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Archive for December, 2011

I looked at a lot of Google Map while I was working on the previous post about Briley Parkway.  I just wanted to share some additional thoughts that jumped out at me.

There is a pretty significant kink in the main road that looks like it was added in order to avoid the airport runway.  This caused the Briley interchange at Interstate 40 to be skewed on an angle making it more difficult to build.    Those angles make it difficult to move traffic and keep them at interstate level speeds.  I’ve always thought Briley was way too curvy for such a high speed route, and I suspect the leg through Donelson doesn’t meet a lot of the design guidelines about curves on a four lane or higher road.  It was much worse before a major overhaul was done around 2008.  Looking at the maps (and satellite imagery) makes it pretty obvious why it was so curvy.

When I moved to middle Tennessee in the mid-90’s the of Briley through Donelson and up to Gallatin Pike was extremely curvy and the lanes felt cramped and narrow.  It was more than a little dangerous if you drove at the average traffic speed.  I wasn’t a middle Tennessean when this part was built, but I suspect it was built in the 1960’s as an alternate to driving through downtown, and/or to get people to Opryland.  The curves and cramped feeling were a product of trying to thread a major highway through a dense residential area.  The designers obviously tried to veer around the denser populated areas and the cramped feeling was an effort to take up as little space is possible.  The version above is actually the rebuilt version which was constructed in the mid-00’s and some of its curves have been smoothed down and adjusted.

That’s just a brief peek into the world of highway layout.  There are an impressive number of other factors that also have to be juggled in order to get it just right.

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Dirtwork 101 – The Borrow Pit

SR-840 Ramp

SR-840 Ramp view from I-40

Say you’re driving west on Interstate 40 through Wilson County headed toward downtown Nashville. Just west of Lebanon you’ll see these big hills rising up out of nowhere right next to the road. The hills are paved on top and capped off with a bridge over the interstate because you’re at the I-40 interchange with SR-840.

Did you ever wonder where all that dirt to build the highway ramps comes from? No?

Well I’m going to tell you anyway, and pay attention because there is a pop quiz at the end.

It’s a pretty elementary question, but I don’t think it occurs to many people the highway business to think much about it. Personally, I find all these little details fascinating in a behind-the-scenes kind of way. It makes you appreciate day to day existence a little more if you know about the work and details that go into it.

Below is an overhead shot of the intersection. Those ramps that go over I-40 are have to get up to at least 20 ft above the level of traffic below, and you can see they’re pretty long. The source of all that dirt fill is also in the picture. See those oddly regular shaped ponds? Those are the borrow pits.

Overhead view of Interchange

Borrow pits are exactly what the name says they are if you’re willing to be a little liberal about the ‘borrow’ part. When you need fill, it’s sometimes cheapest to just dig a big hole you can ‘borrow’ it from. In middle Tennessee it often doesn’t actually require a pit because there is nearly always a hill somewhere that can stand to be a little shorter. If you do have to dig a pit you have the added benefit of ‘Hey, a pond!’ when the pit fills up with water.

Now that you have been introduced to the concept, I suspect you’ll be noticing them everywhere not unlike most of the trainee engineers who come through our office. I’ll give you two pieces of advice to guide you in your borrow pit spotting…….. (1) If that pond looks too regularly shaped to be natural, AND there is elevated bridge or highway nearby…. Borrow pit. (2) Your wife and other people who travel with you will get tired of you pointing them out a lot sooner than you would have thought.

And now for the pop quiz…… Below is an overhead view of a certain local airport. See if you can find the borrow pit they used to make those runways so flat and long. I’ll provide the answer in the comments if anyone needs it, but it should be pretty self-evident at this point.

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Book vs Movie Showdown: Psycho

The Bates HouseIt’s pretty much axiomatic that the movie isn’t going to be as good as the book it came from. So when I recently realized that Hitchcock’s classic Psycho was actually based on a book I turned to my wife with a pained look on my face and said “Good heavens woman, we must get to the library immediately!” and then disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Psycho Book Cover

Cover of Psycho by Robert Bloch

I’ll admit to a certain amount of poetic license in the above retelling, but I did go lay hands on a copy of Psycho post-haste. The original story was by Robert Bloch and published in 1959. Sadly, it was a little disappointing when compared to its movie star cousin. I’m not going to try and analyze or significantly add to what has been written about this movie that has been debated for fifty years, but it is interesting to compare the story in both mediums.

A quick pause about spoilers…… we’re talking about a real classic here, and I’m going to assume most everyone who is interested enough to read this far is pretty familiar with the plot. However, it is heavily based on a couple of key scenes, and I didn’t actually see the movie until I was in my mid-20’s, so consider yourself warned, if you read on the cat will definitely be out of the bag.

