Wednesday, December 05, 2007


I gotta remember this whenever I think I'm too busy for some quality time with the kids:

I mean if the PRESIDENT can take his kids calls, I've got no excuses!

Friday, November 30, 2007

Naked DSL

High-speed internet access is a must these days. The low cost option is DSL, but for the cell-phone generation, this requires people who don't need a land-line to get one anyway. This obligatory phone line at our house is basically just a lightning rod for telemarketers. I can hear your cry: "Oh, if only there was only a way to get cheap DSL without forking out another 30 bucks a month for a regular phone line." ($30/month = $360/year = a good road trip somewhere interesting).

Friend, I feel your pain. Since I'm a natural born value-shopper (cheapskate?), I thought I'd look into "better value" internet. "Better value" meaning a Basic (768 Kbps) connection without a land-line for less than a Basic connection WITH a land-line (currently ~$45/month).

Happily, a lot of phone companies are starting to offer "Naked DSL", which is basically DSL without an activated land-line, or "dry-loop DSL". I checked with Verizon and they freely admitted that you can in fact order DSL without ordering regular phone service. But don't be fooled into getting more than you need. You could pay up to 2x as much for the "popular" 1.5 Mbps plan, instead of the basic 768 Kbps plan. Unless you're a media pirate (argh!), the Basic plan is fast enough for e-mail, google searches, and even full-screen youtube videos (I want my youtube!).

Since we're moving to an area serviced by AT&T, I checked to see if AT&T offers similar plans. Turns out they do, but they only market the "popular" plans, which includes the "Express DSL" which is 1.5 Mbps for $44/month. That's about what it costs for Basic connection WITH a land-line. What a crock.

It gets better: I recently found out that AT&T has been REQUIRED by the FCC to offer BASIC DSL without a land-line for $20/month (see HERE for the story). Of course they don't market this plan, since it's not as big of a moneymaker as the "popular" plans. According to an anonymous AT&T employee, if you're area is serviced by AT&T and you want BASIC DSL without a land-line, here's what you need to do:

•Call the AT&T Dry Loop department directly at 888-800-4095
•Ask to switch to "DSL direct"
•If they give you a hassle, say it's a "retention offer"

So that's what I intend to do. And if you wish you didn't have to pay $30/month for a phone line you don't use, you should too.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Phone Patch Test

There a good chance you're thinking one of three things right now:

1. Not another post about telephones!
2. Sweet! Another telephones post!
3. This guy posts about telephones?

(There's also a good chance you're either hitting the "BACK" button on the browser, or the "NEXT BLOG" button at the top of the page).

Either way, I finished my phone patch a while ago, but never got around to posting about it. A phone patch is little electronics gadget that routes audio from a phone line to the LINE IN of, say, a computer sound card. Then you can capture telephone audio digitally with your PC (or MAC, if you're into that sort of thing).

Short story is that it works! For a quick demo, and to hear my favorite telephone company recording, click HERE.

And, if you're still with me, here's the long story. I built this phone patch with parts from Radio Shack for under $20. Now that I know what I'm doing, I could probably make another one for about $10. Here's the schematic:
C1 is 1 uF capacitor rated for up to 250 V.

T1 is a 1:1 isolation transformer (primary coil is 80 ohms, secondary is 60 ohms). This is to protect your computer sound card from potentially damaging surges from the phone line.

MOV is a metal oxide varistor. If the voltage spikes on the line above 150 V, it shorts out protecting the rest of the circuit.

D1 and D2 are 1N4001 diodes. Above 0.7V and they are supposed to short out through the loop if anything dangerous gets past the MOV and the isolation transformer.

v(in) is the audio signal from the telephone company. I don't know what the value actually is. But the voltage out is line-level; enough to power a pair of standard headphones without an amp (~100 mV max?)

v(out) goes to the male phone jack that plugs into the sound card LINE IN input. If you want to use the MIC input, you'll need to add a 100kOhm resistor in the v(out) loop series.

