Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Random Thoughts: History, when did World War II start.

Actually pinning down the day World War II started is not as simple as you might think. Why not start with the one that most Americans are taught in school. 

December 7th 1941
The attack on Pearl Harbor is the event that brought the US into World War II and is the day that most people in the US pick as the start of World War II. Most Europeans find this amusing, offensive, proof of Americans ignorance of history and/or a perfect example of American arrogance.  There are actually a lot of good reason to pick this date, but if you ask most Europeans they will give you the following date.

September 1st 1939 the Invasion of Poland
For Europe, this is the beginning of World War II. It was when blood was shed, when people in Europe started to die and cities burned. The people of Europe spent just over two years fighting before the US officially joined the war. The problem with this date is that it shows as much of a Eurocentric bias, if not more than, December 7th 1941 shows a US centric viewpoint. What about this date?

September 18th 1931 the Invasion of Manchuria
After the invasion of Manchuria came the invasion of China proper in 1937. The Chinese spent years fighting the Japanese before the War in Europe started. Events from this theater of war include, for example, the rape of Nanking, the use of chemical and biological weapons by the Japanese, comfort women and other atrocities that are often overlooked by westerners.  

Other potential dates for the start of WWII.
  • October 3rd 1935 the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy. The failure of the League of Nations to stop Italy is often cited as the start of World II. 
  • March 7th 1936 the remilitarization of the Rhineland. In violation of the treaty that ended WWI Germany reoccupied the Rhineland. This was the European powers first real chance to stop Hitler. 
  • October 1st 1938 the annexing of the Sudetenland. When the Untied Kingdom and France handed the Sudetenland over to Germany the world lost the last chance to prevent the war in Europe.
When did World War II start?
I asked my wife that question, she gave me the best answer I have heard for a long time. She thought for a second and said, "That depends on where you were." Of course history hates answers like that, so I have three dates I feel that are valid.

December 7th 1941.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was the event that brought the last of the major players into the war and unified the war in Asia and the war in Europe into one globe spanning World War. It also brought the United Kingdom into the war in Asia. Before that event there was a war in Europe and a war in Asia. It is not a big stretch to say that on December 7th those two wars became one World War. In this case I say that December 7th was the end of the beginning of World War II.

September 18th 1931.
Japan invading Manchuria was the start of the war between China and Japan. That was the first military conflict between the two of the nations that fought WWII. This seems as valid of a start date as any. The invasion of Manchuria could be seen as the beginning of the beginning World War II. 

My choice for the beginning of World War II is November 11th 1918.
The end of World War I was the start of World War II. In Europe the decision to not totally defeat Germany combined with the failure to create a just peace was the reason for the rise of the Nazis. Germany did not feel that they were defeated but that they were betrayed. Combine that with the oppressive war reparations that the allies imposed on Germany and you have the perfect conditions for the rise of the Nazi party. In the Pacific, Japan was on the side of the allies and easily captured many of Germany's colonies. The ease of Japan's victories  inspired both the massive expansion of the Japanese navy and the rise of militarism in Japan during the 1920s and 1930s. The failure of the allies to truly end World War I did not just cause World War II but also was the reason that the World War II ended the way it did. The US believed that a just peace was the only way to secure a lasting peace at the end of World War I. After much discussion, and finally the threat by France and the United Kingdom to not pay the loans the US gave the allies during the war, the US agreed to allow the punishment of Germany. At the end of World War II, the US and other allies were not going to accept anything but the complete defeat of the Germany and Japan. After the war the US worked hard to rebuild Germany and Japan, as well the rest of western Europe and create a lasting peace and turn enemies into allies.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Favorite Websites: Making and using QR Codes.

You are probably not using QR codes but you should.
What is a QR code?
QR stands for Quick Response code, it was developed back in 1995 for use in the Japanese car industry. While there have been barcodes years, QR codes are actually much faster to scan and contain a great deal more data than a standard UPC barcode. QR codes also contain several different kinds of data. All you need to read a QR code is a smart phone and a QR or barcode reading app.

What can you use QR codes for?

Websites
This QR code links to the website of a Sushi and Thai restaurant that my wife and I happen to like. You can put a QR code like this on a Real Estate sign, poster, store window, flyer, business card, or even a company shirt. You can just snap a picture or scan the code and go right to a website. 
Contact Information
The QR code below actually holds a vCard that contains my name, email address,  and a fake street address and phone number. A QR code like this would be ideal on a business card, name tag at a conference or even the wall paper of your phone.

Your Twitter profile
Or in this case my twitter profile.

