Monthly Archives: March 2014

Best title for a customer facing engineer?

Serious question: what’s the best title to use for an engineer that will be the contact point for a customer on a big project? Bonus points for something that is easily understood internationally.

I normally avoid titles, but in this case it’s kinda important.


About the “NASA-funded study” about our inescapable doom

There’s a story from the Guardian going around the internets about a “NASA-funded study” that predicts the collapse of modern society. Ok, it’s not actually from the Guardian, but a blog hosted by them. It’s also not a NASA study, it just uses a model developed by NASA. Finally, they didn’t actually link to the paper, because it wasn’t published yet. If you don’t have that sinking feeling in your gut yet, you should. As Keith Kloor from Discover explains, it’s bad science.

I’m always suspicious when a story refers to a story but doesn’t give a link or even cite it properly. In this case, at least they didn’t misinterpret the original paper. The problem is that the paper itself is rubbish. If the original “reporter” (I’m not sure he deserves that term) had actually done any research or fact checking – on a paper that hadn’t yet been published, let alone be vetted by the scientific community – then he would have found some very conflicting opinions. Make no mistake: there are no facts here. Just a model and a lot of handwaving.

So, how can we prevent this kind of crap from filling up your news streams? Here’s a few tips:

  1. Check the source. A Guardian blog isn’t the same as being in the Guardian itself. The chances of a major story like this being broken in a blog is slim to none.
  2. Look for the actual paper it’s based on. While it isn’t the case here, I’ve often seen writers draw the exact opposite conclusion than the original authors of the paper. If the paper isn’t actual findable, your BS detector should be going off.
  3. Check the facts. Are there any facts? If so, can you verify them? We live in the days of the internet. You should be able to find independent sources with the same or at least similar facts. If all of the trails go back to the same source, then we have the potential for an internet-hoax.
  4. Are there any opposing points of view? If there’s only one source of information and no opposition, beware. This isn’t journalism, it’s an opinion.

Does this mean that they’re wrong? Well, no actually. It means that they aren’t necessarily right, or more precisely, we don’t have any evidence that they are right. Like a stopped clock, they could be right by accident. I don’t know about you, but I expect a little more reliability than that.

Dale Hansens Compares Michael Sam to Civil Rights, Nails It.

This is why I hate the “upworthification” of headlines today. I nearly passed over this video because I thought it was just a newscaster siding with Michael Sam. While I agree with that, I look to be informed not just have my biases confirmed. If the title had included some actual information about what Dale Hansen actually said, such as drawing parallels to the civil rights movement, then I’d be interested. I don’t normally expect sportscasters to provide that kind of insight. He did, and what he said is very well worth listening to. My highlights below, after the video itself. Transcript from WFAA, the station that originally aired this.

You beat a woman and drag her down a flight of stairs, pulling her hair out by the roots? You’re the fourth guy taken in the NFL draft.

You kill people while driving drunk? That guy’s welcome.

Players caught in hotel rooms with illegal drugs and prostitutes? We knowthey’re welcome.

Players accused of rape and pay the woman to go away?

You lie to police trying to cover up a murder?

We’re comfortable with that.

You love another man? Well, now you’ve gone too far!

Captain Phillips and the World

My latest treadmill-movie was Captain Phillips. It’s a great movie, reaching for the pinnacle of movie-making by simultaneously showing you something of the world you might never see otherwise yet keeping you entertained. Richard Phillips is the captain of a container ship going from Oman to Mombasa when it gets hijacked by Somali Pirates. It’s an action-thriller that also teaches you something about world politics. It’s a great movie and I’d highly recommend it.

But I must warn you about the ending. I was ready for a hollywood “he lives happily ever after.” That wasn’t what happened. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone that hasn’t seen the movie, but if you have even an ounce of compassion, you won’t be in a happy place at the end of that movie.

Not being satisfied with merely being sad at the Hamlet-style ending to the movie, I started to think about how it is that we have people so desperate in this world that they resort to this? While I’m not very good at chess, I could see the outcome of this setup from the midway point of the movie. There just weren’t any options that resulted in a good ending. Indeed, the loss of life was pretty much obvious from when the pirates boarded.

Perhaps if we helped the people of Somalia so that they weren’t desperate, then we could avoid this situation in the first place? Think about how much money it must have cost the US military for that engagement. We’re talking about boats, airplanes, and helicopters, and likely hundreds of people. What if we took that money, and put it into aid. How many people could be fed? How many farms could be set up? How many water systems?

This is perhaps my biggest frustration, and the reason that I’m really sad. I have all of this education and technical skills. What can I do with it all to make the world a better place? What can I do that will actually make a difference to the people who are really living on the edge?

The short answer is that unless I go into politics or start my own charity, the best I can do is to keep earning money and putting it into charities. Engineer’s Without Borders is a great organization, but I’ve never figured out what I can do for them that isn’t just fundraising and endless meetings. They do good work, but they aren’t doing engineering.

There are a few options that are similar to the US Peace Corps, including Cuso and Projects Aboard. They both suffer from a few problems:

  1. They’re aimed at generalists.
  2. For short periods of time
  3. And you have to pay for the privilege

It’s that last part that has me all “wait what?!?” I’m going to give up months if not years of time that I could be earning a considerable salary, and I have to pay extra to do it? That’s wrong in several ways. It’s one thing if you’re taking a lower salary, or even being revenue-neutral, but paying fees for a highly-trained specialist? Not cool.

It really seems like our current model is broken. Our highest skilled people work towards making the lives better for people who already have it pretty good. I’m sure we can do better than this.

