Monday, October 31, 2011

Have a spooktacular birthday

Launch schedules slip. Due dates go by and babies .still. fail to make their appearance. Don't try to plan kids around satellite launch schedules. They are both moving targets.

Iris was supposed to arrive before Halloween, and we had to induce labor after Halloween. Do you know how hard it is to find birthday party supplies at the party store when they are stocked for Halloween? This year, we decided to just go with the flow and celebrate a spooktacular birthday.

After the success of last year's cake, we contacted Erin Smith of A Piece of Cake by Erin for an encore. The cake was breathtakingly beautiful, and tasted great, too!
She even put cobwebs along the sides. (Pardon my finger swipe when I lifted it out of the box.)
Can you believe this cake design came out of this drawing that Iris and I made with iPad Brushes?
Erin is a true artist. We'll be calling her again.

I survived the weekend. 10 teens and tweens at a party, 6 of them stayed overnight. Throw in a one day machine quilting class with Frances Moore and the homework for AI* on top of the normal mayhem of soccer and housework and I am ready to go back to work to get some rest.

Oh, wait, I need to get 8 technical reports out the door (no kidding, I counted) and we are entering satellite Cal/Val.

Dear Santa, all I want this year is more hours in the day.

* Mommy and me AI is not going so well. I lost her at Bayesian algebra and haven't been able to pull her back in. This is a nontrivial class. When they said it was geared toward upper division or first year graduate students, they weren't kidding. That, coupled with AI class server crashes and my workload at work and home mean that I finished the homework at 2AM last night this morning.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Insomniac's delight

In case you are awake at 2:48 AM (or want to set your alarm clock), the viewing conditions from the Los Angeles region should be just about perfect. From Spaceflight Now's NPP mission status page:
The Launch Readiness Review occurred today to verify the NPP spacecraft and Delta 2 rocket are standing in perfect shape for blastoff at precisely 2:48:01 a.m. local (5:48:01 a.m. EDT; 0948:01 GMT) from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Friday's launch opportunity extends 9 minutes and 10 seconds to ensure NPP reaches the desired orbit. The window closes at 2:57:11 a.m. local (5:57:11 a.m. EDT; 0957:11 GMT)
NPP is a meteorological satellite that will fly a sun-synchronous polar orbit in the 13:30 (early afternoon) local time plane. It will be launched southward from Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) slightly less than 12 hours from the desired local time plane so that it will go northbound across the equator at the named local time (aka local time of right ascension).

Sun-synchronous satellites fly over each region twice a day, once at the named local time plane, and again ~12 hours offset--one dayside, one nightside. Relative to the sun, they orbit in a stationary plane (other than circling about the sun along w/ the earth) and the earth rotates under them, through the orbit plane. If this is unclear, catch me at the next school or soccer event and ask; I can demonstrate with a piece of fruit.

Anyway, NPP is fairly large as met satellites go, so it will need to go up on a relatively large Delta 2 rocket. That, coupled with the night-time launch and 0% predicted cloud cover, mean that the rocket should be visible for a long distance. It should be easily viewable from the beaches south of VAFB. (VAFB is slightly north of Santa Barbara.)

Read A really big firecracker for a smaller Minotaur rocket launch. It was very bright and visible when viewed from the Redondo Beach harbor area. This one will be even more so.

Sign up for Spaceflight Now's twitter feed. Head down to the beach or the hills--anywhere you have a good view over the ocean--and watch the show. A very bright moving object, the rocket, will appear over Malibu about a minute after launch from VAFB. You can watch it move southbound across the sky for a couple of minutes.

Rouse your kids from bed to watch from the beach. They can sleep later in school. ;-)

Friday, October 21, 2011


I told my daughter the way to improve her writing is to write more often. Deliberate daily practice and all that. In response, she started Iris' Everything Blog, where she wrote some stuff that made her mommy proud. But she had a little trouble deciding what to write and what to keep private. Don't we all? Why do you think I blog so much about knitting and sewing?

Then she discovered Wizard 101. (Has anyone called Club Penguin the gateway drug to Wizard 101?) You can tell when she started playing Wizard 101 because it precipitated a drastic decline in my blogging frequency. Our photo library is on our household's sole Windows PC and Wizard 101 only runs on the Windows platform. I can't blog if I can't get time on the PC.

