Wednesday, April 27

Phil Nugent:

How intense is this feeling? Consider that when these people and the writers and talkers who stroke their anxieties for a living aren't talking about Obama's foreignness, they're talking about his "rage", and wherever you believe that comes from, there's no way it could come from having observed the mild-mannered fellow in the Oval Office. The demonstrable fact that a clear majority of Republicans cannot fucking deal with having a black president is very much at odds with the official position of the media, which keeps reminding us that of course, whatever differences rational people may have with the Republicans or Fox News or the Tea Party, they're all good people with the best intentions whose hysteria is in no way colored with racism. They say it in exactly the same tone they used to remind us that, of course, Ronald Reagan was always completely in touch with reality and George W. Bush was never in the least little way stupid.

Tuesday, April 26

it's text editor tuesday!

Welcome to the first installment of this exciting new feature! (Ok, and probably the last, because I forget about things and fear commitment.) Anyway, this is where I will share something I've recently discovered about editing text (in Vim or otherwise).

The other day, I decided I was tired of typing the datestamps on these entries, so I stuck this in ~/bin/today (which is in my $PATH):

#!/bin/bash
echo -n '<h3>'`date '+%A, %B %e'`'<h3>'

And this in my .vimrc:

" use comma for the leader key
let mapleader = ","

" get a datestamp for a p1k3 entry
" .-1 puts it on the current line, since :r reads onto the line below the
" current one (or below the specified line - so here we're specifying the
" one before the current one)
nmap <leader>td :.-1r !today<CR><CR>

Silly, but it may illustrate a handful of useful techniques. Namely:

— I use nmap so the mapping will only apply in normal mode. Reading about the distinctions between mapmodes opens up quite a few possibilities for writing context-sensitive commands.

— If you define a leader, you'll have a place to hang custom keybindings without interfering with any of Vim's established ones. The comma seems to be a typical choice.

— With :r !foo, you can read the output of any given shell command. I knew that before, but I had to skim the docs for ranges to discover that you can say something like "current line minus one". Helpful if you don't want the output from :r showing up below where you're at.

— Say echo -n if you don't want a trailing newline on the output.

monday, april 25

i can't claim to strive for it
(more often i'm working some slender vein
of mild euphoria, some melancholic drift)
but clarity of mind is certainly a thing
to treasure when it comes
hold it lightly if you can — it won't
be coerced, and anyway madness
and untoward certainty
are always going around
dressed up in the clothes of vision,
looking for company

Sunday, April 24

Short flight in from Omaha. It's raining in Colorado. Can't even see the mountains from the bus stop at the airport.

This is the kind of transition I appreciate. Gathering darkness, streetlights on wet pavement, fog on the bus windows. It's easy to feel if not exactly significant, then at least a little cinematic.

Every moment is a scene. Maybe this is the curse of every generation since the species got complicated enough to invent fiction. There's a voice in your head that is your own, projected into an imaginary future where you're telling the present moment as a story. And by now it's ramified through a thousand different ways to imagine that telling. You walk down every street and in your mind's eye there's a crane shot as the soundtrack kicks in.

You see the more heated conversations with quick cuts and flashbacks. There are bits where you dramatically exchange e-mails with people. Lots of close-ups on the screen, audible keypresses. The sound editing is really good - it sounds like a movie, but also like the way you experience the world in the middle of a really good hangover. Everything is crisp and distinct, everything feels composed and sequential.

You'll be on the phone and somewhere in the background, part of your mind is struggling to adapt dialog for the screen. Maybe from the thinly-veiled autobiography of a novel you'll piece together from journal fragments, into lines that could work for a mainstream audience without insulting anyone's intelligence too much. You can hear the voice of an aging but respected rock journalist in a segment of the documentary about your life (it's a good one - you can tell the filmmakers like you, even though it's almost uncomfortable in its honesty, especially for something that shows up on PBS during pledge week). They cut from the rock critic to the one usable piece of footage they got from an ex-girlfriend. It's obvious she wishes she hadn't agreed to talk to them. She gave them a couple of photographs all the same, though. They're good ones. You look happy, or at least involved.

Monday, April 18

Thursday, April 14

Brent is in Colorado Springs for a Space symposium, so I take the day off, rent a car, and drive down to this quasi-famous upscale hotel complex at the south end of town.

I stop at the Garden of the Gods along the way and take badly exposed pictures of some rocks.

sketch of a camera

The last time I was at this hotel, I was helping some florist set up for an overpriced wedding for like ten bucks an hour. This time when I get there, dudes in suits and uniforms are milling around. Northrup Grumman seems to be running a shuttle bus with a big printed wrap on it that says "Providing Affordable, Integrated Space, Air, Surface, and Cyber Solutions" in huge letters.

