On the partial meltdown of SL-1, Idaho Falls, Idaho

In King Arthur fashion, men of lesser, similar, and greater strength as the crew tried to lift the rod. Most managed with little difficulty. The scientists questioned the cadremen: “Did you know that the reactor would go critical if the central control rod were removed?” Answer: “Of course! We often talked about what we would do if we were at a radar station and the Russians came. We’d yank it out.”

–Susan M. Stacy, Proving the Principle

News from Japan had me reading about SL-1 again. January 3rd marked 50 years since the incident. The servicemen in question were prior operators of the experimental SL-1 reactor. None of the three operators at the time of the incident lived to tell about it.

It’s a fascinating account, partly because we’ll never be certain of exactly what happened. What’s known is that a control rod was to be manually extended four inches, but was instead extended 26 inches. The resulting nuclear chain reaction created so much heat that the water being used as coolant instantly vaporized and launched the 13 ton reactor nine feet into the air where it struck the ceiling. Two operators were standing on it at the time.

I’m reminded of the ultra-difficult parody game I Wanna Be The Guy, wherein the typical mode of death is sudden, violent, bizarre, and unexpected.

One of them was impaled by a part of the reactor and pinned to the ceiling. It took days of planning and execution by cleanup crews to safely recover his body.

The “King Arthur” approach was part of the two year investigation and helped arrive at the conclusion that the control rod was most likely stuck, leading the operator to exert enough force that it was overextended when unstuck. I do this all the time when unplugging things from the power strip under my desk at work. It’s at a weird angle, and I always smack my knuckles when the cord finally comes free. The SL-1 reactor went critical in 1/250th of a second.


Taking Inventory

I’ve cleaned out the piano, and looked at the five problematic keys.

Three appear to be cause by key pins — they’re either rusted or bent. I’ll examine those further when I replace the keys, but they should be easy to fix. The fourth was at the edge of the center key grouping and its hammer was getting snagged on a bit of felt. I couldn’t remove the felt, as it served as a buffer between a metal strut and another piece of metal, but I was able to tuck the loose bit out of the way. The last key is missing the wedge-shaped piece of felt that dampens the strings when the key or the pedal is not being pressed. As a result, it always plays like the pedal is being pressed (or the key held down); it resonates for a very long time. Hopefully I can acquire a replacement.

Also, some of the higher, three-string keys have dampener-feet-things that have drifted out of alignment, causing only two of the strings to be dampened. So, they suffer a similar problem as the feltless key, but its not nearly as severe. For now, I’m not doing anything about those keys.

In the just the key bed:

  • Five balls of cotton: Removed.
  • Shredded paper of unidentifiable source: Removed.
  • Several bits of notebook paper: Removed.
  • Eight sewing pins: Removed with magnet.
  • One padlock key: Removed.
  • One tiny spring: Removed.
  • One rubber band: Removed.
  • One odd looking pin that may have been part of the piano: Set aside.
  • Bits of fractured glass: Carefully removed.
  • Three pennies and a Chuck E. Cheeze token: Redeemed.
  • Countless tiny beads: Vacuumed.
  • Vast network of cobwebs: Demolished.
  • Scattering of dessicated mouse leavings: Vacuumed.
  • Finely shredded piano wood shavings: Vacuumed.
  • Layer of grime, dust, and filth so thick that the key bed appeared to be made from dark wood: Vacuumed.

Which items were deposited by the former owner’s kids, and which by the mice? Some are obvious, and some can only be left to speculation. Two pennies were post-’82, and one was pre-. The token read “2000″ — presumably the date minted.

The punchline: What else is stamped on a Chuck E. Cheese token?

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Wave, After a Month of Use

I like it even more, now. Naturally, more of my friends and family are using it, so there’s a greater level of activity. Fewer conversations are about wave. There are a surplus of invites available now, so let me know if you want one.

I’ve still only bothered to check out one public wave — no surprise, as they are more analogous to newsgroups than to email, and I never had any interest in newsgroups. A number of interesting bots and extensions are already being developed. Many are amusing, but some are actually very useful. I look forward to seeing what tools are developed for wave.

