I plan to start working for Instacart, in San Francisco, in a couple of weeks — my first day will be September 10. I’ll still live in West Lafayette — for the first three weeks I plan to fly out Sunday night and come back Thursday overnight. Eventually I’d like to get that down to one week a month. So really it will be mostly remote work. Eventually.

How many people macro-commute? How do you make it sustainable?

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Teresa had an assignment to write a horror story recently for Language Arts. I don’t think I ever had that assignment, but it sounded like fun.

On a Spring day it’s easy to get fresh strawberries. Every store has them, overflowing from their swishy doors out into the parking lot in cornucopias of rustic wooden platforms covered in 2 for $3! signs.


But in the late Fall or early Winter? You need is to get there early. And be ready to pay.

My daughters love strawberries. As long as there are strawberries in the refrigerator, there are no fights. Chores and homework get done. Memes are happily shared around the kitchen table.

Wednesday night. The weekend’s berries have been happily consumed, and even if they hadn’t been, they wouldn’t be good anymore.

I set my alarm for 5:30 and go to sleep confident. Beep beep beep. Some people configure their alarms to be music. But no matter how great the song, if it’s an alarm, you’re going to end up hating it. But there’s no love lost on beeps. Like smashing a mosquito, I dismiss my alarm with no hard feelings.

I wake up. My phone says 6:56 am. Oh no!

The peace-creating strawberries rot in my mind and tumble into the kitchen garbage. “Hey, these dishes are dirty. Who washed them?” Verbal sparring begins. I know it will lead to a day or more of hard feelings, followed by a weekend of grousing.

Jump out of bed. Pants. Sweatshirt. No time for underwear. Wallet.

Keys? Where are they? Oh, on the floor. Nope, that’s my bike key. Okay, we’ll go with that. No, I’ll never have time if I try to bike to the store.

7:01. To the store and back by 7:30 or else I’ll miss the breakfast window. Keys, keys. Bathroom? No. Gotta pee. Keys. Okay, where else? Kitchen counter? No. Coat pocket? No, no.

In the garage, still no car keys. In the car? What, it’s locked? Squint through the window. No. Wait, there they are! On the passenger seat! No, that’s the set with the dog keychain. No telling where mine are.

7:04. Still in the garage. Have to bike. 10 minutes there, 10 back, allows 6 minutes for shopping. Possible. Maybe if I pedal fast.

The garage door rises, a mouth of darkness. As soon as it reaches head level, head out into twilight.

Whoa, frost! Augh! Slippery! Foot down! Relief and frustration rush through me.

Blinding light. Whoosh as a car rushes by. I follow it out onto the road.


Pedal madly and look in every direction at once. Merge with traffic. An antelope among lions and elephants.

Red hatchback ahead, dark SUV behind.

Red light. Exhaust fumes. The driver in the next lane gives a sideways glance. Resting face, or incensed?

Green light. An engine races behind me. My legs pump. Don’t look back. I can keep up with this traffic. Shift. Shift. Shift.

Brake light! Skiiiiid. Catch myself against Red Hatchback. Scraaape of bike frame against car

Something hot on my shin.

Inside Red Hatchback, the rearview mirror frames the driver’s alarmed eyes and mouth open in an “Oh”.

I’m still standing. Back up, wave hands to say “never mind I just need strawberries”.

Everyone is turning left into the grocery store lot. Pumpkins. Haybales. 20 cents off gas with card. Pour gas onto the haybales, but that would make it harder to reach the strawberries.

But I’m still in the road, standing over my bike frame in the left turn lane.

Someone ahead in line is being too cautious. There is a chance to cross the other lane.

Go! Jump the line! Pounce on pedals to get in front of a slow truck.

The pedals don’t move! Broken!

No, accidentally in high gear! Bike is moving so slowly. Oncoming truck is slowing down. The opposite curb is coming closer, closer.


Foot down on curb, lift, pull bike out of road.

Whooosh. Angry yelling. My face is red.

Remember the strawberries.

