Rise, Walk, Swim, Rinse, and Repeat

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!

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

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.


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 ?

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?

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!


Best Robotic Legs Ever?

July 6th, 2012

A very interesting development has been reported by the Daily Disruption News Desk regarding robotic legs that are claimed to “fully model walking in a biologically accurate manner.” This will come as good news for spinal cord injury patients. Those of us who follow developments in artificial intelligence and robotics will likely take note as well.

I read this account with fascination, and immediately wanted to sketch out my understanding in model form. Extending the colloquialism, to a hammer, everything is a nail – to a systems engineer, everything must be modeled. As conveyed in the article, human walking is controlled by a neural network called the central pattern generator (CPG), which is anatomically located in the lumbar region. It’s purpose is to generate rhythmic muscle signals. The researchers said in its simplest form the CPG can be modeled by a neuron pair that each fire signals in alternating fashion.

To complete this model in addition to the neural architecture, the robot needs muscle-skeleton and sensory feedback components. Roughly, this system can be modeled as shown:

I could be wrong, but this is how I understand the Robotic Leg System!

Co-author of the study Dr Theresa Klein was quoted as saying “…we were able to produce a walking gait, without balance, which mimicked human walking with only a simple half-centre controlling the hips and a set of reflex responses controlling the lower limb.”

So, did you catch that? That was quite a surprising statement. Two things are totally counter intuitive to me. First, she said the robot works “without balance.” Does that mean that this robot does not need an “inner ear” to balance? Second, the CPG apparently apparently converts coarse motor commands into forces applied at the hip joint only. The “dangling part of the leg, the lower limb, just follows reflexively, implementing easily programmable commands that simple follow what is happening up stream at the hip.

Another implication of this analysis is that the brain proper plays less of a role in controlling gait that I would have guessed.

This would be a good time to confess that I could be totally wrong in my interpretation of this research and its result; I am learning as I go.

Speaking of which, the CPG model of this study is apparently a good facsimile of how gait is refined from early childhood steps through later improvement during the maturing process. The CPG in humans gets better over time as it learns the best walk to walk by repetition.

This is exciting as I can see similarities between this system and what I am learning in my Udacity.com artificial intelligence class. The evolving understanding of complex bio-mechanical systems as well as advances in AI make this a great time to be a student of such things.

Swimming Freestyle – Propeller or Paddle?

July 5th, 2012

some water

Call me crazy if you want, but four or five times a week I wake up at 4:50am, brush my teeth, hike cross-country about a mile and a half to the pool, and then, I swim for about ninety minutes with the Santa Clarita Masters Club. Exercise or hobby? Who knows, who cares – it does not matter because that is not the point. What I want to talk about is … paddle?, or propeller?

The context is the front crawl, which is the most common stroke used when people are said to be swimming freestyle. In her excellent NYTimes blog post Gretchen Reynolds addresses the question as to which provides better propulsion. Is it a propeller-like, motion (also called “sculling” in the post) in which the arm moves through the water in a s-shape in order to provide propulsive force? Or is it a paddle motion for which the arm digs into the water flat, is then moved straight back towards the hip? Spoiler Alert: the conclusion of the various studies and research and presented in the post is that the paddle motion is better.

Whew… what a relief, because, that is the technique I have gravitated towards, and that is the way I use my arms in the water currently. When I was first learning, the propeller approach was more in vougue. I never mastered it then, and basically forgot about until years later when I became more serious about swimming as my primary form of exercise. For me, my enjoyment of my time in the water has been steadily improving in proportaion to the improvement in my technique and efficiency.

An interesting aspect is terminology of the post and the various studies it references – terms from fluid dynamics such as lift and drag are used. As an aerospace engineer myself such usages tend to grab my attention, even when they are used in non-conventional ways.

There are several reasons why paying attention to technique will benefit any swimmer. First there is a rule of thumb that swimming follows the 80/20 rule. Performance derives 80% from efficiency and 20% from raw physical power. As such there is much more room for improvement by focusing on technique over strength and power. In addition proper technique reduces the chances of injury. There is nothing worse in swimming than to be sidelined with a nagging shoulder injury that could have been avoided or mitigated with better attention to technique.

For me, I am glad I found this article, and I’m happy it was consistent with what I’ve learned and what I practice.


The Rolling Stones are now part of my Fourth of July Tradition!

July 4th, 2012
How whitewingcrow.com will celebrate the 4th of July!

www.whitewingcrow.com CELEBRATES the 4th of July!

Last year, for the first time I chose a musical theme as the backdrop for my Fourth of July celebration. Not that I was anti-music or non-music before that, but rather, this time I wanted a musical theme. Something upbeat in the background; something to provide a rhythm for the day.

