Thursday, June 19, 2008

We still have a long way to go

Fast on the heels of Loving Day, today is Juneteenth, celebrating the emancipation of Texas slaves, on June 19th, 1865. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed three years earlier, it wasn't until Union forces arrived that slaves in Texas were actually freed. Of course, it took much longer than that to free all of the slaves and another 100 years (and counting!) for full racial equality.

I hope that someday there will be no need to celebrate Loving Day or Juneteenth, or any of these holidays. I hope that the world will consider discrimination and bigotry quaint and a remnant of the long forgotten past.

Even though it takes far more effort to hate than to love, people seem to love to hate. We still have a long way to go.

More info:

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Politics, Translated

It's election season. We can tell because we're all getting lots of mail. I thought I'd offer a handy dandy translation of part of a piece that I received from Representative Dave Reichert (R-WA).

This mailing was prepared, published and mailed at taxpayer expense.

Translation: I'm the incumbent, so I get to use your tax dollars to help my re-election campaign.
Dear Friend,
Dear Voter,
Knowing of your interest in children's health care, I wanted to let you know ...
I actually know nothing about your interests and I've ignored the letters you've sent me criticizing my votes. But, by saying that, I get to claim this is official business. I figure everybody thinks children's health care is important. If you concentrate on that, you won't notice that I'm against birth control and am 100% in favor of the Iraq War, and maybe you'll vote to re-elect me.
... that a measure I helped introduce ...
This bill had 229 co-sponsors, representing more than half the House. I'm in there somewhere. It passed by 416 to 0 (with 17 missed votes) so you can tell it was a controversial bill. See how I'm working hard for you.
... to fight childhood cancer recently passed the house.
Everybody hates cancer and especially childhood cancer but only the Republican party is actually trying to do something about it.
Children's health care is one of my top legislative priorities. You may be pleased to know that I am the founder of the Congressional Children's Health Care Caucus...
Before I got to Congress, nobody cared about children's health care. Of course, I founded a caucus to do something about it. It doesn't appear to have any members or hold meetings and gets a grand total of seven (7!) hits on Google, so you can tell just how influential it is.
Know that I remain unwavering in my committment to finding treatments and cures for childhood diseases, covering the uninsured, and expanding access to the preventive care that will allow our kids to lead longer, healthier lives.
Only Republicans care about these important issues. Those evil Democrats don't (especially Darcy Burner, my opponent in the fall). I'm all for children's health care, unless it's the SCHIP bill that would have funded healthcare for the underprivileged, or stem cell research. I even voted in favor of a stem cell research bill that I initially tried to block, after it was clear that it was going to pass anyway -- and that Bush was going to veto it.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Fire Two Houses Away

We could see the house burning from our front porch, flames towering over one of our next door neighbor's houses. It was pretty scary -- and not just for the kids.

We couldn't see the firefighters at all, but they'd been there a while already -- three or four large firetrucks, a bunch of other Fire Department vehicles, several ambulances, and a couple of Police cars. After I saw that the Fire Department was on the scene and we didn't have to evacuate immediately -- and I reassured the kids that we would be OK -- I went back in to get my camera. Here's the first shot I took through my neighbor's yard before I even set any settings on my camera (see bottom for tech notes). Lots of blur, but you can see the extent of the fire.

After this shot, I walked around to see the fire from the other side, where the firefighters were. Here are some shots of the scene.

By the time I'd walked around (through a neighbor's woodsy yard in the dark), they had the fire mostly under control, but they were fighting flareups that wouldn't go away.

In the last photo, you can just barely make out horizontal stripes on the firefighters. It turns out those stripes flash red. Here's a closeup of that:

What you see dripping from the gutters is fire-retardant foam and it seemed to me that at this point, they were using both foam and water.

I would have stayed around longer, but it turned out that the spot I was shooting from was the "rehab" area and firefighters showed up to use it. This case of K2 water should have been a good clue.