This is optimized to run right into the PC sound card LINE IN; to pull audio OFF the phone line. But it can also be run in reverse; to put audio ON the phone line. You know, in case you want to add background music to an otherwise dull phone conversation.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Culture club...

I got into a discussion with some co-workers about culture (or lack of) in the bustling metropolis of Richland, WA.

One guy's idea of culture is drinking beer and going hunting with his buddies. He was also the first to admit that this doesn't exactly fit most people's definitions of culture. But it's a "cultural" activity that is pretty important to him, and one that is well within his reach, even in the western Washington desert.

Another co-worker represented the opposite end of the spectrum when he described how revolting it was to go to a live production of "the Nutcracker" that used -- are you ready for this? -- a pre-recorded soundtrack instead of a live symphony. (seriously! What kind of neanderthals!)

Anyway, my idea of culture are things that 1) make me think 2) open my eyes to something new 3) bring people together 4) represent the very best people have to offer.

For me, the first thing that comes to mind is good music. While there's a special place in my heart for pop music that brings people together, I usually retreat into more esoteric musical adventures that say things that I wish I could say (thoughtful lyrics are a MUST!) or amplify a mood. Ooo: amplify a mood! Like blasting Tick Tick Boom by the Hives after kicking some butt at an interview or getting pumped up for the bike ride home from work by listening to Eye of the Tiger (my evening ritual as I'm filling out my time report). And watching a home movie that shows everyone growing up to the song "100 years" by 5 for fighting has a way of making me appreciate the little things in life.

There's a lot more to culture for me, but now I want to hear from you. So, all right, audience participation time: What is culture to you? (this is the part where you click the "Comments" button at the end of the post).

Friday, November 09, 2007

Intestinal Fortitude

It's almost Veterans Day and I'm in the middle of Inside Delta Force by Eric Haney. This is one of the best books I've read in a long time, written by a guy who has driven life into a corner and reduced it to its lowest terms. "If it's not hard, it's not worth it" seems to be his mantra. The book is full of real in-the-trenches-and-don't-ever-forget-you're-mortal action, not unbelievable Hollywood special effects. Amidst the action and intrigue, he's also got some great gems that inspire you to "go for it":

"It is important to realize that we have the ability to manufacture our own fate when we want to. We can summon up intestinal fortitude and proceed when things look bad, or we can find plenty of reasons to quit if we don't want to go forward."

(Eric Haney, Command Sergeant Major, USA (ret.) 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment--Delta)

Intestinal fortitude. That'd be somethin'. Carpe diem.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Worst Ideas Ever!

This list is bound to be long, and grows with each passing day. But the top of the list (today anyway) is dedicated to the yahoo who said to himself "Hey, I've got an idea. Let's put carpet in the kitchen and dining area. It'll be so easy to clean and will never smell bad!" Seriously, who wants to rent the rug-doctor every time you spill some milk ... or applesauce? There ought to be a building code against that. Carpet just happens to have the same absorption properties of a dishwashing sponge (bacteria farms) that should be replaced every couple of weeks. And have you ever tried to clean sticky rice off of carpet? Whoever thought of this definitely does not have kids.

But, I'm sure there are worse things though. Any ideas? Bad ideas only!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

A 2nd Postdoc?

For those who don't know, my family and I are moving to Northwestern University in Evanston, IL (just north of Chicago). I'll be working as a postdoc in the Chemistry department. It's the chance of a lifetime, and we are really excited about it!

So, in honor of our move to Northwestern University, here are some Fun Facts:

1. You'd think a "Big Ten" school would be bigger, but in 2005-2006, there were only 7,826 undergrads, and almost as many grad students (5,640).

2. Founded by 9 Methodists from Chicago, including 3 ministers, religious symbolism from its birth persists. The latin phrase in the seal means "Whatsoever things are true" (Philippians 4:8), and the greek phrase means "The Word...full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).

3. Every school I've ever been affiliated with had BLUE as a school color (including elementary school!). Northwestern's colors are refreshingly different: Purple and White.

