Archive for February, 2010

Platefull

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

When my posts were less regular (OK, no smirking), I often felt the need to use valuable space establishing a context for some of my more peculiar writings, lest they (or I) be misunderstood. I’ve decided that weekly writings diminish the need to establish such context, since you can presumably analyze me by reviewing previous posts. Or, to use the weather as an analogy, if you don’t like the hot air, wait ’til it rains.

After last week’s single-subject techno-yawner, this week’s blather more resembles my plate at a family reunion after my first trip through the line – a wide plethora of sample-size servings, piled atop, beneath, and beside each other in a mish-mash that only someone of my peculiar gustatory tendencies would consider edible.

PASSING

Gumby creator Art Clokey died last week. In case you have been lost on an uncharted island [goof1], Gumby is an old-time television character made of green clay, who was animated using the “stop motion” technique. Gumby got his start following Clokey’s 1953 three-minute film short called Gumbasia, described as “a surreal montage of moving and expanding lumps of clay set to music in a parody of Disney’s Fantasia.” If you go back and click Gumbasia, you can view the film.

Frisbee inventor Walter Frederick Morrison also went for his last spin [goof2]. (Intellectual Property note: Morrison was awarded US Design Patent 183,626 for his flying disc.) The term “Frisbee” was apparently based on the Frisbie Pie Company, the name of the New England pie manufacturer whose pie pans were key elements in Morrison’s early research. Lest you think flying disc innovation is a solitary endeavor, Morrison’s work was supplemented by Wham-O GM & Marketing VP “Steady” Ed Headrick, who, according to Wikipedia, “redesigned the Frisbee (originally called the Pluto Platter) by reworking the rim thickness, and top design, creating a more controllable disc that could be thrown accurately.” In many families, Frisbees have been replaced by Wiimotes, which cost more, but don’t get stuck on the roof as often.

RESIGNATIONS

Bayh

Evan Bayh, D-Indiana, announced his resignation from the U.S. Senate, stating that, “There’s too much partisanship and not enough progress – too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving. Even in a time of enormous challenge, the people’s business is not being done.”

Pundits with either long memories or good search engines noted that Bayh’s decision echoed New Jersey’s Bill Bradley who announced fifteen years ago that he would not seek a fourth term in the U.S. Senate and declared that American politics was “broken,” in part because of mindless partisanship in Washington. [Source]

I found an interesting commentary here.

Netherlands

The government of the Netherlands, led by Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, has resigned due to “disagreements between coalition members over a possible extension of the Dutch military mission in Afghanistan.”

The notion of a coalition government is somewhat unfamiliar to most Americans. Apparently it means that a leader has to find enough opponents to agree to support him/her before he/she can take over running the country. Wikipedia’s description sheds little light on the subject: “The politics of the Netherlands take place within the framework of a parliamentary representative democracy, a constitutional monarchy and a decentralised unitary state. The Netherlands is described as a consociational state. Dutch politics and governance are characterised by a common striving for broad consensus on important issues, within both the political community and society as a whole.”

Perhaps a mild version of a coalition would be the new Atlanta mayor’s transition team and search committees, which include several people who opposed him in the primary and final elections. Seems like a cool thing to do.

“Consociational” eh? Hmmm.

WRITINGS

Christian Smith

Smith has written a book called Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, with Patricia Snell. I haven’t read the book, but the review I read has tempted me to find a copy.

As I continue to analyze my Southern Baptist upbringing and parenting history, in contrast to my current, well-intended theological meanderings, I’m interested in what a diligent writer has to say about this part of our culture.

A quote from a review to whet your appetite – … what most American teenagers call faith is what Smith dubbed moralistic therapeutic deism, an interpersonal riff on American civil religion that tends to masquerade as Christianity but bears few similarities to the historic teachings of the Christian church and is mostly used to lubricate relationships. The remarkable consistency between the religious outlooks of teenagers and parents led Smith to conclude that moralistic therapeutic deism has colonized American churches and is now the dominant religion in the United States. Soul Searching ends with an odd admonition: a team of sociologists urges congregations to get down to business and teach their faith traditions to teenagers.

“Moralistic therapeutic deism” eh? Hmmm again.

Rick Steves

Rick is an author, historian, and television personality who can be described as a “world traveler”. In a recent interview, he tried to describe the differences between being a tourist and being a pilgrim with stories such as the following.

“One of my favorite moments as a tour guide took place in a village in Turkey. Our group was in the mayor’s living room. He showed me a place on his wall where he hung his Qur’an bag – the most holy place in a Muslim home. He said to me, “In my Qur’an bag I keep a Bible, a Torah and the Qur’an, because Christians, Jews and Muslims are all people of the Word, children of the Book and of God.”