I am now more confident that Google has been was playing up all of the shiny features a little too much. At least, they have been from my point of view, but their target demographic is anyone that uses email — quite broad. So maybe their marketing strategy is the right choice for most of that group. In practice, I don’t find myself using the extensions or bots much at all. There are definitely some great ones available, but most of them are designed for fairly specific scenarios. Take, for example, the map gadget that Google produced. It’s perfect if you need to give someone directions. In the scope of general conversation, though, that’s not a very common occurrence.

The real value (again, from my perspective — a programmer) is in the protocol and its openness. The wave protocol is far better suited to current technology than email. It’s secure by default, whereas sending an email is like sending a post card — wide open for anyone to read. It’s also very versatile, as we’ve seen with the array of third party gadgets and bots. The openness is great because there couldn’t be global adoption without it. Wave is an improvement over email in every way, and the only downside that I can see is that there will have to be a transition period during which we’ll be using both email and wave.

I frequently hear the same comments  and questions about wave:

What is it for? I don’t know what to do with this.

It’s intended to replace email. I think Google has failed to sufficiently convey this. They’ve spent a lot of time explaining all of the edge-case things you can do with it, without sufficiently highlighting the most common use case. The message from Google has been “collaborate! wiki! photos! gadgets!” Those things are great, but 99.9% of blips will be pure and plain text. I hope Google can find a way to emphasize the fact that it does plain text a whole lot better than email, too.

There’s no one here. What good is it if no one is using it?

Be patient — it was launched less than two months ago, and still isn’t open to the public. Everyone can’t be using it right now. Many people still haven’t heard of it. If Google has given you invites to share, then send them to your friends, and soon you’ll have more friends using it.

But everyone already uses email. It’s the standard. And even if a lot of people start using wave, there will always be holdouts, so why bother?

Is that to be the attitude for the next 100 years? The standard is inadequate and change is past due. The sooner email dies, the better. Yes, there will be holdouts, especially in industry, so a transition period is inevitable. It’s a small price to pay. Keeping up with both email and wave is easier if you install a notifier, which will inform you when there’s new activity on your wave account:

Notifiers for other browsers and platforms are available, as well as wave apps for the iPhone and Android.


My Attempt To Explain Google Wave

No, I don’t have any invites. A very kind coworker whom I barely know invited me last week. If I get any invites, then the first two are earmarked for two other coworkers. After that, I guess I’ll just have to examine which of you have been the most loyal to me.

Google has been careful not to say it, but here it is: Google Wave is meant to replace email. I hope that it does. I think that can, too, because aside from being better in every way from a feature standpoint, it’s also open and free, with the weight of Google behind it.

Google and others avoid comparisons to email, because “email” brings to mind, well, email. And email sucks. But right now, email does serve a purpose. I think that with the introduction of wave, the only purpose email will serve will be as a means to communicate with those that haven’t upgraded yet. Calling it “Email 2.0″ is crossing the line from “descriptive” to “insulting,” but the fact that it does so much more than email doesn’t make it any less of a replacement.

And for that use case, it’s pretty easy to explain.

  • Where emails become cumbersome, messy, and confusing as conversations progress, Wave remains clean.
  • Where attachments feel like an awkward kludge in email, in Wave they are seamless from a user standpoint and efficient from a technical standpoint.
  • Where email is inherently insecure, Wave was designed with security in mind.
  • With Wave, reply-to-all bombs are a thing of the past.

G-Mail has partially addressed some of the above issues with email, but there is only so much that can be done while maintaining solid compatibility with such an ancient standard. G-Mail is the best available kludge for the shortcomings of email. Wave is a rewrite.

Of course, there are many other use cases that cannot be compared against email because email simply can’t do these things. And once you start using Wave instead of email, you’ll quickly move into “email doesn’t do this poorly — email doesn’t do this at all” territory. Google explains these features.