Here is a more compete list of what you can put in to a QR code.
  •  Website URL
  •  YouTube Video
  •  Google Maps Location
  •  Twitter
  •  Facebook
  •  LinkedIn
  •  FourSquare
  •  App Store Download
  •  iTunes Link
  •  Dropbox
  •  Plain Text
  •  Telephone Number
  •  Skype Call
  •  SMS Message
  •  Email Address
  •  Email Message
  •  Contact Details
  •  Digital Business Card
  •  Event (VCALENDAR)
  •  Wifi Login (Android Only)
  •  Paypal Buy Now Link
How to make your own QR code.
There are a number of programs or websites you can use to make your own QR codes, my favorite is the website http://www.qrstuff.com/. It is what I used to make the QR codes I used here. 

Let your imagination run wild.
Once you have created a QR code you can print it out on any printer. You can use an inkjet printer and a transfer paper like Avery T-shirt Transfers for Inkjet Printers and you can put a QR code on any piece of clothing. Of course you could also use any number of papers such as decal paper, business card stock, or stickers to put QR codes anywhere you see fit. Some ideas that I think would be really useful.

  1. A poster for a concert, play, party, or community activity with a QR code to a VCALENDAR or website. You do not have to be limited to just one QR code you could have one with a calendar entry and one with the location.
  2. Business card with your contact information.
  3. A scavenger hunt where you hide cards or magnets with location QR Codes to the next point?
  4. A card or sticker with your WiFi logon info for your guests with Android phones.
  5. Us a QR code as your wallpaper on your phone or a link to bring up a QR Code that acts as your business card. 
  6. You could even use temporary tattoo paper and an inkjet printer to make a temporary tattoo that links to your Facebook page. 
An Application I would really like to see. 
When I go out to dinner, I hate to wait to pay my check. Why do I have to wait for the server to bring the check, comeback for a check, and then bring the check back for me to sign it? Just print a QR code on the check so I can scan it with my phone and then pay for it with PayPal, Google Wallet, or Square? The server prints out the check and brings it to me, I scan the code, check the bill on my device, and I hit pay and go. Come on people let's do it people.



Friday, February 21, 2014

Someone Needs to Make This: Wireless IV alarm system.

A relative of mine had to have emergency surgery this week and I had to listen to beeping. 

There is a real shortage of nursing staff in the US, they are overworked and do the best they can so this is not to be critical of the profession. My relative was in a lot of pain and they had him hooked to a IV machine to provide fluids and pain medications on demand. The problem is when the machine would beep loudly when it needed attention of some kind. The patient is supposed to hit the call button when it beeps the member of staff comes in and reads the screen and then fixes the problem. If the patient is too sick or can not hear the beeping the issue will go on until a staff member hears the beeping and fixes the problem. In this case an IV bag needed to be replaced so the staff member hand to come to the room, read the display, and then go back and get a new bag of IV solution. 

Safety and Regulation.
I am sure that these are super regulated and that will cause some delay in something like this into service and no one wants to make things any less safe than they are now. Hacking could also be an issue but there are ways to prevent hacking.

The Fast, Quick, Cheap, and Dirty Solution.
The simplest solution is to build a device that goes into the room and listens for the beeping, once it detects the beeping it sends a message over wifi to the nursing staffs smartphones or PDAs. The member of staff would know exactly what room to go to. The hardware costs would be under $30 for the device. A digital signal processor chip or even a simple MCU like the Texas Instruments MPS430 could listen for the beeps. In fact they have this example of doing something just like that on their website. To interface to the wifi Texas Instruments offers the CC3000 SimpleLink chip. The MPS430 cost between $.50 and $3.00 while the CC3000 costs around $12.00 each. Add in the cost of a keyboard and lcd and the bill of materials would cost about $25.00 so as a product it should cost no more than say $50. This device should take minimum medical certification since it is not attached to any medical device and should work with all the current IV machines that beep. It is also safe as far as someone "hacking it". The worse that could happen is the staff would get false alerts. If that happened they just turn off the app. The machines will still beep and the patients will still hit their call buttons.

Benefits

  • Cheap.
  • Secure.
  • Works with existing equipment.
  • Should require a minimum of certification.
  • fails safe.
Limitations
  • Staff does not know what the problem is until they get to the room and read the display.
The Smarter Version.
A smart version of this device would use the same hardware but instead of listening for the beep it would interface to the IV machine or be built in. The best solution would be for the makers of the IV machines to come up with a standard for the data and all of them use it. The key to this device is to use a one way serial interface for safety. A traditional serial interface uses a minimum of 3 connections a transmit, receive, and ground, this device would only use a ground and the transmit of the IV machine controller would be attached to the receive of MCU the IV controller can only talk and not listen.  No matter what data gets sent to over the wifi to the IV machine it can not effect the machine in anyway. One thing you do not want is for someone besides the staff to change the settings. What this version would add is the information on the screen would be transmitted to staff. They would know what is wrong before they got to the room. If they needed to get a new IV bag because it was out they could grab it on the way to the room instead of having to make an extra trip to get it. You could also have the IV machine only start beeping five minutes after it sends the message. That way the patient may never have to hear the beeping. Of course this solution will only work for new IV machines and would require more certification since it is part of the machine. I would hope that by using a hardware air gap that the certification would be simple matter. 

