wrestling in Golden Gate Park

Lost my first wrestling match in 30 years last week. I mean, I haven’t trained in 30 years, but still, I feel terrible about it. He was too quick for my ankle lunge, too strong for the pull-by, and I didn’t think to try any strategy moves. Like when my coach crushed me with the Russian Duck-Under whenever I was feeling my oats. I tried a muscle-over throw; got pinned in under 2 minutes. Should I drown my sorrows, or start training tomorrow? He was just out of a college wrestling program, but still, my performance was terrible…


Drought: full reform needed, across all water usage and export patterns


So this evil Drought problem is clearly getting to me. But for the first time, it is not just intellectual, it is personal. The mandate calls for a 25% reduction, for all urban users. But I went water-wise 15 years ago: I don’t have 25% to cut! Anything that uses a lot of water is gone (minus Michelle’s small cottage lawn out front); everything is on drip irrigation already; high sun areas are mulched to within an inch of their lives, half the beds are empty anyways and the showers are low flow. I even have a rainwater storage tank (useless without rain). So I’ll be cutting down trees, killing native plants and paving over paradise next week. So if you need any drought-tolerant plants, let me know: I’ve got too many of them, thanks to California’s stupidly brutal and shockingly inept water management policies. I would have been better off doing NOTHING about water management until now; then it would be easy to cut usage down!



Another view of the consequences of screwing around too much with your groundwater. If pumping lots of waste water into the ground caused the earthquakes in the relatively stable mid-west, I’m not liking the odds of pumping out a lot of water on the frigging San Andreas Fault either… See also: http://www.cafrackfacts.org/impacts/seismology/

An easy mapping of obscure water math to everyday math: “the water needed to grow two and a half pounds of beef, or ten 4oz hamburgers, is the same amount the average person uses to shower. For a year.” 25% reduction in city-water-use means nothing if cows drink it all!

View story at Medium.com

Stunningly, The California Water Doom mandate to restrict water usage does **not address at all** the massive water consumption of agriculture and livestock! 80% of CA water flows to the fields that only contribute 2% to CA’s GDP. Instead, Governor Brown asks California city residents to restrict water usage: cutting our 20% usage by 1/4. But prior droughts showed that little enforcement abilities exist. And until they finally tackle the arcane and heavily subsidized water rights, the biggest problems will continue to exist! Alfalfa is the single biggest crop grown in CA, and we frigging export most of it?!?! Fix or end water subsidies!   http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/03/30/how-growers-gamed-california-s-drought.html

Add to that the depletion level of groundwater and increased earthquake risks, as seen in : http://www.motherjones.com/…/groundwater-depletion…

And and the brighter side, other people have already been forced to work on the problems, so there is a lot of lessons learned data we can use in our reforms!

In the same way that we can learn from Cuba’s forced evolution on local food growth, there is some very nifty stuff in Singapore on water management. They were actually shipping in most of their water from Malaysia, but between rain catchment, water use reduction, desalinization and NEWater (recycled waste water) they hope to be water independent, soon’ish. It takes decades to get this stuff done; that’s why I’ve been harping so much on it of late. http://www.pub.gov.sg/water/Pages/singaporewaterstory.aspx

And Cuba’s forced move to local agriculture looks very good too: http://www.archdaily.com/237526/urban-agriculture-part-i-what-cuba-can-teach-us/

California water wars: please step up, extraction industries! Is sucking up low quality oil more important than food, farms and cities? https://www.facebook.com/dailykos/photos/a.416444264254.190398.43179984254/10153294485079255/?type=1&theater

