Sunday, December 28, 2008

Year End Catch-Up

I've been sitting on some news stories for a while, but one thing that a long vacation guarantees is that I don't want to be bothered with serious stuff until I absolutely have to be. Since I'm going back into the office tomorrow, I wanted to post a couple of frivolities that were at one point going to get their own entries, but that I never got around to.

The new version of The Day the Earth Stood Still was horrible. They completely missed the point. I strongly urge anyone who has interest in seeing it, or anyone who needs a good sci-fi movie, to check out the original 1951 version instead. I'm still thinking about seeing the new Star Trek movie, which I fully expect to be equally bad. I'll try to be a bit more prompt about posting a warning should I see it and should it live down to my expectations.

My favorite game of the year was probably Dead Space. Chrono Trigger for the DS is simply outstanding, and my favorite console RPG of all time, but I haven't finished the new version yet and it's not exactly a new game. Team Fortress 2 still takes up most of my online playing time. Left 4 Dead is brilliant on several levels, and so tense that I can't play it very often. Galactic Civilizations 2 remains a game that I avoid playing because I find it so engrossing that it eats my time in three to four hour chunks. PC games are still more my style than console games, but Rock Band 2 makes a good case for a console in every home

I still spend too much time with TV, but I enjoy a good story too much to give it up. Lost, House, Chuck, and Doctor Who are my choices for cream of the crop. My greatest dissappointment was watching Battlestar Galactica collapse in a fit of bad writing that even managed to undermine the very good first season and a half. Space ships and what happens after the end of the world are two of my own personal obsessions, and it still managed to turn me off. The new year will bring a new Joss Whedon show, but Fox placed it in the Friday night death slot. We'll see if it fares better than the late lamented Firefly. Doctor Who continues to be a pleasure resurrected (or perhaps I should say regenerated) from my childhood with adventures just as entertaining now as they were then. It's going to be a quiet year for the Doctor, with only four specials, but I'll be looking forward to seeing all of them.

The Internet continues to change things. This year has seen the rise to prominance of Twitter. Text messaging is pervasive (shudder). Phones and music players are becoming increasingly useful as networked devices, at least to other people. I'm still fine with mine just making calls and playing music. And of course it's a Google world now more than ever.

I am looking forward to seeing what the new year will bring. Hopefully it will be a better one for all the friends I have seen facing hardship in the past year. Hopefully the economy will turn around by summer as some are predicting. But there are still three more days before the end of the year, so I won't write off 2008 just yet.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Traditions

One of my online behavior policies is to never forward chain e-mails. Even if they are generally harmless or even good. This year I got one from a friend asking about Christmas traditions. So, to be a good sport without forwarding e-mails to everyone, I present the questions from the chain e-mail and my answers. All without clogging your inbox.

1. Wrapping paper or gift bags?
It depends on the gift. I've used both. Gift bags have the benefit of not making it quite as obvious that I'm completely inept with ribbon. Wrapped boxes are more fun.

2. Giving or receiving?
Both. Isn't that the idea?

3. Real tree or artificial?
Artificial. Allergies are fun, kids!

4. When do you put up the tree?
The weekend after Thanksgiving. It corresponds to a long weekend. Since I live alone and still celebrate Christmas at my parents' house, I only put up my tree every other year or so. I have a wreath on the front door, another inside, and holly on the mantelpiece, so there is always some sort of decoration.

5. When do you take down the tree?
Either the weekend after Christmas or New Years weekend. Whichever is the first to correspond to a long weekend.

6. Do you like eggnog? Spiked or not?
Yes. I've never actually had it spiked that I remember.

7. Favorite gift as a child?
Judging by longevity, it would probably have to be Lego brand building bricks.

8. Hardest person to buy for?
Pretty much everyone but me.

9. Easiest person to buy for?
See the previous answer.

10. Do you have a nativity scene?
Yes. It's a pottery scene that was made in Bolivia and given to me by friends who went there on a mission team from my church. It's got llamas instead of sheep.

11. Mail or e-mail Christmas cards?
Generally, mail. I try to follow the lead of whomever I am mailing. I've noticed that married guys are more likely to send Christmas cards than unmarried ones. And they tend to be signed in their wives' handwriting...

12. What's the worst Christmas gift you ever received?
Honestly, I have never gotten anything so bad that I actually remember it for being bad.

13. What's your favorite Christmas movie?
Ghostbusters. No, wait, Casablanca. OK, it's "A Christmas Carol."

14. When do you start shopping for Christmas?
October, usually. I made the mistake of waiting until after Thanksgiving last year, and I really, really don't ever want to get into that level of retail madness again.

15. Have you ever recycled a Christmas gift?
Not that I remember.

16. What's your favorite thing to eat at Christmas?
Often I make fudge. It's a dead heat between raspberry chocolate and mint chocolate.

17. Are there lights on your tree?
All year 'round. The best part about artificial trees is not having to restring the lights every year.

18. What's your favorite Christmas song.
Oh Holy Night. Still, Still, Still is right up there too, and I listen to it on Christmas Eve every year after the Christmas Eve service before going to bed.

19. Do you travel at Christmas or stay home?
We usually travel just before or just after Christmas to see family. Christmas day itself is usually held at my parents' house.

20. Can you name all of Santa's reindeer?
Sure. There's a catchy song to help you remember 'em.

21. Is there an angel on top of your tree or a star?
An angel usually. There's a descending dove on the top of the family Christmon tree.

22. Do you open Christmas gifts on Christmas eve or morning?
Morning. In days past, if there was a bunch of stuff, we could open one gift from someone not family on Christmas eve.

23. What's the most annoying thing about this time of year?
Figuring out what to get people, definitely.

24. What's your favorite ornament theme or color?
I'm not sure. They must be like art: I can't tell what's good, but I can tell what I like.

25. What's your favorite food for Christmas dinner?
Mom's cranberry apple bake.

26. What do you want for Christmas this year?
I want to see you smile.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Rambling About Prince of Persia

The wind is free, but the sand goes where it is blown. ...
What is one grain of sand in the desert? One grain amongst the storm?
--from the intro of Prince of Persia
A few years ago, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time reinvented an old PC platformer, bringing the complex environmental puzzles of the old title into the modern world of 3D gaming. It was a sterling game in spite of some repetitive and difficult combat sequences. The acrobatic puzzles were very well executed, and the wrapper story was very well done indeed. The game also included the limited ability to rewind time, which encouraged experimentation with complex puzzles that would have otherwise been brutally unforgiving. The next two Prince of Persia games, which completed a trilogy, were not as well received, but neither were they failures. So, it's no surprise that a Prince of Persia game was slated for the newer hardware of the current console generation. What was surprising was that it would be using a totally different art style and be unrelated to the Sands of Time games.

The mechanics set out by The Sands of Time influenced many games that have come out since, not only the Prince series itself, but titles such as Assassin's Creed, Mirror's Edge, and the more recent Tomb Raider games. So how does the originator fair in its fourth outing? In my opinion, it's well worth playing, but for somewhat different reasons than The Sands of Time.

The new game has taken some flack for being too easy, which I find somewhat comical. Instead of the limited rewinds offered in Sands of Time, the new Prince has the aid of a companion, Elika, with the magical ability to rescue him any time he gets into trouble. And I do mean any time, whether you miss a jump, or are getting pounded in a fight, Elika is always there to provide a bailout. The end result basically immitates an automatic quick save that occurs every time you are standing on solid ground. It makes the game far more forgiving than Sands of Time, and I for one am fine with t. While it does reduce the tension of the game, I have always believed that tension born of forcing lengthy or repeated retrying was not a good thing in games. Along those lines, the acrobatic maneuvers performed by the prince are also easier this time around. They are simple button presses with fairly loose accuracy and ample visual and timing clues. This is a far more valid criticism if that sort of thing bothers you, because it really does make the game a simple one to learn. I found that I had enough fun making the Prince flow through the levels that the simplicity didn't bother me unless I played for more than an hour at a time. Which brings me to the biggest criticism of the game.

