2009-04-24

Everything is better with bluetooth...





Seriously, it's true. Everything is better with bluetooth. Sure, you may look insane when using it in public, but we're one step closer to real life Star Trek, right? Okay, so I'm teasing, but I really do love bluetooth, and most technology in general. Well, not so much technology as gadgets. If you don't believe me, you should see the list of junk I've bought from Woot.

That's why, three weeks ago, a Woot really caught my attention. It's something I've wanted for some time, but never could really justify. Something that seemed to be the perfectly blend of geek and utility, something that would simultaneously impress the ladies and win adulation from my peers, the iRobot Roomba.

No, it has nothing to do with the Will Smith movie -- the Roomba is a vacuum cleaning robot, about the size of manhole cover. He's extremely intelligent, as far as vacuum cleaners go. Push one button, and he goes to work, driving around the floor, sucking up all sorts of junk. When he comes to a wall, he slows down until he touches it, and then turns and heads off in a different direction. He remembers where he has been, has sensors to keep him from falling down stairs, and an electronic eye so that he can find his charging station when he's all done. And yes, it's a "he". (A vacuum robot doesn't have to be a girl, you sexist.)

With the purchase of a roomba, my nerd cachet has nearly doubled. The day he arrived, the guys in the office insisted we unpack him, and then we watched in awe for nearly a half hour as he motored around an empty office. You could see our nerd pride swell: this is the epitome of American engineering, to design a robot to perform what is probably the simplest of household chores. Watching him zig zag around the carpet made me think about all the hours that were spent writing algorithms and figuring out navigation based on infrared beams. It's enough to make a grown nerd cry.

Maybe you think I'm crazy, but I'm far from the only one that has fallen in love with the Roomba. He's clearly entrenched himself into popular culture:

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Of course, there is one really ironic thing about the Roomba. No bluetooth. But I'm sure they're working on it.

2009-04-22

A Soggy Nation

I'm in DC again for the 5th or 6th time. This trip, I was optimistic about being able to catch a glimpse of the cherry blossoms around the mall, which is probably the only touristy thing that I've wanted to do but been unable to enjoy in my previous trips here. It's a little harder than it sounds because there is a two week window of fragrant white, pink, and purple blossoms framing white marble monuments, and the exact time changes every year.

This year I'm about a week too late. Though some trees are still blooming, and they are magnificent, this week so far has been much more soggy than blossomy. Being from the desert, I'm not sure we appreciate real rain like they have out here. It's like God throwing little watery javelins at you. Fortunately I was ensconced within my POS rental PT Cruiser, which, despite many flaws, did prove capable of keeping out the rain.

Driving around the soggy capitol, I made a few observations:

  • It seems like everyone runs here. At every intersection, along with a bunch of people in suits, is at least one or two people jogging in place like they're auditioning for Jazzercise.
  • It also seems like everyone has a dog, too, and some people try to run with them. This includes this very small Asian gentleman and his 3 month old black lab pup. At first, all I saw was a man's head jerking violently every few steps behind the row of parked cars. Then I saw the dog on the leash. Good luck dude, that dog is going to weigh more than you in about 3 months and then he'll be walking you.
  • Few things are more miserable looking than a group of wet tourists. Unlike me, they paid their own money to traipse around the national mall in the rain. They are also probably more than a little miffed by having to wear a 2 dollar gift-shop poncho. Can we say "not flattering?" At least it keeps them fresh, like meat under cellophane.

2009-04-15

Politics Shmolitics...

I hate talking about politics sometimes because that topic seems, too often, to immediately descend into vitriol and tired party lines. If there's anything that's wrong with politics today, it is our intolerance for differing opinions. Punditry has so largely displaced discourse that the moderate voices no longer have place. Ideas are not judged on merit, but mocked or lauded by party leanings. This is why I begrudgingly write about politics at all, because I can handle the partisanship.

It is this hesitance that motivates me, because I realize that if I am weary of the political process, there must be countless other thoughtful voices that are also stifled. If we collectively remain silent, then the quiet moderate majority will constantly be held hostage by the political pendulum. With this in mind, I have some thoughts on current economic situation we face in the US.

So, sure, deficit spending didn't cause our current problems, or de-regulation of the financial markets, or the Fed keeping interest rates too low to avoid inflation, or sub-prime lending destroyed by the housing bubble, or an ill-timed and expensive conflict in Iraq, or a ballooning national debt, but surely it's some combination of all of them... which was in turn caused by some combination of Presidential administrations, Congresses, and greedy/stupid people.

