Stan’s Obligatory Blog

Happy Halloween

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10/4/2011

And yet another odd thing I saw while riding my bike

Filed under: — stan @ 9:36 pm

It’s the Google Maps Street View bicycle. Well, tricycle, but you get the idea. I saw this guy riding around through the Caltech campus today. He said the idea is so that Street View can work along bicycle and walking routes.

9/30/2011

Office spelunking

Filed under: — stan @ 6:59 pm

We’re redoing the computer room at my office. So the last couple of weeks have been very busy. We got new racks for the computers, and we’re putting them in in a single row across the room. Being that we do earthquakes, everything has to be bolted down. So today I did a little spelunking. The guy who usually does this was on vacation today, so I brought a change of clothes and a flashlight. Besides, as I always say, “how bad could it be?” I crawled around in some seriously tiny caves in Texas, and got very, very dirty, and that was fun.

The foundation of the building is kind of weird. It’s not just a big open crawlspace. It was a kind of a maze to get there, but when I got under the computer room, it was pretty obvious. The air conditioning ducts run under there, so they take up a good bit of the height, which is far from generous to begin with. So yes, it was pretty difficult and not too pleasant. And the caves in Texas were all wet inside, so the dirt was all in the form of mud, which doesn’t raise dust like the bone-dry dirt underneath the office. Yick. But I bagged my bolts and got that rack attached to the floor. In any event, it certainly made for an unusual day, although I did feel kind of dirty and dusty for the rest of the day.

8/23/2011

Well, this certainly made for an interesting day

Filed under: — stan @ 8:16 pm

There was a fairly large earthquake in Virginia today. Magnitude 5.8, which was strong enough to be felt as far north as Toronto. This is an unusual event, and it brought the news trucks out to the office for the first time in quite a while.

My Pet Project told me about the earthquake first, with a message that it had been detected by the Alaska Tsunami Warning Center’s seismic network. Given that this was an unusual location for an earthquake that large, I wanted to get independent verification that it was real. So I had a look at Twitter. And sure enough, there were people talking about it already. So I had a look at the web servers to see that they were doing all right, and I checked on the ENS (aka My Pet Project) database to be sure it was doing all right. Then I headed across the street.

Channel 7 was the first to arrive. Seeing that first news truck after an earthquake is like seeing the first robin of spring. Soon, we had a large collection of them parked all around the building, and they filled up the media room for the quick press conference that was organized for the occasion.

It’s always entertaining watching the media frenzy after an earthquake. So it made for a fun afternoon. And ENS picked up over 2,600 new subscribers today. It still boggles my mind that something I invented is being used by more than 280,000 people.

7/26/2011

Nope – no aliens here…

Filed under: — stan @ 11:11 pm

Tonight, Kathleen and I went to the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles for a talk by Annie Jacobsen about her new book, Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base. The format of the talk was a conversation between her and M.G. Lord, author of Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science. We’d been to one of these events once before, when we went to see John Waters last year.

The talk was very interesting and entertaining. There were even three of her sources in the audience: Ed Lovick, Ken Collins, and Wayne Pendleton. They were engineers and a test pilot on the A-12 “Oxcart” project, which was the CIA precursor to the Air Force’s SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. So as you might imagine, they had some good stories to tell her for the book. Apparently, a lot of this was classified until pretty recently. The fact that the CIA was actively designing stealth aircraft in 1957 was kept secret until the late 1990s.

All told, it was an entertaining evening. And as a little bonus, we got to look across the street from the library and gaze up at the U.S. Bank tower and think about just how much it’s going to hurt when we go to climb the stairs there in September.

7/25/2011

The Captains

Filed under: — stan @ 11:35 pm

Tonight, Kathleen and I went over to Hollywood Forever for a special screening of “The Captains“. This is a documentary by William Shatner, where he goes to meet and interview all of the actors who have played starship captains in all the incarnations of “Star Trek“. It was a chance for him to confront and embrace what is surely his legacy, and to talk with the others and share their feelings on their participation in “Star Trek”, which will likely be the one thing they will all be remembered best for having done.

As one would expect, there were lots of fans there in “Star Trek” costumes. I don’t have a costume, but I brought along my tribble. And each incarnation of the show and each captain had its own set of fans. Even after all these years, it’s still an amazing thing that it took on a life of its own and became such a pervasive part of our culture.

William Shatner was there to introduce the film. Beforehand, I saw him in the middle of a little scrum of photographer, along with Henry Rollins. (WTF? Henry Rollins? What’s he doing here?) In his introduction to the film, Shatner spoke of how strange it was to be introducing this film at the cemetery in Hollywood. Looking over the back wall, we could see the sound stage where they filmed the original “Star Trek”, nearly 50 years ago. He talked about how he originally came to the part of Captain Kirk, and how nobody really thought the show would amount to much in the long run. And his having to come to terms with the fact that that one role has in many ways come to define his life. Apparently, it’s been an interesting journey.

