S’Mores and Ambush

Now I don’t recommend taking apart your barbecue; it’s hot and dangerous, and there are almost no user-serviceable parts inside.

Still, if you can get it apart just enough to get access to some open flame with a skewer and a marshmallow, then you can treat some cute brunette to s’mores in the city. She’ll like that.



After a night of chocolate and ghost stories, we’re more than ready to spend a day in the park with some urchins.


We’ve seen the de Young Museum’s Chihuly exhibit already, but sharing it with kids is like seeing it through different eyes.

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Clark Kent called to say he’s not coming to this part of the exhibit.

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Next time we’re here, the Academy of Sciences will be open. That’ll be fun.

After the museum, we head out into the wild and dangerous park. I barely get fifty feet before I’m attacked by monkeys.

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Right about now, they’re wondering if the lake is just decorative, or if you’re allowed to play in it.

As it turns out, playing in the lake is encouraged.

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There are other boats about. The urchins tell us they’ve seen the folks in this boat before. They’re scurvy pirates all three, and not to be trusted.


They’re getting closer, so we dodge them, escaping under the stone bridge we saw earlier. As we emerge on the other side, though… Aaaaah!


With an evil grin, they hook onto our boat, using the kids’ energy for their own evil propulsive purpose. It’s a pretty good idea really.


And if pirates and monkeys weren’t enough, we find gigantic and dangerous creatures at every turn.

Yep, there are actually two animals in this picture.

Somehow we survive, making it back to the relative safety of our base camp.

Yes, one of the cats is doing headstands again.
No, I don’t know why.

Random assertion: It’s unclear how fire, chocolate, marshmallows and graham crackers found each other, but I’m glad they did.

Published in: on September 30, 2008 at 5:09 pm  Comments (1)  
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Day 110: Reflections

Author’s note: You may have noticed that it took me a while to get this post out. The real, actual from-the-heart reason for the delay is that I don’t want it to be over. By posting this, I’m breaking the news to myself. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this one.

Second note: All of these thumbnails link to the post they come from. Just for fun.

Although Secret Plan 158 is complete today, I’ve decided to keep writing this blog. For the past 3.5 months, I’ve been sharing a wacky and unstructured set of events with you, I’ve enjoyed it even more than I expected to.

When I started this vacation, I had made a list of things I wanted to do, it seemed like a lot. Let’s see what happened:

Here’s the original list, with notes:

What would you do with a 3 month vacation from work? ‘Cause it might be time to do it.

  • Wake up early, go play outside.
    Check. I learned to keep sunscreen with me on Day 2. It served me well all summer long, as mother nature basically handed this city a whole summer of beautiful days.
  • Spend a lot of time with my muse.
    Check. I would’ve been a fool not to ace this one.
  • Hang out with friends I never get to see.
  • Spend some time helping pilot-basejumping-brother build an airplane.
    Check. Hopefully I fixed more than I broke while I was there, so I’ll get invited back.
  • Go visit ultra-acrobat-surfer brother in Las Vegas.
    Check, and also managed to [dysu zpdyau piy pg ytpinar smf lrrq aoqdyovl pgg zu vpaast], while finding a [apvsyopm mrst yjr zpmptsoa] to take some close-up pictures of her I still might get in trouble for.
  • Hang with lifelong best friend and horror-screenwriter.
    I got to see Hans, but am seriously needing to go play more.
  • Take classes at The Crucible & TechShop.
    Check. Learned to make things out of Carbon Fiber, played with Crucible-influenced creations in the desert, and signed my muse up for classes.
  • Work on Secret Plan 157 (this one has to do with cryptography).
    Check. In fact, 157 is almost ready to become a cryptography book. I’m far enough along that I could actually finish it soon.
  • Talk to a lawyer about Secret Plans 161 and 119.
    Check. 119 is a process for working with structured probabilities in a quantum computer, but that computer’s development has been delayed, so it’s not so useful. 161,on the other hand, will end up being filed as a patent application this year. Woot!
  • Learn a new acrobat skill at Circus Center (possibly German wheel).
    Check. Thanks Kris!
  • Go visit Mom & Dad & Grandma.
    Check. And in addition, Dad has printed out every single blog entry for Gradma, who keeps them in a (huge) notebook.
  • Hang with some serious acrobat friends and see if they’ve got use for an apprentice or a worker drone.
    Yes on the hanging part, though I never had the chance to help with the shows.
  • If random stunt jobs or acting opportunities appear, take them. It’s been known to happen.
    Check. Did one stunt job audition, one crazy acting audition. (I was actually offered a role later on by the same director, but the timing isn’t going to work. Next time.)
  • Attend some of the great luncheon seminars at BQIC, and find out if they want some volunteer programming labor (it’s the best way I can think of to get current on what they’re up to).
    Check. It turns out they go on summer break as well, so I’m hoping to be able to attend a few more in the fall.
  • Go to some LongNow lectures and events.
    Check. Crazy fun that day.
  • Keep a camera handy and make a blog.
    Let me think… um, yeah. I pretty much did that one.