So, I headed back toward our house, which is on the back side of the house in question. It did look like things were calming down. But the back of the house had a small glowing section. As we watched it, it erupted into flames. Bear in mind that wall is only 30 feet or so from one of our next door neighbor's houses, with lots of flammable material nearby. An interesting side note here -- a year and a half ago, there was a 100-foot tall cedar tree right next to the house. It fell over in a windstorm, narrowly missing two houses and crushing two cars. If that tree had still been there, with its branches overhanging the house, it might well have caught fire, endangering the entire neighborhood.

We weren't seeing any water or foam on this section of the house, so I walked around and told a police officer doing perimeter duty what was going on, then came back. After a few minutes and still no response and the flames getting ever larger, I called 911 (the flames were actually bigger than shown here, but my shots of them are blurry).

Finally, we saw water being sprayed over the house and the firefighters came around and doused these flames directly. I didn't see exactly what they were doing, but it looked like they were spraying with a smaller hose at first and then a larger one. It might have been that the smaller one was fire retardant and then they switched to higher-pressure water alone. Spots kept flaring up, as if there were hot embers spread throughout the attic. Finally, when it looked like everything active was doused, we could see firefighters inside the house, spraying out through the roof. It looked like they were looking for hot spots in the attic and dousing them.

At this point, I really felt like I could relax and not worry that it would turn around and endanger our house. Despite the concern over the firefighters not knowing about the flareup on our side, I really appreciate the great response. Of course, it's sad that somebody's lost their house, but the fire was confined to a single house and there was no loss of life.

This last show shows the cloud of smoke over the house.

Photo notes: The first shot was a 1/2 second exposure by mistake. After that, I switched to HI 1.0 (equivalent to ISO 6400) at 1/60th of a second, f/3.5-5.6, depending on zoom length. Lens was my 18-200 VR, which is just what happened to be on the camera. It's actually a great lens for times when you can only have one lens. Just wish it was faster. I did turn the VR on because I figured it wouldn't hurt.

The auto white balance is wrong for some of these images, but I didn't spend the time yet to adjust them. And, yes, I always shoot in raw format.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Sample Whodoku

A couple of people have asked me to post a sample Whodoku puzzle. Well, I finally got around to it. Check it out at, where you'll find the full puzzle plus instructions.

For more information on Whodoku, see my earlier post.

To buy Whodoku on Amazon, click here.

Four New Pieces

I have four new pieces in a show at the East Shore Gallery: one photo montage and three single images.

At the WeddingAs always, images on the web don't do justice to my photography. The piece above is 30" wide by only 6" high (it's actually a bit of a pain to hang as a result of the odd size). Click on it to see a larger version.

I chose the three pieces below to go in the show because they are all printed on Kodak Professional Endura Metallic Paper. This paper has a special pearlescent surface that can add a brightness to the right images. In these images, the glistening skin of the Koi glistens, the sunlight feels like it's shining through the clouds above the arch, and you can feel that the ballet shoes still have some shine in them. I don't use Endura Metallic very often, but, for some images, it helps bring out what I shot.

Exhibition hours are Monday through Friday, 9 AM to 4 PM, and Sunday 9 AM to 1 PM. The show runs through August 24th.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Today is Loving Day

Yes, it's true. Our country used to tell people who were in love that they couldn't get married, just because some other people were offended. Back then, it was the color of the skin. Politicians and judges argued that such marriages were just plain wrong, that it was necessary to preserve the "racial integrity" of marriages, and, of course, that god didn't want mixed-race marriages.
But, on June 12th, 1967, the Supreme Court made it very clear:

There is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification. The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy. We have consistently denied the constitutionality of measures which restrict the rights of citizens on account of race. There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.
The last law prohibiting mixed-race marriage wasn't taken off the books until 2000. Meanwhile, bigots of a different kind are busy creating new discrimination laws. But, if you read that paragraph above from ten feet away, it sure sounds to me like the Equal Protection Clause protects all people.

I know that there are some people who are so insecure in their own marriages or in their religious beliefs that, somehow, what other people do threatens them. I think these people need to take a hard look inward, not outward.

My marriage isn't threatened.