I feel kind of out of place in my knit cap with the polar bears on it, but then we leave to go get Chinese and the feeling recedes. At one point, the waiter has seen Brent's NASA shirt and tells me that he (the waiter) has a satellite. I don't really register this, in large part because because I have not mentally filed him as a guy who might plausibly have a satellite. I feel kind of bad about this. Lately I've been meeting people who're putting things in space and it's like oh, yeah, of course that's something people do. Go waiter guy at the Chinese place in Colorado Springs. If you're reading this I apologize for not properly engaging the conversation, and for the record, I'd like to say the service was pretty good and I enjoyed my sesame chicken.

Wednesday, April 13

So I trailed along to the Home Depot with some people looking for robot parts, and somewhere in the aisle with the rubber gloves I realized my blood sugar was dropping precipitously. For some reason instead of going directly after food, I walked through this office supply store and bought a Wacom Bamboo Pen.

This thing is kind of blowing my mind. I've wanted a tablet for a while, but every time I would go to do something about it I'd think "nah man, it's just a ridiculous thing design people spend money on".

Except it's totally not. It's like you plug this thing in and after about five minutes you have discovered that all the graphics software you're using is suddenly about a thousand times more fluid and intelligible, which suddenly puts it in the realm of something you'd do for fun.

And here I am seriously talking about things like the Gimp and Inkscape. The free ones with the clunky UI you only use because you're cheap, too lazy to pirate Photoshop, or some kind of an idealist. I installed MyPaint because it showed up when I did apt-cache search wacom, and as expected it looks like every other crappy paint program you've ever used minus most of the features. Except then it turns out to be fucking awesome.

This keyboard + pointer thing has demonstrated an amazing evolutionary stability. It's like the universal solvent of input hardware designs: Real work is done with keys and a mouse. It's kind of fascinating lately to watch all the stuff that's eventually going to erode that — touch screens and whatnot. Or in this case to encounter something that's been around for decades, quietly occupying an industry niche. It makes me wonder what else I'm missing out on.

Monday, April 11

nerdlife

Nagios really wants me to know that the 2nd paper tray on the Xerox in Marcus's office is empty.

So I decided just now to play with zsh, a way featureful shell I've been thinking about trying for about 10 years.

zsh has this one option to do a really simple thing. If you do setopt autocd in your .zshrc, it will act like so:

brennen@kropotkin 23:57:03 /home/brennen $ l
bin/               Downloads/             notes/                 tunes/
bones_may2010.pdf  Firefox_wallpaper.png  p1k3/                  xmonad.start
canon/             hiring/                photos/
code/              j64-701-user/          s3/
digikam4.db        movies/                thumbnails-digikam.db
brennen@kropotkin 23:57:04 /home/brennen $ code
brennen@kropotkin 23:57:06 /home/brennen/code $

Catch that? Type the name of a directory by itself and it just goes there.

Maybe this will turn out not to be the best idea ever, but on the face of it, well, I have definitely spent enough time in my life typing "cd".

It looks like the night crew shipping guys refilled the paper tray.

Monday, April 4

This most recent xkcd: Aw, hell.

Sunday, April 3

notes for the next time you launch a high-altitude balloon

So we launched, tracked, and recovered this balloon yesterday. It was kind of haphazard, but we got the payload back and we learned a few things. The most obvious thing, of course, is that projects like this are going to work a lot better if you do your preparatory work weeks in advance instead of the night before while drinking beers. We'll take that as read; here are some notes about the rest of it.

checklist

1. A notebook is a good idea. You can run through a pre-launch checklist, keep a log, jot down coordinates and times, all that sort of thing. It's guaranteed not to lose power, and it's a good record after the fact.

Of course, if you've brought a notebook, you should remember where it is so you can actually use it for the duration. I screwed up on this one.

There's a more general point here: It really helps to know where your tools and supplies are. As with the things in your wallet or the tools in a workshop, you'll be vastly more effective if you can go right to a designated location when you need something. If it's not on your person, put it back where it's supposed to live. If it's supposed to be on your person, keep it on your person. Whatever it is, don't just set it down or toss it onto a car seat.

(Digression: Like the tech industry dork that I am, I own a couple of varieties of Leatherman Tool. The little one on my keychain that unfolds into a pair of scissors is way useful, and there's a good argument from utility for having the multitool stashed in a bag, but yesterday reinforced a nagging thought I've been having for a while: The item you want in your pocket when stuff is happening isn't some 27-function monstrosity that caters to your inner 6-year-old's Transformers nostalgia; it's just a knife. A reasonably sized, locking folder with a sharp blade you can open one-handed.)

