Saturday, October 27, 2007


Our daughter is 13 months old now.  Her bedroom is attached to our living room, and has a glass door on it.  We thought that would make it easy to watch her when she was little.  It was.  Unfortunately, things have changed.

Evelyn knows a few words.  Dog.  Cat.  Dad.  Aimee and I are both in school, so we study.  Our desks are in the living room, and mine is visible from Evelyn's crib.  A 0930071456a couple of weeks ago she seemed very tired, so we put her in bed for a nap.  We waited for the noise from her room to subside, then we crept back to our desks.

My bottom hadn't even touched the seat when I knew I had been thwarted.  A cacophony of "Da! Da! Da! Da!" came from the room adjacent the living room.  I risked a glance, and sure enough, Evelyn was standing in her crib.  Arms over the top, looking right at me.  So much for the glass door.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The "Yes" Man

A while ago, I worked for my brother.  It was a tremendous learning experience.  We built a business to business web site.  It was a really great product, but it came out just about the time the DotCom bubble burst.  Looking at the program now, I'm still impressed with how well it turned out.  It is still the most functional and useful piece of browser based software that I have ever seen.

It used to be that Alan would tell me what he wanted changed about our program, and I would balk.  My too frequent refrain was "Can't do it."  Alan would have none of my realistic, logical nonsense.  "Yes you can", he'd correct me, "and you'll need to finish this change and one more this afternoon."  Sometimes, of course, the schedule had to shift a bit...but the change always happened per his specifications.  Always. 

Many of us try to bend our business model to fit technology, but Alan was the other way around.  He bent technology around the business.  That's the way it's supposed to work.  Technology changes a lot faster than stable business models.

At work today, I miss having my brother sit on the other side of the room, making outlandish requests and throwing the occasional missile at me.  When we work with people who know precisely what they want, and will accept nothing else, they inspire us to do better work than we thought possible.  Even in the absence of my old boss, mentor, and brother I try to keep him in mind when I get technology requests.  If my memory is working well, I catch the "can't" before it gets out of my mouth and replace it with "Sure, we can do that."

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Cloaking Device

When my wife and I bought a second car, I wanted something large enough to pull a trailer, yet economical enough for daily driving.  The solution was a Cadillac Sedan Deville.  Ours is a '95.  It comfortably seats a family of 10 and gets 26 MPG on the freeway and about 22.5MPG for my daily commuting.  Not bad, considering the 4.9 liter V-8 shoehorned under the hood...sideways.

Recently I completed work on my new invention: a cloaking device.  The Cadillac was the obvious choice for testing my new invention, so I installed it yesterday.  During my morning commute today, its functionality was evidenced by the other drivers' complete ignorance of my presence on the road.

You may be skeptical.  Perhaps they just didn't see me, you may be thinking to yourself.  The SS Deville takes up an entire lane, leaving only inches on either side.  The rear turn signals are literally over a foot high, and they are augmented by front turning lamps.  A turning lamp, by the way, is a headlight aimed out the side of your car.  It illuminates the lane next to you, and all the houses within 1/4 mile of the road.  Give or take 10 feet.

The cloaking device clearly works because despite its size, and copious use of turn signals, the SS Deville remained completely undetected this morning.  Nobody noticed the spectacle of illumination during lane changes.  Every other driver overlooked our lane filling presence.  It would have been a serene drive if it weren't for the confusion caused to other drivers when my car magically appeared in another lane, despite having been previously invisible.

Friday, October 12, 2007


A few weeks ago I popped into my new bank to make a deposit.  I handed the money and my driver's license the teller.  She blinked at me.  "I need to make a deposit" I explained.  The poor woman looked stricken.

"You need a deposit slip to make a deposit."  I could swear she was smirking at me.  Unfortunately I didn't know my account number.  This had never happened at my other bank.  After much haggling I extracted my account number and a blank slip from her, which she insisted that I complete myself at the counter.  Why was a deposit slip such a necessity?  She couldn't explain it, other than to tell me the computer required the slip.  The look on her face told me that she wasn't inclined to explain anything to me without just cause.  By the way, her name was "Joy".  That's an irony.

With the installation of the first computer used by bank tellers began the demise of customer service.  No longer was a person faced with the prospect of telling a customer "I don't want to help you."  Instead, a person could simply declare "The computer won't let me!"  The much maligned computer began its trek as a customer service scapegoat.

Now that we have computers everywhere, customer service suffers accordingly.  Programmers such as myself typically write programs in a way that makes it difficult (preferably impossible) for people to enter data or complete operations that we don't like.  Sure, situations may warrant a personal touch , but we have made the assumption that the person using the computer doesn't know their job as well as we do.  We're saving them from their own mistakes.  I can't imagine why people claim that programmers have poor communications skills.

