October 2011 Archives

Random Thursday - The Saturday Edition
October 29, 2011 2:11 PM | Posted in:

The following would make a passable series of Facebook posts, but I'm behind on my blogging quota. Plus, I've had literally one or two people (OK, one) ask when I would be updating the Gazette again.

  • We're planning to attend a charity dinner and dance tonight, and because it's within a week of Halloween, it's billed as a "Masquerade Ball." This is not our cup of tea, but we'll put up with it for the chance to do some ballroom dancing. But we won't be going completely unprepared. To wit:

    My awesome mask

    Pretty awesome, huh?

  • If you're wondering if the front-facing camera on the iPhone serves any useful purpose, I think the preceding provides a definitive answer.

  • I've refrained from saying anything about the Texas Rangers and outcome of the World Series. Now that I've calmed down a bit, I feel confident in saying that I've seen more polished performances from preschool t-ball teams than the Rangers exhibited in Game 6, and this Series is going to haunt them in the off-season worse than losing in five games last year. I thought I'd be content if they won three games - a huge improvement over last year - but to lose it like they did is almost unbearable. Good thing I'm not a baseball fan.

  • At least until next summer.

  • I'm in the process of simplifying my computer setup, now that I no longer rely on it for my work. I'm getting rid of an external DVD burner and a couple of external hard drives that I used for backup. I decided to erase the HDs using Apple's Disk Utility application, and one of the options is a secure erase using something called a 7 Pass Erase. This essentially writes over the drive seven times and exceeds the US Department of Defense's specifications for secure erasure of media. It's also been working for seven hours and is only 2/3rds finished. This is for just a 160gb drive; I can't envision having the patience to do this for a 2 terabyte drive. (And I declined the option to do a 35-pass overwrite.)

  • This does seem like a lot of trouble to go to just to keep people from discovering I have an online account with a temporary tattoo supplier.
Well, in hindsight, this probably wouldn't have been that great a series of Facebook posts after all.

Installing a BHP
October 25, 2011 10:05 PM | Posted in: ,

Big Honkin' Plotter, that is. Or, to be less dramatic and more boring, an HP T-1300 Designjet large format plotter. Yep, that's what I [almost] singlehandedly assembled and put into operation at the office yesterday, in fulfillment of my loosely-defined IT responsibilities.

It was actually ridiculously easy, despite having 94 discrete steps in the instruction manual from unboxing-to-printing. Some of those steps were along the lines of "remove dessication packet," or "open printer cover." I didn't mind; it was a welcome change from too many do-it-yourself projects where the instructions were badly translated from Serbian, or simplified into one "assemble the unit and enjoy!" instruction, which is OK if it's referring to, say, a shovel, but not so good for a propane barbecue grill.

Anyway, while I did most of the assemblage by my lonesome, I did enlist some strong backs to help lift the almost-200-pound device to its feet, thereby avoiding any embarrassing job-related injuries. And to top it off, the darned thing actually worked after I got it connected to the network.

Still, it's one big piece of machinery. How big, you ask? You be the judge.

Aircraft Carrier vs Plotter
Items not drawn exactly to scale

Car Wash Rules
October 23, 2011 10:06 PM | Posted in: ,

I took the pickup in for a wash job yesterday. It was the first time it had been washed since May, due to our drought-related water usage restrictions. As you might imagine, the truck was badly in need of a good scrubbing.

A lot of other people had decided to do the same thing, so I found myself in a line of about a dozen cars. The line moved slowly so I had time to observe some things...such as the fact that I was driving the only vehicle that truly needed a wash job.

Photo of a seriously dirty carSeriously. The white Lexus SUV that was ahead of me looked pristine, and every other car in sight had no visible signs of dirt and grime. It made me wonder how many of the owners had their cars washed as a matter of habit. "Oh, it's Saturday morning; time to get the car washed." Frankly, this kind of mindset has no place in a region that's received less than 4" of rain during the past year, and the lakes supplying most of the drinking water are drying up.