Prince of Persia is a simple game with heavily repeated mechanics. The combination of simple controls and a semi-open world design means that the game is best experienced in smaller doses so it doesn't all sort of run together. The repetative nature is actually worse in the combat sequences. For starters there are maybe twenty enemies in the game. Not twenty types, twenty total. You will fight the four main bosses six times each. And the combat mechanics, always a weakness in the Prince games, are arguably the worst yet. The developers were going for a cinematic presentation and attempting to preserve the simple button press chaining mechanics of the rest of the game. I can completely see what they were trying to do, but where they ended up was an awkward fighting game presentation constantly interrupted by the dreaded quicktime event rather than something that preserved the smoothly flowing nature of the platforming elements. The primary criticism of quicktime events is they pull the player out of the game by having them focus on the hit-this-button prompts rather than flowing organically from the game world. It's an even bigger shame here, because oh what a world they have created.

The game world in Prince of Persia is simply stunning. I really can't say enough about how good the game looks. The main characters are beautiful and detailed, and their B-movie banter (think Brendan Fraser in The Mummy) works to provide a context for all the running around. However, the environment, rendered in a style that resembles paintings more than reality, is the real star of the game. I often found myself stopping to just look around. The wrapper story for the game relies heavily on exploration of the milieu they are presenting: the decaying and corrupted city of Elika's people. The visuals add greatly to the mythological feel of the story. A decayed civilization, a lone princess, warring gods, and a rogueish hero all add to the feel of a fireside tale told for entertainment. I can't help but compare the setup to the Zelda games, especially as the Prince games drop the necessity of continuity. Each Prince, like each Link, has their own tale. Similar but different. It's impossible to explain why the story worked so well for me without spoiling elements of it, but it seems I am in the minority in finding the ending of the game quite appropriate to the overall tone.

So, yes, I really enjoyed the game in spite of it's flaws. There are good elements I haven't even mentioned, such as a spectacular camera that simply always works (a major accomplishment in any third person 3D game). It isn't a "hardcore" game. It doesn't have the ground breaking originality of The Sands of Time. It's repetitive. But it's also beautiful, funny, and simply fun to run around in. It shares one critical quality with its previous generation progenitor: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Headline Hunting

Once again, credit to the BBC writers for "Chinese girl gets 'kiss of deaf.'" Apparently, a young man managed to pop his girlfriend's eardrum with an over-passionate kiss. Extra points to the China Daily for this line, "While kissing is normally very safe, doctors advise people to proceed with caution..." which very nearly qualifies this post to reside in the quotations department too.

Watching the Watchers: Mission Impossible

I think no matter what side of the political isle you fall on, you can agree President Elect Obama has an enormous struggle ahead of him. He has promised to take a line-by-line look at the federal budget to try and reign in spending and cut back the deficit, but large chunks of the budget are on autopilot and/or politically out of bounds. Not to mention that all that spending got started for a reason, and every item has its own backers ready to fight for it. The eclectic mix of supporters Obama put together for the election also virtually guarantees that someone will be dissappointed with virtually every decision he makes. Balancing the need to maintain his support and make real changes to the operation of government is going to be a tightrope walk. And if all that isn't enough stress for one person, people really want to make sure he doesn't light up a smoke while President. It's no wonder the job ages people.

Prepare to Be Inspired

Sometimes, when times are hard, we have to dig down, grit out teeth, and put our noses to the grindstones while pulling ourselves up by the boot straps. At these crucial times, we seek inspiration. Given what is going on in the world today, one person pouring their heart out may not be enough to fire our flagging passions. Luckily, someone found forty. Feeling down? Overwhelmed? Well, prepare yourself for a jolt of adrenaline fueled awesome. Ladies and gentlemen, the world is about to be saved!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Effeciency, Infrastructure, and a Surprising Use

In the green technology news, everything isn't always optimistic. Changing dreams into reality requires an eye for the practical implications too. Einstein didn't win his Nobel prize for the theory of relativity, he won it for explaining the photovoltaic effect, the principle behind the operation of solar cells. Given the increasing interest in solar cells, scientists continue to examine the problem, and some believe the potential efficiency has been overstated. Understanding why the limits exist is the first step toward overcoming it.

The much vaunted hydrogen economy has severe problems of its own to overcome. Enough so that it may never actually materialize, especially if competing technologies can reach the goals faster.

Of course, not everything is bad news, and there are all sorts of inventive new ideas popping up, such as this novel approach to car ownership that is part of Hawaii's burgeoning attempt to remove its dependence on fossil fuels. And a town in Spain that was short on space for solar cells found some in a graveyard. Enough space to produce power for sixty homes.

The Continuting March of Technology

Sometimes it's the little advances that matter. Scientists at the University of Geneva have cooked up the first superconducting transistor. Transistors, tiny electronic components that work as switches, are the cornerstone of modern solid state computers. And superconducting transistors would allow computers to operate much faster than current computers can, though the article lacks why exactly that is. Certainly they would generate far less heat, which is a good thing since the prototype version needs to be supercooled before it will operate.

As future technology goes, fuel cells are one that always seem like they are on the way, but never get here. That may be about to change since the government has relaxed the regulations that limited the transport of flammable and corrosive agents which small fuel cells can use as their power source. While you might not be using a butane powered iPod in the immediate future, such a thing isn't completely out of the realm of possibility.

And finally, some news about my favorite freaky trick of nature: piezoelectric materials. These oddball solids can expand and contract in response to electrical fields, and just as importantly, they can do the opposite: change mechanical stress into electrical fields. Normally, the efficiency of the material is quite small, making them less than useful for harvesting mechanical energy. However, scientists in Texas have discovered that at a certain, very small scale, the efficiency of the material increases dramatically. The increases could allow cell phones to be powered by the vibration of a users voice.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Quote of the Moment

"That may be the most important thing to understand about humans. It is the unknown that defines our existence. We are constantly searching, not just for answers to our questions, but for new questions. We are explorers. We explore our lives day by day, and we explore the galaxy trying to expand the boundaries of our knowledge. And that is why I am here: not to conquer you with weapons or ideas, but to coexist and learn."

--Cmdr. Benjamin Sisko, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, "Emissary"

Friday, November 28, 2008

One of the Lucky Ones

As I sit here this day-after-Thanksgiving evening, I am profoundly aware of how good my life is right now. I know too many people who are looking for jobs, too many people that have recently lost loved ones, and too many people who are sick to consider myself anything but amazingly blessed. I would ask if you read this, please take a moment and give thanks for what you have. Skip for a brief moment, the annoyances, the worries, the fears, the burdens, and the trials of your life and find something to be thankful for. Perhaps the roof over your head, or the computer you have access to that allows you to see these words. Perhaps you have family or friends nearby, or even far away. Maybe all you can do is take a deep breath and take a moment to savor the feeling of your lungs expanding.

As we move into the Christmas season, we can tend to dwell on the poor shape the world is in, and there certainly is enough unhappy news out there to depress you. Chances are good that something bad has happened to you this year, or is happening to you now. Believe it or not, it will be all right. It may take a struggle, and a miracle or three, but all things can be surmounted. Focus for just a moment on the good things. A smile from a random guy/gal passing by in the crowd. A few hours of free time to watch a sporting event. The crisp smell of cold morning air.

I know that I am one of the lucky ones, my blessings too numerous to count. Even as I acknowledge that, it helps to remind myself that even the little things count, things like the leftover Thanksgiving turkey and homemade dressing that is about to become my dinner. It's something to remember as we once again begin our journey to the manger, following the ever-bright star of hope.

Too Creepy to Pass Up

A giant squid with elbowed tentacles sounds like the subject of the Sci-Fi channel's latest terrible movie, but it's quite real. A Shell remotely operated vehicle caught a rare glimpse of the animal loitering near a drilling site. And thanks to National Geographic, you can now see the footage. Yes kids, real life is weirder than you imagine.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Musical Time Travel, Updated

Since the fourth season, or the thirty first depending on how pedantic you are, has just been released on DVD, this is an appropriate time to link to an updated version of a video I linked before containing all the Doctor Who themes. It's far better because it doesn't have the inane intro, and it actually has all the television incarnations of the theme. Well, almost, the second of the three modern versions is missing. Pedantic again, I know. Enjoy, and if the Daleks show up, stay behind the couch. Warning: if you haven't seen season 4 yet, the last theme contains a pretty big spoiler.

