Browse Month: May 2010

05/30/2010

As a follow-up on the computer parts story below, Alex had the idea of making a little fan for himself. He thought he’d set it on his desk so when he’s working at the desk and gets hot, he could turn it on and cool down a bit. (A very little bit, as it turns out, because these fans don’t push that much air.)

So I helped him rip out the appropriate parts from the computer, plug it into a 9-volt battery, and voila! He did almost all of the work, minus some soldering that proved a bit problematic.

Now Zack and Kyra want their own fans, and there was talk of installing one on the outside of the rats’ cage to keep them cool on hot summer afternoons. Heh.

05/29/2010

Computer parts keep piling up in my office, and I’m running out of space for them. All the closet shelves are full, and there are boxes upon boxes on the floor. Out of necessity, it’s time to dive into the piles and figure out what I really need to keep.

I grabbed three old Pentium 66’s (circa 1999) and gave them to Alex and Zack, who were quite excited about unscrewing the lids and ripping out the guts. There’s something really fun (for a boy, anyway) about the innards of an electronic device– particularly something with as many different parts as a computer. So they’re learning about power supplies and RAM chips and CPU’s.

The shame of it is these computers were still functional. Sure, they can’t do much more than run Windows 95, but in a way it’s sad to tear them apart. I guess I’m a packrat– I hate destroying something that works, even if I know I’ll absolutely positively never use it again.

I thought about dropping some network cards in them and building a little cluster, just for the fun of figuring out how to cluster computers, but after spending the time to figure that out, I’d have a system that was still only a fraction as fast as the 2 GHz system I have on my desk.

What’s funny is I have fifteen more computers just like the ones Alex and Zack are gutting now…

05/29/2010

Yesterday La and I managed to farm out all of our kids to various friends’ houses for sleepovers, so we were free to have an evening to ourselves. We started with a company dinner with the gang at Benihana.

Great food, and of course it’s always entertaining to watch the chefs toss eggs into their hats or make a steam engine out of a sliced onion. But that’s not really what this post is about.

After dinner we zipped over to the theater to watch Prince of Persia. It was opening night, so anticipating a big crowd, Laralee had pre-ordered tickets. It turns out we didn’t really need to worry about it– the theater was half-empty.

The movie was entertaining, although not up to the bar of, say, Pirates of the Caribbean. But that’s not really what I’m writing about either.

Of course when the theater says the showtime is 8:10pm, what they really mean is the previews will start at 8:10, and then maybe around 8:30 the actual movie will begin. No matter– previews tend to be fairly entertaining, and with the exception of Guardians of Ga’hoole (oh my word) we’d seen all of them already.

What’s interesting about previews is that back in the day (I’m talking about the 80’s and 90’s) a typical preview would include maybe two or three scenes from the movie, each lasting ten or twenty seconds. Throw in a voiceover and maybe some text, and call it good. But these days, previews mean intense rapid-fire flashes of content– most lasting only a few seconds– interspersed with bright lights, deep bass, or in-your-face taglines. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize characters or even really understand what’s being shown because it’s so fast.

And that brings me to the point of this post.

Blipverts.

Back in the early 80’s there was a TV show called Max Headroom whose main character was a guy who’d suffered a motorcycle accident and hit a concrete tunnel that said “Max Headroom” across the top. He somehow became a digital persona who cracked jokes on a computer screen. I’m not sure if I remember all of it right; after all, it was nigh on thirty years ago. But suffice to say it was one of those shows that lasted one season and yet somehow made an indelible imprint on my memory.

Anyway, one of the things the show featured was compressed advertising called blipverts, which were basically thirty-second TV commercials crunched down to five seconds and shown at high speed. The rationale? People don’t want to sit still for a thirty-second ad any more. They want the content right now, and you’d better make it snappy because their attention span wavers after five seconds.

As it turned out, blipverts had a nasty side effect: they caused some viewers to explode. I vaguely recall a scene from the show where a huge guy is sitting on the couch watching TV, and a blipvert comes on, and before you know there’s a dull thump and it he’s all over the walls. Strange stuff.

So here we are, thirty years later, and I can’t help but feel that ol’ Max Headroom wasn’t all that wrong in predicting the five-second attention span of our modern society. It manifests itself quite clearly in movie previews, but also in things like Twitter and texting and even news stories. If content takes more than five or ten seconds to consume, people aren’t interested.

It’s a shame, because that means no one’s interested in reading a long thoughtful essay. Or hearing a politician talk about a platform in any kind of meaningful detail. Or listening to a song that’s longer than five minutes. Or wandering a museum (or a national park) and just soaking up the beauty and the knowledge. And I think all of these things are an important part of being well-rounded, informed, wise citizens of our society. The rising generation seems to want bullet points, sound bites, and 140-word quips about what someone’s having for dinner. Too bad. There’s a lot more out there than blipverts.

05/27/2010

From an article in Discover magazine, discussing quantum mechanics and relating it (in an awesome way) to puppies:

“Quantum mechanics is the coolest thing ever invented, ever.”

05/27/2010

Yesterday Laralee and I sat down to play Mario Kart– still my favorite video game of all time. As we started up the game, an announcement popped on the screen: we’d now played 3,600 times and that qualified us for a new vehicle!

It was called the Spear. I jumped on it with Rosalina, but it kind of sucked.

I guess what struck me was that we’ve played Mario Kart 3,600 times. I shudder to think how many hours that is. And yet… it’s kind of cool.

