January 2016 Archives

An Internet Pioneer: Me
January 29, 2016 9:39 AM | Posted in: ,

Depending on usage, the Internet has the potential to become a wonderfully effective business tool, or a troublesome diversion of time and resources.
The preceding quote - which today would likely be subject to an editorial "duh" - was lifted from a position paper dated December 14, 1994, authored by yours truly. I ran across this document, which I wrote as part of a recommendation on whether and how to allow employees to access the Internet, while going through some files that had been in storage.

My recommendation was that we should proceed with a limited rollout of 'Net access (the term "World Wide Web" was not yet in widespread usage; the first website was only four years old) to test its viability as a business tool. Our intended focus was to use the Internet as a means of allowing employees to access company policies, organization charts, etc. We also anticipated the potential for using it to communicate with third parties in areas such as surplus material listings, property sales "ads" and so on.

Logo - Mosaic web browserAt that time, our means to access the Internet was Mosaic, one of the earliest web browsers that sported a graphical user interface, primitive though it was. It had been released for just a year, and it quickly gave way to Netscape Navigator. Logo - Netscape Navigator web browserOur company provided training classes to a focus group for these browsers, and we were introduced to such exotic terms as search engines (WebCrawler and Lycos were the big dogs), bookmarks (so we could more easily revisit the approximately eight websites that were relevant to our work), and Usenet (for which etiquette rules were already a big deal, and probably as routinely ignored as they are today for Facebook comments).

This, indeed, was a brave new world, especially for nascent geeks. In fact, this probably marked a turning point in my life and career. To be more specific, when I learned that (1) I could view the source code of any website right there in the browser, and (2) I could create a website using any text processor, a whole new avenue of expression opened up for me. The jury is still out whether that was a good thing or not, but it was definitely a big thing.

As an aside, while Netscape Navigator was our primary web browser, it was also part of a suite of applications including Composer. Composer was my first exposure to a WYSIWYG HTML editor, and I used it to build and maintain a handful of websites, including a college recruiting site that we distributed to students via floppy disk to demonstrate how utterly cool we were.

Netscape Composer screen capture
Screen shot showing Composer's awesome GUI

However, it is clear that the Internet is continuing to evolve and grow in ways that we may not fully appreciate today.
Prophetic? I wouldn't deny the term, if you insist on applying it to me. Duh.

Fun with Google Earth
January 28, 2016 9:41 PM | Posted in: ,

One of the many cool features about Google Earth is the ability to step back in time to see how an aerial scene has changed. Beginning with Google Earth 5.0, introduced in 2009, "historical imagery" was integrated into the application. As far as I can tell, much of the imagery (dating back to around 1984) came from the USGS, but there are a lot of images which are dated well before that. The results are inconsistent, but here are a few of the oldest images for some well-known cities:

  • San Francisco - 1938
  • Las Vegas - 1950
  • Los Angeles - 1989
  • NYC - 1978
  • Dallas - 1995
  • Miami - 1994
  • London - 1940
  • Berlin - 1943
  • Linwood, Ontario, Canada - 1930
OK, so Linwood, Ontario, probably isn't that well-known, unless you happen to live there, but by all accounts the aerial photo from 1930 is the oldest one in Google Earth. So, there's some fodder for your next family trivia night.

I was curious about what the historical imagery would show for our neighborhood and the immediate surroundings. Our development is only about ten years old, built in what was previously open pasture, and a lot has changed during the intervening years. It turns out that Google Earth has eight distinct views of the neighborhood, dating back to 1996. That first image is black and white, and there's a seven year gap until the next image shows up. Updates are more frequent thereafter.

I decided to create an animation to show the changes from 1996 to the present. (That capability is supposedly present in Google Earth but I couldn't make it work.) I took screen shots of each unique point in time, then created an animated GIF in Photoshop. Here's the result. Note: This is a very large file and the animation may not run if you don't have a lot of bandwidth. Feel free to right-click on the image and download it to your desktop to view if it stalls.

Aerial time lapse of Midland, Texas

There's not a lot of change during the latter years, although if you live out here, you'll be familiar enough with the neighborhood to spot the differences. But one thing I had never noticed before is that the development is has a distinct shape that's oddly familiar. I can't quite put my finger on it...but maybe you can figure it out...

