Friday, January 20, 2017

Phyton: Episode 4

Jeff sat down next to him and pulled out a stack of papers, of course they were all blank to Al, but he saw the glasses peeking out of Jeffs shirt pocket. “Aren’t you worried that even knowing that there is alot more information on this case might bias my ‘expert analysis’?”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way.” Jeff’s realization and maybe a bit of consternation showed. “But surely knowing that you could be biased would cancel that out, right?”

“I’m not a psychologist, but I already suspected that the agency wasn’t sharing all it knew,” Al shrugged, “Seems to be standard practice.”

“This is the first time I’ve been on a case like this. Have you seen it before?”

“Yes, back during the GMO ban, they used the same tech for documents back when I was part of a team investigating the relevance of the ban. They must have squirreled away a warehouse full of that paper so they could go back to after the secure entity tablets were removed from service.”

“Someone had the foresight.”

“Or the bureaucracy.” They both chuckled, someone near Al’s age was probably being rewarded for keeping the paper around when it had really just been a case of procrastination.

Jeff put on the glasses and started reading. Al watched the countryside flash by below, just a few more years and the cross country hyperloop would open, no more need for long distance flights across the continent. But by definition the hyperloop was a vacuum tube system, so there probably wouldn’t be any views during the journey.

“What do you know about the Fislers?” Several minutes had passed along with the Rockies. Al couldn’t quite read Jeff’s face, what did he know that he was asking this now?

“What the public knows?”

“No, how you know them.” Of course, but then the public probably didn’t know much about them.

“They’re both nice people. I knew both of them before they met. Bright, probably some of the brightest assistants I ever had. They had opposite scheduled days and near the end of the term there was a scheduling situation which brought them in together. They hit it off and it seems to be working for them. They were married a few months after that, quite remarkable the amount of talent between them.”

“They weren’t actually in your field though, right?”

Al nodded, “Gustaf, Gus, was studying to be a medical doctor, but could easily switch realms from human physio to plants in a blink of an eye. I would catch him doing homework in the lab. After the first few times I gave up asking him if he was finished since he was already done. I just gave him more to do.” He paused getting lost in remembering how smoothly and quickly experiments were put together and completed. “And Angela, she was a marine biologist interested in plankton, she also had such a dexterity with machines and programming. Entities that had slowly become useless to me were quite responsive to her. I was there when they met. To me it seemed they covered all the subjects in the world, coming to a consensus and yet somehow getting all the lab work done.”

“Did you attend their wedding?”

“Yes, it was quite the to-do. Lots of appreciative family, both were thought to be too driven to ever reach that point, and the families were happy to be proven wrong.”

“Did you stay in contact with them afterward?”

“Can’t say that I did, saw some posts on the usual sites, about them having a kid, what was that, three years ago?”

“About four and a half, actually.”

“Well time flies. From what I’ve been told, it seems they are doing very well for themselves. And with…”

“Edward, a pretty uncommon name these days.”

“Edward, no kidding, but he’s probably just about ready to go into kindergarten this fall, right?”

“It looks like it.” Jeff tensed.

Al sighed, “What else do we know about them?” He hoped to get a bit more out of Jeff, but it looked like he needed to catch up a bit on the “usual websites” before the Fislers picked him up at the airport.

“A bit.” Jeff glanced at the older man, and back down to the pages.

“Well I guess we'll just have to see, won’t I?”


The rest of the flight continued in silence.

**Next Episode**

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Manufacturing Coming to a Place Near You

It’s old news, 3d-printing, unless you just got a printer for Christmas.

The manufacturing hub newly assembled.
I have been following the advent of consumer 3D-printers for quite a while, and they’ve basically revolutionized how an individual (normal, not owning a fab-factory) can think about custom trinkets or replacement parts.

Other than the price why am I excited to get a 3D-printer? While watching them get better and cheaper, it really has to do with two things: Exposure to the tech at COS and a major failure almost exactly 10 years ago.

First a bit of panic about the fact that it has almost been 10 years since the end of my undergrad degree. I guess I am celebrating by taking two graduate courses: Computer Vision and DB systems… Ten years later. It brings up some interesting memories of how bad a student I was, and how my senior project suffered because I had no clue what I was doing. I needed to design a circuit board, get parts manufactured, and write a program that would all be part of a telescope system. Much too much work for one person period, and I was a mess as a human.

I could not stay awake and I was afraid of failing with my project, therefore I did nothing. I think the first part was either just being dumb with sleep patterns or a real chemical imbalance that extended a few years into my first job. My money's on bad sleep patterns, I’ve now found that 7-8 hours really helps me stay awake during meetings, rather than field stripping and reassembling pens just to stay awake. The second part has slowly been remedied, mostly through COS as I explain in an earlier post.