4. Home to the best women's Lacrosse team, Northwestern's Lady Wildcats captured the NCAA championship title for the third time in a row this past year.

5. The football team, though improving in recent years, has a well-deserved reputation of futility.

6. Famous alumni include: Charlton Heston, David Schimmer, Zach Braff, and Steven Colbert.

7. Another less-than-famous alumnus: Graham Spanier!

Great things to come. Stay Tuned! (By "stay tuned" I of course mean that I might update my blog sometime in the next month...)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The meaning of life?

Wikipedia has like 2 million or so articles on the meaning of just about EVERYTHING, so I thought I'd check out the meaning of life, according to Wikipedia:


From Wikipedia,

the free encyclopedia

This article is about life in general. For life on Earth, see Organism. For other meanings of "life", see Life (disambiguation)."

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Landmark Scavenger Hunt!

So it'll be a while before we travel the world. But, hey, why bother messing with Airports and Passports? You can see the Wonders of the World from the comfort of your own home! All you need is Google Maps!

I've been trying to track down some of the world's more interesting landmarks with Google Maps. This is what I have so far:

1. The Eiffel Tower
2. Teotihuacan
3. Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii
4. Washington, DC: The White House and the Washington Monument
5. Niagara Falls
6. The Statue of Liberty
7. The Great Pyramids in Egypt
8. The Kremlin in Russia

Go ahead and navigate around like in regular Google Maps:

- The arrows in the upper left corner of the map will let you move around on the map (or you can "click-and-drag", which I think is easier).
- the + and - buttons (by the arrows) will zoom in and out.

Click on the blue markers to see what's there. If you want a bird's-eye-view of the landmark, make sure you're on "satellite" or "hybrid" view, and zoom in as far as you can.

View Larger Map

I'm still looking for the Great Wall of China and that GIANT crater in Arizona (Oh! and Crater Lake! That should be pretty easy.)

Any other cool landmarks you can think of? Leave 'em here in the comments section and I'll try to track them down while watching "The Office" or "The Unit".

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Where do you go?

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach...

I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,

to life so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life

to cut a broad swath and shave close

to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms

...and not, when I came to die, discover than I had not lived.


Sunday, October 07, 2007

A New Hope?

These guys get an automatic 100% on their sci-fi, science, and dork scores!

More menacing than a fleet of Imperial Star Destroyers, it's Earth's Gravity Field effectively neutralizing the fledgling Rebel opposition. A New Hope ... dashed to pieces.

(Thanks to Benji for this great link:

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Global Confusion Science

So this post has been a while in the making. It’s been really interesting to see the “global warming” debate play out, not only in the scientific literature, but in the NEWS. For a guy who hasn’t really made up his mind on this, I have been surprised to see what is fundamentally a scientific debate turned into a public relations campaign on both sides of the issue. After reading Brian Anderson’s thoughts on the subject, I felt like it was time to get this one out there.

There are two basic questions at the heart of all the “global warming” hype. First: is the temperature of the Earth increasing? Second: if the Earth is warming, what is causing it? The answer to the first question is “yes”. Since diligent temperature record-keeping began in the mid 1800’s, there has been an upward trend in Earth’s temperature. I don’t know what the answer to the second question is, and I think the people who do know need to do a better job of communicating that to the public. The people who don’t know (or think they know) need to shut their cakeholes.

Now that I’m up on my soapbox, let me just summarize my thoughts on the subject: Whether or not human activities are causing global warming is a hard question to answer. The people who know the most about climate admit it. A lot of people think they have it all figured out, or think they really could figure it out if. Only. They. Had. More. Research. Funding! (Sniff, sniff! Call the wah!mbulance!). But my personal opinion is that this is in fact an open question, despite what Al Gore, Rush Limbaugh, Senator Inhofe, or RealClimateScientists say.

