Sunday, December 07, 2008

In 2000 the four of us visited Alaska for a month. We rented a jeep and mostly just drove around looking at stuff. One of the side trips was to the Kennecott copper mine near McCarthy.

Turning of the main road its about 60 miles on a dirt railroad grade through the Wrangell St. Elias National Park, to end-of-the road. When you get there, you can park, and walk across a small footbridge to the mine. The old mine, abandoned in 1938, was at the time, mostly open to the public. As far as ghost towns, this one is pretty impressive.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Ultimate Frisbee c. 1980

I'm the big guy making the kick block, Matt McElrath is the thrower. Note the short shorts and striped socks. The strange bright circles in the sky are probably an alien spaceship.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The natural enemy of cats

I'd searched everywhere - the dresser, yesterdays jeans, the laundry, under the couch cushions. I was late for work and getting a little desperate - had some0ne stolen my wallet? I took a deep breath and tried to visualize when I had last seen it. Yesterday afternoon I'd stuffed it under the car seat - eureka!

I went out in the garage and carefully reached under the seat, feeling for the lost wallet. My fingers touched something unexpected, soft, furry. Perhaps a fur lined glove or a fur hat? Why was there something soft and furry under my car seat? There was a strange sound, it sounded sort of like "hissssss .... murrrooowwwwwwww!". I jerked my hand away.

Crouching under the seat was one very scared cat. I had left the window open, and the cat had crawled in during the night. I tried to reach in and pull it out, but it hissed and tried to claw me.

I opened the door and said "here kitty kitty". The cat wasn't going anywhere. I waited a few minutes - still there. Time to try something more direct. I brought a spray bottle from the kitchen and spritzed the cat with water. It just hissed dug in.

I'm sure that if I waited, the cat would eventually leave, but I was late for work! I couldn't leave it there or it would escape in Raleigh and never find it's way home.

I had an inspiration - what is a cat's mortal enemy? That's right, the vacuum cleaner. I dragged the vacuum into the passenger seat. As soon as I turned it on, the cat shot out the door, ran across the street and into the woods. My wallet was under the seat, just as I had suspected. Mission accomplished.

That evening my neighbor stopped by. Had I seen a 13 year old tabby cat? The story had a happy ending - the cat returned home that night.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Field Guide to The Common Code Monkeys

(Content warning: Despite the cute pictures, this article is extremely geeky)

C# Monkey: There is great excitement in the coding world about this fresh new code monkey. The first of a new generation of managed code monkeys, many consider the C# to be the ultimate monkey coder. He is powerful, quick, and reliable, and is rapidly out competing the venerable C++ and Java monkeys.

C++ Monkey: For many years this magnificent creature reigned as the king of the code monkeys. Descended from the prehistoric “C” monkey, his speed, dexterity, and power made him the choice for the most demanding jobs. Unfortunately an arrogant and obsessive addiction to complexity left him vulnerable to low productivity and unstable code.

JavaScript Monkey: This nervous little fellow is amazingly agile, able to accomplish acrobatic wonders of coding. Like most scripting monkeys, poor organization and lack of cleanliness can cause difficulty.

Java Monkey: This wise and intelligent monkey is a careful planner. He has an extremely painstaking personality and is prone to being haughty and condescending. Java’s are often seen lecturing other monkeys. Despite a highly developed intellect, the Java monkey is rarely observed in the act of coding.

VB Monkey: This venerable simian can accomplish small tasks with great rapidity. He is proficient at simple tasks, but falters when confronted with complexity. He suffers from poor personal hygiene and an inflated view of his abilities. Often seen taunting C++ and C# monkeys.

Ruby Monkey: Several years ago, this small agile monkey amazed the world with its amazingly effortless websites. Unfortunately, its short lifespan has left it unable to exploit early successes. Now slowly disappearing from the internet environment.