There was also a revolution that started quietly just as I was finishing school: DIY. After I left the project in shambles and had been working there was a proliferation of things like Arduino and other premade programmable circuit boards (I designed a terrible circuit board that wouldn’t have done a tenth of what Arduino can.) Exactly what I needed to design for my project, but prepackaged. And then 3D-printers, I could have iterated on designs for the hardware, not worrying (too much) about getting it right the first time.

My failure was all my fault, but maybe it would have been worse if I had fewer excuses, or I wouldn’t have been as frozen in indecision.

Either way I watched 3D tech getting cheaper and cheaper, and I really wanted to jump on the boat. When it was less than $1k I thought that it would be good, but still other things like life were in the way. Then I started at COS and Brian had his printer at work. I thought about asking to work on it for a long time, especially when another employee was printing quite a few things. I still know that I have a slight starting problem (Slight, ha) but I finally asked for a quick tutorial and started printing. Now I know what to expect and have an inkling of troubleshooting.

There were failures, but overall I am hooked. Now I’ll need to post follow-ups as I print pieces, once I get this thing properly calibrated.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Phyton: Episode 3

Previous Episode

“Good work Field Agent Devney, your new clearance will allow you to access information you will need in California.” Agent Flind pushed a couple of manilla folders across a clear space of desk. “Sir?” Jeff Devney couldn’t help being excited, but he thought he kept it to himself. “Well we can’t send out a ‘green’ agent, so you are promoted to a field agent. For now your AO is just for SoCal and surrounding region. There are a few standby teams that will provide backup.” Flind leaned back in his ancient office chair, “If you need any other agency resources, let me know. And of course if you need any warrants we will have contacts for the appropriate jurisdictions.” Jeff eyed the stack of folders and then picked it up, pretty weighty, despite the digital paper. “Nearly four years ago I would have touched a button and cleared you to look at the info without all this paper, my desk was all but clear if you can believe that.” Flind motioned at the desk as though he wanted to sweep the stacks into the garbage can. “Any other questions?” Jeff thought hard, he didn’t want to sound dumb, just after being promoted, “I guess Dr. Ingram must be getting help, how soon is that?” “Dr. Ingram had two candidates in today that a consulting scientist and I have vetted. Hopefully he will take them, the sooner the better. Oh yeah, with the new clearances, you are actually cleared to know the case, obviously,” Flind indicated the folders, “It’s much more info than we gave the good doctor, but let him figure out most of it on his own. What we gave him will be marked so you know your talking points.” “Shouldn’t he know too?” “It might bias him at this point, and we really need a clear view by an expert. It is a touchy subject because we are dealing with the DoD.” *** Jeff tried not to think too much about traveling through the airport, sure the flights were much faster than when he was a kid, Virginia to LA in two hours, but security had become less efficient, and certainly much less enjoyable with the removal of automatic security agents. He didn’t remember the time before the tall gentle robot giants roamed the free-flowing, traveling masses, silently mixing with the crowd until they noticed something suspicious. A robot would confront the person of interest if they weren’t an imminent threat, or direct a blast of foam to envelope a possible suicide attacker. Jeff had seen a demo in school with a dummy and explosives being engulfed in foam, then the thud of the explosion and a slight distortion of the bubble. Foam was gone too, no one trusted a human to be able to differentiate as well as a well trained system. Manual scanners now throttled the flow of travellers causing them all to bunch into lines, waiting for permission to get on their flight. The number of successful attacks had rebounded to pre-artificial intelligent agent days, the decade and a half that the agents had been in place had only seen three successful attacks on airports, mostly because a large rush of extremists overwhelmed the systems. The party in power poo-pooed the idea that there was a correlation in the rise of successful attacks and their ban on using learning AI agents. Except everyone was an extremist these days, even the extreme normalist, or the extreme consideration-ist, one of whom tried not to have an extreme opinion on anything, or the one who would try to understand every single extreme they came across. Fortunately only a few religious extremist groups practiced violent attacks. Everyone’s views divided them into their own veiled worlds there were far fewer of the violent converts than 30 years before. Jeff wondered about the Fislers, other than the nominal extremism, were they fanatics of a cause? Would it be a bad ending? He spotted the doctor and waved, time enough in the future to consider these possibilities.