Why do this?
These devices will not save any lives but they could make the patient more comfortable and save the staff time. 




Saturday, February 15, 2014

Classic Science Fiction Movies: Lost Horizon

Is it Science Fiction?
Many people would say this movie is not science fiction but I think it has enough elements of science fiction to count. You have a mysterious utopian hidden society, people living for hundreds of years, and a group storing humanities knowledge so that it can rebuild civilization after it self destructs.  Sounds like science fiction to me.

The Plot.
The story centers around writer, soldier, and diplomat Robert Conway who is has one last mission to complete, the evacuation of the last few westerners from a Chinese village that is about to be over run by revolutionaries. Once that is accomplished he will return to England to become the next Foreign Minister. What he and the other westerners don't know is they are all about kidnapped and taken to mysterious mountain community called Shangri-La. 

Once in Shangri-La, the survivors soon come to love their new community and lose all interest in going back to their own lives except Robert Conway's younger brother George who wants nothing more than to get back to his old life. Soon Robert Conway learns Shangri-La's secrets, people in Shangri-La live for hundreds of years and that Shangri-La's propose is to save all the art and literature that it can to help rebuild civilization when it collapses.   

I will leave the rest of the story for you to see for yourself.

My thoughts. 
When you think about the time period one can see why people would be pessimistic about the future. The book was written in 1933 and the movie was released in 1937. By the time the movie came out, Japan had already invaded Manchuria, Italy had invaded Ethiopia, and Hitler was in power in Germany. To Europeans, Chinese, and many people Africa it might have looked like the end of the world was around the corner. The sad truth is for millions of people it really was right around the corner but not for the planet as a whole, thank goodness. It is not hard to see the idea of a peaceful, beautiful, last bastion of learning and culture as a wonderful dream. 

In my youth I thought that Shangri-La sounded wonderful.  I wanted to go and live in Shangri-La and spend my days learning and living in a beautiful peaceful valley removed for the cares of the world. Today, I can not help but feel that it is the act of a coward. If Robert Conway is such a great diplomat and leader shouldn't he stay in the world and help save the world instead of giving up and hiding? Isn't it also a bit elitist to hide while the world self destructs only to come out after all is ashes to take over and "lead" the survivors in creating a new and better world in your image? Doesn't that sound like something a James Bond villain would do?

I really love this movie and it is a true classic. I may not think that hiding from the world in Shangri-La is a good solution for the worlds problems, but I would love to retire there. The fantasy of Shangri-La has become embedded in modern culture since the book was published in 1933 to this very day. 


The 1973 remake.
The early 1970s was one yet another period of time when people seemed to be ready to give up on humanity. The fantasy of Shangri-La must have seemed attractive enough to do a remake. Of course Hollywood had to add a twist to the remake, they made it into a musical! The cast was actually full of great actors but the movie was a disaster. It just didn't work and was a flop. You can find it on YouTube but it is chopped into 10 minute segments. I have included the movie's trailer so you can see just how awkward it is for yourself.  Tibetan monks singing 1970s Burt Baccarat songs, what could go wrong? 
I suggest you skip the remake and enjoy the 1937 version for yourself. Maybe you will want to live Shangri-La or maybe you will feel like I do that we can fix our world before it self destructs. Of course it is probably true that we all dream of our own Shangri-La, After all isn't the Federation of Star Trek in many ways a Shangri-La like place. Where there is no want, sickness, or war? Well at least until the bad guys show up and try to mess everything up.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Favorite Websites:Websites you can help.


Each of these websites is composed of user generated content from people like you. Of the three, Wikipedia is the most popular and best known of the three sites.  So what can you do to help make the sites better?

Everyone knows about Wikipedia and a huge number of people use it as a research tool but the number of people editing Wikipedia articles is actually decreasing. Wikipedia is also suffering from editing wars and out and out vandalism. So what can do to help keep Wikipedia a great resourse? 

Editing articles
Editing an article for content might feel intimidating, but a lot of the editing work that goes undone isn't content but grammar and cleaning up dead links. While you might not feel that you are qualified to edit an article on quantum physics, you could edit your hometown', county, or school's entry. Once you get the hang of editing, you can even create entries from scratch for parks or local events. I would avoid anything that is opinion based and pages on famous people or political figures. Many of those pages have been locked to keep the editing wars to a minimum.

How to edit Wikipedia
Here is a link to the Wikipedia editing tutorial. 

The maps on OpenStreetMaps are used by many websites and apps including Apple Maps. Contributing is actually easy. One task that anybody can do is to add information like restaurants, stores, parks, churches, libraries, schools, and government buildings. I do wish that OpenStreetMap would make editing a bit easier. You can also get apps for your smartphone to help you map roads. I do wish that Open Street Map would add walking trails, sidewalks and parks. While Google Maps, Bing Maps, and Nokia Maps are all great resources they are also all controlled by companies. You can not download any of the maps and you can not edit them. OpenStreetMap is open for all to use and to update. This means that local businesses can update their location and opening and closing times as well as add new locations. For small towns it means that every store and restaurant can be added to the map without waiting for Google or Microsoft.

