Thursday, December 31, 2009

And here comes 2010! And I feel... old...

We've reached the end of another cycle around the sun. But this is semi-special again: we are entering the last year of another decade and it has a special psychological significance. We are not in the 2000s any more, were are in the 2010s! Thinking back in the past, I had a completely different expectation of what 2010 was going to be about: not really flying cars or robots helping us on everything we do; but where technology was more part of our surroundings.

Yes, we carry our pocket computers (our phones), but there is still a lot of "old style" things around. Newspapers, magazines and books can be found in every corner, in most people's hands in the bus. The bus also is not as connected as I was envisioning. I can theoretically check status of the buses in Seattle on their tracking website, but not all buses are available and it just doesn't feel like it's something that people believe needs to be there (for example, my bus that I take to work always says "no information available").

Cars also are only timidly more technological. Only the higher-end models have GPS (although I see a good amount of people with "tiny" GPS units glued to their windshield), collision detection, blind spot warning, back-up camera... Driving in 2010 is not really any different from driving in 2000.

Also, I've been observing negative effects of technology. People going around with their lives outside listening to their iPods not paying attention to what is going on, and whether somebody actually needs their attention. I feel bad for bus drivers when they have to make an announcement. Very few people in the bus are actually listening.

Oh, well, that's what progress is about. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad. The hope is that when it's bad we are learning and it will eventually turn into something better. As they say, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Progress is always better on the other side of our dreams.

Happy 2010!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Denied at Google - update

Just to make it even more interesting, I was starting to get "denied" messages on Google Reader (why did I decide to go back to that application anyway?), so I decided to log out and log back in. When I clicked on logout, I get the warning from Firefox saying that the connection is untrusted. Looking at the technical details, things get even more puzzling: uses an invalid security certificate.
The certificate is only valid for *
(Error code: ssl_error_bad_cert_domain)

Now my theory is that I have a misbehaving plugin on my Firefox. The odd thing is that I don't have many plugins installed, so I'm not sure which could be misbehaving. And if I turn one off, it required restarting Firefox, which might make the problems go away anyway.

Oh, well, I guess I'll just have to live with not knowing what happened.

Denied at Google

How great is it? I'm doing a Google search and receiving this awesome response:

<message>Access Denied</message>

Maybe Bing infiltrated my Mac laptop?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sometimes visualization helps

So everybody knows that the US health system is broken, right? Well, that makes finding charts to show that it's broken so easy. Look at this one from National Geographic:

Sadly, like most "easy to understand" graphs, it only gives you a way of seeing that there is a problem, but it provides no help in identifying what the problem really is. Where is all this money going if not to improve the general health of the population? Or maybe it's just because the cost of living is higher in the US, so doctors, nurses, and other health care staff get higher salaries and this increases the average cost? But maybe the high cost of living is caused by high medicals costs - and there you have your vicious cycle!

Other factors that probably should be taken into consideration here: how much is this actually due to external factors that make the population "sicker"? Bad nutrition, too much use of cars and other mostly-passive modes of transportation, too much sitting in front of the TV... Maybe the problem is not the left hand side of the graphic, but the right side of it.

Anyway, at least there is a lot of activity right now on trying to understand what is going on and how to improve it. It doesn't mean that it will make it better, but at least without this activity it would never be better.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Multiple failures

Engineered products generally are built with some level of redundancy or safety multipliers. But failures and accidents still happen, due to the rare chance of multiple rare events happening together (which is usually more likely to occur than people think, and that is what makes the design challenging). For example, an airplane is built to handle being hit by a bird during landing, but if that at the same time causes the pilot to despair and abort the landing accelerating and trying to change course too quickly, then it could cause an accident. In the software world it's the same thing. I've built software that can handle network outages and computer crashes, but when a computer crashes during a network outage that happened during a deployment, then you never know what is going to happen.

Well, but today's story was much less tragic. My alarm is set for 6:15 AM. At 7 AM Amy wakes up and wakes me up saying that it's already 7 AM and I'm still in bed! I try to remember if I had woken up by the alarm, turned it off and went back to bed, but I haven't. Before I explain what happened, I need to explain the setup that I have at home:

- There are two alarm clocks: one that has the alarm, but has no good clock display; and another that has good time display, but terrible alarm
- If I don't turn the alarm off, it goes for one hour and then turns off by itself.
- My alarm clock has three alarm settings: beep, radio (generally set to King FM) and sound (which can play one of 4 soothing sounds, like beach, rain, etc.)
- The alarm clock has a "sync to atomic clock" feature. It tried to auto-sync the time every so often (which also makes it a good alarm clock, as when there is a power outage at home at night, it automatically can find the time when the power is back)

Now to the story:

During the weekend I changed the alarm settings to make a beeping sound instead of the normal music (long story why that). When I reset the alarm on Sunday night I had forgotten of it and it beeped on Monday. So in the morning, with the light off, I thought I had changed it back to radio, but I hadn't:

- FAILURE 1 (human): it was set to "sound", which doesn't really wake anybody up. But there was one piece of the puzzle left: the alarm is supposed to run for an hour and it wasn't running when we woke up!

