August, 2012 browsing by month


RIP Neil Armstrong 1930-2012

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

What do you write in tribute for the first man to walk on another world?

It’s a tough act to follow, that’s for sure. If you’re of a certain age, you remember sitting in front of the television that night, gazing at the grainy black and white image, waiting, waiting, waiting… To this then-teenager it seemed like forever. And then, man’s first steps on the moon.

Being a techie, I can’t help but be amazed at what was accomplished with what they had to work with. The early 1960s: mechanical design done by hand, calculations done with a slide rule, and sitting atop close to five million pounds of kerosene and liquid oxygen hoping nobody dropped a decimal point. I read somewhere that when Kennedy delivered his famous speech in 1961 about “…landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth [by the end of the decade]”, the reaction of the rank and file at NASA was ‘What?! Is he out of his f*****g mind?’

But we pulled it off. And so my teen years were lived against the backdrop of Great Things happening. Sure, I was a child of a bunch of other things, too; the situation in Southeast Asia was nowhere near as inspiring. But that moon thing was tough to ignore. And it’s probably a factor in why I’m generally unsatisfied with status quos, even if they’re pretty good ones.

Not long ago, I came across this little gem:

The vaguely parabolic curve seems to unfortunately map to our achievement as a people over the same time period. Or maybe not; it’s tough to see into the future, as anyone alive on September 10, 2001 could tell you.

But its easier to do Great Things when Great Things are obviously happening around you. And it’s sad that the Great Things we’re doing today don’t have the panache of landing a man on the moon. Because some of them are pretty cool – miracle drugs that quietly save the lives of thousands who would otherwise have died of ‘natural causes’. New materials that make it possible to build structures, vehicles, and devices that would otherwise never have been built. The fact that we take it for granted that we can communicate with pretty much anyone, anywhere in the world instantly, and essentially for free. The list goes on. But it’s all incremental, and in a sense, expected.

I think a zeitgeist of Great Things happening around us inspires us to get more out of our lives. And that’s why things like the moon mission are important.

Thanks Neil. In addition to everything else, you made a difference for this kid.


Personal Limits

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Menauhant Beach at 6:15 AM again. There’s a fisherman about two jetties to the west, but other than that and a few empty cars in the parking lot I have the place to myself. I wade into the water thigh-deep and then do my signature move for getting wet quickly: face the beach and fall backward. No time to change your mind. In a moment I’m floating on my back enjoying the temperate water and barely noticeable breeze.

A few hundred feet offshore there is a float marking the limit of the swimming area. Ostensibly it’s there to discourage boaters from mowing down swimmers. At this time of morning there are no boaters nearby and I’m the only swimmer.

I’m not a strong swimmer. I can keep my head above water and move around a bit, but its unlikely I’d ever win any sort of competition, at least in part because I’d never enter in the first place. But swimming out to the float has been on my mind since we moved here two springs ago.

Trying it when the lifeguard is on duty would seem the prudent course. I looked at a marine chart for the area last summer – once you’re away from the beach, the depth falls off rapidly to about twenty-five feet. Though once it’s a foot or two deeper than your height, does it really matter?

The water is calm, and I swim a bit further away from the shore. The float is now bigger, more tempting, and actually easier to reach – I’m already a third of the way there.

It’d be a shame to drown out here. If it went that way, the fisherman would probably hear my screams, but would he try to do anything about it? I can’t imagine the 911 responders getting there in less than the four minutes it takes for irreversible brain damage to occur due to asphyxiation.

Morbid thoughts. I continue swimming, telling myself that I’m just going to go a little closer. I can come back when a lifeguard is on duty to actually go out all the way, and maybe even ask beforehand if we’re allowed to swim that far. The float is even bigger now. Even more tempting. I can see some of the fissures in the red ‘Boats Keep Out’ diamond.

Seventy degrees, some high clouds, wind no more than a few knots. Not a bad day to die. Not a bad place to do so either. And everyone does, eventually.

The float is looming above me. I reach it, touch it, and shove off back to the shore. Mostly, it drifts away from my push and I get little additional momentum.

I sense that my respiration rate is up a bit as I swim back to shore, but nowhere near what I’d consider cause for concern. A moment later, I’m trudging through the muddy sand where water meets shore, and in another I’m sipping from the thermos of coffee that was in my bike’s saddle bag.