Woodland Park...or Jurassic Park?
Debbie and I were honored to attend the grand opening of the West Texas Food Bank's new Odessa facility last Thursday, and we came away more impressed than ever with an organization that plays such an important role in our region.

The new facility was the result of a beautifully-timed capital campaign that raised more than $13 million in just thirteen months. The money was used to build the new 60,000 square foot building in Odessa, as well as a 20,000 square foot facility in Midland that should be completed this spring. The WTFB's Alpine facility will also be upgraded.

If you're unfamiliar with the WTFB - which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2015 - here are a few relevant facts that will give you an idea of the work they're doing:

  • Service area: 19 counties in West Texas comprising 34,000 square miles;
  • Partners with more than 75 local hunger-relief agencies including food pantries, community kitchens, emergency organizations, shelters, residential centers, rehabilitation centers, and senior/youth centers;
  • In 2014, WTFB distributed 5 million pounds of food, or the equivalent of 4 million meals;
  • 95 cents of every dollar received goes directly to hunger relief.
The title of this post is not hyperbole; the new facility is a beautiful example of professional planning and execution. It manages to be perfectly functional while also being inviting to clients and volunteers. Parkhill, Smith & Cooper provided architectural services (and also presented a $50,000 check at the grand opening!) and Cooper Construction did a masterful job of building the facility. I could go on and on, but how about if I save many thousands of words and show you some photos?

WTFB lobby

This is the lobby of the new building. The suspended plates bear the names of the major donors to the capital campaign. (I don't know whether they'll be on permanent display or if they were just presented for the grand opening.)

WTFB lobby

This is another view of the lobby, which you'll note is named in honor of Monsignor James Bridges. Msgr. Bridges is pastor of St. Stephens Catholic Church in Midland and was instrumental in forming the Permian Basin Food Bank, which later became WTFB. In fact, he holds a significant place of honor in the lobby of the new facility (in addition to its bearing his name)...

Msgr Bridges bust and quote

As you enter the lobby, you are greeted with a view of a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen, aka the BHP Billiton Community Kitchen. 

BHP Billiton Community Kitchen

As you walk past the kitchen, you get a view of the Odessa Development Corporation playground.

Odessa Development Corp Playground

This area is where children of volunteers and clients can have fun while the adults are either working or being served. There are big windows looking into the volunteer area so that kids can keep an eye on their parents and vice versa.

Just past the playground is where the really interesting stuff begins.


This huge warehouse is where non-perishable food (and other donated items and supplies) are stored. It's brightly lit and well-organized.

Loading Docks

The warehouse has four loading docks, with plenty of room for trucks (unlike the previous facility where drivers sometimes charged an extra fee because of the parking challenges).


Above is the walk-in cooler room (we can attest to the efficiency of the cooling system!), and the door at the back leads to the freezer.

Abell-Hanger Foundation Volunteer Processing Area

This is the 5,500 square feet Abell-Hanger Foundation, Inc. Volunteer Center, where community volunteers sort donated food, build food distribution boxes, and sack food for hungry children. (In 2015, 2,400 volunteers contributed 11,650 hours of service.) This venue will also seat up to 300 guests and will be made available to outside organizations who wish to host work parties combined with a time of entertainment. In the above photo, tables for the grand opening banquet are set up.

Food distribution is obviously a big part of WTFB's services, but it also offers in-house client "shopping" services via the fully-provisioned Scott & Minka Sibert Client Service Area.

Client Service Area
Client Service Area

Clients can shop for their groceries while also receiving education and advice about nutrition.

Heading upstairs, you'll find the administrative offices, as well as the board room (sponsored by the Saulsbury Family Foundation), and a community room (sponsored by Lissa & Cy Wagner and Frances & Jack Brown) with A/V capabilities that accommodates up to 100 people and is available to local groups and organizations.

Board Room
Community Room

This new facility is a jewel for West Texas, and it couldn't come at a better time, given the recent downturn in our oil-dependent economy. But this is just the start; plans are for the facility to eventually become energy independent (via solar technology to be funded by BHP Billiton). It will also feature a community garden and water collection tank.

Debbie and I are strong believers in the WTFB's mission. If you live in West Texas, I hope you'll consider giving them some support.