Drought: changing water policies

The current water model will not survive into a future of less rain, less groundwater and more people. Reshaping California’s agriculture will be very painful, and not just for farmers. Some extent of the farm subsidies have to continue. They provide a low cost of food to everyone and much more importantly, they provide a safe, reliable buffer to food prices when crop failures happen. We over-produce food, in my opinion, in part to keep prices steady, but also to keep the land and the farmers in production. I don’t romanticize farming: I fear cost and risk spikes in production that can cripple our overall food supply, each and every growing season. Never forget what a huge chunk of the total US food supply comes from California: whatever we lower production of here needs to come from somewhere, and a huge chunk of the US agricultural infrastructure is oriented around California that would then have to be shifted elsewhere. Yes, the percentage impact of agriculture on the California economy is small, but the strategic impact is huge. I don’t see any easy solutions here, but I’d start by declaring a national disaster event and get FEMA involved. With enough cash on the ground, we can pay farmers to equip for water-wise crops, buyout the groundwater rights before their total collapse, build a pipe from Oregon, distribute vegetable production across the entire US: whatever. From the FEMA website: “Raging floodwaters, swirling winds, and startling earthquakes are just some of the hazards that communities across America face. It’s impossible to plan for every possible disaster or emergency – but it is possible for community leaders to implement a scalable, adaptable organizational system or “structure” so affected communities can bounce back as quickly as possible – no matter the event.” If climate change destroying the nation’s food supply doesn’t count, what does?

Drought impact: oil

“California’s oil and gas industry uses more than 2 million gallons of fresh water a day to produce oil through well stimulation practices including fracking, acidizing and steam injection, according to estimates by environmentalists. The state is expected to release official numbers on the industry’s water consumption in the coming days.” http://www.reuters.com/…/us-usa-drought-california-oil…

Note also that oil companies are dumping their waste water into aquifers in the Central Valley, contaminating drinkable water to even further increase the water crisis! http://www.sfgate.com/…/State-let-oil-companies-taint…

Oil refinery usage data: “Refineries use about 1 to 2.5 gallons of water for every gallon of product, meaning that the United States, which refines nearly 800 million gallons of petroleum products per day, consumes about 1 to 2 billion gallons of water each day to produce fuel (USDOE, 2006).” http://www.epa.gov/…/waterinfrastruc…/oilrefineries.html

California Drought: part one of many. Desalination impact

Desalinization is still pretty pricey, but the tech is maturing, so in a few years, the money and energy costs should drop to affordable levels. What concerns me is the impact on the most basic level of the food chain. Desal plants hoover up massive quantities of water, filtering — and thus killing — plankton, larvae, fish eggs and other primary sources for the seafood we eat. A lot of fisheries are either wiped out or on the verge; desal could be the final straw. Further, dumping the now-briny water back into the ocean is another disaster to avoid: it pools on the bottom and can kill off more sealife that we need. There are ways around these problems, but we’re talking years of field data needed from the early adopters and there is a lot of dissension in the engineering ranks on approaches. Long-term, we can definitely fit desal into California water needs, but several years down the road at the soonest. We are running out of water *now* and we’ve tapped out all the sources. Glaciers and snowpack: gone and unlikely to return. Rain: gone for now, and unlikely to be a stable factor in the future. Groundwater: almost gone and hundreds to thousands of years to replenish, if that is even possible with the aquifer damage and California dropping by the foot. And oh yeah, what about the earthquakes coming down the pike? We don’t need more stress from groundwater shrinkage on the San Andreas Fault. Recycled sewage and storm drains (or kidnapping someone else’s river) will probably be the faster & cheaper way to start from a technology standpoint.

Metrical Metaphors (1 of N)

You can live without metrics in the same way that you can live without bottled water, in a land where Montezuma still seeks his revenge.

It will be cheaper than buying bottled water, at first. It’ll also be very distracting. It’ll also be painful, and you’d be working in a squalid, smelly mess each and every day. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that you’ll not get much effective work done each day as you run back and forth, eternally trying to avoid a Chernobyl event in an essentially chaotic system. Your schedule will become longer and unpredictable. Your recurring costs for cleaning and maintenance will skyrocket; your friends will make fun of you.

Sure, you’ll live. And sure, you saved short-term money by not buying bottled water, that ‘unnecessary frill.’ You’re already used to unpredictable schedules and your friends already make fun of you, so who cares?

But do you want to increase time, money and risks by guessing blindly at what needs doing next, all the while working under the distraction of smelly pants and suspiciously stained chairs?

Give your team a break. Metrics can be used to focus your efforts, quickly find problems, help clean up the production processes and add predictability.

You’ll get more done in less time.

A New Yorker in D.C.

John Challice came down from Manhattan for a weekend of Washington fun. The highlight was definitely the night we saw Lyle Lovett, Rickie Lee Jones, and a pretty wild, literally right under your nose crime!

