brainwagon "There is much pleasure in useless knowledge." — Bertrand Russell


Turn back the clock…

Old Me

A couple of week's ago, my old boss from my days in the RenderMan group, Tony Apodaca stopped into my office with a bit of memorabilia from our shared past: a caricature of me drawn by Pixar artist Jeff Pidgeon that was used in the credits section of Pixar's Typestry product that I worked on in the early nineties. 90% of the people that I know at Pixar have never seen me with the long hair, I remember getting rid of it in preparation for a job interview that I had on October 25th, 1994 at Silicon Graphics. How do I remember that day? After the interview, I had my very first date with Carmen, who would turn out to be my wife.
Gadzooks, I'm glad I don't have to deal with all that hair anymore. The top photo is still in our company directory, I should really update it. 🙂

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Addendum: SGI would go on almost a continuous skid after that. I stayed at Pixar, and we went on to make lots of cool films. It seems I navigated the nexus of decisions surrounding that day rather well.

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Meet Me at the Maker’s Faire!

Meet Me at the Maker Faire!

I've decided to pack up one of my geekiest projects, my Atari 2600 Enigma Machine and bring it to the Maker's Faire in San Mateo in three weeks. If anyone has read my blog and would like to stop in and meet the lunatic behind these pages, I'd be happy to say "Hi" and discuss World War II German cipher machines, talk about writing 6502 assembly code, or whatever. I'll have a real Atari 2600 and will be demonstrating the cartridge that I made on Saturday, and might be helping out with the Chabot Telescope Maker's demonstrations on Sunday, but I also hope to have time to wander around and meet other people. See you all there!

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The Great Robot Race

You can view the entire Nova episode The Great Robot Race on the PBS website. It is all about the 2nd DARPA Grand Challenge Race, where autonomous vehicles race across the desert outside Las Vegas. Cool stuff!

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Filed under: General, Robotics No Comments

How Much Better Were Things in the Good Old Days

I am not alone in my assertion that the good old days weren't that good.

"The idle chatterer is the sort who says that people nowadays are much more wicked than they used to be."— Theophrastus

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Red State Rabble

Most often when I link to someone else's blog, it is because a particular article has tweaked some small bit of my interest.  These blog entries are often isolated, and the blogs that I link to often have a high noise to signal ratio.  It is therefore with some pleasure that I recommend Red State Rabble for your consumption.  It is the work of Pat Hayes, a writer who lives in Kansas and directly addresses some of the silliness surrounding the current "debate" over Intelligent Design.   In addition to being something of continuing interest to me, he's a good writer with many good insights.  It joins The Panda's Thumb on my blogroll under daily reads.

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Picture Earth From Space

Earth, From Space

For some reason, today I decided to make a picture of the earth from space, using the NASA Blue Marble Next Generation dataset, some infrared satellite data (from today, no less) and my trusty homebrew raytracer. Ten minutes of work, and I got the image on the right. Not too bad, even if it doesn't include any atmospheric effects.

Just my ten minute hack of the day.

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Addendum: Want to do a better job? Check out this paper.

Addendum2: Check out this picture of the shadow of the moon on the earth taken from the ISS.

Filed under: My Projects 1 Comment

Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

USA Today is running an article announcing the publication of The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You can order your own copy from What's really amazing to me is some of the responses: you can read some of the entertaining hate mail he's received here. Perhaps it isn't really very funny though: the Judge in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Board case was placed under federal protection after receiving death threats after his decision in the case. On the more sane front of civil discourse, the Discovery Institute has a new book Traipsing Into Evolution which bills itself as a critique of Judge Jones' decision in the case. I need to figure out how to get a copy without sending them any money. It should be highly entertaining to see how they spin their total evisceration during the trial testimony. A preview of what's to come?

The authors conclude that because of Judge Jones' ruling “teachers seeking to ‘teach the controversy’ over Darwinian evolution in today’s climate will likely be met with false warnings that it is unconstitutional to say anything negative about Darwinian evolution.”

“Even students who ask critical questions about Darwinism may now be censored by nervous school administrators,” said Luskin. “There already has been a chilling effect on open inquiry in places such as Ohio and South Carolina. Judge Jones’ message is clear: give Darwin only praise, or else face the wrath of the judiciary.”

Compare this to Judge Jones' decision in the case:

The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.

Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board's decision is evident when consid ered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

To preserve the separation of church and state mandated by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and Art. I, § 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, we will enter an order permanently enjoining Defendants from maintaining the ID Policy in any school within the Dover Area School District, from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring teachers to refer to a religious, alternative theory known as ID. We will also issue a declaratory judgment that Plaintiffs' rights under the Constitutions of the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have been violated by Defendants' actions. Defendants' actions in violation of Plaintiffs' civil rights as guaranteed to them by the Constitution of the United States and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 subject Defendants to liability with respect to injunctive and declaratory relief, but also for nominal damages and the reasonable value of Plaintiffs' attorneys' services and costs incurred in vindicating Plaintiffs' constitutional rights.