Roaming the Web
January 9, 2016 7:06 AM | Posted in: ,

It's been a while since we've wandered around the web, looking at some cool new tech. Here's a roundup of some things that have come across my Twitter feed lately.

Snap - The Flying Camera

I find it very interesting that the word "drone" appears nowhere on the Vantage Robotics website. This is likely an intentional strategy to distinguish Snap from its competitors, and perhaps to also distance itself from some of the negative connotations attached to the term. Regardless of the reason, the description of this device as a flying camera seems to be completely accurate, as it's all about the quality and controllability (versatility?) of Snap's video capabilities.

And for an unskilled pilot like me, the fact that it's held together by magnets so it's not destroyed by the inevitable crash is a huge selling point!

Zeiss Smartphone Lenses

One of the most vibrant sub-industries to arise in response to the increasingly high quality of phone cameras is the creation of lenses to extend the capabilities of those cameras. For example, a company called Action Life Media sells an adapter contraption that lets you use your Canon or Nikon SLR lens with your phone. It makes for a ridiculous-looking rig, and sort of defeats the ease of use and portability that make phones the most popular photographic devices in the universe, but I suppose there's a market for such add-ons.

The high-end lens maker Zeiss obviously agrees, since it's rolling out a suite of iPhone lenses (macro, telephoto, and macro) that attach to the phone via a special bracket. If you know anything about cameras, you know the respect that Zeiss glass commands, and it's hard to think of these lenses as gimmicks. Pricing has not yet been announced, but they won't come cheap.

Danny MacAskill - Mad Cycling Skillz

If there's a better trials bicyclist in the world than Danny MacAskill, I've never heard of him (or her). The preceding video is simply the latest in a long series, every one of which will make you rethink what's possible for a bunch of metal tubes suspended between two rubber circles. I get sweaty palms just watching it.

MacAskill rides bikes made by a company called Inspired. He also provides consultation to the company for its higher-end bicycles such as the Skye Team Bike (named after the Scottish Island Danny calls home). So, even if you can't ride like him (and you can't), you can have the bike that leaves you with no excuses other than your simple lack of skill (and guts). Oh, and it will also leave you several thousand dollars poorer.

In closing...

OK, so this isn't a tech-related item, but it's always good to end a post with an absurdity. If you haven't been in the presence of a physician after they've had a few drinks, you may not be aware of the new healthcare diagnostic codes...all 68,000 of them. This is but one of the most ridiculous of the new codes; here's a list of some others. And be sure to buy your doctor the next round.

Disappearing Snow Time Lapse
January 7, 2016 3:12 PM | Posted in: ,

As promised, I've completed the time lapse movie showing scenes from our back yard in the days following the massive (for us) post-Christmas snowfall, aka Winter Storm Goliath.

It took me a lot longer than I expected, not because of any special technical complexity, but mainly due to my use of Apple's iMovie, a consumer-grade video processing software ill-designed to handle more than 4,000 photos (or 18.3 gigabytes). In fact, the process was excruciatingly frustrating; I won't bore you with the details, but the footnote to this post explains the issues in case anyone else has problems with still photos in iMovie. 

The final product consists of the daytime photos, taken at a rate of one every minute, for almost five days. If you're doing the math in your head, you've correctly figured out that is more than 4,000 photos; I deleted the nighttime pictures because...dark. If you look carefully you will see a couple of moonrises (with a chasing Venus). The photos were imported into iPhoto and the duration was set to .1 second per photo, the smallest duration the program supports. That made the video too long at more than nine minutes, so I exported it as a movie, then reimported it, speeded it up by 300%, and re-exported the resulting video at about three minutes in length. So, even if you have a very short attention span, perhaps it won't be too boring.

And speaking of boring, you're probably wondering why I would photograph snow for five days. That's a fair question and the short answer is that I didn't anticipate that this snow would last longer than any in memory. I really thought the snow would be gone in a day, or two at most, because that's what always happens in West Texas. But we had uncharacteristically cold weather (plus a light additional snowfall a day or two later) that preserved the snow. In fact, seven days later we still had vestiges of the snow on the ground.