…wow yikes, I ended up doing a lot more than half. And as it turns out, the list wasn’t long enough to cover what was actually going to happen.

There was really no way I could have known about these next ones in advance, though:

  • Find artifacts from ships buried under the city
  • Get a private hardhat tour of the Palace of Fine Arts renovation work
  • Find a radiotelescope on an island I’d never been to before
  • Read Steinbeck while actually sitting in Ed Ricketts’ lab
  • Build a robot and take it to the desert
  • Turn physics, philosophy and blind luck into front-row concert seats and an excellent kiss
  • Become one with a sea urchin
  • Spend time in the Make-A-Wish offices as a worker drone paid in cookies
  • Work on a 100-year-old giant telescope
  • Find a chess teacher (I still haven’t had my first lesson, and I really look forward to it)

Just for fun, here are a few panorama-style pictures I took along the way. It’s a lot of data, but worth it. (The one taken on the ship is wobbly, which should surprise no one.)

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It’s time to mention a few things I’ve kept from you so far.

  • The Stunt Rabbit is actually a tiny jade rabbit, smaller than a fingernail. My muse had it made for me in Hong Kong, and it’s been with me the whole time, keeping me safe.
  • I also carried a pedometer. One of the numbers in the Steganographic data is the number of miles I walked each day, usually while chasing some artifact or muse.
  • The other Steg number is still kind of secret, but let’s just say I’m in better shape now than I was 3.5 months ago. Hooray for that.

If you’re going to have a perfect summer, I recommend doing it in San Francisco.

Random assertion: I’m in love with a muse and a city, and one human life is far too short a time to spend with either of them.

Steganographic data: 1804/5.6

Days remaining on Secret Plan 158: zero

So long for now, I’ll be back in a few days with new stories.

Published in: on September 15, 2008 at 1:04 am  Comments (3)  
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Day 101: Baskets of Glass

So you already know some of what happens today, but not all.

I wake up to her eyes, but also to the realization that the fire wasn’t a dream, and even if I could repair the damage to the robot, I’d never have time to troubleshoot the problem today.

About half an hour later, she had done what a muse does. I still can’t remember exactly what she said, but without even looking at it I knew the cause of the failure, and how to fix it.

Geek Details: The drive power circuit is basically an H-bridge, with power transistors instead of switches or relays. So if your control logic is (ahem) backwards, then the “all motors off” resting state turns into “hold the motors still but heat up the high-power resistors as fast as you can and see what catches on fire first” mode.

A quick look at the injured robot verifies that this is what happened, and I should be able to fix it. So I set it aside and we go out to play at another excellent museum.

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This is the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. They’ve got a huge exhibit of Dale Chihuly’s glass work now. Unlike many exhibits, non-flash photography is allowed in this one.


If you’ve seen Chihuly’s work before, then you know to expect a lot of really huge, cool, brightly-colored pieces that resemble sea creatures. The techniques he and his assistants use to make these things are extraordinary.

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So I’m drawn to the one that looks like an urchin. So what.
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All of these bright forms are beautiful, and pretty much what I expected to see. The part of the exhibit that took me by total surprise was the Baskets series. These are made (from glass) to look like Native American basket work. I love them.

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There’s a lot of great work in this exhibit, and none of it is safe to climb on.

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Quick aside #1:
Shannon and Christine are leaving for Burning Man today. They’re all packed up and ready to go. I’ve never been there, but it sounds like a lot of crazy fun.

They strongly encouraged me to come with them, but I had to decline. It’s the last few days of my vacation, after all.

Shannon’s bike plays the William Tell Overture as he rides.

Quick aside #2:
One of my muse’s superpowers is that she can hear 4-leaf clovers. Walking outside the museum with me today she stopped, leaned down, and handed one to me.

I’ve pasted this one into the book I’m about to read.

Back at home, we’re relaxing and working on projects again.

