January 2017 Archives

The Cretaceous Clapper
January 26, 2017 2:00 PM | Posted in:

One of my favorite gifts last Christmas was completely unexpected: a sound-activated moving 3D triceratops wooden puzzle.

My wife found it at our local Steinmart (it's sadly no longer available via their website, but here's what appears to be an acceptable alternative).

The box looked a bit intimidating, as I've found that I'm usually less skilled than the average 8 year old when it comes to following instructions.

Triceratops puzzle box

My feeling of impending doom grew stronger when I removed the contents, consisting of three sheets of surprisingly sturdy wood (the puzzle pieces were pre-scored for easy extraction), a battery powered motor, and a large sheet of detailed instructions.

Triceratops puzzle pieces cutouts

Fortunately, the instructions were much clearer than I expected, as they not only included drawings of how each numbered piece fit with the others, but also photos of how the puzzle looked at each step. That combination of photos and drawings is something that should be standard for all assembly instructions that are more complicated than "install batteries." And the puzzle pieces were of higher than expected quality. I had to sand only a couple of pieces to make them fit together, something that the designers anticipated because they included a small piece of sandpaper for that purpose.

It took about an hour to assemble the dinosaur. And, as is always the case with my DIY projects, I had a piece left over:

Triceratops puzzle - leftover piece

I went back through the instructions a couple of times, and then asked my wife to do the same, and neither of us could find any reference to A20. Well played, Triceratops Puzzle Manufacturer.

Even with a possibly missing component, the final result was fairly impressive, especially if you're a fan of Ray Harryhausen's work in Jason and the Argonauts (and, really, who isn't?).

Completed triceratops 3D puzzle

"But, Eric..." I'm sure you're asking, "...how does it work? Is it realistic? Is the dinosaur on the box roaring, shooting out laser beams, or just throwing up?"

Wonder no more. The sound you hear at the very beginning of the following video is my snapping fingers (clapping one's hands while holding a camera is just as tricky as you imagine), which activates the device. There are actually three levels of activity depending on the number of claps (or finger snaps...or coughs, for that matter, as I discovered in startling fashion one evening).

I have it on good authority (well, almost adequate authority) that the "roar" is very close to the actual noises made by an actual triceratops, as it was modeled on fossilized sound waves discovered in a cave in remote Colorado (to be exact, in the sewer system under 16th Street in downtown Denver).*

One of my cousins who is a skilled builder of furniture and worker of wood advised me to apply some sandpaper to the bottoms of the dino's feet on one side to make it walk in a straight line, and I may do this someday, but the circular path has some advantages.

I think we can all agree that clapper technology has reached its pinnacle in this application.

*Not really. Prehistoric sound waves aren't fossilized; they're preserved in amber. Go watch Jurassic Park again.

Midland to Refugees: Welcome!
January 19, 2017 9:13 AM | Posted in: ,

Three refugee families are arriving in Midland next Wednesday. Any of the following items would be greatly appreciated...
That was the beginning of a message left by a neighbor on our development's Nextdoor newsfeed last week. The message included a long list of household items needed to help those families get a new start in a new country. We later learned that the International Rescue Committee (IRC) was sponsoring the families, which were coming from either Cuba, Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Africa), or Iraq.

Given the recent increasingly provocative anti-immigration rhetoric permeating social media, I was curious to see how this appeal would go over in our conservative-leaning community (I assumed our neighborhood mirrored the city as a whole in this regard; I saw no "HRC for President" yard signs during the campaign). Sure enough, this response appeared shortly after the initial posting:
I'm sorry but we have people here that are in dire need of help including our Vets.
I may be guilty of reading too much into this reply, but this was how I interpreted the comment: these people are not us, and aren't as deserving of our help as those who are us. 

I have no quibble with the idea that we can always do more to help others in our community. I agree that illegal immigration represents a real and significant threat in a number of ways. I don't agree that helping citizens and helping refugees are mutually exclusive activities, especially in a city that's as prosperous as Midland. 

I also see a troubling halo effect of extending the disdain for illegal immigrants to fully vetted and sponsored political refugees, for whom coming to America is not just fulfilling an economic wish, but is possibly a lifeline for survival. 

With all this in mind, I watched the online conversation unfold... 

First, there was no reply to the "I'm sorry but..." comment. Hmmm. Did silence mean agreement?

Then the replies trickled in, all directed to the original post. Some wanted more details about the families, or the organization. Some wanted to know where to drop off donations. Others posted notices of what they would donate. Finally, a few days after the initial appeal, this was posted by the original writer, who had volunteered to collect all donations and deliver them to the organization:
My car is totally full so I'm dropping all of it off this morning...
In short, this was just about a perfect response. No histrionics; no arguing; no defensive (or offensive) rebuttals...just a quiet, positive response to a call to action that demonstrates that for some of us, at least, America is still a place for "...your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

Update: A representative of the IRC came to our neighborhood yesterday afternoon to pick up additional donations of household goods.

