• Chapter 151: My business trip to El Salvador

    San Miguel volcano looking out over Santa Clara

    During the first full week of January I was able to participate in an Engineers Without Borders (EWB) trip to El Salvador. The Santa Clara Potable Water Project was started years ago and has extensive community support, but securing funding proved a problem. Many of the original engineers involved in the design left before the implementation was started. I joined the EWB chapter just as they found funding through Rotary International and were in need of people with free time who could help implement an existing design.

    Having essentially no practical construction or electrical engineering experience, I was quickly nominated the Electrical team lead and sent down to help kick start construction along with three professional engineers and three members of the George Washington University undergrad EWB chapter.

    Santa Clara is a rural farming community of approximately 240 households, the overwhelming majority (~80%) of which do not have access to potable water and instead use hand-dug wells. The wells and the shallow aquifer they access are generally contaminated by nearby latrines, confirmed through the excessive levels of fecal coliform bacteria present in water samples.

    The EWB project includes several interconnected systems that, once installed, will work together to provide clean, potable water to the community:

    Water Source: An electrically powered pump and control system located at an existing deep well will pump chlorinated water to a 30,000 gallon storage tank built on the top of a hill.

    Distribution System: A large water distribution system will pipe water out to each individual house, metered through the use of individual water meters.

    Water Committee: A water committee will be organized that is made up of community members. The committee is responsible for collecting fees from each household to pay for repair, wages for water employees, the power costs of running the water system and continued public healthy promotion in the community.

    Essentially, the goal is to build the infrastructure for a water utility, and then the community will staff and manage the utility, using any profits to invest back into the health promotion activities. Sounds simple, right? Our goals for the January trip were threefold: update and familiarize ourselves with the design, reconnect with the community, and hopefully actually start building things.

    Our intrepid leader, Greg

    Update Design

    As none of us had been involved in the original design, we felt it was important to review all of the previous design decisions, and to go over our design with the local El Salvadoran engineers that would be involved with the actual construction. We ended up having to update the design to reflect what is more customary in terms of tank construction for the area. The soil samples that had been previously arranged for the tank site were not sufficient for the local engineer, so we arranged for another soil sample to take place while we were there. The soil ended up being of a much lower quality than anticipated, which required increasing the depth of our excavation and modifying the design of the tank foundation. We also relocated where the tank would be in the plot of land to accommodate the possible addition of another tank in the future.

    Reconnect With Community Members

    We participated in a large community meeting where members of the Water Committee were selected, as well as the work teams that would be involved with the extensive manual labor to dig both the tank site and the distribution network. Santa Clara is essentially a township of the municipality San Rafael Oriente, and we arranged a meeting with the mayor of San Rafael Oriente. The mayor committed to providing money to connect the power line to the pump site, as well as the continuing maintenance of the electrical connection.

    Starting the Actual Implementation

    Based on the soil sample, we used the organized community labor to start excavation of the tank site, as well as starting excavation of the pipeline that will run from the well to the tank. The excavation occurred several days after we had hoped, based on waiting for the updated soil samples to return. We also staked out the path that the well-to-tank pipeline would take. Due to the delay in getting the updated soil sample, the planned excavation of the tank site did not occur as soon as we had hoped, and were not able to start the actual tank construction.

    All in all, it was the most functional I’ve ever felt as a volunteer for anything. I’m still very involved in the planning of the project, and hopefully we can get the entire thing functioning by the onset of rainy season (June). Below are a couple more pictures from the trip, and I hope to post another chapter or two about the experience.

    “Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.” – Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

    The EWB travel team, hard at work

    Community organizing the Water Committee

    Excavation of the future tank site

    San Salvador peeking out above the trees
  • Chapter 150: Redefining Sam

    Three years ago I wrote a chapter about my perspective on the previous year. I compared myself with the blurb about me in my families Christmas letter, and concluded that both the year and the blurb included “not enough stories and no girl in the Christmas card”.

    By those standards, 2009 has been fantastic. I started off with a 2 month trip to India and Nepal, four separate trips to Utah (including a massive climbing expedition), most of a week at Burning Man, multitudes of weekend trips, and I moved into a new house. All in all I was away from DC more than 17 weeks of the year. Somehow I managed to successfully woo a fellow corporate gypsy named Jessica, who drinks lots of wine and cooks with the best of them. I finally got around to applying to law school. By year end I had plenty of stories and a girl just waiting to brag about in a family Christmas letter.

    But there was a problem. In March, my parents announced they were getting a divorce. This last month they each wrote their own Christmas letters. There was no family Christmas letter.