She became so obsessed with the game, we had to limit her computer time in order to get our daughter back.

But she's a clever one. She started a new blog devoted to Wizard 101, Wizzy101 Myth Style, where she posts semi-regularly. I thought it was just a ploy to get screen time. "I'm not avoiding homework/bedtime/chores; I'm doing research for my blog." It works, somewhat. We let her play a limited amount on weekends.

If you read her blog posts aloud, you can experience the authentic flavor of her verbal style and rhythm. It's not baby talk, but it's still delightful.

She sent an email out to her friends about her blog, but not many of them play Wizard 101 so she expected her readership to be low.

You know that new blogger dashboard feature that let's you see your blog readership stats? We clicked on her stats and discovered that she has gotten up to 5,000 visitors a day, especially when the Friendly Necromancer added her blog to their sidebar.

I've been blogging for years and only get 5,000 pageviews per month. In fact, when I guest blogged for the Atlantic magazine's website, I don't think I picked up 500 visitors from their links. I guess more people are interested in Wizard 101 than in my take on the state of science and technology in America and the history of women in STEM.

In case you missed it, I've compiled a list of my posts for the Atlantic.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Preconsumer waste fashion

Have you ever looked at the label on your recycled paper that says, "100% recycled content, 30% post-consumer waste" and wondered what that means? Post-consumer waste is stuff that has been used by consumers (end users) and then collected for recycling. The What would Rachel wear? dress, made with a men's shirt from Goodwill, is an example of post-consumer recycled fashion.

Pre-consumer waste is collected in the manufacturing process. For instance, denim scraps from jeans factories can be collected and turned into home insulation and high-quality rag content paper. Sometimes, the larger scraps can be sold to consumers like myself to make the pants I showed in Kids Clothing Week Challenge.

Here's a trio of adult-sized pre-consumer waste t-shirts
made from the TNT Burda 2565. It's an excellently-drafted basic, slightly fitted t-shirt.
The snakeskin-print T is made from 4 scraps of poly/lycra found in a bin for 50 cents a piece.
It's very difficult to photograph it, but this flash photo shows the scale. Although I made it years ago, the snakes skin print is very au courant.
The red/white jersey is 100% cotton. The blue stripes are rayon, but the black stripes are synthetic (nylon?). I lined the fronts of both with bamboo rayon jersey. The shoulder seams are enclosed, but the rest of the seams are sewn as one with the face fabric.
I was inspired by Vogue's Maine Attraction feature last June. Stripes and polka dots, what's not to like?
Which was the inspiration for pairing this silk polka dot skirt I found at Goodwill ($2, post-consumer waste) with the red/ivory t-shirt ($2 pre-consumer waste). I don't live in Maine, so I swung by the beach on my commute home and asked two old guys carrying skateboards to snap my picture. They grudgingly did it; I could tell they were eager to hit the "strand", a paved trail that runs the length of Santa Monica Bay, from Torrance in the south to Malibu in the north.
We tried the other direction, because the sun is low in the west after work and you can't see the outfit at all. This is not the most flattering shot because the guys were really, really impatient.
Iris snapped this picture of the blue/black t-shirt before school/work.
In the same Vogue feature, I was inspired by this cabled sweater.
But I have a plan to address this void in my Fall wardrobe, using some pre-consumer waste cotton/cashmere blend yarn from Colourmart.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Kids Clothing Week Challenge Wrap-up

I didn't officially join kcwc (kids clothing week challenge), but here's what I sewed in the month of October.

I bought nearly all of the fabrics that I used from SAS fabrics, an odd jobber near Los Angeles that sells leftovers from the garment industry by the pound. The fabric often has oddly-shaped chunks cut out of it or stains or writing or rips. This makes pattern layout challenging at times. But, at $3.49/pound, this piece of good-quality cotton French terry was worth the effort. Besides, I couldn't resist fabric printed with the fashion capitol cities of the world.

A pound-sized piece was enough to make this jacket made for Iris. She picked the buttons out. They also came from SAS (25 cents each).I lengthened the jacket in Burda 9574 to waist length and the sleeves to full-length.

There is an interesting double dart detail at the sleeve cap. Overall, this is a very well-drafted and quick pattern.