How to edit OpenStreetMap.
Here is the link to get started as well as a link to some video tutorials.

Wikitravel is probably the least known of these sites, but it is the also the one you could make the biggest impact on. Who knows more about where you live than you do? You will find many of the entries in Wikitravel are just stubs or lacking in detail.  This offers a great opportunity for you to contribute to your local community, as well as the Internet. Another way to help is to use Wikitravel and let other know about the site. The more people that know about Wikitravel, use Wikitravel, and contribute to Wikitravel the better it can get. 

Editing Wikitravel.
Do not put in things like this is the best bbq or pizza restaurant in town since that is just opinion and is better left to review sites. Do include points of interest and useful information for people traveling.

How to edit WikiTravel
Here is a link to a video tutorial for Wikitravel

My Thoughts
I have contributed to each of these websites over the years, I have edited entries on the Wikipedia about the North American A-36, added some businesses to OpenStreetMaps, and edited the the entry on Port St. Lucie Florida on WikiTravel. The idea behind these sites is "many hands make light work" so pitch in and make the Internet a better place.



Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My Favorite Classic Movies: Best Years of Our Lives.


The Best Years of Our Lives.
This is another most see movie from the same time period as Gentleman's Agreement. This movie is brilliant in that it in many ways shows that some things never change. The characters in The Best Years of Our Lives faced many of the same issue that returning war veterans are facing today. The movie follows the lives of three returning veterans, that meet on their way home and become friends, and the issues that each of them face adapting to peacetime life. Please understand that I have not seen this movie for years so a lot of this is from memory.

The three returning veterans meet while trying to find transportation home. The three of them manage to hitch a ride on a bomber that is probably on its way to be sold for scrap. All three of them sit up in the bombardier station of the bomber, which is the setting for one of the great visuals of the move. During WWII bombers used optical bomb sights so the nose of the planes were made of clear plexiglass. The shots of from the that position, looking down at the US, are breathtaking. It is important to understand that a large number of the people watching this movie would have been veterans and their families. Those veterans had seen what the war had done to Europe and Asia, the sight of a safe prosperous, and untouched America as seen from the nose of that bomber on its way to be the embodiment of a sword beaten into plowshares would have been an inspiring sight for many of those returning veterans. The three returning veterans were a sergeant in the Army, a bombardier with the rank of captain in the Army Air Force, and a sailor that lost both his hands. When the plane lands the three of them go their separate ways but promise to keep in touch.

Sergeant Al Stephenson returns to his life a well to do banker. The fact that Al who was rich and important in civilian life was not an officer but a sergeant is reflected in his new attitude about class. Al is no longer comfortable with being limited by class in who he considers friends or in judging peoples worth. He comes home to see that his children have grown up without him and to a world far different from the one he left. You also see how he has changed as a person. The first thing that a modern viewer will notice are the clear signs of post traumatic stress.  Al drinks way too much and no longer fits in with his old life. He no longer cares about class because of his war experiences and just does not fit in with his old friends that do not share his life changing experience. Al's wife Milly has to learn to deal with these changes and is supportive of her husband that she loves.


Captain Fred Derry is a bombardier that grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. In his pre-war civilian life, Fred was a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks. His job before the war was working the soda fountain at the local department store. During the war, he had risen through the ranks to become an officer and is excited to come home and start his new life and to see his beautiful wife that he married before shipping out. Fred finds that he can not find a job and his marriage was a terrible mistake.  His wife is shallow, provides no emotional support and only cares about his money, so once it is gone so is she. Combine that with the fact the only job Fred could find was working at the same soda fountain that he worked at before the war and under his old assistant, that is now a manager, this leaves Fred feeling cheated of the future for which he had fought so hard.  

For Homer Parrish, the sailor, his problems are related to the simple fact that he has no hands. He lost his hands when his ship sunk. His family and friends are as supportive as they can be and but he still has to deal with his disability. His high school sweetheart is waiting for him so that they can marry. Homer has to decide if he wants to “burden” the women he loves with a crippled husband.


How it ends.
I am not going to tell you exactly how it ends, because I do not want to spoil the movie for you. What I can tell you is that ending is not what I would call a happy ending but rather a happy beginning. 

