Eclipse

Total Eclipse, Wyoming, August 21st, 2017 by John Hellyer

I don’t know if anyone noticed, but there was a total eclipse of the sun this week (on Monday, August 21st, 2017)!!

Anna and I and some friends drove up to Wyoming on Sunday, and on Monday morning found a great spot in the park in Riverton, Wyoming. This was a great spot–not hugely crowded, but enough people to make it a truly shared experience.

Where we were, the total eclipse started at 11:39 and lasted for about two minutes, and was truly awesome–in the original sense of the word. It got noticeably colder, and you got a real sense of our puny place in the universe.

The crowd cheered when the sun disappeared, and cheered again when it came back. We all knew it would come back of course, but, well, you never know–that would have been a really bad time for the universe’s operating system to crash.

The great picture of the eclipse is not mine, but by another friend, John Hellyer, who attempted to get to Torrington, Wyoming, but didn’t quite make it because of traffic (although he obviously made it into the path of totality). We had no trouble with traffic on the way up, but got stuck in several jams on the way back, and didn’t get home until around midnight.

My pictures were terrible. This is the best one I managed:

Although I did end up with one very cool shot into a close-by parallel universe:

Glad we’re not orbiting that star!

 

 

 

Posted in Travel

In Print!

I just had a short story published in Phantaxis magazine! The story is called Playmates (as in childhood playmates, not the R-Rated kind!).

I used to write a lot of fiction, but stopped for many years. As I now have a bit more free time, I’ve started up again, and this is the first piece that I’ve had published.

I am about half-way through reading the issue, and there are some good stories in there. Mine is in there too!

If you are interested, the magazine is available for sale at Amazon in print and Kindle formats. There is also a special deal this weekend (August 18th – 20th, 2017), where you can get the Kindle edition for the low low price of free!

Posted in Writing

Underground, overground…

We’ve been clearing out the remnants of my cousin’s* stuff after moving him into a nursing facility.

If you are having trouble letting go of things, I highly recommend spending a few weeks clearing out a hoarder’s house. It makes you want to go home and throw away everything you own!

But, what makes it so insidious is that, amongst all the trash and forty-year-old receipts, you sometimes find something quite interesting.

My aunt* was a war bride, married while my uncle was stationed in London. I don’t think that this underground map was a collectible per se–it was just something that was just lying around for 75+ years.

What is fascinating to me is how work-a-day this is. It looks very like the maps you can pick up in tube stations today, with almost no indication that the blitz was in full swing, while the tube stations were turned into nightly shelters.

Actually, I don’t know exactly when in 1941 this map was printed–it is just labelled as “Number 2”, but the blitz ran through May, with occasional raids occurring long after that, and many people continued to shelter in the Underground throughout the war.

One slight indication of what was going on is the paragraph under the map that reads “Until further notice, Aldwych Station is closed and the passenger train service between Earls Court and Willesden Junction stations is suspended.” Aldwych Station was used as a repository for items from various galleries and museums. It is now a “closed” station that is often used for filming TV shows and movies. I don’t know the exact issue with Earls Court, but Willesden Junction was a major supply depot.

If you look at the map itself, it is instantly recognizable, despite there being a lot fewer stations and lines:


There are only 5 lines instead of the current 11 (not counting all the various overground lines shown on the modern maps). I also really like the little Olympic rings that show interchanges. I guess those were lost as the data on the map became more dense.

Then there is the back of the map:


There is no legend, but I am fairly sure that the Xs mark stations that were damaged or closed by bombs. A bit of googling shows that the listed places were all hit in late 1940/early 1941. The lack of explanation could have been because of censorship (although it is hard to see how useful that would be), or could just be standard British understatement. It is sobering either way.

Despite all my reading, I find it hard to imagine what London was really like during the blitz, or what it would have been like to huddle in the Underground during bombing raids. I know that my Grandma and my Uncle Ray were evacuated at various times (my mother wasn’t born until 1945), but my Grandpa generally didn’t bother with shelters–which meant that my Grandma didn’t get the option.

