Wednesday, January 16, 2013

a brief thought on modern cars

With the whole Boeing 787 battery drama, some friends and I were discussing the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates plane, train, and boat accidents in the United States, and often lends their considerable expertise abroad. I tend to view NTSB as one of the most effective and useful government agencies. They re-assemble crashed airplanes so we know what went wrong, providing a regulatory pressure on travel safety that a completely free market would lack.

At any rate, it brought to mind this video the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety made for their 50th anniversary. Even now, it's common to hear people talk about old cars as being sturdy, made of "real steel"--you know, manly, none of this Asian plastics-and-composites crap. American.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu crashing into a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air.

Well. Crashing through the Bel Air, maybe.
You can decide which one you'd rather drive.

Friday, January 11, 2013

disjoint bullet points

We have been having a bit of conflict around child custody, and it's quite challenging for everybody, so please offer your thoughts, prayers, bows, or hippie-tastic good energy for J and his three parents.

After some reflection in December, and noticing my own level of energy and engagement with my job, I decided to pass the Technical Lead (TL) baton to Jess. We've been co-leading the team since November or so, which has gone well, but now I find myself unable to hold a lot of complexity in my head at once. Unfortunately, the TL generally has to be able to hold at least a survey of the team's state in their head, and switch focus from one issue to another; right now, I'm lucky if I can focus on one issue at all.

I will move sideways, to what we call a Staff Engineer, and after some months of work to get the new system out the door, I will likely migrate to go cause trouble for some other team. I should be writing software again, and solving engineering problems, and getting lots of other people on board to help.

I finally went to see a regular medical doctor about my energy and fatigue issues; I can always count on Western medicine to say "derp" to this kind of problem, and sure enough, that's what I got. It was worth ruling out things like anemia or diabetes, though.

(Don't get me wrong: Western medicine is fabulous for specific, acute issues. Broken bones, stitches, tumors, organ removal, infections--they have you covered. Things like "I'm tired all the time" or "my nose is runny every morning"? Utterly useless. Don't get me started on the usually-better-than-nothing pseudo-science of psychiatry.)

We'll see how the sleep doctors play out.

J had his 8th birthday, and he's huge, more than twice as big as when I met him, almost 5 years ago. He's developing Pre-Teen Face, where you can see more and more of the physical adult he'll be. I'm fascinated to see the man he becomes, since he has so much work to do and so many choices to make about who he wants to be. I see his path through a certain lens around his autism, but in practice I imagine that's what every parent wonders about every kid. I can only imagine the heartache as your child goes through periods of being a jerk. Not that I was ever a jerk.


Sorry, Mom.

Bedtime, one night:
"You know, I always threaten to take away Mama's snuggles when I'm angry. But I never actually do it. I think about it, and then I think about how I would feel and I decide I would wish I didn't, so I always give her snuggles."
"That's because you understand that love and relationships are the most important thing. That may be the best of many wonderful things about you. Just keep loving."
I think he'll be okay.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Hello, New Shiny Thing

I bought a new car. I didn't want to buy a new car.

My old car, a trusty 2001 Saturn sedan, had needed a single $300 repair every year, like clockwork. I replaced the radiator in August ($306 parts+labor), but then in December it developed a coolant leak. The mechanic said, "They don't make specific parts for Saturns any more. Just buy an intake manifold off eBay, bring it in and we'll install it for you." They helpfully included an eBay item number. Nothing dramatic, just some guy with a stash of discontinued Saturn parts. (Saturn was doomed in 2009.)

As the kids say, "lol whut."

goodbye, Car

There are many life circumstances where the most reasonable thing to do would be to accept the situation: buy your car parts off eBay (or junkyards, if you have one nearby, though they're disappearing), incurring unknown delays in the repair, or maybe doing it yourself. I am not in any of those circumstances, so it was time for a new car. Since, between us, we had a '93 Toyota Corolla and an '01 Defunct Car Company Inc., we had talked about car replacement, without much success. We have a lot of other stuff going on, and didn't want to bother with the time and expense of car shopping beyond Internet research. Setting aside my suspicions about the Saturn's suddenly-changed reliability, once I fixed it, we'd have two perfectly serviceable cars.

Right after I fixed the intake manifold, the Saturn started idling high, with a rhythm like an out-of-balance washing machine, and the Service Engine Soon light came on. So much for that: I bought a new car.

It turns out you can't sell a car with the Service Engine Soon light on. Nor should you buy one, really, so that's not surprising. You shouldn't buy a cheap car that might need a $1000 repair. In the vain hope it might be something simple, I brought it to a mechanic to check the error code, which turned out to be several error codes:
  • Random/Multiple Cylinder Misfire Detected
  • Idle Control System RPM Higher Than Expected
  • Sec. AIR Injection System Malfunction
I've only ever heard of Check Engine Soon having to do with the exhaust or emissions system, so imagine my surprise to learn about Random/Multiple Cylinder Misfire Detected. It also surprised the mechanic, who said "What the hell, man?" and started poking around. He found the spark plugs covered in oil, and cleaned them out, but then the engine ran worse.

