Saturday, February 27, 2010

Firecrackers, Toyotas, and Traffic

Q: What do those things all have in common?

A1: They're all in this blog post!
A2: Toyotas & traffic & firecrackers - what a fun game! Just see the picture to the left for inspiration.*
A3: ... ok, I can't think of another one, so let's just get on with the blog post.

Apparently "firecracker" in Chinese means "dynamite." 19 people were KILLED by a firecracker explosion while celebrating the Chinese lunar new year. Now, I've heard my share of fireworks horror stories over the years, and even been witness to a few (my brother was awesome with fireworks as a kid: stepping, barefoot, on a spent sparkler & burning his foot - now they make them with wood sticks so you don't have hot metal lying around afterward; grabbing an entire pack of sparklers, six in each hand, and spinning in circles - enveloping himself in sparkler smoke - until he started gagging and puking; you're welcome, bro, for the shout out!), but while I've heard plenty of bad ones (teeth blown out, burns that had material burned into the flesh), none involved death. Those must be some serious "firecrackers" they have in China... and apparently it's legal to own and use them. Or, maybe, it went like this (conversation is subtitled in English for those of us who don't speak Chinese):

"Choi ni dong ho wah." ("Dad, we ran out of firecrackers.")
"Bing tau do xi qua." ("That's OK, since I work at a blasting company, I have some free fireworks from work down in the basement; they're in the box marked 'DANGER!' Go get those, they'll do.")

(OK, please don't hate - this is intended as humor; I fully understand the gravity of this situation, even being "upside down" on the other side of the earth, and the horrific loss of life and the tragedy involved. Another reason to make sure you're making the most of every moment, 'cause you don't know how many you have left; and you'd better be prepared when the time comes!)

Speaking of loss of life, how many lawsuits is Toyota going to face these days? This guy may get a reprieve from an eight year prison sentence - of which he's already served three years - after news of the "unintended acceleration" issues with Toyotas. He'd immigrated to the US (from "Hmong"?) in 2004 and was working on his GED, and he'd never driven before coming to the US. "Unintended acceleration" caused his car - with his family on board - to rear end another stopped vehicle coming off an interstate exit ramp. Three died in the accident. Now, however, they're taking another look at the case. And the victims are planning to sue Toyota (hey, big money corporation could be at fault? let's sue them!). The man's wife and children have been on welfare while he's been in jail (still trying to get his GED). This is just one example, though; the article cites that the attorney involved knows of at least 16 class-action suits being prepared against the automaker.

I still wonder why no one seems to be pushing this advice: if your car suddenly starts accelerating, SHIFT INTO NEUTRAL and HIT THE BRAKES. Yes, it's going to be a sudden, startling thing, and you're probably going to panic. But this is why you must BE PREPARED when you get into a steel missile of which you are the pilot - no texting (saw a cool thing the other day: "Honk if you love Jesus; text and drive if you want to meet Him!"), pay attention to what's going on ALL AROUND you - that little boy playing with his ball beside the sloping down toward the road hill, the car that's not paying attention in your direction while eyeing a forthcoming break in the traffic on the other way while impatiently waiting to pull out, the brakelights you can see through the glass of the vehicle in front of you, while the guy in front of you is paying little attention and hasn't started slowing yet - those sorts of things. Be prepared and you will have that little extra reaction time (in those scenarios, your foot should probably be already on the brake, if not already pushing it). And a note about neighborhoods: PLEASE observe speed limits there. Those are the most dangerous places for children, I would think: where else are larger numbers of (likely inattentive) children going to be playing in or near the road? Take it easy in neighborhoods. Slow down, pay attention. Save your speeding for non-neighborhood roads, where there is much less of a chance of pedestrian traffic.

Anyway... back to the concept: if your car starts to accelerate on its on, shift into neutral, turn it off (warning: if you turn it off, you'll likely lose your power brake assist, power steering, and - if you manage to somehow actually get the key to the "off" position - you'll lock your steering wheel, so be careful with that - only turn it off, WHILE IN NEUTRAL, once you've slowed quite a bit), SOMETHING so that you don't have to use brakes to overcome the engine's power with just your brakes. Neutral is likely the best option. Your engine probably has a rev limiter, so it's going to scream and be running really fast, but you're not likely to actually do any damage to it - and better that (which, if damaged, you can probably get the manufacturer to replace) than to run into something.