**Next Episode**

Friday, January 06, 2017

Rogue One Review

Or bravery for consistency and stupidity for inconsistencies. Spoilers…

I am surprised by this movie, but then it makes sense: They didn’t want to break too much continuity in the Star Wars universe by having heroic characters just disappear into an entire galaxy. Oh wait, they could have just faded into another assignment. So it really was a brave decision to kill all the characters that we got attached to.

Of course we had to have the Disney parent complex, even if her father survives through half of the movie. For some reason, maybe unforeseeable complications, many parents in Disney movies are bumped off rather quickly in the movies. Once we see Jyn and her parents in the opening sequence it is only a matter of time before the parents are no longer alive/around. They even go so far as to kill her mentor, Saw.

Enough teasing Disney for now, just some straight criticism. Although an expected Star Wars standard they skipped the crawl, but without any bad consequences. But then they skip around to 4 different planets within the first 5 or 10 minutes. I was fine, but definitely heard complaints about missing what was going on. (The amount of world building is astounding, though somewhat repetitive.)

Finally we get into the meat of the story on Jedha, a convenient desert planet where they want to talk to a defector about Jyn’s dad. Of course complications ensue and they leave just barely avoiding the land tsunami set off by the Death Star… Which is only using one reactor… Which wasn’t supposed to destroy the planet, but… That much rock and stone in the air has to be energetic enough to make the planet inhospitable, essentially destroying it for all intents and purposes. Makes me wonder why they needed to use all the power and create a new asteroid belt with Alderaan.

They get to another planet and see/kill, or might as well have killed Jyn’s father. During this time we learn that the Jedi who isn’t a Jedi and is blind can take down a tie-fighter with a souped up bowcaster, but later can’t take out more than one stormtrooper at a time, very... convenient.

Of course when it is revealed that there could be a weakness we have to have the heroic divestment, or disenfranchisement by the good-guys-in-charge in order to cobble together a ne’er-do-well group of beings (mostly humans with a token alien) that do bad things for the good of the rebellion. And then we are off to see the wizard, or the library.

And then we have an entire planet protected by a shield. What? And the only thing mentioned, or shown in the shots, is the library tower on a bit of built-up reef. They could have done better with an asteroid or some other inconvenient location. I guess they like their comfort, with only vader’s palace being on what we assume is Mustafar, you know, that lava-y one? Sneak in with commandeered ship and pilot, land, grab costumes from inspectors. The usual.

Then it starts falling apart: Stormtroopers guarding the archives are sent to fight, no thoughts about diversions. The original rebel troop numbers seem a bit inflated as they die, and are more so when a small reinforcement ship disgorges its unit. You can kill or disable a stormtrooper with a stick to a helmet that should be built to withstand some reasonable amount of impact (forgot to mention in Jedha). The rebels come up with a deadly ship ramming technique that is never duplicated during battles where the closely formed Star Destroyers would be devastated. As we discover that planets are more numerous in our universe it seems Disney makes up plenty to just be blown to smithereens.

I think though the best/worst part of the movie is when you realize that the initial deaths of characters that you started to like are all leading up to a complete wipe of the cast. Whoa! Talk about a shock. The best thing, despite me being a romantic, is that the final scene wasn’t the culmination of a romance. At most it was two friends holding one another while they were annihilated. But again, on an ocean world I am pretty sure that it would take thousands of years to naturally recover from a “single reactor” blast and maybe decades using the magic tech in that universe.

One final terrible thing that I need to point out as a software guy: The final sequence where the disabled ship crew writes a disk(?) and runs it down the hall. IF THE CORVETTE IS ATTACHED AND YOU HAVE POWER TO WRITE SOMETHING, JUST TRANSMIT IT TO THE WAITING SHIP! None of this dramatic, last-man-standing sequence where Vader had plenty of time to rip it out of someone’s hand/pocket with the FORCE!! Arghhh. And then the final nail in the coffin is that the corvette with Leia in it was in the battle.

Whew, anywho, did you catch the creepy of Tarkin’s and Leia’s faces? Just barely on this side of Uncanny Valley. R.I.P. Carrie Fisher, but I am glad this is a one-off and not a series where they need to do that again so soon. By the way, how are they going to explain that in VIII? Or did they already do all the shots?

Despite my qualms I actually thought it was a stellar movie, much better than VII. By far it was great to go see with my wife, her family, and my friend. All appreciate Star Wars, but also were instrumental in discussing some of the above points.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Practice Hurts

With my previous post on gaining expertise I still feel overwhelmed with the amount of stuff I need to learn with this new job. I just switched over an application to use a new database instance/schema. Of course in editing the settings I forgot to make sure it was owned by the right entity so we had a bit of an outage, fortunately only on test.