R.I.P., the car known simply as "Car," donated to charity after 9 years of faithful service.

Back to the new car.

The way our life is structured, we need two cars:
  1. A fuel-efficient car for the endless trips to Pacifica (27 miles one-way).
  2. A car we can load with 2 adults, 3 kids, and camping gear.
Those could be the same car, except that the laws of physics prevent it. We decided to get #1 first, a Mazda 3. (If you sacrifice 15mpg, you can get the Mazda Speed 3, which compares favorably to sporty cars 2-3 times the price. I didn't get that one.) It's a cute mid-size hatchback with good handling and a decent enough engine. It's not yet quite as much fun to drive as the Saturn, but I think that's true of anything that meets our requirements: we've set the bar higher, and the Saturn didn't actually meet those requirements either.

The new car's name, taken from how I talk about it, is "Shiny Car." (J told Anna, in a loving "this is something I know about my Chris!" tone, that I "always call things just what they are.")

hello, Shiny Car

The thing that's hard to get over about the Mazda is how incredibly nice it is. While I did spring for the Grand Touring package on the theory that I hope to have the car for a decade, I am shocked to find these things in a low-end car:
  • Sunroof/moonroof.
  • Blind-spot proximity sensors.
  • USB port with MP3 player (e.g. iPod) integration.
  • Music integration over Bluetooth.
  • 120V A/C plug.
  • Built-in mic+speaker for hands-free cell phone calls over Bluetooth.
  • Built-in GPS navigation.
  • Touch-screen controls for all of this.
  • Keyless operation: everything is push-button and works with the key fob in your pocket.
When I got the 2001 Saturn I was excited to get power locks and windows, so this is an unimagined brave new world.

It turns out that this stuff is all commodity now. Wired explains, in a slideshow about what Mercedes had to come up with to make sure their luxury car is nicer than my Mazda:
The Mercedes-Benz S-Class has been the pinnacle of high-tech luxury for going on three decades. But the democratization of technology means that the S-Class' breakthrough feature a decade ago is now available on the lowliest of Korean econoboxes. Mercedes needs to up its game to keep pace with its cross-town rivals, so the all-new S-Class - due out sometime next year - will drive itself in traffic, bend its light beams around oncoming cars, prevent you from taking out a cow and have pyrotechnically deployed seat belts.
We're living in the future.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

dad stuff

J got a Lego Mindstorms NXT robotics kit for Christmas (he mostly paid for it himself by the sale of some older toys), and while Anna was off somewhere, we spent a day building the first couple projects.

It turns out that robots are kind of a pain in the ass. We built the beginning robot,  a plastic-ball-shooter that has treads instead of wheels, and I figured it would be easy to just have it rotate in place to different angles and shoot down Lego mini-figures. Alas, turning a treaded robot in place is so tricky it's not even part of the exercise. I'm not actually sure you can do it with Mindstorms, because you want the two sides to move simultaneously in opposite directions, and I didn't see how to do that.

Either way, you're doing a lot of trial and error, because your unit of movement is "rotations of the motor," and good luck figuring that out with treads. (In real life, of course, you make one robot, figure out how to turn it a fraction, then store that as a "turn X degrees left" instruction so you don't have to do it again. But that was proving challenging.)

He did learn about the degrees of a circle, though, back when I thought those might be useful for programming the robot.

A few days later, something came up and I started to tell him how you can quantify the likelihood of certain events, and it's called probability.
"Chris, you're being silly, there's no such thing as probability!"


I fetched some dice, and theatrically started explaining.

"Okay, how many sides to a die?"

He squealed and ran away. (He's been going through one of his periods with lots of squealing and hiding, sometimes for fun, sometimes as part of freaking out.)

As he ran away, I called out, "Probabilities are fractions!", and he laughed as he closed his door.
We played a game for a little while where he would come out, I would start explaining again, and he would squeal and run back into his room. Then I stopped playing, and he came over.
"Uh, Chris? I'm not sure if I want to learn probability but I'll learn it with you if you want me to. It might be interesting."
After I took a moment to melt from how sweet that was, we went through probabilities as fractions, the odds of rolling less than 3 on a d6, more than 7 on a d20, etc. and the odds of rolling 2 3s in a row. I screwed up the additive probability, though: on a d6, obviously you have a 1/6 chance of rolling a 1, and the odds of rolling a 1 increase with more rolls, but not in the naive way I was thinking, because otherwise you would have a 6/6 (100%) chance of rolling a 1 after 6 rolls, and that is obviously wrong. So I will have to get a book and re-educate myself in a way that I can explain to J.

Then I said, "Okay, that's all I've got for now," because I don't want to go into lecture-mode, I want to have things be interesting and exploratory for him, and not only had I not thought about it, but apparently I was more rusty than I thought.

"Well, Chris. I can't believe that's all you can think of right now."