I wonder how badly this is going to ruin both Toyota, the motor vehicle industry, and further "help" our economy.

Wow, this has gotten long... sorry for that. Last topic: traffic. People, the "slower traffic keep right" sign doesn't mean, "Go 1 mph faster than the guy in front of you and you're entitled to the left lane" - it means, "If there's someone approaching you from behind, and you're in the left lane, MOVE OVER TO THE RIGHT and LET THEM GO BY!" And, for those of you in Alabama, that's actually a law; witness, from section 32-5A-80 (b) of the Code of Alabama:

"Upon all roadways any vehicle proceeding at less than the normal speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing shall be driven in the right-hand lane then available for traffic, or as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway, except when overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction or when preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway."

I'm sure this law exists in similar form in other states (anywhere the "slower traffic keep right" signs are posted, for instance), but I'm specifically talking about Alabama right now as that's where I (mostly) drive.

OK, 'sall for now!

* Note: do NOT attempt to play such a game! This is HUMOR ONLY! Author is NOT endorsing or encouraging such activity!
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Monday, February 22, 2010


SPAM !Image by colodio via Flickr

Hello, my reader (I'd make it plural, but I think usually only one person reads this, so singular is more fitting). Question for you: do you mind the comment verification? You know, that little, "Enter the characters you see" box? It was suggested that removing it might improve the commentship here, but, alas, while the number of comments has, in fact, increased slightly, they're primarily all spam comments, and I'm thinking nothing was really gained by removing the box (except the spam).

So, the question: do you mind the comment box? Would it upset you if I put it back? I've added a poll (over on the right; the title looks a little funky in this layout, but oh well) where you can vote for your answer (note to readers on Facebook: you'll have to go to the original blog post to see the poll - now, there's a chicken and egg scenario - I wanted to link the post IN the post, but didn't have the post URL to link to until after publishing! I could've guessed at it, but what I did was just post the post, copy the URL, then edit the post to put it in). If you need to expound, or just want to say, "Hi!" feel free to add a comment.
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Saturday, February 20, 2010

TJ quote

Saw this in the local Tidbits paper. In case you can't read it, it says, "The problem to be solved is, not which form of government is perfect, but which of the forms is least imperfect." - Thomas Jefferson

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Taxes? Planes? Terrorism or misguided patriotism?

In case you haven't seen it, earlier today a small plane was flown into an office building in Austin, TX. Intentionally, it would seem. Supposedly (and, of course, this is all circumstantial, but looks pretty convincing - unless the guy pulled off what another guy failed to do last year when he put his plane on autopilot and let it crash after he bailed out) the pilot set his house on fire and then hopped into his plane and flew it into an IRS building. (Note: after spending the evening working on my own return, ... nah, better not go there, eh?) Again, supposedly, he left this note on the website of a company of his.

Question is, is it terrorism? Or misguided patriotism? Lloyd Doggett (a politician from Austin) says it's "domestic terrorism." Of course, already there are fan pages popping up on Facebook. The question, really, is how to classify this act. Obviously the guy got his headlines, made people take notice (posthumously, assuming he did not bail out of the plane). But he also endangered lives - and, despite his feelings about the gov't and the IRS, I'm pretty sure that none of the people in that office had anything really to do with the issues which grieved him. They are just employees of the IRS (or, perhaps, unfortunately timed visitors). Then again, were the governors of the colonies at the time of the revolution just employees of Britain?

I do not condone his actions. I would like to do away with the confusing tax codes and perhaps move to a more sales-tax based economy (sorry, dad; but you'd still have a job, I'm sure - people will still need accountants, just not for their "income tax" since that wouldn't exist). As a friend of mine suggested, that would increase federal revenue from all the illegally obtained monies being spent on commercial goods - currently, illegally obtained monies are (obviously) not reported as income, and thus not taxed. However, if that illegally obtained money buys a Leer jet, or a Ferrari, well, that money now has been taxed. Yeah, you'd still have to have employers report your anticipated annual earnings so that the gov't could pre-bate sales tax to lower income families (i.e., they'd get a check or checks from the gov't to help offset the increased cost of things if they made below a certain income level - at least, I think that's what Fair Tax is advocating to offset the increased cost of goods for lower-income families). But why not give it a shot? I mean, Florida does just fine without any income tax; if Florida can survive without income tax, why not the rest of the USA?

