Archive for July, 2012

Blog Challenge Recap

Monday, July 16th, 2012
Starbuck_on_Lakewood_and_Telergraph_in_Downey_CA

Thanks Starbucks for the coffee and the WiFi! You made it possible!

One blog challenge, 27 posts, 7 exclamation points, and 11 question marks. With contest rules that include daily posting for the duration, 351 words per day, and a properly labelled image, clearly I am a masochist who is slightly more inquisitive than excitable.

I’m glad I did it; I am also glad it is over.

Here’s a recap of the posts, each with a little commentary – a director’s cut, so to speak:

1. Go at Throttle Up! One of my favorites, a personal history as well seasoned with a bit of introspection about what it means to accept the label that your professional choice dictates.

2. Is there an OODA Loop in your Future? An exploration of a combat proven decision-making method, examined with by use of a data flow diagram.

3. That’s my OODA Loop, and Yes, I am happy to see you! An extension of the previous post and how it can relate to personal matters, or least how I have found it applicable.

4. New Access to Knowledge Delivery for Everyone! Singing the praises of Udacity.com, a MOOC that offers world class coursework, for free, to all!

5. What Happened to that Feeling? Another one of my personal favorites; reflections from childhood, on the feelings of a summer day.

6. Obamacare, Explained as if to a 5 year old. A response to a reddit.com post, back when it mattered, because since then SCOTUS, has passed judgment, and has declared that the law is upheld – I am amazed at how easily people willingly surrender their freedom. I am even more amazed though at the faulty thinking employed by the chief justice who preferred to protect the perceived legacy of the court and in effect legislative from the bench. This was his choice rather than to decide constitutionality on face value of the arguments made in hearing.  Note: by a large margin, this was my most read post of over the course of the challenge. Two reasons might explain. I successfully got a link onto a reddit political commentary page using a “self” label (played by the rules). Also, recently a lot of people have been search for “Obamacare explained…” So somehow I am geeting part of that energy, although, no one really (save one)  has engaged me in comments, or “followed” as a result.

7. Functional Programming Defined by Consensus. My attempt to improve my understanding of the definition of functional programming.

8. A Brief Introduction to Systems Engineering. The title says it all!

9. Will Robots Rule the Road? Commentary on the prospects of robotic technology and artificial intelligence maturing sufficiently to the point where robotic cars will become commonplace, or not. References to the AI class I am taking at Udacity.com are included.

10. Top Down Robot Car! – A look at modern robotic car systems engineering as seen with the assistance of simple data flow diagrammatic modeling

11. Look Ma – No more Bending! A review of a dumb foot cleaning product.

12. Math as Model. A plea to teachers to make math more accessible by explaining that math is a model for understanding the things around us.

13. If Writing is good for me, why is it depressing me? Thoughts on the writing process, as brought about by the stresses of ambitiously committing to substantial posts on a daily basis.

14. Beyond Debate in Post-Constitutional America? To almost everyone I talk to, equality is more important than freedom; who knew? – go figure.

15. The Rolling Stones are now part of my Forth of July Tradition! In which I explain the scandalous choice to make a Brit-band to musical continuity that accompanies my independence day celebrations.

16. Swimming Freestyle – Propeller or Paddle? Choices, so many choices…

17. Best Robotic Legs Ever? Comments on developments in AI and robotics.

18. Micro Data Centers – Independence Day for AOL? The cloud is getting smaller, more deployable, and self-sufficient. Note: by linking to his blog post, I got a link back from a big player  (Michael Manos) at tech giant AOL. Cool!

19. Am I a Do-it-Yourselfer? I don’t even care about this one, I don’t expect you to either.

20. Continuum. This word kept coming up in my essays that I deceided to take a post to explain it.

21. Building 6. Reflections on my first day of work as a young aerospace engineer.

22. Gravedigger Revisited! I am an artist, as well as one who can write, so why not write about art?

23. Rise, Walk, Swim, Rinse, and Repeat. The morning routine I follow to swim on my master’s team.

24. Hanging On. Starts out as a gecko-eye-view of hanging on a screen, (since I had taken a pretty picture to write about); ends up as a rant on the subject of the president claiming that the only mistake of his first term in office was that he wasn’t a better story-teller. What a joke. Totally clueless.