Update 2: For more about the refugee families in Midland, check out this article that appeared in today's edition of the local newspaper (front page, at that).

Scanning the Past
January 15, 2017 9:33 PM | Posted in: ,

I'm in the process of scanning several hundred slides taken primarily by me and my father-in-law, some of which date back to the 1950s (those are his, not mine; how old do you think I am, anyway?). I'm discovering a few things, and recalling more than a few that I had forgotten.

Many of the photos have no apparent context. Most slides were stamped with the date of processing, but that only tells you when the photos may have been taken. Some of the locales of the vacation photos are recognizable, but others are not. We vacationed a lot in the mountains of Colorado and frankly, after thirty or forty years all those mountains look alike. Never underestimate the power of tagging your photos, people.

I was also a pretty lousy photographer. Most of my photos were taken with a Konica FS-1 SLR which I purchased in the Dallas area in the late 70s/early 80s. It was a pretty revolutionary camera at the time, one of the first with a built-in motor drive, and I was enamored by the technology. But, looking at the photos I took, all that technology did was enable me to take more bad pictures in a shorter amount of time. (I still have that camera, by the way.)

I apparently had no concept of fill flash, although it's conceivable that all the human subjects of my photography were in the federal witness protection program and I was doing my best to conceal their identities. And there's only so much Photoshop can do to bring those faces out of the shadows.

But, no use crying over spilt milk, or underexposed slides. I've also run across some interesting (to me) additions to the Historical Documents, including a number of glamour shots of my beloved Yamaha XS-11 motorcycle, which I bought in Dallas in 1979 and sold in 1983 after moving to Midland. I also discovered pictures of my wife as an infant (if you look up "chubby baby" in the dictionary, you'll see a photo of...well...never mind). Those are basically priceless.

Then there are the photos like the one shown below, documenting...random stuff. This one shows what passed for a home theater in 1982, or at least the one in our home.

The "A" portion of our A/V system consisted of vinyl (everything old is new again, right), and the "V" was VHS tapes streamed onto a humongous 23 inch TV (a step up from the 19 incher that was burgled from our house in Garland a couple of years earlier). I suspect those of you of a certain age can identify with this setup, but if you want more details, just mouse over each component in the following photo. Be sure to check out the leftmost video tape on the bottom shelf of the cabinet. (This also gives me a chance to geek out about a new bit of software I found called Image Map Pro that lets me create cool stuff like this.)

Band of Bow Tie Brothers
January 13, 2017 3:36 PM | Posted in:

The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club.
--Fight Club, in apparent violation of its own rule
Unlike with Fight Club (and very much like CrossFit fanatics/Vegan dieters/Gluten-free adherents) the first rule of bow tie wearers is: You talk about it.

I've learned the truth of this only lately. MLB gave me several bow ties for Christmas (see below), and every time I wear one, it becomes a topic of conversation with other men who also like to wear them. It's like a bond; you might say it's the tie that binds (if you were really desperate for a metaphor).

My 3 new bow ties
I'm embarrassed by how long it took me to tie these three. I blame the knit shirt.

Among bow tie wearers, the topics inevitably include (in order of typical progression):

  • Did you tie that yourself?
  • How and when did you learn to tie it?
  • What's the hardest part for you about tying one?
  • How long does it take you now to tie it?
  • How did your vocabulary expand while you were learning to tie one?
That last item seems to be particularly relevant, given the struggles to master the arcane art that most of us seem to have experienced in the beginning. But we shall speak no further of that.

The conversation will then evolve (or devolve, depending on whether you're a non-bow-tie-er trapped on the periphery) into a detailed discussion of techniques, tips, favorite ties, and amusing anecdotes (again, the degree of amusement will vary considerably amongst members of the group).

I've also found that each of us has particular eccentricities when it comes to our bow tying. My friend Sam, for example, must stand in front of a mirror while tying his, which isn't particularly unusual. The eccentric part is that he can't actually look in the mirror during the process. I have no idea how that works.

I, on the other hand, cannot don a bow tie without looking in the mirror, even though the mirror image makes my brain hurt. I used this video to master the technique, and it's the equivalent of looking in a mirror (the instructor is African American, nattily dressed, goateed, and quite skilled...but other than that, we could be identical twins), but it too made my brain hurt.

If the conversation does include those who don't wear bow ties, they tend to fall into one of two camps: (1) men who are skeptical of everything related to bow ties, and (b) women who are intrigued by them. (Note to guys who are thinking "chick magnet": This should not imply that they will be smitten by the wearer; women are just impressed by items of clothing that are challenging to put on.)

