Terrorists Attack the United States

What a couple of days this has been. Yesterday I was following my usual routine in the morning; crawling out of bed and checking the news online. The first thing I saw was the slashdot article saying two planes had hit the World Trade Center. Two planes – it must have been intentional, I thought. I assumed they probably meant small, personal planes and at first thought it might be some nutcases like Timothy McVeigh. But when I flipped on CNN and saw that they were commercial airlines, I knew immediately it was something bigger. Suicidal terrorists trying to commit mass-murder on as huge a scale as possible – only one thing in the world today immediately comes to mind to fit that description: Middle East Islamics. (I suppose I should qualify that by saying “militant” Islamics or something just in case there are some Islamics around that are not psycho mass-murders – and if there are, I hope they’re re-examining their choice of religions today)

Susan and I watched as both towers collapsed live on CNN and CNBC. And we continued to watch for most of the day as we tried to communicate with friends and relatives that were in the area. We determined that my Uncle was not in the Pentagon when the plane hit. My sister and brother-in-law turned out to be safe in Chicago. A friend who had been in New York over the weekend had left the day before. So far, my friends and family were out of harm’s way. We know from what we saw on TV that many others were not so lucky. I checked in with some Saudi-American friends to make sure they were safe (there are racist whackos in the US who, while mere amateurs compared to Islamic nutcases, will probably be using this opportunity to express some hate of their own).

We eventually went into to the office for about an hour to take care of a few things that couldn’t be put off. We tried to donate some blood but were turned away because of five hour lines (we’ll try again when the lines diminish). We did manage to at least make a donation to the Red Cross through Amazon. After returning home we watched more hours of coverage, including coverage of Palestinians and Egyptians apparently happy and rejoicing that their friends has set some new record for mass-murder. Finally, we tried to get some sleep.

I was up early this morning and was suprised by how many of those commenting on Slashdot and Advogato about the attack were defending the actions of the terrorists, calling for the US to do nothing in response, or, the most bizarre one I saw; a person who praised the bravery of terrorists, saying “Is there anything more brave than dying to save your country / people / faith?”. (sorry, these men were murders, evil, scum, cowards, religious nuts or even insane, but I certainly wouldn’t say they were brave). I think a lot of the posters were not from the US and probably were in fear of either the terrorist attacks or the US.

My own view is that what Bush is doing so far is dead-on. And, anyone who reads my news posts regularly is probably aware that I’m no fan of Bush. But I’m 100% behind him on this. This was an act of war against the US by organized terrorist groups and the nation(s) that support them. We need to investigate, find the people who organized and payed for this mass murder, and remove them from the world. We need to find out what countries supported them in this act of war and bring them to justice as well. If that means the US is now at war with Afghanistan, Iraq, or other countries, then so be it. Some of those “governments” have been funding terrorists for too long and it’s about time to someone held them accountable. And who knows, if we can replace a few of those Islamic-whacko theocracies with some free, open, democratic governments in the process it might bring the whole world a lot closer to peace and safety.

More on Walking Robots

I went to a regular DPRG meeting for the first time in several months yesterday. It turned out to be fairly productive. Eric and I did a little empirical research with his walking robot (which we’re likely to use as a starting point for the CF Walker design). We verified that it can travel up a handicap ramp. It would need some software changes and possibly some modifications to the feet to maintain balance on steeper inclines (or a sensor on each foot that could measure the inclination of the ground with each step and adjust the tilt of the leg accordingly).

We timed it moving 8 feet (2.4 meters) – it took about 20 seconds. That translates to 8.3 seconds to complete a meter (compared to our goal of 1.4 seconds per meter). We guessed there was a lot of software and hardware optimization that
could be done with the existing robot and I wouldn’t be suprised if we could drop it to 4-5 seconds per meter pretty easily. To get better speed than that would probably take more significant redesigning of hardware. Hopefully I can crank out some drawings shortly so we can start cutting parts for a 1/3 scale model in the next week or two.