The most important thing is the way Google has packaged all of this. The technology has been around for years, but Google has put it all together to make a tremendously valuable tool. And they recognize that despite its great value, Wave’s success depends on it being made open and free to all.



(Normally I’d keep this kind of thing on Facebook, but it doesn’t do well with long posts, and I figured I’d give the rest of you a taste of the inanity that you’re missing out on. Rambling ensues.)

I went to the Beer, Bourbon, and BBQ Festival yesterday. It was fun. I tried some new beers and met some new people. It’s a shame that it was indoors, because yesterday and today were both beautiful. Carl, Tim, Michael, and Dan all rode the mechanical bull. Yes, I did get photos of that, but I lied in my previous post — I only brought one camera with my 30mm lens, but that turned out to be a good choice. I think the two camera set up would have been well suited for the wedding, and I wish I’d had the second camera then. However, this is the first time I’ve wished my camera had a larger I/O buffer. The time between the rider owning that bull, and vice versa, is too short for my intoxicated shutter reflexes. If I’d though of it in time, I would have reduced the image size.

But, no, sorry, you can’t see my photos right now because my photo processing workflow really sucks. I need to figure out something better. I still have not touched the photos I took in Victoria, BC back in September.

I spent most of this afternoon outside. Did I mention how beautiful it was today? I raked most of my front lawn (though there are still a many un-fallen leaves) and chopped away the ivy that had claimed a portion of my driveway.

Last weekend I removed wallpaper and put down primer on half of my kitchen, which put me a tiny bit closer to finishing that project which has already taken way too long. I place my progress at about 25% now. At this rate, the economy will have recovered before I am finished (that was a little economic humor (or would have been if it were funny)).

Major projects yet to be done:

  • Replace carpet in the guest bedrooms. At some point, the brown wall-to-wall carpets in the entire house were replaced with gray carpets, except in these two rooms.
  • Remove wallpaper and repaint the outer wall in the master bedroom. Actually, I’ll probably just primer and paint over it, cause this paper has become one with the wall. Fortunately, they only papered this one wall.
  • Replace patio roof. If this list were sorted by how much much effort is going to be required, this would be at the top. This task is, sadly, unavoidable. Whoever built this patio did not know what the hell they were doing. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, but I can say without a doubt that they did not know what they hell they were doing. What a disaster.
  • Replace bathroom linoleum with tile.

Of course, that’s to say nothing of the minor projects, which are both more numerous and more transient.

Oh yeah — I bought a laptop, about a month ago. I don’t know if I mentioned that yet. I’ve never owned a laptop before now. I had one for my last job, and have one for my current job. When I tell some people that this is my first, they are usually surprised, cause they know I’m quite the computer… guy. I can explain why it makes sense for a computer geek to be less likely to have one, but a) you’ve already stopped reading, and b) explaining it would just make me more of a geek. Anyway, I’m enjoying it, but I think what I’m enjoying most is using an Ubuntu machine as a personal computer rather than a media box, which was my only previous experience with Ubuntu.

Normally, I’m not one to share my musical tastes unless someone asks. I make an effort to not be the guy that’s telling you what he’s listening to on his iPod (coughoverpricedtrash) at that moment. But, what the hell, as long as this is a glorified Facebook post, I want to tell you that I can’t stop listening to Lex by Ratatat and Storm by the Yoshida Brothers (sorry, that’s the best Youtube instance I could find featuring the faster version of the song — ignore the video if you are so inclined or if you don’t want to see spoilers for that movie). And not to make the preceding revelation to be some great breakthrough or anything, but I’m making an effort to do things I’d not normally do. I’m certain that some things will be good, and some bad, but I expect them all to be bad, which is why I don’t normally do these things. I’m trying new things to prove myself wrong. Makes sense? Good. I hope you enjoy the music.

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Purchased in Praise of Primes

I bought another SLR. It’s a Canon 400D, which you might know is the same model as the camera I already had.