Here’s the thing: if man-made climate change is still an open question, there are two “worst-case-scenario” questions everybody (everybody who has an opinion anyway) needs to ask:

1. What if global warming has NOTHING to do with human activities, but we try to do something anyway? I guess that depends on what we try to do. If we’re going to penalize companies for non-compliance to arbitrary regulations, we run the risk of hurting US, and as a result, world economies. That’s a bad thing. On the other hand, if we’re talking about throwing money into research and development, I think developing new energy-efficient or energy-production technologies is definitely a good thing, even if “experts” are wrong about global warming.

2. On the other hand, what if global warming has EVERYTHING to do with human activities, but we don’t do anything? That’s a tougher one, in my opinion. If we don’t start doing things now, we will be in a world of hurt later. Sure, climate changes. But if WE’RE causing it, every living thing will be affected and we are bad citizens. Worse than that, if there’s something we could have done and didn’t, then by the time we convince Senator Inhofe, we’ll REALLY have our work cut out for us.

Either way, it seems that the prudent thing to do is hedge our bets, and focus on developing energy-efficient and energy-producing technologies. There are at least 3 other good reasons for doing this: 1) We will stay on top of R&D and innovation in the world, 2) With innovation come more jobs and better standard of living, and 3) New technologies can help get us off dependence on foreign oil. All of these are in my mind more immediate, tangible reasons for Energy R&D than averting *possible* climate change.

There I said it.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


One of my big complaints with the Nerd-Test (besides the lack of 90% confidence limits) was that it didn't properly break down "types" of nerdiness. A guy who knows how to code in MATLAB isn't necessarily the same kind of nerd who dresses up like a Sith-Lord to stand in line for 3 days for Episode 3 tickets. And someone who has a goofy laugh is not necessarily the same guy who can build a computer from scratch. See how confusing this gets? It's just really important that people are put in the RIGHT compartments, so they can be appropriately judged (are you judging me? you're judging me aren't you! don't judge ME!) and ridiculed.

Enter: Nerd Test 2.0! says I'm a Cool Nerd King.  What are you?  Click here!

Bring it on!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

An ant on the tablecloth
Ran into a dormant moth
Of many times his size.
He showed not the least surprise.
His business wasn't with such.
He gave it scarcely a touch,
And was off on his duty run.
Yet if he encountered one
Of the hive's enquiry squad
Whose work is to find out God
And the nature of time and space,
He would put him onto the case.
Ants are a curious race;
One crossing with hurried tread
The body of one of their dead
Isn't given a moment's arrest-
Seems not even impressed.
But he no doubt reports to any
With whom he crosses antennae,
And they no doubt report
To the higher-up at court.
Then word goes forth in Formic:
"Death's come to Jerry McCormic,
Our selfless forager Jerry.
Will the special Janizary
Whose office it is to bury
The dead of the commissary
Go bring him home to his people.
Lay him in state on a sepal.
Wrap him for shroud in a petal.
Embalm him with ichor of nettle.
This is the word of your Queen."
And presently on the scene
Appears a solemn mortician;
And taking formal position,
With feelers calmly atwiddle,
Seizes the dead by the middle,
And heaving him high in air,
Carries him out of there.
No one stands round to stare.
It is nobody else's affair

It couldn't be called ungentle
But how thoroughly departmental

- Robert Frost (a man ahead of his time...)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Happy Easter?

It's a very special time here at our house. And by "special", I mean "involving a disturbing surprise".

Every year, we follow the old-fashioned tradition of coloring and hiding hard-boiled Easter eggs. After the great Egg Scare of 2004 (ES04), when we found a forgotten (but still intact) decorated egg a few days after Easter, we decided to meticulously document the number and location of all eggs hidden indoors from now on.

And I think we have. Our detailed inventory has allowed for 2 incident-free years since ES04. But despite the efforts of two egg-attentive parents, this year has revealed a somewhat more unpleasant treat. The entire event is strikingly similar to ES04, except for the time between the egg-placement and discovery. After a full FOUR MONTHS, the echo of Easter-past manifested itself in the form of a once beautifully-decorated, and now BROKEN pink shell still containing a shrunken sphere of solid protein! I'll spare you the "what's grosser than gross" part of the story, suffice to say that we were not the first things to discover the neglected egg.