I get the repairs all done on the robot’s power circuit, and the motors still won’t move. Just as I’m starting to think it’s not going to work, the house starts to smell really good.

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The smell of fresh scones kicks something in my brain, and I get it.

The motor power’s not connected. Yeah, so I, um, plug it in, and the motors leap to life, making me cheer and dance in a less-than-dignified manner.

Quick aside #3:
In case you still had any doubt about knitters being good at math and logic, check this out. I snuck a picture of her notes:
My muse is planning something involving purple yarn and possibly a blowtorch.

I get the robot all closed up and do the first real operational tests.

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…so that’s it. You’re all caught up now.

Random assertion: Once a decision
> HEY WAIT! That can’t be all! What about the sandstorm? What about the smoke detector and the fuzzy pink hat?

Oh right, that. Okay, so I actually called Shannon back a few days ago, and left a message:

“Hey sir. When I said I no, I was clearly malfunctioning. If the couch is still available, I’m in. And I’ll build something to bring. Maybe a robot, we’ll see.”

…and so I’m all packed up too.

In the back seat, you can see the yellow robot (not yet desert-proof, but there’s time) and yes, the Captain Goldfish hat. There’s a telescope in there somewhere too.

…and my muse made fresh scones for me to bring, as well as spicy Indian chicken and other great food-love. She knows what I’m going to need, always.

At 7:30pm, we start the drive.

As it turns out, there will be no dividing line (sleep) to separate today from tomorrow. So I’ll draw the line here, at 7:30. Tomorrow things get a little interesting.

Random assertion: Given the choice, pick the thing you’ve never done before.

Steganographic data: 1818/4.4

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 8

Published in: on August 30, 2008 at 10:08 am  Comments (1)  
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Day 97: Placeholder

Note: I’m packing in a hurry, so this entry will get significantly expanded when I have time.

Here’s the 10-minute version of what’s going on:
Secret Plan 187 is well underway. I put everything else on hold for a couple of days in order to give it a try:

  • Found parts in the garage, including an old (broken) radio controlled toy, and bought some parts I couldn’t find.
  • Built a small yellow robot, and programmed it with a jumpy paranoid personality.
  • Took it apart, threw out some parts, built it again.
  • Used pliers to carefully crack the circuit board, removing the radio chip. Replaced the chip with my own. Now it’s fully autonomous.
  • Switched it on!
  • It caught fire.
    • Put fire out, opened case and try to figure out why it happened and how much damage there was.
    • Damage too extensive, cause unknown. Went to sleep at 3am, grumpy because robot had been destroyed.
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  • …then, the next morning…
    • Woke up grumpy, broken robot still smelled like burning plastic.
    • Muse said something (unclear what it was), and I suddenly understood why it happened, and how to repair the damage.
    • Repaired robot, fixed programming and wiring.
    • Switched it on!
    • Brain working, but no motors at all. (That makes it a computer, not a robot.)
      • Inspected everything, decided that last night’s fire melted the motor coils.
      • Grumpy.
      • Muse started baking fresh scones. Kitchen smelled fantastic.
      • DSCN1988

      • Realized that motor power was not hooked up.
      • Hooked it up.


    • Switched it on!
    • It’s actually kind of cute

(This is with its motors set to “inside the house” mode so it doesn’t break the furniture)

I’m going to spend Day 100 testing it in the desert.

As soon as I can get a web connection, I’ll resume posting. Until then, be well and try not to break the furniture.

Random assertion: A real muse won’t tell you her secret. And you won’t be able to guess.

Steganographic data: 1872/1.5

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 12

Published in: on August 24, 2008 at 3:18 pm  Comments (6)  
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Day 62: Zombie Phones and Baby Alligators

While my phone was busy finding the limits of the text messaging infrastructure, my muse’s phone has decided to turn any battery placed inside it into a lump of coal. Two so far this month. I want to stencil little battery icons on the side of it, like mini kill-trophies.

She’s giving me that look.

Side note #1: When her last phone died a few years ago, I took it apart, soldered in a bypass for the charging circuit, and kept it running for a full year. Yay zombie phone!

The look She’s giving me now says “Oh no you’re not.”

Might be time for a new phone.

Today I’m getting a lot of work done on Secret Plan 161, but instead of finding a sensible quiet desk, I’ve walked to Delessio at Market & Valencia.

Delessio is right next to Flax, an excellent art supply store. Mmmmm.
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After a few hours of heads-down work, I decide to go find Gene for a chess lesson. I walk down to Union Square, and there’s an art festival going on. It’s fun; I sit with a book for a while to see if Gene shows up.


