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Observations Observations

The Squirrel of Darkness

October 1st, 2014

I pass through a cemetery on my morning commute, and I’ve come to know many of the residents. There is, for instance, a family of red squirrels that live in an ancient tree that shades a primarily Japanese section of the graveyard. It is a tradition in many Asian cultures to honor the departed by leaving offerings, including citrus fruits and other items of food.

The squirrels play a vital role as agents for the spirits, gathering and appreciating the offerings. It is not theft; the squirrel is a proxy for things that can be felt but not seen, things that cannot eat but gain their nourishment through their furry surrogates.

Sometimes the squirrels make a mess of things, knocking over the cup that holds the burned-out incense sticks, scattering flowers and decorations. Spirits can be mischievous; it is the duty of their agents to express that in the physical world.

I said it was a family of red squirrels, but that is not strictly true. There is one among them with fur as black as the heart of a killer on a moonless night.

The dark spirits need their sustenance as well.

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Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

Sound and Fury

September 22nd, 2014
... accomplishing (almost) nothing.

I ride home in the evenings via Homestead Road, which intersects with Wolfe. Currently, construction on Wolfe causes traffic to back up approaching the intersection, and drivers pull into the bike lane and stop, long before the intersection, even though it gains them nothing. Others pull out from parking lots without looking my way, push their noses into the bike lane, and stop, even though it gains them nothing.

Then of course there are the people who pull into intersections before there’s space for them on the other side, to block both cars and bikes when the light changes. Unfortunately, they do gain from their obnoxious behavior.

If I had a giant, super-loud air horn on my bike, it wouldn’t improve the situation in any way. It might even make things worse. But I’d feel better.

bikehorn

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Get-Poor-Quick Schemes Get-Poor-Quick Schemes

Regular Guy Sports Network

September 19th, 2014

Sports broadcasting is changing, and the fan is the winner. Now let’s give the fan even more control.

Consider this article by Bill Barnwell at Grantland.com. You don’t have to read the whole article, but there are two key messages: television will not be the best way to consume sports in the near future, and Barnwell is willing to pay $20,000 to not hear the announcers.

That second tidbit was presented as a little bit of humor at the end of his article, but he’s missed the greater opportunity: not only can we happily marginalize the network announcers, we can choose commentators more to our liking. Enter the Regular Guy Sports Network.

There’s not much sadder than the partially-clothed American male sinking ever-further into his sofa cushions as he watches sports on his television. Alone. Or maybe there’s a group of people with no charismatic nucleus. Or just some guy who can’t stand the voice of Bob Costas. What if, with with a few button-presses, our Costas-hater is able to surround himself with a crew of wise-cracking pals? They love the home team as much as he does, they rip on the calls that go against them, they say inappropriate things about the opposing star player. They shred Costas. It’s pretty clear they’re drunk, and talking around Cheetos. Just like real friends would be.

With digital media, it’s a free market. It’s a way for aspiring comedians and articulate fanatics to get an audience. I tune in to the game, but I choose the regular guys that will be in my living room with me. My pals.

When I first thought of Regular Guy Sports Network, it was a digitally-enabled extension of current network broadcasts. Now I wonder, “who needs those guys?” The technology is there, all I need is a directory service to hook me up with my new sports buddies, and a way to keep their words in synch with what I’m watching. Easy peasy.

So come on, RGSN, make it happen!

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Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

Keeping up with the Spandex Crowd

September 18th, 2014

I crossed the 2k line on Monday, a day I was feeling especially frisky. The second thousand miles on my bike went by quickly. Added to my vocabulary: “Monday legs” when I’m fresh and rested, and “Friday legs” when I’m worn down. This leads to laments like “It’s only Tuesday and I already have Thursday legs.”

Monday I even managed to keep up with Chunky Bald Guy for a fair distance. The first time I ever saw Chunky Bald Guy he was waiting at a traffic light. Despite his narrow tires and spandex shorts, his sausage legs made me think that perhaps I should move in front of him at the light. I did not, and good thing: When the light changed and he started to pedal his calves blasted into superhero-style muscle definition with an audible “BLAM!” He quickly left me behind.

Time has passed, I’ve gotten stronger, and on Monday I was hanging in there, trailing Chunky Bald Guy. Then Gray-Bearded Black Guy passed me easily, the way he always does. GBBG pulled up even with CBG, and it was on. Soon they were a pair of tiny dots, disappearing over the horizon.

So, while I might be able to keep up with one member of the Spandex Crowd, there’s no way I can keep up with two.