The bike rack is at the far door. I’ll leave my bike propped by this door. No time to lock it.

A huge bin of pumpkins. Orange and useless.

Through the swishy doors. Apples. Pears. Peaches!? Blueberries.

Pumpkins. Bananas.


“Oh my gosh, is your leg okay?”

What? It still feels hot, but cold too. Oh, that’s a lot of blood.

“Yeah, it’s fine. Have you seen any strawberries?”

“Oh, honey. I’ve got some bandaids in my purse.”

“I’ll take care of it when I get home. Excuse me, sir, yes? Do you have any strawberries?”

“Well, I’m putting out the fresh stuff now. I think maybe some came in last night, but we don’t have any out yet. Oh, here are some.”

The rejects. Maybe there are some good ones in there, at the bottom.


I take both remaining packs.

7:14. Ahead of schedule.

Self check-out. Please …. place …. your …. …. in …. the …. bagging …. area ….

Please …. wait …. for …. an (No, not an attendant) …. attendant

7:17. Where’s my bike? Someone riding it away through the parking lot?

Wrong door. It’s still over there where I left it, behind a cart. Running.

Strawberry cartons in plastic bags, swinging from the handlebars.

Going back is so much harder. Is it uphill? Barely. Push through.

Look behind: A car too close. Ahead: so much distance to cover—I try to catch up, pump hard, but my legs can’t compete with internal combustion. The driver’s stare weighs on my back.

I hop a driveway lip to get off the street, my slow motion too antiquated for the motorized commuters.

Imagine the strawberries on the kitchen table. In time for the day to start. Hands reach in, pluck from the carton, pop them into mouths that are smiling and talking. A team huddle, all hands in for a cheer. Everyone’s making plans for the day. All is possible.

The frost is gone, leaving damp sidewalks. Almost there, but I still have to cross the street. I should have done it at the crosswalk. Maybe I should go back? Or go up to the stop sign? Suddenly sleepy.

Where did all these cars come from? It’s not time for the rush yet, is it? There’s a break. But not on the other side. Have to wait.

Finally back in the garage. Kickstand.

Inside door to the house is still open.

In the kitchen, munching teenagers, phones out, catching up on the instanet.

“I got strawberries.”


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College Essay

Teresa, Bahiyyih, and I are helping Georgia in this season of college application essays. Taking turns with the words. This one is for a local institution:

Dear Theodosia,

When I first ate Purdue sandwiches, my brother told me they were made
of real plastic. I never believed he actually was aware of their
plastic ingredients. This new technology has made spacefarming
undoubtedly better. The only way to master spacefarming is with
plastic ingredients for Purdue sandwiches.

A perfect bundle of lacey clouds went frighteningly close to a sunny
hill. But no teeth transformed the clouds today — or ever —

Smoke detectors perform basic Purdue ballet while attached to my

Eddy Redmayn formed the original studio audience of his family’s large
Halloween mug.

In concussions, favorable lobes.

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Predicting childrens’ interests: I can’t do it, Yay!

figuring out one's cultural identityTwo of my daughters are watching Black-ish, a sitcom about “an upper-middle-class African-American family” [wikipedia]. I think the characters are trying to figure out their cultural identity. Last year I was excited to hear about it and looked for it on, um, let’s say Chinese Netflix [1]. I watched the pilot episode [2] and filed it on the hard drive, where it sat inert for a year.

And a couple of days ago, one of the girls asked if I could find more of it.

“You like it?” I asked her.

“Yeah,” she said. “Can you get the rest of it?”

I don’t even know how she found it amidst the debris on that disk. Maybe looking through TV shows alphabetically? She must like it better than Adventures of Brisco County Jr and Big Bang Theory.

