Saturday, May 20, 2017


"It's up to you to save the world.  Our generation messed up." said an older person to no one in particular.

I graduated in 1982 with a degree in Chemistry.  As is tradition at Cornell, there were no hired inspirational speakers.  The send-off was given -- more appropriately, I think -- by the then university president Frank H.T. Rhodes.   The economy was in rough shape, but President Rhodes nevertheless emphasized the importance of setting great goals and finding meaning in service and leadership.

I found a portion of his speech in the NY Times

My graduating class had 4,200 students, and President Rhodes was a distant figure.  Yet, we were separated by one degree.

One summer, I had a job at Uris Library doing general inventory, cataloging, and shelving.  I learned this library was steward to a very special collection: all the issues, from number one with Marilyn Monroe on the cover, to the present, of Playboy Magazine.  I got the plumb assignment of checking the collection for damage and missing pages, and I was to be thorough and examine every issue.

Also working at the library was another student named Lawrence.  A bit of a mischief maker, a provocateur, he volunteered to assist me.  He reasoned that it was a large collection and that I would need help.  So we worked on it from 9am to noon, and progress was... slow.

Carol, the head librarian and our boss, took us off the assignment, replacing us with another student named Penny.  Penny completed the job in perhaps an hour, no more than two.  Here, we have proof that a woman can do the work of two men, and probably twice as fast.  I also applaud Carol for at least giving the boys a chance; I suppose we met expectations.

It wasn't till the end of the summer that we -- the student workers -- learned Penny was President Rhodes' daughter.  She was kind and soft spoken.  We wouldn't have treated her any differently had we known, but I understand her wish for privacy.

A graduating class of 4,200 students sounds large, indeed is large, but with each passing summer, Cornell felt smaller and smaller.

Today, three decades later, the world feels smaller but not from personal growth as I experienced at Cornell, but from the growth of technology.  The world feels a lot less private too.  I love technology, but my answer to the question "Why technology?" has always been "Only if it solves more problems than it creates."

Few would disagree the world today is a more convenient place.  But is it a better place?

Given the various states of technology and changing cultural sensitivities,  each generation faces unique challenges whether war, recession, climate change, or an intractable political environment.  It's tempting to believe the previous generation had it harder than the next, and to do so would be to misunderstand the world.  Thus, it is now my turn to say, to no one in particular, "It's up to you to save the world.  Our generation messed up."

Friday, March 31, 2017

On The Internet, No One Knows You’re A Targ

A recent project had me fitting my Mazda3 with a cloaking device.  The  goal was just to learn, as speeding without being seen is arguably more dangerous than speeding while visible.

Here is a photo sequence of the cloaking device in action.  There was absolutely no photoshop trickery!

Photo 1: Mazda3

Photo 2: So'wI' chu'  (Engage cloaking device)

Photo 3: Qapla'! (Success!)

The most difficult part of this project wasn’t the installation, although I did need special tools, including a phase coil resonator.  Nor was it the additional power requirements; I simply advanced the engine’s spark timing and switched from regular gasoline to premium.  No, the difficult part was locating the parts.  eBay and Craigslist were dead ends.  Inquiries on various car forums went unanswered.  And I sniffed around several junkyards to no avail. 

The last junkyard search ended like all the others — in  failure — but it led me to a nearby bar for a much needed drink.   Like so many patrons before me, I told the barkeep my story.  He listened intently, and said he could help me for a small fee.   This was the best lead I had, so I paid.  Handing me a business card with no other markings except a number, he said  “It’s late. He’s closed. Call him tomorrow.”

The next day, I called the number.  After some awkward introductions, I asked how he could be sure the parts he had were what I needed.  He answered “Hard plastics.”  I heard him rapping his knuckles on his desktop for emphasis.  “The dash is hard.  The elbow rest is hard.  Even the seats are hard.  Only humans want soft touch points and leather padded surfaces.”

I was sold.

Today, I am happily cruising in cloaked mode, although I need to de-cloak when I come to a red light or risk someone rear ending me.  Logically, that makes my next project deflector shields.  It’s just that no one has solved the power requirements for running both a cloak and shields together.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Goose-y Ways

This post is not about the migration of geese.  Rather, it's about the migration of humans who use Google Maps, Siri (Apple Maps), and Waze.

Google Maps, my preferred app, recently went squirrelly on me, suggesting routes that didn't make sense.  It recovered the next day, but the episode was enough to make me reconsider Waze and Apple Maps.

Waze filled in admirably, but it was not without its quirks.  I liked that I could send my route and ETA to someone I intended to pick up. Waze would also automatically text the person when I was about five minutes away.

The very social nature of Waze, however, makes the screen busy.  While Google Maps can be summed up as no nonsense cartography, Waze has a whimsical side.  I don't use Waze's options to report accidents, police presence, or red light cameras.  Once you begin reporting hazards on the road, you become that hazard on the road.  When my son is in the passenger seat though, he freely taps away.  He finds it all mildly diverting.

Both Google Maps and Waze use crowdsourcing for traffic data, and I am happy to contribute my data point.  But therein lies a weakness.  Neither app can parse traffic down to the individual lanes, and thus, both will grossly underestimate the time it takes to merge into a busy interchange.  Waze will more readily reroute you than Google Maps, and both will misjudge the time it takes to reconnect from the detour.  For my commute between Yonkers and Manhattan, detours during rush hour aren't worth it unless they save more than eight minutes.  Both apps should offer a configurable time threshold before suggesting a reroute.