The Lesson For the Day

Gather around folks, I've got an important lesson for you today: don't keep your naughty photos on your cell phones. Sheesh.

Today's Theme is Efficiency

Articles in the news about new "greener" technologies and practices are seemingly everywhere these days. Local news programs, national networks, and even my church are all talking about efficiency, reducing waste, and other ways of being better stewards of the planet. Given my long standing interest in watching high tech solutions to environmental issues go from science fiction to reality, and its recent dominance of my news link-posts, I figure it's well past time that environmental tech and related postings got their own label. Welcome to the first "green tech" post. No doubt others will be following, since I'm apparently standing at the edge of a pragmatic environmental movement I didn't even know had a name: bright green environmentalism. And that's about enough blather from me, on with the nifty tech links.

First up, MIT and NASA are teaming up to design airplanes that are not only more efficient, but are quieter too. Anyone who lives near an airport can get behind that initiative.

Wind turbines suffer from varying efficiency at different wind speeds and current transmissions add cost and mechanical inefficiencies. Using a series of simple, innovative changes, one company claims their new generator can increase wind turbine generated power output by an average fifty percent. And since it uses fewer mechanical parts, it can keep costs down as well, which is critically important in the competitive energy market.

Ars Technica reports on the recent EPA Climate Leaders meeting, and the potential effects of the current credit crunch on corporate efficiency projects. It's an interesting look at how businesses look at the opportunities available to them.

Finally, I've mentioned before that compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) are much more efficient than incandescents, but they contain murcury. Since murcury poses a health hazard, CFLs are hard to dispose of. Also, I hate flourescent lights. Barring the appearance of some sort of high efficiency incandescent bulb, Light Emitting Diode (LED) bulbs are the next best option. They are more efficient than CFLs, long lasting, and don't flicker. Or so the reports go. I haven't seen one in a store. However, I did find some available at ThinkGeek and a different selection at Amazon. In theory, over the life of the bulb, you would recoup the initial investment several times over through electricity savings. Unfortunately, I'm not quite willing to shell out one hundred dollars on a 100W-equivalent bulb without seeing what the light looks like first. But, it's nice to see the technology out there in the market.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Helping Save the World, also Zapping it From the Sky With Lasers

Where do you have to go to find America's most energy efficient and environmentally sustainable hotel? Turns out, it's right here in Greensboro. It's a pretty nifty story of technology in action. Of course if that's not high tech enough for you, how about using ten thousand degree plasma to turn trash into electricity.

No sir, it doesn't get any better than high energy plasma. Well, unless the military decided to fund research into flying cars. Or maybe if in an announcement about the military putting solid state laser weapons into production, there was a quote from someone referred to as the "beam cannon chief."

Sorry, you're going to have to provide your own "that's what she said joke" for that last story. I'm not going to sink to such lows. Today. At least not without using some sort of rhetorical trick.

Headline Hunting in the Holy Land

"Monks brawl at Christian holy site in Jerusalem." Christianity, you're doing it wrong.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Hyperbole is Killing Me!

OK, I've been good. I haven't said anything directly about the election here. Nobody cares what some random programmer from the battleground state that didn't matter thinks about politics, and I know it. But enough is enough.

I'm begging, please, everyone take a deep breath and get a grip. Hey, all you big C Conservatives, the free market isn't going to be destroyed, your guns aren't going to be taken, your SUVs will still be in your driveways, and CEOs will still make a disproportionately ridiculous amount of money. Hey, all you big L Liberals, global warming isn't solved, universal health care still doesn't exist, there's still a couple of wars on, and see also all that stuff I just said to the Conservatives.

Yes, the election of Barack Obama is a big deal, but it isn't the end of the world or the beginning of a new world. Congress is mostly the same. The courts are mostly the same. The people around you are still the same people that were there a month ago. There's another set of elections in two years, and I can almost guarantee you the exact same issues that were talked about in this election will be on the table then as well. Let's just all calm down and look at things the way they are. We've got problems to solve, big and small, and the hyperbolic reactions don't help get things done, they just set up impossible expectations and perpetuate the aura of partisan fear that is destroying politics in this country.

And "newscasters," you aren't helping anyone. Seriously. I get that you have to get ratings by sensationalizing everything, but would it kill you to do some actual fact checking rather than having endless talking heads? They aren't helping anything either.

And for all my readers who want some accurate and even handed reporting, keep your eyes open. You can find honesty and intelligent analysis in the strangest of places.

Plasma Rockets, Magnetic Shields, Fuel Cells, Electric Cars, and Turning Garbage into Electricity

The first stage of a magnetoplasma rocket has passed a full power test. This is a step along the way to developing a rocket that can bridge the efficiency vs. thrust gap that exists between very efficient but low thrust ion rockets and high thrust, low efficiency chemical rockets. Rockets of this type could potentially reduce transit time for future Mars missions.

So we may soon be able to travel between worlds faster, but there is more to space travel than just distance. Radiation from solar flares and other sources can be very bad news for astronauts if they are unprotected. Carrying large amounts of metal (or even water) as shielding imposes a big weight penalty on spaceships. Cue the potential development of the very Star Trek sounding magnetic shields. The idea is to use a magnetic field to protect space craft the same way the Earth's magnetic field protects us. There are weight, size, and power consumption issues to work out, but there always are when you talk about space travel.

Speaking of power concerns, Toshiba has stated they will be delivering a commercial product powered by fuel cells by the end of March. Speculation says it's a cell phone. Should that be accurate, I will be very interested to see what people think about a cell phone powered by methanol. Given the continuing (so far unfounded) fears of electromagnetic radiation from phones, I can't imagine making their batteries flammable will go over well with everybody.

ArsTechnica reviews the Chevy's go at a plug-in electric car, the Volt. I don't really have an opinion on it, but it's nice to see them trying. (Well, I do wonder who in their right mind decided the interior console needed to be white, but that's hardly a comment on the engineering of the thing.) Hopefully development will survive the current financial situation.

Finally, up in New Jersey, they are starting to use landfills as a source of electricity. Methane released by decomposing waste is captured and used to generate power. It's not what I would call a final solution, but it is an elegant way of mitigating a couple of problems at the same time.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Quick Friday Updates; Like Twitter, but without the word limit

As much time as I've spent over the past two weeks sitting and waiting for things to finish running, you people should be deeply happy I don't post things while at work. There's no telling what would have ended up here.

I'm taking a drawing class, so you should also be happy I don't have a scanner. I might have posted the upside down horse drawing just for the sheer random factor. (Though the technique was a really nifty way of focusing on how to draw lines.)

I'm digging the laptop lifestyle, but large Dell laptops aren't made to actually be held in your lap.

The Internet is awesome because it reminds me of all the stuff there is out there to learn and do and see. It's annoying because I don't actually have the time to learn or the energy to do most of that stuff.

Speaking of awesome, if the official Lego sets resulted in creations like these, I would have a house full of 'em. This link goes out especially to my former roommates.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Watching the Watchers: Pre-election Issue

Though I've been writing mostly in the category of distractions recently, it would take more than a busy schedule to keep me from noticing that there is an election in two days. Perhaps you too have heard something about it on TV. Or the radio. Or the papers. Or the Internet. Or in casual conversation. Personally, I'm hoping that it's the record turnout year folks seem to think it will be. I'm not willing to predict the outcome, though I know where I'd place my bets if I had to. I am willing to predict widespread accusations of voting irregularity. Of course, it's easy to predict something that's already happening.

I've also noted that while the price of gas has gone down and the local shortages appear to be over, the oil companies are once again posting record profits on the backs of the high prices. I can't help but think that particular issue will not be going away no matter the outcome of the election. The noise around the banking industry is covering the usual cries of outrage. Of course, whether the outrage is justified may or may not be factoring into your vote.