Even though I wouldn’t have guessed she’d pick it out, I’m pretty happy she’s watching it. She’s been out of the US for over 4 years, and by the time we get back, it will be 5 years [3]. I want her to know what’s happening there, but instead she’s getting to know a little slice of China. That’s also good, and it’s a big part of why we’re here, but it would be nice if she doesn’t feel like a complete alien when we return. I can’t say that Black-ish is the definitive guide to race relations, but if she’s choosing to watch it during her precious computer entertainment time [4], then I’d say it’s at least one and a half birds with one stone. I mean it’s fun (one bird) and at least somewhat informative (half a bird? Maybe more?).

Today at lunch, sister #3 is watching it too.

“Why do you like it?” asks sister #1 (the only one who still isn’t watching Black-ish).

“It’s the only thing we have that I haven’t watched already.”

“I’ll bet we have lots of things you haven’t watched,” challenges sister #1.

“Like what?”

Science Fiction

“Well, all the science fiction shows and stuff.”

“I don’t like science fiction.”

I jump in, “So you’re saying it’s interesting enough to watch?”

“Yeah, I guess so. Yeah, it’s interesting enough to watch.”

I’m pretty happy they’re watching it. Cultural identity and race relations are worthy topics, and it must have enough well-written funny bits to lighten up the serious. Maybe? I’ve only seen the pilot. The girls love family comedies [5]. I never would have guessed it would catch their interest, since it didn’t manage to hold mine. Is it a sign that they’re growing up?

It's hard to find legit TV behind the Great Firewall.[1] Hint: Its founder was recently released from Swedish prison. It’s unfortunately the only convenient way we’ve found to watch English language TV here. I told everyone we’d have to go legit when we move back to the Western Hemisphere, and use Hulu/Netflix/etc like civilized people.

[2] I like understanding race relations, but I think I’m just not a sitcom guy.

[3] We’re planning to move back to the US in summer 2016.

[4] They get an hour a day of messing around on the computer for entertainment. Okay, it’s not that strictly enforced, but it’s approximately an hour. Two hours on weekends. Plus some social time if they want to play Minecraft with their friends or something. Or make powerpoint presentations about kittens. And probably quite a bit longer on days when their parents go on long excursions. What I’m trying to say is we aren’t letting TV raise them entirely.

[5] New episodes of Modern Family bring all the girls to the couch, that’s right, and they all have advanced degrees in The Cosby Show.

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Computer Science Class

Audio: Computer Science Class

Today in Computer Science class, we did a demonstration of IFTTT, where we recorded something in SoundCloud, and IFTTT auto-published it on my blog.

If I point my microphone at my children, would this recipe be useful for sharing audio recordings with Grandma?

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Carbon Debt

We was just playing in the woods. Me and Sal had an old phone that didn’t have no minutes but still had good batteries and some stuff in it. We was just taking pictures of leaves and flowers and having it tell us about them. We had to use the light because it was so dark down under the trees, and it couldn’t tell us nothing if the pictures was too dim.

Well, the phone got warm, I guess, and we didn’t pay no mind, and then before we know it, it was hot and I dropped it, and then I saw smoke coming from it, and sparks, and them dry leaves caught, and then we was running from a fire. I practically carried Sal up the ravine to the house, and I saw Mom running at us the other way. We was keeping away from the fire, but the smoke got all around us, so our eyes was burning and we was coughing all dry.

“Fire, Ma, there’s a fire!” and I run straight into the house, pulling Sal.

“I know, god dammit Al! I ain’t blind!” She run straight past me to the machine shed, which we never opened because them machines is too expensive to run.

I got Sal down to the house basement. I heard thunder outside and wanted to go see what it was.

“Don’t go up there, Al!” Sal was crying and holding onto my hand like I was Mom or Dad. “We’s supposed to stay in the shelter.”

But I pulled my hand out of hers and run back outside.

The first thing I noticed, was the helicopters. There was two of them, yellow and as big as our house, and they was what sounded like thunder. They was spraying orange goo into the trees in the ravine.

Smoke was pouring up like a gray dirt cloud out of the tops of the trees, where the helicopters was spraying. I couldn’t see no flames.

Then I saw Mom, tearing down the drive on the tractor, with the big empty spray tank on the back. I couldn’t hear nothing from it, but smoke was coming out of it’s pipe, so I knew she was running the carbon motor and everything.