How amazing it would be if we could all share the same “bag” – share the same planet and be thankful to our Creator. Those are the kinds of eye-opening experiences that I try to bring to people through our program. ”

The interview ends with his concern for affordable housing, and the story of how he used part of his retirement nest egg to refurbish a building and donated it to the YWCA.

Here’s the interview.

UTOPIAS, failed and otherwise

Fordlandia

I saw a reference to the industrial town Henry Ford tried to establish in the Amazon Rainforest in 1928 as a rubber source. Here are a couple of photos which you may click for a brief description of the failed effort.



Sara Miles

If you’ve read this far (1) you are probably patient or clinically bored, and (2) you may have picked up that I recently read a copy of Christian Century magazine. I thought I was through harvesting, but I went back to read one more article because a phrase caught my eye as I turned the pages.

It’s an excerpt from a book by Sara Miles, Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead, that not only resonated with some of my current questions and thoughts, but that also brought a tear to my eye. She’s a good writer with a good spirit. I couldn’t find an on-line version, but here’s an excerpt^2. It describes the conclusion of a crazy evening in which they hosted a multi-course neighborhood meal in a borrowed restaurant as a benefit for their food pantry, feeding 250 people.


We celebrated Eucharist at midnight in the middle of the dining room, lit by strings of Christmas lights glinting off the metallic horse posters. My feet hurt more than they had in 20 years and my shirt was slippery with grease. The waiters and dishwashers came out, curious, as I handed Paul a loaf of French bread…. Karen looked exhausted, but she was standing nearby. The hipster waiter was drinking Jameson’s from a teacup. Anthony and his sous-chef Emma were at an uncleared table with a couple of friends…. The hostess came over with a stack of bills. She was a tall girl with elegant shoes. “I know Anthony and Karen are going to give you the profits from tonight,” she said. “But I want to give you my tips, too. Can you use it to get more food for your pantry?”

You can read the excerpt, called “Kitchen Communion”, in the February 9th issue of CC, or you can buy the book.

DESSERT

None for me, thanks. I don’t know about you, but I’m stuffed.


GOOFERENCES

Gooference 1: A ship carrying tanks of red and blue paint crashed into an uncharted island. The crew was marooned.

Gooference 2: Frisbeetarianism – the belief that when you die your soul gets stuck on the roof.

DSL and filters – an hymenopteral explanation

Monday, February 15th, 2010

If you look up “how DSL filters work”, you will find a bunch of scientific words like frequency, impedance, capacitance, inductance, and perhaps twisted pair. Twisted indeed. Your electrical engineering, or “EE”, friends (if you have any, which is unlikely) may be edified by such language, but most of us remain unimpressed. As I pondered how to explain the solution to last week’s DSL situation, I realized that a more accessible explanation of DSL and DSL filters would be extremely helpful. I think I have come up with a useful analogy. Like most analogies, it has its limits, but bear with me, if you will.

Think of the telephone wiring coming into your house as a pair of tubes, one carrying information in, and the other carrying information out. That isn’t how it really works, but go ahead and think of it that way.

Now think of old-fashioned telephone signals as a trail of ants marching in the tubes (see ant figure). Ants carry voices into your phone’s earpiece, which converts the ants to sound so you can hear your friends (or more likely, your Mom) talk. As you have no doubt figured out by now, the mouthpiece converts sound into other ants which march down the other tube, carrying the sound to the party with whom you are speaking.

I know that sounds crazy, but it’s not nearly as crazy as the way the EEs think it works.

Telephone wiring capable of carrying high-speed digital data over a voice line is called Digital Subscriber Loop or DSL. DSL was first demonstrated in the 1980s by Joseph W. Lechleitter, Bellcore employee and inventor of the DSL modem. The EEs think it works by adding high-frequency data signals to the relatively low-frequency voice signal.

In our analogy, data messages are carried by bees. (You may be tempted to think that the term “bit” might be derived from “bee,” but that is not even close.)

The DSL Modem (“modem” is short for a much longer word) converts the incoming bees into e-mail messages and YouTube videos. If you have enough bees, they can even be converted into Hulu TV programs. The modem also converts your personally generated content, such as your Facebook status and those cute photos you post, into outgoing bees, which fly through the tubes to the Internet.

OK, here is where the analogy begins to get technical. You may want to pause here and get a cup of coffee. I’ll wait.

Old fashioned telephone wiring acts like a large tube, a foot or more in diameter. Bell and his cohorts couldn’t make smaller tubes at the time, and the big fat tubes worked fine, since the ants were just crawling on the bottom of the tubes anyway.

