Stan’s Obligatory Blog

Happy Thanksgiving

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5/29/2016

Santa Monica

Filed under: — stan @ 3:23 pm

Today’s bike club ride was a a bit of an oddity. We did a one-way ride to Santa Monica, just for the novelty of seeing the ocean and being able to take the Metro back to Pasadena. Our rides are usually about 40-45 miles, so a round trip to the beach is a bit beyond our usual range. But with the ability to make it a one-way trip, it’s easily within reach.

The day started out overcast and a little misty. Pasadena gets like that a lot this time of year. But it usually dries up once we get away from the mountains. So we started out and headed south toward downtown Los Angeles. When we got to the bridge over the L.A. River, there were a lot of people there, all looking over the side of the bridge. That was odd, since that part of downtown is usually so deserted that there aren’t even any homeless people there. But we heard that it was the same group that made the Griffith Park tea house, and they were doing a pop-up art project in the river channel. We looked over the side, and we saw “AS IF NOTHING MAGICAL HAD HAPPENED” spelled out on the side of the channel in purple flower petals.

We rode through downtown L.A. When we got to Flower St, there was an Expo Line train headed south. When the train is running at street level, it doesn’t go too fast. It goes just fast enough that I like to chase it. The popular wisdom is that bicycle racers are like dogs. They will chase anything that passes them. I used to be a bicycle racer, so I had to chase the train. Come along for the ride:

Jen and Amiee were along this week, but not last, so they missed seeing the Space Shuttle fuel tank in Exposition Park. So we took a short side trip into the park. But when we got there, the tank wasn’t sitting on the trailer in front of the Natural History Museum. Carla said that she’d heard that they moved it, but it’s so big there were a limited number of places it could have gone. I didn’t think they’d put it inside the building with the Space Shuttle, since the trees around the building didn’t look like they’d been disturbed. So I rode around the building, and the tank was inside a fence against the back side of the shuttle exhibit building. So we actually got a closer look at it this time.

Continuing west, we rode the Expo Line bike lanes down Exposition and Jefferson, all the way to La Cienega. At that point, we picked up the beginning of the Ballona Creek bike path. I’d never been on the upper part of that before. The pavement was kind of rough, but it was nice being off the street. We rode that all the way to Marina Del Rey, where we turned north on the bike path there, and headed up into Venice.

We took a short side trip to see the canals in Venice. Then we headed up to Santa Monica. The plan was to meet up with my old friend Kathleen at Urth Caffe there. But when we got there, she was already there, but she was at the end of a long line out the door. So we went to a backup plan, and we all went to the big Starbuck’s across from Santa Monica City Hall. Along the way, we saw Conrad’s “Chain Reaction” sculpture, which I think is very appropriately displayed right across the street from the RAND Corporation building.

We rarely stop at Starbuck’s, but today it was just the thing. We were able to get a table on the patio, and that was really all that mattered. We had drinks and snacks there for a bit, before doing the last part of the ride to the pier. The pier was only a few blocks away, and we rode out on it to the little ‘End of Route 66′ kiosk and sign. Then we headed the few blocks back up Colorado St to the Metro station, where we got on the train back to Los Angeles. We rode the train all the way back to Pasadena, and then the two miles from the Metro station back to the park where we’d started.

35 miles to Santa Monica. With the last two miles back to the park from the Metro station, we had 37 miles for the day, which is just about our normal Sunday ride distance. And it certainly was novel getting to ride to the beach.

Route map and elevation profile

2/5/2016

My Pet Project Turns Ten

Filed under: — stan @ 11:00 pm

The USGS Earthquake Notification Service, also known as My Pet Project, went online to the public on January 31, 2006. It all started back in about 2000, when I was talking to someone from Caltrans, and he was asking if we could set up something where they could put in lat/lon coordinates of key freeway bridges and interchanges, and then be notified any time there was an earthquake within some distance of any of them. At the time, we couldn’t do anything like that. But then, fate intervened.

We have occasional cookouts at the office, and in 2003, I thought it would be nice if I could set up a web form for people to fill out online so that I knew who was coming and what food they wanted. I thought this would be sort of like a gift registry, so I went on Sourceforge and found a little gift registry program that someone wrote. I downloaded it, and I hacked it to make an online signup for our office cookouts. In the process of doing this, I learned a bit of MySQL. And then, when I was riding my bike in one morning, I realized that a database like MySQL could do something like what the guy from Caltrans had asked for. So I whipped up a simple database with some rudimentary geographic information, I plugged in the worldwide earthquake feed, and it started sending me earthquakes from all over the world.

I recruited a few ‘guinea pigs’ around the office to set up accounts in it for testing. They suggested other things they would like it to do. At first, it could only define geographic regions as lat/lon points defining a box. People asked for circles, and then arbitrary polygons. Drawing a polygon on the map and figuring out if a given earthquake fell inside it kept me thinking for a while, but I worked out a reasonable way to do it. And while all this was happening, my little system was being shown around to everyone, until the National Earthquake Information Center saw it and decided that it should be an official product of the Earthquake Hazards Program.