25. Writing & Bodysurfing? – part 1 and part 2. A comparison between the two.

26. Blog Challenge Recap. Todays’ post – the last one of the blog challenge.

The challenge has been completed. I will continue with new posts after incorporating some lessons learned. But as for today, that’s all folks!

Writing & Bodysurfing? – part 2 of 2

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

(what follows is a continuation from this post)

As within the water once the rise has approached it has to be contended with – furious paddling or furious swimming, hoping to match its speed, hoping to catch it at its peak – this part is necessary to see if the wave takes off… to see if it allows you along for the ride – without the right energy, or if left to pass untested – it either fizzles, or continues on without the waverider.

The wave and the rider must be ready at the same time, and even then, nothing is for sure. Without proper follow through a good idea can collapse, its energy can fade without warning. The rider must endeavor to earn the rest of whatever ride there might be, through diligence.

But this is a diligence not without reward, for this is the essence of creation.

Seeing the opportunity and seizing it; struggling with the possibility, to see what can become of this partnership. This is a state of flow… writing, riding, where the tension un-surety about a successful outcome, be it an essay or a great ride, is perfectly balanced with the satisfaction on feeling that the struggle is worthwhile.

But with practice, and a little luck the result can be amazing. Catching it at the height of its potential, the idea can take off.

Think of it though. Even without a rider that very same wave would have the same trajectory, moving through space and time, unfettered. It might have passed without notice, like so many infinite waves through time immemorial.

Yet on this occasion there has been a collaborator; one to share in, and to mold, and to experience. That is what made this one different. That is what made this one memorable.

Ideas without elaboration are like waves without riders; know ones knows them for either what they were or what they could have become.

So if it contains the right energy, and if it is capably handled, out of nothingness, a wave, an idea, a rider, and a writer can share a perfect moment of creation.

This is a ride that can be exhilarating, and time after time, it proves itself to be worth the effort.

 

Writing & Bodysurfing? – part 1 of 2

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

To what can writing be compared? Of course there are many styles of writing. Therefor many comparisons are possible.

Much of my professional writing has been in a technical vein. Customer driven requirements, malformed upon their inception, and needing analysis to correct their crippled state. Requirements that specified functions only half thought through, but uttered as they were from the customer, sacrosanct. Mutable only by application of cleverness, force-of-will, dedication and often just some good luck.

Requirements for large scale systems development – things our soldiers need to protect our freedom, but procured by bureaucrats and their lesser minions and agents. Those charged with spending other peoples’ money and therefor less concerned about outcomes, and more about costs and schedules. Pretty much dry as dirt, but supposedly purposeful, deliberate, and boring in the limit.

Why waste time making comparisons to boring things?

I choose not to do that.

As for the type of writing I am doing now, that’s a different thing altogether. I write by choice, about things that interest me. I can choose my own subjects, and I am my own boss. I am the writer, but I am also my own first audience.

With that latitude and freedom though, there comes a price. With the freedom comes the burden of idea generation. The difference here is that I want to write, I am writing by choice. Comparisons then, are come by easier.

Something natural and energetic comes to mind; something that requires effort but offers rewards. An activity enhanced by what it offers in terms of immersion. I am thinking about body surfing. I am thinking about comparing writing to body surfing. Yeah, that is right, body surfing.

Standing, or swimming in the ocean, just far enough out to where the waves break and start to turn over on themselves. Patiently, because often the water is flat and the time between substantial waves can be lengthy. This can be a tedious time, waiting for a wave, or an idea to appear. Every now and then a slight rise forms at the edge of awareness, and gradually it approaches.