This idea has been taken to such an extreme that we have millions of workers who are not allowed to make decisions.  They are not allowed to use their own judgment.  The don't have the latitude to solve problems, because our society is afraid they might make the wrong decision.  And they would, once in a while.

Empowerment happens when we begin to trust people to understand their own jobs, and make the right decisions.  Empowerment improves customer service because the employee has the latitude to do the right thing.

I was saddened about the recent death of a woman in the Phoenix airport.  Disclaimer:  Carol Ann Gotbaum should have been escorted by a family member.

She was approximately one minute late for boarding her flight, and they wouldn't let her on.  Supposedly she wasn't allowed to trade flights with another passenger for "security reasons".  What if someone had taken the time to realize that she had an emergency?  What if that person had been willing and able to help her?  Make no mistake about it.  An airport is an awful, lonely, terrifying place to be left.  Especially for someone en route to a substance abuse treatment facility.

It isn't good enough not to help each other.  This craziness has to stop.  Let's give our employees the latitude to do the right thing, and let's start expecting people to do more than perform the bare minimum to keep their jobs.  A simple smile and exchange of pleasantries can go a very long way.  I think it would have done an immeasurable amount of good for Ms. Gotbaum.

Update: I just checked my RSS feeds, and Seth Godin seems to be on a similar page today.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Ah, Sweet Mostlysuccess!

A good friend and I have had a long standing "contest" to see who could build a small robot to navigate a path first.  Now, my cohort could have beaten me to the punch on this any time he wished.  His technical expertise is far beyond my own.  He hasn't, though, and this has been a great opportunity (several years in the making) for me to learn about embedded electronics.  After all this time, I am pleased to announce the completion of a very imperfect path navigating robot.

The tracking algorithm is very simple.  The robot travels forward until it gets close to a barrier, then it "looks" around to find the best direction to turn.  It can choose to turn 45 degrees either direction, however I biased the code for 90 degree turns.  If the 45 is truly the best path, it can be utilized.

The bot appears a bit epileptic.  This is because it has a tendency to track ever so slightly to the left.  Every few clock cycles I have it track back the other direction. 


This view shows the front of the 'bot.  I love the Sharp IR sensors.  They make it look like Johnny 5.

In the picture below, you can just make out the circuit board.  The two cables to the left are for programming and serial communications.


Like other, similar projects, this one uses two servos to move the bot forward.  They  have been modified to turn continuously instead of moving to specific angles.



The video below shows the bot navigating a path.

There are a whole slew of improvements I could make.  The bot really should have four stationary sensors to help it track a straight line.  This would help eliminate the stutter when it moves.  Also, the Sharp IR sensors are bad in two ways.  First, their range is only good for about 3 ft.  Even that is questionable, and if an object gets too close, the sensor reports that it's farther away.  That could be a problem.

There is also a lack of electrical power on the machine.  It could really benefit from using a rechargeable battery pack.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Equalizer

Last night as I sat on the couch, I couldn't help but to admire my quadriceps.  Sure, they're not so large any more, but they are still quite defined.  Inside, I smiled smugly.

O' treacherous conceit.

This afternoon my brother's father-in-law sent me an email asking if I would be interested in joining him for a ride.  I haven't been road riding much lately, and I have never had an opportunity to join a veteran cyclist for a road ride.  In my haste to check the pressure in my tires and fill my water bottle, I almost forgot to call Ted back.

About 4 o'clock he called and said he'd be at my house in about 15 minutes.  I raced outside, buckled my helmet, and starting warming my legs up.  After a short eternity, Ted arrived.

The first mile was pretty easy.  Despite my complete lack of physical discipline over the last year, my legs are still in relatively good shape.  My cardiovascular system is another story.  After the first couple of miles I started breathing heavy.  Ted was still able to converse as though we were sitting still.  After 5 miles I was seriously out of gas.  Remember, though, Ted invited me along on his ride.  I tried not to show it, but my speed kept dropping and my gasping kept increasing.  My speech became a wheezing, gasping gurgle.

After another couple of miles, Ted offered that I might want to take a cutoff instead of riding the rest of the loop.  I didn't even try to put up a facade.  I just gurgled, waved, and turned.  Immediately prior to turning, I had been having chills.  Did I mention that is was 86 degrees today?

Once I turned away and left Ted to enjoy the remainder of his ride, I coasted.  Sweet relief.  After about six hours, I finally got back home.  At least it felt that way...having ridden half way across Michigan.  Aimee was encouraging: "I'm surprised you're back already!".  I checked my watch.  It had only been a bit over an hour.

Warming myself in a hot shower, I reflected upon how atrophied my legs looked from my lack of exercise.