Doll House Intro

March 2nd, 2015

During November and December, 2014, I spent a lot of time and energy on a work-related project. As is often the case (see, e.g., most of the postings on this site), I wanted to capture the events for my own amusement and possibly for the entertainment of a few others (perhaps including you!)

I’ve divided the story into multiple parts as a courtesy to the casual reader.

  • This posting, a short, mostly non-technical summary of the project.
  • A four-minute-long “video scrapbook”, From Vision to Vegas: Foundry Support for the 2015 Developer’s Conference.
  • A considerably lengthier document called Doll House Timeline, which contains just about every technical detail of the project that I could remember. The Timeline, too, is divided into manageable pieces for your sanity and mine.

For the story to make sense, you need some background information.

Background 1: The Dog House

dog house

The Dog House

The AT&T Foundry in Atlanta opened in August, 2013. I helped design the Foundry, I helped with the Grand Opening, and I built a house for it.

The Foundry is a corporate Innovation Center, currently composed of five individual facilities in four locations: Palo Alto, Plano (2), Atlanta, and Tel Aviv. One of our primary internal stakeholders for the Atlanta facility is Digital Life, which designs, builds, sells, and supports systems that provide end-to-end security, home automation, and energy management.

In 2013 I first discovered that we would be working with Digital Life at the Foundry. As a way to understand more about the Digital Life system, I collected a bunch of their automation devices, and started “playing” with them (my favorite way to learn about new technology). I had indoor and outdoor cameras, motion sensors, magnetic contacts, door locks, keypads, power plugs — the whole gamut. I soon discovered two important things: (1) a pile of devices on a table is awkward to work with (things kept falling over, and off), and (2) I definitely needed more plug strips. Although all of the devices connect wirelessly, and most of them use tiny batteries, many of them still require power supplies. Normally these are spread around an entire house. But when you collect them all on a table….

So I built a little house to mount everything on. It was about 3 feet by 3 feet by 4 feet, on wheels, with a simple gable roof that was hinged to allow access to the devices (and the plug strips!) within. To demonstrate the electronic lock and the recessed door contact, the house included a small door (which took entirely too long to build).

dog presses keypad


I built the basic wood structure at home (because of my tools,and because sawdust), then trucked it to my lab, where I mounted the devices, and finally hauled it to the Foundry so the innovators there could start using it as they innovated stuff. The little house had been at the Foundry less than 24 hours when someone called it the “Digital Dog House,” which, admittedly, it did look like. Rather than being offended, I embraced the Dog House notion, and even took a picture of Jasper using the keypad. (Full disclosure: he can’t remember the entry code.)

Background 2:Dev Summit

The massive Consumer Electronics Show has been held annually in Las Vegas since 1998. For the past few years, AT&T has hosted a Developer Summit during the week preceding CES. Each year, the Developer Summit tries to introduce new programming tools, opportunities, and information to third-party (that is, non-AT&T) developers to help and encourage them to create new applications that leverage and expand AT&T products. Win-win.

The Developer Summit includes a two-day Hackathon, and a one-day Developer Conference. The Conference includes a keynote address from a corporate exec, descriptions of emerging technologies, and announcements of company news of interest to developers. But the real hot nerd action is the Hackathon.

The venerable Wikipedia describes a hackathon as “… an event in which computer programmers … collaborate intensively on software projects.” (Source: Wikipedia, retrieved in January, 2015.) To further clarify, for those unfamiliar with the term, “hacking” doesn’t necessarily mean breaking into computer systems. It really means figuring out how something works, and finding clever new ways to use or modify it.

Like many hackathons, the Dev Summit version includes an aspect of competition, sweetened by the possibility of winning cash prizes. Here’s how the competition works at the Dev Summit:

  • When developers and designers first arrive, they organize into teams and come up with a project to build.
  • Toward the end of the hackathon, a selected group of judges review dozens of team projects, and pick twenty semi-finalist teams
  • These semi-finalists then demonstrate their brilliant ideas to the rest of the hackers and to the judges, who select the top three. This concludes the Hackathon portion.
  • The next day the top three finalist teams get to present their projects to the attendees of the Developer Conference.
  • The Developer Conference attendees vote to determine which of the top three teams will receive the Grand Prize, which is usually one of those TV-friendly, giant checks large enough to be seen from the International Space Station.