- FAILURE 2 (engineering): for some unknown reason, my alarm clock decided to readjust itself to about 35 minutes ahead. So the actual sound started playing at 5:40 and at 7 it was already off.

Oh, well, I was still able to get to work in time for my first and only meeting of the day (which is at 10 AM, and I arrived at work at 8:45). Alright, now that I've used my work time to write this story (while I was waiting for some data gathering process to run), it's time for me to get back to it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Misleading "price promotions"

One day in my far past I decided that I needed web hosting. After looking around for options, for some reason I'm not too sure of why anymore, I went with Textdrive. I was fairly happy and used it for one project that ended up dying after some time. Then Textdrive was acquired by Joyent. And with it I received a lot of other free products, like file storage, contact and calendar manager, and others.

Joyent continued its merry way acquiring other companies and merging products. One of the few "added" products that I used was Strongspace, a simple file storage solution. It was free and it felt like I was using at least some of the $15 I was spending with hosting every month.

Then they decided to migrate to "Strongspace 2.0", a much better system. And with it they were giving me a promotion:

More for less! Right? Not really. I used to pay $15 for the whole hosting, now they are offering me $4/month for just the file storage. The sad thing is that, as I said, it's the only thing I use. So I have to think about it...

Alright. Late for work. Time to go!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Quick update on my computer

Not that you reader really care about it, but I just want to confirm that I woke up this morning and my computer was still on! Now it's time for me to get back to work - and I mean this in multiple different ways:

1) At my paying work, I just have a lot of things to do, and things are certainly not moving as quickly as I was hoping, because I think I still don't fully know the answer to what I'm trying to write. So, subconsciously, I don't want to write whatever is in my head right now, because I know that most probably I'll have to rewrite a good part of it.
2) At my robot work, everything stalled too.
a) I finally had Openembedded building, but not yet doing anything useful for me. My next goal was to start writing my first vision software that would only test if there is something orange in sight. I'm still scared about build times.
b) I designed the I2C level translator PCB, but I still haven't had the courage to spend my first $50-70 to get it manufactured. I know that there will be something wrong with it, and I'm just not ready to throw this money and time away on "my education".

At least the wedding stuff is somehow moving.

My computer puzzle: solved! (I hope)

I think that today I finally figured out what was going on with my desktop. So here is the story:

I have a desktop that was running Windows XP. I bought it to play games (as you can't really play many games on a Mac) and to run the occasional software that either doesn't have a Mac version (e.g. CadSoft's Eagle, or has a much worse Mac version (e.g. Intuit's Quicken).

A lot of the games that I was playing I bought on Steam, which meant that they took a lot of disk space. Moreover, I was starting to be annoyed with the gradual lack of support for drivers and other things for Windows XP. So I decided to take the "hit" and to a double upgrade: (1) Buy Windows 7 and (2) Buy another 2 TB of HD.

Actually it was cheaper to buy two 1 TB HD, so that's what I did. So I now have 3 HDDs on my desktop and Windows 7. And everything seemed to be running ok. Until one day that I woke up in the morning and my computer was off without me turning it off. As I turned it back on, it stopped "mounting" one of the new HDDs! It could recognize it, but it just wasn't there to be used anymore.

I was puzzled, but had to do other things. When I came back to my computer: off again. And this time when I turned it back on it didn't turn itself completely. I had to turn off again and on again and everything seemed to be working for a few hours and it would shut down again (never when I was using it, though).

My first thought that it was some sort of sleep mode, but one piece of evidence that suggested otherwise was that Windows complained that I turned off the computer unexpectedly when it came back. So I dropped that theory.

My next theory was that the power source was too weak for 2 new HDDs. I couldn't figure out how to prove it, so I bought a new bigger power source that arrived today (well, actually yesterday). After installed, I turned the computer back on and everything seemed normal, except that the HDD was still not being added. Tinkering around a little I found that it was simply not being assigned a name and fixed that.

I went out for dinner and when I arrived back the computer was still on! Very exciting! Then I went to watch the Top Chef final episode and when I arrived back to my computer... Surprise! It was off! I cursed it and turned it back on. New surprise: it came back on in the same place it was before! My computer had gone to sleep! Then everything clicked! This is what I think happened:

* By default Windows 7 puts your computer to sleep after 30 minutes in idle.
* However, my old power source did not support sleep mode, so when it would issue the sleep message, it wouldn't sleep exactly, it would just turn off.
* The new power source does support it, so it went to sleep as expected.

I turned off the "sleep in 30 minutes" and not I'm going to sleep myself and see in the morning if my theory is correct.

