and math geeks do this sort of thing. My model even incorporated three doubles (go to Jail) and the Chance and Community Chest cards that send you places like Boardwalk and Go and Illinois Avenue. In the end, it was clear that the most popular places to land are the orange properties. Other models I’ve seen support this conclusion, so it’s always my strategy to snatch those. Zack was a holdout this game and refused to sell me New York Avenue which was the only orange I was missing. So I had to start with the light blues, and at one point when he landed on a hotel and owed me $550 I offered to take New York instead. That was the beginning of the end– I quickly built up houses and then hotels on the orange, and after pounding Kyra a few times (she had a lot of cash reserves) managed to get the reds right around the corner. With hotels there after a few turns, it was all over.

Monopoly is interesting because it’s a zero-sum game: in order for someone to win, someone else must lose. It’s frustrating to a lot of people (Laralee for one, my mom for another) but I enjoy it. The kids are actually pretty good at it– Kyra lasted a long time, and Zack didn’t do too badly either.

01/17/2010

The fifth annual Zing Ski Day was, as always, a rousing success. We went up to Breckenridge on Thursday and enjoyed the beautiful weather and light crowds.

Things started off nice and easy…

Photo credit: Rob

… and we made sure to keep it low-key and fun. Brian worked hard on this particular run:

Photo credit: Rob

Therese makes it look easy:

Photo credit: Rob

And of course Rob does some nice carving that makes all of us look bad:

Photo credit: me, with Rob’s sweet camera

We finished it off with a nice dinner in Idaho Springs. Good times all around. Thanks, guys, for a fun day.

01/13/2010

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science– the one that heralds new discoveries– is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…'”

— Isaac Asimov

01/12/2010

Woot! I managed to get my Wiimote and infrared pen hack working this evening, so I’m now able to use the computer by pointing a pen at the screen and clicking on it. Basically it’s just a matter of setting the Wiimote on a chair off to the side of the screen, connecting it via Bluetooth to the computer, and calibrating the pen. Then it’s possible to use the pen like a mouse.

Here’s Kyra playing around in Tuxpaint on the plasma screen:

My next project will be to connect all of this to a projector so we can use the wall as a whiteboard. The end goal is to use it in my second-grade science class.

Oh, and I’m also going to buy a pair of cheap gloves and attach an IR LED to the index finger, so I can use my finger instead of a pen. Way cool.

01/11/2010

Seen on a bumper sticker on my way to work this morning:

Wag more. Bark less.

01/10/2010

I love my Dell Mini 9 netbook, which I bought the first day they became available. It’s a great little piece of hardware the size of a hardback book, with enough computing power for me to run a full version of Linux, browse the web, read email and news, and do all of the little sit-on-the-couch-and-hack tasks I need. Plus, it never fails to impress the chicks. (I can’t even count the number of women who have told me it’s “so cute”.)

Yet netbooks are under attack lately, possibly because Google has finally released their Nexus One smartphone– which is without a doubt a handy little piece of work. There seems to be a growing consensus that netbooks are bulkier than smartphones, while also smaller and less capable than full laptops. They apparently occupy some middle ground that’s a dead space of computing. Either you should get a smartphone for low-end computing and super portability, or a laptop for mainstream computing and relative portability.

Regardless of these naysayers, I think netbooks fill a perfect niche. They sit between smartphones and laptops, and that’s exactly where they should be. I don’t want a phone with a keyboard so small I can hardly read the keys, much less tap them; at the same time I don’t want to lug around a five-pound laptop the size of a two-inch binder. I can walk into a meeting with my Mini 9 and take notes. I can’t do that (well) on a phone, and a laptop is too big and power-hungry.

So I was gratified to see other bloggers standing up for the maligned netbook, saying the really cool thing about them– which I hadn’t really considered– was that unlike smartphones, they’re not “tethered” to a carrier who subsidizes their cost and then locks you into a two-year contract. They’re more powerful but have the same incredible draw that smartphones do: in the words of Jeff Atwood, they provide “unlimited access to the complete sum of human knowledge, and free, unfettered communication with anyone on earth. For everyone.”

A couple hundred bucks and a wireless connection is all it takes to access books and articles about anything, and communicate almost instantly with people anywhere on earth. Who would have thought it possible ten years ago?

Long live the netbook.

01/06/2010

I was cleaning up my e-mail today and shuffled the last messages of 2009 into my annual “Sent” folder. Out of curiosity I checked how many e-mails I wrote last year.

14,596.

That’s an average of 40 per day. Man, what would I do without e-mail?

01/03/2010

Today marks Day Five of Laralee’s trip to Idaho with the kids to visit her family. For the past few days I’ve always had stuff to do (work, going out with friends, New Year’s parties) but today has been pretty slow. I worked on taxes for a bit– whee!– but soon hit a wall because I don’t have all of the necessary paperwork. I guess I’ll have to wait for that particular pain.

Anyway, this evening I’ve been planning the curriculum for the second-grade science class La and I are going to teach this semester. Our first class is this Friday so we need a list of lessons, materials, and a general feel for how we’re going to fill an hour every Friday with interesting, fun, and educational science experiments. Should be fun.

After a while of that I started poking around Wikipedia, because I wanted some ideas about topics we could discuss. I realized that since every article is heavily linked to related information, one can hop topic to topic pretty quickly, diving into either deep details about a particular thing, or hopping over into a completely different field. It’s actually quite fun, and this evening I’ve read about all sorts of esoteric things:

  • the Oort Cloud and Kuiper Belt
  • the Permian Extinction
  • the Antarctic Convergence Zone
  • the Pangaea supercontinent, and the ten or so that preceded it
  • what determines the timberline on a mountain
  • where the phrase “beating a dead horse” originated
  • why having a certain muscle attachment on the femur allowed early dinosaurs to dominate the biosphere
  • the “island of stability” in high atomic numbers
  • Of course not all of this will be useful for a group of a dozen second-graders, but it’s sure fun to learn something new. A day without learning something is truly a day wasted.