I wanted the music to be consistent throughout the entire day – just one artist. Checked the iPod then to start the selection process. Turns out my digital music collection is much broader that it is deep. Not too many bands would support a day of playing without premature looping . Immediately the field narrowed. Only three bands where up to the challenge for number of songs; Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Steely Dan.

Friends know I’m die-hard fan I am of Led Zeppelin so one might have concluded the contest was over before it began. Not so fast though. Steely Dan had a chance I suppose, but as much as I like their music it tends too much to smooth, or jazzy to fulfill the “upbeat” requirement.

[Alert! Drop-in Editorial: in the midst of writing this I realize I’ve taken extensive writer-ly liberty to streamline this post – I totally dropped many other bands from consideration that could have sufficed from the musical repository of my iPod – Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Neil Young, David Bowie, the Killers and the Black Keys, Jimi… there’s a couple more I’m forgetting]

Editorializing aside, I still had a choice to make – Stones or Zep? I caught myself thinking out loud – “Led Zeppelin is still my favorite band, but really, who has the better catalog, top to bottom? Led Zeppelin, or the Stones?” and despite internal comments like – “LZ had greater overall greater impact during its shorter active lifespan.” – I had to ask and answer the ultimate question – (sorry about the repeat into; I must have been compensating for feeling unfaithful to Zep) – “LZ is still my favorite, but gotta hand it to Stones for consistent quality, sheer volume of great songs, epic rock personalities, and longevity!”

So that’s how I decided to loop the Stones for my Fourth of July soundtrack – next time I’ll tackle the backlash I suffered as a result of blurting out this choice on Facebook – and quoting a FB friend – “…you chose a Brit band for your July 4th soundtrack… what’s wrong with you? That is sacrilege!”

Uh, no, not really, that’s just freedom of choice. Regardless, Happy Fourth of July , no matter who you choose for your musical backdrop.

Beyond Debate in a Post-Constitutional America?

July 3rd, 2012

I pose the title in the form of a question, but until I’m convinced otherwise, I think it is true, we are beyond debate in this post-Constitutional America.

I conclude this with a certain amount of sadness and frustration. Sadness because I think it does not bode well for our future. Frustration, because having recently taken to study classic Greek and Roman oratory and rhetoric, I’d like the opportunity to discuss differing views in a constructive way. Now, however, it seems that all too often regarding politics, the debate is over before it even has a chance to begin.

To discuss the dilemma I need to characterize the two opposing camps, but I’ll do so by avoiding the most common and inflammatory labels. As I see there are two primary values, and therefor two camps, around which people align – those being – freedom and equality. I concede this is a drastic simplification, but in the limit I think the debate distills down to these two values. Ideally, politics aside, we should strive to promote both. However, when it comes to our US Constitution, I do not think it is possible to insist on equal provision of both.

Based on my current understanding, our Constitution is so constructed to assure each person their individual freedom. I can not see a similar construct that institutionalizes a person’s assurance of equality. Again, in the limit it is not possible to provide equality without compromising individual freedom.

As introduced in our Declaration of Independence the notion of equality is important because is stated as the prerequisite condition for the discussion of rights. A person’s equality is the basis for endowment of the stated rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are ours, not to insure that we become equal, but they are ours because we are equal. The bulk of the remainder of the declaration itemizes complaints about the King’s restraint on freedoms and are cited as the reason for the declaration for freedom. I can not discern any similar grievance against the King regarding inequality – all speaks to freedom.

In a way the Declaration of Independence states what was being sought by separation from the King – the signatories were seeking freedom.

Consequently, our Constitution was formed to provide the structure as to how to govern ourselves in order to preserve, assure and maintain that freedom.

From the preamble to the Constitution its objectives are itemized; justice, domestic tranquillity, common defense, general welfare, and to “secure the blessings of liberty.” Personally, I think the “blessings of liberty” rise to a higher level of importance.

Freedom without justice, defense, welfare is still freedom. However justice or, defense, or welfare, without freedom, is unacceptable.

Many decisions today are seemingly promoted and made in the name of assuring or seeking equality. Obamacare, the executive order provision for the “Dreamers,” the general concept of redistribution of wealth (along with its specific implementation in tax policy or the Buffet rule) are but a few examples.

To me all of these legislative implementation choices for equality can only come at the expense of freedom. To that is what I object. However, that is not what people in general are willing to have a dialogue about.

Mention freedom as the basis for my position and the debate is over – I am left with someone from the equality camp telling me that I am wrong because the position they support is simply the “right thing to do.” Seemingly, doing the right thing, in the name of equality, trumps freedom.

I am not actively against any of these various causes, or even against doing “the right thing to do,” it is just that I’d prefer to support a solution that did not involve Government intervention.

Intervention on these matters only comes at the expense of freedom. I’ve never been able successfully engage in debate on the subject of freedom; that’s why I believe we have are beyond debate in a post-Constitutional America.