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Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

Fixing the Economy

September 11th, 2014

I noticed as I was riding the other day that gas prices have fallen quite a bit lately. I had no idea that my consumption represented such a critical inflection point on the gasoline demand curve, or I would have started riding sooner.

You’re welcome, America.

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Observations Observations

Note to Pillsbury:

August 29th, 2014

It’s time to revive Space Food Sticks.

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Photography Photography

Old Glass

August 25th, 2014
My lens lust turns to the good ol' days.

Some nights, when sleep seems like a bad idea, I drift through ebay looking at old camera lenses, mostly for educational purposes. There was a time in the 1970′s, for instance, where computerized lens design and super-high-tech coatings for the glass became common. Many very good lenses were created, only to be quickly outmoded by the autofocus revolution.

When Canon embraced autofocus, they took the opportunity to redesign their mount, making the hole bigger and farther from the film/sensor. This provided tangible benefits for super-high-performance lenses, but it meant that none of the pre-autofocus lenses were compatible with the new cameras at all.

With a few exceptions that don’t apply to everyday photographers, you can’t shoot old Canon glass on a new Canon body.

Nikon, meanwhile, kept the geometry of its older cameras so that old lenses would still work. Funny thing, though. According to the sources I read late last night, they way Nikon does light metering when one of those old lenses is attached really isn’t very good.

The sweet spot: Old Nikon lenses on a modern Canon body. The adapter costs only a few bucks and you can get a great lens for a song (though it’s a costlier song now that people are catching on). Apparently Tim Burton shot a whole movie (one even I had heard of) that way, with a variety of older Nikon lenses on Canon 1Ds. That has to make the brand snobs squirm a bit.

That Nikkor 50mm f1.2 AiS.C is looking pretty nice right now. Someday…

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Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

Friday Pondering

August 22nd, 2014
Don't be stupid is one of my fitness mantras. But I don't even know what stupid is.

Extended exercise when your muscles are quite fatigued from the four previous days of extended exercise is…

  1. the shortest route to improved endurance.
  2. a great way to force your body to burn fat.
  3. stupid.
  4. all of the above.
  5. something else.

Thoughts?

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Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

Open Letter to the Jerks at Adobe

August 18th, 2014
Just because you CAN disrupt my work to force advertising down my throat, doesn't mean you SHOULD.

Dear Adobe:

First, if you would let me file a bug report without first getting an “Adobe ID”, I would have chosen the quieter route. But you don’t.

While I find it amusing that I periodically get alerts that say, (more or less) “Hey! Guess what? You DON’T need an update!” which is, I admit, a surprising bit of news these days, today I got the message that indeed I needed to update Flash. I take these notices seriously because Flash is notorious for security issues, and I don’t want a gaping hole torn in my Web security. So I went through the update process.

Now, before I updated I had several browser windows open. Some to reference materials, some to sites I’m building and maintaining, some to communications and tracking tools, and so forth. You get the idea. I’ve come to trust that when I shut down my browser it will remember the previous state when it starts back up, reconstructing my workspace.

Unless, that is, I run the Flash Player installer. In THAT case, after the install my browser relaunches, but instead of my workspace, I get advertising for Adobe. And that’s all I get. Needless to say, when you just cost me a difficult-to-estimate amount of time getting things back the way they were (some tabs open for days or weeks, not practically recoverable from history), that is not the time to be splashing your logo in my face.

So stop doing that. There was a time I was a big fan of Flash, but now I look forward to the day I don’t need it at all. And that day is coming soon.

P.S. You’re a big company that presumably reviews your public-facing copy. Someone over there needs to learn the difference between “setup” and “set up”.

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Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

The Riddle of the Man who Passed Me Twice

August 16th, 2014
A challenge met.

It is not uncommon for me to be passed by faster cyclists on my way to and from work. I try to make it easier for them, moving over to the right as far as I am comfortable. Often I will toss a “good morning!” or “afternoon!” at their receding backs.

Good mornings are more frequent than good afternoons, actually. Not sure why that is. Maybe I’m fresher. Maybe it’s the cooler temperatures in the morning. Maybe I’m just an asshole after 2 p.m.

Anyway, this story happens in the afternoon. I was rolling down Park street, which is a very pleasant part of my homeward ride, and doing pretty well. You know, for me. A rider passed me easily, an I noticed that he had some sort of fin attached to his helmet, like the dorsal fin of a long fish, presumably as decoration. He was past me before I could summon the breath for a greeting.