But all of this action hinges on the availability of “programming tools.” These tools are often in the form of an Application Programming Interface, or API, which is a set of software instructions that allow developers to safely and securely control selected functions within a system such as Digital Life.

Background 3: The Pi House

At the 2104 Dev Summit, AT&T alluded to the likelihood of creating a Digital Life API for 2015. There was great interest among developers, but 2015 seemed like a long time away.

small plastic house with LEDs

Pi House

As the summer of 2014 began to draw to a close, the Foundry decided we should explore ways we could help support a Digital Life API. As part of that exploration, Virginia, Don, and I discussed a simple way to let teams of software developers experiment with a small set of home automation functions. We came up with the idea of simulating the functions on a tiny, inexpensive computer called a “Raspberry Pi.” Within a few days, Don and Virginia had given shape to the idea, literally, by designing a cute little plastic house. This house would encase the credit-card-sized Raspberry Pi, along with some Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs) to represent devices such as an electronic door lock, a garage door, and lights in the kitchen, living room, and front yard.

They called it the “Pi House.” Don drew up a design and made a prototype in foam board, then made a more durable version on a 3D printer. The plan was to make multiple Pi Houses for interested developer teams to use at the Dev Summit hackathon.

But Virginia, a hackathon veteran, became concerned that using the little Pi Houses on a large stage to demonstrate the semi-final- and final-prize-winning projects would be less than impressive. So one afternoon in early November, Virginia coyly asked me if I thought I could build something sort of like the Dog House, except a little bigger. And more appropriate for a stage setting. The idea intrigued me, so I said, “Sure.” Or something like that.

OK, enough background.

The Doll House

After discussing the requirements with Virginia, I sketched up my idea, then turned it into a three-slide presentation. Over the next few weeks, I somehow convinced myself (and others) that building a Doll House in time for the Dev Summit would be possible.

home automation devices on board


Unbeknownst to us, but not particularly surprising, the Digital Life team was also working on their own Application Programming Interface, which they called “Penguin.” They created their own developer “house” called the “Igloo” (because Penguin, I guess) which used actual Digital Life equipment. They explored options for creating their own version of the Doll House, but there just wasn’t enough time.

While I was well into the process of building the Doll House, the Dev Summit planners made the decision to use the Penguin API and the Igloos at the Hackathon, instead of the Pi Houses. They also decided to use the Doll House for the Hackathon semi-finals, and, if needed, for the Final Judging at the Developer Conference. As a matter of note, the Developer Conference is held on the opposite end of the rather large Palms Casino and Convention Center, so the Doll House would have to be shut down, packed, moved, unpacked, and set up within a few hours between events.

At this point, things started to get interesting. All of a sudden, lots of people (not just Virginia and Don) were concerned about details such as

  • How (and whether) the Doll House was going to work;
  • What devices were going to be included;
  • How hard it would be to move; and, most especially
  • How it would look.

Woven into the lengthier Timeline, are my descriptions of the details of the design process, the criteria I used, the unexpected challenges I ran into, and how I solved them. It also describes the hectic final days before the Dev Summit. (Spoiler alert: it got there, and it worked!)

My first key decision was to build the Doll House in my “shop,” a high-falutin’ name for the space in our house that serves as basement, storage area, junk pile, and occasional work space. Over the years, I have collected a variety of hand and power tools, fastener hardware, and other miscellaneous items that facilitate that sort of building task. Plus there is a Lowe’s less than ten minutes away.

Based on my experience with the small door on the Dog House, my second decision was to use a full-size, pre-hung door. This set the height of the structure at just a little over 7 feet.

diagram of doll house design

Initial Doll House Design

These decisions guided my initial design, as shown to the right and as detailed in the Timeline. With the initial design in mind, I started buying parts and building pieces.