I used Kwik Sew 2666 again for two pairs of shorts. The black double knit rayon/lycra might have come from Kashi at Metro Textiles, but the turquoise cotton rib knit came from SAS.

It's baby season at work so I pulled out some of my Kwik Sew favorites, Sewing for Babies/Toddlers/Children.

If you want to sew quick basics for kids, you couldn't go wrong with these books. Here are line drawings of all the things you can make with these books.

I used some remnants to make 3 pairs of baby pants, 2 small, 1 large. They were a hit.

Los Angeles is the epicenter for the "premium jeans" craze. Much of the sewing and "distressing" takes place in Gardena, CA, near SAS Fabrics. Scraps of really nice denim are sold for $1.50/pound at SAS. I bought two 24" long, full-width remnants ($1.75), cut out two baby pants (L) and have enough left over for another pair of baby pants or a girl's skirt.

I tucked this note in with the pants.

An estimated 10% of Los Angeles’ landfill waste is textile*, much of it from the garment industry. Some factory waste is collected by odd-jobbers and sold by the pound at centers throughout the region.

The fabrics for these pants come from this type of pre-consumer waste. The thread and elastic are scraps left over from other projects. All components of these pants were diverted from the waste stream.

Dress your baby in garbage! ;-)

* This is from a 1991 estimate, before much of our apparel industry went overseas. However, a recent EPA study showed that over 5% of municipal waste nationally is textiles. LA, which has become the largest remaining garment manufacturing region in the US, will likely have somewhat higher than 5%. Fortunately, we have an economic ecosystem diverting scraps from the waste stream and I am happy to be part of this food chain.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Dennis Ritchie, RIP

I just want to point out that, had OS X not been founded on Unix, I never would have switched from PC to Mac or bought a Mac for my daughter's first computer. Unix and open-source compilers changed everything. It made it possible for millions of tinkerers to tink. We didn't buy a Mac because it was cool or because we liked black turtlenecks. We bought them to mess around under the hood.

I am astonished at how little attention Dennis Ritchie's death has generated in the lamestream media (a phrase I learned from Eric). If you don't know who Dennis Ritchie is, read this eulogy at ZDNet, Dennis Ritchie, father of Unix and C, dies.

Iris and I had fun messing around with "Hello, world" in Perl last year. When she saw me on my MacBookPro working the exercises in a Perl programming book, I started expanding the program with questions and decision trees. I had the code in one Xterm window and ran the code from another one.

She watched the effect of the code changes on the behavior of the program and exclaimed, "I see how they made The Moron Test."

Well, not really. The Moron Test was likely written in a proprietary API, application programming interface. APIs have been proliferating like tribbles of late.

Us old-timers prefer open source ubiquitous languages. Our memory banks are too full to cram in every API du jour.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Byron Lars

This post is for sewing geek goddess Carolyn, who shared her delightful new BIG-pocketed skirt today.

I once saw clothes in a boutique with four sleeves--two where they normally go and two more growing out of the side seams to tie as a sash. The label said Byron Lars. Imagine my delight when Vogue Patterns started offering some of his designs in the mid 1990s. Sadly, they are different from the ones I saw in the boutique. These are the two I have in my collection, Vogue 1419 and 1529, circa 1994 and 1995 respectively.

You can find lots more on Flickr, Ebay and Etsy.

I, too, am working on my own skirt with BIG pockets. Actually, they are sleeve-sized.
I'm still playing around with the design, trying to incorporate the shirt collars and sleeves.
I found two identical shirts at Goodwill. I didn't like the original Kelly green and white check, so I over-dyed it with turquoise. I found some turquoise washed rayon challis and a remnant of silk/cotton jacquard in the same lovely color in my collection. There are definitely possibilities here.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011


The web has exploded with eulogies for Steve Jobs. I've never met the man, but I wanted to write a little bit of my experiences with Apple and NeXT computers (shown below*) and explain why my daughter's first computer is a Mac.

It's hard to explain to the youth of today, who grew up with ubiquitous computing devices and omnipresent network connectivity what it was like in the dark ages of computing. ;-) And, even I, who grew up with solid state electronics, was fascinated by stories of even earlier vacuum tube computers (and the armies of men and women who worked on them).