It started as one of those nights where the summer heat of Washington DC was more than just bearable, it was flat-out beautiful. We’ve gotten lawn tickets for Wolf Trap, the national outdoor theater. Wolf Trap is amazing! The grassy slopes of the amphitheater were perfect, combining an excellent view with wonderful sound, plus stargazing and lightning bugs for flavor. I’d gone to see Rickie Lee Jones and I was quite impressed with this Lyle Lovett fellow that I had never heard of.

We got back to this corporate apartment I was renting in the upscale suburb of McLean, Virginia. I had just moved down to the East Coast to help open the government research branch for Jade Simulations, and this place was close to the office; useful until I learned the area and found something interesting. We grabbed a couple of beers and hung out on the second-story balcony; two Canadians enjoying the beautiful weather and the feeling of being outside at night without having to worry about frostbite 🙂

Then a large group of kids appear out of nowhere in the parking lot, all urban youth dressed. John cracked a joke, “well, there’s a crime waiting to happen!” We both laughed at the thought of a crime in this painfully tony neighborhood.

Then we were quite literally shocked into silence. The kids circled around a pickup truck, directly below us, and started beating the absolute crap out of the truck with baseball bats! John and I were just dumbstruck. We looked at each other, we looked back at the poor truck, and yup, sure enough, they’re beating the truck up with baseball bats, spitting distance away.

As the kids calmly walked off, John and I looked at each other, literally not knowing how to deal with such a bizarre situation, especially right out of the blue like that. So I dialed 911 and the operator answered “this is 911; do you have an emergency?” I replied, “well, I’m not sure. There’s a group of kids in the parking lot, beating up a pickup truck with baseball bats. Does that count as an emergency?” Without dropping a beat, the operator calmly replied “yes sir, that does qualify. What is your location?”

A couple of police cars rolled up, very quick quick. But John and I been so flabbergasted by the sheer brazenness of the bizarre, truck-beating crime that we couldn’t really give the police any decent descriptions.

And I wouldn’t be surprised if, even to this very day, John Challice still tells the story to his Manhattan crew of how he was in DC for less than 24 hours before he saw his first violent crime 😉

Postscript: it turned out that the pickup truck belonged to the maintenance man for the apartment complex. Apparently there has been a heated exchange at some bar earlier that night, and the kids tracked him down to make the truck pay for his words.

Voice Recognition: Tips and Reviews

The current best voice recognition software is probably Dragon Speak, from Nuance. It’s been around a long time, so there’s a lot of accumulated capability to extract usable text from an everyday voice, and they spent a lot of time optimizing performance as well. I don’t particularly care for their user interface and mouse movements are not very good. They also build a fairly complete profile of your voice and vocabulary tendencies, which further increases transcription accuracy.

But even more important than which package you use, a good microphone and a good sound card make a tremendous difference, as does maintaining a regular volume, conversational tone to each sentence. Dragon Speak uses a lot of context when trying to determine when a particular word matches a particular sound. So full English sentences, not point form notation, produces the best results. You also want to simply talk about loud without looking at the screen until a particular, say paragraph, is completed. Otherwise the slight lag between when you speak and when text appears is very disconcerting; it also makes you want to try and fix the immediate errors you see, rather than getting out several concepts quickly and easily, which can make you lose your train of thought. Far better to just dictate, then go back and clean up. DS does let you keep the raw audio to later help in the reconstruction, but I find context gives me enough clues.

I’m dictating this from a fairly loud environments, near a highway. I’m using an audio-technia Pro 8HE plugged into a buddy USP 7G sound pod. I chose both microphone and sound card based on the basis of their noise canceling abilities; your correct transcription ratio goes considerably up if you hand any voice recognition package a decent sample. You’ll note that the conversational style of this note produces a little run on, redundant sentence structure. So expect to do a little tidying up after the initial dictation phase is done: not just errors, but flow and length too.

From the above text, there were five significant transcription errors, and it made a mess of the microphone name because of the number/initial combination. But it’s very easy to train words and phrases as you go along.

The biggest roadblock for me in using the software is a lot of the time I prefer to think in point form notation to rapidly capture ideas. Forming formal sentence structures slows me down considerably, as does having to speak things out loud. The combination draws more brainpower than you think!