There may come a time in the next few months that car washes will be banned completely. That will, of course, be a terrible blow to those whose livelihoods are derived from providing that service, but the luxury of a clean car cannot compete with the necessity of having water to drink.

But, for now, sitting in that line of clean cars, I came up with a few simple guidelines to help you know When You Can Wash Your Car During A Drought*.

  1. White vehicles cannot be washed. Don't whine. You know good and well you picked out that boring white car for the sole reason that it doesn't show dirt and dust like darker colors. So, own it, and live with it.

  2. Black vehicles cannot be washed. You knew what you were getting into when you picked out that bad boy. Own it, and live with it.

  3. Clean vehicles cannot be washed. And by clean, I mean if you can tell the true color of the vehicle by looking at it, it's not dirty enough to require washing.
I hope these simple rules will prove effective in prolonging our scarce resources. There's no shame in driving a dirty car at this point in time. Just like having a dead lawn indicates you're a good steward of water, a filthy car shows that you really care about our water supply.

*These rules do not apply to those who are willing to hand wash their cars using Ozarka water or cheap beer.

Hardware Guy
October 19, 2011 9:52 AM | Posted in: ,

While the greater part of my new job involves GIS, I'm also the IT contact for the Midland office. Our IT department is centralized in Denver, and the regional offices don't have IT professionals to handle computer-related tasks. Apparently, because I had worked previously in a technocentric field, they thought I would be the right person to assume those duties.

It's a bit ironic. Website clients regularly asked me for advice or tried to hire me to work on their computer hardware or networks (which inevitably involved Windows), and I always declined to do so, stating that I "wasn't a hardware guy," or "I'm not a Windows guy." And now, of course, I'm both.

To be honest, though, I enjoy it. For one thing, while I'm not a computer professional, I do have working knowledge of most the things I'm asked to do, and during this early period where I'm in a prolonged training mode on the GIS side, it's nice to feel like I'm contributing something of value to the company.

Power ButtonI've done everything from install RAM, hard drives, and video cards to helping the Denver networking guys troubleshoot some problem communications lines. I've hooked up a digitizing tablet, swapped out a ceiling-mounted video projector, and installed several complete dual-monitor workstations, both tower- and notebook-based. And, just yesterday, I installed an HP Lefthand SAN, which is essentially a networked storage unit.

That was something of a daunting task for me. For starters, the unit weighs about 50 pounds, and it had to be installed in a server rack. So I had to install the rails first, then drop (well, that's not the best term to use when referring to an expensive piece of hardware) the unit into the rails. Once that was done, I connected the redundant power cords and the redundant networking cables to the proper switches. I then connected the unit to one of our servers so that the Denver folks could finish the configuration and place the unit in service.

Funny thing about that, though. After I had gotten all the preceding done and was feeling pretty satisfied with my accomplishment, the guy in Denver messaged me. "I'm having trouble finding the unit on the network," he said. "Can you check the connections and make sure they're all tight?"

I knew they were, but I went and checked anyway. I reported back. "Hmm..." he said, "I still can't see it. Maybe we have a bad port..."

Then he messaged back. "Uh...the unit IS turned on, isn't it?"

Like I'm supposed to think of everything? *forehead slap*

In my defense, when you plug in the power cables on that unit, lights start blinking and it gives every indication of being powered up. But it's not; you still have to press the "on" button. D'oh.

There's always something around here to ensure that I stay humble.

Miscellany (Not to be confused with Randomness)
October 18, 2011 10:02 PM | Posted in:

Couple of blog-related observations (in lieu of an actual post that might require me to put in some actual thought, although that has never really been a requirement in the past).

I ran a poll on Facebook a few months ago and the respondents indicated that they wanted me to post something on FB whenever a new article went up on the Gazette. I'm not a big fan of cheap self-promotion - I strive for a natural, unaffected obscurity - but who am I to ignore the clear voice of The People? So, I've done that somewhat consistently (not everything gets a promote; this probably won't) and I've noticed something semi-interesting. Some posts on the Gazette generate a fair amount of discussion, but all of that discussion takes place on Facebook where the post was publicized, and not in the comments section of the post itself.

