A Supercomputer On A Chip For Everyone

Every now and then, an exciting Kickstarter project comes along that I want to support. Some succeed, some fail. The newest entry is developing an open source supercomputer-on-a-chip that is smaller than a credit card and suitable for parallel programming applications. For a $99 USD pledge, you can get a developer board and the open source software to play around with when it comes out.

The closest I ever got to parallel programming was running multiple threads concurrently in Java (i.e., one thread for main loop, one thread for user interface, and different threads for processing data) on a single-core CPU while taking programming courses at San Jose City College. Parallel programming is breaking the data into identical pieces that can be processed on multiple  CPUs or computers in a network from a master program.

For years I wanted to build a micro beowulf cluster that consisted of five micro-ATX boards in a stacked 16″ cube. Although the price for hardware has gotten lower over the years, it’s still expensive to get identical hardware to build it out at the same time. Even as a 16″ cube, a micro beowulf cluster still takes up space and produce heat. A supercomputer-on-a-chip doesn’t have to take up more space than a small form factor (SFF) computer. At $99 USD each, that’s a steal.

A New Pedestrian Bridge In South San Jose

Blossom Hill Road Pedestrian Bridge (SJ Mercury News)
San Jose Mercury News

A little boy died in November 2005 at the railroad tracks that separated a residential neighborhood from Monterey Highway (a four-lane expressway) and a nearby shopping center in South San Jose. After his the babysitter escorted him and his brother across the railroad tracks, he followed her back over as she went to fetch her own daughter in a stroller, and was hit by a passing Amtrak train. Although government officials made promises in 2008, the funding wasn’t authorized until this year and the new pedestrian bridge is opening this week.

I used to live down the street from this unofficial railroad crossing in the late 1990’s. While not as dangerous as the crossings next to the busy Caltrain stations in Sunnyvale and Mountain View, you still had to keep a wary eye up and down the tracks for a lumbering freight train as you clambered over the gravel bed. (Amtrak and Caltrain trains operate on these tracks today as Southern Pacific sold the right-of-way to Caltrain and commuter rail service was extended to Gilroy.) You couldn’t run across these tracks. Tripping and falling was more dangerous than being slow and careful.

Until the shopping center opened a few years later, I never had much reason to cross the tracks. If I had to go out to Wells Fargo Bank and McWhorter’s Stationers at Bernal Road and Santa Teresa Boulevard, I would hoist my bicycle over the tracks, ride south on the side of the highway—a four-lane express after the 101 opened in 1973—that went parallel to the tracks, cross the highway at the stoplight, and walk my bicycle up onto the Bernal Road overpass that went above the highway and the tracks.

Crossing the tracks became more frequent when the shopping center opened with a grocery store. Depending on what my mother needed, I would either walk over or ride my bike that had a large basket in front. Walking over with a few bags of groceries in hand wasn’t difficult. Moving my bike with a half-dozen grocery bags in the basket and a few plastic bags hanging off the side was more treacherous. On those occasions, I made damn well sure that I didn’t see the headlight of a train on the horizon in either directions before crossing.

During my first year as a college student, I had to cross the tracks to catch the bus on the Monterey Highway—or Monterey Road when it passed through the incorporated areas of San Jose—to get to San Jose City College. You had to be extra alert in the morning, especially if the weather was foggy and you had less time to see the train headlights coming your way.

Although I may never live in that part of San Jose, it’s nice to know that I could safely walk over the railroad tracks and Monterey Highway. Too bad that a little boy had to die and it took seven years to make this happen.

Two New Splatter Fest Movies For The Holidays

I’m looking forward to seeing two new splatter fest movies that are coming out for Christmas and New Year. The trailers were shown before “Resident Evil: Retribution” (read review) last week. Blood splatter, if done right to provoke laughs at a horrific moment, is an art form unto itself and an acquired taste.

The first movie is “Django Unchained,” coming out on Christmas 2012. Quentin Tarantino’s take on the Old West genre with a black slave becoming a bounty hunter, killing white people for money and searching every Southern plantation for his missing wife. This is the first Western movie to tackle slavery head on, a subject seldom acknowledged even though the Old West has everything to do with the American Civil War.

The other movie is “Hansel And Gretal: Witch Hunters,” coming out in January 2013. The children of the fairy tale grow up to become witch hunters with an arsenal of fantastic weapons. I saw the red band trailer in the theater that was more gorier than the video above. The witches don’t go up in smoke and flames like sparkling vampires, they explode in a back splatter of bright crimson.

However, if splatter fest movies are too much for your fine sensibilities, check out the new Kia Motors America hamster video as an 18th-century opera theater is invaded by the 2013 Kia Soul SUV, hip hop music and a laser light show. I have never liked the hamster videos until this video came along with this catchy tune and surreal situation.