My primary motivation was my love for prime lenses. To some, prime lenses are just an inconvenience. But I’ll trade just about any lens feature in favor of more speed. Speed that can only be had in prime lenses. And swapping lenses while on the move is not good, and it’s not something I like to do. At all. Two cameras = two prime lenses.

My other reasons aren’t so much reasons as catalysts. I have been drooling over Canon’s new 500D, which is a fine camera, but is nowhere near as cheap as the camera I purchased. I got a very good deal, and paid just over half of what I considered to be the value of the package (I also got a vertical grip and some batteries!). The problem with the 500D, besides the price, is that it would take different flash memory and different batteries than my current camera. With this new acquisition, I did not need to purchase any additional accessories. Having a backup camera could be nice, too, but I don’t shoot professionally, so that’s a minor point.

So, there you go. The plan is that I’ll walk around looking like a complete dork with two cameras strung around my neck. Most of the time, I expect one will be sporting Sigma’s 30mm f/1.4 and the other Canon’s 100mm f/2.0. It looks like the first trial of this configuration will be the upcoming Beer, Bourbon, and BBQ Festival. Hopefully, I’ll walk (not stagger or stumble) away with some good photos while keeping the gear sauce-free (regardless of flavor).

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Is this really Nashville?

Today, after an unusually unpleasant week, I went home via my usual commute on the interstate. When I was merging onto the highway, something amazing and incredibly rare happened. In fact, I don’t think this has ever happened to me before in three years of living in the Nashville area. This area, as has been observed numerous times (both casually and scientifically), is home to more bad drivers than just about anywhere else in the country. Everyone suffers, but especially those that love to drive. For example: me.

When I was accelerating on the on-ramp, I was behind three other vehicles. We all merged onto the interstate at about 75 MPH. How incredible is that?

Readers that live around here will know that it’s somewhere in the vicinity of a miracle. For everyone else, please allow me to explain. The speed limit on this particular stretch of highway is 70 MPH. The Tennessee Highway Patrol, not being scumbag tax collectors like the metro cops, won’t bust you for anything less than 80 MPH. Despite all of this, about half of the cars on the highway travel at speeds somewhere between 60 and 70 MPH. Worse still, about 99% of all drivers around here merge at 60 MPH or less. So, you see, the odds of being behind three different drivers that are all capable of driving sensibly is… astronomical. Consider, too, that this happened during rush hour on a Friday.

Sometimes it’s the little things that can make your day.

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FYI, Google Voice is awesome

Last week I read an article about the iPhone app for Google Voice was rejected by Apple. I wondered what the heck Google Voice was, and went to find out. I learned it was basically a phone consolidation and forwarding service. Deciding it might be handy to have a local number instead of the South Carolina number that I’ve been using in Tennesse for the past three years, I signed up for the beta. A few days later I got an email saying my account was ready. I only got around to playing with it today, and man is it great.

First of all, my mobile provider (AT&T) does not offer me an online interface for sending text messages. I don’t have a smart phone, so sending a text meant hammering out a message on the damned number pad which I hate. Right there, GVoice is a big win for me, cause any texts sent to my GVoice number get sent to my phone, but also appear in my inbox online, from which I can send a response using my keyboard (if I happen to be at a PC).

Then I went ahead and tried out the voice call features. I called my new (and local) GVoice number from my home phone. The Google system picked up, and asked for my name. Once it had that, the call rang through to my cell phone. I picked up on my cell, and heard the incoming call menu. Meanwhile, I still heard ringing in the receiver of my home phone. For this reason, the menu is short and fast: “<myvoice>David</myvoice> is calling…”

  • Press 1 to accept
  • Press 2 to send to voicemail
  • Press 3 to listen in on the voicemail
  • Press 4 to record the call

I pressed “1″ and the call connected as expected. Next, I called again. The second time I called, it recognized the originating number and did not ask for my name again, so my cell phone rang right away. This time I chose “3″, and said, “Hey, it’s David. I’m leaving a voicemail. Ok.” As advertised, I could hear the audio coming through on my cell. Simple enough; but here’s where it gets really cool. Immediately after I hung up, Google sent a text to my phone with the speech-to-text converted content of my message: “Hey, it’s David and leave a voicemail okay.” Awesome, even though the conversion wasn’t 100%. It gets better. The message appeared on the web interface as well (along with a Flash application to play the audio), like so: “Hey, it’s David and leave a voicemail okay.” The bolding is Google’s. It de-emphasizes the parts that it isn’t confident about. Indeed, this is the part it got wrong. Tell me that isn’t awesome.

