Great Lakes MotorSports

Month: May, 2012

Continuing annoyances after the OTA digital TV conversion.

While initially excited about the analog to digital conversion that we all went through a few years back, there are still some unresolved issues.  Sure, digital has a lot of advantages (including reduced bandwidth and extra channels), but there are still a couple ways that analog was better.

It used to be that analog portable TVs (we’re talking the little 5″ portables, down to the 2″ handhelds) were widely available and quite inexpensive.  Trying to find one immediately after the conversion was impossible.  Nowadays those with smartphones can stream content over the Internet when it’s available, but there’s still no solid solution for portable OTA digital TV to replace what we lost when analog went away.  Internet streaming is nice, but is not a complete replacement as it lacks some of the content and can run you into a bandwidth cap pretty quick.

Available signal is another issue, and is my chief complaint.  Back in the analog days, simple rabbit ears were enough to get a usable signal.  Might have a little noise/static to it, but it was usable.  The digital signals are completely unusable with rabbit ears and even with an antenna on a tower the signal occasionally fade enough for the image to break up.  And break up it does.  Instead of just having a little static/snow, the image and sound completely stop, jumble up, then come back.  So, not only is harder to get a good signal, but if the signal fades the result is far worse.

So, while I mostly enjoy the switch to digital, there’s still those couple of things that were better in the analog days.  There may not be a good portable solution, but at least the signal strength can be overcome by buying the biggest possible antenna you can fit.  Going by the sizing guides could leave you disappointed.

A MotorSports journey…

I really haven’t been playing with cars for that long compared to many people I know, but I’ve had an interesting journey already. A bit atypical as I’m really not terribly interested in beating other people. Yes, it’s cool to win and all, but I really just enjoy driving the car and beating my own times. Competition with others is a distant third. Here’s a few tidbits from my journey.

I started out just liking cool cars, so I picked up a Toyota MR2. Relatively inexpensive used car, fun, cool, and not very fast (oddly, by choice as I was afraid I’d kill myself in something fast). Fun to drive back and forth to school, good MPG, just all around fun. Good times at car shows too!

Shortly after I got into the real world of work, I was introduced to the SCCA and the (then) Solo2 events (aka autocross). MR2 was ideally suited for it at the time, being very favorably classed. I quickly invested in my own helmet and race tires and was spending every weekend available at any event within about a 3 hour driving range! Many good times were had, many new friends made. However, I was never a real good fit with the community as I just don’t have that same competitive drive to be number one. I’m not willing to trade the effort to do some of the mods to the car, and there’s also a bit of a personality clash issue. Not too many problems with the more laid-back regional only drivers, but I just never got along well with many of the National drivers. I also noted that prices had zoomed upwards a lot faster than inflation, while seat time was dropping due to the sites in use and the increasing number of cars entered. Basically I kept paying more and more while having less and less fun and having to deal with more and more people that I just don’t get along well with. I’ve now reached the point of not having done a Solo2 event in a couple years and really don’t even miss it.

Probably just a year into the Solo2 portion of my journey, I entered my first Road Rally. This felt a lot more like home to me. Cost more than Solo2 at the beginning (but is now actually cheaper), but for that money one gets a LOT of seat time and lots of competition against oneself (with a trusted navigator). Sure, there are final results ranking everyone, but simply finishing with the car unbroken and not getting lost is a major accomplishment! At first I only did a couple a year as not to interfere with Solo2, but eventually it displaced most of my Solo2 schedule. I have a lot more in common with that community. It’s a bit of a rougher crowd to be sure, but they’re friendlier overall. These last few years I’ve not made it to many events, but I always have an absolutely great time when I’m there. I just hope that the format survives as it’s currently the only thing I make any attempts to do.

With the Road Rally fun, I decided to go check out SCCA ProRally. Worked Sno*Drift and decided that would be great (albeit expensive) fun! I had no clue how tough getting started would be. I did pickup a car to prep, but was rapidly blindsided by SCCA rule changes as they were attempting to salvage the program. Eventually RallyAmerica took over and the rule changes continued. Rules were changing far faster than I could even plan to prep the car, so I walked away from any plans to do stage rally. I’ve worked a couple more events and hope to do more course marshaling in the future, but there will be no competition for me.