The music is Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 8 "Unfinished" by the Budapest Philharmonic. I ripped it from vinyl, which may explain why it escaped Vimeo's copyright police. Don't tell anyone.

Viewing tip: You can watch the video by clicking below, but if you can spare the bandwidth, click the word "vimeo" to jump to the Vimeo website, and then watch it in full-screen mode. The GoPro's HD video capability really is impressive for such a small camera.

By the way, even though I cut out most of the nighttime photos, I did scroll through them in case there was anything out of the ordinary. Sure enough, I did find one puzzling photo...I'd love to hear an explanation of what made the lights in the sky that showed up for one frame at 8:06 p.m. on January 2nd. I can't identify it...it's in the sky...that makes it an...well...you know.

Photo - Night time UFO

Footnote: Coming soon(er or later)

UE Boom 2 Bluetooth Speaker
January 5, 2016 7:04 PM | Posted in: ,

One of the things I hinted for at Christmas was a Bluetooth speaker. I often like to have music going while working in the yard or the garage and while both porches and the garage have wired music capabilities, I like the idea of being able to remotely program the tunes.

Photo - UE Boom 2I didn't have a specific brand or model in mind, and I really wasn't looking for anything too expensive or high fidelity (I guess that's redundant, huh?)...I just dropped the hint to MLB one weekend while we were shopping in San Antonio. She immediately disappeared into the nearby Apple Store, and on Christmas Eve I found myself the happy owner of an Ultimate Ears Boom 2.

This cylindrical bit of audio technology is exactly what I had in mind, even though I had nothing in mind. It's got a great sound - enough to fill a big room - and it links to (and is controllable by) my iPhone, iPad, and home computer. It's rechargeable via USB, and the battery is rated for fifteen hours (I have yet to test that). Other thoughtful touches include a tripod mount and an audio-in connector in case you want to use it with a non-Bluetooth system. 

And here's the icing on the cake: it's waterproof (down to ~3' for 30 minutes). I don't plan to take it into the shower, but it would be an awesome addition to a long paddleboard session on the lake. At 7" in length and weighing just over a pound, it's easy to transport. We could easily strap it to our bike, as well.

I mentioned that the speaker is controllable by a variety of devices. This is done via installation of UE's free app, and the capabilities extend beyond on/off and volume control. The app provides an equalizer feature to fine-tune the sound and an alarm function that allows you to wake up to selected songs, albums, genres, artists, or playlists. It also provides access to something called "Block Party" that lets up to three devices alternate feeding music to the speaker, presumably in a party setting. (I'm too much of a control freak to have much use for this, however.) And, finally, the app allows firmware/software updates. Note, however, you can also do this via a computer via USB connection.

You can also stream to two Boom 2s (Booms 2?) from the same device, if you want to invest more money. This won't provide stereo capability; the sound from each is omnidirectional. But it would provide multi-room capability, as well as more volume.

I'm pretty enthusiastic about this speaker, so if you're also in the market, take this as a recommendation. Oh, and did I mention that it makes a groovy bongo sound when you turn it on?
A week ago today, Midland experienced its third heaviest daily snowfall in recorded history. Officially, we received more than seven inches of snow, making for some very pretty scenery.

I had a brainstorm while gazing out at the winter wonderland our back yard had become. Given that I'm a long-time West Texas resident and thus exceedingly wise in the way things work, I knew that the snow would disappear quickly. This would be a perfect opportunity to try my hand at creating one of those time-lapse videos that I find so intriguing. 

I had tried time-lapse a couple of years ago and was fairly pleased with the results. However, that effort was very short term and wasn't exactly dramatic. This time, I would document the disappearance of the snow from our back yard, and it would be a National Geographic-worthy bit of cinematic awesomeness.

On Monday morning, I mounted the GoPro camera on a tripod and ran an extension cord from the porch outlet to provide continuous power (I had been previously thwarted in my attempt at an epic time-lapse by short battery life). Here's what the setup looked like:

GoPro camera mounted on tripod in front of snow-covered yard

I connected my iPhone to the GoPro via the latter's built-in wifi, and set the camera to take one photo every 60 seconds. I figured it would take the rest of the day for the snow to melt, and I'd have a totally amazing sequence of photos showing the receding snow.

Boy, was I wrong.