Apparently they were playing cards with some friends during a bombing raid when my Grandpa’s factory* was destroyed–they could see the fire from their house, although they originally thought it was the next-door building (which belonged to their card-playing friends).

My father was just a baby at the time (he was born in 1940), but he really didn’t like sirens. I remember once when he was sleeping and a siren went off on the television. He leapt out of bed and ran to the window before fully waking up.

In the 1970s, when we lived in London, I vaguely remember that there were still fenced-off bomb sites.

Posted in Other

Patently Absurd

Well, I officially now hold a patent – US Patent #9,612,825Systems and Methods for Merging Metadata-Based Applications! I wouldn’t bother reading it if I were you–I wrote the thing, but after the lawyers were done with it, I barely understand it!

The application took about three years, and is good for 20 years, by which time the technology on which it is based will be moldering deep in a landfill somewhere.

There are goodish reasons in our industry to get patents, and I am proud of what we’ve done, but I have to admit that I am generally not in favor of software patents. I’d happily give mine up–if everyone else would give up theirs at the same time :-).

 

There are a lot of problems with software patents as a breed:

  1. I have had to read a number of patents to make sure we were not in violation, and almost every time I’ve done so, after reading the problem, the patent describes the blindingly obvious approach that just about anyone in the field would have taken to solve the same problem–except that now, they can’t–because someone has patented the blindingly obvious approach.
  2. Twenty years might make sense for a patent on a threshing machine, but in the computer world, it is an absurd amount of time.
  3. Software patents are wildly abused. Big companies often allow each other to share their portfolios of patents, while small companies are stuck out in the cold. Whole companies exist that don’t add anything to the world except a bunch of lawsuits to protect patents that shouldn’t have been granted in the first place.
  4. The stated purpose of patents is to encourage people to release things and get some protection for their invention without the idea immediately being stolen–and to guarantee that the idea will (eventually) go into the public domain. Software patents tend to have the exact opposite effect–preventing new things from being released, or being pulled almost immediately, because of the threat of lawsuits.
  5. Nobody looks at old patents to get ideas because, by the time they are legal, they are irrelevant. Most people only look at patents to make sure that they are not in violation–which, I can tell you from personal experience, is a pain in the neck–and you can never really be sure until someone sues, and a court decides.
  6. Often the concepts in patents are designed to be as wide as possible–often much wider than any actual reasonable implementation. I had to argue with the lawyers a lot to prevent them from doing that with this patent.

I could keep going, but there’s a lot of stuff on this already out in the world.

There are probably a few ideas in the software world, mostly related to really complicated algorithms, that might deserve some sort of protection (although 20 years is probably excessive). Even in those cases, I’m not sure that patents are the right approach.

One thing that did surprise me–there is a cliché of patents being granted because of overloaded clerks who don’t understand them. In this case, the examiner for this patent had a very good understanding of the concepts and prior art, and raised some really good points. I think his name was Albert something… (Actually, to give them their due, the examiners were Qing Chen and Clint Thatcher).

For my part, I extracted a promise from my partners that we wouldn’t use any patent in my name for “evil.”

I also have to admit that, despite all of this, getting the final approval did make me grin a bit :-).

If I should labor through daylight and dark,
Consecrate, valorous, serious, true,
Then on the world I will blazon my mark,
And what if I don’t and what if I do?

— Dorothy Parker

 

 

Posted in Other

Don’t Press This Button…

We were recently in California, and spotted this button in the elevator in our hotel. The urge to press it was almost overwhelming. I can only assume that it turns the elevator into a much more epic, adventure-filled ride.

On the other hand, if too many people hit the same button in their own elevators at the same time, you might have another 1906-level earthquake to deal with, and that would be a bad thing to have on your conscience!

Also, there seemed to be no buttons available for the Confectionarium or for “Up and out” which is an obvious oversight.