Apple Maps relies a little less on crowdsourcing for traffic and more on government radio reports (with its partner TomTom). The result is less aggressive rerouting.  In normal traffic, this means Google Maps and Waze will get you to your destination before Apple Maps.  But in heavy traffic, Apple Maps tends to find the better route.

When I make my own detour, say, to avoid a sanitation truck blocking a single lane side street, Apple Maps cannot recover.  It just waits for me to find my own way back to the predetermined route.  Here, the crowdsourcing works in favor of Google Maps and Waze, and they correct course almost immediately.

Of the three apps, I use Apple Maps the least even though I use an iPhone. I love the ability to say "Hey Siri, drive home,"  but the mapping isn't as complete, and navigation isn't as versatile, compared to the competition.

Waze is my second choice, and a first pick when I coordinate with other drivers or passengers.

So it looks like I am back to using Google Maps.  I was an early adopter and have watched the app improve over time.  For a while, I felt smugly smarter than Google Maps, when in a rainstorm, it routed me to roads that tended to flood.  Local drivers always knew to avoid roads and highways with the name "river" or "brook" in it.  Nowadays, it doesn't make that mistake.

Recently, Google Maps started to pronounce the destination Yonkers with a Spanish "Y", as in "Jonkers."  It has since corrected itself, but Waze and Apple Maps had no such lapse.

As for the brief squirrelly event, it has not happened again.  Perhaps Google Maps was overworked and overwhelmed by traffic.  I suppose even an AI can have a bad day.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Evolution Of A Roach

Growing up in New York City gave me plenty of opportunities to observe roaches.  I remember the first ones I saw run away from me in a straight line.  Despite their speed, they were easy to chase down and step on.

A later generation of roaches learned to zig-zag as they tried to escape.  Those were much harder to catch.

Then there were the roaches I spotted on the wall.  They were fairly easy pickings, but a later generation startled me.  As I closed in for the kill, they let themselves fall to the floor and then scurried away.  Their ability to learn and evolve was little bit frightening.

I was a child then, and now, as an adult living in the suburbs, haven’t seen a roach in quite a while… until recently at Grand Central Station.  That day, like all the days before, morning commuters slowly, quietly, somberly, shuffled off the train toward their places of work.  But the woman in front of me suddenly broke stride and jumped and twitched.  Then zigged.  Then zagged.

Then I saw why.  Great Kafka!  In front of her was the largest roach I had ever seen.  No, it wasn’t carrying a briefcase, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t work on Wall Street.  Frightening indeed.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Ohio LinuxFest 2015

This is a shout out to Ohio LinuxFest 2015.  On October 2-3, they will have their thirteenth annual gathering to talk all things Linux.  It takes place in Columbus Ohio at the downtown convention center.

The first time I attended was back in 2008.  It was free, so I made the 10 hour drive from NY to Ohio. It was worthwhile and I attended again in 2011, but as a “supporter” contributing $25 to the cause.  I learned much.

Last year, 2014, I had the nerve to attend as a speaker and gave a talk: “Stupid Shell Tricks”
I had the after lunch sleepy crowd, and the organizers gave me the “big” room to fill.  At first, not many showed up and that made me nervous.
But as the start time neared, more people showed up, and well… that made me nervous too  (sorry for the blurry photo, but my hands were shaking).
My presentation and demos were driven off a raspberry pi with a Lego enclosure:
And once I started, I grew confident.  My secret weapon was my raspberry pi had something no other raspberry pi had: a sysadmin.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

XO: SO-SO future

When I first learned of the One Laptop Per Child program 2 or 3 years ago, I was very, very skeptical. A $100 laptop for kids in developing nations? Meh. Don't children in developing nations have more important needs?

But on second thought, there already were many organizations addressing those needs. Perhaps it is a good thing one group tries a different tack.  So in November 2007, I signed up for the OLPC Give-One Get-One program.  That I could explore a new piece of hardware running Linux appealed to the geek in me.  That my then 7 year old son would benefit from the XO appealed to the father in me.  And that an XO  would be donated to a child in a developing nation appealed to the "do a good deed" in me.

But after winning me over, the future of the XO laptop seems cloudy. With several departures of key OLPC employees and the replacement of Linux with Windows XP, it appears that OLPC has lost its way.  It's not that the  children care whether their laptop runs Linux or XP; unlike grownups, their minds are remarkably flexible.  No, my concern is that XP, with its attendant viruses, patch Tuesdays, and increased hardware requirements over Linux, would prove to be a frustrating experience. 

The XO hardware was thoughtfully built for children in developing nations  -- durable screen, water resistant keyboard, mesh networking, low power consumption.  That same emphasis on children must be kept in mind regarding the software.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Eyeing the iPhone

I've always wanted a phone without a keyboard, and HandSpring actually delivered one back in 2001:

Image from

But it didn't sell as well as the version with the keyboard, and as a result, HandSpring never evolved its design for a keyboard-less phone. Instead, that path was taken by Apple and has led to the much coveted iPhone.
I confess that I am among those who covet the device, but I have hesitated in buying one. It's not the price, as I feel the hardware and technology is worth it. It's the 2 year commitment to AT&T that gives me pause. Coverage for the areas I frequent is spotty and I would certainly lose coolness points as I run to just the right spot in the office and start speaking loudly to overcome a bad connection.

Sadly for me, the iPhone on the AT&T network would be too much like driving a Lamborghini on a pot-hole ridden road.