A friend sent a text to my GVoice number, which, of course, was relayed to my cell phone. Naturally, it appeared to be coming from an unknown number, but Google prepends the message with the original phone number (or contact name, if it knows it). No surprises there. But for giggles, I called the number back, expecting to be connected to some Google Voice recording, or possibly my voice mail box. Much to my surprise, it was smart enough to forward the call to my friend’s cell! Amazing. My guess is that Google has a pool of numbers that it uses for call forwarding, and it only needs one unique number for every caller being forwarded to any given user in order to route backwards when a call is returned. Clever.

Yeah, alright, most of this technology isn’t new, but it’s damned impressive for a free service (with the exception of outgoing international calls), especially when AT&T seems to be going out of their way to provide me with as few features as possible. There’s always the possibility that Google Voice won’t be free when it leaves beta, but given Google’s track record and love for contextual ads and data mining, I doubt the price will change.

Oh, and as icing on the cake of smug satisfaction, my outgoing text messages are no longer helping AT&T’s bottom line.

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Let’s Not Forget

On this day, 233 years ago, we defeated the sky. We rejected the notion that our lack of altitude made us inferior. We rejected the doctrine of the clouds that density was a weakness. We said that gravity placed us here, on the ground, and that we were not ashamed. We declared the every person was created equal: man, woman, black, white, cumulus, or nimbus.

I was not alive to participate in or even witness that glorious battle. But the annual reenactment still brings a tear to my eye. I’m proud to be a citizen of the Terrestrial States of America.


Canon 500D

Last month, Canon announced another addition to the Digital Rebel line. The details can be found over at dpreview.com.

Before I go into what I think about it, I want to retract something I said about the 450D (XSi). One of my gripes was that only there was only support for three bracketed frames. Now I realize that when shooting RAW, three is usually more than enough for a solid HDR image. Heck, when shooting RAW, one frame is sometimes enough.

The 500D looks very promising. These were some of the things I didn’t like about my 400D:

  • Perhaps my biggest complaint about the 400D (XTi) was the maximum ISO of 1600. The 500D goes three levels higher and stops at ISO 12800. I have yet to see what the image quality will be like, but just having the option there is a big step. As always, grain is preferable to camera-shake-induced blur.
  • There’s still no auto focus assist beam. I don’t think any of Canon’s SLRs have this. I expect it would be less of an issue on cameras that have a focusing screen. Since my post on the 450D, I’ve gotten better at autofocusing in low light, so it’s not the issue it once was (my eyes are too bad to make manual focus an option).
  • Crop factor still 1.6x. It’s still absurd to put at 15 MP sensor on a consumer-grade camera. Nothing short of professional lenses will be able to utilize such high resolution. But that’s the number that sells cameras, so I don’t expect any end to this particular insanity. I’ll concede that for the sake of consistency, it does make sense to keep the Rebel line at a 1.6x crop factor.

The real surprise was that the 500D is going to support 720p video at 30 frames per second. This will make it only the second Canon SLR capable of recording video. Here’s one video of many videos shot with the Canon 5d Mk II. Between that and the support for high ISO, I want one. Yeah, it doesn’t do 6 FPS like the 50D. And, yeah, it doesn’t do full-frame like the 5D. But it’s a good bit cheaper than those models, and it still does a hell of a lot more than the 450D.

It’s due on May 1st, with an MSRP of $799.

EDIT: I almost forgot. They also doubled the resolution on the LCD screen.

EDIT2: Apparently the advertised “12800 ISO” is compete marketing garbage. The 500D has an effective maximum ISO of 3200.