Stay tuned folks, this is a big one, possibly a historic one. If you haven't already voted, you've still got a day to study up on the candidates for the various races. I'm waiting for Election Day to cast my vote, and something tells me I'm going to be late for work on Tuesday.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween

Be safe out there tonight, and be mindful.

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange eons even death may die.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Today's Election Quote

The quote comes from Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert. In an interview with "The New Yorker," he was asked if there will be an election. He responded, "There will be an election, followed by rioting, the complete unraveling of society, and, I assume, a zombie problem. And everyone will agree it’s an improvement."

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Dangers of an Idle Mind

Something occurred to me the other day as I was prepping to clean bathrooms. It's a conflation of a pair of quotes, twisted by a mind that for once has been getting enough sleep.

I have become bleach, destroyer of molds.
Look upon my works ye musty, and despair.

What? I didn't say it was actually good. Extra points if you can identify the proper quotes.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Astrogeeks, A Galactic Civilizations 2 Story, Part 3

The Astrogeeks spent the balance of 2228 building up a military and researching basic energy weapon defenses. The ascension countdown continued, with only 205 weeks remaining. The United Planets voted to release restrictions on interstellar tourism at the end of the year, providing all the races more money to play with. Again, the geek culture helped, giving them the largest cash boost. It was enough to ramp production back up to full speed and boost espionage spending. Things were looking pretty good for the geeks.

By the middle of 2229, the Altarans were building up their military again. It probably had something to do with the geeks creating a starbase to harvest the final unclaimed ascension crystal. I responded by creating a frigate sized ship based on the Ming design. This new Gannon class would sport the same firepower as the smaller Mings, but be tougher and have some shielding to defend against Arcean beam weapons. Things were remaining tense, but quiet. In May of 2230, I spotted something I should have noticed far earlier. While I was busy keeping a close watch on the Arcean military buildup, I had failed to notice they were out researching me. And they already had destroyer sized ships that would be more than a match for my forces. Since my entire strategy depended on them not attacking my completely defenseless ascension crystal bases, something had to be done.
Unbalancing the rates of planetary, military, and research production causes inefficiencies, which means it costs money, but a quick check showed that thanks to the increased tourism the economy could handle it easily. Break out the coffee, it's time to show those non-geeks how research is done! At the end of 2230, the United Planets passed a "neutral ground" resolution stating that upon declaration of war forces opposing ships back into their own territories. The geeks were in favor, hoping it would give a few extra weeks of cushion in the event things began to go south. Only 71 weeks left before ascension.

On April 22, 2231 the Arceans declared war on the Altarans. I figured that would provide a nice little distraction to keep them both away from me, but one month later the Arceans finally decided the Astrogeeks needed to be stopped before they ascended. Time to gear up for war. My weapon research was still a bit behind the times, so upgrades to the Ming and Gannon class ship designs provided mostly heavy energy shielding to counter the Acrean weapons of choice. Thankfully, there was enough in the treasury to pay for quickly retooling all my existing ships to the newer designs. Unfortunately, the Mings and Gannons are slow, so I knew I had to relegate them to a defensive role. Offense would be handled by a new fast attack destroyer. It's offensive firepower wouldn't be too impressive (though better than my other ships), but with a shield strength of 12, it ought to be neigh impervious to the Arcean weapons. I hope.

In August, the Altarans surrendered to the Arceans. The combined alien empires made for a much more imposing opponent. I quickly lost the distant ascension crystal base that was too close to an Arcean world, but a Thundaar class destroyer proved effective in its first engagement. As the new year dawned, the destroyer proved less effective against large Arcean fleets, and another of my crystal mining bases fell. Several space battles, mostly of the hit and run variety, continued through January and February, seeing losses on both sides. In early March, a fleet of three Thundaars caught an Arcean fleet of more than a dozen ships heading back to their territory after destroying one of my resource mining starbases. Because the Arceans were damaged from the previous battle, the Thundaars were able to destroy the entire fleet without taking any losses. It was a devastating blow, and one week later the Arceans sued for peace. I willingly gave it to them. Thirty three weeks remained on the ascension countdown, but I quickly rebuilt the crystal starbases lost in the war. With the only possible opposition defeated, there was no doubt about the outcome. In the middle of September 2232, the Astrogeeks ascended beyond the mortal form.

And so my story comes to an end. But there are those who believe that geekdom here began out there, far across the universe with tribes of geeks who even now fight to survive far away among the heavens.*

* Yes, that last bit is a reference to this.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Game Day Hath Its Privileges

So your team is having a down year, losing games, firing coaches, and failing to meet expectations. That's OK, it happens to everyone some time. But sometimes as a fan it isn't whether they win or lose, it's about how you watch the game.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Astrogeeks, A Galactic Civilizations 2 Story, Part 2

When last we left my fictitious race of breakaway geeks, their little chunk of the galaxy was busy but calm. In June of 2227 they had their first official contact with the second major alien power in the area, the Arceans, but there was no meaningful interaction going on between the geeks and the other powers. About that time, the exploration ship found a class fourteen world off in the left corner of the map, about as far away from the other races as it could be. Worlds in GalCiv2 are rated by how much territory is usable, a class seven world has seven squares to build on, a class fourteen has twice as many. Higher class worlds are obviously more desirable. So off in the corner is exactly where I want to find a really nice world. It lessens the chance the other races will claim it in the month and a half it will take to build a colony ship and send it out that far.

As I build up my planets, the economy tightens up. All those factories, research centers, and entertainment complexes take money to run and tax revenue, even boosted by economic centers, isn't expanding nearly as quickly as the construction projects are. I'm still on the net positive side of the income curve at full production levels, but just barely. Tax rates have gone from single digits early on to the current level of 39%. Natrually my approval rating is down from 100% to 59%. Luckily, Homeworld has finished its social building projects for now and is directing all industrial output to the production of ships. I should be able to build constructors to put up a mining base on a nearby economic resource in short order. My ascension crystal bases remain safe since neither of the other races have started building a military.

In mid-September, the geeks colonize the class 14 world, Kerchen I. The screenshot shows its huge... tracts of land and my early usage plans. It has two squares with ancient artifacts that will boost research output of buildings put on them, and I want to get labs built on them as quickly as I reasonably can.

In February 2228, the Altarans got desparate enough for worlds to colonize the other inhabitable world in the Homeworld system. The geeks hadn't bothered with the tiny class 4 iceball before, but I knew something would have to be done about it now. I need not have worried. The geeks plyed the citizens of the new world with a steady stream of sci-fi entertainment and video games, and within two months they decided they liked the geek culture more than the Altarans and defected to become part of the geek empire. All with no extra work on my part. Of course, that saddled me with yet another planet to pay for. Getting the geeks' economy ready for the eventual appearance of military forces remains the top priority.

By July my scout ship had spotted three more ascension crystals. One was in Arcean territory and out of range of my ships, but the other two were within reach in the upper corner of the map. My scientists were happily showing off some prototype rail guns about the same time. Unfortunately, some judicous use of my spy networks and the diplomatic technology trading screen told me the Arceans had been developing laser weapons, and they had already started producing military ships. It was no coincidence that the week I created a fourth ascension crystal starbase, the first pair of new Ming class corvettes took up defensive orbits around Kerchen I and Cordelia I, with Homeword I working hard to build defensive vessels of its own.

After more than a full year of quiet expansion tensions are beginning to escalate...

Friday, October 10, 2008

Astrogeeks, A Galactic Civilizations 2 Story, Part 1

I sincerely hope everything is going well for all of you out there. It's been a pretty depressing couple of weeks for me on several fronts. Still it could be worse. Much worse. But I need a pick-me-up. And when I want to engage my mind and distract myself, I often turn to games. Whether you prefer playing with physical toys, using your imagination, or sitting in front of a computer screen or television, games are a great way to play around with impossible scenarios for you own amusement. Silly things. Things like, what would happen if all the geeks in the world banded together to take over the galaxy?

That's where Galactic Civilizations 2 (GalCiv2) comes into the picture. I'm going to leave it to the company's web site to explain what GalCiv2 is, because I've got a tale to tell about a couple billion ambitious geeks. So plant your tongue firmly in your cheek, and join me in the depths of space...