The film itself was very entertaining. The other captains all came into it with at least a bit more warning that they were doing something that would be career-defining, since they all came along after “Star Trek” had become a worldwide phenomenon. Each one had a slightly different take on how their character should work, and hearing their reminiscences was a lot of fun.

In the end, Shatner came to terms with his legacy, which was the main reason he made this film. It was a lot of fun, and I highly recommend it.

5/25/2011

Now that’s stability

Filed under: — stan @ 5:39 pm

This is from one of my office mail servers:

Copyright (c) 1980, 1983, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994
The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.

FreeBSD 4.8-RELEASE (EQINFO) #0: Wed May 14 10:10:17 GMT 2003

Welcome to FreeBSD!

This is eqinfo3.geo.berkeley.edu.

%date
Wed May 25 12:07:21 PDT 2011
%uptime
12:06PM up 2192 days, 1:34, 1 user, load averages: 0.15, 0.05, 0.01

Yes, that’s right. Six years without a reboot. FreeBSD is up to release 8.2 now, but the old system is ticking along just fine.

5/19/2011

Another person who changed the world we live in

Filed under: — stan @ 7:53 am

In today’s obituaries, we have Willard Boyle, one of the inventors of the CCD, which makes digital cameras possible. I believe that this ranks right up with the invention of tortilla chips or instant ramen noodles. This has enabled an entire generation to post endless streams of Facebook profile pictures. And as is often the case, they didn’t set out to invent the thing they invented:

In the fall of 1969, Boyle and his co-laureate, George E. Smith, both of them at Bell Laboratories, gathered in Boyle’s office after lunch to think about ways to develop a new memory device for computers. Within an hour, they had come up with the rudiments of the CCD.

And this is why we need places like Bell Labs, where scientists can just play around to see what they come up with.

Read the whole story here:

http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-willard-boyle-20110519,0,4043815.story

3/17/2011

Perspective

Filed under: — stan @ 5:57 pm

Today I got an email with this link:

scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2011/03/what_the_hell_is_a_supermoon.php

They’re saying that the moon is going to be closer to the Earth than any time since 1992. So I did a little calculation to see how much bigger it would look. Turns out it will look like a quarter 8 feet away. Instead of the usual size of a quarter 9 feet 4 inches away. Look at the picture. The quarter on the left is bigger than the quarter on the right by the same amount that the moon will look bigger on Saturday.

Dramatic, isn’t it?

3/15/2011

One quarter million…

Filed under: — stan @ 6:20 am

The M9.0 Tohoku Earthquake in Japan last Friday has caused a spike in interest in earthquakes. That’s pushed the USGS Earthquake Notification Service, also known as my Pet Project, past its latest milestone.

Yesterday, I saw that ENS had passed 250,000 subscribers. It still amazes me that something I invented is used by so many people worldwide.

After the M7.2 Sierra El Mayor Earthquake last year, it processed about 700 earthquakes and sent 4,600,000 messages. But at that time, that was enough that the system ground to a halt under the load. This time, the system ran fine the whole time. I checked the logs, and in the first 24 hours after the Tohoku Earthquake, it processed 308 events and sent about 4,500,000 messages about them. I’d done some re-architecture of the database last year to increase its performance, and the system ran fine this time.

3/8/2011

It’s springtime…

Filed under: — stan @ 6:20 pm

It’s springtime at Caltech. Which means it’s time for the ME72 engineering contest. I enjoy watching this whenever I can, since it’s always good geeky entertainment.

This year’s contest was to build machines to collect bottles and cans for recycling. The bottles and cans were spread around on the concrete, and they also had some on a set of ‘terrains’ for the machines to drive on. The terrains included a shipping pallet, some rocks, sand, and water. At the far end of the playing field, each team had three boxes for each of plastic, steel, and aluminum. They got points for getting the containers down to the boxes, more points for getting them in the boxes, and still more if they could do all that and get their machines back to the starting line before the end of each 5-minute match.

Each team built two machines for the task, and as always, some of the machines were designed solely to interfere with the operation of the other team’s machines. So we got to see some good machine clashes, which is always a hoot. In the end, Team BRB won with a good basic strategy. They had one machine that quickly scored at the start of the round, and then it and the other machine would attack and pin down the other team’s machines so that they couldn’t score. And that strategy brought them the trophy in the end.

All good geek fun.

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