Throughout much of the Thanksgiving holiday and most of Christmas I worked on it, with the whole-hearted support of my family, who had figured out that, although they didn’t really understand it, the Doll House was apparently some sort of Big Deal for me.

And while there was pressure to resolve problems, and make it look good, and get it finished in time, I must confess that there were many moments of sheer, selfish delight. The combination of technical, mechanical, electronic, and even artistic challenges and problem-solving made it a fun project for me. It was certainly a deviation from my normal work. While I still managed to keep up with several other projects underway at work, and to practice the EG part for a Christmas musical, the Doll House took most of my time and attention.

It was a fortuitous intersection of skills, experience, desire and enjoyment.

During the building of the Doll House, and many times after, I have wondered what was really motivating me. I’ve come up with a few answers:

  • I had made a commitment, and wanted to meet that commitment;
  • I really do enjoy that sort of work;
  • I’m always looking for ways to be helpful in my job.

Thinking about my motivation led me to few thoughts about how to keep a person engaged in an endeavor:

  • Start with an appropriately difficult challenge,
  • add opportunities for growing and learning new skills, and
  • finish it off with the potential for producing a useful outcome.

I think I’ll close with that. If you’re interested in more, check out the Doll House Timeline.

final photo with some meaningful easter eggs


Optical Shenanigans

September 24th, 2014

When I was in my third year at the North Avenue Trade School, I finally escaped from the core curriculum courses, and began taking classes in Physics, my declared major. One of my early physics courses was an optics class, which had an associated hands-on lab component.

My roommate at the time was Robert S., a fellow Physics major who was not only taking the class with me, but also spent his co-op quarters in the bowels of the Central Intelligence Agency. I assume he was in the bowels; he never explicitly mentioned his work setting. And, for some reason, I had decided that it would be not be polite for me to ask Robert about his work, which required a security clearance. It would have been sorta awkward if he had to kill his roommate, not to mention the paperwork.

But I managed to get a pretty good idea of some of the things he was working on, simply by observing what he already knew how to do in our optics lab. I’m pretty sure he didn’t learn those tricks in south Georgia.

One of our primary lab projects was an experiment with spatial filtering. Spatial filtering allows an optical image to be modified to enhance aspects of the image (edges, for example) by physically obscuring components of the image. It seemed a little like magic, but it eventually came down to frequency distribution, which is why you can hear the bass from your loud neighbor’s music, but not the cymbals. That, and Fourier transforms.

The professor, whose name escapes me, asked each student to write his own lab report, even though we were working in pairs. Fortified with the over-zealous wisdom that only a third-year college student can muster, I decided that making each of us write separate reports was, well, dumb. So for our mid-quarter assignment, as a not-so-subtle form of protest, I turned in a report that was frankly awful. A terse page, consisting mostly of our numerical results.

And my prof let me know how awful it was, in no uncertain terms. His words were something on the order of, “If you ever turn in anything that shoddy again, I will flunk you, not just in the lab, but also in the class.”

He got my attention. It was a well-timed correction for my college experience, and a useful learning experience.

When the end of the quarter came around, I took my spatial filtering lab report seriously. I found that I could enjoy technical writing as much as I did English composition. I drew elegantly concise diagrams explaining the experiment, and formulas showing what I understood of the math.

At least that’s the way I remember now, with the caveat that our memories change as we re-tell our stories. I do know that I received an “A” for the report, and passed the optics class.

Leaf shadows with light grid pattern

Boots, bowed legs, and odd shadows

Wandering around campus a few years later (it took me years to escape), I bumped into one of the physics lab technicians that I had become friends with. He told me that they were still using my lab report as an explanatory handout for the project.

When I noticed this odd pattern of shadows on a recent early morning walk from bus stop to office, those optics lab experiences came flooding back, eventually reminding me of what I had really learned: precise writing is important and useful. That lesson continues to guide my technical writing, even to this day.

That same morning, I posted the leaf picture on Instagram, and my good friend Craig L. (artist, inventor, and deep thinker) commented, accurately, “Space between leaves makes a pinhole lens – an image of the lights. Saw this in 84 as infinite half-moons during a *partial solar eclipse.”