I do believe that the awarding of damages and legal fees to the Plaintiff's might have a chilling effect on other school boards. That is, in fact, one of the many purposes of awarding damages in such cases. The Dover Board was found to have violated their First Amendment rights, and other school boards who might consider doing the same should take serious pause.

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Another Rider of the Apocalypse: Desperate Housewives, The Video Game

Can the Apocalypse be far off?

Buena Vista Games Inc. said on Friday it plans to release a PC video game based on the popular television show "Desperate Housewives" this fall.In the game, players take on the role of a new Wisteria Lane housewife, who can uncover or create new scandals on the seemingly idyllic street where the show takes place.

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Excuse of the Day

I need to call in sick for work.  I've got nintendonitis.

(via my wife)

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Windows Vista Faces Crisis

It was announced today that Microsoft was facing a software crisis: their short sighted engineers only allocated space for a two digit total for the number of months late that Windows Vista will slip, and it is now feared that when they finally do ship Vista 119 months late, it will cause...

Okay, okay, it's not quite that bad yet, but it's just about that bad. Today Microsoft announced that they won't begin retail shipments of Windows Vista until January 2007. Microsoft began talking about Longhorn, Vista's predecessor back in 2001, even before Windows XP was out, and they were predicting a shipment for it late in 2003. In August 2004, Microsoft had to admit that they were basically screwed, and had to start over again, dropping many important features that they had touted like their new WinFS. And it keeps slipping, and slipping, and slipping...

According to the WSJ, Steve Sinofsky, senior VP of Office at Microsoft will be taking over for Jim Allchin, who currently is the copresident of the Platfrom Products and Services devision. Nothing like seeing a change in leadership right at a critical juncture in product development.

Microsoft has deep pockets, and will likely weather this storm fairly well. The guys who are going to take it on the chin are guys like Dell and HP who will have a lean Christmas as people delay their PC purchases until after the holidays.

Robert Scoble had this to say:

I’ve learned that dates in the software industry are likely to slip and I’m glad that our management is still paying more attention to product quality and customer and partner feedback than trying to meet some date. Yes, it’s painful. Yes, it’s embarrassing. But we have been through product slips before (before I was a Microsoft employee I was a beta tester on Windows 2000 which slipped years after the first test CDs arrived) and I’d rather have a slipped date than a cruddy product.

It is true: delays in shipping software are rampant in the industry, but that's really just an excuse. Good companies ship software on time. Good companies get software into the hands of customers who want to pay for it as often as they possibly can. Apple doesn't talk up their new releases of their software: they just release them. Adobe doesn't chat up their releases: they just release them. When Vista finally does ship, it will be years late, without many of the innovations that were originally planned.

And the closing sentence of Scoble's post implies that either we'd get a cruddy product, or we'd get it late. I suspect we are going to get both. As I have mentioned before, Vista seems to be more about placating various current and potential Microsoft partners than delivering compelling, enabling technology to the consumer. My years in software have taught me one thing: if it isn't stable as it goes along, it isn't going to be stable when it ships. You simply can't add quality at the end of the production cycle.
But there are some bright sides:

  • You are probably smiling a bit if you are holding Apple stock.
  • The resulting catastrophe will likely give us this generation's version of The Mythical Man Month, documenting the failure of large software for the new millenia, and educating a new generation of software people about hhow everything always goes wrong in software.
  • Microsoft will be given the chance to sell even more Xbox 360s this Christmas, losing money on every one.
  • Since you won't be upgrading your PC, you'll have more money for a PS3 for Christmas, or a PSP, or a Nintendo Revolution.

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Addendum: Check out Daniel Lyon's Forbes article. A couple of telling quotes:

Meanwhile, 500 tech buyers sat there in the dark, their eyes glazing over from the sheer mind-numbing pointlessness of most of this stuff. The audience laughed out loud when the Microsoft guy showed off a kludgey system that lets you fetch Outlook e-mail messages using voice commands from a cell phone.

For God's sake, can you imagine how absolutely soul crushing it must be for the poor software engineer tasked to create such a useless, pointless demonstration?

If you are in charge of PR, should you continue to have a job after Lyons' writes this summary of their event?

Worse yet was the grumbling afterward in the press room. Why the hell did they drag us here? we wondered. We'd been promised big news and some earth-shattering announcements by Microsoft flacks who insisted this was something we shouldn't miss. Instead, we got a demo that was about as compelling as a root canal followed by a 15-minute press conference with Ballmer, the Microsoft chief executive who seems incapable of speaking at any level softer than a bellow. Ballmer took a few potshots at IBM, claiming the computer giant doesn't innovate anymore.

Read the rest. It's quite good.


Toy gas fired missile and launcher assembly – Patent 6055910

Read the abstract of this patent carefully.