My thoughts on this movie.
This movie is what I would consider a must see. The movie deals with subjects that I doubt would ever be covered before the war and frankly were not dealt with in movies again until the 1970s. The heroes of this movie are not flawless men that can face any challenge without flinching. They are tired men that have given more than anyone should be asked to give. They all saw friends die in front of their eyes, suffered wounds, had taken peoples lives in battle and now come home changed people. The movie deals with heroes that have to deal with  physical disabilities, divorce, and substance abuse. Those subjects were just not dealt with in movies. It is probably the first movie made where you were supposed to be happy about a marriage ending. Many of the problems that this movie deals with were the same problems that veterans of the Korean and the Vietnam war had to face, as do the veterans of the current wars. I really liked that even as the movie ended, it kept the same hopeful optimism that seems to be so much a part of that time. The veterans of WWII are often called the “Greatest Generation” not just because of what they did during WWII but what they did after the war. This movie  is a tribute to those men and seems to predict those future accomplishments. One thing that I did notice was that the two most striking visuals from the movie that impacted me the most both involved B-17 bombers. One was the fight home scene I mentioned earlier where the men rode in the nose of the bomber looking down at the landscape flying by them and the other was hundreds of B-17s, most of which were probably brand new, in a scrap yard waiting to be scrapped, and made into new prefabricated homes for returning veterans and their families. The B-17 was the plane that leveled Germany during WWII, but it was also a plane that was known for getting its crew back home when it was shot up. For US air crews the B-17 was both a killing machine but also many times their salvation.
This B-17 was rammed by a German fighter. The crew flew this plane safely back to base.

In many ways I can see the B-17s in those two segments as an allegory for those men's war-time lives. It took them home but was also going to be scrapped to make a new and hopefully better world. It was the end of the warrior's life for those men and those planes, but also the start of a new life as builders of a better world.



Best Years of Our Lives is available for purchase from Amazon on DVD.


Howard Russell, the actor that played the disabled sailor Homer Parrish was a paratrooper during WWII who lost his hands during training when a charge of TNT went off in his hands. He won two Oscars for his role in this film. He realized that roles for people without hands would be limited so he went to college and got a degree in business.  He spent his life as an advocate for disabled veterans and had a dream of creating a world wide organization to advocate for all war veterans including those of Germany and Japan. 

I will get back to some more technical articles soon but man does not live by technology alone and frankly, opinion pieces like this are easier to write. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Free Software:Graphics GIMP

GIMP a powerful free graphics manipulation program.
GIMP is a very powerful program in its own right for editing graphics, while it may not be as powerful as Photoshop, most people will never use all the power of Photoshop making GIMP a good option for a large number of people. 
GIMP, the GNU Image Manipulation Program.
What you need to know about GIMP.
  1. It is free.
  2. It runs on Linux, Windows, and Mac.
  3. It is powerful.
  4. There are online tutorials to help you get started.
I am not really a graphics person, I have done some work but my wife Cindy is the real expert at graphics. Here is a link to some of her work Scribler.us. Cindy started off with GIMP since it was free and now uses GIMP and Photoshop to do her digital scrapbook layouts.

What can you use GIMP for?
GIMP provides tools for fixing photos, painting, and animation. Combine the power of GIMP with the fact it is free and you have a great tool for home users, kids, students, none profits, teachers, web designers, and small businesses that need to work with photos and graphics, but do want to spend the money on Adobe Photoshop.

Here is a list of some of GIMPs features.

  • Painting
    • Full suite of painting tools including Brush, Pencil, Airbrush, Clone, etc.
    • Sub-pixel sampling for all paint tools for high quality anti-aliasing
    • Extremely powerful gradient editor and blend tool
    • Supports custom brushes and patterns
  • System
    • Tile based memory management so image size is limited only by available disk space
    • Virtually unlimited number of images open at one time
  • Advanced Manipulation
    • Full alpha channel support
    • Layers and channels
    • Multiple Undo/Redo (limited only by diskspace)
    • Editable text layers
    • Transformation tools including rotate, scale, shear and flip
    • Selection tools including rectangle, rounded rectangle, ellipse, free, fuzzy
    • Foreground extraction tool
    • Advanced path tool doing bezier and polygonal selections.
    • Transformable paths, transformable selections.
    • Quickmask to paint a selection.
  • Extensible
    • A Procedural Database for calling internal GIMP functions from external programs as in Script-fu
    • Advanced scripting capabilities (Scheme, Python, Perl)
    • Plug-ins which allow for the easy addition of new file formats and new effect filters
    • Over 100 plug-ins already available
  • Animation
    • Load and save animations in a convenient frame-as-layer format
    • MNG support
    • Frame Navigator (in GAP, the GIMP Animation Package)
    • Onion Skin (in GAP, the GIMP Animation Package)
    • Bluebox (in GAP, the GIMP Animation Package)
  • File Handling
    • File formats supported include bmp, gif, jpeg, mng, pcx, pdf, png, ps, psd, svg, tiff, tga, xpm, and many others
    • Load, display, convert, save to many file formats
    • SVG path import/export
  • Device support
    • Pressure sensitive tablets
    • tilt sensitive tablets
    • and a wide range of USB or MIDI controllers.
What do you need to get started?
Gimp runs on Linux, Windows, Mac OS/X, as well as BSD, and Solaris so odds are if you have a computer it will run GIMP. The next logical step is downloading GIMP from the GIMP website.  After installing GIMP check out these tutorials to get started, and of course you can find video tutorials on YouTube. 