The book does provide a good, but not great, foundation for the movie to build from, but it is largely defined by how it is different from the movie. There are a several tweaks in the plot that don’t make much difference and the movie does make me miss being privy to the internal thoughts of the characters, but there are two major differences that made a good book into a great movie.

The first major change is the character of Mary/Marion Crane. The movie changed her name from Mary to Marion, but I’m going to stick with Mary for simplicity. In the book we switch POV back and forth between Mary and Norman throughout the early pages, but the movie sticks with Mary throughout the beginning and Norman Bates doesn’t appear until half an hour into the story. The movie follows her closely, adds a few details to the character, and generally works harder to get the audience more emotionally invested in her. It also helps that Mary was played by Vivian Leigh, a fairly big name star at the time.

That groundwork gives a lot more weight to the first major horror scene in both the book and the movie. While the book does show you the direction of Norman’s thoughts as he watches Mary in the shower, the movie kills off the person you just became emotionally invested in, and whom you assumed was going to be the main character, with no warning whatsoever. That effectively gives the movie a ‘no one is safe’ feel that the book just doesn’t have and sets up the rest of the plot to be a lot more creepy.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates

Hitchcock’s other major departure from the book was in the casting of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Bloch’s novel presents Bates as a chubby middle aged fellow who has an interest in the occult and comes off as creepy to the audience even when he’s alone in the room. Perkins, on the other hand, was 27 when cast as Norman Bates. He has an innocent, boyish look that makes it all the more surprising when he starts to become unhinged. He also manages to use his tall and lean build to look creepy and predatory when the lost boy act is over. Casting Perkins and letting him put viewers at their ease made the shocks to come much heavier. It also helped viewers sympathize with the treatment Norman had received at his mother’s hands right up until we find out the truth.

As far as I’m concerned, those two rather small things made a world of difference in telling this story. I’m an avid reader so I’m predisposed to prefer the book, but Hitchcock worked a lot harder to surprise me so the movie gets the nod in this contest. In the interests of fairness, I did see the movie first and the book didn’t have any secrets left to shock so that may have effected the final decision.

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In Defense of The Elf*

A local blogger who’s opinion I respect came out pretty hard against the whole Elf On The Shelf idea yesterday.  I feel the need to respond because her post had a lot of implicit criticism of parents who have an elf, and obviously we do have one at our house.  I generally don’t like to respond to someone else’s post on my own blog because it feels too much like talking about someone behind their back, and bringing it here is like trying to grab a home field advantage.  I’m going to make an exception in this case because this is going to get too long to post in a comment. 

Before I address the specifics of the post one thing needs to be repeated.  When my wife brought the elf home I had a lot of the same concerns about the creepy surveillance factor, and I was worried it would scare them.  That hasn’t happened.  They’re overjoyed to find the elf somewhere new every morning.  They seem to consider him a friend, and they like to speculate on where he will be the next day.  The day it bothers them or scares them is the day it leaves our house.

My visceral reaction to reading that post was ‘more parenting advice from someone who isn’t a parent’, but I want to address it more thoroughly because there are some valid concerns. 

We do not do good because we are being watched. You don’t turn in a wallet you found lying in the street just because someone else might have seen you pick it up. You don’t refrain from killing an obnoxious co-worker just because the police can hunt you down with luminol and fingerprints. You don’t refrain from stealing your neighbour’s doormat just because they have a picture window looking out from the front of their house.

We are good because that is the character we wish to develop in ourselves. We wish to be kind people so we treat others kindly. We wish to be honest so we behave honestly. As the bumper stickers say: Character is who you are when nobody is watching.

We are talking about children here, right?  Because that might be a reasonable expectation for an adult**, but adult standards can’t realisticly be applied to children who don’t have fully developed cognitive abilities and 40 years of experience to fall back on.  Young children are well behaved for one of two reasons.  Either they’re afraid of the negative attention, or they want positive attention.  The key to good parenting is knowing when to apply each.

Most children want to be praised not punished, and I think that’s a big point that is missing here.  The best way to teach a child proper behavior is positive reinforcement.  Maybe the elf makes some children behave out of fear, but at our house he notices that they are good, and he appreciates it just like mama and daddy do.  It teaches young children that people notice what you do and there are consequences whether they are good or bad.  That’s a very important lesson to learn, and it’s the first step toward becoming the adult described above.

There is one other thing that critics of Santa and his ‘good boys and girls get presents’ philosophy fail to consider.  This doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  Very few children spend all year judging their behavior based on how it will affect their Santa prospects.  Most children spend day to day learning empathy and good behavior from their parents and Santa (and the elf) just reinforce that and emphasize that other people notice too.