05/21/2010

In a discussion about online storage in a Linux mailing list I read, there was a great comment about how to get more efficient backups than pushing hundreds of gigabytes of data to the web:

I think just backing up to /dev/null is probably cheaper and quite a bit faster, since it will all be local data transfer and not over the internet.  /dev/null seems to have quite a bit of space in it, from what I can tell.  Haven’t tested my backups yet, though.  Probably ought to do that some time.  I believe that /dev/random is the proper read device for that.  They say restores take a while, but I’m sure I can live with that.

Okay, I admit, you have to know what Linux device files are to get the joke, but trust me that if you do, it’s really funny.

05/18/2010

Today’s journey into Wikipedia took me into particle physics, where I learned about something called neutral particle oscillation, known less formally as “flavor oscillation”. It’s a condition where certain subatomic particles actually switch spontaneously between their matter and antimatter states. In most cases the switch occurs trillions of times every second, and eventually the particle collapses into a more stable state (usually a different particle, releasing a quanta of energy or another particle).

There was a time long ago when I might have been able to make sense of the quantum mechanical equations related to this:

But that time has long past. Now I just sort of skim the eigenvalue equations and trust that the guys in the white lab coats know what they’re talking about. Pretty cool stuff.

05/18/2010

Today Laralee took the van into her favorite auto shop for a tuneup, and mentioned that the front driver-side tire seemed a little flat. After a bit of investigation, the mechanic discovered a fairly large nail embedded in the tire.

We just took a 1,900-mile trip to Missouri and back, and the nail was in the tire the entire time. Now that’s a good tire!

05/09/2010

Remember the much-maligned talking Barbie doll who said “Math is hard… let’s go shopping!”? Ahh, those were good times.

Fox news needs to go shopping, I guess.

05/09/2010

For some reason, when we go on family trips they tend to be epic.

Last month we toured the deserts of Utah, ending up in St. George in the far southwest corner. The total distance was about 1,600 miles.

This week we’re heading to St. Louis, which is about 900 miles each way.

Our plan for early June is even more ambitious: Denver to Phoenix, hang for a few days, then west to San Diego and Sea World, north to Los Angeles and its beaches, up through Las Vegas, and back home to Denver.

On the map it’s 2,500 miles, but when you add all of the driving around the cities and so forth we’re probably going to hit 2,800. Not quite as epic as the famous 4,000-mile Seattle trip we made nine years ago, but still a lot of pavement to cover.

It makes our Yellowstone trip this August seem short by comparison: only 1,200 miles.

Although at times it might be nice to fly, the cost for all five of us is prohibitive. Plus, don’t get me started about the farce of traveling on the airlines these days. But all in all, I think driving is a great way to see the country. You really get to see the landscape change around you, and stop to see interesting or unusual places you might otherwise never think about.

I’m the kind of person who’s all about the journey, but Laralee is all about the destination. It makes for an interesting mix on these odysseys.

Luckily we have an Odyssey. Hah! Get it?

05/06/2010

Alex and I are considering joining a local Tae Kwon Do class, so we went to the dojo tonight to see what it was like. It turns out we were told the wrong time, so when we arrived it was time for a kickboxing class. We shrugged and decided to participate anyway.

We worked on a few punches and kicks, then did some core strength exercises, then reviewed some self-defense moves, and then did more core strength stuff. And after that, some core strength stuff. All I can say is I apparently don’t have a lot of core strength. I’m flexible– I had no problem doing all the bends and stretches– but when it came to the bicycle moves and leg lifts, I was straining.

After an hour (we thought the class was only half an hour) we were pretty tired, but both decided it was a good time. We’re going to see if we can actually show up for tae kwon do in the next few days, and figure out if we want to get in the program.

05/03/2010

Last week Comcast was awarded the Golden Poo Award for being the “worst company in America”.

They’re certainly earning that award today. I’m trying to update the credit card information on my account so I can actually pay them for their service, and after 30 minutes and about six transfers between agents, I’m still working on it.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!

05/02/2010

So some whack-job tries (and fails) to blow up a car bomb in the middle of Times Square. It was kind of a surprise, but I must say the response of the government is– sadly– completely unsurprising.

Of course they’ve labeled this a “terrorist incident” because these days, anything remotely dangerous must be the work of the boogeymen terrorists. There are no longer unbalanced individuals with a vendetta against the world, or just having a bad day. Every bad thing that happens, or almost happens, or is even just bouncing around the head of someone who’s particularly grumpy, is now a terrorist incident.

That notwithstanding, this scare gives the government the perfect excuse to expand the surveillance society they’re so keen to build. From a New York Times article:

The police department has been planning a high-tech security network for Midtown Manhattan involving surveillance cameras, license plate readers and chemical sensors… the network would use public and private security cameras and license plate readers and would be able to record and track every vehicle moving between 34th and 59th Streets, river to river.

Every vehicle. In the heart of New York City. It staggers the mind to consider how much information would be collected to facilitate this. Thousands (tens of thousands?) of security cameras will be needed, not to mention vast computation and data storage capabilities. Everyone in Manhattan can kiss their privacy goodbye.

But the real kicker for me is this move– like so many measures enacted by the government in the past decade– will most likely be completely useless. From the same article:

It was not clear whether it could have prevented the attempted car bombing in Times Square on Saturday night. Because neither the SUV used in the attempt nor the license plate on it had been reported stolen, it would not have raised any immediate red flags.

So we’ll spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, employ a huge staff, monitor millions of people, and get absolutely nowhere.

Stop the madness. Please.