Is this the one, will this take the proper shape and does it have the right energy?

Each such new arrival has to be tested. (…continued on next post)

Hanging On

Friday, July 13th, 2012

I wonder what it feels like to be a gecko hanging on a screen door. Suspended, in space, a flimsy net, a minimal connection to stability. All that air rushing past, an open patio door, like a giant industrial vent. Maybe it would be like skydiving but without the inconvenient falling, the screaming earthward at terminal velocity.

Delicate little gecko claws, grabbing tenaciously, defying gravity. Its minute lizard brain thinking lizard thoughts. Cold-blooded, suspended, clinging,  and then the bob. Like the blink of a human eye, thoughtless yet relentless – always the bob – a genuflection that seemingly, is a nod to its primitive ancestors.

At the mercy of so many forces; like I’ve said, the wind could sweep it away without warning, gravity too would pull it down to a thud of a landing. And predators; could a bird swoop past and pluck the lizard off the screen?

Then again, how is this different from the situation of people – those who may be hanging on?

Maybe not different at all. Aren’t many suspended? Clawing, clinging, trying to stabilize on an uncertain fabric. A fabric that seems fragile, itself battered about by the wind.

Sometimes I feel the relentless rush of the air, the circumstance of life. What would it take sweep me away to a fall? Am I many small wisps, or just one big gust, away? To be whisked off, tumbling – what would it take? How many more mortgage payments can I make, with no income before my own tenuous grasp fails? Does the county stop collecting property tax once a job is lost – no, they don’t. I exist to fund my public servants and my public projects. Taxes I must pay. This fulfils me. Especially the local high school’s multi-million dollar project to install solar cells over the span of an entire parking lot. Student’s cars are protected from the sun by carport-like structures, the roofs of which are mounted with countless photovoltaic cells.

A good friend of mine has reassured me though that these solar cells are good – and that, I will see that someday.

Meanwhile, as unemployment remains above 8% for more than 40 months now, and as reckless government spending ruins our nation’s finances and imperils the future value of our dollar, I take reassurance from another source. The president has told me that the only mistake of his first term is that he hasn’t been a good enough storyteller. Imagine that – the great communicator can’t tell a story well. The one who was elected for convincing us to believe in his fantastical story of hope and change has failed to master the narrative.

Here I have told you a story, although I leave it to you to decide if it is ‘good.’ As for my own assessment, I’ll assert that I’d make a better president than this one, based on my storytelling alone.

While we wait for the president to find his voice again’ let me assure you, I am fine – after all, I am hanging on.

 

Rise, Walk, Swim, Rinse, and Repeat

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

A typical morning sequence

Even though abnormally hot during the previous Santa Clarita day the cooler night air cascades through the open window and over me in my bed. In these predawn moments I anticipate the alarm; it will be unwelcome and abrupt.

Then, 4:50am – it blasts; I can tolerate one push on the snooze bar without being too late to my swim. I do it, one push.

Roll out of bed and stagger to the bathroom; wash, and brush. I am moving around, but barely awake. I have found that my early morning swimming is just an extended form of waking… even once swimming I will feel lost in a transitional state.

Even as the morning sky is lightening, yellow, pink to blue, to night overhead, the planets, Venus and Mars, still shine brightly, unwilling to yeild to the approaching sun, yet they will – inevitably, they do.

Socks and shoes on the porch, poised like firemen’s gear, ready to go, always. Two squirts of hand lotion to counteract the drying effect of the chlorine.

The walk begins towards the gate, and then out into the wilderness. As the gates swings shut behind me I scale the steep embankment to start my 2 mile hike through relatively untouched Califronia Coastal Range terrain. Still in Northern Los Angeles County, and yet I live next to wild country.

Up to the first prominence, the highest point in my trek. A pause to deeply breath in the morning air. I turn slowly and I can scan the entire horizon. Pockets of low lying fog fill in small portions of the valley. Otherwise the sky is clear, and as it will be for the entire day.