I took a closer look at the lights a few days later. Each street light consists of two four-by-four arrays of light-emitting diodes (LEDs), 32 in all, bright white in the city night. Each LED acts as a “point source”, producing the grid effect that I saw on the ground, and that Craig described.

As for spatial filtering, the functions Robert and I were experimenting with have been replaced by computer algorithms, many of which quietly do their work in your smart phone when you tweak a snapshot before posting it. The primary use for spatial filtering today is to improve the purity of a laser beam. Which is still pretty cool, because of my previously noted affinity for coherent light.

By the way, if you need any advice on technical writing, or just want someone to proofread or edit your stuff, I’ll be glad to give you a hand. Or an eye, I guess.

Pea Cool Yar

April 7th, 2014

In one point in this here writing endeavour, I noted that it would certainly demonstrate my Peculiar Perspective. Occasionally I become aware of some particular behavior in myself that really emphasizes that peculiarity, and I feel obliged to share it with you.

We have family coming to town in the next few days, and that means big clean-up plans around the hacienda. So, naturally, rather than just starting to work, I sat down at the computer and downloaded Graphviz. There is, of course, an explanation: I really felt motivated to chart out my assignments. Seriously. It seemed obvious to me that there was a certain order in which the tasks should be done, taking account of the weather, the need to purchase supplies, the benefits of minimizing travel, the varied areas needing work (deck, dock, garage, yard, trail, etc.) and other interactions.

Graphviz is a tool that turns an ordered text list into a graphical representation. It was created by some geniuses in AT&T Labs, and is now available by open source license. I’ve used it for work, but never at home. Fortunately, there’s a Mac OS X version, which kept me from having to buy another computer. (Just kidding. I think.)

I used Graphviz for the first time quite a few years ago. Since then, as open source projects tend to do, it has grown to have many more cool capabilities than I’ll ever use, but my humble domestic requirements were met by its basic functions.

I simply fed it this set of relationships (FYI, digraph is short for “directed graph”, meaning the nodes are connected with arrows rather than plain lines) …

digraph G {
SATURDAY -> lowesout;
TBD -> SATURDAY -> satdeck;
SATURDAY -> SUNDAY -> sungar;
SUNDAY -> lowesin ->sunin;
lowesout -> nearout;
TBD -> longout;

sunin -> assemblecrib -> Movecribs -> PaintPrepMon;
sunin -> MaTcabinetdoor;
lowesin -> MountKitTV;
sunin -> desk -> Taxes -> PayBills -> Insuranceform;

satdeck -> Removeoldgate -> Hangplaque -> Washwroughtiron;

nearout -> frontyard -> Tillholly -> mailboxarch;
lowesout -> Sealswing;
nearout -> Rakemulchontotrail -> Cleantreeline -> Distributenewmulch -> Installbabyswing;
nearout -> dock;
dock -> Removethorn -> Prepswingpad -> Prepswingtrail -> Moveswing -> Reattachrail;

longout -> ProcureRailtubing;
longout -> PlanBoatStorage;

sungar -> PaintWroughtIron -> cleanoutsidegarage;


… and it drew this graph for me (click to enlarge):

Graphviz Chart

Graphviz Chart

Now, admittedly, I did have to ponder a bit to get the relationships right. I had to think through which tasks had to precede which other tasks, and why. As I mentioned, I incorporated the weather prediction (sunny and windy on Saturday, rainy on Sunday), and what I needed to buy at Lowe’s, both for the inside work and the outside work. And divided some of the tasks into longer-term versus near-term.

You’ll note that, in my haste, I didn’t take time to figure out how to add spaces to the text (hint: it’s “label”), so all of the words run together.

But seeing my work laid out in all its graphical splendor allowed me to confirm my predecessor relationships, and tweak it on the fly.

Makes sense, eh? Probably took less than half an hour, including downloading the software.

And even though I haven’t finish all of the tasks yet, I’m sure this organizational tool has already saved that much in efficiency.

If Graphviz sounds like just the kind of tool you need,

  1. look no further than, and
  2. you, too, may be a peculiar person.