My story is that of a girl who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in what later became known as Silicon Valley. Most of the stories are being posted by men and I wanted to write a story for my daughter because she is about the same age I was when I first started writing computer programs.

When I was in the 6th grade, my parents split up. I don't know how my mom found the money, but she sent my sister and I to a BASIC programming class at a local computer store. Back then, all computer stores were independent mom and pop operations that also served as a nexus for computer hobbyists. They offered meetings and classes nightly.

Most of the students were adults, but there was also a boy of similar age. His mom told me that, prior to marriage and motherhood, she had worked as an IBM programmer and wrote her code in machine language. I laugh when people tell me that programming in BASIC is too painful. (All that allocating and deallocating memory.) Have they programmed in machine language?

We didn't have money to buy our own computer, so we wrote the programming exercises solutions on paper and the teacher told us whether or not they would work. I don't recall if we were able to actually use a computer in the store to test our programs.

I got serious about violin and dropped computing until the 8th grade when I took it as an elective in school. The entire class of ~20 students shared a single Apple IIe. I had a leg up on the other kids because of my prior exposure to BASIC. Or, perhaps, I just naturally think algorithmically.

The Apple IIe was beige. Some marketing genius thought that beige would be less intimidating and more likely to be brought into people's homes. Perhaps that is an apocryphal story. But beige did reign for some time. Atari, IBM, Compaq, Apple--all beige.

I took another programming class in high school and we used terminals connected to the school district's mainframe. They allowed kids to work on the same system that handled the district payroll! The only reason that our high school was able to offer a CS class was because we were co-located with the district main office. None of the other schools offered it because networking was still in its infancy. Again, we programmed in BASIC.

In high school, my dad bought my sister and me an Atari 800 and we programmed it in BASIC. We also became very proficient in the Atari classic game, Asteroids. To this day, I cannot look at a bagel without thinking of Asteroids. (There are two options for handling the screen edges in Asteroids. The selection that makes objects drifting off the R edge appear at the L edge and off the top edge to the bottom edge, vs. pure reflection, is topologically equivalent to a torus aka a bagel shape.)

I should mention that personal computers of all flavors used to boot up very quickly because they had very "lightweight" operating systems without any modern doodads. You turned the switch on, and in under a minute, you were confronted with a flickering cursor on a blank screen. It was easier to get work done because you had fewer distractions. When you turned off the computer, all of your programs disappeared--unless you recorded it to an audio cassette tape. Reading your programs off the cassette was always exciting because, unless you synchronized the play button just so, you didn't start at the beginning of the file and you lost your file.

As a freshman at Cal, I took Programming for Scientists in Engineers and we wrote our code in Fortran. I continue to use Fortran to this day because so much science code is written in it. We did our work on terminals connected to a mainframe. I can't recall how we saved our programs. I look back now and see that I did fine in that class. But, for some reason, I came away from that class thinking that I was not cut out for computing.

By the time I was a junior, I could avoid computers no longer. Physical chemistry lab required us to write analysis and modeling computer programs. Although we were allowed to use a chemistry department computer lab full of IBM PCs (beige), the lab was closed on weekends and evenings. By then, we were saving our programs on floppy disks.

The CS dept computers were available longer hours than the chemistry dept ones. At the time, I was dating a guy in the CS department who would log me into a departmental computer so I could do my homework anytime I needed it and he was around. The only problem was that the CS dept computers ran on Unix and I hadn't learned it yet.

Fortunately, one of my friends taking the same class had previously held a workstudy job helping a biology professor work up his data. He spent the time to teach her Unix because her labor was free to him (the university, not the professors, paid workstudy students) and she took the time to teach me. We wrote our code in Fortran. My friend and I both did well in the class and I do appreciate the help from the guy who lent us his login id. That would be against university rules today and I don't want to get him in trouble. I also realized that I might not be hopeless at computers.

My senior year, I took upper division numerical analysis in the Math department. It was reputed to be a "weeder" class that forced many a student to switch majors. Oddly, I didn't find the coursework difficult at all. The social environment in the computer lab was the main hurdle.

Sun had donated a batch of beige Solaris (a flavor of Unix) workstations to Cal and the university installed it in a the basement of the Math building in a warren of rooms called the Web. Each little room contained ~4 workstations and there were about 30 workstations in all.