Otherwise, this weekend has been spent pondering more corporate and “intellectual property” issues. Disney and the recording industry are making a major push to take away more consumer rights with the SSSCA, a new bill they bought from Senators Frizt Hollins and Ted Stevens. The bill hasn’t been passed yet but they’ll be pushing hard to get it passed this year. It’s sort of a sequal to the DMCA which took away our fair use rights to “intellectual property”. As many of us did when DMCA came up, Susan and I will be writing letters and doing what we can to stop the SSSCA bill from passing. But, of course, it’s very hard for citizens to interfere with corporate control of the government these days.

Slashdot has an article about the EFF OAL, yet another free music license. While the OAL looks interesting, I’m afraid what’s needed to fix the problem is something more than just another license. I have some thoughts on a possible solution that have been swirling in my brain for a couple of years but I haven’t quite managed to work out exactly how to make it work yet.

The Case of the Mysterious Mail Delay

I spent the afternoon trying to diagnose some email problems on a client’s LAN. They have a mixed environment of Windows and Unix servers. Their internal DNS server is a Windows 2000 box. Their external DNS server and email server are Red Hat Linux boxes. Sometime yesterday, for no apparent reason they began experiencing a 30-45 second connection delay between the email server and their email clients (mostly MS Outlook – yes, I’ve warned them that Outlook is the single biggest propagator of viruses in the known Universe but they still use it).

We checked all the usual suspects. No DNS problems, no recent changes to BIND or sendmail.cf, no sign of DoS attacks, rootkits, viruses, etc. I’ve seen a similar problem caused when the Timeout.ident value in Sendmail is set too high but this was not the problem either. For now, it’s a mystery but further experiments will hopefully turn up the cause.

Bush Lets Microsoft off the Hook

I just heard the news about the Bush DoJ reversing its entire campaign to bring Microsoft to justice for its crimes. Weird. While I’m disappointed, this doesn’t come as a complete surprise given Bush’s lousy performance in office so far. This topic has come up often since the election and nearly everyone I’ve talked to (including myself) has predicted that Bush would cave in to Microsoft eventually. On the other hand, while I’d love to see Microsoft get what they deserve, it may be more satisfying in the long run if we beat them ourselves with Free Software instead letting the US government do it for us. But that’s still a big if.

Thoughts on a Walking Robot

In the spare moments between work today, I’ve been thinking about rough design parameters for the CF Walker biped. To get some initial numbers, I started with the fact that it has to complete a 10k walk. Jim and I decided on 4 hours as being a reasonable target to complete the walk (it takes the average human about 2 hours to walk 10k). To travel 10k in 4 hours, the robot will have to average 2.5kph or .69 meters per second. If the robot has a stride of 1 meter, it would need to complete one step every 1.45 seconds. I think a 1 meter stride is possible – Jim is thinking of something more like a foot (about 1/3 of meter).

Due to the time constraints, we’re unlikely to be able to do anything that requires dynamic balancing, which limits the design further. We still have several ideas for making it work but haven’t come up with one that we feel is a sure thing yet. Originally we were thinking we’d just scale up Eric’s Little Toddler since it doesn’t require dynamic balancing, already works, and they’ve mastered the software algorithms needed to turn it smoothly. It presents two problems for us though: 1. It can’t handle the non-flat surfaces that we’re pretty sure CF Walker will run into such as handicap ramps, curbs, and possibly pot-holes. 2. The gait of the current design is much too slow.

The speed issue can be partially dealt with at the cost of higher power consumption. But with a limited payload capacity, that means more stops to rest (recharge from the solar array), so we’ll need to find the best balance between speed and efficiency. We’ve also got a possible trick or two to tackle the problem of curbs but at the cost of giving the robot a very non-human gait.

Raiders of the Lost Cemeteries

I could tell you about a pile of Perl code I wrote Friday but it’s more of the same old DBI stuff. Not very exciting at all. How about a more interesting story instead?