There is a mostly adequate set of add-ons for surfing through browser webpages, but after several bad experiences, I no longer try to dictate into webpage dialog boxes, I use the primitive editor in Dragon speak then copy and paste the results. There are some BIZARRE character addition and character deletion actions that can look like the text is correct in the web dialog box, but in fact it’s completely hashed out. Note that the Dragon editor is astonishingly buggy; it crashes frequently and leaves little driblets of text floating around the bottom of the document, so save your file a lot!

The best resource I found for microphone and soundcard information pertaining to voice recognition in general is KnowBrainer.com and their microphone comparison charts, which rank by noise cancellation, word recognition accuracy and comfort. They also have a usability package that is supposed to enhance DS, but I’ve not tried it.

The audio-technica microphone I’m using right now is my favorite microphone for ‘sit down and write something’ time. Its major issues are that it doesn’t pick up whispered voices very welland , it is microphone only, so you have to use other devices to listen to videos and such (your computer’s built-in soundcard is usually fine for that anyway). It is a corded microphone, which despite all wireless manufacturers’ claims, produces a significantly cleaner signal than any of the wireless headsets I have tried. However, being able to pace about and dictate at the same time is quite important to me, so I use a Plantronics headset too: the best by a lot out of the half dozen wireless ones I’ve tried. Avoid Bluetooth like the plague, the range is pitiful and it still doesn’t handle wideband audio very well. My general-purpose wireless set is from Andrea electronics; it has tinny but adequate headphones, and a surprisingly decent microphone for like 80 bucks. Its major problem is the fragility of the ear cup attachment points. I cracked both but repaired easily with some electric tape. TheBoom microphone is one I used to use a lot, but it was a little fragile. Their new model looks good (and can be used with cell phones as well) so I’m going to pick up one of those in the spring.

Summary: above all else, make sure you have a good microphone feeding into a good sound card and spend some time training the microphone with your voice. You really wants to see word recognition rates above 95%; the slowest thing by far in dictation software is going back and fixing transcription errors. And worse, if it gets a sentence garbled, whatever random trash it thinks you said makes it difficult to remember what you are actually trying to say. It does have an option where you can keep an audio recording of what you said, attached to all words and sentences, but again that slows you down a lot. There is a lot of performance tuning you can do via on/off features (under “Options”); there is an OK help guide for that. AND WHEN YOU GO BACK TO FIX TRANSCRIPTION ERRORS, ALSO REMEMBER TO DEAL WITH THE RUNON SENTENCES YOU GET FROM THE CONVERSATIONAL TONE.

Other voice recognition packages: Mac has an “enhanced dictation” extension. You turn it on and off from the edit menu; it works fine for small things and seems to interact correctly with browser windows. Windows has some form of voice recognition that you can turn on, I did not find it that useful when I tried it several years ago.

Bookworm to Sports

At work the other day, A friend noticed I was wearing a rugby jersey. Shocked, he said “but Larry, you’re a computer, zen type guy!” True now, but I’ve bumped a few heads in the past 😉

Sports have had a tremendous impact on my life.

When I entered high school, the guidance councilor took one look at my physique and immediately signed me up for the school’s wrestling and rugby teams. But not because I was a promising athlete, in fact, I was anything but athletic. I was a pathological bookworm: a scrawny 98 pounds, pasty white, and, how shall we say, withdrawn from the real world. I had a serious jones going: I read a couple of books a day and avoided people like the plague.

What the councilor thought – and for which I thank him – was that sports would certainly get some meat on my bones, but more importantly, they would also get me interacting with people, not just books. He had flipped through my junior high gym records and saw that I had done well in the wrestling and rugby classes, and just signed me up. Rather totalitarian when you think about it, but hey, I love the results.

My initiation into sports began exactly as you’d expect when a bookworm is thrust into the land’o jocks. Culture shock on both sides! There’s this amazing picture from that era that I’d love to track down: it was in the sports display case at school for years. It showed me in probably my first rugby practice. Imagine the scrawny, long-haired bookworm sitting cross-legged as he looks intently up at the coach, in a pristine clean shirt and sneakers, surrounded by the hurly-burly young thugs of the rugby squad in muddy, torn rags and metal cleats. It was the sort of photo that gets that double-take as you walk by: the feeling that something just doesn’t fit.