Blinks and Links

February 23rd, 2014

It has been four months since my last real posting, and the time has passed in the blink of an eye, or maybe two blinks.

Early in January, I started writing a tale of dock repair, but, as someone said, life is what happens while you’re making other plans.

Our lives took a mortal turn late in January, when my Mom suffered a serious stroke and was hospitalized. While she was in the hospital, my mother-in-law’s sister passed away suddenly, leaving my mother-in-law as the sole surviving triplet. We had barely returned from her funeral when my mother also succumbed to her stroke.

Despite their name, funerals aren’t really fun, but I did enjoy working with my sisters, my wife and children, and the greater family, as we put together a celebratory event that honored the life of my amazing mother.

Obviously these events have consumed most of my thoughts during the last few weeks, but life has, in fact, gone on.

Working on the dock repair tale is one of many activities that has provided a welcome diversion for my thoughts and emotions lately. I think I’ve finally finished it.

So this post consists of the following two links.

Here’s a link to a site for my mother, which includes her obituary, eulogies, the pastor’s words, and some family memories:

And here’s a link to Dock Physics, my tale of persistence and patience.

If you want to comment on either of them, you can do that on this site.

Thanks for your interest.

Certified E-mail

January 18th, 2014

Here’s a quick post from back in 2012, put up so I could refer to it in a Twitter exchange.


Erie Canal

October 26th, 2013

The Erie Canal opened on October 26, 1825, 188 years ago.

Around this same date in 1960, I learned to sing a song about the Erie Canal. My family was spending a year in Gainesville, Florida, and my teacher that year, Mrs. Hunter, encouraged her students in many ways. She pointed out that I could sing, and already had the beginnings of a bass voice, in between squeaks. She often led her class in singing, and she taught us the Erie Canal song.

The song was written by Thomas Allen, a Tin Pan Alley composer, in 1905, presumably to commemorate the use of mules to pull barges, as steam and diesel engines were beginning to take over the mules’ jobs.

The Erie Canal tune is musically interesting because the verses are mostly in a minor key, with a couple of lines in the major feel, finally switching to the relative major for the entire chorus. That means there is a little transition required to get back to the minor verse key.

Like many folk songs, its lyrics, and even its title, have changed over the years. Although it has four verses, I only learned the first. The verse rhyme scheme is AAAABBCC, but the version I remember reverses the next-to-last line of the first verse to make its rhyme scheme AAAABBBC, which I still like better. I presume that change is due to a failure of my memory. I’m pretty sure Mrs. Hunter would not have taught us wrong.

The 363-mile canal itself was quite an engineering and a construction feat. According to the Wikipedia article linked above, there were no civilian civil engineers in America at that time (citation needed, and near-redundancy noted). The canal designers were judges, whose surveying experience came from settling boundary disputes. The thousands of workers were mostly Scots Irish, with German masons brought in to lay the stonework.

Like many publicly-funded projects, it met with opposition, according to the Writer’s Almanac excerpt. One eloquent critic said, “In the big ditch will be buried the treasury of the state to be watered by the tears of posterity.” But the canal provided a critically-needed capability; its estimated traffic load of 1.5 million tons annually was exceeded almost immediately, and another project was begun to widen the canal.

And like many (most!) large-scale construction projects (see also, the transcontinental railroad), it ran into unexpected difficulties. One year malaria killed 1000 workers, and construction was temporarily halted. Leaks developed, and hydraulic cement was used to patch them. Aqueducts were built to manage water flow.

As construction progressed, it opened in sections, because even a small section of open water was faster and could carry more than horse-drawn wagons. When the canal was finally opened, there was a huge celebration.

Similarly, but with less fanfare, my fifth grade year eventually came to a close, and the family moved back to Georgia. I brought back Mrs. Hunter’s encouragement, my new-found enjoyment of singing, and the Erie Canal song. It was a good year.

Was she right? Can I sing? I guess you’ll have to listen for yourself.


I recommend you check out the Writer’s Almanac excerpt, and then the Wikipedia article if you want more details.