I started to run down after Mom and the tractor, but a huge voice from one of the helicopters practically knocked me on my butt. “Please stand back from the affected area and all emergency vehicles. Find a place of safety immediately. Please stand back from the affected area and emergency vehicles …” It was saying the same thing over and over. Me and Sal still like to say it. “Please stand back from the breakfast area and all eatin’ brothers.” Mom and Dad don’t particularly like it, but Me and Sal laugh at it every time.

I got back into the house and watched out the basement door. Sal was crying down below, but wouldn’t come over to the door to look out. For a minute I saw fire in the smoke, but then I guess the orange stuff started to work, and the fire didn’t keep going.

Mom come by later to check on us, just to see we was okay, but she didn’t come inside the house. It was night before she and Dad came back in.

So that’s how I was practically born in carbon debt. I had to bank it and bank it, my Dad made me bank it every day, which is why I didn’t play learning much, like Sal did. Sal never got blamed for that fire, even though we was both there, because she was only five, and I was seven.

My Dad gives me credit for stuff like branches I cut off his trees — if he seen me cut them — if I also haul them to the swamp to bank in anox.

“Albert!” My Dad is calling. “Albert, you seen my axe?”

“Dad, I’m playin’ Emerald Kids!” Which I was. While we still had power. Our house batteries are shot, and we don’t have the carbon to replace them. And besides it’s summer, so we don’t need them at night anyway. “Can’t it wait ’til after dark?”

“Albert, I need that axe now, ‘n’ there’s still daylight. I’ve got a poplar ‘sabout to fall, an’ I got to get it in the ravine. If it don’t fall uphill, I’ll bust my back gettin’ it down to the swamp.”

“Can’t it wait until tomorrow, an’ we can cut the limbs off?”

But that’s going too far. “Dammit boy, you can’t let wood sit!” I can hear his face get red, “It’s goin’ to the swamp tonight or you’re goin’ with it!”

I put that game down. “I’m comin’!” I yell. I always mean to leave that axe on its peg, but I must have forgot, or else my Dad wouldn’t be calling about it.

I shiver because I remember where it is. “I think I left it on the Harp Slope!” I call to him, and I run out the front door past him, trying not to look in his face. It’s going to be darker before I get back with the ax.

He don’t let wood sit even a day above water, and it had better lay in anox too. He says rot starts right away. Foolheaded stubbornness, I say. Even though I mostly play a geosat boy in Emerald Kids, I know it takes years for all the carbon to come out of a dead tree. It sure don’t give up nothing appreciable its first day down.

Anox, that’s water that don’t got no oxygen in it. It’s dead water, and fish can’t live in it, which is a waste. But it kind of balances because if you put wood into anox, the carbon banks. It doesn’t rot out into the air. And the sats, they can see that you’ve done a good job, and you get to keep the credit you got from growing them trees in the first place.

Our place — our hills — they’s full of buried anox, more full every year. We dig out a lagoon at the bottom of a slope and we seed it with weeds to soak up the oxygen. Then we pull trees down into it with the battery hauler. When it’s full, we cover it up again. If we can find clay, we put that over the trees first. And that’s about it. We get credit for our carbon, so long as the sats can see it.

Problem is, carbon ain’t worth what it used to be. Mom says time was a couple of good trees could get you a month’s groceries. I can’t remember nothing like that. All I know is if I can get a tree underwater in the morning and another in the afternoon, it can keep the line above red for another day, and we can get net service, and Mom can have her pills every month that the doctor says she needs to take. And we can eat some kind of meat besides deer.

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Unemployment and a Spirit of Service

This is still a half-formed thought, and I need some help finishing it:

What is the connection between unemployment, economic productivity, fair distribution of wealth, and a spirit of service?

I’ve been thinking about it for a long, long time, and it’s still a bunch of ingredients that have yet to form a cohesive stew. Here are the ingredients; I’m pretty sure they go together to make something pretty good, but I’m not sure what it is:

I can think of a few implications, but does anyone know of examples of these principles put into practice? What kind of society can we build after they stew for a while?