For more information:

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The $919 iPhone

iPhone $919, not $199
No, you didn't read that wrong. It seems to me that Steve Jobs transposed a couple of digits when he announced the iPhone 3G.

Steve tells us that the iPhone is three devices:

  • A cell phone
  • An iPod
  • An internet device
But what if you only want two of these devices? Apple and AT&T say: Tough luck. The AT&T web site explains it (or, rather, fails to explain it) this way:
  • Add a Consumer Data Plan for iPhone 3G to a qualified voice plan for $30 per month.
  • Add an Enterprise Data Plan for iPhone 3G to a qualified voice plan for $45 per month.
To me, this phrasing implies that I could also not add on a data plan. And nowhere on their web site do they say that data plans are not optional. But that's what they are -- according to sales representatives that I talked to at an AT&T corporate store, you must add on a data plan, even if you won't be using it. I think what's on their web site is borderline false advertising. $30 per month times the two year contract comes to an additional $720. Of course, it's even more after that. It mocks Steve Jobs statement that they're making it cheaper so more people can afford it.

I'm about to get my daughter her first cell phone. She's not going to be using it much and she certainly has no need to browse the internet or get her email on it. But, she's carrying an iPod already and I thought I'd splurge and get her an iPhone so she could just carry one thing. I was thinking of a $199 splurge (and I actually delayed getting the phone to wait for the iPhone announcement), but I'm not about to go for a $919 splurge.

Apple and AT&T don't force iPhone users to pay for music they don't want -- why do they force them to pay for data they don't want?

I'm not stupid. I know the cost of the phone is being subsidized by AT&T. And I actually don't think the pricing is that bad if you do want the data plan. Maybe part of that subsidy is coming from profits on the data plan (though that would surprise me -- I would guess that the data plan itself is much less profitable than voice plans). If they need to charge more for the phone if you don't get a data plan, I've got no problem with that. Cell phone carriers already have different phone prices depending on the plan you choose. Just be up front about it and don't force me to pay (exorbitantly) for something I don't want.

When my daughter thought that an iPhone was a possibility, she was pretty happy. Now, she's not very happy with me or Apple or AT&T. And, AT&T loses us as a potential customer for two years when we renew with T-Mobile.

Monday, June 9, 2008

My Marriage Is Threatened

My wife and I will have been married 20 years this coming October, but our marriage is threatened by others who do not respect the institution of marriage. These people want their marriages to be recognized just like the rest of us. If people who are unfaithful are allowed to marry, nobody is safe.

Well, I say it's time to put our foot down. Marriage is the basic unit of every civil society which has been tested and reaffirmed over thousands of years. Yet there are people who cheat on their spouses and expect us to look the other way. If you're cheating on your spouse, then you're not really married!

Not only have the legislature and the courts looked the other way, but we have prominent politicians and jurists who have been guilty of infidelity. Presidential candidate John McCain cheated on his first wife, then divorced her and married his mistress. By the way, she's rich. When former presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani cheated on his second wife, he did it in public, not even caring that people knew about it. Eliot Spitzer paid for it (and then he paid for it). And let's not forget Congressman Larry Craig, who tried to cheat on his wife in an airport bathroom. Like many cheaters, Craig told the world he was faithful, while he cheated in secret. And I fear that the number of judges who've had affairs is too large to count.

How can we possibly trust these people to defend marriage?

Over the years, they have continually eroded the institution of marriage to the point where the rest of us are not secure. They threaten the customs, laws, and social norms of human experience. Not only are these cheaters demanding full marital rights, including tax benefits and the ability to make medical decisions for their spouses -- they're getting it! Yes, that's right -- the cheaters get the same benefits of marriage that us faithful people get.

This threat to the traditional meaning of marriage is ongoing. Some would say that marriage is already defined as a union between two faithful people, but, clearly, that is not enough. We need protection. Marriages between adulterers should be annulled as soon as the adultery is learned of. People planning to be married must be investigated to see if they have already cheated and they must be denied a marriage license if they have. If these laws were already in effect, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Eliot Spitzer, Larry Craig, and many others would not be married today.