Haskell and Erlang Monkeys: These rare creatures are not true monkeys at all – they are members of the marsupial order. While having many monkey like characteristics, they are excessively specialized. Despite their rarity, they can be valuable when properly deployed in multi-threaded applications.
Perl Monkey: Another one of the common script monkeys. The Perl monkeys is simple but versatile, and is most commonly found in a Linux environment. Although specialized for text processing and administrative tasks, the Perl monkey his high ambitions. Sadly, despite its pretensions at being a real code monkey, it's just a dressed up scripting monkey.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Obsolete Technology II

The 1914 edition of the "Century Dictionary, an encyclopedic lexicon of the English language" is 9 inches thick and about 11,000 tissue thin pages long. This weighty tome contains a "complete collection of the technical terms of the various sciences, arts, trades, and professions". Being a modern up-to-date publication, the editors included entries for the hottest new technologies, like the airplane and the automobile. Here's a selection from the section on the airplane:
This is a picture of the famous Blériot monoplane, which first flew in 1909, and was the first aircraft to cross the English channel. The diagram is pretty detailed, identifying many of the important parts. The thing you'll notice is that this vehicle is basically a bicycle with an engine. Compare it to the diagram of a General Electric TF39 turbofan engine, designed about 60 years later (1965). This particular engine was built for the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy transport. Notice that this engine is about 100 X more complex than the entire Blériot.

I don't want to belittle the early airplane, it was more revolutionary for it's time than the GE engine. The GE engine is now around 40 years old, and was designed with slide rules, drafting pens, and typewriters. The engines on a 21st century Boeing 757-200 are quite a bit more complex. The 757 was designed entirely with CAD-CAM software, and would have been impossible to build in 1965, let alone 1909. (Oddly enough, the paper dictionary itself is obsolete too.)

My young grandfather would have been comfortable with the technology of the Blériot airplane. I grew up up seeing the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy flying overhead. My children (in college) grew up with the 757.

My point? I think it has something to do with technology and change. Makes me want to ask the big questions: Where are the flying cars? Forget plug-in hybrids, if we got where we are in a mere 100 years, I think we're due for flying cars by, lets say, 2010.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Technical Books

A few years ago I had the opportunity to write a technical book on the obscure topic of Microsoft's Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM). It was fun to write, and sold decently, but I didn't get rich. Technical books are perhaps the most ephemeral of all (non journalism) publications. In a quickly changing field such as computer science, books have a shelf-life of less than one year.

I started on my DCOM book in the summer of 1997, and the publisher wanted it immediately. I worked industriously, and managed to get it done in about six months. Unfortunately, several other books came out during that interval, and that cut into sales. Most of the other books were pretty good, with the exception of one (large red) book with a dramatic lack of content. (My effort certainly wasn't perfect). Anyhow, timing is everything for technical subjects.

In the past ten years, the technical book market has started to disappear. Nowadays, much of the best content is available for free online. The web also allows it to be published almost instantaneously. Dead tree books are going the way of the steam engine.

At a recent library book sale an old technical book caught my eye. The book is entitled "Steam: Its generation and use", published by the Babcock & Wilcox company in 1918. Doubtless, for its time, this was bleeding edge technology. At that period, just after the end of World War I, boiler technology was changing the world at an incredible pace. Not only was it used for heating, but for electrical generation, and powering the the steam engines that were catapulting the USA into world leadership.

I couldn't resist, and now the book graces my nonfiction book collection, right next to books on Cryptography, Data Mining, .NET programming, and of course, DCOM.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Save a tree (or a shrub)

You're probably wasting paper.

Microsoft word documents have a factory default margin of 1" on top, and 1.25" on the sides. That's a pretty good setting for nice looking documents, but it leaves a lot of unused white space.

Penn State University did a study showing that shrinking document margins to 0.75" increases the printable area by 19%. SEE HERE. This means that an average 100 page document could be reduced to 81 pages.

How much would it save? For Penn State, they could save 45,000 reams of paper, and an annual cost of $120,000. From an environmental point of view, this saves 45 forest acres, and reduces the impact of the resource intensive paper industry.