Well, this didn't quite turn out to be what I'd intended when I sat down to blog this evening... guess I'm just tired from working on my taxes all evening (and I'm still not done; I don't have the interest statements from my bank, and apparently they no longer offer the ability to print them from their online account access, so I guess I'm going to have to call tomorrow to try to get at least the info and new copies sent out - speaking of which, I'm still waiting for a re-requested copy of my mortgage interest statement that I also did not receive). And I'm going to owe (federal), so it's not like I'm even getting anything out of all this work (well, looks like a state refund, but that won't offset the amount owed to Uncle Sam).

Ah, well... at least I'm employed - I guess I should be thankful for the burden of having to fill out a 1040, eh? Too bad my oldest child no longer qualifies for the child tax credit... that would have offset my tax liability quite nicely, that extra $1k credit... oh well.
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Monday, February 15, 2010

Snowball Warming - the buzz!

Yes, that's an intentional title: "Snowball" vs. "Global" - intending a play on the words as well as the weather. According to Wunder Blog, though, we should expect more snow in a climate that is being warmed. What? Are you really saying that? And I quote: "there will still be colder than average winters in a world that is experiencing warming" - I could agree. However, if there are "colder than average winters" - wouldn't that tend to affect the overall average? In other words, the "colder than average" would tend to depress the average (even as "global warming" is attempting to raise the average). Seems to me that it would be tough to sustain a warming trend if you're throwing in "colder than average" winters.

It also says in that article, "The strongest cold-season storms are likely to become stronger and more frequent" - really. So, the latest "global warming" threat is excessive, blizzardy snow storms across the US. That's what is supposed to scare us into 1) not using gasoline; 2) spending billions to "prevent" climate change. Hey, here's a thought: let's take those BILLIONS of dollars that are being spent on climate change programs and feed the hungry, pay teachers, and increase the pay of our way-underpaid, way-underappreciated military. Did anyone else see that American Idol episode where the girl said something like, "I never knew we were poor; I thought lots of kids didn't eat dinner"? So sad; her parents would say, "You can eat at school" - and she would save some of her school lunch for her brother to have at night. Why not spend the billions to help those kids get fed on a regular basis?

On a completely different note, have you sampled Google Buzz yet? PC World has a pretty good article on it where they say it's likely an attempt by Google to get people accustomed to a new way of working online. Google had released their "Wave" product a while back (which I have yet to sample). PC World (if I remember the article correctly) thinks that Buzz is Google's trying to warm people up to a wave-like interface. Yes, Google is attempting to take over the world. No problem, I say - they've been good to me so far.

There was something else I was going to say, but I don't remember now what it was. Oh well, I'm pretty sure no one's reading this anyway, so it doesn't really matter. :)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

When you're going up or down...

Here's my latest music: unfortunately, I think it mainly turned out like elevator music. The basic backing riff was done on a Yamaha DGX-620 electronic keyboard. I recorded it on the keyboard, then copied it in midi format to a USB drive and loaded it on my computer. From there, I ran it through Timidity++, which converts the midi into higher-quality WAV format audio. That was the basic riff, recorded one sequence trhough. I then loaded that wave file into Audacity (a pretty cool, free audio editor) and copied it several times over to make the backing track.

At that point, I hooked up my PS2 Rock Band USB mic to my computer, and started recording with my Yamaha 62-series alto sax (that I got brand new - about 21-22 years ago). Unfortunately, the USB port I was using was not cooperating, and most of the good takes were wasted on a port that kept dropping the mic. The one you're hearing is the "I'm tired of doing this over and over and finally worked my way around and plugged the mic into the USB port on the back of the computer so it would quit dropping out" take.