Because I have a Y-chromosome, and because Y-chromosomes are demonstrated to have a negative effect on intelligence in competitive situations — even situations that aren’t actually even remotely competitive — I started pedaling a little bit harder, to keep the guy in view and maybe catch a moral victory if he got stopped by an unlucky traffic light. Thus I knew as I rounded the bend in the road to head due east that he and I were still on the same track. After that, however, I lost sight of him.

I went under the tracks, took a right, and followed Bird street over the freeway. Not my favorite bit of riding, as there are ramps on and off, flanked by side streets, that make the whole situation bike-unfriendly. I’ve never had a close encounter along there, but there really are people coming at me from every direction.

The overpass safely negotiated for another day, I continued south on Bird. That’s when the guy passed me again. This time, he gave me the four-finger hand-still-on-handlebar wave as he went by. “Hey,” he said. To an outside observer, that might be all that happened. But he really said much more.

He wanted me to recognize him. He wanted me to remember that he had already passed me. I know a better way, he told me. Not a faster way, obviously, but a safer one.

“Thank you, mysterious stranger!” I called to him as he sped away. “I will solve the riddle!”

OK, actually I didn’t say that. I wheezed “Good afternoon”, trying to disguise how winded I was. By the time I got home, however, my brain was fizzing. I would solve the riddle of the man who passed me twice.

Just as in the days of Blackbeard, when one is searching for something of great worth, nothing beats a good map. I pulled the Goog up onto my screen and pored over the maps, based on my recollection of where I’d last seen the mysterious man after he had passed me the first time.

The maps let me down. I zoomed in closer and closer, but all there was was a jumble of ramps for the freeway interchange just to the east. Not a bike path, not a foot path, nada. Had the man who passed me twice merely paused on his trip, then followed the same course I had? Had I merely imagined the weight of significance in his “Hey”?

Impossible!

The next day was a Saturday, so rather than ride to work I rode to the awesome neighborhood bike shop to give them more of my money (this time for gloves — holy crap who knew what a difference they would make?). Before I left I checked out ye olde mappe to see if I could find a more scenic way home.

And there it was. The very northernmost part of Los Gatos Creek Trail, running along the railroad tracks as they passed under the freeway. The trail flirts with surface roads, making it hard to spot, but the real reason I hadn’t found it in my previous searches was that I’d assumed I’d seen the man who passed me twice after he’s passed that turnoff. But at that time I hadn’t known how significant that one data point would be.

Monday: homeward bound. A right turn before diving under the tracks, a spin through an industrial area, then onto the trail, tricky to spot if you don’t know where to look. A winding path, crossing a few streets (mostly quiet dead-ends), and blissfully under the freeway.

I had solved the riddle.

Another day will come, a day when the man who passed me twice passes me for a third time. Only this time, it will be on that hidden path, and when he says “hey”, he will really be saying “congratulations.” I’ll probably just wheeze “Good afternoon” again, and spoil the moment.

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Get-Poor-Quick Schemes Get-Poor-Quick Schemes

Money for Nothin’ and Watts for Free

August 15th, 2014
Suddenly those sprawling parking lots are looking more attractive...

Think about your average solar collector. Even if you have no idea how the dang things work, you know that:

  • They are flat
  • They are black
  • They don’t work in the shade.

What else fits that description? With a few exceptions on the shade angle, the world has a lot of asphalt baking in the sun. A lot. Anyone who’s gone barefoot in the summer knows how hot a street can get. With that much surface area, you would only have to convert a tiny fraction of the solar flux into useable energy to make a huge difference.

So, come on, science (or maybe this is one for the engineers), give us a way to turn all those square miles of asphalt into cheap, low-efficiency solar collectors.

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Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

An Esoteric Physics Question

August 13th, 2014
I'm leaning 'yes'. Except now I'm leaning 'no'. Wait...

So we’ve all heard of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, even if most of us are pretty vague on what it actually is. It’s a twist of quantum mechanics that says that you can’t know exactly both the location and the momentum of any object. The more certain you are of the momentum of a particle, the more the particle is smeared in a blur of probability.

A very cool side effect: Let’s say you have a cup of chicken soup, and you cool it way down. Colder, colder, colder… until your soup is almost to absolute zero. Absolute zero is when all the soup particles have zero momentum – they’re at a dead stop.

That’s exactly zero.

Do you know where your absolute-zero chicken soup is? No, you do not. It is quite literally everywhere.

Let’s back up a bit. As you get close to absolute zero, the soup particles start to smear out and blend with each other, until the entire cup of chicken soup behaves (in some ways) as a single, wacky chicken soup particle. I was trying to remember the name for this state of matter, but ‘wacky particle when supercooled chicken soup particles’ waveforms merge’ didn’t come up with anything useful. Maybe I should have tried Bing.