It sounds like a pretty good deal to me. Please print this out and give a copy to everybody you know.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Fiscal Policy

I was digging through some papers today and came across an old envelope, postmarked 1958, with my mother's name on it. I opened it to find three interesting US 1875 treasury notes.

These are an example of "Fractional Currency" issued by the treasury from 1862 until 1876. During and after the American Civil War, there was a huge shortage of coins. People didn't trust the solvency of their governments, and tended to hoard metal coins. This made it difficult to buy things because merchants couldn't make change for small purchases.

After a few unsuccessful ideas, like the wooden nickle, the treasury came up with the novel idea of sticking uncanceled postage stamps on a blank sheet of paper. The consumer could exchange it for its equal value in postage stamps at any post office. This worked so well that they began printing actual notes with portraits from the stamps on them. They printed in dominations of 3, 5, 10, 15, 25, and 50¢.

The 10¢ bill above has the portrait of William M. Meredith, Secretary of Treasury from 1849 until 1850. Meredith was famous for...nothing much. His main accomplishment was in undoing the work of his predecessor. Some time during the past 130 years the portrait was enhanced by an unknown private citizen (probably a rebel).

Although the value of these bills has increased since their issue, they are still not worth very much. Values range from $9 to $30.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The wall

Drawing from the Great wall at Badaling. This view was after about a 45 minute hike uphill from the road. There's a tower just behind me where most people get tired and turn around.

That day there was a group of young men visiting the wall wearing identical "Legends of Kung Fu" tee shirts. They were horsing around, just like you'd expect from a group of teenagers. Judging by some of their stunts, I'd guess that these were extras from the Beijing "Chun Yi: Legends of Knung Fu" show. I regret that I didn't get any pictures.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Guidebook To China

In preparation for my recent visit to china, I stopped at Barnes & Noble and looked over the tourist guides. After some comparison, I bought a copy the Lonely Planet guide to China - it had a good balance of history and practical information.

While surfing the net a few days later, I ran across the 1942 equivalent of the travel guide:

Click HERE to read the document.

Back then the US and China were both at war with Japan. The Japanese had invaded china in 1937, and were engaged in a brutal occupation. The guidebook was for American GI's, mostly the USAAF, who were stationed in China. After the war, GI's were stationed all over the country to supervise the surrender of the Japanese army.

For a 1940's document, the guide is remarkably free of racial stereotypes.It contains useful information about culture, language, and shopping - all the things you'd expect. Many of the comments about Chinese culture ring true. The advice is pretty good too, even by todays standards. I suspect that we've changed a lot more since 1942 than the Chinese.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Master of the Nets

The formal Chinese garden must adhere to seventeen essential elements. This includes water, rocks, walls, and feng shui. On my recent visit to China, I had the pleasure of visiting the "Master of the Nets" garden in Suzhou, just outside of Shanghai. Many people consider this garden to be one of the best in the world.

Part of the experience of a formal garden is to stroll through it, watching as each "scene" unfolds along your passage. I only had an hour, so I settled for a quick walk through, and a detailed study of a single view. I could have spent all day there.

I always make my drawings from the actual location, rather than a photograph. It's interesting to compare the finished drawing to what the camera sees. (I didn't have my camera so I had to rip off this excellent photograph by Gareth Davies. The original site is HERE.)

Nobody's perfect

The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.) is the world's leading professional association for the advancement of technology. If anyone knows how to build a great website, it should be these guys.

"Users may experience intermittent service disruptions at this time. We apologize for any inconvenience and as we work to resolve these issues."

Monday, July 21, 2008

Tabla Rasa

As an occasional writer, I have an deep seated fear of the blank page. A blank page represents mostly bad things - procrastination, writers block, un-begun tasks, and failure. I suspect that prolific writers see things differently - to them a blank page is an invitation to express themselves - a welcoming opportunity.