Twice in the past week I’ve seen him right here, but not today.

If I can’t predict when he’s going to be here, I don’t stand a chance of beating him at chess. There are rules which determine when he comes here, where he sits, and how his pawns move as the game opens. I’m going to try to figure them out, rather than relying on luck. Next time I come, he’ll be here. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Side note #2: A few years ago, I taught my muse to play chess.

You know how baby alligators are so cute, but then they grow up and become unstoppable predators? That’s basically what happened. I haven’t beaten her at chess in a long, long time.

Fond Memory 1: A place called Beaulieu-sur-Mer in the South of France, 2003.

A gentleman brings us drinks as we sit facing each other over a beautiful marble chess table. He pauses, chuckles, and softly says “Elle va gagner.”

If the waiter can tell you’re getting your butt kicked, then you might have taught your student too well.

Fond Memory 2: San Francisco, 2006.

After trash-talking and wagering ourselves into an epic battle, the game begins. A few moves in, she gives me that look: “Oh no you’re not.” …and it’s all over.

Her queen must have been sleeping with with one of my pawns, because she just showed up behind the whole line, and left a trail of carnage on her way to the king before anyone could even find the emergency exit. Ow.

(It doesn’t mean she’s ready for the pro chess circuit, just that she specifically knows how to beat me. That’s comforting.)

I guess I’m lucky. Most people don’t get to keep the baby alligator once it becomes dangerous. And it doesn’t usually look this good.

Random assertion: There are no dice in chess, which does not mean there are no surprises.

Steganographic data: 1862/6.7

Published in: on July 21, 2008 at 10:43 am  Leave a Comment  
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Day 58: Potential Energy

(Author’s note: I’ve got some catching up to do. I hit two days which were so crazy-full that there was no time to write. Here goes.)

Right before the MechaniCrawl, my muse had just gotten back from a cross-country flight, so we’re ready for a day of rest and quiet relaxation. She’s finishing another knitting project. This one’s for her sister, but it looks really good on her as well.


So it was a quiet day at home. Remember the rule? Any time there’s a quiet day without many pictures, I unwrap another Secret Plan.


Secret Plan 118: Pressure Reducing Micro-Generator

Most houses have devices called pressure-reducing valves. They’re important for many reasons, and building codes require them on the interface from the water main. Additional pressure reduction is sometimes used to save water in the garden or shower.

…so the water that comes to your house is higher pressure than you need. Call it 100 psi (pounds per square inch). And let’s say you only need it to be 30 psi in your sink, shower, and garden hose.

What if we could use this pressure difference to generate electricity? First step is to find out how much energy we could get from it.

This pressure difference is effectively the same as two water tanks at different heights. If these two tanks physically existed, you can imagine that by water moving from one tank the other, you might generate some power.

This isn’t the device, just an illustration of where the energy would come from.

In this example, a typical family using 120 gallons of water in a day would get 60 watt-hours for free each day, or about enough to run a laptop computer for two or three hours.

That’s not huge, but free energy is pretty popular these days.

Random Assertion: Micro-generation ideas usually aren’t cost effective at first, but they also don’t cost much.

Steganographic data: 1862/1.4

Published in: on July 16, 2008 at 8:38 am  Comments (1)  
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Day 57: How to Impress a Tech Girl

To understand what happened today, you need to know this:

My muse has a mechanical engineering degree. She loves machines. Big ones. She actually worked for a while in a truck engine factory, and can usually tell you an engine’s manufacturer by listening to it run.

Here she is flirting with a combine the size of a house.

So today I’ve got a surprise for her. The Long Now Foundation has invited us to an event called MechaniCrawl. It’s a tour along the North shore of San Francisco of, well, machines.

First stop is the Long Now office. If you think this looks like an interesting place, I think you’re right. One of their main projects is a clock designed to run accurately for ten thousand years.

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There are very few things in the world that I genuinely covet. Here’s one of them:
The Rosetta Disc is a few inches in diameter, and stores writing in over a thousand languages, with no electronics. The messages (all 15,000 pages of them) are visibly etched into the surface of the disc. The spiral words around the edge provide a clever hint to some future person who might find the disc. As the letters get smaller, you need stronger magnification to read them. At 1,000-to-1 magnification, you can read the whole thing. The disc is expensive enough that I probably won’t ever own one, but I really like it.