Since I had “new” car already largely prepped with safety equipment, I embarked on going to track days. Many a day was spent lapping Nelson Ledges and getting familiar with which parts on the car liked to break first. Also did a stint with TrackTime, going out to VIR and Putnam Park with them as a general assistant. At that time I considered going either SCCA or NASA road racing, but rejected it due to similar issues as with the old Pro Rally attempt.

At some point in the middle of all this, I started doing rallycross. At that time it was kind of the wild west of rallycross. Rules were minimal, courses were brutal, and oftentimes beater cars were supplied so people wouldn’t trash their daily rides at the events! MUCH fun was had doing that initially, but in the end it suffers from one of the major Solo issues, limited seat time for price. I still pop out for one occasionally, but it’s rare indeed. Just keeping up with local (3 hour drive to start) Road Rally events supplies me with plenty to do most Summers.

I was tempted (and ready) to jump into a new car/race team with a couple others this very Summer. I’m fully aware that I don’t have the time to do it by myself. However, with a multiple drivers, we could make it go. Initial thoughts were ChumpCar, LeMons, and some open track days with the car. Perhaps some future SCCA or NASA events if all went well. We put forth our best effort, but were unable to get everything to work out for everyone involved. Perhaps at some later point, perhaps other people, perhaps a different car. I’m still quite open to new MotorSports adventures!

So, that’s my story, what’s yours?

Musings (rambling?) on aviation safety…

I’m still a very low time pilot, just flying light singles, and not very often at that. As a result I’ve ended up encountering some odd contradictions in that the equipment that should help me be safer is actually an impediment to my flying. Those of you with higher hours per year will probably think I’m insane, but here’s the problems I’ve seen.

Autopilots: I love the idea of a good autopilot, in fact I probably fly 99% of my simulated (Microsoft Flight Simulator 9, with VATSIM for ATC) with the autopilot. Obviously there’s some extra need for it there with having to type to ATC (I don’t have a microphone) and the general lack of feel for what the airplane is doing since my simulator experience is distinctly non-motion (well, except for when my chair collapses under me ’cause I’ve gained so much weight recently!). However, in the real world the autopilot is strongly desired by the general aviation population as a safety device since the result of a crash is worse than just a black screen. Yet, I find it a real problem to use the autopilot. I’ve developed a strong distrust of autopilots having had multiple failures with them on just the handful of flights I’ve actually used one. It seems to me that the stress of monitoring a device that could suddenly turn on me and try to kill me is worse than just flying the airplane. I do a better job staying ahead of the airplane and staying ready to fly approaches when I don’t use the autopilot (quite contrary to the usual advice to have it on gear up to gear down for low time pilots).

TAA (Technologically Advanced Aircraft), specifically G1000 equipped: I finally had the chance to do some glass panel flying, and it was a lot of fun! I love the idea of less moving parts to fail and all the electronic redundancy. It’s also great having the nice large MFD with the GPS, weather, and traffic all overlaid onto it. Not a big fan of the engine instrumentation on the MFD though, it’s definitely harder to read (at least in the daytime, I concede that at night it would be easier since most steam gauge engine instruments are all but invisible at night!). The large PFD is very attractive as well. No one should ever manage to get the airplane upset with a horizon that huge! Unfortunately, the big downside is the multi-use buttons and the difficult to read heading/altitude information. Instead of a quick scan, it’s more of a “bounce around, stopping to have to try and decode the various digital readouts”. I find it’s quite a bit more effort to pick out a tiny number representing an altitude, read it, and determine if it’s changing versus just watching for the sweep of a needle. I recall reading how the automakers in the 80’s found digital readouts to be a problem for that very reason. Why are we resurrecting this bad representation for our aircraft? With the large high resolution screens, we can certainly do better. While an airline pilot flying day in and day out might stand a chance of adapting to it, it seems like a huge safety lose for the infrequent aviator.