Posted in Other

Frost

We had a big frost storm the other day. No point to make other than it was really pretty. Note that these are color pictures.

This was the grass of our lawn:

Posted in Other

Morbid Anatomy

The last time we were in New York, we went to the taping of a radio game show called Ask Me Another, which was a blast, and I highly recommend.

However, we got to the place (a pub called The Bell House) a bit early, and so we decided to wander the neighborhood. It was fairly industrial, with auto-repair places, etc., but down the street from The Bell House was a museum called The Morbid Anatomy Museum. With a name like that, naturally we had to go in!

It turned out that it was primarily a taxidermy museum, with nineteenth, and early twentieth century animals. Yes, it was every bit as creepy as it sounds, although interesting as well, in a car-crash sort of way. They had various large animals and birds on display, along with a section they called “crap taxidermy” where bad taxidermists accidentally created entirely new species. Sadly, I apparently didn’t take any pictures of those.

They also had a large section of dioramas. Pride of place went to “The Kittens’ Wedding”:

This was made in 1890 by Walter Potter, who was apparently quite famous for such things. I can only assume that all of the kittens died of natural causes before being added to the display. The card with the display makes a big deal of the dresses, talking about the Bride’s dress of cream brocade, with a long veil and orange blossom. They probably brought in Robin Leach for the commentary.

There was also this one:

This one seems quite suspect to me, though–everyone knows that weasels are bare-knuckle boxers, so I think that this might be fake.

Posted in Travel

Defective Dinosaur Repair

DinosaurMy sister came to me with her defective dinosaur. She had bought it on sale, then discovered that it was missing the cover to its battery holder.

Defective Dinosaur

It would obviously be inconvenient if the batteries fell out while in the middle of eating tourists or stalking small children (I assume that is what she got the dinosaur for–I don’t like to ask). She asked me if I could 3D print her a replacement, and I, picturing a simple rectangular battery cover, agreed. To be fair, I’ll agree to 3D print almost anything–If I can come up with a few hundred useful things, I might eventually be able to justify buying the thing!

My first sense of impending trouble occurred when she delivered the dinosaur, along with a battery cover from a second one that she also owned (don’t forget that raptors are pack hunters). It was not a nice, simple shape, but looked like this:

Dinosaur battery cover topDinosaur battery cover bottom

 

 

 

 

 

(Ignore the colored dots for the moment). It is a little hard to tell, but not only is this cover covered in curves, but the top curves in two directions! I have some basic CAD skills, primarily using FreeCAD, and can make squares and circles with the best of them, but I couldn’t figure out how to model the fancy curves. I considered taking a few on-line courses (vs. my usual technique of random clicking in the UI until things start working) but decided that I was too lazy.

Fortunately, our local library 21C, has a maker space! Aside from a number of 3D printers, laser cutters, a CNC machine, sewing machines, etc., they also have a NextEngine 3D Laser Scanner. This is not your grandfather’s library!

One of the makers-in-residence, Daniel, spent several hours walking me through the scanning process. This was what the process looked like in my head:

  1. Plunk object onto scan platform
  2. Hit scan button
  3. Wait 1 minute
  4. Get perfect model out, ready for printing
  5. Receive plaudits from sister and mother for being worthy and valuable sibling

Sadly, reality was a little more complicated:

  1. Put lots of little dots onto object. These are used for registration later, when you want to combine several different scans–you line up the different scans on the dots.
  2. Carefully put the object onto the platform. There is a little arm that can be moved and then tightened, which holds the object in place.
  3. Line up the scanner an appropriate distance from the object (the scanner is a separate box from the turntable) and make sure that your object is as well centered as you can make it so that the scan won’t get skewed.
  4. Start the scan. In the mode I used, it took 12 separate “pictures”, rotating the object 30° in between. The scanner then runs a laser slowly over the object and measures the bounce-backs to capture the details of the object. The first scan took about 35 minutes.
  5. Because this was a single scan, it did produce a 3D model in the software. However, the model also included part of the platform and the arm that was holding the object in place. Using the software, had to carefully remove those parts from the scan.
  6. Also, there were lots of bits missing from the scan. The top and bottom were incomplete, and the dividers in the bottom, which hold the batteries properly in place, were all partially missing. To deal with this, had to do several more scans, with the object positioned differently on the platform. Fortunately, these were not complete “360°” scans, but only included 3 separate “images”, so took a lot less time.
  7. I ended up doing 3 additional scans like this–top, bottom, and a better angle on the back. As before, I had to then carefully remove the platform and arm from the scans.
  8. The next step was to merge the different scans into a single object. This is done by telling the program which spots on each scan should be aligned with the others. Back to the little colored dots. Basically, you just find three colored dots in common with each scan, and tell the software (well, drop an anchor point) which ones are the same. The reason for all the dots is that only a few show up in each of the scans. In some cases, there were not 3 points in common (the minimum required) so I ended up having to use other shapes on the object.
  9. Once you’ve identified the spots, the software does the hard work of merging. It takes a minute or two each time, but is pretty impressive.
  10. Of course, a 3D model like this is actually built of lots of little triangles. All the merging ends up making a bit of a mess, so the software next has an option to smooth and simplify the geometry. This again takes a few minutes–some painful math is going on here. Finally, though, you can export the shape as an STL file, almost suitable for printing.
  11. However, almost is not quite good enough. The next step was to bring the file into Meshmixer, a free program from Autodesk for working with meshes. It has a very handy inspection feature that will find holes and overlaps and simply fix them. Here is the final model in Meshmixer after doing the corrections:

Battery cover in Meshmixer

I should mention that I basically went through this entire process 3 times before getting a successful scan. The first two times, the model was very messed up–messed up to the point that when Meshmixer tried to fix it up, it found about 7000 errors, then crashed! I finally realized that the problem was that the cover was too reflective, and so ended dipping it in talcum powder, which fixed the problem. Note also that you can actually see the colored dots are part of the model–the laser has no problem at all picking them up.

I could have used Meshmixer to clear off those dots. Also, the hole for the screw that holds the cover in place was mostly filled in, and I could have fixed that too, but I figured that the dots weren’t that big a deal, and it would be easier to just drill out the hole after printing, since it was a one-off. Here is the final printed cover:

Dinosaur replacement cover-topDinosaur replacement cover-bottom

 

 

 

 

 

This is actually my test print. The final was done at higher resolution, and took about 8 hours to print (vs. about 4 for the test print). The roughness you see on the inside is because I had to print scaffolding, which I generally hate to do–Cura (and most other) output programs just don’t do a great job with scaffolding, and it is a royal pain to remove it. I ended up breaking one of the cross-supports while removing the scaffolding the first time and had to do another print.

Here is a shot of the battery cover in place, and the dinosaur ready to wreak havoc amongst the populace (as soon as it manages to get off of its back):

Dinosaur healed

Posted in Making Tagged with: ,

Automatically clear Windows logon warning message

Windows Logon WarningI don’t know how widespread a problem this is, but I frequently log on to domains directly or via VPN for clients, and end up with the company’s corporate warning message on my machine on startup. Bad enough to get these from your employer, but incredibly irritating if you were just visiting!

Now, if you work for the company, they are likely using group policy to set this message and you are (probably) stuck with it, but if you are not really part of their domain, it is relatively easy to get rid of the message. You just need to run Regedit and clear the text from two strings:

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Policies\System\legalnoticecaption
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Policies\System\legalnoticetext

I found myself doing this reasonably frequently, so I figured I should go ahead and automate the process. I wrote a very small Windows Service that just clears these settings when the machine starts, then shuts down (the service shuts down, not the machine :-). Why a service instead of just an application that runs at startup? Two reasons:

  1. Since the settings are Local Machine, the code has to run as Admin, which you get for free with a service.
  2. The service can run before Windows gets as far as the popup message, so I don’t see it even on the first run — if it ran after login, I’d see it once after each reboot. Note that it is possible that the message might appear if you are super-fast when trying to login, but I’ve not had a problem with that.