While preventing any one of those problems might have mitigated our current situation, that doesn't change the fact that we're here now. Everyone is looking for the straw that broke the economy's back to assess blame, but there isn't one. I happen to think that GWB's admin has perhaps a majority of straws, but Congress and previous admins have their share, too. In the end, we have to assess each problem individually and find the best solution.


The big news right now, is, of course, President Obama's new 3.6 trillion dollar budget for 2009-2010. Yes, it is huge, and yes, numbers of that size frighten me. But then again, I'm not so sure it is as egregious as we might think.

The thing to remember about debt is that it is not bad in itself. While it is generally to be avoided, there are times when taking on debt allow us to invest in things that pay long term dividends. Home ownership and college education are two classic examples. I think national debt should be viewed in the same way. When we agree to take on debt, we have to consider where we are investing those dollars. Is out debt going to pay out long term dividends that exceed the long term costs?

So, what's the purpose of this new debt we're taking on? From what I understand, it appears to be more focused on infrastructure, energy, and health care. To me, these seem like no-lose investments. Frequently, this country has gone into debt primarily for the national defense. Unfortunately, this is less of an investment than it is an expense. Certainly we reap the benefits of a strong national defense, but the expended money seems to have little long term effect on the economy. The one notable exception to this, I think, is the success of the GI bill in growing post WWII America. That massive investment in American education largely created the modern middle class.

Back to current times, I would prefer that my tax dollars not be used for stimulus spending, but my point is that IF there is going to be stimulus spending, I want that spending to be in areas that will have tangible results after the money is gone: a new road, or new rails, or more scientists, or better pre-emptive health care to reduce costs later, etc.

If we look back to the last huge stimulus package, the New Deal, I will agree that a lot of FDR programs did not help the situation in the immediate term (poor monetary policy and counter productive price controls are two that come to mind) but the effects of the other programs can still be seen all around us: rural communities gained electricity or irrigation systems and I was educated in buildings that were constructed by the WPA some 75 years ago. Sure, it's not ideal, but if there's going to be spending, I think it should be spent in a similar way.

Mostly, I'm tired of the knee-jerk reaction to everything President Obama does, whether its pirates, budgets, or bailouts. Such vitriolic responses do little but make the conservatives seem increasingly out of touch. Though they may not be the party in power right now, the conservatives can still have a powerful voice in shaping how President Obama's agenda is implemented, and I hope they don't throw away that chance.

2009-04-05

Newton's 1st

I've always liked math. There are few greater evidences to the underlying order of the universe than the fact that so much of it can be eloquently explained by mathematics. It's too bad that everyone questions the applicability of their math classes. Math is problem solving. Life is also problem solving; adjusting for variables, determining relationships, solving for unknowns.

Subconsciously, we do really complex math all the time without even thinking about it. Even the simplest motion requires the calculation of inertia, accelerations, centers of mass. A quarterback heaving a football 30 yards to a receiver on a fade route is solving the equivalent of a physics final in a matter of a split second.

Sometimes, though, we get the math wrong. Sometimes the equations have too many unknowns, and we have to guess... Snowboarding last week as an example. I was enjoying a wonderful spring ski day. The sun was out, but the snow still had good feel. Halfway down the run, we happened upon a middle aged couple skiing somewhat slowly down the trail. She was following in his tracks, about 5 seconds behind, such that when one was on the right side of the trail, the other was on the left, a lot like two particles on a sine wave.

And thus begins the math. Visibility good? Check. Pass her or him? Him, he looks more predictable. Where to pass? My friend is to my left, I should go right. When to pass? About 3pi/2, where he's at a local minimum and turning to his left. Slope grade sufficient to gain passing speed? Check. Go to pass? Check.

Well, he didn't turn left. I realize all too late that this was more of statistical quantum mechanics problem than a classical mechanics one. As we collide, Newton's first law takes over. For a second we're just a mass of limbs and equipment, and then I'm cartwheeling down the mountain. (I've actually found cartwheeling to be a pretty good way to avoid injury and makes the crash a little more entertaining for the spectators.)

He comes to rest about 10 feet above me, fit to be tied, but physically unharmed. In a situation like this, when your math skills have failed you, you tend to feel pretty sheepish. The tongue lashing was unnecessary, but not undeserved. I was a little surprised neither of them seemed to care if I was okay, but I'll get over it. What I can't get over, though, was slow-skier's wife accusing me of not paying attention. Though guilty of many things, not paying attention was not one them. My math was just off.

But that's the thing about real life math. You can't account for all of the variables. And if you did wait until the equation was completely solvable, the moment would surely pass. That's the hardest math of all, making a decision despite the unknowns. Even though it doesn't turn out the way you expected, that doesn't necessarily make it a bad decision. Next time I'll have to show my work so I can get partial credit.