Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Putin, Obama, Dark City, and Rat Experimentation

Dark City (1998)

The best Dark City (IMDB) review is from Roger Ebert (RogerEbert.com). Ebert goes on and on about the visual content, the blending of genre and the visceral feel of the movie.

Small Spoilier Alert (Will not ruin the movie)

Dark City uses midnight as a timing element for re-staging reality. In an early scene the doctor is running rats through a maze in what appears a typical experiment. The maze is set on a round table, and the doctor has a prod to encourage the rat. 

This construct serves as the larger metaphor for the movie, where humans are trapped in a city-sized maze. Each night at midnight the maze is reset, the test conditions reset and the test subjects are reset. John Murdoch breaks the pattern... and (I'll  not spoil the ending).

US Rat Experimentation (Foreign and Domestic) 

"As he [Putin] put it, the US has interfered in Ukraine “from across the pond in America as if they were sitting in a laboratory and running experiments on rats, without any understanding of the consequences." (Forbes, 3/4/2014)

While I might digress to say that the Administration is testing rats domestically as well (that would be you and me), let's stick with the foreign angle. 

What does Putin see? 

When President Obama drew and then erased the red line in Syria, Putin was watching. Juan Williams may be technically correct arguing that President Obama did not have congressional backing to go to Syria. Williams' clear omission is that Obama did not have the political capital (even in his own ranks) to draw the red line in the first place. 

When we claimed we would get out of Afghanistan and Guantanamo, and ignored Egypt, Syria, Venezuela (etc.), Putin watched. The disaster at Benghazi.  Weaponizing the IRS against the opposition. The Obamacare launch - total fail, with so much "fine tuning" going on that it is hard to know what's really real. We dithered on Keystone, and are now talking about reducing our military. Remember the US bid for the Olympics? 

Putin sees plenty of talk, plenty of bluster, plenty of complaining, and plenty of retreat. He sees a US Administration that is OK with failure, willing to create excuses and diversions. He sees the mistake of thinking that Obama's persona will carry the day. 

Putin is not a Mad Scientist

The Strangers in Dark City were searching for something specific... the human soul. Is mankind nature, or nurture, a collection of our memories, a collection of our collective memories, can you change the true nature of a person by changing his memories, or his environment? They need to understand how our soul works in order to save their race. 

Putin is not searching for something intangible like the human soul. As Romney and Palin clearly presaged, Putin is ACTING to get what he wants. Whether it is Georgia or Ukraine, Putin is acting to expand Russian dominance. Proof? How about a couple of maps showing oil pipelines in Ukraine and a detailed discussion of pipelines through Syria

 still wonder what George Bush saw when he looked into Putin's eyes. 

Putin does not care about our soul. The current administration is too busy experimenting with social justice to care about our soul.

We need to care. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Pine Wood Derby Results - Mea Culpa

After my previous post about the challenges of building "Blue Steel" for Tot3, the results are in:

Overall Standings (Pack 5 Round 1 & Round 2)
Den Time  Car Name    Speed (MPH/Scale)
5   9.122 Blue Steel    213.03
1   9.208 Day & Night   211.12

So yes, we kicked butt (by .086 of a second), took names (the second place finisher won the derby last year), and spiked the ball (but not in a mean, Seattle Seahawks' Sherman way). 

As for Tot3, her car had a devastating weight blow-out in her second run. Apparently, the heat generated by pine wood derby cars can melt hot glue. We were able to fix the problem (duct tape, of course), but Ender started .05 oz light, and losing a quarter (.02 more) meant a disappointing 60th place finish - out of 75 entrants. Ender clocked in at 194.96 over 4 heats.

Of course, next year is going to be a challenge.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Boy isn't Going to Win, and other Pinewood Debry Musings

Preparing for Defeat
This weekend Pack 552 is holding their annual pinewood derby. Last year the results were devastating. The winning cars clocked in at ~220 mph in scale speed. Tot4's car ran under 180 on all four heats. He was not happy with the results, and we are still trying to figure out where he gets his hyper-competitive streak.

New Strategy  
For Christmas we gave the boy a copy of "Building the Fastest Pinewood Derby Car: Speed Secrets for Crossing the Finish Line First!" The book has 10- 5-star reviews on Amazon, but wow, no way. 

While it is technically possible to follow all the rules, it is unlikely that the average Dad (that includes me) could execute all of the rules. The high tech design offered by the author requires very skilled execution with a variety of very specific tools and techniques. As a Project Manager that leads teams to build data centers, I lack nearly all of those skills. 