Brother MFC-7460DN

Double sided scanning with a single sided scanner

I’ve just gone through a project to scan all of my files. Yes, all of them. The first step was straightforward: get a sheet-feed scanner. I settled on the Brother MFC-7460DN to replace my older DCP-7030. That keeps the extraneous gadget count down, and it happened to be on sale at the time. Out of the box you just put in a document and you get a PDF. Perfect simplicity right?

If you’re doing single-sided documents, that’s all there is to it. Then you get a double sided document, and suddenly you have a problem. I’d actually looked for a duplexing scanner, but those don’t seem to exist outside of very high end photocopiers. That leaves you with only a few options: you can scan things by hand, or ignore the back sides. Or if you’re really creative, just flip the stack over and put it into the stack again. Of course, you’ll end up with the pages in a wacky order. For a 10 page document, it’ll be: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2.

This last part got me thinking. Really, we have all of the page data, it’s just in the wrong order. This isn’t a hardware problem, it’s a software problem! If we can reorder the pages in software, then the following procedure will work:

  1. Scan the front sides. This produces pages 1, 3, 5…
  2. Reload the stack upside down and scan again. This produces pages N, N-2, … with page 2 being last
  3. Save all of the pages to the same file (easy to do with the built in software on Mac and with the bundled software on Windows)
  4. Run a script to reorder the pages

Which tool can we use to reorder pages? My first thought went to the swiss army knife of desktop programming: Python! A quick search turned up a StackOverflow post that describes nicely how to reorder PDF pages using pyPdf.

Now all that’s needed is to get the ordering right. If you have a look at the ordering listed above, you need to get the first page and the last page, then the second page and the second last page, then the third page and the third last page. Keep going until you meet in the middle. Write all of that out to a new file. Done!

Here’s the python script I wrote to get this done, with much of the documentation stripped. You can see the full file on pastebin.

from pyPdf import PdfFileWriter, PdfFileReader
input_filename = "Scan.pdf"
output_filename = "Scan_reordered.pdf"

# create a PDF writer to hold the output
output_pdf = PdfFileWriter()

# open up the input file and start reading the PDF
with open(input_filename, 'rb') as input_file:
    input_pdf = PdfFileReader(input_file)

    # check that we have an even number of pages
    total_pages = input_pdf.getNumPages()
    if (total_pages % 2) != 0:
        print "Cannot de-duplex an odd number of pages!"

    # Get the pages in pairs, starting with the first and last, 
    # and then proceeding to the second and second last, and so on
    for i in range(0, total_pages/2):
        print "Adding page " + str(i)
        print "Adding page " + str(total_pages - i - 1)
        output_pdf.addPage(input_pdf.getPage(total_pages - i - 1))

    # Write the output file. 
    # NB: must be done before closing the input file!
    with open(output_filename, 'wb') as output_file:

This was actually faster to write than installing Python and pyPdf on Windows! This version looks for Scan.pdf, since that’s what the scanner produces on my Mac. I simply don’t bother to rename the file until after I’ve done the reordering. For those who aren’t familiar with Python and just want to use the tool, here are some basic instructions:

  1. Install Python. On Mac and Linux, chances are you already have it. Here are some instructions on how to install Python and Pip on Windows.
  2. Install pyPdf. On Mac and Linux it’s as easy as “sudo pip install pypdf”. On Windows, if you have pip then it’s just about the same thing.
  3. Download the script
  4. Name the file you want reordered “Scan.pdf” and put it in the same folder as the script
  5. Run the script
  6. Voila! Your reordered PDF is in Scan_reordered.pdf

Canada’s Really Big

A few people have mentioned that Victoria, BC is really nice and “hey wouldn’t that be a better destination?” To their credit, yes Victoria is really nice. Or so I’ve been told, since I haven’t actually been there. There’s only two gotchas:

  1. It’s still too cold: winter temperatures are between 3 and 7ºC on average. Oh, and they still get snow.
  2. It’s really not that close.

For some reason, people seem to think that because Victoria is in Canada it’s faster and easier to get to. That isn’t true. Here’s an image from Great Circle Mapper to show us why:

Map showing great circle routes from Toronto to Victoria and San Jose, Costa Rica

From To Distance Flight Time Cost
Toronto (YYZ) Victoria (YYJ) 3380 km 4:54 avg* $760
Toronto (YYZ) San Jose, CR (SJO) 3759 km 5:20 $900**
Difference 379 km 0:25 $140


* I’m guessing due to winds, but Air Canada Shows YYZ to YYJ at 5:12 and the return at 4:35

** I couldn’t actually get a price from Air Transat directly, so this is the cheapest package I could find on Yes, that includes hotel and food, though I’d just drop it since they’re actually cheaper than Air Canada!

It probably took you longer to eat lunch than the difference in time it would take to get to San Jose than Victoria. Compared to the flight time and the time to get to the airport, deal with security, etc. it’s really insignificant.

What is significant is customs and immigration. Yes, getting permanent residency in Costa Rica is a hassle. But you know what? It’s worse in the US. Also, I can go for 90 days at a time without even worrying about it. For the lengths of the trips I’m looking at, it really doesn’t make a difference. There are actually bigger hurdles ahead of me than that.

All said, it’s worth it to me to go somewhere actually warm – and without snow! – than not have to deal with customs.

All of this, because Canada’s Really Big.

Language Learning Tools

Learning Spanish becomes a pretty high priority when you decide to move to Latin America. Being a geek, I had to seek out all of the viable tools to figure out which ones will be optimal. While I didn’t try every single tool on the planet, I’m hoping that this review will be helpful to anyone else looking to pick up a new language!

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