    There is no one correct way to view your parents getting divorced, because every divorce is different. It happens for different reasons and at different times in the life of a marriage, with different effects and outcomes. My parents are amicable and still seem to enjoy each others company. I don’t blame either of them, and we all work to make the best of it. How it will affect me and my brothers is unknown; how it will affect my parents is only partially known and ever evolving. My dad must redefine himself as a newly single man. My mom must redefine herself as a newly single woman. I must redefine my role as a brother and as a son. My brothers and I must redefine how we think of ourselves and our parents as a family. Our yearly source of definition, the family Christmas letter, has split in two.

    And this was a big year. I went from being perennially single to being in a stable, caring relationship. I went from being controlled by my job to more actively controlling it. I went from being the guy who always talks about applying to law school to being the guy who finally did. And I went from being simply the eldest brother to being the eldest brother of a splintered family.

    My parents divorce seemed to be a catalyst to realize what other parts of my life were already trying to tell me: it’s my job to define myself, not someone else’s.

  • Chapter 149: Interview of Sam, Ed and Monty, circa 1992

    Mom: If you could do anything, what would be it?

    Monty (age 4): I like to play with my brothers ’cause both of them are big. I like games and batman toys, balls, and “for pretend” typewriting and writing and drawing and pretend eating.

    Ed (age 7): If I could spend lots of time doing stuff, it would be playing out on the swing or the ring with our new neighbors ’cause it’s very fun and exciting but it’s more fun with them than by myself. I don’t like being alone. I get lonely. I like being with just a few people.

    Sam (age 9): If I could do anything, I would play with Legos and read TinTin books and drink a concord fruit punch all at the same time!

    Mom: What kind of books do you like?

    Monty: TinTin, Berenstein Bears, and How Things Work.

    Ed: I like mystery books, books on scientific progress, Calvin & Hobbes, and scary ones — but only in the daytime.

    Sam: I most like to read adventure books like TinTin, the Redwall books, and Little House on the Prairie.

    Mom: What kind of career do you want?

    Monty: I’d like to drive cars and give people tickets at the movies and giving people pieces of paper when they want to draw and write things.

    Ed: For a career, it’s science. I’d like to put together potions and I’d put together chemicals to see if they would hurt little kids or blow up or something. But I wouldn’t want to make medicine because you can’t make any money at that. If I thought something might blow up, I’d wear a special suit and, if it DID blow up, I’d the tell the newspaper because some people might up chaos.

    Sam: When I get older, I’d like to be a mechanic or an engineer on computers, airplanes, spaceships or helicopters.

    Mom: What are your hobbies?

    Monty: My hobbies are having candy and my rock collection.

    Ed: My hobbies are science and playing.

    Sam: My hobbies are TinTin, Legos, drawing, and building.

    Mom: What would you like to learn to do?

    Monty: I would like to learn to paddle a canoe fast, to learn to write, to not pinch people and hurt them, and to reach my candy after lunch.

    Ed: I’d like to learn to climb upside down, climb, and dance in front of people when they’re smiling and laughing.

    Sam: I’d like to learn to cursive write all the letters of the alphabet, paddle a kayak straight, and beat my dad at chess, I’d also like to learn to cook some foods I really like to eat like brownies, lasagna, clam chowder, macaroni, and chocolate chip cookies.

    Mom: What do you do when you are bored?

    Monty: When I’m bored I eat lunch or get a snack or ask for food when we’re visiting people.

    Ed: When I’m bored, I don’t know what to do. I’m usually not bored! I like to hear music or go outside if I don’t have anything to do.

    Sam: When I get bored, I usually tell my mom, but if she can’t help me I go play with Legos, read TinTin, or I might even take a nap. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night (like 6 nights out of 7) and I lie there bored waiting for morning. Sometimes I lie there pretending I’m playing with Legos or remembering parts of TinTin. Because I sleep on the top bunk, I can look out the window to the bayou and if I see it’s getting light, my hopes rise and I know that soon I won’t be bored any longer.

    Mom: How good are you at finishing jobs?

    Monty: If we’re having lunch, I set the table and I finish the job. When I make my bed, I finish the job.

    Ed: I only finish jobs that are interesting. If the job is boring or the boss is dumb, I’ll probably quit. If the job were boring but my boss was my friend, I would probably do it. But I can’t be the boss because I don’t have enough money to pay anybody to work for me. But I would like to work so I can get some money but I’m not strong enough to work on buildings.