Regardless of the occasion, the dexterity with which the deed was done, or the conversational drift, any guy with a bow tie will tell you that at the end of the night, this is what makes it all worthwhile:

An untied bow tie
No, I won't talk about my bow tie; I'll let it do the talking, and it says
"yeah, boi, he tied it himself!"

Travel back in time with me, if you will, to the year 1996, and contemplate the state of technology two decades ago.
In 1996, just 20 million American adults had access to the Internet, about as many as subscribe to satellite radio today. The dot-com boom had already begun on Wall Street--Netscape went public in 1995--but what's striking about the old Web is how unsure everyone seemed to be about what the new medium was for.
In 1996, Americans with Internet access spent fewer than 30 minutes a month surfing the Web...

Via Slate.com's Jurassic Web (2/24/09); coincidentally, Slate went live in 1996
Less than 10% of the U.S. population had internet access  but some of us were already trying to answer the implied question: how do you use it?

One rather obvious answer was to figure out who the likely audience might be, and then try to identify uses that might appeal to that audience. (Those folks would be known today as early adopters, a term that was actually coined in 1962 but which wasn't in widespread usage in 1996.) And, of course, the predictable answer for who likely fell into that demographic was college students.

And so some of us who were involved in on-campus college recruiting for our employer, ARCO Permian, had the brilliant idea of creating a website that would (1) explain what our company was and what it had to offer, via articulate and persuasive propaganda commentary, while (b) demonstrating our remarkable technical savvy and overall coolness.

The only flaw in the plan was that 10% number mentioned above. Even if college students had more ready access to the internet, a web-based approach would exclude a significant majority of them. The solution was simple: a WOAD, which was our acronym for "Website On A Disk." Impressive, right? OK, I just made that up, but it IS a cool acronym, with a kind of Celtic warrior vibe*.

Sadly, we elected to go with the more pedestrian "Portable Web Site" and it looked like this:

Photo of ARCO Permian Portable Web Site floppy disk
Note the totally pretentious copyright symbol

You remember floppy disks, with their two megabyte capacities (in HD format, that is) and magnephobia (no, it's not on the quasi-official phobia list, but it should be) tendencies. A floppy seemed to be the ideal medium for handing out to students who may or may not have had an internet connection.

Given the capacity limitations, the trick was to design a website that would fit on a disk. No problem, the actual site consisted of only four pages, and it totaled less than 250kb. And for some unknown reason, we had a link to a text-only version that consumed a massive 12kb. 

We also created a unique splash page tailored to each university we were recruiting from. Cutting edge stuff, I tell you. And, finally, we included a read_me.txt file on each disk providing detailed instructions on how, exactly, to open the website via browser (along with assurances that we had scanned the diskette "for viruses using Norton © Anti-Virus For Windows©, V. 3.0; even then I was a Mac user, but I resisted the urge to add that Apple folks needn't worry about such things).

I don't know if we ever actually hired anyone because of this tactic; I don't even recall getting any feedback about it. But it was a fun project to work on, and was one of the first of many, many websites I enjoyed building for years thereafter.

Oh...if you want to see what a 1996-vintage website looked like, well, you're in luck.

Winona Rider in King Arthur*In the 2004 movie King Arthur, the fierce tribe of Picts was referred to as "Woads," presumably because they made themselves look fierce by painting themselves with dye from the woad plant, and also because "Picts" sounds less than fierce. Some people with apparently nothing better to do dispute that as an historical misconception. 

Personally, I prefer to remember the movie for Winona Rider's Kiera Knightley's (oops!) Woad-ish costume, which would have easily won an Oscar for The Most Obviously Uncomfortable Costuming by a Major Actor or Actress in a Leading, Non-Musical Role (and I really do hope the Academy is considering the addition of such an award).

Eternity Defined
January 4, 2017 9:33 AM | Posted in:

I read this somewhere; I forget where and perhaps the actual details are different, but here's a definition of eternity that I like:
Imagine a block of granite a thousand miles thick, floating in space. Every thousand years, a raven alights on it and sharpens its beak with two flicks...back and forth. The raven flies off, not to return for another millennium. That raven will wear eventually wear completely through that thousand-mile chunk of granite, and when it does, one second of eternity will have ticked by.
Of course, this definition isn't accurate as it implies an ending to eternity. But it's a way for me to at least start to wrap my mind around what is essentially an incomprehensible concept.

An alternate definition for local residents involves the traffic signal on Holiday Hill Road at the intersection with Loop 250.

Finally, some wildlife...
January 3, 2017 8:25 PM | Posted in:

Yesterday, I reported some disappointment in my new game camera's failure to capture anything more interesting than passing traffic, due to my failure to aim it properly. 