We had a few old-style mailing lists that were open to the public at that time. One for worldwide quakes M5.5 and over, and two for California quakes. One for M3 and higher, and one for M4. Those mailing lists formed the initial subscriber base. I wrote some scripts to port the mailing lists over, creating an account for each person with notification rules that would give them the same earthquakes they had been getting before. All told, this made for about 100,000 initial subscribers.

Now it’s been ten years, and it now has about 400,000 subscribers. Over ten years, that’s an average of about 80 new subscribers every day. Most days get about 30-35 new subscribers, but this goes way up after big earthquakes. The largest jump was about 75,000 new subscribers in the two weeks after the 2011 M9 Tohoku Earthquake in Japan.

Because this all started from wanting to have an online signup form for the office cookouts, I thought we should have a cookout for the occasion. I made a cake, and we all gathered out on the patio behind the office. It was a nice time. And it’s still amazing to me that this thing I wrote that started out as a little Pet Project has turned into a thing. And that’s it’s used by 400,000 people. And in the end, I guess that’s the greatest satisfaction.

9/14/2014

what if?

Filed under: — stan @ 5:52 pm

On Sunday afternoon, we took a trip to Santa Monica to go to a talk and book-signing with Randall Munroe of XKCD. He has a new book out: What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. It’s a collection of his what if? columns, and it’s all very entertaining.

The basic format was a conversation between Randall and Wil Wheaton. They talked about the book, about science in general, told stories, and took questions from the audience. It was a fun time, and at the end, we all lined up to get our books signed by Randall. And I got to thank him for the little bit of geek fame I got from when he mentioned my Pet Project in the mouseover text for this cartoon: http://xkcd.com/723/

4/7/2014

400,000 (!)

Filed under: — stan @ 9:52 am

The Earthquake Notification Service, also known as My Pet Project, passed 400,000 subscribers over the weekend. It’s still hard to believe that something I built is being used by so many people.
400 thousand

9/15/2013

Field Trip

Filed under: — stan @ 9:34 pm

A few weeks ago, I went to an event put on by Atlas Obscura where we went to a pinball museum in Orange County. While we were there, they mentioned that they were doing a ‘Field Trip Day’ excursion in Pasadena soon. This was put on in conjunction with Google, which has created a ‘Field Trip‘ smartphone app. So today was the day, and we headed over to Old Town to do some exploring on foot and seeing some of the history and culture around there.

We all met up in an alley behind Lucky Baldwin’s, where everybody got a little packet to start off with. It listed about 25 locations that were within reasonable walking distance. At each place, there was a flag and a small sign telling a bit about the place and its history and significance. One of the things in the packet was a list of questions to try and answer about some of the locations. This made it sort of a scavenger hunt, which added some entertainment value. And at some of the locations, they had actors dressed up as characters who had something to do with the history of the place. So it was an interactive scavenger hunt.

At the start, we headed out to the first few stops in the order they were listed on the sheet. One of the oddities was Gold Bug. I’d been by there, but never stopped to look in the windows. They have a lot of weird stuff in there. At Kendall Alley, we read the sign and talked to the officer to get the answer to the puzzle question for that location. Then we went across the street to the Blind Donkey to sample some beer.

We saw the Raymond Theater, which has been converted to condominiums. This was where the concert scenes from “This is Spinal Tap” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” were filmed. The Holly Street Livery Stable is a very old building that I’ve been by countless times, but never really noticed. But it’s a piece of history that it still standing.

At the old YWCA building, we met the architect, Julia Morgan, who designed many buildings for the YWCA in California. She told us the story of the building. Then we walked over to Pasadena City Hall and saw the Jackie Robinson memorial there. We also learned that his brother Mack was a runner, and that he’d competed in the 1936 Olympics, coming in second behind Jesse Owens in the 200 meter race.

From there, we went off the route, and we went to the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. The bit of history here was that this was where the 1983 “Motown 25″ TV show was filmed, and it was the first place where Michael Jackson performed the moonwalk. So of course, they had Michael Jackson there to teach everyone how to do it.

After that, we headed east, out of Old Town, where we stopped at the Pasadena Playhouse, where Tennessee Williams was holding auditions for their production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”. Again, this was an interactive adventure. And because we’d gone off the route, we got there ahead of the main group of people doing the tour. They started to arrive just as we finished there.

We stopped in the little coffee shop in Vroman’s Books to get some cold drinks. Then we started back, going by the Scottish Rite building, and the Pacific Asia Museum. Then we went to the Luggage Room, which is a restaurant in what was part of the old Santa Fe railway station in Pasadena. They were holding a little cocktail tasting on the patio, so we got to sample some odd cocktail flavors.

The last stop on the tour was at Rocket Fizz, which has a lot of decidedly strange and funny sodas. Not really historical, but interesting in an odd way. Then we headed over to the after party at Castle Green. And after the party, we walked over and had dinner at Cafe Bizou before going home. All told, it was an interesting and amusing afternoon adventure.