    Sam: Finishing a job? It depends on what the job is: if it’s picking up all the sticks in the backyard, I’d probably finish it. If it was pricking up the pine needles, probably not. If the job’s too impossible, I probably won’t finish it.

    Mom: How do you like best to learn?

    Monty: I want to learn from my teacher at my school very far away. Ed told me how to really drink water. Ed teached me how to pedal my bike. Mommy teached me how to write. Daddy teached me to wrestle.

    Ed: I like to learn new things with my friends or by myself.

    Sam: I like to learn new things from my parents, from my friends, brothers, and alone.

    Mom: What are the most fun things you like to do?

    Monty: Ride a train, turn on the lights that are very high on the ceiling, turn heavy things that turn upside down, put my pajamas on, make a house out of bricks and paint, and take a bath.

    Ed: The most fun thing I like to do is discovering. I also like diving, swimming, riding my bike, and swinging on our neighbor’s swing.

    Sam: I have the most fun playing with Legos, reading TinTin, pretending things are live, kayaking, going on camping trips, drinking Concord fruit punch, eating clam chowder, swimming, playing chess, Risk, Pente, and Monopoly, exploring, skiing, sledding, playing things with my brothers, listening to music, and making music, playing with our neighbors, caving, hiking, cooking sometimes, playing with old electrical junk, climbing, making forts, visiting old friends, having map quizzes, watching animals, riding my bike, watching space shuttles take off on TV, playing with costumes, and drawing in my squiggle book.

    Thanks Mom and Dad.

  • Chapter 148: The problem with people who talk about Software Patents

    Most software patent discussions on Slashdot, Reddit or elsewhere on the Internet infuriate me. They infuriate me because, in my opinion, they fundamentally confuse the issues relating to whether software should be patentable.

    1. “Software shouldn’t be patentable because it’s obvious.”

    You’re talking about multiple legal concepts as if they were one thing. There are many tests for patentability, the main three being Statutory Patentability, Novelty, and Non-Obviousness.

    • Statutory Patentability (35 USC 101). You can’t patent a bunch of things as a general rule, such as literary works, laws of nature, compositions of music, compilations of data, legal documents, insurance policies, forms of energy, signals, etc. This has always been fuzzy and confusing, especially as applied to software.
    • Novelty (35 USC 102). You can’t patent something that someone already invented or wrote about several years before.
    • Non-Obviousness (35 USC 103). You can’t patent something that, regardless of whether or not it has been done before, would have been obvious to a person having ordinary skill in the art.

    The argument “Software shouldn’t be patentable because it’s obvious” annoys me because it implies that software shouldn’t be statutorily patentable because most software is obvious. Obvious things are already unpatentable. Your beef with software patents might be better described as “I disagree with the standard of obviousness applied by the Patent Office or the effectiveness with which the Patent Office makes its determinations of obviousness”.

    2. “Software is math, and math shouldn’t be patentable. Hardware devices are different and should still be patentable.”

    Hardware and software are logically equivalent, and should be patentable or not-patentable together. Hardware is compiled. Software is compiled into hardware. Take any algorithm implemented in software and you can create a hardware device that implements the algorithm. Take any algorithm implemented in hardware and you can create a software simulation that implements the hardware device on a functional level. There are valid reasons to implement a theoretical component in strict hardware (it might run faster and need less general purpose functionality) and also in strict software running on a general purpose micro-controller (it makes it easier to extend and change the functionality), but that’s a design tradeoff, not an indication that the two things are fundamentally and irreparably different.

    How is the inventiveness required for hardware different than the inventiveness required for software? Even if you cannot move beyond the “software is math” angle, on a philosophical level it is arguable that math itself is invented (pdf). Laws of nature are not patentable, but practical applications of them are, which is analogous to software being a practical application of math.

    3. “Software patents would patent the general algorithm, but a hardware patent would patent only the specific device.”

    Not true at all. Patents are monopolies on generalities. Sure, you can phrase your generality in such a way that it only covers a specific device, but the overwhelming majority of patents don’t do that. They want a patent on the idea of something. That’s actually the whole idea of the patent system; it lets you protect an idea that you had, whether that idea is related to microprocessor design or a method of providing goods at a maximum price.

    If you don’t like the thought of protecting an idea, you don’t have a problem with software patents, you have a problem with all patents. The overwhelming majority of arguments against software patents apply equally to every other type of patent.

    In summary

    Software is just as patentable as everything else. Software is invented. We get patents on inventions. If you disagree with that, then make the argument that patents are bad in general. The patentability of ideas is a policy decision. I’m fine with the argument that patents are bad, I think it’s a great argument and can be readily supported by examples from many industries. Just don’t say software is somehow special. It’s not.