Debt Collectors Are Renting DA’s Letterhead

Final NoticeI became an expert in dealing with debt collectors when I decided to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy two years ago. Every time I got a letter from a debt collector, I fired off a letter to assert my legal rights under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and sent copies to my bankruptcy attorney. Debt collectors hate dealing with people who fight back when they have easier prey to go after. The newest tactic, as reported by The New York Times, is renting the district attorney’s letterhead to scare people into paying under the threat of criminal prosecution.

[The letters] bear the seal and signature of the local district attorney’s office. But there is a catch: the letters are from debt-collection companies, which the prosecutors allow to use their letterhead. In return, the companies try to collect not only the unpaid check, but also high fees from debtors for a class on budgeting and financial responsibility, some of which goes back to the district attorneys’ offices.

[…]

Debt collectors have come under fire for illegally menacing people behind on their bills with threats of jail. What makes this approach unusual is that the ultimatum comes with the imprimatur of law enforcement itself — though it is made before any prosecutor has determined a crime has been committed.

Prosecutors say that the partnerships allow them to focus on more serious crimes, and that the letters are sent only to check writers who ignore merchants’ demands for payment. The district attorneys receive a payment from the firms or a small part of the fees collected.

If a civilian impersonates a law enforcement officer, that’s a crime punishable by one year in jail. If a debt collection company impersonates the DA’s office, and money is being exchanged underneath the table as part of a “partnership” that doesn’t benefit the public, that’s business as usual. Or, in the vernacular of the 2012 presidential election, the best government that money can buy. I was shocked—shocked!—to read that the Santa Clara County (Silicon Valley) DA’s office was involved in this questionable scheme to shake down consumers.

What do you do if you get one of these letters?

  • Call the DA’s office at the county office to determine if the letter was from them or a debt collection company. If the letter is from the DA’s office, read it carefully and take whatever steps needed to avoid further legal action.
  • If the letter is from a debt collection company, write a letter asserting your legal rights under the federal FDCPA and request that all communications to be in writing. (Your state may have a similar law that provides additional protections and should also be referenced in all your letters.) This begins the paper trail if you need to file a consumer complaint with your state attorney general’s office.
  • If the debt collector has a legitimate debt, pay off what you owe and not a dime extra.
  • If the debt collector has the wrong info and/or being abusive, make copies of the paper trail and file a consumer complaint. You need to be aggressive in dealing with these people. Like high school bullies, they will back down from a fight.

Send protest letters to the DA’s office, the county board of supervisors and your congressional representatives to end this insidious practice. The DA’s letterhead should represent the legal authority of the people—not the debt collectors.

Texas Mom Jailed For Letting Kids Play Outside

As a native Californian who was born and raised here, I always have to wonder what’s in the water in Texas when weird things happen down yonder. A mom was thrown in jail for letting her young kids play outside after a busybody neighbor called the police to report them as being unsupervised. The stay-at-home mom was watching her kids from a lawn chair. The police officer who showed up didn’t believe her and arrested her for child endangerment. In the finest American tradition, the mother had filed a lawsuit against the police department, the police officer and the busybody neighbor.

We don’t know why the busybody neighbor called the police in Texas as she made no comment on the matter. If this had happen in California, it would be because the noisome kids were driving down the real estate values in the neighborhood.

Seriously.

Two roommates and I were renting the front apartment of a triplex not far from San Jose City College in 2002, which meant that we had to take care of the front yard. After a roommate’s mother raped my petunias to make potpourri, I stopped watering the planter and the naked petunias died.

An older neighbor lady walking her dog one morning informed us that the dead petunias had caused the real estate value of her house to drop by $25,000 USD. I asked her if her house was on the market and she said no. When I pointed out that her house has no relative value until it was on the market, she left in a huff and threaten to call the landlord.

We ended up moving shortly thereafter, but not because of the busybody neighbor down the street was fretting about real estate values.

A bisexual man with his straight girlfriend and his gay boyfriend—all Mexicans—moved into the front apartment of the triplex next door. He accused our Mexican roommate of peeping into his bedroom window while he was having sex with his girlfriend and lusting after his boyfriend. Mexican roommate told him he was stupid in Spanish and slammed the front door on him. Apparently, in Mexico, calling someone stupid and slamming the front door was socially unacceptable.

After a string of late night visits from the police inquiring about his legal status, the Mexican roommate moved out. The other roommate and I moved into a smaller apartment a month later. The landlord’s wife started pulling out the dead petunias as we handed over the keys to the apartment, restoring the neighborhood real estate values by $25,000 USD. No one gave us a commission for this economic miracle.

From what I later heard from another neighbor, the neighborhood was in turmoil for six months from the sexual hijinks of these neighbors before they were evicted. That probably didn’t effect the neighborhood real estate values as much as the dead petunias did. This situation was truly Californian. If this had happened in Texas, the troika next door would have been deported back to Mexico—or California.

