Thursday, September 23, 2010

Automated Parking

Okay, so I haven't seen the Jetsons in about twenty years. (Note to self: check Hulu and Netflix.) So I'm just going on ancient, dusty memories here, but it seems that modern life is lacking in a few amenities we were promised as kids by the glowing box.

Yeah, we've got Roombas (and Scoobas and whatever they call those gutter-cleaning bots.) There's the Robomow and Automower lines of aimlessly wandering mowers. Honda and other Japanese companies have some pretty cool androids, but who can afford one?

Robots aside, where are the flying cars with big glass bubbles? (Edit: Here they are!) Where's the crazy architecture?

I'm thinking about this because I spent the day working with an automated parking system. Boomerang makes the hardware, and ASI has been doing the controls for their flat car-lifting AGV (or robot for short). My job is to drive it around and make sure everything works. I haven't crashed it, yet. (I heard they drove one into a pit when it had a car on it. Just a rumor.)

It's really pretty cool. The actual dispatch control software isn't integrated yet, so I'm stuck generating scripts with a barely usable interface thrown together for testing. (Drive forward 20000 units at speed 6, rotate clockwise, etc.) The idea is you drive into the bay and the flat robot picks up the tray and hauls your car away to park it. Since the robot can move sideways (and in any other direction), it can pack the cars much tighter than possible when driving them. Also, no one needs to open the doors. You don't have to walk through a parking terrace with no sidewalks, and many more cars can be parked.

Oh, and the valet won't drive your car around with a completely flat tire. (Happened to me once.)

When you're done, you scan your ticket or have your retina scanned or something, and then you sit down and wait a couple minutes for a friendly robot to bring your car back—facing the other direction and ready to be driven away.

It's expensive though, so don't expect to see one anytime soon unless you live in a place where there are many more cars than parking places. (I know, everyone thinks they live in a place like that.)

Isn't that so cool, though? Warehouses have been automated like that for decades. ASI redid the electronics for HK Systems' pallet hauler years ago. It's about time the cool stuff filters down to consumers, right?

p.s. What would you do if you had access to a big, flat, car-lifting robot?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Harris Burdick

In my interview with myself, I made reference to Harris Burdick as one of my favorite authors. He's the mysterious author/illustrator in the book by Chris Van Allsburg, who as the story goes, gave a stack of illustrations with captions and titles to a publisher, along with a promise to provide the complete stories if the publisher was interested. The publisher was indeed interested, but could never again locate Harris Burdick.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is simply a reproduction of those illustrations, each for a different story, and each with a compelling caption and title. The idea is that you supply the story yourself.

It's an awesome concept, and Van Allsburg's, excuse me, Burdick's drawings are wonderful, of course. My fifth grade teacher, Mr. Allen, introduced my class to them by forcing us to write some of the missing stories. I don't know what everyone else thought of the idea; I was too enthralled to notice. Never had I had so much fun doing schoolwork. My renditions always came out disturbing and dark with happy endings—or so it seemed to me at the time. I was ten years old. I fell in love with writing.

My parents bought me my own copy of the book. I wrote a few more stories, but either because typing was so arduous at the time or due to my short attention span, there are still stories that I haven't written. The worst part is that I don't know what happened to my copy of the book. I think one of my sisters may have borrowed it to use in their own classroom, or possibly my Dad. (There are a lot of teachers in my family.) Hmm?

Anyway, now I have a daughter who loves writing stories. I know she'd love the book. Not surprisingly, it's not available through, so I'll have to shell out for a new copy if I can't find mine. I want to give her what Mr. Allen and the mysterious Harris Burdick gave me so many years ago.

(Man, I'm tearing up just thinking about it. *sniff*)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I Count the Ways disappear. It's a song. Go get it while it's free at iTunes. Then go ride your bike at night. (With lights of course.)

Then come back and tell me if you love it as much as I do. Yes, that's an order, ensign!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Chocolate Review

I've had a run of good luck with winning contests and drawings on blogs lately. (I need to find someone giving away a publishing contract on a blog before my streak runs out.) The latest one was the first to give out an actual physical prize, and it's still going on if you want to enter. It's a blog tour promoting The Stone Traveler by Kathi Oram Peterson. This is the weekly prize. The grand prize is even better.