October 16th, 2013

It has been almost six months since my last posting. It’s not so much a case of writer’s block, but more like thinker’s block. I really enjoy writing, but have clearly failed to maintain even a indecent blog schedule (dot tumblr dot com.) Without further ado, here’s a list of recent changes.

Jasper visit’s the Foundry’s Digital Dog House

1. The dog is bigger. Jasper is up to 50 pounds, and still frisky. His favorite activity is Dog Frisbee (as distinguished from the plastic kind hippies throw.) Second favorite is being scratched and hugged by his humes. Last on his list is maintaining his twitter feed. He’s learned where to pee (see previous post) and can roam the yard within the confines of the electric fence. (I had no idea how much training is required to do that right. Even some for the dog.)

2. Jayne has retired. Or more accurately, stopped going to work. Between Jasper, Ma T, trips to Virginia and Athens and Richland and Lawrenceville, plus making breakfasts and lunches for me, and finally getting to really dig, and dig into, her new lake house, she is busy dawn to dusk and beyond.

Kayaking on a full lake

3. The lake is up. The rain has kept the lake up to near-record highs, making for an easy dock management season for me, and a beautiful shoreline. We’ve enjoyed it from a variety of boats (pontoon, deck, canoe, kayak) and even the stand-up paddle board (‘SUP, y’all?) Ma T has pedaled her away up and down the cove in a kayak, and even learned how to cope with a boarder’s wake.

4. My boss has changed. After more than 15 years of reporting to the same person, a rather surprising organizational change has recently separated us, leaving me learning new tricks.

5. The Atlanta Foundry has opened. AT&T opened its fourth innovation center in Atlanta, and I got to help. I worked on some of the design aspects, especially in the audio-visual systems, and helped stage and execute the Grand Opening. Good times. Here’s a Corporate Blog link.

6. I’m riding the bus,and walking more. Thanks to number 2, above, I’m saving money, fuel, wear, and tear by only driving 40 miles a day instead of 110. I enjoy the bus ride (I wrote the first draft of this post while we cruised by lanes of stopped traffic), and I also enjoy the 15-minute walk to the office.

7. OTH is playing again. After some time off, the One Tree Hill core “power trio” of Patrick, Brian, and me, are rehearsing and playing again. It’s a nice break from the old 6 to 6. (Yeah, I know, it’s supposed to be 9-to-5, but reality is reality!)


8. The grandkids are even cuter! Hard to believe, but it’s true. Thankfully, they look more like their gorgeous parents and JayneeB than they do Grand Dude.

9. (Not a change.) I still work the NYT crossword faithfully on myPad, and often think of my Dad as I navigate obscure clues and bad cruciverbalistic punnage.

Lastly, the leaves are turning, and Fall is clearly on its way, signaling the approach of the holiday season. Is that a Festivus Carol I hear playing at the nearby mall?


April 23rd, 2013

There’s a new critter at our house nowadays. His name is Jasper Coltrane. He is a cross between a Golden Retriever and a standard Poodle. This makes him a “Goldendoodle,” a word I have almost learned to say without smirk or embarrassment (although almost always preceded by the story of its origin.)

It appears that he will be smarter than me, which will make for an interesting relationship, since I am bigger and stronger, at least for now. On the other hand, I have yet to see him work a New York Times crossword, even a Monday, but that may simply be due to lack of interest. Or opposable thumbs.

Jasper’s opinion of my writing.

In a recent transient burst of philosophical thinking, I concluded that house training a dog shares certain characteristics with the Scientific Method, and with international relations.

For Jasper to be house trained, he must learn many things. For example, “What is a house?” What is “outside?” He needs to understand what urination and defecation are. How it feels when you need to “go.” And the fact that one can learn to “hold it.”

He must graduate from, “I get treats when I pee outside” to “I’m not supposed to pee inside,” which is a subtle but important difference.

I start by taking him outside every time I think he might need to go, for the slightest reason. But if I continue to do that without change, he will never learn to realize the need for himself.

So I must make a hypothesis. “Today, I think he is old enough, experienced enough, and smart enough to hold it for two hours.” Then I wait, and watch.