How could this single egg have slipped past the radar? I mean, we counted the eggs before AND AFTER hiding! I have a theory: the Easter Bunny isn't the only one who likes to hide eggs. This is, apparently, a fun pastime for kids who like to re-play the magic of Easter morning for days after the initial event. Eventually the magic fades, along with the memory of re-hidden eggs. Fast forward four months, and a few insect life cycles later, and we have the makings of the Terrible Egg Event of 2007, dwarfing ES04 by several orders of magnitude.

Clearly, there are some weaknesses in our current Easter-inventory system, which you can bet will be corrected before Spring '08.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Quantifiable Nerdiness

To confirm what everyone who reads this blog might suspect (at least the 86% who are cooler than me. The rest are either blissfully unaware, or proudly "nerdier" than me), here's my "official" nerd score:

I am nerdier than 86% of all people. Are you a nerd? Click here to find out!

I don't think that's right. I mean, they didn't even give me confidence intervals. How do I know how good that number even is?

Saturday, August 11, 2007


And now, Mike Watt and fIREHOSE with one of the best songs ever written and this page's namesake:

Sunday, July 08, 2007

What are you going to be when you grow up?

Just for fun, I took a career-placement test to see what I'm going to do when I grow up. Nice to know that this is pretty much what it was when I started college. I don't know about you, but I'd have to say this is pretty accurate.

Career Inventory Test Results

Extroversion ||||||||||||||| 46%
Emotional Stability |||||||||||||||||| 60%
Orderliness |||||||||||| 36%
Altruism ||||||||||||||||||||| 63%
Inquisitiveness |||||||||||||||||||||||||||| 83%

You are an Idealist, possible professions include - information-graphics designer, college professor, researcher, legal mediator, social worker, holistic health practitioner, occupational therapist, diversity manager, human resource development specialist, employment development specialist, minister/priest/rabbi, missionary, psychologist, writer
Take Free Career Test
personality tests by

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Today, we celebrate our independence day!

Happy 4th of July!

If you missed the fireworks, click here.

Biochemistry with the Stars!

...and here are some other reality shows *I'd* be personally interested in:

1. Flying Coach Class with the Stars
2. Celebrity trip to the grocery store with 3 kids w/o the nanny
3. Paris who? Cable news *without* the stars
4. Build and dismantle a thermonuclear device with Jack Bauer

Any other ideas?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Soccer Malpractice

Summer soccer season is in full swing, and Brandon was saved from team-less-ness by a Dad who couldn't say no. After hearing that the little guy might not get to play, I called the sports director at the YMCA who confirmed that, yes, in fact, all the teams in his division were full. Then I learned how most parents become coaches: "I might be able to find him a spot if you'd be willing to coach." Not exactly the magic words (does it sound a little like extortion to you too?), but if it means my kid gets to channel his energy in a way that doesn't involve beating his sister up with a Batman sword, I'm game.

Since I teach kids in Brandon's age group (3-5) at church (but only 6 of them, and in an enclosed area), I had some inklings as to how this might go. The days leading up to the first practice were a crescendo of angst until I found myself surrounded by 14 busy kids who, like me, really had only a vague idea about what we were supposed to be doing.

I should mention that I played soccer for 12 years, and I even coached a 10-and-under team before. I've known the rules for as long as I can remember, and the U-10 kids I coached had been playing for 4 years before I even met them. Besides the casual questions and informal kicking-around we've done as a family in the backyard, I never really thought about how to explain the game of soccer to people, let alone short people with the combined attention span of a -- "I hear a police car!"

But I didn't even get to soccer hardly. Instead, I was trying to think of new ways to say "get into a circle" or "get into 2 straight lines". Finally, I resorted to the photographer technique by moving my little action figure soccer kids: "You. Stand right here. Good. Don't move. Now you. Stand right here. Don't move. Nobody move. I will move you. Okay, you (etc...)". Once I got them all in line, I was almost tempted to prompt: "Say cheese!" And in retrospect, I shoud have really taken a picture. Proof that I had actually accomplished something in our first practice, never mind how un-soccer-like it was. (note to self: more moving around with the ball, less standing around without it).