The book is LDS YA fiction, so the nominal audience is pretty narrow. I haven't read the book yet, so I'm going to review the prize—because I've never done a review of any kind before, and everyone else is doing them, so they must be cool. Right?

First, there's a cute toy jaguar and a necklace with a huge faux gemstone. They're quite nice. I don't wear jewelry or collect stuffed animals, but they were best part. Why? My seven-year-old daughter gasped when I gave her the stone necklace. I gave the jaguar to my four-year-old girl and she said "Daddy's the nicest dad in the world." Thanks for making me look good, Kathi!

The rest of the prize is chocolate, and I have opinions on chocolate. First, I love dark chocolate, and what I got was all dark, from Ghirardelli and Lindt.

The Ghirardelli Intense Dark "Twilight Delight" (what a name, eh?) is 72% cacao, which is fairly dark. I've had 90% recently, so I'm well used to this kind of chocolate. The taste is quite nice, and not too sweet, as Hershey's always is. The texture was the only thing that bothered me. It's kind of hard and dry, and doesn't melt very quickly. It's a bag of individually wrapped squares, so I put them in my pocket for a few minutes before eating them just to get them kind of melty. Whatever you do, don't just pop them into your mouth cold and start chewing. It's not nearly so pleasant. And don't drink anything cold right before eating. But it's good chocolate, if a bit harsh in texture.

I should disclose that I'm a Lindt fanatic. A few years ago my wife couldn't eat any dairy at all because she was nursing our daughter who was intolerant of soy and milk protein. The only chocolate we could find without any milk or soy ingredients was Lindt's Swiss Bittersweet. Most chocolates (including the Ghirardelli above) use soy lecithin as an emulsifier. That was all the chocolate we ate for well over a year, and we were hooked. Hershey's chocolate tastes like garbage, now. I've had other kinds of European chocolates, including some that aren't sold here, and never tasted anything I like better than Lindt.

Anyway, I was excited to try Lindt's Excellence Dark with Chili. We once got a Chili and Cherry bar from my sister-in-law who lived near the Lindt factory in New Hampshire, and it was very interesting and quite good. But it had a fruit filling, and I prefer chocolate without bits of other stuff in it. The Chili bar tastes at first like a normal (for Lindt) 50% chocolate. It's amazing how smooth the texture is. There's no trace of pepper taste that I could detect. It's just a great chocolate that makes your mouth burn. And it burns, too. It's easily comparable to a medium salsa.

I happen to like spicy food, and I love this chocolate. I wish our grocery store carried it. I've seen it at Borders, but nowhere else locally. We've been mixing mint with chocolate for years, and everyone seems to like that. Chili and chocolate isn't a new idea either. It was how the ancient people of South America fixed their chocolate drinks (if memory serves) and that's why it's included in the prize. I think it's as natural a combination as mint-chocolate, with a burning kick instead of a cool one.

If anyone can pull off something like this, it would be Lindt and Sprungli. I noticed that this bar was made in New Hampshire instead of Europe. I know the truffles have been made there for awhile, but it seems like all the bars used to be imported from various countries in Europe. At any rate, they've quickly built a reputation for making great dark chocolate. I sometimes wonder if Lindt isn't responsible for starting the fine dark chocolate bandwagon rolling in America.

Maybe next I'll compare Tim Tams to Keebler's rubbish. Oh wait, I guess I just did.

Thanks again, Kathi! Go visit her blog or website, and be sure to look into the tour for reviews of The Stone Traveler and a chance to win a fantastic prize.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Author Interview: Myself

I've got a special treat for my 12—No! 13! followers: an exclusive interview with an up-and-coming new author. Ben Spendlove (let's call him BS for short) is hard at work on a life-changing new book, but was kind enough to set aside a few minutes to answer our questions.

Imaginary Friends blog (IF):  When did you start writing?

BS:  When I was born. I just saved it all up in my infantile brain until I could actually hold a pencil and learned how to form letters round about kindergarten. Most of what I wrote mentally in those early days is only just coming out,  and that's why my writing is so fresh and original. Much of it doesn't even include actual words, so it looks like white space. But it's very meaningful white space.

IF:  What was your favorite book as a child?


IF:  Very deep. What's your writing process like?

BS:  It's exactly like eating pancakes with maple syrup. If you understand that, then you understand how I write. My process is also a lot like writing a book, but the pancake analogy is closer, I think.