Light twins versus singles: I’d really like to get into a twin as I have some trips I’d love to that involve longish water crossings. Obviously 2 engines introduces more opportunity for failure, and single engine operation is quite limited for a twin, but cruising just a couple thousand feet above one of the Great Lakes is certainly better than going into it. Extra capacity to carry FIKI equipment sounds nice as well, but at my few flight hours I’m not going anywhere near anything remotely resembling ice. Other than the second engine, the biggest thing I’m looking for is the co-pilot side actually having a decent panel, which some of the nicer singles also offer. An engine out really isn’t my biggest concern. I find myself MUCH more concerned about losing too many instruments on an IFR flight, even though I’m comfortable with, and even enjoy, partial panel practice. Around here, ceilings are the usual problem. Often hovering around 1000 feet. I’m OK with going engine out gliding down to out under the clouds, then making an emergency landing. I’m quite concerned about losing my instruments in the clouds, losing control, and popping out with only 1000 feet to go, which is not nearly enough to right a seriously upset airplane. A second engine plays into that as well, giving better redundancy for the equipment that powers the instruments (at the cost of new control issues if one engine goes). Seems like the case can be made that more engines could save your life if you are a frequent flyer, otherwise they’ll probably just help you spend money faster with equal or worse outcomes than a decent single.

Perhaps it all comes down to trust in the machine. Being a software developer, computer hardware guy, and a car guy exposes me to the worst that machinery has to offer, resulting in a distrust of the equipment. What says you?

On a Minimalist Life and large purchases.

One thing that I’ve happened to notice about the “Minimalist Life” (as written about frequently in many popular blogs these days) is that there’s a wide spectrum of beliefs about exactly what it means.  Certainly there’s a common core of “not buying/consuming more than you need”, but the “need” portion leaves it quite open-ended.  This is a beautiful thing as it doesn’t reject anyone at any point along their personal journey.  However, it’s often overlooked by those new to the concept.

I confess that I have far too many “things”, but yet I am also on the Minimalist path.  A unique path though, as I have less than I’ve had in the past in many ways, yet have more in other ways.  I no longer bulk up on all the latest disposable tech toys.  I don’t run out and replace perfectly good cars with a new one just for the “new car smell”.  I’m happy to watch my old overpurchases gradually fade away through attrition.  Trying to sell/give them away is a timesink I’m not willing to deal with.  Throwing them away seems too wasteful for me (for items that are at least somewhat useful still!  Trash is trash!).

Another way that my path is different from the mainstream is that the daily Minimalism allows me to do big things I would not be able to do if I was trapped in the standard consumer lifestyle.  By no means am I a rich person, but with all the money I’ve saved I’ve been able to take my old cars and go racing with them.  I’ve also been able to become a Private Pilot.  Not the typical Minimalist endeavors such as vacationing (which holds no interest to me).  Once again, on my own path, one that avoiding unnecessary waste has allowed me to follow.

So, don’t feel that you have to discard what you love and follow a prescribed set of rules on your journey.  It’s really all about dropping what’s not important to you in order that you may have more time, money, and general resources available for what truly is important to you!

Random thoughts on programming languages…

It’s funny how one can find one language a joy to program in, another tolerable, and another quite distasteful. Here’s just a few thoughts on a few of the ones I’ve worked with over the years that have left some sort of impression on me!

Assembly: While others hate the quirkiness of the 16-bit segmented x86 world, I always found it a joy to work in. Where another may see a limit, I see safety and order! Knowing the execution times (or at least a high probability of what they will work out to) while coding just adds a bit of exotic fun. The 32-bit world kept much of that fun when run in real mode, but suffered a loss in protected mode. No longer was the world one’s playground, in protected mode there was more freedom in theory, but it’s just an illusion. AMD64 joined SPARC and Motorola assembly in taking out even the last bit of the excitement and leaving us with a functional, but dull world. And let’s not even discuss the hideous Linux and Windows call interfaces!

BASIC: This is where I started, as did many others! A safe place to explore, making those first few tentative attempts at forcing one’s will onto the computer. Quickly became a place that felt limiting though. Perhaps not a fault of the language specification, but of the implementation available. A little more time in that environment was had by extending it with RatBAS, but in the end it was left behind as a chick leaves the safety of the egg to go explore the world.