Rabbits scurry through the brush. I’ve seen rattlesnakes, and I’ve heard them – whenever that happens I am glad for the warning. Evidence of coyotes, but no sightings. They leave rabbit carcasses and scat; they roam, and stick to their pack. This is their land, theirs and the other wildlife, yet, I walk through it as if it is mine.

Time goes by fast as I approach the pool, invigorated by my pre-swim walking warm-up.

Then poolside… I adjust my goggles, secure my earplugs, and then launch. I dive, limbs fully extended and my body sleek, I pierce the surface of the water. Immersed, alive, several dolphin kicks before starting my stroke. I will work hard; perhaps several thousand meters in 90 minutes, and yet it is as if I am still asleep.

It won’t be until after I’ve hauled myself out the water and showered, and started the hike back home, that I can claim to be fully awake. I will do this all again tomorrow.

For me, this is being fully alive, yet knowing – this is transition. Between sleep and wakefulness, conscious and engaged, but as if in a dream.

 

Gravedigger Revisited!

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012
HIghlighting the good aspects of art execution for this card art

Good composition, depth, form, perspective and simple shapes make for good art!

Magic the Gathering is a great game that has demonstrated staying power since its invention in 1993. The first of its kind, as a collectible card game, it not only defined the genre but has since remained the standard for quality. This is true not only for gameplay, but for production value as well.

While there are many reasons for a person to like the game I’d like to focus on one popular aspect of its production value – that being, its artwork.

Since the beginning, the top half of each card has been dedicated to art which portrays the cards game mechanic, communicates game ‘flavor’, and hopefully tells a story in its own right. As for execution, for many players notice and appreciate art that is appealing. Fortunately, for critical purposes, what is appealing happens to follow the normal rules for evaluating art from an aesthetic point of view.

While many players know what they like, they often do not know why they like it. That’s where I come in. On occasion, I like to explain, in terms of artistic qualities, why some art is good, and therefor, appealing. I am also willing, but less likely to explain why card art fails if it has been poorly executed. The latter is possible, but rare; why go around calling attention to the negative? Sometimes it can be instructive to do so, but being negative for negativity’s sake – no, not my style. Hey, I just used a double negative to explain why I was not going to be negative; nice!

Take the card Gravedigger; this is beautifully done art. One does not need to know art aesthetics to assert this, but they can be applied to explain why it is good.

In summary, it is good because it is well composed, it employs an effective design using simple shapes, perspective treatment is correct, form is nicely revealed on the main character, there is great depth of field, and there is a well executed control of the viewer’s eye movement, which is directed, by design, towards the center of attention which are found on the highlights on the two character’s heads.

As this series continues I will elaborate on these concepts, but for now let me refer you to my own drawing above which is annotated to introduce several of these features of good art.

Comments are welcome; I hope you find this helpful in your appreciation of, not only Magic art in particular, but also of art in general.

Note: the Gravedigger card (lower left corner of image above) is copyrighted by Wizards of the Coast; its depiction here is for art critique and instructional purposes only.

Building 6

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

Big building, where the shuttle was built

I could not have imagined a more ideal first job out of college for a young aerospace engineer. The Space Shuttle was still young, new and exciting. It had only launched three times when I had arrived for my first day of work in Building 6 of the Rockwell International plant in Downey, California. The front of the massive building was an impressive sight facing Lakewood Boulevard. Major sub-assemblies were being built in that factory – during my tour of the plant on that first day I was walking among the cockpit/crew station structure in their various states of emergence. The space program still captured attention – each mission was being followed closely.