Susan and I spent the day yesterday on a genealogical photo expedition to several cemeteries. They weren’t particularly remote but three of them proved challenging for one reason or another. The first challenge was a cemetery not marked on any maps and not present in the USGS database. But it was referenced in various old documents as being an IOOF cemetery in the vicinity of a small town called Princeton. Upon arriving in Princeton, we stopped at a couple of small grocery stores and eventually found someone who knew the location of a nearby cemetery. As it turned out the name was simply “Princeton Cemetery” but there was no indication of it being an IOOF cemetery. We did find the headstones we needed as well as few unexpected ones.

The second challenge was the tiny Wilson Cemetery, which the the USGS placed along a farm road in northern Collin county. We drove around criss-crossing farm roads too small to be on our maps for quite awhile without finding anything. We were about to give up at one point but decided instead to retrace our steps back to the last intersection large enough to be on the maps and try one more time. This time we noticed a tiny dirt road fork off between some trees about where the USGS map showed the cemetery. We took the road and discovered it had been cut right through the cemetery. What remained were two small cemetery fragments – one on either side of the road. Problem was, that each fragment was fenced in and the fenced areas were themselves inside of larger areas fenced with barbed wire. One side was overgrown with thorny vines and riddled with mostly harmless orb spiders and nastier funnel web spiders. I do not like spiders. I managed to squeeze through the barbed wire and into the inner fenced area on the other side unharmed. Unfortunately the headstones we sought were either not on this side or were destroyed when the road was put through. We shot what photos we could to document the location itself and moved on to our last challenge.

The last cemetery, White Rock Garden of Memories, was one we thought should be easy as the maps indicated it was not only here in Dallas but just a few blocks from my office. But when tried to follow the road indicated on the map we found it terminated at the security gate of an apartment complex. The map indicated another road that should lead to the cemetery but it terminated in a dead end quite a distance from the correct location. We parked our car near the dead end, loaded our camera gear and started out past the end of the road on foot. Just past the end of the road, a gravel trail started and we crossed over a couple of creek beds into a large, undeveloped area. It was really odd finding such a large area of what looked like wilderness right in the middle of North Dallas. We followed the trail until it terminated behind the same apartment complex that had blocked our path on the first road. Based on the map, the cemetery must be inside the land used by the complex!

Since the back of the complex was bounded by a creek, the builders had apparently decided not to continue the security fence around that side of the complex, thus allowing us a way in. We begin wandering through the complex until we noticed a very large stone wall with an iron fence projecting from the top of it. In a few places the ground level rose high enough to see past the stone wall and through the iron fence. It enclosed a rectangular area bounded by an old asphalt road. On the other side of the road was a large wooden fence, and through gaps in the wooden fence we saw a high, chain-link fence and, beyond that, headstones. The first problem was the stone and iron fence on our side. It was too big to go over and had no openings or gates. It did terminate on one side into the main security gate of the complex, so we decided to hike back to the car and make a second attempt by that route.

When we got the car back to the security gate we parked to one side, contemplating the risks of trying to tailgate a resident through before the gate closed. About this time, I noticed an alley that connected to the street and looked very much like the asphalt road that separated the fences we had seen earlier. We followed and hit pay dirt almost immediately. We were now between the stone / iron fence and the cemetery. Following the road all the way around, we found the wooden fence did have a large iron gate bounded by two brick columns. The gate was locked with chains and several padlocks, some of which were rusted and looked many years old. Somehow we’d have to scale a 10 foot wooden fence, a 2 foot boundary, and then an 8 foot chain-link fence.

We found a missing plank in the wooden fence near the main gate that exposed the horizontal support beams behind – these turned out to work as hand and foot holds allowing me to climb the wooden fence. From the top I was able to swing over to one of the brick columns and from there onto the top of the chain link fence and down into the cemetery. Susan passed the camera gear through the iron gate. The cemetery had suffered a high vandalism rate with perhaps a third of the stones broken or destroyed by vandals (which is probably why it was made so inaccessible). but I was able to locate both our headstones fairly quickly and both were intact. I shot the photos, passed the camera back to Susan and then started looking for a way out. This proved more difficult than expected as the high chain link fence was not as easy to climb as I expected – but I did eventually make it back up and down the other side with no major injuries.