Anyway, so now I have a nice elevator music track... what to go with it? What kind of video will match this music? Nothing. So, I'll just entertain you. Was going to try to do it with stick people cartoons, but I'm not that good of an animator yet. And I couldn't find anything free to let me do that sort of animation. But I did have this little "issue" with my Facebook page again, which has been a relatively frequent thing since they redid their post thing a couple days ago for their 6th birthday, I guess. So, that became the focus of the video. I did the video in Scratch (by an MIT student - it's actually a pretty decent little programming language - even my youngest kids have made games and animations with it, and it has the basics to get you into "real" programming concepts without being overly complicated). Once I had the Scratch animation mostly put together, I recorded it off my Scratch web page using CamStudio, a free screen capture utility, and finally assembled everything in Microsoft Windows Movie Maker and uploaded it to YouTube.

With that background: enjoy the elevator music (played by yours truly) and the little video (also made by yours truly)!

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What's your personal communication device of choice?

Nokia E71 hold in the palmImage via Wikipedia

I (currently) use a Nokia E71 (like the one in the pic). I have, in the past, used a variety of Motorola and Samsung devices (although the Razr is not one of them: I had it for a day or two before I returned it for a Samsung device). Currently in my family are a couple of Samsungs (wife, son) and a couple of Nokias (daughter, me). There are a few shortcomings of the Nokia, though: no UMA ("unlicensed mobile access" - routes GSM via TCP/IP - that is, your "cell" calls go through your wireless internet router); doesn't support T-Mobile's 3G (it's a different frequency spectrum than, say, AT&T's 3G); doesn't have some of the cool, new Android apps and junk from Google (like Navigator, Skymap, etc.). And the update of the firmware nearly killed it, but things seem nearly back to normal now.

I think I'd like an Android phone (don't tell my wife, unless you happen to be offering one for free). Like the Motorola Cliq or the Google Nexus One. I'd like to play with the Android development tools, but mostly I'd like some of the cool, free apps. Like Navigator or Skymap. Of course, I don't think they do UMA, but they do support T-Mobile's 3G frequencies (not that it matters much here, since I don't think T-Mobile has implemented 3G near the Gulf).

Anyway, what personal communication device do you currently use? Do you like it? Why that one? Is there one in the past that is one of your favorites? Is there one you'd really, really like to have? Do you use internet on your phone? What else do you use on your phone - maps? E-mail? Chat/IM?

And/or, is there a really cool application that should be developed for ? Something that maybe I could work on in all my spare time? (Sorry, Jane, I'll get your book back to you soon, I promise!)
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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The End of Innovation?

As I'm sure you know by now, President Obama intends to END the Constellation Program at NASA. No Space Shuttle replacement. No moon missions. No mission to Mars. All sorts of jobs, construction (e.g., the new Engine Test Stands at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi), etc. lost or put on hold or whatever. But, most importantly, innovation, lost.

Back in the great space race, NASA developed all sorts of technology. From commercial airliners to schoolbuses to the computer on which you're reading this, even little things you may not have even guessed. And, of course, Tang*. Who could imagine a world without Tang? And this is what Obama wants for our world. No NASA, no Tang, no innovation.

But, on the other hand, check out this Zemanta linked article (noted below) regarding the decision. Personally, I'd like to see NASA continue with a Space Shuttle replacement (I always wanted to be a shuttle pilot, even went to Space Camp in 8th grade - but, alas, I only got to be the mission medical chief, imaginarily left on planet earth as several of my Space Camp buddies got to imaginarily go out on the shuttle - I did get a Space Shuttle Operator's Manual in the gift shop before leaving, though!). As always, DO SOME RESEARCH and MAKE UP YOUR OWN MIND! I have little knowledge, really, of Obama's plans regarding the future of NASA and the American space program (other than an acquaintance or two in Huntsville whose livelihood has depended on the now-cancelled Constellation program and the development of launch vehicle rockets to replace the shuttle fleet).

Speaking of Zemanta, I'm still not totally convinced, but it seems like a pretty neat thing: it offers suggestions for related content (articles, images) for whatever you're typing into your blog post. It's an extension for Google's Chrome browser (meaning it'll likely find its way into Google's Chrome OS). While it's not perfect (e.g., it really messes with the formatting, and it takes some patience to get things "right" at times), it does offer some interesting content (such as the Buzz Aldrin article linked in this post). And, like most software and fine wines, I expect that it will improve as it ages (and goes through revisions; it's in a very early state right now).