We need a constitutional amendment banning unfaithful marriage and we need it now!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Learning from Reality TV

OK, I admit that I like Bravo's Top Chef.

A few years ago, when we were brainstorming themes for Microsoft's annual Intern Puzzle Day, I asked an intern in my group if he had any suggestions. He offered up what I thought was an absolutely awful theme -- reality television shows. Later that day, the Puzzle Day planning group met to pick the theme and, even though I didn't like it, I put the suggestion on the list and made a case for it. And, lo and behold, it became the theme that year. Just shows what I know!

To me, one of the important things in teamwork is keeping my own biases in check -- presenting and even supporting ideas that I personally disagree with rather than filtering them through my own biases. I had no idea how many reality shows there were, but there were and are tons, and the theme really worked quite well.

Fast forward a few years and I'm now addicted to Top Chef. It's a great show (my love of creative cooking doesn't hurt) and Tom Colicchio is one of the best people on any reality show. As you might expect on a reality show, there are lots of personality clashes and things like that. But, I'm going to write about something different -- two really great moments.

In Episode 9, "Wedding Wars," the winning team included Richard and Stephanie. Richard, cooked like a madman and really was a key force in their win. But, Stephanie made a wedding cake! A gorgeous wedding cake! In a day! She took on the hardest part of the challenge, knowing that if she failed, she might go home. She took the risk for the team. But, their team won and Richard was appointed the winner. And he immediately said, "I'd like to give it to Stephanie."

This week, in Episode 13, "Finale Part 1," Stephanie picked eliminated contestant Dale as her sous chef. She butchered a whole pig and prepped it with Dale's help. Then, Dale messed up and left out the pork bellies overnight. By morning, they were ruined, too dangerous to serve. Yet, Stephanie knew that being mad at Dale would have served no purpose -- in fact, getting made at Dale probably would have hurt her chances by effectively destroying her team. So, she looked forward, rather than backward -- she moved on, kept her team together, nailed it with a great replacement dish, and ended up in the top two with a spot in the finals.

You don't see a lot of moments like these in reality TV and, sadly, we don't see many moments like this in the corporate environment either.

Bonus thought: My idea for next season's Top Chef. A Pro-Am challenge, pairing each chef (the Proessional) with an untrained but serious cook (the Amateur). And I volunteer to be one of the amateurs.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

More on the Ponoko Puzzle & Game Contest

The final puzzles for the Ponoko Design contest are posted and I have some updated thoughts (see here for my earlier comments if you missed them).

First, an overall observation on the contest. I think many of us, myself included, failed to adequately describe our puzzles and games. Zen didn't explain that there were many extra pieces, Ponoku didn't explain it was for kids, etc. Personally, I put very short descriptions on my puzzle when I could have explained much more. There was a lot of important description for WIM that I put in the pictures. With more information, some of my opinions have changed.

On to the puzzles...