If my hypothesis is right, I should be able to detect when he really needs to go – whining, sniffing, sitting by the door, ringing the bell. Eventually, he will become completely trustworthy when left indoors for long periods of time.

But if I am premature in my assessment, Jasper will make mistakes, and I’ll have to clean up after him. I really want to signal my displeasure, to “teach” him. But that only works if he understands about houses, and outside, and feelings of fullness.

And so the training dance goes – trust him, and watch him. Measure the hypothesis with a test of faith. Perhaps change some experimental variables. And always keep the cleaning supplies and the organic spray close at hand.

At this point, my readers, who are also smarter than me, have figured out the characteristics shared by house-training a dog, the Scientific Method, and international wrelations, so I shall not belabor the point. I’ll simply encourage you to go forth and use this information wisely.

Good dog! Get yourself a tasty treat!

Moving the ball forward

March 23rd, 2013

Last week I spent two days in a corporate leadership class. Two weeks ago I started taking a MOOC. I recently added several “scientific” Tweeters (Twitterers?) to the list of people I follow. In the middle of an internet search a few days ago, I was once again stricken by the sheer volume of information available to a curious person – magazines, books, blogs, postings, videos, music. It’s like walking into a library and discovering that the bookshelves are infinitely long; fortunately the librarian knows where everything is, if you can just figure out how to properly describe what you are looking for.

The preceding observations are all related. At least, they are related in my mind, and in this posting.

The new Tweeters I am following are a tiny example of the ocean of information available. The Physics ArXiv, the Science Goddess, the Science Comedian, and the Scientific American blog editor are just a few examples of the infinite bookshelves I’ve wandered among lately. This morning I read about a newly-found whalefall – a location on the ocean floor where a deceased whale has sunk to the bottom, and slowly returned to its constituent elements, thanks to the diligent work of all sorts of underwater organisms.

You would think that, as many whales as there are, finding whalefalls would be common. But the earth’s oceans cover a lot of, er, ground. This was only the sixth documented whalefall to be found, and the first in Antarctica.

A MOOC is a Massive Open On-line Course, a relatively new thing in the remote/distant learning space. Unlike, for example, the truly “riveting” TED talks, which only require a commitment of 3 to 18 minutes, a MOOC is more like taking a college course. The one I am participating in is on innovation, taught by a professor from Vanderbilt. It runs for 10 weeks, with a 4-6 hour-per-week time commitment. Class activities include watching video lectures, posting to the class blog, writing (and grading) short essays, and reading assigned articles and excerpts. So far it has been a ton o’ fun, seriously.

A key question for consideration is how to go about allocating resources. All of our personal resources – strength, knowledge, skill, energy, money, time – are, ultimately, finite. In many cases, we can make trade-offs: my MOOC is a way for me to exchange time for knowledge and skill; I swap money for food, which provides strength and energy.

Two of these are carefully metered in our culture. The sum total of your financial resources is calculable. And your time is also measured. You have 1,440 minutes per day, which is 168 hours per week. If you work 40 hours a week (how quaint), and sleep 56 (I wish), that only leaves you 10.2 discretionary hours per day for all of your other activities, including eating, driving, shopping, reading, surfing (literal or figurative) and communicating with others.

As strange as it may seem for such a Peculiar Person, I find corporate classes to be enjoyable and useful. The massive company I work for recognizes their importance, and expends significant resources to make them so. In addition to free food, they often provide encouragement in areas I too rarely think about, such as setting goals and establishing priorities.

One of my wise Thursday morning breakfast buddies is full of pithy sayings. When something he does at work results in progress, even though he might not get the credit he deserves, he demurs, saying, “Just as long as we’re moving the ball forward.”

Of course, to know which direction “forward” is, you must know your goals. With a knowledge of your goals, you can then establish priorities for the use of your resources. And move the ball forward.

Often I will follow an interesting-looking path, only to realize that it is not really moving the ball forward. Let me insert here that not all of your activities must be serious – trading some of your time resources for rest, amusement, creativity, and entertainment can be critical to building strength, skill, and knowledge, for example.