Rugby is one of the greatest sports ever invented. Ever play “kill the guy with ball” when you were growing up? That’s essentially rugby. The unnecessary rules and equipment from other sports are abstracted away: our team’s bodies and skills against yours. The high school coach started me as a fullback, I think on the grounds that that position was the furthest removed from the contact. But I quickly developed into one of the best tacklers on the team, and I didn’t have enough sense to stay out of the rucks and mauls, so the coaches moved me into the pack. As the whole “meat on bones” thing was starting to work out, I ended up as wing forward: kind of a free-roaming “seek and destroy” role combined with a “get the ball at all costs” role. Wing forward rocked 😉

Some people thought I was more than a little crazy: I took a lot of chances diving into some dangerous plays. But I think my total lack of sports background helped here: I had no idea that things could be dangerous or hard to do! I had the body control to pull off sprinting to a loose ball, barrel-rolling to scoop it up and continue sprinting, and the lack of common sense to do so in traffic 😉 My teammates rewrote my player tourbook description to include “Larry is a ball-hawking maniac who has the distinction of once injuring three teammates in one unopposed practice”, which is at least partly untrue.

I played rugby for over ten years, mostly for the Calgary Saracens. We toured Hong Kong, Singapore and New Zealand, but mostly played in Canada and the USA. I took several ‘top player’ game awards and played for the Calgary Selects, but my one big sports regret is that I did not pursue rugby further. I turned down invites to the Alberta Selects camp, and I had an offer to play for a New Zealand team. My reasoning seemed valid at the time, but opportunities like that don’t come along that often, and only when you’re young.

My most vivid rugby memories include, ironically enough, waking up from my first concussion. A better one is a practice session where we running a touch-only scrimmage. I laid out and just barely tagged a guy with both hands. He was pissed and started ranting something along the lines of I had missed entirely, and even if I hadn’t missed, wimpy little slap tags shouldn’t count. So next kick off, I muttered to the kicker “hang a high one over Viking boy” and I sprinted in for the kill. He caught the ball just as I launched myself into a flat out dive at his rib cage. At the last possible second, I turned myself sideways and grazed by his side, loudly slapping both of his hips as I went by, shouting “TAG!” and scaring the absolute shit out of him. A good example of unconscious thinking; I had no actual plan, just a notion of pointing out tag is not so bad, and that he shouldn’t call me a liar. As I ran towards him, the world faded to black and the next thing I know, I’m about to crush his ribs and had to adjust, literally, on the fly 😉

Wrestling was equally as interesting as rugby, and is a similarly abstracted form of combat: you, against me. Enough rules to minimize damage, then skill, strength, stamina and body control decide the match. Check out the bloody nose story for some wrestling fun!

Pongo the dorm guy is one wrestling story I’ll add later.

A summary view of me

I am a Canadian; a science fiction bookworm by type and a computer scientist by trade. I’ve traveled around the world via wrestling, rugby and Ultimate Frisbee tournaments, then I mellowed out into modern dance, Tai Chi and gardening. By working my way through school as a research programmer and tutor, I was able to learn from national lab level talent in coding while surfing all the academic fields the university offered. I find great clarity in the writing process, so a lot of my free time goes into alternate history, science fiction projects, storytelling mechanics for games and technical writings on the innovation process.

My passion is having passions. I love to throw myself into something new, for several years at a time, experiencing the ups and downs along the journey from student to craftsman to coach. I’m a learning junkie, essentially. That exciting twist in the gut when you make a connection between thoughts or find a solution to a blocking problem: that’s the moment I work for. It can be a joint riff with the team at the office or a late-night thinking binge, or better still, both 😉

I’ve coached in both sports and software; I love to find the path that connects someone to a solution. The position I play on a team varies. If the team needs a quarterback, I’ll handle the ball. If the team has a quarterback, I’ll run the ball, play linebacker, or take over a troubled software system. I like to win more than I like to fill a single role. Solving complex problems with a great team of people is what I do; which particular part of the problem I tackle is less important than the team.