Despite the train wreck, we did manage to clock 41 full minutes of soccer (and coaching) practice, if you count the 10+ minutes of "water breaks". After the dust settled, a few of the parents (probably the ones who could say no) offered their obligatory, but still much appreciated, "Thanks, Coach!"

And then there's the first game... Time to get pumped up!

survivor - eye of the tiger

Monday, June 11, 2007

Al Gore vs. The Unabomber

Somebody came up with a quiz to see if you can tell the difference between the writing of Al Gore and the Unabomber Manifesto. I didn't do any better than pure chance, but that's probably a reflection of how much I know about both. How did you do?

Now for the bonus question: Is this a swipe at Al Gore? Or sympathy for the Unabomber? Either way, it's a kinda funny ... and a little eerie.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Music Reviews: MASHUP MANIA!

I love music, and I have my favorites. But even with 25 gigabytes of music archives, I still manage to get bored with it all sometimes. So I started listening to TOP 40 radio again (online radio, anyway), which immediately required cataloging the songs my kids would not ever be allowed to listen to (and I am really starting to sound like my dad!). It didn't take long for me to figure out the up-and-coming top 5 songs, because I got to hear them played at least once-per-hour on virtually any online top 40 station. So guess what. I got bored with top 40 radio, but now that I've listened to it for a couple of weeks straight, I'm good for another 6 months.

Usually, after my mainstream music binges, I withdraw on a quest to find the best music-you've-never-heard. Most recently, I've re-discovered the Mashups scene: for people who don't enjoy a good song. They enjoy 2 (or more) good songs at the same time! Basically, mashup magicians throw a couple of pop (or classic) tracks into a blender to make entirely new musical flavors.

Anyway, here's are a few good ones (hope the links work)

1. Boulevard of Broken Songs (Oasis vs. Green Day)
2. Get This Party Started (Pink vs. ELO)
3. Are You Gonna Be My Animal? (Muppets vs. Jet)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

What will your verse be?

O ME! O life! of the questions of these recurring,

Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill'd with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew'd,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring-What good amid these, O me, O life?

That you are here-that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

We're Sorry: Telephone Company Apologies

One of my more quirky pastimes is a little game called "phone scanning". It's sort of like radio frequency scanning for interesting police/fire/ambulance traffic, which is probably only slightly less nerdy than phone scanning. So if you're still not with me, it's also a lot like surfing the net or channel surfing.

Anyway, the point is that some people like searching for cool web pages, I like to search for cool phone numbers. In the U.S., phone numbers are 10 digits NXX-PRE-XXXX. The first 3 numbers (NXX) make up the area code; the next 3 (PRE) are the local exchange or prefix; and the last 4 digits are technically referred to as "therestofthenumber". Now with 10000 numbers per prefix, your thinking "what a waste of time". And I would say something like "too-shay". I would also say that phone companies have made it pretty easy to find interesting phone numbers because they set aside a block of numbers in each exchange. This is usually in the first or last 100 number of an exchange (0000-0100 or 9900-9999).

So what can you find? Mostly telephone company apologies (Doo-Daa-Dee! We're sorry! Blablabla...). Great to give to people you don't really want to have your number (think webpages and "super saver" shopper card applications). There are also some telco test numbers that can be used to test homemade telephone interface equipment, like phone patches. But mostly they're just for "gee isn't that cool". Without further ado, here are some of the lastest finds (*** are my favs).

509-946-0040 - "Due to telephone company facility trouble..."
509-946-0017 - ***"Your line has been temporarily disconnected..."
509-946-0041 - "Your call did not go through"
509-946-0013 - "We cannot process your custom calling request..."
509-946-0043 - ***"The call you have made requires a coin deposit..."
509-946-0074 - "Your presubscribed or dialed long distance company no longer..."
509-946-0072 - "It is not necessary to dial a 1 or 0..."
509-946-0075 - "A long distance company access code is required..."
509-946-0032 - 1000 Hz test tone
817-284-7847 - 300-3000 Hz tone sweep (thanks to AOH)

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Science Project: Rocketry

Fran and Ammon stopped by for a few days and we had a great time launching Ammon's new rocket a few times. If you're like me, you're wondering "How fast does a model rocket go, anyway?"