* OK, so Tang wasn't really "invented" by NASA - but were it not for NASA's use of Tang during the Gemini flights, it never would have received the publicity and acceptance and worldwide fame and recognition that it has achieved.
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Monday, February 1, 2010


Front ViewImage by Tony Kingdad via Flickr

I have a love/hate relationship with my Lexus. I love to hate it. :)

Driver's Door HandleDon't get me wrong, it's generally a very reliable car; it's also relatively easy to take apart (as long as you're not replacing the alternator or power steering pump reservoir O-ring). Powerful, comfortable, deceptively fast... however, the door handle has broken. The driver's side, exterior door handle (see picture, to the right). Oh, it's still usable: you just have to pull the little corner above the split in the photo, next to the lock cylinder.

I spent yesterday afternoon disassembling the driver's door: interior panel, all the interior door handle connections, and then removing the handle itself. Put some JB Weld on it, clamped it together with a vice grip while using a portion of a wooden #2 pencil to hold it in the open position (I'm creative), and let it set overnight in the house where it was nice & warm.

This morning, I put the door handle back on the car, and first attempt at pulling the handle - yes, it broke again. Frustrated, extremely tired (will explain shortly), sore (helped my brother pack up the remainder of his house Saturday), and cold, I reassembled the inner door panel, as obviously the JB Weld is not a solution, not for this particular mode of stress, and I'll have to get a new handle somewhere. Get to the last trim piece, the one behind the inner door handle, and it won't quite pop back into place, so I give it a (pretty forceful) pop with my palm... and it shatters. I recommend NOT smacking cold, brittle plastic after a night where ice forms on your car windows. It cut my palm in multiple places. (Out of respect for my friend Dean, I won't post a picture in this blog entry, but if for some weird reason you really want to see, drop me an e-mail and I'll forward it to you.)

Why so tired? Well, after going to bed late, the smoke alarms all started going off around 2 am. No smoke, no fire, just lots of incessant, extremely loud noise. They've done this before, but usually quit after 30 seconds or so. Not this time. No, we ended up starting to pull the detectors from their mounts, removing batteries. After the first one, the alarms stopped (they're all interconnected, so one going off triggers them all). Back to bed.

Five minutes later, alarms again. I'd looked at the one I pulled, and it says, "If interconnected, the one triggering the alarm will have a flashing red LED." Nope, don't see any. We pull two more (one of which was conveniently mounted on a built-in ceiling shelf in the living room: my oldest son climbed up, shimmied along, and pulled that one), and it stops again. I put them (after removing batteries) in my bedroom, and they continue to beep once a minute ("replace battery" warning) until their internally stored (capacitive) power runs out.

Get to bed, can't get to sleep, hear some sort of siren-like noise outside (not a siren, but two different frequencies of "pulsing" whining sound). Go outside to check on the source, and it's our neighbor's (across the street) AC/heat pump unit. Notice the lights on in the Lexus: apparently the door "closed" switch wasn't being pushed with the interior panel removed, so I (cold, barefoot, in my PJs) pop the hood and disconnect the battery (so hopefully it'll still start in the morning, which thankfully it did).

Back to bed, can't quite get to sleep... 2:45, the smoke alarms go off AGAIN. Notice the one I failed to notice the last two times, right outside my bedroom (that is, there is a smoke detector - literally - on each side of my bedroom door), which has the tell-tale blinking red LED, indicting it as the culprit for all the alarms. Pull it, and its battery, and the alarms stop.

At this point, attempting to get back to sleep is useless, so I have a Facebook conversation with my wife (on her computer on the other side of the room) and cousin, and look through Craigslist ads for vehicles to replace my Lexus.

Anyway, as you can see: very little sleep, and was was gotten was badly interrupted. And the door handle fix didn't work, either. At least the fuel gauge now works (I also pulled the dash yesterday and replaced two capacitors on one of the dash circuit boards so that the fuel gauge will read properly when it's cold).

So... anyone want to buy a 1994 Lexus LS400? It's a reliable car, has had lots of stuff fixed on it, just needs a driver-side outer door handle...
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