But that isn’t what I mean by the title. It was more of communications with people, with the office and its 20+ designers, developers, and administrators it is very easy for miscommunication to happen. Yesterday during a weekly standup I mentioned that I would move to the new database, but I ended up working on some alignment issues.

Then this morning I get an email about the test server being down and a short thing about when we should push changes to servers. I haven’t pushed changes since last month, lots of improvements, but still a few issues. So I was a bit surprised, and a bit disgruntled to be told about times to update things…

But this another area where I need to practice. First I checked to make sure I hadn’t accidentally pushed something, looked at the service, and tried to gather more data. Then I sent an email asking about where they got the information since I couldn’t seem to find anything that would point at an update yesterday.

It was still too early. I then found that it was because an account on the database had been disabled late yesterday. I got that back temporarily, but resolved to switch all the servers to the new one. And done.

I know that I have a habit of tearing into people’s assumptions if I have the slightest evidence that they are wrong. This is not the way I should approach it and today was a good example. I managed to reign in my immediate response and gather more data on the situation. I still didn’t allow enough time for me to find the root of the problem and actually write a thorough response, but at least it was not alienating.

Oh, practice hurts especially when it is teaching my ego to take it easy.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Worry About It, Later If Possible

It seems like an age since I wrote one of my last posts while still at COS. In it I mention learning, and I really need a bit of a pick-me-up in that area right now. I am very tired from all the constant learning that I have been doing with the new job and the two courses for my Master’s degree. I think I am a bit mad… although it is doable and I am looking at next semester for something similar I really need a reminder as to why this is so hard.

I just finished listening to Freakonomics podcast “How to Become Great at Just About Anything” (which seems to a duplicate title, must be an important thing) and got to thinking about how much time I have put into coding, programming, thinking, and sometimes dreaming about it. Have I put in 10,000 hours? By school alone I would say that I have put in nearly 800 hours. If I take the last two years of work and figure that I have spent around half of that doing solid work, that’s another 2,000 hours. If I add in the robot challenge that started in January and ended in September I put in another 2-300 hours.

So I am around 7,000 hours short of being an expert from a purely number of hours point of view. However, I’ve experienced something very important that Jeffrey Spies, the CTO at COS, thought was extremely important for anybody to experience, especially the people working for him: Gain expertise by struggle.

Just to give you a small taste of contrast let’s take a look at the NASA robot challenge that I participated in. Or rather let’s go even further back to when I was interviewing at Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia in January 2015, that was embarrassing.

They asked me to come up with an idea of how to improve the telescope and how I would implement it, a pretty broad problem, but being familiar with telescope dishes and just having finished helping with aligning the dish for JCMT, I thought I could have a bit of insight. I suggested that the dish alignment could be fixed with Artificial Intelligence. Or Machine Learning. That’s it, I really didn’t have any idea of how to implement this “dish” dream. Unsurprisingly they didn’t like the very spartan answers I gave and I ended up working for COS.

At COS I was thrown into a realm that I had very cursory experience with, as well as starting on my Master’s… Why not have two completely new things at once?

December 2015 my brother was looking for someone to help his team with some computer vision issues for the NASA robot. “Oh yeah, that will be easy, I have heard about that, you just need to do…” And off we went, except that a majority of the starting time after an initial evening of following a few tutorials was spent in my usual way of working on hard problems, just worrying. A majority of the work ended up being in the week or two before the June competition out of near, pure panic. Thank goodness it was on such an even field.

But I knew that September would be harder and I needed to implement actual Machine Learning, not just think about all the wonderful things that it could do. So I started tinkering. By the time the second level of competition rolled around I had a mostly working system to get a model running to check sub-images out of an image.

Between work and competition and, so far, a large majority of my classes in Python I was actually becoming somewhat fluent in the language, so even if I was working down to the last minute on work, competition, or classes I was somewhat confident that I could arrive at a solution for the more fiddly problems. Yes, even if they were out of my immediate understanding.

With the formal Machine Learning course I have come across material that the professors are talking about where I know the bare basics, but they are talking several ideas beyond that. My immediate reaction is the old one: worry about it, later if possible. Maybe that would be a motto that I adopt, it has a nice ring to it, but I really need to toss it out. I cannot do that any more. I am not going to be an expert in a semester, but maybe I can at least have a decent conversation about it, in fact I had one earlier this week with a coworker.

I have quite a bit more stretching to do before I hit the 10,000 hours, but I really need to remember that it does take work and engagement, just like writing. The more I do so, the easier it seems, too bad I didn’t figure that out until after college.

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John studied himself in the mirror as best he could through tears. Red, puffy eyes stared back at him, a running nose already leaked just a ...