Take a look at it in action:

This is from about 25 yards away. We don't get to see the whole flight, but we get enough of it to estimate its terminal velocity. Using a program out of Kenyon College, I tracked its motion frame-by-frame.

I calibrated the distances in the video with the height of my brother-in-law. Ammon is ~68 inches tall, which makes him about 13 pixels tall at 25 yards.

The green "plusses" in the frame on the right are the data points I used to figure out the terminal velocity of the rocket:

A couple of conclusions from this:
1. That max speed is 38 meters per second, or about 90 miles an hour!
2. Think I'm just too white and nerdy.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Book Report: Punished by Rewards

I haven't written a book report in a long time, but I've been reading a lot lately, and sometimes it's hard to process and internalize a good book without doing something with it. So indulge me and if you actually read the book, let me know what you think!

Why we do what we do is complicated. How we get people to do what we want them to do is a lot less complicated. People with kids know that one way to get what you want out of them: reward them for good behavior and punish them for bad. But does this approach actually work? Alfie Kohn challenges this conventional wisdom about motivation at home, in school, and in the workplace in his 1993 book “Punished by Rewards”.

In dealing with my kids, I’ve thought about punishment and spanking in particular, and I’ve never personally been able to justify physical violence disguised as teaching. Rewards, on the other hand, are just the opposite, right? Instead of focusing on bad behavior, rewards put the emphasis on good behavior and encourage it with incentives. But Kohn points out that ultimately punishments and rewards are not opposites because they are both used to manipulate behavior artificially. This idea has sort of an ominous “Brave New World” feel to it, that the way to make people “good” is to manipulate them into doing what you want. The problem with this is that when I’m not around to manipulate anymore, then who’s going to keep them in line. Really, at the end of the day I don’t want my kids doing things or not doing things because something artificial will happen to them, good or bad.

Even more important, using rewards starts looking at things kids want not in terms of how much they enjoy them, but how they can be exploited as rewards. And I don’t want to make things that my kids are entitled to (like my love and attention, for example) to be dangled in front of their faces and made conditional “rewards” for good behavior. Ultimately, I want them to be good people because it’s the right thing to do, and because they’ll be happy.

But what really put me over the edge with rewards is that there is dramatic evidence, and lots of it, that using external (extrinsic, they call them) motivators has a lot of negative side effects, such as killing creativity and genuine interest. In one example, young writers who spent 5 minutes thinking about the kind of rewards they were promised for their work produced less creative work than students not encouraged to think about these things. In another study, 51 preschoolers were given magic markers to draw pictures. Some were told that if they drew pictures they would get a special certificate decorated with a red ribbon and a gold star. After a week or two, those given the incentive were less interested than the other kids. What’s more, these observations aren’t limited to kids. College students and workers in the workplace are subject to similar effects when controlled by external rewards, including grades and financial incentives.

There are a few things that rubbed me the wrong way about the book, like lumping “positive reinforcement” style parents in with totalitarian punisher-parents. I'm still convinced that using rewards to influence behavior is a lot better than beating your kids into submission (a sad situation for everyone involved), even though both only give you temporary obedience. And his unrelenting disapproval of rewards and punishment made me sure that this guy has never potty-trained a 3-year-old or seen a kid smack another kid for no obvious reason. This made me skeptical of any advice he had about parenting small children. But my measure of a good book isn’t how much I agree with it, but how much it makes me think. Clearly there are times that rewards and punishments are appropriate, but the in-your-face artificial consequences world we have a tendency to create puts emphasis on administering "consequences" (good or bad) and less on learning to make good choices. This book made me think a lot about how we motivate people (or create conditions that foster authentic motivation), and how we motivate ourselves.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Brandon on Manhood

Brandon asked me today if I'd cut his hair. He says it's getting long like Kelsie's. I can understand that. He's a boy and he shouldn't have girl hair. But Brandon corrected me:

"I'm not a BOY!" he said.