Of course, before I can launch them on their journey I first have to create the "race" of geeks. GalCiv2 has a ton of customization options for races so it's pretty easy to match the game mechanics to your concepts. What kind of abilities would a society made up of geeks have? Research, of course, gets a big boost. Geek culture gives loyalty, morale, and influence bonuses. Their intrinsic desire to tinker and hack gives a creativity boost and a better than average repair rate. And I'll add a slight boost to weaponry, because geeks want the cool guns. Capping off the ability list is the racial "super" ability. Since geeks prefer to hang out with other geeks (the normals just don't get us), I'll select Super Isolationist, which will slow enemy ships in their territory and give them the basic tech to colonize otherwise uninhabitable barren worlds right from the start. Last but not least, as an offshoot of the Human race, they will use the Human technology tree and start out with Human style ships (in spiffy gray with gold trim). Behold the Astrogeeks!
The first foray into the great beyond begins in January 2227 in a small star cluster with a pair of unknown alien races wanting the area for themselves. First impression: wow there are stars all over the place out here. Every sector has at least one and some have three! I start production of a factory on my initial colony (around the star known as Homeworld), send my mining ship to the nearest cluster of asteroids, my exploration vessel to check on a nearby anomalous cluster of rocks, and my colony ship to the closest star on the charts. Almost immediately, there is a decision to be made. With all those stars out there, do I concentrate my early ship production on colony ships and hope they have habitable planets, or do I build starbase constructors and go after a pair of nearby morale resources? The morale resourses, accessed by building mining starbases on them, would boost the Astrogeeks' racial happiness. Higher morale would allow me to increase the tax rate without upsetting the citizens, so I gamble spending a chunk of my initial treasury to buy a constructor and grab one of the resources immediately. Within two weeks my exploration ship spots its alien opposite number. Looks like the Altarans are one of the races I will have to contend with. A week after that I find their homeworld, noting in passing that it is better quality than mine. Two weeks after that I find an ascension crystal practically in my lap.

Ascension crystals are powerful artifacts left behind by a precourser race. Harvesting enough of the strange aura which eminates from them would allow the geeks to ascend to a higher plane of existance. If I grab it now, the other races will be ticked, but it's very, very early in the game and nobody has any military tech to speak of. One more week passes and I nearly empty my treasury buying another constructor. As the constructor moves toward its destination, the explorer finds a second ascension crystal. This is going to get interesting. I still need to finish researching the universal translator so the other races can threaten me properly, but after that I may just have to turn my research straight for the fancy guns.

In March of 2227, the Astrogeeks colonized their second world. I'm assured that the fact the star system was named after a character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer was just a coincidence. A week later a constructor launches for the second ascension crystal. Late in April, I spot a ship from the final major power: the Arceans. The first of June sees the starbase come online around the second crystal. Now all I have to do is hold on to them for just over nine and a half years.

Here's what the Astrogeek empire looks like halfway through the first game year. The two crystal mining bases are the glowy white things ringed by grey and gold on the right and left sides of the map.

Tune in next time for the continuing stooory of Geeeeks in Spaaaaace!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Zombies + Lego = WIN

Yes, it's posted at a site being used to promote a game, but how can I possibly pass up posting about a zombie apocalypse done in Lego?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

'Tis the Season for Horror Reading

The temperatures are topping out in the seventies at last, the trees are tinged with color, and the sun is setting earlier. Fall is here, and that means Halloween is bearing down on us. Around about this time of year, I look to take in a little of the scary atmosphere, and I'd like to share some of my favorites with you. Today's edition is some reading material I come back to again and again when the horror mood strikes me.
  • The Laughing Corpse, Laurel K. Hamilton. In a world where vampires are not only real, but can vote, even a woman who raises zombies for a living won't take every job she's offered... This is the second, and my favorite, of the Anita Blake series. The series itself fairly notoriously jumped the shark just past half a dozen novels in, but the early books are quite enjoyable noir-ish splatter horror.
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle. All of the Sherlock Holmes stories are worth reading, but this is the best written of the bunch, and it has enough of the supernatural element to be worth pulling out around Halloween time, especially if you prefer the kind of ghost story that can be explained without resorting to the supernatural.
  • The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells. The oppressive force in this horror tinged milieu classic is the inevitability of evolution. We all know how this story ends, but it's that famous for a good reason. If you like you horror sci-fi style, this book has giant fighting machines, heat rays, chemical warfare, and aliens from another world. What's not to like?
  • The Colour Out of Space, H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft's works have achieved widespread influence, though they aren't to everyone's tastes. His prose is so purple it could make Prince blush; his imagery is so fantastic that it can come across silly if you aren't in a receptive mood. I thoroughly enjoy them. If nothing else, they make good weird tales for around the campfire or on a blustery night when the house is creaking. Lovecraft himself considered "The Color Out of Space" to be his best story, and I certainly agree.
  • The Revelation to John. Often incorrectly cited as the Book of Revelations, the Christian apocalypse and its tales of struggle between good and evil is one of the most pervasive influences on horror you are likely to find. The word apocalypse itself has been changed by the book. Originally a synonym for revelation, now it has come to mean the end of the world. Apocalyptic literature is an ancient style of couching a message in symbols and images which provides fertile soil for the active imagination. Many religious scholars today will tell you that The Revelation to John is using an ancient tradition of writing to disguise a message of hope for salvation to churches being oppressed by Rome under the emperor Domition. Many horror fans will tell you to shut up and watch the movie. Either way, it's a frightening tale that doesn't end well for everyone. And hey, if that isn't enough for you, you can flip back to Daniel for another dose of apocalypse.
  • Dracula, Bram Stoker. Do I really have to recommend this one? All the vampire stories, novels, movies, and comics out there today owe their existence to this novel. And frankly, Dracula isn't just better than most of them, it's better than most of them combined. It's the ultimate Gothic horror tale and an enduring literary classic.
Now comes the interactive part: help me add to my list! Sound off in the comments about what you like to read to get into the Halloween mood. After all, this thing comes around every year, and I may want to recycle the topic.

Private Rockets, Public Engineering, and High Efficiency

Private industry made news last week by putting a liquid fueled rocket in orbit for the first time in history. At a time when our public space program is waning, private success is a wonderful thing, but once it's established as viable, what then?

On the energy front, the Department of Energy reports that with a combination of building techniques and solar cell installation, over sixty-two percent of commercial buildings could convert to zero-emission status over the next twenty years. And while we are on the subject of solar cells, it's worth mentioning that a new efficiency record of over forty percent. The cell is more suited to large scale power generation since it requires light to be focused on it at over three hundred times the intensity it would receive sitting on your roof, but better is still better.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Slashdot Does Science

All the cool science stuff was on Slashdot this week, so instead of linking to original articles, I'm going to give them some link love (as if they need it).

We'll start off on Mars, with the news that the Opportunity rover has just been sent on a new eleven kilometer, two year mission. That's a pretty big vote of confidence for a machine that's on day 1663 of its expected 90 day lifespan.

Closer to home, Congress has funded continued development on high energy laser weapons. It's going to be at least a decade before they go into service, so they remain science fiction, at least for a little while longer.

Sometimes, we aren't satisfied with turning the small things from sci-fi into reality. Imagine a large weight/space station in geosynchronous orbit around the Earth. Now imagine there's a cable running from it to the ground. That's a space elevator. Instead of needing rockets to reach high orbit, now you just need to pull yourself up the cable, which requires far less energy. The engineering challenges are monumental, naturally, but the Japanese figure they can tackle the problem for a relatively paltry $9.5 billion dollars.

And I won't leave you without your energy story this week. It's quite a bit more mundane than the rest of these links, and it's all the more impressive because of it. Those of you who like your automobiles powered by internal combustion may be interested to hear that a researcher at Temple University has created a device that boosts fuel efficiency by ten to twenty percent. It attaches to an engine's fuel line near the fuel injector and uses an electric field to reduce the viscosity of the fuel as it enters the injector. Lower viscosity leads to smaller fuel droplets which in turn produces more efficient combustion. Given the current market conditions, one would think this little dohickey may show up on the market relatively quickly.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Attempting Programmer Humor, You May Want to Skip This One

I'm violating my policy about posting during work hours and not mentioning work, but when I got in to the office this morning, I couldn't actually do anything. That and an early morning dose of The Beach Boys on VH1 Classic, and well, this is what happens. With apologies to The Beach Boys, this is set to the tune of Barbara Ann.