Zen - Looks very nice and elegant in final form. I like the "brochure" that goes with it -- very classy. I said this wasn't a puzzle or game, but I'll revise that. There are plenty of extra pieces, which means that there is a solitaire game aspect to it. You don't have to win or lose for it to be a game. Somebody once said "it's how you play the game." I wouldn't mind having Zen on my coffee table.
Portrait Puzzle - The halftoning looks very, very nice. To be clear, it is a puzzle, just not a difficult one, at least for anyone who solves a lot of puzzles. The combination of the spiral arc and the radial lines make it an easy puzzle. But, for non-solvers and kids, it's a different story. This might very well succeed for them and there certainly is a very satisfying conclusion. If the halftone rastering isn't outrageous, I might use it myself in the future (I'm a pretty serious photographer). The high cost of the puzzle ($400) might be because of that but I actually suspect it's the curved cutting (and I hope so).
Ponoku Anyone - Looks better in final form than in mockup, but it is clearly much easier than a Sudoku. There are 29 givens plus the big help of the pairs and triples of numbers. Because the givens are glued-down (which wasn't obvious before), there is just one solution (with no givens, there would be at least 1,679,616 ways it could be assembled, and probably many more). The final photos show kids solving and I can see it working for them and it might even serve as a good introduction to Sudoku as it's definitely more tractable.
Marble Madness (watch video) - Physically, the construction looks very nice, though a bit complex. I am not sure how playable the game itself is. It looks to me like the game is mostly luck, with little potential for strategy. This works fine for young kids who just enjoy the activity, but, for them, the mechanics might be too hard. I just don't feel it completely succeeds.
Tessa - (Updated June 3rd) Looks stunning in final form. It's not obvious, but this is indeed a puzzle. The pieces are not the same from end to end, so you must find the right pieces to go in each spot. I had said this was mechanical to assemble, but that was wrong. Since the pieces all look the same, it's hard to tell if this would be fun or frustratingly difficult to put together. In any event, it certainly shows that a puzzle like this could work very nicely. Compare this with the two-color Trifolia puzzle from Kadon.
Underground Maze (and plans)- Clearly a trivial puzzle to solve, except for very little children, but I like the mechanics and the "sandwich" construction. Very cool. The same techniques could apply to more complex puzzles.
Crane Mobile and Pteradactyl - Final versions look just like the mockups, which is nice to see, though I still think they are toys, not puzzles or games. But they are nice toys, particularly the Pterodactyl. I do think kids would have fun disassembling and reassembling them.
Layer Puzzle (and here) - The description says it is a tough solve, but I am a bit dubious. In any event, I think it would be fun and I think it could be solved over and over. Looks very cool when complete (and even when incomplete).
California County Puzzle - This puzzle has not been updated (and it still doesn't do much for me).
Match the Typeface - This puzzle has not been updated (and I still have concerns that it won't work well enough for it's probable target audience -- kids).
Build (h)and Share (watch video) - This really turned out nicely and the YouTube video really shows it off. I think this is a complete success with only one slight flaw -- it appears that you can construct an unsolvable maze, especially if you're putting the pieces on somewhat randomly.
Grimly Dominoes - I just don't see it as particularly interesting, unless you're a fan of Grimlies. (I still don't know if they're some pop culture thing that I'm just clueless about.)
Erik & Styx Double-sided Puzzle - I think I've figured something out -- if I understand it correctly, the pieces are not double-sided. Instead, all pieces have part of an image on one side and are blank on the other side. When you make one of the figures, half the pieces are up and half are down. When you make the other figure, all the pieces are flipped, so that the ones that were up are now down and vice versa. The puzzle is figuring out which of the pieces go with which of the figures. If I'm right, this makes the puzzle a lot more interesting and the designer would do herself a favor by explaining this better (though I do think it would work better with stronger images). If I'm wrong, never mind.
Puzzle Box - Unfortunately, the final pictures don't show me enough to get a better (or worse) opinion. It doesn't help that everything is black, so I'll add the one comment that it would look more elegant if the levers were a contrasting color. Could be interesting, but it's hard to tell.
InterlaceCircle - This puzzle has not been updated. This is probably the best puzzle, but I just can't conclude that without seeing the final Ponoko-made version. We can tell from other entries that they didn't always come out like predicted. Sorry.
Gears - Certainly looks a lot better in photographs, but this part of the description bugs me: "It's harder than it seems, you will need all but one piece." It's just not elegant to have a piece left over. The too-tall rods also bother me and I think might make it more fragile. I think there is a clever idea here but the puzzle as a whole doesn't work. Contrast this with the Gears puzzle that Google had as part of the online puzzles for The da Vinci Code movie. Like some others, what's here lends itself more to a set of puzzles than a single puzzle.

And the winner is...

Of course, I have no idea who Ponoko will pick. But here are my personal choices.

Best Puzzle: Layer Puzzle; Honorable Mention: Interlace Circle
Best Puzzle System: Build (h)and Share
Best Game: none; Honorable Mention: Marble Madness
Best Solitaire Game: Zen
Special Honorable Mentions for Looks: Tessa, Portrait Puzzle

Updated June 3rd with corrections on Tessa puzzle.