Before I quit, I have one last thought.  Both this post and the one I’m responding to are treating children as one monolithic block, and that’s a dangerous thing to do.  Even leaving aside variations from child to child, you have to consider the child’s age and cognitive ability.  I’m confident everything I’ve said here is true for young children but there is a world of difference between a four year old and an eight year old.  As a child gets older a good parent has to evolve their parenting style and what works at one age will cause problems at another.

* Now that I think about it, I actually feel a little dirty defending the Elf On The Shelf for an entirely different reason.  The whole phenomenon just feels like an attempt to make money for the folks that brought it to market, and I cite the $30-35 price point for a crappy doll and a book as my sole piece of evidence.

**  I do think ‘we are good because that is the character we wish to develop’ is stopping the thought process one step short of where it needs to go in order to seriously discuss character.  That circular statement doesn’t address any actual motivations unless you address why it’s the character we wish to develop.  But that’s a little more philosophical than I think is necessary at the moment. 

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So you’ve already read what I think about Aiko Island for the iPhone.  Just a few days ago IceFlame Studios released twenty-five new holiday themed levels for as a separate free download.  I just wanted to share a few thoughts on Aiko Island: Holidays.  See my previous post if you want a little more detail on the overall game mechanics.

The new levels are just as much fun as the original.  I thought I’d gotten past the need to beat the evil reds after I finished the original 125 levels, but the compulsion to get three cookies for the perfect finish hit me as soon as I dropped my first Aiko down that icy slope into the pit trap.  I grabbed the download while I was at work and what started as  ‘Just one level before I eat lunch’ ended over an hour later when I realized lunch time had been over for ten minutes and the phone was ringing but those smug red Aiko were still smirking at me.

This release will be great for veteran players, but releasing it as a separate (free) download gives me the impression that IceFlame is positioning it to attract some new players.  I’m not so sure that is a good idea.  One of the strengths of the original was how it slowly ramped up the difficulty and introduced new elements a little at a time.  The Holiday levels start out simple and have the familiar tutorial, but the skill level jumps quickly and it may be tough for new players to keep up.  I’d love to see more levels down the line so the last thing I want to see is potential new players getting discouraged because it got too hard too soon.

The final verdict……… this one is great for veterans.  If this is your first time with Aiko and you’re discouraged by the difficulty, go grab the original and spend some time with it.  At $0.99 it’s well worth the value.

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iPhone Gaming With Aiko Island

When I got my iPhone back in October, Aiko Island was one of the first games I picked up from the app store.  I’ve been intending to review it for a long time and since they’ve just released a free holiday version, there couldn’t be a better time to actually sit down and do it.  Besides, if the numbers in Game Center are any indication the developers aren’t doing so well and every purchase gets me closer to more levels to play.

As a gaming platform, the iPhone lends itself very well to puzzle games.  I have a hard time getting too deep into RPGs or shooters because of the small screen, but puzzles are perfect for the platform.  I’m really into games like Angry Birds that use physics to solve the puzzles.  Games LIKE Angry Birds, but not Angry Birds itself.  Aiko Island is a fun little physics puzzler.

One well placed shot and they all go down

Aiko are small fuzz creatures that are square, rectangular, or round.  Both red and blue aiko live on Aiko Island, and the evil red aiko have stolen all the happy go-lucky blue aiko’s cookies.  The gamer’s job is to get them back by clearing the red aiko off each board.  You do this by popping them with your finger or taking advantage of gravity to make them fall off the screen.  Fortunately, the blue are touch proof, but they are just as prone to falling as the red so you have to plan ahead carefully.

The colors of the aiko and the environment of the island are very vibrant and great to look at on the iPhone display.  The 126 levels are divided into four geographic areas with distinct appearances and hazards to deal with.  Unfortunately the display eats battery like aiko eat cookies and I found myself draining 50% of my battery life in my more extended play sessions.

The level of difficulty is carefully calibrated and ramps up significantly over the 126 levels in the original release.  The level designers add little environmental elements as you get further and further along. After awhile you find yourself using cannons, snowballs, sliding platforms, and aiko swinging from ropes just to get the job done.  You also have to take into account explosives, and environmental hazards like icy platforms, but each element is added only after you’ve had time to master the previous one and there aren’t many levels you can’t complete if you’re willing to spend a little time learning how the physics of the game work.

Once you find your way around a level you get one cookie back for your friendly blue aiko.  The aiko have facial expressions and I found it surprisingly rewarding when they smiled at me at the end of each level, not to mention the smirks the villainess reds broke out when I screwed up.  If you want to work a little harder there are extra cookies available by completing the level quickly and popping the most efficient number of aiko.  There seemed to be only one way to complete each board so once you get the method down it’s actually pretty simple to get all three cookies on most levels.