The next place I take her is the USS Pampanito. It’s a submarine which managed to survive World War II, where so many others did not.

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The machinery is amazing, especially the all-mechanical control systems. It looks like 20 people would feel pretty cramped in here, but the crew size was 80.

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Next is the real reason we came. The SS Jeremiah O’Brien is open, the crew is on board, and the engine is running. This 1943 ship is still fully operational.


Brunette likes big engines. Smart boy likes brunette. Now you see.

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I name this wrench Excalibur.

This engine is so big that you literally walk around inside it while it’s running. The rules are serious:

  1. Everything is hot
  2. If it’s moving, don’t touch it.

The crew is great fun to talk to. The only challenge is the temperature. The engine room has us both overheating, but we’re having a great time.
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At night, Jeff is headlining a show called Cross Platform Comedy, specifically filled with geek jokes and a geek audience. My muse and I park on a couch and try not to pass out from laughing. We made it, but just barely.


Random assertion: The more elegant a machine’s design, the longer it will run.

Steganographic data: 1850/7.4

Published in: on July 14, 2008 at 4:53 pm  Comments (2)  
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Day 43: The Approximate Weight of an Angel

The beautiful Palace of Fine Arts, designed by Bernard Maybeck in 1915, is being renovated.

The scaffolding alone is a complex and impressive structure. During the renovation, the site is closed for safety reasons. You can’t even get close to it without a hard hat and an escort.

So this morning, we’ve got hard hats and escorts.

says that one of the things he needed to do for the project was to calculate the weight of the concrete angels under the dome.

Having these two as guides is excellent. Jan Berckefeldt is the executive director of the Maybeck foundation, and the driving force behind the restoration. Charlie Duncan is the architect leading this impressive project.

Does this remind you of Donkey Kong? You can zoom in on this map and read it.

In the evening, we head to David and Julie‘s house for an excellent dinner with great stories. They’re both scientists and teachers, and as it turns out, classmates of my muse. A fantastic evening to end a fun day.

The wine was a very special treat, made and bottled by David’s father. It’s excellent.

Random assertion: Immortality is elusive, but architects get closer to it than most.

Steganographic data: 1866/2.8

Published in: on June 29, 2008 at 1:01 pm  Comments (1)  
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Day 39: Stunts in a Dress

Today was spent writing (trying to make headway on a cryptography project).

In the afternoon, I had a great conversation over lunch with a filmmaking/software engineering/saber-combat expert I’ve known for ten years or more. I’m sure she spends her nights crime-fighting, but she never admits it.

Amit doesn’t look dangerous, does she? Right.

Ready for some wacky fun?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a stunt job audition. I didn’t get that job, so here are some pics and video from some stunt work I did a few years ago, dressed as a hotel maid.

The job involved a mechanical fly and several real ones. None were harmed.

This was a commercial for Ramada Inn, where a maid employs superhero ninja tactics to catch a fly. I was her stunt double.

The crew was fantastic to work with; the director was awesome, the wardrobe folks expertly transformed me into a woman (not an easy task!), and the stunt coordinator, Rocky Capella, did a brilliant job setting up the stunts, and throwing in crash-mats to keep me from getting hurt.

You can see a short clip of the video here.

…so I did this job just before I started dating my muse. I forget, which date is it okay to discuss professional cross-dressing?

Dinner tonight with my muse was excellent takeout from Tao Cafe. Their clay pot fish is spicy and good.

Random assertion: If someone offers to pay you for doing flips in a maid outfit, “yes” is the only answer which makes any sense; it’s not the kind of offer which is likely to come again.

Steganographic data: 1872/2.8

Published in: on June 25, 2008 at 9:58 am  Comments (3)  
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Day 37: Danger and Baking

I collect icons of danger. Maybe I’ll start posting them here.

Here’s one I saw today:

…so I’m allowed (maybe required) to shoot lightning from my fingertips, but am not supposed to explode televisions in other vehicles. So many rules.

This morning, my muse expressed her love by making fresh scones.


In the evening, we went to Alex, Ashley and Scott’s place for dinner and some helicopter-related electronics work. The wine is a special treat with a hand-made label.


In case you missed it, water has been found on Mars. Cool, that’s one less thing we’ll need to bring with us.

Random assertion: Regarding icons of danger: that little guy from the men’s room sign goes through unspeakable hardships to keep us safe, and it still doesn’t always work.

Steganographic data: 1860/1.2

Published in: on June 23, 2008 at 8:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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