2/14/2012

This is great, and for more than one reason this time…

Filed under: — stan @ 10:40 pm

Tonight was yet another stair practice at the Aon building in downtown Los Angeles. And as always, I was dreading it all the way there on the train. I got a bit of a late start, due to some computer problems with My Pet Project today, but I finally managed to get out the door. Kathleen was coming downtown, too. I told her I was planning on doing one run up the building for time, and then I’d walk up it again with her.

There was some sort of problem on the Metro Red Line tonight. I rode the train to the 7th St station, and that was fine. But when I got off, there was an announcement on the PA. I missed the first part of it, and all I heard was “delays – Metro apologizes for any inconvenience.” They also had the announcement as a text crawl on the monitors in the station, but it seemed that no matter which monitor I looked at, all I ever saw was, “Metro apologizes…” So I figured I was there, so I might as well hit the stairs and get it over with. The last I’d heard from Kathleen was that she was getting on the train at 5:26, so she would be there about 6:00, plus whatever the delay was.

I headed up to the building and got ready to go. I’d gotten a pair of the rubber-palm football gloves that Mark recommends, and I was going to try them out tonight. So I started my watch and headed up. The gloves made little rubber-squeaky noises on the railing all the way up. I was just sort of cruising, but when I got to 56, I had a look at my watch and realized that I had a chance to do a good time if I really hit it for the last four floors. So I made some faster rubber squeaky noises and ran up the last four flights. I stumbled out of the stairwell and flopped on the floor. And when I looked at my watch, I saw 9:48, which is yet another best time for me. Can’t complain about that at all.

I rested for a few minutes and then went back to the lobby to wait for Kathleen. As it turned out, she was caught in the train delay, and she didn’t get there until 6:40. She asked me if I’d noticed anything different on the 52nd floor, but in my stair-climbing fog, I hadn’t. So we headed up the stairs again. Since I was going slower, I figured I’d see whatever it was this time.

When we got to about 40, the guards made the announcement that practice time was almost over. So I went ahead a bit and stopped at the intercom at 49 to call them and see if we could have an extra five minutes to finish. The guys said it was all right, so I continued on up to 52. That’s where I saw my Valentine on the wall, next to the fire hose valves and the floor number sign. It was the sweetest thing ever, and even better, because it meant that she’d had to climb the building before to install it. She said later that she’d come to practice late last Thursday to put it up, so that it would be there for me today.

So we climbed the rest of the way up to 60. We came out and then rode the elevator back down. And then we got changed and headed out for a nice dinner at Engine Company 28, just around the corner on Figueroa St. All told, it was a very nice Valentine’s Day.

10/24/2011

Yet another big round number ending in a bunch of zeros

Filed under: — stan @ 6:51 am

The Earthquake Notification Service, aka My Pet Project, just went over 300,000 subscribers. The small earthquakes in the San Francisco Bay area last Thursday had it close when I went home on Friday, and then the big earthquake in Turkey over the weekend pushed it over.

I still have a hard time believing that something I built is being used by so many people.

8/28/2011

Barbie

Filed under: — stan @ 1:59 pm

It’s the last Sunday of the month, so that means it’s time for the slightly-longer Sunday morning bike club ride. This is our chance to go places that are a little farther away than normal. So today’s ride was out to Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City, to pay respects to Ruth and Elliott Handler, who were the founders of Mattel Toys. They are respectively credited with inventing the Barbie doll and Hot Wheels. Even though those are just toys, they made a mark on the world.

We had a smallish group today. It was forecast to be hot, and I think that scared some people off.

The route took us through downtown Los Angeles, and then out along West Adams, roughly paralleling the new Metro Expo line. We got to see it along the way. It’s coming along nicely, and it will probably be ready to open pretty soon.

In Culver City, we saw the hill with the Culver City stairs. A lot of the competitive stair climbers I know practice there. By the number of people going up there on a Sunday morning, it looks like a popular place.

There was construction on Sepulveda Blvd down near Fox Hills Mall. That was a bit unpleasant. But we made it to Hillside Memorial Park just fine. The Handlers are buried in the far back of the cemetery. Elliott died fairly recently, so he just had temporary marker next to Ruth’s. They are also buried next to their son, Kenneth, who was the namesake of the Ken doll.

On the way back, we saw a fountain in Culver City that seems to be popular with little kids. We stopped for a bagel at Noah’s on Venice Blvd. It had turned out to be a perfect day. It was about 76F, with a nice breeze off the ocean.

We took a new variation of the route back this time, going on 4th St through Hancock Park. This allowed us to take a one-block side trip to see the House of Davids. There was an article in the Times recently about this. The owner wants to sell the house and move away. Apparently, he is dismayed that his house is more famous than he is. Go figure.

As we got back to Pasadena, it got quite a bit hotter. But it was still below 100, so it wasn’t as hot as we’d been expecting. There were big thunderclouds up over the mountains, which is not unusual this time of the year.

It was a nice ride.

55 miles.

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.

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.

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