I went to the view, tryin' for a build
Saw vobs are locked, my momentum has been killed.
The VOBs are locked, VOBs are locked
(VOB VOB VOB VOB VOBs are locked!
This early morn)
I should be sleepin' in my bed now
Sleepin' in my bed now
VOBs are locked VOB VOB
VOB VOB VOB VOB VOBs are locked!

Yeah. Just be glad I left out the verse about swipin' cards...

Friday, September 19, 2008

So Many Alt-Energy Stories, They Get Their Own Post

I'll start with the relatively conventional nuclear fission story: NASA is interested in developing nuclear power reactors for use in surface missions such as a Lunar outpost. Sounds pretty normal until you notice the bit down toward the bottom about the reactor being the size of an office trash can!

If nuclear fission isn't your cup of tea, how about this: scientists continue to analyze the collapse of New York's Twin Towers, and the research could lead to the development of new, stronger, more heat resistant materials. Those materials could not only prevent building collapses, but they might also be just the thing for building fusion reactor containment vessels.

So you think nuclear power is too large scale or has its own massive drawbacks? Well let's get back to the two things we need to free us from our current energy sources: efficient solar cells and a replacement for chemical batteries. On the battery replacement side, ultracapacitors may be getting a huge boost if work with single-atom thick sheets of graphite pay off. Making full use of the large surface area of the graphite could boost energy density in the future-battery-replacements to double what is being done today. And finally, when I think of breakthroughs, I don't usually think about grade school science projects. Which shows what I know. One twelve-year-old seventh grader is getting twenty-five grand to put toward his education because it looks like he has created a novel type of solar cell. How novel? Well, the three dimensional nanotube design captures ultra-violet light in addition to visible wavelengths, theoretically absorbing five hundred times more light than a conventional cell. Congratulations to him, and kudos to his parents, teachers, and anyone else who helped him. Now we just need someone to build a working proof of his thories...

The DTV Transition is Here, Sort Of

Wilmington, NC was a pilot area for the coming transition from analog television broadcasting to the new land of digital. The News & Record chimes in with a statistics filled report, but as usual one must go elsewhere to get any real analysis of the reported data. This past Wednesday, the major networks' analog signals were briefly cut off here in Greensboro as well. Of course, there has been no reporting on the outcome of that test. Tune in this coming February for the shock and awe that occurs when people who aren't paying attention are deprived of the idiot box.

Watching the Watchers: The Privacy Violation Edition

I'm a bit surprised there was as little news about this as there was, but Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin's Yahoo e-mail account was hacked this week. There are allegations that she was using non-governmental e-mail accounts to conduct government business, which is a no-no. And it was also correctly pointed out by commentators that web mail services aren't exactly the most secure accounts in the world.

The car lovers in my audience will surely love the idea that red-light-camera companies are considering teaming up to create a national surveillance network that can recognize license plates and take pictures of drivers and passengers. Undoubtedly this would be useful for law enforcement. One could also make a case that drivers using public roads already have to register their cars with the government. But the idea of developing a tracking database sure sounds like a gateway to first, fourth, and/or sixth amendment violations.

I suppose it could be worse. Oh wait, it is. In Israel, the government is using DNA analysis to track whether pet owners scoop the poop or not. Sounds like an application of Rule 37.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Back in the last century when I started programming, you would create the canonical example program by opening an editor and creating a text file called 'hello.c' with these contents:
#include <stdio.h>

int main(
int argc,
char** argv
printf("Hello, world!\n");
You would feed this file to a compiler program, which would generate another file that you feed to a linker program, that would in turn generate the final executable program. Finally you would run the program from a command prompt and it would print:
Hello, world!
These days the same task might be accomplished with a single command:
ruby -e 'puts "Hello, world!"
This is an overly simple example of course, but I think it is an illustrative one.

Note for programmer types: The second example uses the Ruby programming language, which you can get a taste of without needing to install anything by using this nifty web site.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

I Need a Metaphor for Random. Cornucopia, Potpourri? Ah, how about this...

I've let the news stories pile up a bit over the past couple of weeks, so prepare yourself for a grab-bag!

My beloved town of Greensboro has really stepped up its game this year, moving from 37th in the nation to 1st in the nation... for fall allergy severity. We were number two on the list of spring allergies this year, but I have faith we can take the title next year. Eat that Charlotte.

Meanwhile over on the coast, Wilmington, NC is about to become the first place in the country to have its analog television signals cut off. The FCC is using it as a test market for the analog cutoff due to happen early next year. It's been a while since I wrote about the coming need for tech savvy people to be able to answer questions about why the TVs will stop working. Are you prepared yet?

Speaking of televisions, Samsung had some organic light emitting diode displays out at a recent trade show. OLED screens have the potential to give full 180 degree viewing angles (just like analog, very much better than current LCDs) and extremely good contrast ratios and color reproduction. Bascially, they could potentially give the quality of an analog TV in an inch thick form factor. I believe the correct way to respond in current internet parlance is: DO WANT.

If that isn't sci-fi enough for you, the wacky, money flush builders over in Dubai are talking about building a self contained structure capable of housing over one million people. That sure sounds like the textbook definition of an arcology to me...

If giant cities aren't your cup of tea, then how about an exoskeleton that can help a paralyzed man walk again?

As was probably inevitable given the setbacks of its proposed replacement, the 2010 retirement date of the Space Shuttle program is under review. Currently, the U.S. manned space program will be dependent on Russian rockets for at least half a decade. The recent events in Georgia have lawmakers questioning whether that is a good idea. Of course, shifting political motives don't necessarily a good engineering program make.

Finally, if you thought a couple of weeks would pass without some alternate energy news, think again. MIT researchers have quietly come up with a way for viruses to be used to grow two of the three major components of a battery on a nanometer scale. These are at a very early stage of development, but the potential is exciting. And Scott Adams (Dilbert creator) has a very similar idea of the future of alternative energy to what I've been saying. I don't know if that reflects well on me or poorly on him...

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Notes on My Own Power Use

I live an electrically powered life. I spend most of my days with computers, mp3 players, and high definition televisions and gaming consoles. In spite of being surrounded by all these devices, I had never really paid attention to how much power they use. When I decided my desktop computer's video card was going to need an upgrade eventually, I realized that I had to know exactly how much power it was pulling so I could tell if the power supply had enough overhead do the upgrade. That was all the excuse I needed to pick up a meter that could measure power draw. And hey, once I owned the meter, I could learn what all those other electronic devices were up to.

I'll start with the desktop computer since it was my primary concern and makes a good comparison point. I assembled it myself from parts about a year ago, and I did have efficiency in mind. I guesstimated what the smallest power supply I would be able to get away with was, so I was worried that in the world of kilowatt power supplies, my 380 Watt beauty wouldn't cut it. The numbers happily showed that I had nothing to fear:
  • Power off: 3W
  • On and idle: 83W
  • Central Processing Unit loaded: 129W
  • Graphics Processing Unit loaded: 134W
  • CPU & GPU loaded: 149W
  • Full load (CPU, GPU, Memory, & Hard Disk Drive): 161W
As usual for a gaming capable machine, the GPU can draw more power than the CPU. The important numbers are the idle and full load measurements, which represent essentially the low and high points of the power curve when the machine is in use. I was interested to see how those compared to other household items, so I did some more measurements:
  • 1W: electric alarm clock
  • 3W: computer (laptop or desktop), turned off
  • 4W: wireless router
  • 5W: cable modem
  • 13W: 16W Compact Flourescent Lightbulb (CFL, 60W incandescent equivalent)
  • 27W: 26W CFL (100W incandescent equivalent)
  • 25-30W: laptop computer, idle
  • 34W: entertainment center, turned off (HDTV, DVR, XBox 360, and stereo receiver)
  • 45W: laptop computer, loaded
  • 54W: 60W incandescent lightbulb
  • 83W: desktop computer, idle
  • 102W: 100W incandescent lightbulb
  • 158W: toaster oven toasting
  • 161W: desktop computer, loaded
  • 280+W: entertainment center, everything on and active
Of course, these numbers are just spot measurements in my house, but I think the relative size is illustrative. My laptop computer under light load (say, typing a 'blog post) uses about the same amount of power that my TV setup does just sitting there off. CFLs really are that much more efficient than regular bulbs. My computer can produce more heat in a given amount of time than my toaster oven...