    The above discussion is my opinion and does not reflect the policies or opinions of anyone else, regardless of however much I wish otherwise.

  • Chapter 147: The City in the Desert

    Burning Man aerial

    … a Burning Man 2009 travelogue …

    Down a wandering road in northwestern Nevada there is a place that doesn’t have many things. Sure, it has sky and ground, but you might be struck by an absence of things most of us consider ubiquitous, such as people, trees, plants, animals, rivers, lakes or even the occasional puddle. There isn’t even much of a change in elevation; it’s a vast, completely flat expanse that is mostly devoid even of color. This place, the one that is absent most things, is called the Black Rock Desert. The ancient lakebed, also called the playa, stretches between mountains, the stunning remnants of a lake that has been dry for tens of thousands of years.

    Once a year this place is not absent of things. Once a year this place teams with life and activity. Once a year this is the place where they Burn the Man.

    Five of us boarded airplanes and flew thousands of miles to Salt Lake City, where we packed an SUV past its breaking point to drive further into the desert. We took roads that were smaller and smaller until we left roads entirely and were driving on the lakebed itself. We drove to the entrance of Black Rock City, which at night appeared as a glimmering mecca of light on the horizon. We got out of our car to receive hugs, have playa dust thrown in our hair and, in a place none of us had ever been, to be greeted with the phrase “Welcome home.”

    Fifty thousand people had arranged themselves neatly into a circular grid two miles across. Thousands upon thousands of tents, RVs, trailers, trucks and tarps covered the playa for as far as you could see. People dressed in every type of garb imaginable wandered the streets at every hour of the day: hippies, steam-punks, ravers, topless girls, squares, shirtcocks (men wearing only shirts). And then there were the vehicles.

    Burning Man camp

    Five thousand bikes and hundreds of modified art cars were made to look like dragons, boats, castles, beasts, nightmares, faces, anything and everything imaginable. All combined to a swirling cacophony of motion and costume, with fire breathing pirate ships swerving between naked women on bikes, surrounded by hapless wanderers trying to keep a raging dust storm out of their lungs. You could ride on most of the art cars and the occasional topless woman if you asked kindly enough.

    There is no money at Burning Man. At first this sounds outright preposterous, then later it sounds fairly preposterous, and to this day it still sounds slightly preposterous. The economy on the playa is based on two thoughts: self-reliance and gifting. You must be prepared to survive on your own. This involves bringing your own water, food, shade, clothing, medical supplies, beer, drugs, books, topless women to ride, etc. That being said, if someone happens to find themselves with a surplus of any of these items, they might happily gift them out to the needy or whoever else happens to wander by. As but one example, we drank ourselves silly through the generosity of a bar named “Oasis” that was a block from our tent, where they happily gave out liquor at any hour of the night in exchange for a story or two.

    Some people come to Burning Man for the party. Thousands of people drink, take drugs and dance at all hours of the day for a week straight. Ravers, shroomers, straight edge, drunks, you name it, some part of the playa will cater to your vision of a good time. Armin van Buuren played one night. There was a rumor Daft Punk was there. Just taking a walk was a sensory overload.

    Burning Man bonfire

    Some people come to Burning Man for the artful weirdness. The art that’s strewn about the playa is larger than life, and wandering across the desert to discover giant cast iron sculptures bends the mind in directions not easily replicated. The art cars are roving exhibits with speakers, blasting psi-trance and weirdness into the eyes and ears of everyone.

    Some people come to Burning Man for the community. People arrive year after year and congregate into camps with elaborate layouts, themes, names and histories. Stories and legends are born and embellished, die and are resurrected, sometimes among people that only ever see each other on the windswept playa.

    Everything builds up to the Burning of the Man. At the center of Black Rock City, the center of the universe, stands a 40 foot tall effigy, constructed on a large wooden platform and surrounded by wooden sculptures. At night he glows with neon. On the the second to last night he is set on fire. Everyone in the city comes out to watch. We sat in a circle cheering and screaming for the Man to Burn Burn Burn, until he burn burn burned with fireworks shooting out of his arms and body, and the large wooden platform beneath him burn burn burned, and then the wooden sculptures around him burn burn burned, and tens of thousands of us scream scream screamed. It was euphoric.

    I came to Burning Man expecting to find weirdness, insanity and hippies at every turn. What I found was an instant connection to a community, a fantastic landscape filled with fellow refugees from reality. Burning Man was connectedness. Burning Man was camaraderie. Burning Man was a fantastic time.