Today - seven days later - there's still snow on the ground in the back yard. As it turned out, we continued to have sub-freezing temperatures for most of the week, along with freezing fog and even an additional light snow early on New Year's Day. The snow receded at a positively glacial pace (Ed.-I see what you did there. Stop it.) Most Midlanders I've talked to can't remember a time when a snowfall lasted this long; I certainly can't, but I've only been here three decades.

As a result, I'm now facing a somewhat daunting task of reducing about 8,000 12-megapixel photos into a time-lapse of reasonable length. I assure you that I will achieve that goal and post the results here, but to spare you short-term disappointment I've created something that I think will capture the spirit of the what I'm trying to accomplish, while leaving you hungry for more. In the following professional artist's rendering, think of the white as, you know, snow...and the black as...um...not-snow. (Warning: Tests have shown that staring at the following image too long may cause outrageous hallucinations, such as the Cowboys winning a football game, or Donald Trump's hair looking like something a sane person would wear on his head.)

Stylized animation of melting snow

Stay tuned for what I'm sure will be something unparalleled in cinematic history. Well, at least as far as my back yard is concerned.

Tivo Problemo
January 2, 2016 1:13 PM | Posted in: ,

Broken Tivo iconOne of our Tivos (Tivoes? Tivii?) went out last night, right in the middle of an episode of iZombie on Netflix. One second we were watching Liv feast on a delectable dish of brains au gratin, and the next we saw that ridiculous Tivo emoji-guy and the dreaded "One moment while Tivo restarts" message. We all know that one Tivo minute is equal to two trips around Saturn, and indeed, the message never disappeared and the Tivo never restarted. Fortunately, our Plan B kicked in flawlessly and in a minute or two we were finishing the ep via Apple TV.

This morning, we went through the complicated list of things users can do when their Tivo spazzes out. To wit:

  1. Unplug the Tivo.
  2. Plug the Tivo back in.
Of course, that didn't work, so we were reduced to the Nuclear Option: calling Suddenlink user support. That turned out to not be a horrible experience, but the tech was unable to reboot the unit remotely and we scheduled a service call for next week. My guess is that we'll get a new unit.

In the meantime, the prospect of having no TV in our living room was giving half our household the heebie-jeebies, so it was up to me to come up with an alternative. Should be pretty simple, right? Just disconnect the cable from the Tivo, reconnect it to our A/V receiver, and - voila! - wasteland recaptured.

Guess what? Our four-figure-cost A/V receiver doesn't have a coax input. That would be too low-tech; it's HDMI or bust. Wait! I'll just route the cable through our Blu-Ray player and...well, rats. No coax input there, either.

Looks like I'll have to bypass the receiver and connect directly to the TV, meaning that we can't watch Telenovela in 7.1 surround sound. No big deal. It's not a cosmetically pleasing solution, because it means that a length of cable will be draped across the mantel - because, of course, the coax input is on the opposite side of the TV - but it's only temporary.

The cable is not long enough. I'll have to find another length of coax, plus a connector, to make the reach. Fortunately, I never throw anything away, other than receipts that the IRS stupidly deems critical, and I'm able to come up with both components. TV is now connected. All I have to do is put it on the right input.

And...the TV remote's batteries are dead. Because, of course, we always use the Tivo remote to control things. Off to search for AAA batteries. Fortune smiles upon us again; we always stock up on batteries around Christmas.

So...TV connected to cable? Check. Input switched to cable in? Check. Fixer Upper appearing on TV? Uh, negatory. We have to "reacquire" the active channels, a process which is apparently an unholy combination of medieval mysticism and Star Trek technology. You can almost hear gears cranking inside the TV - slooooowly - as it grinds through 300 channels to locate and electronically anchor the three that we usually watch.

It was a process only slightly less painful than a root canal, but we have again have a working TV in the living room and we can get back to the important work. Those iZombie episodes won't watch themselves, you know.

30 Years of Persistence
January 1, 2016 1:46 PM | Posted in:

In 1985, I began keeping a spreadsheet-based log of workouts, possibly as a way of ensuring that my accounting degree wasn't an aberration but an actual affirmation of my personality. For the next thirty years, I maintained a daily log in varying levels of detail, but I've never actually gone back and analyzed the results. This snowy homebound vacation week between Christmas and New Year's Day has provided me with the time and restlessness to do a bit of that. 