Rather than describe how the first car body was destroyed (while manually drilling the rear of the car to insert 3oz weights), I'm going to talk about the things that did work and that didn't require micrometers or feeler gauges. Yes, both are encouraged by the book).

First - Keep the body shape simple and leave room for adding weights. Band saw experts can cut beautiful curves, sweeping, swooping, dipping, bending body lines. But the cars that won last year were basic wedges - low, and shaped at the front, then rising slightly above the rear wheels. We employed this style for Tot3 - she will be in the sibling / wildcat class and will likely have great speeds for a very simple design. 

Second - Spend a bit of time on the axles and wheels. In this case the book gives a couple of key tips about proper grinding, sanding and adding a slight back-angle to the head of the axle. I simply inserted each axle into a hand-drill and used a small file and scrap sandpaper to smooth out the burrs and polish the shaft. 

The head of the axle needs to be filed slightly out, away from the shaft, to reduce contact with the wheel. (I refuse to quote microns or degrees like the book does, besides I need a few trade secrets). Rolling the axles on a flat smooth surface did a pretty good job of identifying the "top" of each axle. Both cars were tested to see if they rolled straight. 

Applying weights to the body can be a tough call. The key is maximizing "potential" energy by mounting the weights in specific locations. Somewhere out there is a physicist that will describe that location... he was probably the dad of the author of the book. 

Best Tip from the Book
Probably the best tip in the entire book was the method to correct the problem when the car pulls to one side or the other (buy the book, or send me a note). The second best was to use graphite in the axles. The wheels were able to spin much smoother with graphite. The test is easy: spin the wheel with your finger and listen to the friction. Add graphite, repeat. Quieter = better = faster. 

Worst Tip from the Book
Use a drill press and drill holes into the back of the car leaving enough clearance for the axles... 0.00125" clearance... check with micrometer, perfectly horizontal and parallel... "My God Jim, I'm just a country doctor."

Best Tip from Me: 
Krylon filler/primer - about $5 from Lowe's. You can spend a lot of time sanding your car, but this Krylon product fills most of the pores, sands in about 30 seconds, and takes a beautiful coat of color. Tape off the slot for the axles, spray, dry, sand... spray on final coat... perfection.

Boy's car from Mars, "Blue Steel" 
For the boy, weights were placed above the rear axle - and the weights became part of the body design. A wedge shaped weight covers a hidden, slide-in weight. At the weigh-in we simply slide out the lower weight, clipped off .2 ounces of excess weight and he was ready to go. (Did in mention that we had to cut a slot to hold the sliding weight, and that the top weight had screws just slightly larger than eyeglass hinge screws, and that I have hands the size of a gorilla? And, he wanted two tone paint with silver pinstripe and reflective metal canopy? And, that he expects to WIN)? 

Girl's car from Venus, "Ender"
For the girl, a simple wedge shape with secondary cuts on the nose for aerodynamics and the weights were added under the car, directly in front of the rear axle. Drilled 2 - 1 inch holes on the center-line, and added quarters for weights and a spot of glue from a hot glue gun to hold them in. We left the car slightly light, took, quarters, nickles and dimes and the glue gun to the weigh-in. Checked the weight, added a quarter (11 total) and hit it with a spot of glue - 4.95 ounces. She had a two-tone paint job and decals and the final clear coat destroyed an otherwise simple paint job. 

Both cars will do well on speed, and both are pretty good looking. His car took about 10 hours of hands-on effort, hers about 5. She has a good chance of winning the sibling wildcat class - which tend to be cars submitted for style awards. He is racing against 80 other boys. Applying the Billy Ball (Moneyball) principle, she is going to get the most production (success) for the effort (cost) applied. 

A Note to other Dads (and Moms)
The Boy Scouts promote participation and having fun. That does not apply to the Pinewood Derby. Other Fathers (and some Moms) see this as a core line item for college entrance applications. Kids from these parents grow up to write books on how to make your car fast. Winners get to spike the ball and do their touchdown dance. 

Both of my kids were encouraged (OK, forced) to be present when I was working on the cars. We talked about the process, what worked, what wasn't going to work, what was going to be hard to do. They got to help on tasks that they could manage.  

You can see the Pinewood Derby as a contest, or as a great chance to spend time with your kids. 

I'm going with the latter. 

...unless we win.