But when the DSL data bees were introduced, there were a couple of problems. First, the bees made a buzzing sound in the telephone earpiece. (This part of the analogy is actually true.) Even worse, the bees tended to fly around freely and randomly in those big ol’ tubes, reducing the efficiency of the data transfer, and causing YouTube videos to freeze right at the good part (see ant & bee figure).

This problem was addressed by two inventions. (Hang on, we’re almost done.)

1. Tube manufacturers invented a new type of tubing called “CAT 5” (which has very little to do with the number 5, and even less to do with cats.) The CAT 5 tubes are smaller in diameter, more like, say, an inch in diameter (2.54 cm, for you metroids).

This still allows the voice ants to march down the tube unimpeded, but it constrains the data bees to fly directly to and from the modem, much more efficient than flittering around in a fat tube (see CAT 5 figure).

2. The DSL filter was also invented. In our analogy, the DSL filter can be thought of as a large flat plate, sized appropriately to cover the end of a tube, and having an ant-sized hole at the bottom of the plate. This allows the unrestricted passage of voice ants, but keeps the buzzy data bees out of the ear piece, and out of the fat tubes, too, if you put the filters in the right place (see DSL filter figure).

 


The Solution (finally)

The first time I hooked up the wiring, I had connected the old phone wire at the network interface, and dutifully installed a filter at the jack where the speaker phone connected, in the main living area (see original diagram.) That filter is not shown in the diagram because I had removed it, which was sort of a hint. The problem, of course, is that the one-foot tubes allowed the bees to flitter around aimlessly, with less than a third of them reaching their intended destination. So my daughter was getting less than 500 kilobees per second, rather than the 1500 she was paying for.

You may know that CAT 5 cable consists of four twisted pairs of wire. Well, only one pair is used to carry the ants and bees up to the office area, so here’s what I did. I installed a splitter in the voice port of the DSL filter, and used a phone repair wire (plug on one end, bare wires on the other) to connect the filtered signal through an unused pair and back down to the network box. At the network box, I connected this pair directly to the old steel cable leading up to the main living area, and, as the French say, “Voila!” You can see the final solution in this new diagram.

In the final use of this silly analogy, the filter in the office area forces the data bees to go to the DSL modem, while allowing the voice ants to go, not only to the cordless base station, but also back down the CAT 5, to the network box, through the fat tubes, and into the speaker phone.

Miscellanea

US Patent 5896443, 1999, describes a complete combined data network using DSL technology.

Hymenoptera is the class in which biologists categorize bees and ants. The word comes from the ancient Greek words for “membrane” and “wing.”

If it makes my analogy more believable to you, the ants and bees move at nearly the speed of light.

The form of digital telephony called Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP (usually pronounced “voip”) simply consists of teaching ants to ride on bees.

No hymenoptera were harmed during the research for this posting.

Heroes

Monday, February 8th, 2010

War heroes


This weekend I attended the funeral of an in-law’s in-law, a member of the Greatest Generation who served in the Navy during WWII in the Pacific. As often happens during a good funeral, I heard lot about him that I didn’t know, even though we have attended countless family events together. I didn’t know, for example, that he was a prize-winning trout fisherman, an activity that bonded his family, and that he continued even when he didn’t have the strength to cast. A family member would set up his rig, cast out, then hand him the pole to fish, and to reel in anything he caught.


Naturally I thought of my own Dad’s war experiences as a Marine on Iwo Jima, and the life he and my Mom built together after the war. Since I am a direct result of that life, my opinions of its value and benefit to the world are skewed, but I think “they done good,” as Gomer Pyle would say. At a minimum, having raised approximately the same number of children as my parents, I continue to be amazed at their love and patience.


Write it down


My Dad suffers from short-term memory loss, and, with the help of my two local sisters, my Mom is taking care of him at home. She has always been a collector of clippings, and when she retired, she started assembling “memory notebooks,” first for us kids, then for our kids. Dad’s memory loss has granted her the “free time” to write even more, so she has documented his war memories, their courtship, and recent events. He will often sit for hours reading through the notebooks, asking questions about the events, and responding to the stories. I don’t think any of us realized how valuable her notebooks would become.


So my advice to listening ears is to write stuff down. It doesn’t matter what format (OK, whiteboard is probably a little too temporary to be of much value), or whether the writing is eloquent. What matters is the process of capturing the memories (for yourself) and sharing them (for others.) You, too, may be as heroic as my Mom.