The Renovated Parkmoor FoodMaxx Store

FoodMaxx Grocery StoreAfter the Parkmoor post office moved around the corner and a Savers Thrift Store opened, that wasn’t the only major change at the Parkmoor Plaza shopping center this summer. FoodMaxx underwent a major renovation that dramatically improved the store, including new shelving, an open floor layout and self-checkout stands.

The biggest change was eliminating the herding pattern that forced customers to go from the front entrance through the produce department along the left wall, the meat department along the back wall, and into the rest of the store from the right wall. I don’t think that floor layout ever made sense even when the store was previously known as Food-4-Less. With the separate entryways consolidated into a new entryway at the front center of the store, you have access to the entire store when walking in. I still find it difficult after 20 years of shopping there not to follow the old herding pattern.

The warehouse-style shelving was replaced by what I like call to Safeway-style shelving, which is a uniform beige shelving at average height. The new floor layout has wider aisles between the shelves and a central aisle going straight down the middle. The downside is fewer shelves with a smaller product selection (some cut in half). The produce department was expanded to include organic fruits, vegetables and sushi.

All the checkout stands were replaced by new stands that are slimmer, sleeker and modern looking. Like the old floor plan being abolished, you have to get used to the new orientation of the stands with the clerk on your right instead of your left. The stands have padded knee switches to move the conveyor belt when you bag your own groceries (that haven’t changed). I can’t help but notice that there are fewer stands in a smaller space than before. I’m no longer seeing familiar faces, which leaves me to wonder if they retired or were laid off to pay for the new improvements.

The store now has four self-checkout stands near the exit. The computer voice for these machines are identical to the self-checkout stands at Safeway, making me wonder if FoodMaxx bought everything from a Safeway warehouse fire sale. The machines behave the same way except the voice doesn’t ask for your Safeway discount card and dispenses cash in $10 USD bills instead of $20 USD bills (useful if you want to spend less cash at other stores).

The self-checkout stands are available during daylight hours and are blocked off a night to prevent people from running out the door without paying. Although that doesn’t prevent anyone from surreptitiously walking out the entrance with a bottle of vodka, which happened one night when a teenaged girl brushed past me.

The one thing that haven’t changed despite all the new improvements is the long lines. If you’re in a hurry to shop, FoodMaxx is the last place to be shopping at. It’ll be interesting to see if the lines will snake down the central aisle during the holiday season.

Adventures In Extreme Couponing (Part 2)

Saving For A VacationWhen my roommate suggested that we could take a European vacation with all the money we would be saving from what we learned at the the Extreme Couponing seminar, I had to groan and laugh at the same time. The Extreme Couponing  TV reality show often show someone piling $1,000 USD worth of groceries into a shopping cart, handing over a thick bundle of coupons to the cashier, and paying 10% or less of the total balance. The goal is to pay ABSOLUTELY NOTHING for everything.

After receiving our five copies of the San Jose Mercury News on Sunday morning, we scanned through the coupon inserts. As I suspected, we may have a problem with extreme couponing. Many of the coupons weren’t for items that we typically buy every week.

Here are a few coupons that apply to me.

  • A $1 USD off coupon for Brut After Shave. This is something that I buy when I can’t afford to buy a $50 USD bottle of Diesel cologne. (Since the Great Recession started in 2008, I’ve gone without a decent cologne for years.) Do I really want to stock up on five bottles of Brut After Shave to save five bucks? Not really.
  • A $10 USD off coupon for the 70-count bottle of Claritin allergy medication. Before my father passed away, he used to buy me generic loratadine when he visited the pharmacy at Kaiser Permantente because it was much cheaper than buying it elsewhere. Even with the coupon, Claritin is still too expensive. Costco has a 365-count bottle of generic lotatidine for $13 USD. That’s a much better deal.
  • A $1 USD off coupon for Johnsonville sausages. Although this isn’t something I would normally get, sausages can be divided up and kept frozen for individual servings. Is this a good deal? Only if I can find it on sale somewhere.

Many coupons require purchasing two or more items. Extreme couponing has become so popular in recent years that manufacturers and stores are losing money as store shelves are cleared out when an item goes on sale. If you have to buy twice as many items to use a coupon, this may reduces the savings and the incentive to stock up on that particular item. You may have to work harder to find better deals.

Unless one of us wins the lottery, a European vacation is out of the question. The underlying assumption is that $900+ USD would be saved on $1,000 USD worth of groceries. From the videos I’ve seen, this plays out in two ways: the shopper either banks the unspent money into a savings account or pulls out $100 USD to cover the final bill total. Any money we save from extreme couponing will probably buy something shiny. Maybe a new iPod Nano?