I think it's easier to leave comments on Facebook than on this blog, and comment threads are pushed out to the participants in near real-time, whereas any discussion on the Gazette requires repeat visits. I don't think this is a good or bad thing; it's just different. Not having the discussion thread on the Gazette means that it will probably be forgotten once the post drops "below the fold," but I suppose an archive of blog comments is of limited value or usefulness as well.

It's simply another facet of the uneasy truce between blogging and Facebooking.

Let's see...what was the other thing...? Oh, yeah, now I remember. I just realized that I forgot to update the Gazette's FAQ to reflect my new gig. That's now been rectified, so you may once again rest easy.

Customizing QR Codes
October 17, 2011 9:54 PM | Posted in: ,

So, what's this?

Custom QR Code for Louis Vuitton website

Being the perceptive reader I know you to be, you instantly recognize this as a QR Code...sort of. Go ahead - use your smartphone scanner and see if it works for you (you should end up at a Louis Vuitton website, for better or for worse). If your scanner app won't read it, you might jump over to this website and scroll down to the much larger version and try it again.

I stumbled across that website a couple of weeks ago and it was a revelation. You may recall my obsession with QR codes. (If you need a reminder, here's some past Gazette musings, ranging from educational to observational to aberrational.) But I never realized the flexibility they offer in terms of customization. All of them I've encountered to date were sharp-edged black-and-white squares, and it is quite a revelation to learn that they'll accommodate color as well as some graphic embellishment.

As it turns out, the QR code specifications allow for some built-in error correction. Google has a pretty good explanation of the basics, but the bottom line is that you can lose up to 30% of the original embedded data and still have a scannable code. As with everything else, your mileage may vary; in the case of QR codes, the continued functionality will depend on the amount of data contained in the code, the physical dimensions of the code graphic, and the capabilities of your scanner software.

The preceding Google webpage permits the generation of a QR code via its charting API, and you can specify the level of error correction embedded in the generated code.

Anyway, I started thinking about the ways customized QR codes could be used for practical purposes. The most obvious use is to reinforce the branding of the entity employing the code. For example, the Sibley Nature Center uses as its logo a little green tortoise. If the Center wants to add a QR code to its promotional material linking back to its website, it could use one similar to this:
Custom QR Code for Sibley Nature Center website
I actually oversimplified this code in order to ensure its scannability; it should return a URL that may or may not be clickable, as it's missing the "http://" that precedes most web addresses. Your scanning app may or may not know what to do with it, but you get the idea.

As far as I can tell, color has no effect on usability; the main concern is how many scannable pixels are in the primary code. There again, this may vary with the scanning software. In any event, it's fun to experiment with this technique.

Ill Feelings
October 14, 2011 11:19 AM | Posted in:

So, the doctor says I have a "touch" of bronchitis. Sounds so delicate and gentle, doesn't it? That's not really how I'd describe what I felt last night after midnight, when I was still up, coughing. But at least we have something to treat now, instead of the elusive, generic "allergies."

Got a steroid shot, meaning that I've had two shots this week, the other being a flu shot on Wednesday. I can't remember the last time I had an injection...or the last time I was sick enough to require a visit to the doctor. 

I blame it on work. I never caught anything from my computer when I was home with it. On the other hand, at least I can afford a visit to the doctor. Also, today is my day off, giving me plenty of free time to sit in a waiting room. So, I've got that going for me.

On the other other hand, I actually feel pretty good, for a sick person. I have enough friends who are really ill right now that I have no problem keeping things in perspective.
Midland is in the list of top 10 cities nationwide for the lowest unemployment and our suite of economic indicators is nearing record high levels. Here's a graphic that pretty clearly shows why that's the case.

Map showing drilling permits in Midland County

This map show the drilling permits issued for Midland County in just the last six months. Each circle represents a potential oil/gas well.

The small blue dot represents the approximate location of our neighborhood. The placement of the red dot is a bit interesting, as it's the location of our municipal airport, and we expect to see drilling take place there sometime in the next twelve or so months. Even in the heart of the oilpatch, drilling inside city limits is controversial (bringing into perspective the oft-quoted phrase "not in my backyard!"). Yesterday's well blowout in neighboring Martin County won't exactly soothe fears about drilling adjacent to Midland College and residential neighborhoods. 