But by knowing your goals and priorities, hopefully you can tell the difference between productive activities, and those which move you (and the ball) in the wrong direction.

I’ll end this posting with a couple of questions for you. I’ll even “bulletize” and embolden them, so you’ll know they are Important:

  • Do you really know what your goals are?
  • Do your choices reflect your priorities?

Extra credit considerations for the reader: How much of my time-resource do you think I spent on this posting? What do you think I got in return?

Postscript: If you feel like I am aiming these words specifically to you, perhaps you should pursue that line of thought a little further. But I am not. The primary intended recipient for this post is Yours Truly.

Saturday Morning

January 26th, 2013

It’s Saturday Morning. My Infinitely Patient Spouse is exercising in another part of the house. Her current nutritional regimen precludes our usual breakfast together, so I have decided to make myself a fluffy omelet using found materials. Leftovers, if you will. The kitchen equivalent of folk art.

I start by cueing up a soundtrack of random selections from one of my playlists. Steve Jobs kicks things off with a medium-tempo tune by Bill Kirchen, the “King of Dieselbilly.”

Next I locate the skillet, and the lard. Yep, lard, hand-rendered by Casey Z, a fellow laborer in the telecommunications world, and somewhat of a Renaissance man. From the refrigerator, I also rescue the remnants of red and green bell peppers, some marginal whiteish mushrooms, three fresh eggs, and the last chicken thigh of a batch I baked last week. From the pantry comes a yellow onion, and a jar of Tico’s peppers, grilled jalapeƱos, side business of another co-worker.

Choppables, and two forms of chicken

I chop the choppables, add a small spoon of the lard to the hot skillet, and commence to saute. Once they are done, into a bowl they go. Doc Watson is flat-picking in the background.

Then I separate the eggs, whites in one bowl, yolks in another, and whip the whites using an old hand mixer. I fold the yolks into the fluffy whites, and dump the egg mixture into the skillet as Stevie Wonder croons a tune.

Yolks, whipped whites, and a mixer

While the eggs cook over low heat, I lay two pieces of multi-grain into the toaster oven, and set its timer for stun.

I’ve just noticed an elderly avocado on the counter that looks like fair game, so I half it, neatly de-seed it, and peel the halves. Then I slice the good parts into a pile on the chopping board, and squeeze some lemon onto it as Roy Orbison sings about a pretty woman.

The eggs and toast continue to cook, as Leon Russell takes the stage.

Eggs cooking in the skillet

When I decide that the eggs are ready, I spoon the sauteed mixture onto half of the eggs. The moment of truth draws near.

Getting close!

Gently I fold the other half over the plethora of ingredients. There is probably too much stuffing for a picture-perfect omelet, but what am I going to to – leave some behind? Here’s where I find out whether the eggs were really ready. And its not bad – maybe a smidge over-done, but perfectly serviceable.


I lever the omelet onto a plate, then add the avocado slices on top. I sprinkle on a little more lemon juice, and a dusting of seasoned salt, and finally top the whole thing off with a dollop of medium salsa from a huge jar left over from a Mexican party meal last summer. (The stuff lasts forever if you just shake it up occasionally.

Looks like breakfast to me

Bill Kirchen launches off into an extended version of his signature song, Hot Rod Lincoln, keeping me company as I dig in. In the middle of devouring the omelet, I realize it has no cheese, but I’m perfectly content without it. It’s everything I hoped it would be. And Doc Watson plays another folk tune from beyond the grave.

Almost gone. What, no cheese?!?

Finally it’s time for me to stuff the dishes into the dishwasher, and wash up the cooking tools. Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris serenade me through the suds and the spray.

Clean cooking tools

And, with perfect timing, my IPS walks into the kitchen just as I stow the last knife, and asks, “Have you had breakfast yet?”

All I need to do is show her the picture.

Once again, the camera at hand was not really up to the task of a photo-essay. I apologize to your eyes, and promise to do better next time. I should also warn you that I cook like I do most everything, with more gusto than skill. Ingest accordingly.