Mid-setup, I had to run and borrow a crescent wrench from a guy at a nearby auto shop. He didn't have to think about where the wrench was. He just opened the right drawer and took it out without even looking. That guy is good at his job. Which brings me to...

2. If you're connecting something to a tank of helium, there's a pretty good chance "hand tight" isn't good enough. Bring a wrench. More generally, that impulse you have to throw a toolbox in with everything else? It's a good impulse. Listen to it.

3. The wind will play merry hell with your best intentions. As with most outdoor undertakings (cf. frisbee, bicycling, roofing, things involving tents), the wind will make you hate your life. I keep hearing that people who do this regularly are obsessive about the weather and launch from places where they can be shielded from the wind while filling the balloon. Now I know why.

3a. A Bic won't work for shit in the wind. Everybody who's ever tried to smoke anything or start a fire with a breeze going can probably appreciate this. It's also a problem if you're trying to melt an end of nylon cord to keep it from unraveling. Next time I'm going to bring a "windproof" lighter, if I can find one that actually works.

4. An adult should know how to tie a variety of knots. I don't. It's kind of crippling. I should get a book or something.

5. Multitasking causes pain. We filled the balloon in parallel with the final steps of prepping the payload, laying out line, etc. Doing these things one-after-the-other would have saved us a lot of hassle.

6. Power and network are key during the tracking phase. We did way better on this front than the first time around. I brought a spare phone battery I didn't wind up needing, and we had two new-ish laptops with decent battery life. We didn't go out of cell service much, Dave was able to tether with his iPhone, and we had a paper map for fallback navigation.

All that said, we still wound up fighting with a crappy inverter plugged into Dave's 4Runner's inadequate electrical system via cigarette lighter, and missing a battery for the tracking radio. Next time around I want to build a serious power station, preferably one that'll work independent of the vehicle's electrical and charge from a solar panel mounted on the roof. I also want a bunch of map data stored on the main computer.

7. There's software for this stuff. We were using dl-fldigi to decode tracking data from the payload. It worked pretty well, but if we'd put in more time on it pre-launch, we probably could have had it plotting coordinates directly to an offline, don't-need-no-network map.

coordinates

8. Detailed paper maps are a good idea. We didn't strictly need it this time around — but I was glad it was there, and I won't do this again without one in the car.

9. Navigating from a cellphone-sized display sucks. And all of the software both of us had on our expensive, overfeatured smartphones was totally useless when it came to the simple task of taking a lat/long and pointing us in the right direction. It was a good reminder that the tools you use to stumble your way home post-party or find a restaurant in town are built on assumptions that just won't hold out in the field.

10. One more person would make a world of difference. Two people are easily enough to launch and track a balloon, but an ideal setup would have had us with one to drive, one to run the radio tracking setup, and one to navigate.

11. Food and water. Last time, we did the whole day on a candy bar and a pack of jerky. This time I went to the grocery store. Always go to the grocery store.

12. I should never forget the stuff I learned about the outdoors when I was 8. We wound up striking off on foot across some dude's pasture to find the payload. I forgot water and a hat. No big deal this time around, but it was dumb.

We did take the time to knock on the nearby farmhouse door, since there was a nearby place, and although nobody answered, I'm pretty sure it's usually the right idea. Country people aren't generally gonna begrudge you crossing their fences, but they'll probably appreciate if you stop by to ask and they tend to know useful stuff about the landscape.

Brennen

13. Finally, those pants that unzip above the knee to become shorts? They are a fashion disaster.

Saturday, April 2

a yucca plant and dave carrying a balloon payload

Friday, April 1

Dave and I are sitting in the office. Dave is fighting with a small pile of things connected to an Arduino and stuffed into a foam box. He's trying to make a servo move a camera mounted on the side of the box up and down at regular intervals, because he is hoping that if (when!) we launch a balloon carrying the foam box tomorrow, he'll be able to capture high-resolution video of the balloon popping somewhere around a hundred thousand feet.

I don't know shit about electronics.1 When (if!) we launch and track the balloon, my contribution is probably going to be split between going along for the ride and some extraordinarily bad Perl that will pull coordinates out of strings produced by the payload (and broadcast at 50 baud) and turn them into something we can look up on a paper map.

1 Although pretty much my every waking (sober) hour now seems to be dedicated to a system for selling them to people like Dave.