Contention for resources were high, but the department did not enforce time limits. Most of the machines were taken up by male students playing games and the lab proctors refused to boot game players off to let us do our homework.

Moreover, the boys had installed Sports Illustrated swimsuit images as screen backgrounds.  Imagine sitting in a small semi-enclosed space with 3 young males, all looking at 20" screens displaying T&A (tits and ass).  Would you feel safe?  Now try to focus on your homework.

I asked a lab proctor once if he could get the boys to remove their screen backgrounds and reinstall the default one from Sun. He said that it was not his business to police behavior. The boys were in there for hours and the place smelled like them, too. It was a really, really hostile place for girls trying to do homework.

A female classmate and I banded together for protection. We would set our alarm clocks extra early and show up at 6 AM, just as they unlocked the lab for the morning. We had the place to ourselves and got our work done. By the end of the semester, we noticed that the other girls had developed the same coping strategy. The downside was that, at 6 AM, there were no teaching assistants or lab techs around if you had trouble with your code or your machine. We helped each other. We were allowed to program in either C or Fortran and I turned in my homework in Fortran. I also shared my rudimentary Unix skills with the other girls.

By the time I started grad school at CU Boulder, I was feeling pretty computer-proficient. A friend introduced me to one of the Unix help desk workers at CU and I visited him occasionally both for CS help and socially. One day, in 1988, he was playing with a big black monolith on his desk. It really did remind us of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey with it's sharp edges and glossy dark color.

He said it was a NeXT (pictured above) loaner for review. I asked how it differed from other Unix workstations. He pointed to it and replied, "It's black, not beige." Actually, the color choice hinted at other things that were different under the hood. Overall, my friend was very impressed with it and was sad when NeXT failed to gain traction and died.

In grad school, I took a class in Unix system administration and was a co-admin for my research group's workstation. After graduation, I took a more advanced Unix sysadmin course at my current workplace so I can do my own care and feeding of workstations. I also picked up several more programming languages. I made my first computer animation in 1990. I made my first website in 1994. If I needed to do something that required new computer skills, I would pick up a book (or several), ask friends for sample code and just do it. I did all of these on Unix systems. I even wrote my PhD thesis with LaTeX on Unix systems, but I did make some of the figures on a Mac and export them in postscript for ingest into LaTeX.

Then Bad Dad said that he only wanted one operating system in our house and we should go with the dominant PC DOS/Windows. I was never very happy with Windows because I never knew where it was putting the DLLs. If you don't know where your executables are going, you aren't practicing safe computing. Anyway, I feel more at home with Unix/OS X than with Windows.

So, when Apple introduced OS X, which is built upon Unix, I agitated to get a Mac at home. There is something so reassuring about being able to open up an xterm and see a command line with a blinking cursor. It gives me a kind of warm milk in a cozy kitchen type of feeling.

OS X comes with many compilers for all sorts of different languages. You can download more by installing Xcode. You can download even more from SourceForge. When you compile a program, the executable stays right there in the directory where you invoked the compiler. Or you can redirect it to a place of your choice. But you know where things are going because YOU control it. It's not as clear on a PC.

[I am really mad at Apple about the marginalization of Xcode. It used to come on a disk with every system. But then they stopped giving customers a disk and told us to download it from the Apple website. Now they charge $5 to download it. $5 doesn't sound like much, but this means that you need a credit card to get it. Kids don't have credit cards. So now they've placed a barrier in front of kids who want to learn how to program on Macs. And why can't a kid write an iOS program and load it up on their own iPods without joining the Apple developer program for an additional $99?]

I wanted to teach my daughter how to write computer programs. I didn't want her messing with my computers so I bought her her own 13" MacBookPro and set up Xcode for her and bought her introductory books for Unix, BASIC and Python.

Unfortunately, the web has too many distractions. Sitcom humor on is more alluring to her than a blank screen and a blinking cursor. When I was her age, I had less access to computers, but I knew more about programming and the inner workings of a computer than she does.

How do I turn her from a consumer to a creator?

* I snagged the picture of Tim Berners-Lee's NeXT computer from Wikipedia. It is the world's first web server.