There are a few caveats/warnings:

  1. No warranty expressed or implied. Use at your own risk (and if your IT department yells at you, not my fault).
  2. There are several other ways that the popup can be set (particularly the aforementioned group policy), so if it doesn’t work, a different mechanism is probably in use.
  3. I don’t generally logout and login under different accounts, so I didn’t bother with that scenario. However, if you run the service executable with an -instant command-line it will reset the registry settings immediately, so you can either do that manually or set it to happen on login (I’ve also provided a batch file).
  4. I created batch files to install, uninstall or just reset the registry settings without having to go to a command line. The only issue is that all of those things require running as Admin (or the UAC equivalent). The batch files automatically do this using a technique stolen directly from this site, so thanks to Evan Greene for that! If you are less trusting, you can just go to a run-as-admin command prompt and run ResetLegalNotice.exe -install.
  5. I only tested under Windows 10. No reason that it shouldn’t work on earlier versions though.

Instructions:

  1. Download the zip file from here.
  2. Extract everything to some directory. I put mine in a directory called C:\Utility\ResetLegalNotice
  3. Double-click on the InstallResetService.bat file. It may or may not pop up a UAC message. Note that sometimes Windows will automatically block any downloaded items, so you might (probably) have to manually unblock the batch files and the ResetLegalNoticeService.exe program (for each file, right-click and select properties, then check the “Unblock” checkbox and hit OK).
  4. Laugh maniacally at doing your bit to subvert the overreaching bureaucrats of the world (consider this step 1 of 1,999,343,252).

If anyone wants the code, feel free to ask in comments and I’ll add it to the post.

 

 

Posted in Programming

Really, really great…

Great Great GrandparentsWe’ve been working on moving my cousin into a long-term care facility, and in the course of doing this, we’ve been going through a lot of old photos. This one is truly incredible though — this picture shows my great-great grandparents and my great-great-great grandparents on my mother’s side!

The fourth and fifth people on the top row are my great-great-grandparents and the third and fourth people on the bottom row (including the guy with the Rasputin beard) are my great-great-great grandparents!

To me, this is just a stunning thing to see. There are no dates, but I’m guessing that this picture was probably taken in the 1860s, either in Poland or in Russia. The oldest generation in this picture could have been born 200 years ago, in the 1810s or 20s.

It looks to me like this picture is actually a picture taken of a fairly damaged earlier photo or daguerreotype. Unfortunately, the names of the ggggrand-parents and gggrand-parents are not listed, other than as “grandmother, grandfather, great-grandmother and great-grandfather”–but they are listed that way in relation to my grandmother Polly and her sister Edie (who was the mother of my sick cousin). Several of the other relatives are labelled more explicitly though, and they are people that my mother recognizes as great-aunts and the like. There was a guide drawn on the envelope:

Great Great Grandparents Guide

We don’t know who drew this either, but it is possible that it was drawn by my grandfather Nat (married to Polly) — it looks sort of like other things he has drawn and might be his handwriting.

It is amazing to see something like this, but also frustrating to not know anything more about it–the names of all the people and their stories, or even when and where the photo was taken.

I do not have any children, but my cousins Elissa and Shelley do. For their children, this picture shows their Great-great-great-great-grandparents!

Update: Lots of comments and communication about this photo from various family members. The baby Lily (Sheldon, née Herskine) was born in 1909, so the photo must be around 1910, and the relationships were off by a generation. The older couple in the front are merely my great-great-grandparents, probably just going back to the 1850s-1860s. The man on the top-right with the hat who is labelled “Jack, Lionel & David’s father” was called Alec.

Posted in Other