The conclusion is that maybe I shouldn't have bought a new power supply... It's also debatable whether I should have bought Windows 7. I have to agree that it was great that it automatically recognized my network printer, while for Windows XP it was extremely painful to get it to only half-work (I couldn't get the scanner to work at all and the printer printed every other request). But my video card that has only the latest upgrade for Windows 7, is still showing the same rendering bugs that I was seeing before.

I'll write more about Windows 7 some other day. It's certainly not as "refined" as some people claimed, but it's cleaner and prettier than XP. Also, it doesn't feel any slower than XP. And that's all I can say for now.

Friday, December 04, 2009

New lows - in temperature, that is

So it's pretty cold here in Seattle right now. The weather forecast is saying that tonight it might hit all the way down somewhere between 16-19F (between -9 and -7 degrees Celsius). In some parts of the country, this is nothing. But considering that the lowest recorded temperature for Seattle today was something like 18F, you can see it's pretty record-breaking.

I'm trying to keep myself warm. I've been staying home for longer lately, trying to think about the many things I have to think about. For example, I just bought a new set of HDs for my desktop and... Now my desktop decides to randomly shut down! How great is that? So I just ordered a new power supply and hope that this is going to solve the problem. That's the only theory I have so far. I just have to wait for it to arrive (probably sometime late this week or early next week) to confirm the theory.

I've also been trying to read things. I actually finished a couple of books:

Coders at Work, by Peter Seibel: quite interesting book. A set of interviews with some famous programmers. Unfortunately I didn't find it organized enough to be able to draw common themes throughout them. Perhaps that they all like to code and solve problems, they seem to have times in their lives that they just focus on getting something done, and times they are just coasting and making sense of what is out there. It was a fun read.

A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin: it's a classic fantasy book (published in 1996). Very deep and convoluted story, but felt a little slow at times. Maybe not slow, but perhaps a little too full of concurrent things that all tie to each other, so require cautious retelling in order to make sense. Great book, nevertheless. Now I have to read the next one: A Clash of Kings.

Inferno, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle: another classic. This was great that was a pretty short book (I read it in about 7 bus rides). It might have been a little better if I remembered Dante's Inferno, but besides that, it was very imaginative and slightly philosophical. Highly recommended, if you haven't read it yet. It was published in 1976.

Now I finally decided not to wait for the Kindle edition of The Gathering Storm, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. My back hates me for that. It's a big book (760 pages long) and only the first part of 3 of the conclusion of the series (i.e., it book 12 of 14 planned), so... we'll see.

Done with the report about things that are not very useful for other people except for me... Time to get back to thinking about life, FX, the universe and ABN.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Playing chess - Chess With Friends vs.

A co-worker a few weeks ago suggested that now that I'm "sheep" and I have an iPhone, I should get "Chess With Friends" and play chess against him. It's a free application that allows you to play against a specific person or a random person.

Before accepting his "challenge", I decided to download it and try a couple of games to see how my chess is doing. On my first game, I was playing with black and quickly I realized how rusty I was. But, after starting pretty badly, my opponent decided to play badly too and I ended up winning the game.

At this point, I decided to look around and make sure it was a good application. That's when I remembered that I had played with before and was slightly impressed with how much they had put into it. And they have an iPhone app. So I installed that app (also free) and started my first game on (playing with whites) and a second game on Chess with Friends (playing blacks).

The game was going quite slowly, so I decided to start a second game on (playing blacks), so playing 3 games at the same time.

One interesting thing about games is that they give you 3 days to move, or else you automatically lose. Chess With Friends doesn't have that restriction.

Why is this last information important? Well, after 5 days, the second person I was playing against on simply stopped playing, so I won the game by him giving up. The game was way too early to say who was winning. So I was back to 2 concurrent games. And I wasn't doing so great in any of them.

But then again the guy on Chess With Friends started making more mistakes than I was making and I won the game. On the other hand, the one on mostly dominated the game from the middle of the game and I ended up giving the game up after 27 moves.

Now comes the summary:

2 games on Chess With Friends, both playing as blacks and I won both games.
2 games on, one I won because my opponent stopped playing and the other I lost (playing with whites)

My decision then became: do I want to continue on a platform that is a little prettier (the iPhone app is not that great), with worse players, so easier to win; or do I want to do the, lose a lot of games (or have players simply disappear from time to time), but potentially learn more?

It's a tough decision... But I guess I made up my mind: and it's not for any of the reasons above. It's because of a very nice feature on after you finish a game you can request computer analysis of your game. And then you receive a nice play-by-play analysis of where I made mistakes and what I should have done. The report doesn't look very flattering:

Inaccuracies: 6 = 24.0% of moves
Mistakes: 2 = 8.0% of moves
Blunders: 1 = 4.0% of moves

Yes, I have a lot to learn! Only 64% of my moves were good. But, hey, it's been many years that I haven't played chess. And I did win those Chess With Friends games, so I'm not a complete loser!