It was odd that on my very first day I felt both young and old at the same time. Old in that, now well past high school age, I was now a college graduate starting a real career in the aerospace industry. Young on the other hand in that I was the most junior person in the First Stage Ascent, Guidance, Navigation and Control group. As we posed for our group picture, which was coincidentally being taken on my first day, I was surrounded by engineering veterans, most of whom had built their career during the Apollo era. I remember being stunned that some of there faces seemed familiar as fixtures in the behind-the-scenes footage shown in various Apollo era mission control room newsreel footage. White shirts, thin ties, pocket protectors abounded; not cliches, but real – this was the fashion of the day. I may have been the youngest new recruit, but that would change, and soon others would be added.

Space still mattered, and its workforce was growing, and it would continue to grow – at least for a time.

Rockwell International as a corporate entity is long since gone, having been bought by Boeing in the late 1990’s, but Building 6 still remains. Supporting just a fraction of the number of jobs, the site now hosts a film production company that you’ve never heard of before. Turns out buildings like this now retain value, not as monuments and museums to a once proud US space program, but as backdrop for Hollywood. Old plants such as this shuttle factory are ideal for filming when the director needs a dilapidated industrial setting.

So not surprisingly, in a region famous for film, Southern California once again has more of future in entertainment, than in space.

Continuum

Monday, July 9th, 2012
a diagram to illustrate the concept of a continuum

Continuums are Cool!

It is always good to know where you are. This knowledge provides context which can help you make good decisions. It can also help you predict how your environment might affect you physically. This is true in life, in general, but it is also true in science. As an aerospace engineer I am interested in the science of aerodynamics, where environmental context is critically important.

Environment is so important in aerodynamics because aerospace vehicles behave differently depending on where they are. Clearly an airplane and an earth-orbiting satellite operate in different regimes. One way to distinguish flight regimes is determine whether there exists a continuum.

According to wiktionary a continuum is defined as “a continuous series, or whole, no part of which is noticeably different from its adjacent parts, although the ends or extremes of it are very different from each other.”

In practical terms earth’s atmosphere is a continuum. The air is composed of many molecular particles that interact with one another. At sea level these particles are very close and densely packed. High in the atmosphere though, the particles are much less densely packed and are farther apart from one another.

The average distance between particles is called the mean free path. Gravity affects these particles and tends to pull them down to the surface, so they collect densely at sea level and the mean free path is short. With increasing altitude the mean free path increases, for a variety of reasons. Mean free path is one of two important paramters need to the define a continuum.

To discuss the second parameter I need to establish the idea of a simple airplane. The simplest airplane I can think of is a flying disk, so, imagine a frisbee. The diameter of the frisbee is the same as its chord length.For a traditional wing the chord length is the front-to-back distance from its leading edge to its trailing edge. Chord length is the second parameter needed to define continuum.

For the purposes of aerodynamics there is a continuum when the mean free path of the surrounding atmosphere is shorter than the chord length of a object under consideration, in this case, our frisbee.

Once the mean free path exceeds the chord length then there is no continuum anymore. In effect the regime is no longer atmospheric, but rather, space. The physical changes from sea level to the boundary of space are gradual; beyond that boundary the change transitioning to space is abrupt, and calls for a different type of design for any vehicle.

I find this concept compelling for its similarity to other things in life. The ageing process – a continuum. The way we learn – a continuum. Our position in life changes more often like a continuum rather than abruptly. There are many others.

Not all things in life, but many, we experience as a continuum.

I am often amazed at how the things I learned in becoming an engineer have relevance outside of their strict application in science.

 

 

Am I a Do-it-Yourselfer ?

Sunday, July 8th, 2012
my collection of DIY tools is small

Results are in – two out of five items is not enough!

As part of my search for meaning in the universe I am often wont to ask deep and probing questions. Today’s question is ‘am I a do-it-yourselfer’? How though might I answer such a question objectively?

Luckily I found a thread on StackExchange.com that purports to identify the top tools a person would need in order to call themself a DIY’er.

Since their gimmick over there works as a vote-based sorting mechanism, I can be sure that if the internet community has passed judgement on what is needed, then I can be confident as well that I making a well informed assessment of my DIY status.