The benefits of free software.
Free Open Source Software or FOSS gives the user piece of mind. Almost anything you want to do with the software is going to be fine, want to give a copy of the software to a friend? That is not a problem at all. Want to install a copy on your home computer or laptop? That is also allowed. Let's not forget that it is free which is a big plus. I have no problem with paying for software if you need it but if a free program will do what you need why not save the money?

Friday, February 7, 2014

Quick Picks:

Today I am going to post a list of interesting stores from the internet, yesterday was my birthday so I didn't have a lot of time to write a blog post.

Graphene conducts electricity ten times better than expected
Graphene is the name used for a sheet of carbon one atom thick. It is a wonder material that could change everything from electronics, batteries, to medicine. 

Humble Bundle brings Civilization and Double Fine
Go check out the latest Humble Bundles, Civilization is a legendary game series and now you can pick several of the titles really cheap as well as a few other games from Sid Meier, a part of what you pay will go to charity.  

CVS stores to stop selling tobacco
Pharmacies selling tobacco never made any sense to me, is seems that CVS agrees. 


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Favorite Websites: TuneIn.com

What they have to say.
TuneIn lets you listen to the world’s radio from wherever you are. Whether you love music, sports,
news or comedy, TuneIn gives you over 70,000 live radio stations and two million on-demand
programs, like podcasts, concerts and interviews. With TuneIn, it is easy to find and discover what
you love—from music and news to music festivals and sporting events. Use TuneIn to hear the
world’s radio and be transported to favorite places you’ve been or to where you’ve always
wanted to go. TuneIn is available for free across 200 different connected platforms, including all
smartphones and tablets, smart TVs, consumer electronic devices and connected cars.

What I have to say.
I love this website and the TuneIn Radio mobile app. You can listen to radio stations from all over the world free of charge. It doesn't matter if you just want to listen to your old hometown radio station, check in on your hometown radio station while you are traveling, or listen to a pop radio station in American Samoa, Australia, or Tokyo Japan. Yes I know that radio might seem a bit old fashioned but I actually enjoy radio as long as it is not the homogenized radio so common today. Nothing makes you feel like a part of the community like listening to a small town radio station.

Scorecard
The Rating uses G, PG, PG-13, and R while the other categories use A for the best that I know of,B for good but others might be better,C is average, D below average, and F is just terrible. 
  • Rating N/A You can listen to radio stations from around the world so their standards depend on the nation in which they are located. 
  • Quality A The website is easy to navigate and use.
  • Community N/A This kind of website really does not have or needs a community.
  • Depth A  TuneIn has over 70,000 radio stations from all over the world.
  • Overall A This site does everything you expect and does it well, as do the mobile apps. I consider it a must have mobile app as well as a great website.
  •   
My thoughts on TuneIn.

My family used to spend a month each summer in the mountains of North Carolina. At that point in time our lodge could not get TV, which really didn't matter since there was not TV anyway. I got hooked on radio listening to those small town am radio stations. When I was a teenager I used to rock out to WIZD 99 FM while driving to school or to pick up my girlfriend. In college I started to use the local NPR station as my alarm. As a marred man, my wife and I would drive to Texas at Christmas to visit her family, I stayed awake through Mississippi listening to small town radio stations.  TuneIn allows me to travel the world listening to radio stations without spending time or the gas money. So check it out for yourself.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Classic Science Fiction Movies: Flash Gordon, Space Soldiers from 1936

Pretend that you are living in the 1930s when you watch this.
A classic late 1930s serial.
To really enjoy this you need to step back to the 1930s, television was something you saw at the World's Fair, only the rich flew on airplanes, the fastest airplane in the world went 400 MPH, and radio was the high tech gadget that everyone wanted. Jet engines, transistors and computers had not been invented yet and the idea of flying in space was pure fantasy. Science fiction was the stuff of comic books and was for kids, not adults. Serials were a low budget short that of course always ended in a cliff hanger to get people coming back to the theater each week. Special effects are primitive to say the least and the he plot is a straight forward morality play with good guys, Flash Gordon the athlete, Doctor Zarkov, and Dale Arden vs the bad guy, Ming the Merciless emperor of the planet Mongo.

There was no political correctness in the 1930s but it is not as bad as it could have been.
The villains of course look like Asians and not just any Asian but the most flamboyant image of an evil Mandarin one could imagine. The women are all pretty and in secondary roles and are often the damsel in distress. On the bright side the some of the bad guys change sides. It seems that Ming was a dictator that oppressed and enslaved the other races in the empire through terror. Of course Ming, Doctor Zarkov and Dale help them to free themselves in the end, or at least until the next serial starts.


Don't forget Buster Crabbe.
Buster Crabbe won a gold metal for swimming at the 1932 olympics which he combined with his good looks to become a movie star. He started off as Tarzan before he became Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers!. He was the king of the movie serial and later went on to star in westerns.  