Review – Resident Evil Retribution

Resident Evil: RetributionI kept my expectations low for “Resident Evil: Retribution,” the fifth movie in the zombie/chic flick series, by not reading any of the reviews before seeing it at the Vallco Shopping Mall. I was pleasantly surprised by how different this movie was even though it covered the same zombie-infested territory of the last four movies.

The opening sequence has Alice (Milla Jovovich) plunging into the ocean, as if embracing Death, and then everything runs backwards in slow motion as explosions disappear, bullets weren’t fired and people didn’t panic as attack helicopters from Umbrella Corporation (UC) disappear over the horizon. Alice introduces herself in a virtual video screen, recaps what happened from the previous movies, and the attack sequence resumes at normal speed as the ship with escaping survivors is destroyed.

Alice wakes up in bed as if everything was a bad dream, realizing that she has a husband and a young daughter to get ready for the day. This domestic bliss is soon interrupted when a zombie breaks into the kitchen to attack her husband. Being a normal woman with maternal instincts, she grabs her daughter to escape through the attic and out into the street to find the Raccoon City neighborhood under attack from zombies. Rain (Michelle Rodriguez as a gun-adverse neighbor, later reprises her role as a military hard ass) drives by to pick them up. The car crashes after being hit from behind by a truck. Alice and her daughter escape to another house, where she attacks a zombie for threatening her child.

Alice wakes up again in a UC prison cell and being interrogated by Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory), wanting to know who she worked for. A nonsensical question. A high pitch sound renders Alice in pain for failing to answer. This goes on until a power outage unlocks the door and opens a secret compartment with body armor and boots that fits her perfectly. Escaping from her cell to the outside world, she finds herself in downtown Tokyo and watches as a dazed Japanese woman suddenly attack a business man to start the zombie outbreak.

She runs into Ada Wong (Li Bingbing), who explains that they are inside the UC facility underneath an old Soviet submarine base in the frozen Arctic Sea. The facility is divided into zones that represent Tokyo, Moscow and Suburbia, where the Red Queen—the homicidal artificial intelligence from the first movie—run simulations to improve the biological agent responsible for the zombies. As a strike team infiltrates the facility from the outside, Alice and Ada try to rendezvous with them to escape.

I loved how everything from the previous movies is put into doubt. It could be nothing more than an elaborate simulation by the Red Queen. Even Alice is unnerved by how far UC would go when she finds the dead body of her domestic self and a daughter clinging to her in the Suburbia zone. Although without her superpowers from the zombie virus, maternal instincts fuel her thirst for retribution.

The Return of Baldur’s Gate (Now Postponed)

Baldur's Gate Enhanced EditionWhen Penny Arcade reminisced about Baldur’s Gate, a video game that Bioware came out with in 1998 on five CDs (this was long before a DVD would replace multiple CDs), I had to read the blog post to see what prompted this.

Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crisis) is coming out with Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition for the PC, Mac, iPad and Android. Now updated with new content to run on current platforms, this seminal game is being introduced to a new generation. Alas, it won’t be out today as it has been postponed until November.

I was a video game tester at Accolade 18 months before Infogrames bought it out in 2000, which later bought out Hasbro Interactive for the Atari and Dungeons & Dragon intellectual property rights, moved the company to Sunnyvale and renamed the company toAtari. (The multiple identity crisis came from the managers of each new acquisition being given a shot at running the mishmash company.) I remembered the impact that Baldur’s Gate had on the QA department after the game first came out.

A half-dozen senior testers bought and installed CD drives with a six-disc magazine into their work PCs. Baldur’s Gate was notorious for requiring the player to switch discs every so often and interrupting the game flow for several minutes each time. The workaround was a disc changer that made the disc switching automatic. Those weren’t cheap at $250 USD. They played the entire weekend in multiplayer mode over the network, starting Friday evening at 6PM and stopping Monday morning at 6AM. I don’t recall if they finished the game or not.

Management wasn’t thrilled that a third of the QA department had called in sick that morning and was out for several days to catch up on sleep. Fortunately, this was after the holiday rush of getting new products out the door. The disc changers were removed and Baldur’s Gate was banished from the department.

I never played Baldur’s Gate when it first came out. I’m not sure if I’ll play when it comes out again, either for the PC or the iPad. Role playing games require a considerable amount of time to finish. Prior to Neverwinter Nights being released in 2002, a single programmer spent 500 hours to play every quest in the game. Even then we weren’t sure if that game was thoroughly tested from beginning to end. I tried playing Neverwinter Nights on my own after I left the video game industry in 2004 but lost interest after playing for 20 hours.

Between a full time non-writing job during the day and running an ebook publishing empire at night, my attention span for any video game is pretty limited to 15 minutes. Tiny Tower for the iPad is the current game that I’ve been playing for the last two months (I just added my 50th floor). If there is any game for the PC I really want to play, it’s probably Diablo III that I tested for a weekend earlier this year.