C/C++/Java/C#: C was the promised land for all those beginning programmers that were tired of BASIC! Many new things to explore and many, MANY ways to crash the machine. Now one starts to believe that one is a REAL PROGRAMMER! At least until the scope of the new abilities is fully realized. I never got to fully be immersed in C as C++ came out fairly soon afterwards. It took my beloved C and made it look all ugly. Struggles were had with it, only to be disappointed. Perhaps my projects simply weren’t large enough for it to matter? It certainly made things harder, often taking longer to code and ending up with larger and slower executables. What’s happening to my world!? Well, all will be well once Java comes along promises those who speak of the next generation. C++ was just a stepping stone to this better world perhaps? Indeed, much of that was true. We welcome code that (usually) runs fine on multiple platforms. The syntax is friendlier than C++ while maintaining much of the power. But wait, what’s that? Where’d our unsigned ints go? How could they? Oh no, execution times are slow too! Time may not heal all wounds, but at least it brought improved JVMs and our execution speeds are now what they should be. Unsigned ints are still missing, but Java has truly become a reasonable language to live in day in, day out. C# has also become a good work partner. Sometimes called “hey you, almost Java”. Pleasant enough, nice enough, better than Java in some ways, worse in others. A true “nice guy” of languages. Unfortunately, the “nice guy” doesn’t always have the same amount of soul as the battered warrior… This is the part where Objective-C people are looking for mention, so I’ll just say that Objective-C is effective, but downright ugly, having seemingly taken all the worst parts of C and C++ while leaving the best parts behind. I was hoping you would have stayed in the past, but unfortunately Apple resurrected you so we’ll have to continue to deal with you in the future.

JavaScript: I hate you, that’s all. No, wait. On second thought, that’s not all. You can’t help it that you’re clunky and ugly. Most of that is due to your primary habitat of the web browser. HTML and DOM just appear to be a case of a quick hack growing way beyond what it ever should have done. I pity you JavaScript. To be called “the assembly language of the web” by those that hate assembly language…

Lisp(s): A bit standoffish in syntax, but beautiful on concept! Wonderful to work with, right up until the point at which one can only think of a very procedural way to do something. You force us to take our thinking in another direction and provide much fun on the journey. However, you’re really hard to take to work. Playing nice with others is a MUST in the work environment, but you make that harder than it should be. This saddens me.

Ada/Modula-2/Pascal/Delphi: Close enough to C in appearance to trick the unwary, and make the wary comfortable. Ada, your constraints are elegant, but your HUGE executables are a bit discouraging. I’d like to use you more, but that’s quite the turn-off. Pascal, you were a good friend in school. I was able to knock out assignments in no-time flat. Luckily you were limiting enough that the prof couldn’t make us do anything too complicated! Modula-2, I miss you. The perfect balance between Pascal’s ease of use and Ada’s strict requirements. There’s things you do for scalability and safety that just aren’t captured in the current crop of first-tier languages. This is a bad thing. Delphi, you may not have all the features of Modula-2, but you’ve taken Pascal and extended it in a very business friendly way! In fact, I used you first, before Java, so Java objects always make me thing of you! Oh, and you’re so much more than just a language though! An entire system for doing RAD (Rapid Application Development) that others can only dream of! Together we built large complex apps back in the late 90’s faster than other so-called RADs can do even today! If you’re doing RAD and not using Delphi, well, you’re not REALLY doing RAD. Keep calling it RAD if you must, but Delphi and I know the truth! 😉

OCaml: Hi, I’m a language that would like to be Lisp, but I’m not. Please don’t hurt me… Hordes of the faithful (well, think *small* hordes) love you. I actually do respect you, but the whole ML group seem to not solve any problems I have at this time. Perhaps if I go into something more scientific in the future.

COBOL: My first 16-bit protected mode programming experience! In OS/2 of all things! Even supporting dual boot 16bit PM/DOS apps! Yeah, all I ever did constructive was process big linear files, but it seemed cool at the time. Glad you’re still around old friend. Of course, you do such dry tasks these days that I’m also happy we’re not spending any time together…

Prolog/Forth: I sure hope the logicians out there understand you two. I consider you both read-only at this point, and that only barely. ‘Nuff said!

Ruby (specifically on Rails): I like concise. To a point. Concise plus hiding everything where it’s hard to find is bad. Stop doing that. Easy to write, annoyingly challenging to debug. Scalability is a struggle.

Perl/PHP: Putting you two together probably violates all standards of decency. Too bad. You’re both living in the world of the web now, and you’ve picked up a lot of bad habits there. Not sure why so much web programming has to be done in ugly languages that become exponentially harder to debug during a linear scale-out. Is the web all about pain? Does it really have to be this way? Surely we can do better!