Kick back and have some fun.
Kick back, make some popcorn and pop in the DVD and have fun. The stories are fun and of course to modern viewers extremely campy. When watching it and thinking how silly it all is, try to remember that the men and women that built the US space program where watching Flash Gordon and dreaming of building space ships. There is one more thing I have to add to this post.

If the 1930s is too far back in time you can jump to the late 1970s
It is still campy but fun.
The band Queen did the sound track and the story is very close to the original serial but updated a little. If you think the 1930s look from the serial is dated just wait till you see how badly the 70s has aged.  I loved this version as a kid, it was fun and is still worth a watch. The movie kept the 1930s style for planet Mongo right down to cool gold art deco spaceships, but the music is pure classic Queen.  


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Random Thoughts: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles or the problems with Amtrak and passenger rail in the US.

Amtrak just doesn't work for most people.

You see a lot of people upset about the lack of high speed rail in the US. High speed rail could actually work in some locations but unless Amtrak can fix some of its current problems, high speed rail will just be an expensive boondoggle.

For most trips Amtrak is too slow and too expensive.
I actually went to the Amtrak website and created some trips using a start date of March 1st so about one month in the future I used Hipmunk for the airline info, and Google maps for the car info. I used 25 MPG as the milege and $4.00 a gallon for the price of gas. The costs do not include food, wear and tear on the car or lodging. The first trip is from Miami, Florida to Atlanta, Georgia. Being from Florida, Miami makes sense as a starting point and Atlanta is a major population center and business hub.

Cost for a round trip from Miami to Atlanta.

  • Amtrak $502
  • Airline $238
  • Car $211.84

If you are traveling by yourself the car is the cheapest but not by much. If you are traveling for business the plane looks like it is a good choice. If you are taking a family vacation the car starts to make more sense. Amtrak is twice as expensive as the airline or the car.

Time for a Miami to Atlanta trip.

  • Amtrak 46:02
  • Airline 1:46
  • Car 9:14

As you can see it will take two full days “actually three days by the calendar since the train does not leave at midnight” to travel from Miami to Atlanta. Even driving a car is four times faster than a train. Why is the train so slow going to Atlanta, simple Amtrak make you go to Washington DC to get to Atlanta. While a spoke and hub system works well with airlines it is not as effective with slower trains. Atlanta is a major airline hub so this trip does give the plane an advantage. But the fact that you can not travel from any city in Florida to Atlanta without going through Washington DC is one of the problems that Amtrak needs to fix. They need more hubs and more trains for them to be practical business travel. High speed rail will solve the time issue using a train speed of 200 mph which is fast by anyone's standard. With high speed rail the same trip will take only eight and a half hours which is still several times slower than the airline trip. Remember that this is does not include any stops and a magical zero layover in Washington DC. With a reasonable amount of time allocated to changing trains you are going to still take longer on a train to get to Atlanta than driving a car.

Now it is time to look at a more direct trip In this case the trip is a direct trip from Miami to Washington D.C..

Cost of trip from Miami to Washington DC.

  • Train $274
  • Airline $229
  • Car $336

The train beats the car for cost but the airline is still cheaper than the train or the car.

Travel time for the Miami to Washington D.C. trip.

  • Train 23:01
  • Plane 2:30
  • Automobile 14:58
  • Direct high-speed train 5 hours.

The plane still wins for speed even over high-speed rail in raw numbers. High-speed rail could win in this case if you are going from city center to city center. The current train is slower than the car and not even close to the plane. With a direct route the train is still a lot slower than the car. So what is the problem now. The answer is simple. The train probably stops a dozen times or more between Miami and Washington DC.


Where a train works, the northeast corridor. Washington DC to New York city.
I actually created two trips one using Amtrak's high-speed train and one with Amtrak's standard train.

Cost breakdown.

  • High-speed $304
  • Train $98
  • Plane $146
  • Car $72.32

The high-speed rail is most expensive option but as you can see the regular train is a lot less expensive than the plane and is even competitive with a car.

Travel time

  • High-speed 2:52
  • Train 3:25
  • Plane 1:10
  • Car 3:44

If you are traveling alone it would be dumb to drive to New York city from Washington DC. Even taking the conventional train makes all the sense in the world over driving. If you are going from city center to city center even the regular train will probably beat the plane after you factor in the time spent getting to and from the airport as well as the hassle at the airport.

The other problem with Amtrak, you can't get there from here.
I am not talking about small towns but there are large cities with no Amtrak service or with Amtrak “bus” service. The two big examples that jumped out at me are Detroit, Michigan and Houston, Texas. There is also no service for the entire state of South Dakota, if you want to take a train to see Mount Rushmore your out of luck.  While not having service to South Dakota is a relatively small issue not having service to Houston or Detroit is a problem.

Would you want to spend four or five days in one of these seats?