Top of the list – cordless power drill. Uh, OK…. last time I used one of these, it had a power cord, and I used it while rebuilding a bedroom closet, about 15 years ago. I still own it , but like I said, it has a cord. Zero points for me.

Next, I’d have to have a ‘good weight crowbar.’ Confession time – I don’t even have a ‘bad weight’ version and can’t think of a single use for one. Suggested uses, from the list includes: lifting, prying, bashing and ‘most importantly, against zombies and headcrabs.’ I do know some real-life zombies, but I’ve been shaving my head for a while now. Clubbing the former would be against the law (my zombies happen to be real people – although I don’t work with them anymore), and as for the latter, again, no hair, no headcrabs – you do the math. Still zero points for me. Not looking good.

Wow, pay dirt – I actually own the third item on the list – a good stiff measuring tape. Not sure why the emphasis on ‘stiff’; no matter – mine is; score one point for me.

Here’s one that is just plain common sense; everyone needs one of these – a first aid kit. What kind of idiot would not have one of these. Apparently, my kind, because I am ‘sans kit.’ I do have an assortment of band aids, I know better though than claim credit on such flimsy grounds. They are not the same. Stuck at one point.

I do have a utility knife, which is next on the list. I am surprised as you. Another point for me.

Considering my performance near the top of this list, 2 out of 5 so far, I am going to have conclude that no, I am not a DIY’er. I am other things though, just not that, and by golly, I am OK with that. I still know some zombies though – does that count for anything?

Micro Data Centers – Independence Day for AOL?

Saturday, July 7th, 2012

Even as I learn to become a modern technologist, the field of computer science is changing constantly. I don’t even know what a modern technologist is, but it is a good enough word because in some ways I am already an archaic technologist (goodbye aerospace!). Since I want to keep eating and stay comfortably sheltered and clothed until I die I have to modernize. To me that means skill acquisition in computer science; skills which I will hybridize with systems engineering (the still useful, repurpose-able part of what I used to do). Still, things change fast.

No sooner than I got comfortable with the idea of the cloud as a new paradigm enabled by vast power-hungry data centers, did I just learn today that AOL is turning that concept on its head as well.

As described in his own blog post AOL’s Michael Manos relates that when he got to the company he initiated a deep review of all aspect of operations. I found his comments on what that review entailed to be very interesting in and of themselves. Basically the review sounded to me like an old-shcool systems engineering analysis of their operation. The result was a Technology Roadmap that contained three components. The first component dealt with internal efficiencies, the second, technical challenges, and the third was an aggressive wish list of game changing technical goals. That third group was referred to as “‘Nibiru’ after a mythical planet that s said to cross our solar system that wreaks havoc and brings about great change.”

Their primary Nibiru goal was to develop a data center environment that did not need a building. Their driving requirements for this was minimal physical touch. This would give them great flexibility in how they will deliver ther products and services. Their result was the Micro Data Center. Attributes of this product include:

  • new technology suite
  • deploy-ability to “anywhere in the world with minimal to no staffing”
  • extremely dense compute capacity (for longest possible use once deployed)
  • deploy-ability anywhere, regardless of temperature and humidity conditions
  • ability to support/maintain/administer, remotely
  • fits within power envelope of any ‘normal building’
  • interoperability within the AOL cloud environment and capabilities

AOL claims to have accomplished all of this and declared Independence Day on July 4th 2012, having successfully tested this in the field near Dulles airport in Virginia.

Bottom line for AOL and why this is such a game changer for them is that they can “have an incredible geo-distributed capacity at very low cost point in terms of upfront capital and ongoing operational expense.”

Manos’s post contains much more information about advantages and future implications for this breakthrough. As for me it is interesting to watch changes develop in the field even as I am learning it at a fast rate myself.

Independence Day, indeed; for both AOL and me!

not a micro data center

Not a Micro Data Center – just old Towers in my Garage!