"Oh? What are you then..." (please don't say a little girl...)

"I'm a MAN!" he bragged.

"You're a man?"

"Yeah! I'm a man!" he confirmed, so pleased that I was starting to understand.

"When did you become a man?" I asked, truly interested.

"When we had the baby, then I'm a man."

There you have it. Having a baby makes a man out of you...and your son.

And so Brandon and I had our first man-to-man talk.

Things that go "bump" in the night.

I came across a video this past week describing how to make a little toy called a "bump key." It's supposed to be a super lock pick that opens any lock that it fits into. I'm pretty skeptical about these kind of things, so I had to try it out. I mean, if this is for real, then I'm going to have to do more than remember to lock the doors at night.

After making 3 of these, I finally got one to work. I think it's time to install some chain locks...

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Ringtone Junky

Ronni and I "upgraded" our cellphone plan to 2 phones and 1000 anytime minutes (only 200 of which get used...). The important thing to remember is that we have two phones: Ronni's phone, and the "experimental" phone.

Nokia does't have hardly ANY documentation about all the cool things you can do with the 6101 (or 6103 or any other phone, really), so I had to play "phone hacker" with it.

What Nokia doesn't tell you is that you can send MORE than just pictures to your phone. Supposedy, you can also send midi ringtone files (*.mid) and MP3's! This past weekend, I figured out how to do it. We've got T-Mobile, so if you've got something different, you'll need to figure out how to send yourself email messages to your phone. Check your provider's FAQ on their website for help. For T-Mobile and a Nokia 6101 or 6103:

1. Compose an email to yourself (
2. Attach the files you want to send (*.gif, *.mp3, *.mid).
- keep the attachments down to 1 or 2, and the total email size <100kb. You can send up to 300kb messages, but the longer the message is, the lower the chance of it actually getting sent to your phone.
3. Wait for message (could take up to an hour. Anything longer than that, and you'd better try again).
4. When it comes, open it and then click "options" (left button).
5. For *.mp3's:
select "Objects"
select and open the file you sent yourself
select "options" and then "Save"
save the file in the "Tones" directory
6. For *.mid:
click "options"
select "save sound clip"
save it in the "Tones" directory

If all went well, you should be able to set your own ringtone. You can also send yourself any picture file <300k to set as a background.

Okay... So it sounds lke a lot of work, but now you can import your OWN unique ringtones, instead of the videogame music the phone comes with. Also, it only costs a quarter to send a multimedia message, instead of $2.99 for each lame ringtone from t-zones.

Some other tips:
* remember to keep attachments <100k (for t-mobile anyway).
* compatiblity is a fuzzy issue. Sometimes even small files won't work (it gives you a corrupt file error). I'm working on some ways around this. For right now, if one file doesn't work, just try another one...
* For regular *.mid files of your favorite music, check out free-midi or Attilla's Punk Rock MIDI.
* Email me or leave comments with questions.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

"Little boys should never be made to go to bed. They always wake up a day older."

My 3-year-old son had a hard time sitting with his Primary class at church on Sunday. I was right in the middle of one of my best "you can do it" speeches encouraging him to hold back the tears and sit by his teacher, when he tells me (in between sobs) the one thing I coudn't resist: "Dad (sob) I have to sit by you (sob) because"

Yep, he sat by me. The CIA should use this kid to break captured spies, because there is no resisting a kid like that!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Night of the Comet

This past weekend, we caught a glimpse of Comet McNaught. I actually captured a picture with our Kodak Easyshare:

You can't really see it there, but we did. Fortunately, our 3.1 megapixel camera was able to catch something even *we* couldn't see. Zooming in, I was surprised to see not one, but *3* distinct comets. See for yourself:

We are not alone! Wow!