I thought about posting a series of tables and graphs, but even I think that's sort of lame...and I can imagine how you mostly (completely?) disinterested readers would react, so allow me to hit the highlights.

  • I never had an explicit goal when I began to get serious about getting and staying in shape. I was in my early 30s; I've never had a weight problem - that's all genetics - but I did have some other issues that either arose from or were exacerbated by not being in good physical condition. But, at some point, I decided that I wanted to try to average thirty minutes per day of aerobic workout throughout each year. Why thirty? No reason, other than it seemed both challenging and achievable.

  • The "aerobic" qualifier was important, as was the "workout" piece. I didn't count walking, or hiking, or yard work, or paddleboarding, regardless of how many miles or hours were involved. I also didn't count any weight training, although that has always been an important part of my routine. No, it had to be something that got my heart rate up and kept it up. So...bicycling, running, elliptical machines, exercise bikes, etc. were all that got factored into the average.
Let's get to the bottom line, the actual numbers:

  •  Over those thirty years, I averaged 29.3 minutes per day of the above workouts. Yearly averages ranged from just over 40 minutes per day in 2002 to only 15 minutes in 1985, the first year of my record keeping.

  • I've bicycled the equivalent of 55,000 miles during that period, which is more than twice the circumference of earth. I use the term "equivalent" because 5,400 of those miles were accumulated indoors, on my trusty Cannondale mounted on a set of rollers. And if you don't consider that to be the equivalent of riding on the street, I suspect you've never tried rollers.

  • About 20,000 of those 55,000 miles were on a tandem bike - both conventional and recumbent - with my wife. Another 30,000 were accumulated on a series of single bikes, both conventional and recumbent. All the roller miles were on a conventional single bike.

  • Annual bike mileage ranged from a low of 640 in 1986 to a high of just over 3,000 in 2002. I've ridden more than 100 miles in a day on three or four occasions, and more than 75 on about the same number of days. (That was a long time ago, however.)

  • My running mileage included time outdoors as well as indoors on a treadmill. Unlike many people, I'm fine with a treadmill, as long as I have some good music and/or something engaging to watch on TV. I've run almost 9,000 miles, and 75% of that has been indoors.

  • That works out to less than 300 miles per year. I realize that's pretty anemic, but I've never fancied myself as a serious runner. For one thing, I've had knee problems through the years which I've managed by not overdoing things. I've learned how frequently, far, and fast I can run and not damage myself, and I try to stick with that religiously. (For the record, that is now about 5 miles in 45 minutes, 3 times a week...at the most.)
My workouts now consist of alternating 45-minute sessions of elliptical machine and running (indoors during bad weather or short winter days), and tandem cycling with MLB on the weekends. However, with our new work schedule, I hope we'll get in more riding during the week once the weather warms.

The 30-minute-per-day goal is still in effect, and that seems to provide the right balance of rest and healthy activity. I fight nagging aches and pains and motivational apathy just like most everyone else (I assume; forgive me if you don't struggle with those things at all), but I'm happy at where I am, physically, because I can do pretty much anything I want (granted, those "wants" have been tempered by age and wisdom). For instance, yesterday I ran five miles and then danced until midnight. OK, so I couldn't actually get out of bed this morning, but that's not the point.

I think the only important lesson to take away from this - and bless you if you've actually stayed with me this far - is that persistence is the key when it comes to getting and staying in shape. Find something you like - or at least tolerate - and (forgive me, Nike) just do it.

One last thing. I didn't mean to discount the value of walking, and in fact, I'm more aware of the benefits than ever. I keep a Fitbit Zip in my pocket or sock at all times and in the two years or so I've had it, I've accumulated more than 2,000,000 steps. I don't plan on logging that activity (for one thing, it duplicates my running mileage); on the other hand, Fitbit is doing it for me via their app. I won't promise that I won't do another boring post on my walking activity some day, but I'm not planning it.

Then again, in 1985 I didn't plan on someday having thirty years of workout log spreadsheets.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from January 2016 listed from newest to oldest.

December 2015 is the previous archive.

February 2016 is the next archive.

Archives Index