This is a Muppet News Flash

A new Muppet movie is in the works, and if it is popular it could lead to a new incarnation of the original Muppet Show. I wish 'em luck.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Lesson From the Olympics

The Summer Olympic Games are now over. In spite of the usual amount of controversy, the Olympics remain an astounding display of skill and athletic prowess. As I watched some of the events, I wondered what it would be like to practice for years or even decades for a single shot at winning the gold. Could I even begin to comprehend what it would take to spend all that time working on a single set of skills?

Eventually it struck me that I actually can. There is something I spent years preparing for and more years practicing. I suspect most folks who might read this have done something similar. It's called our job. While I am not anywhere near the world-class level of an Olympic athlete, the parallel does give me some insight on what it must take to become so. The focus necessary, the sacrifice in time and other activities, and the continued need for self-improvement are things we can recognize. The differences come in our personal level of commitment and the level of specialization. Olympic athletes are the perfect example of what people who have an extreme level of commitment can accomplish when they are also extremely specialized.

Whether we are talking about cells in our bodies, jobs in a society, or knowledge areas within a field, specializing allows better utility at the expense of broader utility. Football wide receivers don't usually play on the defensive line as well, and those that attempt it will be worse at both positions than if they only had to practice one set of skills and could optimize their body type for one position. In my own field, it would be impossible for one person to learn all the different possible platforms, languages, and libraries available. But I can learn the ones I work with daily very well indeed. We spend years in school learning the lessons needed to start down the job path, and years on the job honing our skills. During all this time, we tend to get more and more specialized.

Specialization is a good thing, but it also requires something in return. Red blood cells carry oxygen, but they can't fight off infection or seal wounds. Those wide receivers wouldn't be much good without a quarterback to throw the ball to them, or an offensive line to protect the quarterback. The Olympic teams are huge; each event a country participates in requires its own team of athletes. Those athletes can only excel because they have coaches to teach them, builders to make gyms, nutritionists, doctors, and on and on.

So, the greater your specialization, the more dependent on other people's knowledge you become. Since we are all specialists of one sort or another, we are all dependent on other people. It's something that I now try and remember when I'm having one of those days where the whole world seems to be working against me. I know that in spite of my personal frustrations, people made the car I go to work in. People wrote and performed the music I listen to. People built my house, created my clothes, wrote stories I enjoy, and stocked the shelves at my grocery store. I could not survive without them. The programs I write invisibly play their part in making everyone else's day go a little bit smoother.

It's a lesson I regret not learning earlier in my life: learn to work well with others because we all need each other to reach our potential.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

This Week's Alternative Energy Post

Out in California twelve and a half miles of land are about to be converted into solar power plants on a scale not yet seen in the U.S. The plants will produce about eight hundred megawatts of power, approximately the output of a large coal fired power plant or a small nuclear one according to the New York Times. This development is also mentioned in an article from Ars Technica noting the amount of installed wind power generation grew by nearly 50% in 2007 and demand is soaring. Meanwhile in Austraila, a 23 year old PhD student has developed a way of manufacturing solar cells in a pizza oven that is far simpler and cheaper than current processes. Her goal is to provide power to impoverished people and her inspiration was a solar kit her parents gave her when she was ten.

I'm more and more convinced that the alternative energy future is being built right now. However, the replacement for the chemical battery is still missing. By request, I did a quick hunt for news of any supercapacitor updates, and sure enough there is some pretty big potential news out there. A company called EEStore is working on a solid state supercapacitor that is more powerful and can charge and discharge faster than batteries. The company claims it would allow a 250 mile range for pure electric cars, which could charge back up in five minutes. And most importantly, they claim they will be in commercial production next year. Of course the usual caveat about products that don't exist yet applies, and the company has already failed to deliver on their deadlines. On the other hand, if the company's claims hold up, then things could get very interesting indeed.

A Warning to Web E-Mail Users

Last month Google added a new security feature to GMail, a setting to force GMail to use the HTTPS protocol for all interactions. Google posted instructions for enabling it. Enabling this extra security is always a good idea, but you should consider it mandatory if you ever use any public network, such as your local coffee shop's wireless. Without HTTPS set to always-on, anyone who shares a network with you and has the ability to monitor the traffic over that network can gain full access to your account. Unfortunately, it's not just Google Mail that's vulnerable, it's all Google web apps and many other sites around the web. Some technical details can be found on the site of Mike Perry, the author who published the vulnerability. There is more information on his blog beyond that post.

All the technical stuff aside, the lesson to take from this would be that public networks remain very insecure. The odds of you being targeted for a hack are probably tiny, but they aren't zero. And though one prominent security expert extolls running an open wireless network in his home, I don't. Note the responses at the bottom of that post for other security experts also disagreeing. Personally, my wireless network doesn't broadcast it's ID, so you have to know what it is to get in. And even if you guess, my router is set up to recognize only the unique identifiers associated with the network adapters in my computers. While this is almost certainly a paranoid level of security, it does ensure that I'm going to be the last person in my neighborhood who's wireless is hijacked. (For the record, there are 4 secured and 2 unsecured networks visible to my laptop as I sit here on my couch. Mine is the only one not broadcasting its network ID.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Traveling Gnomes, Flying Drones, and a Spy Chef

There have been some amusing things in the news lately. Naturally, I must share.

A garden gnome vanished from a Gloucester yard only to be returned seven months later with a photo album of the twelve countries he had visited. That's a pretty good story. Though it would have been better if the kidnappers hadn't broken his feet off in the process...

In a story sure to provoke Skynet references, the first full Air Force air wing to go all unmanned will be the 174th fighter wing. They are replacing F-16s with MQ-9 Reaper drones. The Air Force cites greater endurance and cheaper operation as the reasons to replace the manned fighters with drones.

And finally, the National Archive released previously classified documents concerning the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA. The OSS was created during World War II and the released documents indicate the spy network was nearly twice as large as estimated. Many people who served in the OSS went on to fame later in their lives. For some reason of all the people listed, the media chose to highlight Chef Julia Child. Hey, it caught my eye. Bon appetit!

Keep on Breathin'...

This is the result of a very early morning that featured classic rock, local news, and a trip to the medicine cabinet. Sung to the tune of "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World" with apologies to Neal Young and everyone who reads it...

There's pollen in the air
From the grassy weeds
People sniffin' over there
People sneezin' in their seats
There's a box of Claratin in the cabinet
It's a lot better with a big dose of decongestant
Don't feel like working, but there's bills to pay
So I try to keep awake all the long day

Keep on breathin' in this sneeze world. (Repeat 3 more times)

There's an orange alert
They say the air is bad
And the news advert
Is another truck ad
So I pop a Tylenol and another one or two
It's hard to stare at a screen with your head splittin' in two
There we all are at work just plugging away
Cause it's what we do and there's nothin' else to say

Keep on breathin' in this smog world. (Repeat 3 more times)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bachelor Chow: Newschannel Chicken

A few days back, I was watching the local 24-hour news channel waiting to catch a weather report. The lead-in segment was one of those bits where a chef demonstrates a recipe. Normally, I never see anything worth remembering, but this time I did. The chef presented a "healthy and quick" version of Parmesan chicken. It was certainly easy, it sounded good, and I had thawed chicken in the 'fridge. Unfortunately, the first ingredient was bread crumbs. I'm a bachelor with the word "engineer" in my job title; containers of bread crumbs have no place in my house. Here's my take on the dish:

4-6 chicken tenderloins
1 heel piece from a loaf of sandwich bread (any thin piece will do)
3-4 Kashi garlic and thyme party crackers (or something similar)
2 tablespoons(-ish) of grated Parmesan cheese
olive or vegetable oil
black pepper

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Toast the bread lightly in a toaster oven and leave it in with the oven turned off to dry it out. When the bread is fairly dry, crumble it into a container large enough for dredging the chicken. Crush the crackers and add them and the cheese to the bread. Grind in black pepper to taste and give it a good mix with your hand. Give the chicken a light coating of oil, and dredge them in the bread crumbs (ha!). Bake in a baking pan for 15 minutes.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Inventiveness, Concentration, Plasma Engines, and the Usual Alternative Energy News

I have been sitting on this story all week, and thankfully it has been picked up pretty much everywhere by now. When a doctor and a nurse design and build a kidney dialysis machine for infants too small for the normal machines, it's something to laud. Especially since it works and has saved lives.