Cost and comfort. 
In many cases trains are more expensive flying and frankly less comfortable than a plane. The lowest price tickets on a plane gives you a seat like an airplane. It is a bigger seat than a plane but you will spend longer on a train going to Atlanta from Miami than you would spend in on a plane flying from Miami to Australia.  Why pay more to go slower and be uncomfortable.


High-speed rail projects.
High-speed rail makes sense when the distances are short and the ridership is high. The northeast shows that even the regular train service can be competitive with planes and automobiles. Cost is still an issue but the benefit of city center to city center and lack of weather delays makes even the current low-speed high-speed train a good alternative to driving or flying. Some of the planned high-speed rail projects seems to be nothing more than pork-barrel projects. The Florida high-speed rail project is a prime example. The first leg was to connect the Orland airport to Disney and International drive. Is there any reason to use expansive high-speed rail on that short of trip?  Wouldn't a light rail system do the task just as well for at a lower cost? A prime location, for high-speed rail would between Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston Texas and eventually San Antonino and Austin. Those are major cities that are far enough a part for a train to make more sense than driving and short enough that a plane does not have that big of an advantage.

For a vacation Amtrak can make sense.
If the journey is the thing than a train trip can be great. Getting an Amtrak rail pass and spending a day or two in Washington, New York, Chicago, Salt Lake City, the Grand Canyon, and LA could be a great way to spend a vacation. If you are trying to get somewhere fast or cheap, then most of the time an airplane or a car is your best bet. High-speed could improve the transportation situation ins some markets and should be pursued in those markets however for a large part of the US the distances are too great for high-speed rail to compete with air travel but the cost needs to be kept down.


What Amtrak needs to fix for high speed rail to work in the US.

  1. Limit the stops. Stopping at every town between to major cities is a waste of time and will kill high speed rail.
  2. More direct routes. It is insane that to get to Atlanta from Miami you have to go to Washington DC.
  3. Get the cost down.
  4. Pick routes that make sense. The Dallas to Houston route seem like it should be one of the first to get high-speed rail. The amount of travel between those to cities is high and the area between is not densely populated allowing easy access to right of way. The north east corridor has a high population density so issues like right of way and even noise may delay the project and drive up the costs.  
  5. Sometimes a plane or a car is still going to be the best choice.  Once the distance is over 500 miles even high-speed rail can not compete with air travel.  When the distance is under 100 miles then it will be hard to beat a car. 
I want high-speed rail to work in the US.
I really do, but I know the worst thing that could happen to high-speed rail would be for high-speed rail projects like the one that was cancelled in Florida to be funded, but ending up as over priced, incomplete disasters.  Instead of a spending a lot of money on a large number of high speed rail projects I feel the US should completely fund one high speed rail project. I suggest Dallas to Houston but LA to San Francisco could be a good start.  The problem is that congress would never pass the budget because only one state would benefit. 


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Favorite Websites: Hack A Day.

It is the good kind of hacking... Most of the time.

Hacking does not mean breaking the law. 
Hack A Day is a site dedicated to "Hacking", it covers all kind of fun projects that involve technology and Hacking culture. Some of the projects that Hack A Day has published are...




Hack A Day also posts series, such as Retrotechtacular.




Hack A Day covers all kinds of projects at all levels of experience. It doesn't matter if you are interested in building a robot or looking for a good science fair project Hack A Day probably has covered it. 

Scorecard
The Rating uses G, PG, PG-13, and R while the other categories use A for the best that I know of,B for good but others might be better,C is average, D below average, and F is just terrible. 
  • Rating PG-13 I wish that I could give it a G, but in the past Hack A Day covered some drug use based hacks as well as some that have more sexual content than some people are comfortable with. Honestly the total number of none family friendly posts is under ten but that is enough to keep me from recommending it to everybody. I am hoping that the new owners will go in a more family friendly route. The other reason is many of these Hacks involve soldering and power tools which requires adult supervision. 
  • Quality A Hack A Day carefully selects the projects that it posts so they usually include very good documentation. 
  • Community C+ The community is not as bad as some, but you can get some rather rude comments from people who do not think a hack is worthy.
  • Depth A  Hack A Day has not fear of going deep and most of the instructions are very complete.
  • Overall B I would love to give it an A, but the less than generous culture of the commenters and the few drug related hacks keep prevent it. I feel It is still a great site and well worth visiting. 

My thoughts on Hack A Day.

I really enjoy Hack A Day, it is a great educational resource as well as great fun. The one thing that bothers me are the few drug hacks that are on the site. There are only three of those hacks out of hundreds of posts, but they are enough to make schools ban it, company HR departments worry,  and for parents to not want their teens to go to the site. That is a real shame because so many of the posts are just great. I know some people support legalization of some drugs. I am not saying they are right or wrong, but that content is enough to keep Hack A Day to be a website for everybody and that is a shame. I will still read it everyday because I love the projects and as an adult I can decide what is appropriate and what is not.