Anyway, here’s my question for the physics geeks among you. If you take a very small cup of chicken soup, and cool it down until it’s starting to smear out, then (somehow) cool it down some more really fast, so that suddenly the soup is spread over a volume the size of our solar system (it’s not a linear smear, more of a bell curve), is that change bound by the speed of light?

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The Great Adventure The Great Adventure

A Fine Meal

August 7th, 2014
The Old is New Again

There are few things better than fresh tomatoes straight from the garden. One of those better things is several different kinds of fresh tomatoes gracing your summertime entrée, all fresh-picked from within thirty feet of where your dinner plate is.

I didn’t count how many different kinds of tomato we had tonight; there are ten different varieties growing out in the back 40, but they’ve never all had ripe tomatoes at the same time. But tonight there were definitely several types represented, and they were all delicious.

When I was a kid I didn’t even know there were ten different kinds of tomato. The growing interest in pre-industrial versions of the food we eat is definitely a happy thing. And healthy, too.

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Idle Chit-Chat Idle Chit-Chat

Skewed Perspective

August 1st, 2014
Silicon Valley is not the place to judge automotive trends.

On the way home from work today I got to hear what the V12 Mercedes SL 65 AMG sounds like. It’s a quarter-million dollar car that, despite impressive numbers for power and whatnot, and an equally impressive string of unnecessary letters and numbers in its name, “only” goes 155 mph. (The sound: imagine a hive of bees, except instead of bees it’s full of bears who don’t want to wake up but have to.)

The Santa Clara Valley (aka Silicon Valley) is not the place to get a good cross-section of what America’s driving. Based on a survey here, you might think that Tesla is preparing to challenge Volvo. (Tesla is the government-subsidized overpowered electric vehicle that allows wealthy people to be profligate while fooling themselves into believing they are environmentalists. I call it a watt-guzzler — but I wouldn’t turn one down). Tesla’s sound at a traffic light: sweet blissful silence.

In my time commuting in this area, I’ve stopped saying “Hey! a Maserati!” or “Holy Shit! A Lamborghini!” Top-end BMW’s and Audis are a dime a dozen. I got to check out the new Jaguar F-Type because there’s one that parks at my building. (It sounds… magnificent.) Other Jags, a Lotus or two… you know, the usual.

I’ve only seen one of those million-buck-and-then-some Bugattis, in stop-and-go traffic on the freeway. It wasn’t that impressive.

Not a single damn Viper. Other modern muscle is represented, but not the top shark in the tank. The lack of creature comforts doesn’t play well here, I suppose — although a brief look at the Viper Web site indicates that the interior has been upgraded quite a bit from the old days. Race-inspired my ass. (Although, of the sites I flitted past for ‘research’ on this episode, give Viper credit for having a section dedicated to braking. That’s a huge part of performance.)

Which brings me to wonder: How much of the awesome of these cars is ever experienced? How often are drivers inconvenienced because their V12 wonder-engine can only get their buggy up to 155 mph? I haven’t even taken my Miata up to top speed. In everyday driving, what benefit is that massive motor?

Answer: the sound. Once, walking down the street in a quiet Prague suburb, I heard the unmistakeable sound of an American muscle car, purring like a tiger kitten choking on shots of testosterone. Rubmble-rumble chaka-huh rumble… I turned to see a Coke-bottle Corvette with a vent in the hood, idling down the main street of Strašnice. The driver gently stroked the accelerator and the neighborhood shook with a sound not often heard in Europe. There’s anger in that sound. In Europe they ask “why?” “Because fuck you,” this car answered. I love that sound.

Jaguar has mastered a more civilized version of that sound, and the twelve cylinders under the hood of the Mercedes SL 65 AMG PDQ BYPFD 0I812 produce a pretty satisfying note. You may never drive 160 mph, but your car will tell the rabble around you that you could if you wanted to.

Unless, of course, you’re trapped in traffic with a Bugatti.

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Observations Observations

Git ‘er DONE!

July 31st, 2014
With power tools!

While I’m skeptical of the necessity of scraping the top off what appeared to be a perfectly good street and then laying down a nice new layer of asphalt, I do have to admire the efficiency of the crew working outside my office. The scrapers scrape, the haulers haul, and right behind them come the pavers. There is definitely a sense of urgency as they work.

It’s like they’re in a race with the Evil Russian Road Crew that wants to pave over the orphanage. Will they get there in time?

Pave! Pave like the wind!