  • If life is easy, what will motivate you to do difficult things? A spirit of service?
  • Can you truly be unemployed if you are looking for ways to be of service (and not desperately poor)?
  • What proportion of people take advantage of the system?
  • Where can innovation come from, if everyone has access to information, reasonable resources, and if we celebrate service?
Posted in Life, The World | Leave a comment

1994: Robot Sheepdog

Here’s a video I’ve wanted to post for a long time. It was a project for a college class in 1994, taught by one of MIT’s most understanding professors, Donald Troxel. Carlton Mills digitized the old VHS copy of our video report.

It was built by a team of three students: John Wallberg, Adam Holt, and me—we were the leftovers, actually, who hadn’t already found lab partners. Our two project ideas were this and robotic air hockey, and we were pretty sure a sheepdog would be both easier and safer. But we still finished it about 10 days late, working right up until we all had to leave for winter break. But it still won a prize (follow the link and search for “Newton”)!

The sheepdog itself is a LEGO robot covered by a cardboard box, and the sheep is a jittery baby toy. The sheepdog controls are three hand-built computers running 5-volt TTL logic, 8-bit 10MHz microcontrollers, miscellaneous op-amps and potentiometers, and at best 256 bytes of RAM and a few kilobytes of EEPROM. It turns out you can do some basic vision, navigation, and motor control with that!

Some details:

  • The sheep had to be juiced down by power engineer Adam — I think he used 3 good batteries and a dud instead of 4 good batteries, because it was just too vigorous otherwise.
  • The navigation system required the most complex computer of the three; Adam had 16 bits to work with on his main bus, which he had to divide into address and data lines; I think he settled on 10 bits for addressing and 6 bits of numerical precision in his trigonometric lookup tables. That way he could have 1024 instructions, of which he probably used 1023. While the vision system was being debugged, Adam and John had to find creative ways to test the navigation and driving blind. Because of their preparation, the whole thing basically worked the first night we plugged in the vision sensor. I think it was only possible because of Adam’s love of trigonometry and navigation. In his spare time he was downloading publicly available street grid data and displaying it interactively in ASCII on his home computer — a precursor to modern web-accessible maps.
  • The vision system did simple light-dark thresholding and looked for blobs. We didn’t have a wide-angle lens, so we jammed our camera up as high in the ceiling as we could, to get about an 8-foot square field of view. My favorite feature was the debugging display, visible at 1:42, which was an RGB screen hooked straight to various internal signal lines of the vision system. It showed a raw greyscale camera channel in green, thresholded blobs in red, and the center of one of the blobs in blue (but aliased into a grid and with computation noise mixed in because I ran out of wiring space). You could see it compute the blobs at the top of each frame and then settle out into a clean debugging pattern that followed a blob around. It’s briefly visible in the background.
  • The mechanical robot was amazingly reliable. John built it out of proven 6.270 parts, including what must have been at least 3 pounds of cross-linked LEGO Technic pieces, two small DC motors, rechargeable lead-acid motorcycle batteries (housed in the chassis itself) and a pulse-width modulation circuit. After we tweaked constants to match slight difference between the two drivetrains, the robot could go straight or curve along fairly accurate arcs. But even if it wasn’t exact, the feedback loop from sensor to navigation planning was tight enough (30 hertz?) that corrections were pretty immediate. At about 4:00, for example, it navigates tightly around the sheep and butts it from the other side. (Another, less fortunate team the same semester used a different brand of toys for their robot, along with stepper motors, which are theoretically simpler to control digitally but proved to be much less mechanically robust. Their robot hardware never did function properly, but the teachers were understanding and graded them well based on their circuits and software.)
Posted in Techno-biological | 2 Comments

Baker Family Animated Special

Charles Schultz, the creator of Peanuts, required that only his own artwork be used for his comic strip, which, when you boil it down, means no more new Peanuts holiday specials.