However, that was before I noticed the latest batch upload of photos, one of which caught something quite interesting. 

I'm still getting a lot of shots of F-150s and the truck that pumps out the Porta-Potties at the construction sites in the neighborhood, but this picture reinforces the fact that there's a pretty wide variety of wildlife in the Texas Hill Country.

Photo of Bigfoot in our back yard!
I received a game camera and wireless modem for Christmas and I'm impressed with both so far. The M-888 Mini Game Camera, branded by Moultrie (a company perhaps better known for its game feeders) features a 14 megapixel sensor, 100 foot infrared flash range for night photography, 50 foot motion detection range, and 720p video capability. 

Moultrie M-888 Mini Game CameraMoultrie M-888 Mini Game Camera - Open Cover

Moultrie MV1 Wireless Field ModemWhen you pair the camera with the Moultrie Mobile Wireless Field Modem (photo at right), you can monitor photos and adjust camera settings remotely via Verizon's 3G cellular network (if you plan to use it in an area which Verizon doesn't serve, it will function only as a paperweight. Also, if you're already a Verizon cell phone subscriber, you can't use that service; you must subscribe separately via Moultrie. Sorry). This obviously requires a subscription, the price for which varies according to expected data usage. I'm using the most basic plan, good for an estimated 750 photos/38 megabytes per month, priced at $9.99/month. The plans range up to $50/month for 500mb/10,000 photos, in case you live in a zoo. Moultrie also offers a "maintenance only" plan for $4.99/month that allows you to remotely view and adjust camera settings without accessing the photos.

The camera and modem setup was relatively simple. I did have to make one quick phone call to Moultrie's customer service, and by "quick" I mean that it took the woman on the other end of the call approximately 12 seconds to identify the problem and inform me that I was an idiot who probably wasn't qualified to operate a sophisticated piece of equipment like a kitchen match, much less a fancy game camera. OK, she was much more diplomatic than that, but I'm sure I've made the Moultrie Dumb Customer Support Hall of Fame for my failure to click a single button on the setup website that would have made the equipment positively sing with success.

Anyway, once the camera and modem were on speaking terms with one another, and the modem was also schmoozing with Verizon's system, the only remaining task was to find a suitable mounting spot.

I also failed miserably in this task.

My goal for the camera was to catch some of the wildlife that has migrated through our Horseshoe Bay back yard at night, but what I've succeeded in doing is photographing ALL of the car and truck traffic entering and leaving the neighborhood. I realize that in theory this doesn't sound very interesting, but the reality is that it's even less interesting than that. However, the one camera setting you can't control remotely is where the dang thing points, so until I can make it back down to HSB, I'll spend all my data on vehicles (and the occasional squirrel).

On a more positive note, the photos are good quality, even if they're boring. And I'm very impressed with the capabilities of Moultrie Mobile, the website and mobile app (iOS & Android) which function as the command centers for managing the camera, photos, and all associated settings. (By the way, you can click on the following screen captures to see a bigger image.)

Moultrie Mobile camera status window

The photo viewport functions basically like any photo management software, allowing you to view, tag, filter, edit, delete, and share photos. The camera automatically tags each photo with metadata such as temperature and moon phase (not as weird as it may seem; use it to correlate wildlife behavior). There's also a placeholder for barometric pressure, but it's blank on all of my photos, which either indicates a remarkable meteorological anomaly or a feature reserved for a different model of camera. I'm pretty sure the latter is the more reasonable explanation.

Moultrie Mobile photo management window

Moultrie Mobile picture details window

The most impressive feature of both the website and the mobile app is the connection to Adobe's Creative Cloud "ecosystem," which provides a full set of editing tools with which to tweak your photos. It's not quite a full Photoshop experience, but it's pretty close, offering adjustments such as cropping, color saturation, sharpness, contrast, brightness, selective focus (which is actually selective blurring, but that's splitting hairs). You even have the ability to remove redeye, in case you photograph any demon-possessed deer. There's also an adjustment called "Whiten," represented by a toothbrush, the purpose of which remains a mystery. I mean, you DO use it like a brush to make the picture, well, whiter, but the "why" of it escapes me. (Later edit: It does seem to allow you to make some selective adjustments to contrast, which is somewhat helpful in bringing out details in nighttime photos.)

Moultrie Mobile Photo Editor window

In summary, I'm far from being an expert on game cameras, and this one is probably going to end up being used more for security monitoring than wildlife spying, but the capabilities of Moultrie's integrated system are impressive. And I'm sure that once I can point the camera somewhere other than at the road across the fence, there will be more interesting things to view.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from January 2017 listed from newest to oldest.

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