I've noticed that technical writers have a method of dealing with the blank page. They simply state the obvious:
"This page intentionally left blank"
This has always seemed like an oxymoron to me. It's self-referential in a deeply postmodern way. There are several websites dedicated to this concept. (Look HERE, and HERE.) Not suprisingly, Wikipedia has a page dedicated to the subject. HERE.

As a computer programmer I'd refer to this as a "NO-OP", or no-operation. Back in the old days when computers were programed with bits and bytes, we wrote code in assembly language. Assembly programming is very tedious because at that low-level, you have to tell the computer exactly what to do, including when to do nothing at all. For your benefit, I've included a sample of assembly language programming:

sub edx, 8
jg .loop
nop ; do nothing, little grasshopper

This code fragment demonstrates the "nop" instruction in its native habitat. The "nop", or NO-OP is special, because it does nothing. It seems self-contradictory to have a programming command that tells the computer to do nothing. It's necessary because computer must be told EVERYTHING - computers are just that stupid. On a philosophical level, NO-OP is zen-like.
A monk asked Zen master Jōshū , : "Has a cow Buddha-nature or not?", Jōshū answered: "Mu". (Nothing)
Nothingness is all around us. Several weeks ago I bought a spindle of recordable computer CDs. The very last CD in the pack was blank. (If I were a songwriter, I'd find this especially disturbing.)

Several company have made a business out of selling nothing. They manufacture what's known as "void fill machines", which produce bags of air. These bags are very useful for shipping, because air makes a great lightweight and low cost filler. It weighs practically nothing and gives a whole new meaning to "air mail".

Sunday, June 08, 2008

San Paul and the cheeseburger

The painting is by the great Spanish painter Velasquez, and is entitled "San Antonio Abad y San Pablo, primer ermitaño". Great paintings don't have titles, they are "entitled". I think the entitlement means Saint Anthony and Saint Paul, the first hermit.

The story goes like this: Paul fled the persecution of the romans, and lived in the theban desert in a cave near a tree. He ate fruit, and drank only water. Every day a crow would visit him, bearing a loaf of bread. But wait, isn't that a cheeseburger? It's kind of difficult to tell in this picture. If you ever go to the Prado in Madrid, look carefully, you'll see I'm right.

It only makes sense. I once spent three days stranded on an island without any food. I thought a lot about cheeseburgers.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

La Albufera

On our recent trip to Spain we visited Parque Natural de la Albufera just outside of Valencia. The Albufera is a large fresh water lake at the shore of the Mediterranean sea.

The Valencia area is famous not just for its oranges, but for rice production. Valencian cuisine is known for seafood paella, a delicious rice dish served in large flat pans. Much of this rice is grown in the area around La Albufera.

We got stuck in a small town named El Palmar on a Sunday afternoon. We had a 3 hour wait for the next bus, and nothing to do. After a late lunch of Paella and bottled water, we sat by the canal and watched the tourist boats. These are small wooden sailing and motorized craft that give lake tours for about 20 Euros.

I got in some good sketching time. It wasn't a bad way to spend the afternoon.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Why me?

Every time I travel these days my bag gets searched. How do I know? Well, they tell me about it by leaving a friendly reminder in my duffel bag. So far I've got quite a collection of inspection notices.

Why me?

I've got three theories about it:

1) Several years ago a drug sniffing dog flagged me at the port of Charleston. I had a legal prescription for pain killers in my bag. TSA searched all my luggage in detail, taking out each pair of dirty underwear and checking inside every shoe. The officers were polite and apologized for the inconvenience, insisting that this was a random search. Regardless, they spent a lot of time typing information into the computer.

2. In 2004 I volunteered for a campaign that was trying to defeat the sitting president. Perhaps I got on a list. Probably not - I'm not important enough to harass.

3. I often travel with a green military style duffel bag. A friend suggested that they always search military baggage. I don't know if this is true, but It's plausible. (Maybe it's just like the bag Osama uses when he visits.)

Well, I guess it's just the price of being ever-vigilant in the war on drugs.

© 2008 Raoul Rubin