The following (which Bahiyyih also posted a few days ago) should in no way be construed as an attempt to fill the gap, but it was fun to make. Introducing the animated version of a bedtime story from last week, Two Scoops:

Posted in Bedtime Story | 4 Comments

Two Scoops

Once upon a time, there were two scoops of ice cream at the top of a hill.

One scoop, which was chocolate, said to the other, “Hey Vanilla, want to race?”

“Race?” the other scoop answered, “What’s that?”

“It’s where we each go as fast as we can and see who can get to the bottom of the hill first!”

“Ooh, that sounds exciting,” said Vanilla, and gave a little roll. “How do we do that?”

“Well, it’s pretty hot out here, so I figure we can melt and slide our way down,” Chocolate answered.

Now, to ice cream, “hot” means anything that is not freezing cold. But it was rather warm that day. It wasn’t carry-your-water-with-you-at-all-times hot, but if you had looked down the road from the top of the hill, and maybe if you had put your head down close to street level, and if you were patient, you would probably have seen some waviness in the air, rising from the pavement.

The two ice cream scoops started their race. They glistened in the sunlight as their outer layers started to melt. And if they had been on someone’s cones, their parents would have said, “Be sure to lick that before it drips.”

“Oh my specks! I’ve never moved this fast!” yelled Vanilla.

“Wooooo!” wailed Chocolate, sliding past Vanilla at the speed of a very fast snail.

“Wow, how do you do that?” Vanilla called after the other scoop.

“Yeah, it’s a trick I just figured out. Face one side toward the sun until it’s good and melted, and then roll down on top of it to get a really good slide!”

Vanilla tried it. “Hmm, I’m not really heating up as fast. I’m going to try rolling instead. Watch out, I’m going to catch up!”

The two ice cream scoops slid and rolled down the hill, slowly at the top, where it wasn’t very steep, and speeding up as they got lower. They were really melting now — if they had been on cones, the parents would now be saying, “Here, let me help you with that.”

“Oh no,” said Chocolate, “I’ve slid into the shade!”

“Ha ha, I’ll catch you now!” answered Vanilla, “Whoa, what’s this, a crack? I’m going sidewaaaays!”

Behind them two stripes of melted ice cream stretched up the hill, once white and one brown.

Just then, out from behind a building at the top of the hill, a dog and a cat walked onto the street. The dog sniffed the air, and the cat jumped up on a bench to look around. The cat saw the chocolate stripe, jumped down, and ran over to it, while the dog found the vanilla one, and they both started licking.

The Chocolate scoop was back in the sunlight again and making good time on the hot pavement. “Wuk ut meee, Um huff-multed,” Chocolate said, in a melty voice.

“Yeh won’t ketch meh!” Vanilla said. But vanilla was mostly melted on one side and was having trouble rolling. Vanilla looked back up the hill; Chocolate was nearly even. “Weht! Whet’s that?”

“Wuht? Wuht uz it?” Chocolate asked.

“Sehm kehnd eff ennimals, chessing ess!”

Chocolate struggled to turn around but was sliding headlong down the street, now mostly liquid.

The dog and cat were having a race of their own, of sorts. The dog slobbered its way down the hill, going back and forth across the vanilla trail, while the cat licked straight down the middle of the chocolate, getting the thickest part of the melted ice cream and ignoring the edges.

“Thehr genna eehht ess! Ehhhhh!” Vanilla panicked.

Chocolate ran out into a final syrupy dollop that spread across the pavement. The cat was not far behind; it licked its way right to the middle and lapped up a little circle through the thickest part.

The dog closed in on the lopsided lump of Vanilla, who burbled, “Eeeargh, et’s theh ehnd!”

But as the dog’s tongue scooped Vanilla up, Vanilla’s last thoughts were suddenly calm and clear. “Wait, this isn’t so bad. I’m ice cream. I always wanted to be eaten outdoors on a hot day, after all.”

Posted in Bedtime Story | 3 Comments