IF:  Who are some of your favorite writers?

BS:  I'm a big fan of fictional authors who haven't actually written anything. Harris Burdick was an early influence. Though I hate to admit it, Anne Shirley might have played a role, too. More recently there's been Alex Rover and Karen Eiffel, whom I especially love because everyone should know the joy of killing off a really good character.

IF:  Dare I ask what your favorite books are?

BS:  The imaginary ones written by my favorite writers, of course.

IF:  Is this a manifestation of your jealousy for real authors who've actually been published?

BS:  This is how I answer that question:

IF:  I see. Where did the idea for your current project originate?

BS:  To borrow a line from a master, it came from "the Icy BLACKness of SPACE!" Ha ha! Seriously, it was more like a parasite that wormed its way into my brain, disrupting neural function in specific areas and forcing me to behave in strange and inhuman ways.

IF:  How does that relate to eating pancakes with maple syrup?

BS:  Clearly you've never eaten pancakes with maple syrup.

IF:  Have you ever eaten a stack of TEN pancakes with maple syrup?

BS:  Why, yes. Yes, I have. Thanks for asking.

IF:  That's amazing. What's the greatest thing about being a writer?

BS:  Interviewing myself on my own blog has been the greatest thing yet. I doubt I'll ever meet a more skillful, insightful, and understanding interviewer.

IF:  Thank you.

BS:  No, thank YOU.

IF:  Spendlove is an interesting name. Were your ancestors prostitutes or something?

BS:  I take back what I said about you. Jerk.

Thanks to Ben Spendlove for his enlightening answers. I'm certainly going to buy multiple copies of his book when it's finally published.

Are you an author? Would you like this blog to interview you? Email us at the address above and to the right! It's a free service we provide. Just started. (We're trying to land an interview with Harris Burdick, but he's still missing.)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Where I Work

I put this together from dozens of old DV tapes at work. Autonomous Solutions, Inc. started in 2000, and I joined in 2004. It's about the best tech writing job I can imagine, which is why I'm still here. Robots=cool. I'd make a blooper reel of all the times vehicles didn't do what we expected, but there's never a camera around when that happens and frankly, it doesn't happen very often.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Shameful Books

There's was a piece on NPR's All Things Considered in which a writer was telling about a book he was ashamed to love (Kurt Cobain's journals). It sounded like part of a series, but I haven't heard any others since.

Anyway, it got me thinking, and I couldn't think of a single book that I'm ashamed to love. The reason is simple, I think:  if I love it, I really think it's good and am therefore not ashamed to love it. It doesn't matter who it was written for, written by, or how it was written. If I like it, it's good. If it's not good, I don't like it.

In other words, I define what's worthy by what I like, not by the expectations or opinions of other people. At least, that's how I am with books. Same goes for not liking something. I recently tried to read The Catcher in the Rye. I say 'tried' because I couldn't finish it. Aside from the incessant profanity and annoying way the narrator rambles on and repeats himself, I just couldn't get into the story. I'm sure some people can relate and a lot of people really like that book, but I couldn't stand it. Therefore, it's not that good, and I'm not ashamed to say so.

Music, on the other hand—I'm ashamed of about half of what's in my iTunes library. So don't ask.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Wasted Writing

Sat down, or rather sat up to write this morning. Got over 1000 words written by seven. Have to redo it all. Why? Well, I got really into describing what happened to the character a week earlier. It was pretty compelling. The poor guy went through a lot, and then I put him through another shocking realization right there in the scene I was writing. THEN when I finally got done with all that, I was ready to start on what I had intended the chapter to be about aaaaand I couldn't write anymore.

Hit the wall. Train of thought crashed. Got that feeling where I knew I was on the wrong track and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't finish the chapter except by summarizing what I intended to write.

My wife read what I'd spewed out, and agreed with me. She said the premise was fine, but the content was all wrong.

But y'know? I really know that character a lot better now. I've got a backstory for him in my head, one that doesn't really need to be told because a similar thing already happened to a more central character. It's nice for me to know what it was like for him, though.

I'll try that chapter again tonight or tomorrow, and I'll start in the same place, but with a fuller character who I'm not afraid to plunk down in the middle of something crazy. Cause I know where he's been, which means that he knows, which means he's not afraid to have some fun!

No writing is wasted.