I started out playing in small increments on the train commute or during commercials of whatever TV show I was watching, but that quickly changed.  I got to the point where I was constantly telling myself ‘one more level’ and the play sessions stretched out to an entire lunch hour at work.  (Side note, somehow it never did acknowledge the achievements that are supposed to be granted for longer play times.) 

The level map for one of the four areas.

I was playing on an iPhone 4S and the load times were longer than I expected.  I have no experience with the original model 4s, but I read a lot about the processor being upgraded between the models so I was expecting less load time.  Regardless, it wasn’t enough to pull me out of the action.  More like dragging out the anticipation a bit.

I highly recommend Aiko Island.  At the 99 cent price point I probably paid 15-20 cents per hour of play time.  That’s a pretty excellent value, especially compared to the play time in your average PC or console game.  It does occasionally get repetitive, but the challenge level is pretty well calibrated and new tricks show up regularly to keep things interesting.  It’s a stand out in a genre done to death ever since Angry Birds made it big.  

This post has gone on too long, so I’m going to post my take on the FREE holiday version separately.


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The sad tree behind bars.

There are few things that rival the casual destruction of a toddler.  As you can see, way back in 2008 we had to put our Christmas tree behind bars just to keep out the destruction which was wrought daily in our house with two eleven month olds.  The next year (just before they turned two) we rtook away the bars, but the Christmas tree was bare other than lights and a pitiful few soft unbreakable ornaments.  They still had a merry olde time unscrewing the lights when we weren’t looking.  You don’t really see the ability to wreak havoc so casually in adults.  Granted, there are the occasional folks that just want to see the world burn (apologies for the drama, but that’s my favorite movie quote/internet meme) but they have to actually put in a little effort.  For a toddler it just comes naturally.

This talent appears out of thin air right about the time a baby learns to move around.  It starts fairly slow. After the twins learned to sit up we would sit them down at one end of the room and try to start a chore at the other end.  I used to swear that they must have some leperchaun blood  because as soon as I focused on some non baby related task (as if there were such a thing) I would realize they were under my feet trying to tie my shoelaces together. No one ever saw how they got there.  It certainly didn’t happen while we were watching, they just suddenly teleported there as soon as no one was looking.

"I was being a good girl mama. HE made the mess!

The appetite for destruction only accelerates once they learn to crawl and once the walking starts it only broadens the opportunities.  The destruction goes from floor level to anything within three feet of the ground.  At our house it was so bad I was worried the zone of destruction was just going to get taller and taller for the next 20 years.

Never fear, new parents.  It does get better.  Around 24-30 months the abilities all start to come together and your little tornados of destruction morph into actual little people.  I think of it as the Age of Reason. It’s a perfect storm convergence of confidence in their physical abilities, being able to talk with a decent vocabulary, some ability to remember things, and a rudimentary understanding of cause and effect.  You can actually discuss things with them to an extent and it’s the age where they start to understand the carrot and stick method of discipline.  (My daughter doesn’t misbehave because she wants to hear about how good she is being, but my son cuts down on the naughty because he doesn’t want to waste perfectly good play time in time out.)

Yeah, I 'dlike to see the world burn. Or cover it in TP. Either.

They tend to become snitches around this age if they have siblings.  Not only do they narc on each other, but if one twin is getting into trouble the other interrupts the disciplinary process to say ‘Daddy I’m not painting the dog like he is.  I’m being GOOD.’

Now, here’s my holiday hook…..

This is also the age where the concept of special occasions sinks in and they start really understanding gifts.  I actually came to this ephiphay when we went to a birthday party for some twin friends of ours who were turning two.  There were quite a few young children at the party, but mine were the oldest at two and a half.  I was surprised when I noticed all the other kids were wandering around the playroom while my twins were sitting next to the mother of the birthday twins as she opened gifts.  Each gift was met by a casual glance from across the room by the guests of honor, and grand exclamations of joy and coolness from my twins.  By Christmas that same year (when they turned two and a half) those same birthday twins were a lot more interested in opening their presents and seeing other people open their own.

"It's art Daddy! Delicious, delicious art."

My wife is a professional photographer, and she generally considers early toddlerhood to be the hardest age to photograph well.  It’s possible to steer them somewhat, but mostly you just have to follow them and be ready for whatever opportunity for good pictures presents its self.  Then around two and a half years old the pictures get a lot better because the child understands the concept of ‘hold still and you can have this toy in a minute’.

Obviously the age of reason is going to vary from child to child.  Developmentally delayed children will get there a little later than average children and personality plays a large role in when it happens and to what extent it happens.  I’m also going to court some controversy because applying this to boys is a lot more slippery than it is with most girls.  Watching a boy and a girl grow up together from birth has made me a believer in the ‘sugar and spice’ and ‘snakes and snails’ stereotypes that have been around for so long.

Please feel free to share your own thoughts on the age of reason.  Or just a good tale of toddler destruction….

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