An achievement. Probably one that every teenager on the Cape has already realized, but an achievement still. There is a school of thoughts that suggests pushing past limits in one portion of your life empowers you to do the same in other portions. Which of course begs the question:

What boundary needs pushing on next?


On the Beach

Friday, August 17th, 2012

If it’s a particularly warm and pleasant morning, and if I wake up early and in a particular mood, I’m likely to pull on a pair of swim trunks and take the 3-mile bicycle ride to Menauhant Beach. At 6:15 AM or so the place is desolated. A few hours later it will be overrun with tourists, but at 6:15 I have it to myself. The wind is dead calm, and in a few moments I’m floating on my back, enjoying the serenity, the views, and the occasional shriek of a seagull.

And then I hear it. Barely audible in the distance, at first I mistake it for the sound of some sort of mini-bike or go-kart. But then it resolves itself in my mind.

A bagpipe!

Whoever is playing is working at it – I can hear him struggling with the fingering. But his rendition of Amazing Grace is quite recognizable, and the imperfections seem to make it sound even more heartfelt and authentic than when I’ve heard it played by a pro.

For a while, I relax and enjoy the serenade, but I can’t leave this undiscovered. I swim to shore, towel off, get dressed, and start biking in the direction of the sound. The strange organization of fences around the parking lot (and the fact that a channel runs through the middle of it) delay me a bit, but eventually I thread my way to the source. The fellow is wearing a tee shirt and shorts (not a kilt), and staring out toward the water. He’s wearing ear protection.

For a while, I just lean back against my bike and enjoy the music. Eventually he pauses, notices me there, and unseats an earplug. “Hope I didn’t scare you,” he offers by way of introduction.

I tell him I’m a long-time admirer of the GHB and was enjoying his work from the other side of the beach. We chat for a while; he’s been training for slightly more than a year and just recently transitioned from the chanter to an actual set of pipes. I ask how he found an instructor and he tell me that he’s a police officer, so he had no problem. Somehow that makes complete sense to me. Apparently his wife won’t let him practice at home, so he’s here on the beach. Pearls before swine, in my opinion, and I never met the lady.

Unfortunately today is a work day for me, so I bid him farewell and begin the ride home. And I as I hear his music recede in the distance, I reflect on how I always wanted to learn, but never got started. Some research online yields a few resources, which all seem to converge on a single book. Its now on its way from Amazon. You never know.

I love this place.


Saturday, August 11th, 2012

If you would not be forgotten
As soon as you are dead and rotten,
Either write things worthy reading,
Or do things worth the writing.

– Benjamin Franklin


Its probably a bit late for #2, so I’d better focus on #1.

An impressive technical achievement

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

There are a number of services out there that take the raw data feed provided by the FAA of flights in progress and convert it into something more interesting than a spreadsheet full of number.  seems to be the most popular of them, and as it works just fine for both private flights and air carriers, it can be a pretty handy thing.

Less so if you’re a celebrity, and you’re not particularly interested in having your private jet met by crowds of paparazzi every time you land somewhere. So the FAA created something called BARR, which stands for Block Aviation Registration Request. Get on the list, and the FAA will expunge your registration number from the data provided to third parties. Problem solved.

Except for a couple of techie types who saw the BARR program itself as a problem that needed to be solved. With a bit of work, they created’ve got a server that listens on a number of aviation frequencies and performs voice recognition to identify registration numbers of interest, thereby identifying planes whether their registration number is blocked or not.

From an engineer’s perspective, I’m quite impressed that it was possible to make this work… though I’m not sure just how reliable it can be. I suspect that the narrower the problem, the easier. That is, while it might be tough to generate a list of registration numbers detected, it would be somewhat easier to determine whether, for example, the registration number for Barbara Streisand’s plane was heard.

And of course, once you get past the technological achievement there are the privacy concerns. Part of me is of the mindset that if someone wants some privacy I’ll respect their wishes. But on the other hand, its tough to get upset about someone automating a process that could easily be done by a minimum-wage journalism intern sitting in front of an air-band scanner and writing down what he hears.

Bottom line, if I were Mr. Hoffman or Rezchikov (Openbarr’s creators), I’d run for a while, enjoy the fame, dodge the arrows, and then shut it down, saying ‘it was fun’. But on the other hand, the genie is now out of the bottle. It would be pretty trivial for someone else to replicate their effort and place the result in the public domain. So the lives of the paparazzi will remain incrementally simplified, at least until the next round.