Tech Corner


Last weekend we visited my daughter in Chicago, and she was complaining about her lethargic internet access. Her 1.5 megabit-per-second internet connection was running at about a quarter of that speed. Her 3rd floor brownstone has a patchwork of telephone wiring consisting of what appears to be un-twisted steel drop wire running from the outside network interface box, through the basement and back out, then up the outside wall, to the main living area. In addition, there is a CAT 5 cable (4 twisted pair) running straight up the outside of a building add-on, into a back room.


When she first moved in, I tried to run her phone line and DSL into her main living area, but it wouldn’t work. With the help of a friendly AT&T installer, we confirmed that DSL was working at the network box, and ran it into the back room over the CAT 5. I installed the DSL filter, the DSL modem and a cordless phone base in the back room, and it worked. But she also wanted to have a wired speaker phone in the main living area, and a connection to her satellite box to deliver Caller ID to the television. So just before I left on the previous visit, I re-connected the “steel pair” so her speakerphone and TV Caller ID would work.


The preceding is why I found myself standing in lightly falling snow beside the network box with a laptop connected to her DSL modem connected to the test jack in the box. I discovered that the modem would sync at the promised 1.5 Mb/s rate there. So clearly the problem was in the wiring beyond the network box. I disconnected the “steel cable” and tried the same experiment in the back room under warmer, drier circumstances, with the same result.


So I had determined that if I connected the “steel cable” to circuit, it killed internet performance. She still needed to have the speakerphone and TV hooked up, but the configuration of her apartment did not lend itself to running a wire from the back room to the main living area. Nor was it practical to run any wiring outside the building.


In case you are worried, the short answer is that I finally managed to get it working, using two components available at a Best Buy, Radio Shack, or, in this case, Ace Hardware store, telephone wiring section. If you are interested in pondering the solution, I’ve attached a diagram. I suppose, in keeping with the title of today’s posting, that it did make me a very minor hero, at least to my daughter.


Next week I’ll explain the solution I used.

Community

Monday, February 1st, 2010

I used to contribute time and money to a non-profit whose purpose was to encourage community. We described our first coffeehouse as “Cheers without the beers.” (Hmmm.) We were looking for a way to augment historical forms of community that seemed less relevant in our contemporary culture. That’s why my personal blog is called Enoch’s Thoughts. Hold that thought.

Wired

In a recent issue of Wired magazine, Jonah Lehrer writes about a study by Kevin Dunbar revealing how scientific discovery actually works, rather than how it is most commonly presented. Kevin claims that the Scientific Method is a process that frequently fails. Often the results contradict the theory. Careful measurements produce disappointing surprises. “Experiments rarely tell us what we think they are going to tell us.”

Of course, scientists are trained to believe in the scientific method, so their response to these unexpected results is to persevere with the experiment, right? Wrong, at least according to Dunbar’s research. The most common reaction is to either (a) blame the experimental method, or (b) drop the whole thing.

Why? Because humans, even “trained” scientists, are not objective. We edit reality. We see what we want to see, and disregard the rest. The article cites multiple studies, some of which include neurological scans of scientists and non-scientists. They measured brain activity in individuals who were shown phenomena that appear unnatural, such as the fact that light and heavy objects fall at the same speed. There is a part of the brain, even in scientists, that wants to ignore reality in favor of intuition.

Our scientific world would in a poor state except that there is fortunately a (c) option. A new theory arises from the ashes of the “failed” experiment. This new theory, often a profound paradigm shift or the beginning of a scientific revolution, is usually initiated by a newbie, either a young scientist, or someone unfamiliar with the field.

While most of us, with myself at the front of the line, usually think of scientific discovery as a solo venture, the lone experimenter toiling into the night, jumping from the bathtub of discovery to run naked into the streets of fame and fortune. But that is rarely the case.

According to Dunbar’s studies, most new scientific ideas emerge from lab meetings, usually weekly events at which a researcher will present his work in a group setting. And the best of these include a diverse community of listeners. The questions and comments of people who do not speak the same “insider” vocabulary are most likely to shock us out of our “cognitive box.”

Circling Back

So we have returned to the topic of the opening paragraph: Community. While the scientific process is a dramatic example, it is clear that notions of communal discourse, the exchange of diverse ideas, and listening to other people can apply to plenty of other human endeavors.

The article I reference here is in the January, 2010 issues of Wired magazine, the theme of which is “failure.” It’s the issue with Alec Baldwin on the cover. Titled “The Neuroscience of Screwing Up,” the article is currently posted at http://www.wired.com/magazine/2009/12/fail_accept_defeat/.

Lastly, for the thoughtful reader, there are indeed lots of stubs for potential writings and discussions, rabbit trails on process, politics, etc., throughout the article and even my paltry rendition of it. Maybe later.