A toy gas-fired missile and launcher assembly whose missile is composed of a soft head and a tail extending therefrom formed by a piston. The piston is telescoped into the barrel of a launcher having a closed end on which is mounted an electrically-activated ignitor, the air space between the end of the piston and the closed end of the barrel defining a combustion chamber. Joined to the barrel and communicating with the chamber therein is a gas intake tube having a normally-closed inlet valve. To operate the assembly, the operator places the inlet tube with its valve open adjacent his anal region from which a colonic gas is discharged. The piston is then withdrawn to a degree producing a negative pressure to inhale the gas into the combustion chamber to intermix with the air therein to create a combustible mixture. The ignitor is then activated to explode the mixture in the chamber and fire the missile into space.


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Click here to download the patent.

Filed under: Link of the Day 1 Comment

A Little GPS Hacking..

Today I learned something interesting while surfing the web: that somebody had made a simple program that can be used to compile your own custom maps for Garmin GPSes. Since I picked up a Garmin Legend CX recently, I thought that would be a good thing to play around with. So, tonight, I tried to see how far I could go in trying to get some simple road data compiled and downloaded to my GPS.

My GPS with My Custom MapWell, as you can see from the result on the right, I managed to get fairly far. I'll prepare a writeup on how to do this when I get the maps refined, but basically, I wrote a simple perl script that used the Geo::ShapeFile library to parse road data that I downloaded from the US Census bureau. I then (stumblingly, I'm no perl expert, I'm more of a python guy...) wrote this out in a format that could be compiled by cgpsmapper (links tomorrow, when I'm more awake) and compiled the map, downloaded it to my GPS with sendmap, et voila! You can see the street names surrounding Pixar's location in downtown Emeryville!

It's very cool! I'll try to get a tutorial written up on how to do this sometime later, along with links to all the necessary software, and make my Bay Area street maps available.

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Addendum: Well, it's morning, I haven't even had coffee, but here are some links that you'll find helpful:

  1. cGPSmapper is the most important bit: a compiler that can convert a simple textual representation of maps into the right format for downloading to your Garmin GPS
  2. MapCenter has some pre-made user contributed maps that were compiled with cGPSmapper and are available for download.
  3. I downloaded the  necessary road maps from this website, which provides a convenient interface for downloading TIGER data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
  4. The Geo::ShapeFile library will make parsing the files that you downloaded above much simpler, even if you are a perl neophyte like myself.

These resources were enough for me to create a simple script that converted the Alameda county road data into something I could download.  I need to review some of the TIGER documentation to figure out what other data I need (in myuser map, things like shortlines aren't represented at all) but I really think that the core of what you need is very simple.   I'll keep you all posted.

Filed under: My Projects 3 Comments

In our lobby this morning…

Sally, starring in Cars by Pixar

Sometimes coming to work at Pixar surprises you with odd sights. Today, it was this Porsche Carrera in our atrium, which had been modified to be Sally, one of the characters from our upcoming summer movie release Cars. My suggestion that employees should be given one (sans modification if it would reduce the cost, I'm a considerate guy) is, in their words "undergoing all the review the suggestion deserves".

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Addendum: Sorry for the small picture size, but that's all the pixels my camera phone can really put out.

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YouTube – Game abuse strikes back

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On Converting Celsius to Fahrenheit and Back

I pride myself on being able to carry out calculations in my head that cause most people to go for the calculator. Need to calculate a 15% tip? Divide the total bill by 10, and then divide by 2, and then add the results. Easy. Sometimes while exercising on a bike I try to factor four or five digit numbers in my head. Or try to remember how Conway's Doomsday Algorithm allows you to compute the day of the week for arbitrary dates. It's just a way to exercise the mind.

Another calculation that frequently (well, not that frequently, but still) comes up is to convert temperatures between Celsius and Fahrenheit. The way that I remember this is that zero C is 32 F, so to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit, you multiply C by 9/5 and then add 32. Of course, to do the reverse, you have to do the subtraction first (F-32) and then multiply by 5/9. They aren't hard to remember, but I was shocked to find there is a nicer way that avoids the assymetry.

The Citizen Scientist has a cute article that shows the easier way. The fact you have to remember is that -40C is the same temperature as -40F. How does that help? Well, to convert from C to F, you

  1. Add 40 to C
  2. Multiply by 9/5
  3. Subtract 40

To convert from F to C, you:

  1. Add 40 to F
  2. Multiply by 5/9
  3. Subtract 40

So, a balmy 86F is 30C. 15C is 59F. Neat!

Having difficulty multiplying by 9/5 or 5/9? You could just use 2 and 1/2 if you'd rather, it introduces about a 10% error, which might be close enough. (You'd get 23C and 50F above). You can get closer if you subtract 10% when you multiply by 2, and add 10% when you multiply by 1/2, but frankly, I think that reintroduces the problems of assymetry that this revamp gives you. Probably easier (and more accurate) just to work on multiplying and dividing by 9 and 5.
Anyway, cool article.

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Filed under: Math 3 Comments