If that sort of innovation isn't your cup of tea, how about the news that NASA is hoping to test a plasma engine design in space. If successful, it could open the door to the production of far more efficient rockets than are currently available. Such a thing would certainly be helpful to our exploration of the solar system.

Great works of science, engineering, and art all share at their inception people who's job it is to will them into creation. Concentration is a vital skill, and it has been for a long time, as this 1930's era publication demonstrates. The advice within is astoundingly relevant today, and has been around long before Peopleware was published.

Of course, I leave you with some new info on alternative energy sources. Today I've got a story about some folks at MIT figuring out a way to improve fuel cells that could make them a better alternative for storing solar energy for use when the sun isn't shining. There's also the more detailed ArsTechnica analysis of the same story. And since solar power will be the catalyst for the potential application, I'll also point to an IEEE Spectrum article about one company's quest to make solar cost competitive against fossil fuels. We're getting closer and closer to the inevitable point where solar generation becomes a widespread reality, and I'm rather looking forward to it.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The CERN Rap

Tip of the hat to Blue's News for noting this little tour of the Large Hadron Collider and overview of some of the science it will be studying.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Eyeball Ergonomics

Right about the time I was fiddling with the colors of this blog a couple of weeks ago, Slashdot ran a question asking about the best color scheme for coding. It isn't a new topic, but it is one that keeps coming up. If you could look over the shoulders of my co-workers and I at the office you would find that almost everyone has customized the colors of their programming environment to some extent or another. And really, programmers aren't the only people who should be interested. Anyone who spends their working days staring at computer monitors can tell you what a big deal eye strain can be.

So what is the best color scheme for people? As with most ergonomic factors, theory and research can point you in the right direction, but it takes a bit of trial and error to get something that works well for you. Depending on how ergonomic your workstation is already, you may have other changes that can increase your comfort much more than a mere color change. However, if you are already sitting in the right position, in a good chair, with keyboard and monitor at the right height and distance, you might be surprised how much of a difference a simple background color change can make in your overall eye comfort.

If you haven't thought about your color scheme recently (or ever), it may be worth it for you to fiddle around a bit. Notably, modern sub-pixel antialiasing technology is changing the way fonts look.* So do some googling or just experiment with different background colors on your computer, you may be surprised what you come up with.

*Microsoft's implementation of sub-pixel rendering, called ClearType, is off by default under Windows XP, but on by default in Vista. The default fonts for Vista are designed for use with ClearType and look terrible without it. All that is well and good, but the programming font I've been using for years is mangled pretty badly by ClearType, and the light on dark color scheme I've used with minor tweaks since the early 90s becomes torturous. Yet another reason why this topic is on my mind.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Hopeful News for Your New Week

Of course, I have to start with an alternate energy link. I've been fascinated by the idea of thermoelectric materials since my Physics classes introduced me to them. Basically, they can convert voltage differences into heat differences and vice versa, with no moving parts. Such a thing would seem to have all sorts of interesting uses, but they share an Achilles heel with photovoltaic cells: inefficiency. Ars Technica presents some news that researchers are doubling the efficiency of thermoelectric materials. Given their potential applications harvesting waste heat and converting it back into electrical power to incresase the efficiency of any manner of devices, it's a pretty cool development.

I'll admit, most of you folks probably don't have the interst in odd power technology that I do, but I bet this long hoped for development has wider appeal. Apparently, the war in Iraq is finally taken a turn for the better. This AP analysis tells tales of reduced violence, routed insurgent groups, and people visiting parks. It's certainly hopeful news from a region deeply in need of all the hope they can find.

And if that wasn't enough to lift your spirits, how about the possibility for a cure to AIDS? Well, scientists at the University of Texas think they have found a way to defeat the virus in a way that defeats its method of avoiding normal immune system attacks. If it proves successful in human trials, one of the greatest plages of our time could be defeated. God speed.

There is some hope out there amid the insanity. Y'all have a good week.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Time for a New Look

The brown color scheme of the site was really beginning to grate on me. So over the last couple of days I have been messing with the color scheme. I'm going to try to forget the blue and gray attempt of the past couple of days. I really hope you will too if you saw it... I'm pretty lousy with the aesthetics, so I went googling for some online tools to help me come up with some decent colors, which is how I found the Color Combinations site. After poking around for a while, looking at the different color schemes they showed, I decided I liked the colors they were using the best. So in traditional web fashion, I swiped 'em for my own purposes. While I was in the template, I did some other CSS tweaks to improve the general look of post layouts. Let me know what you think about the changes. If you didn't notice anything different, well, that's OK too.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

If You Didn't Watch Cartoons in the 80's, Skip This

If you did watch cartoons in the 80's this may bring back a few memories.

HEROES UNITE: The Ultimate 80's Tribute from Joshiro007x on Vimeo.

One Person's Solar Power Example

Given my passive obsession with solar power, I was intrigued to learn that ExtremeTech's Loyd Case has posted articles about having solar panels installed on his home. The first is about the installation and the second is a one month followup. Note the unexpected maintenance task of cleaning ash from the California fires off the panels. It's interesting to see solar power becoming more viable as a consumer product. I'm also really glad I don't have the kind of power bills he does...

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Concerning The Dark Knight

Whoever battles with monsters had better see that it does not turn him into a monster.
And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.
--Friedrich Nietzsche

Chances are pretty good that you don't need me to tell you to go see The Dark Knight. It's a Batman movie; even the bad ones are hits. But having just seen it myself, I can't help but blather forth some minor commentary. I'll avoid spoilers and just talk in general terms because you really do want to go into this one with as little foreknowledge of the details as possible. Because the details in this movie are completely fantastic.

The Dark Knight may indeed be based on characters from a comic book, but this is no comic book movie. Quite the contrary, it is easily the most serious treatment of the subject matter that's ever been on screen. And it has the verisimilitude that its predecessor, Batman Begins, lacked. The movie's ensemble cast allows the eponymous hero to remain mostly in the shadows, where he belongs. This is a movie about not just the Batman, but the people around him, and by extension the people of Gotham city as a whole. It is about facing the worst choice in your life and dealing with the consequences. It's about society crumbling. It's about fear. It's about chaos. In short, it's about the Joker.

Every matter has its antimatter, every Superman his Kryptonite. Batman's arch nemesis is, of course, the Joker. He's been portrayed on screen before. But this time around Joker is not the comic figure of Cesar Romero, or the slick, over-the-top criminal portrayed by Jack Nicholson. The movie's writers and Heath Ledger have evoked a Joker that is something very different, and a whole lot darker. Batman is a tragic figure, a vigilante on a madman's quest. But he's also a good guy who's moral code keeps him just barely sane. He may dwell in the shadows, but shadows can not be cast without some light. This Joker is Nietzsche's abyss staring back into Batman. He is your own worst impulses given free reign. This time around, the Joker is something he hasn't been in a very long time. He is terrifying.

I went in thinking there was no way it could live up to the hype. I was wrong. Hearing a bit of the Oscar buzz, I had doubts that any movie based on a comic would ever allow for a performance that the Academy would recognize. No longer. What I'm saying here is that I liked it. A bunch. And I think if you don't mind a dark, edge-of-your-seat thriller, you will probably like it too.