But, for any number of reasons, such "progress" seems inevitable. It may seem a little hypocritical to accept the good things the current boomlet is bringing, while trying to insulate ourselves against the price it demands. OTOH, it's natural to want to insulate one's family and personal property against the risks of industrial development. I'm just surprised it's taken this long for the opposing forces to finally meet.

I, Cartographer
October 7, 2011 9:31 PM | Posted in: ,

Two months ago, I couldn't spell "cartographer," and now I am [on my way to becoming] one. As a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialist, my duties include generating and editing maps, and I've found the learning curve to be challenging.

There are actually two different challenges. One involves learning the systems we use for mapping. Most of our engineering and geological analysis tools (for those in the know, we use Petra and GeoGraphix) include mapping modules, as do many of our online sources of production and industry activity data. Our company has a proprietary mapping application, and I'm also learning to use ArcGIS, one of the most powerful standalone GIS programs in existence. So, thus far I've used about six different programs, none of which I'd ever seen before August 22nd. Fortunately, they all employ similar conventions and processes, so the transition from one to another isn't that tricky. But like so many things in life, they're easy to learn and difficult to master.

Ancient Map
Not one of mine.
The more interesting challenge is understanding the basic cartographic theories. I've always been fascinated by maps, but I never grasped the complexities involved with creating even the most basic maps, beginning with the fundamental issue of how one translates the features located on a sphere (the Earth - more correctly defined as a spheroid) onto a flat surface (a map displayed on paper or a computer screen).

The process of converting a three dimensional representation of the earth onto a two dimensional surface is called "projection," and humans have been experimenting with different kinds of projections for more than 2,000 years, trying to come up with the "best" way of locating geographical points of interest. The thing that all projections have in common is that they don't tell the truth...that is, none of them are completely accurate 3D-to-2D translations. They all distort one or more of the following characteristics: direction, distance, shape, or area. (For a nifty comparison of the more common map projections and their uses, advantages, and drawbacks, refer to this USGS resource.)

This is not just an academic or theoretical issue. The accuracy of maps has real and often significant implications. Maps can also be manipulated to achieve specific goals or serve specific agendas.

I'm reading a book entitled How to Lie With Maps by Mark Monmonier. I recommend it both as an easy-to-read reference for basic cartography, and as a primer on how maps are used to exert social, cultural, and/or political influence in ways that aren't necessarily ethical.

Anyway, while my specific job duties don't necessarily require that I understand some of the more esoteric cartographic principles, my natural curiosity about such things has led me to delve into a wide variety of resources, and if nothing else, I've learned how much I don't know. I've delved into the world of Great Circles, rhumb lines, sinusoidal projections, graticules, and azimuths.

That seems to be the story of my life. I keep telling myself that that's a good thing; it will keep my brain young. Someday, perhaps I'll even convince myself of that.

Steve Jobs
October 5, 2011 8:26 PM | Posted in: ,

Steve Jobs died today at age 56, and the world lost a creative visionary. Apple enthusiasts will freely admit the significance of the loss, while even those who rejected or denigrated his contributions will nevertheless continue to enjoy for years to come the benefits of the technologies he championed.

I didn't know Jobs, but I know enough about him to draw a few conclusions from his life and death.

  • Fifty-six years is too young for anyone to die, and it's a reminder that cancer sucks.

  • His net worth was estimated to be in excess of six billion dollars. Only in science fiction stories can money buy more life. Keep that in mind when setting your priorities.

  • Jobs was respected for his creativity, drive, and vision. But I never heard anyone talk about how much they loved him, or even liked him. He had a wife and kids, and I'm sure many people liked and loved him, but he'll be remembered for his achievements, not his character. I wonder if that's a legacy he'd be comfortable with.

In the end, the death of Steve Jobs seems to serve as a reminder of the wisdom of the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes

Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from October 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

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