Shallow Thoughts : : Mar

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Mon, 31 Mar 2008

Wheelchair antics

My mother is temporarily in a wheelchair due to a broken ankle, so we've been helping out and learning all about wheelchairs.

I've actually been fascinated by wheelchairs for years. I'm not sure why; maybe it was seeing some of the interesting off-road racing wheelchairs built by bike companies like Cannondale, and the amazing feats of various sorts of wheelchair athletes. But it's been fun and interesting getting some firsthand experience. And, I have to say, Mom looks pretty cool in her slick little wheelchair and black high-tech looking ankle boot.

I already knew about some of the inconveniences that go along with not walking, like all the stuff on the high shelves in stores (fortunately Mom can stand up on her one good leg), and how much more complicated baths and showers become. Not much we can do to help there.

The first big issue where we can help is getting in and out of the house. The front porch is out -- it's three steps down, so no chance of managing it in a wheelchair. The garage is the same way. But the door to the back patio is a lot more promising: only one relatively small step down. Getting out is easy as long as you're prepared for the lurch as the chair goes over the edge. Getting back up with no ramp is the trick.

But we found several ways of handling it. My first tries involved getting a running start and trying to wheelie up -- that works for the front wheels, but the rear wheels don't have enough traction to get over the lip. Dave had an idea worked better: lean forward and grab the doorway with your hands and just pull yourself up. (This is really easy if you can cheat and use one foot; without that, it does take a bit of arm strength.)

Mom found her own way, though: stand up on the good foot, reach down and lift the chair up over the edge then sit back down.

We've learned a few other things:

Handicapped parking spots are almost always full. I'm amazed at how often we've seen this. It's not cheaters -- when I've bothered to check, the other cars always the correct placard. Apparently there are just a lot more people with handicapped placards than there are spaces to park in.

Related: A lot of places don't have sidewalk ramps, so you may have to go way out of your way if you need a ramp.

On the positive side, people are pretty accomodating. One of my mom's friends told her "The seas part for you when you're in a wheelchair". We haven't quite seen that, but when people happen to notice the chair, they do try to make way. The biggest problems have been in places like Fry's, full of nerds so intent on their shopping that they have no idea what's around them.

Good thing people are accomodating, because Wheelchairing is hard work: harder than you think it will be, at least on rough surfaces like carpeting or grass. Good way to build up those shoulder muscles! Especially uphill (though going backwards makes the really steep ascents a lot easier).

Perhaps that explains why, when I've visited elderly relatives in nursing homes, I've noticed that although many of the residents are in wheelchairs, none of them use their hands to wheel around. Instead, they push themselves slowly along by shuffling with their feet, looking like something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

And speaking of nursing homes, another minor mystery. They initially sent Mom home with a walker (like the walking denizens of the nursing home use) instead of crutches. I'm curious why. I've tried crutches a few times, and remember them as being fairly easy to use. The walker seems much more difficult. You have to limit yourself to slow baby steps, or else you tend to bump into the front of the walker with your legs as you swing through. It's harder, too: your hands get sore from holding so much weight on your palms. I can see how it would be a good balance aid for someone who moves very slowly anyway. But Mom isn't like that -- she gets around just fine when she has two good legs. I hope she won't be stuck using the walker for long once she starts walking again.

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[ 19:50 Mar 31, 2008    More misc | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sat, 29 Mar 2008

Keyboard Cable by Rube Goldberg

Dave and I were helping out with replacing the keyboard on a friend's computer. Isn't it funny how keyboards never come with cables that are quite long enough to go from the front of a desk to the back, down and around to the computer that sits underneath?

This particular desk has a backboard that makes the cable take a more circuitous path than most, and when we unplugged the old keyboard, we discovered that it was plugged in using an extension cord.

[keyboard cable by Rube Goldberg]

And what an extension cord! It's a PS/2 to 5-pin AT plug adaptor ... connected to an AT to AT extension cable ... connected to an AT to PS/2 cable on the other end. Each of the three pieces is yellowed with age, but to three different colors.

Unfortunately the mass spectrometer is on the fritz again so we weren't able to establish accurate Carbon-14 dates for each of the three pieces.

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[ 13:09 Mar 29, 2008    More misc | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 23 Mar 2008

Happy Vernal Easternox

Happy three-days-past-vernal-equinox, or whatever spring holiday you celebrate!

Turns out this time of year is a holiday in just about every culture. Who doesn't want to celebrate spring? The sun was out today, and a mockingbird and a house finch were having a singing contest (usually the mockingbird would win that one easily, but this one wasn't very persistent). And for those of you in the southern hemisphere ... well, fall can be lovely too.

Slate had an odd article a couple of days ago, on Why Easter stubbornly resists the commercialism that swallowed Christmas. Jesuit priest James Martin speculates that Easter, unlike Christmas, remains a religious holiday because its subject matter is too, well, gory and serious to adapt well to fluffy children's stories. It's more fun to decorate your front yard with a scene of barnyard animals, angels and a newborn baby than a scene of a bleeding man being tortured and killed.

Well, okay, he may have a point. Except ... what religious holiday is he talking about? All through my childhood, Easter was the holiday of running around searching for brightly dyed hard-boiled eggs hidden outside, plus fluffy bunny rabbits, and lots of chocolate. (Well, on that last point, I suppose when you're a kid, just about any holiday calls for chocolate if you can talk your parents into it. Still, there generally were a lot of chocolate eggs and chocolate rabbits.)

It wasn't just my parents; just about everybody I knew, even the ones who went to church on Easter morning, did some sort of egg decorating or hunting. And I didn't see a lot of crucifixion figures decorating the neighborhood flyers or seasonal ads, just bunnies and painted eggs.

If anything, I'd say that the non-fluffy nature of the Christian Easter story makes Easter a much less religious holiday than Christmas. We may not send out Easter cards, but neither are we deluged with images of crucifixion.

Anyway, happy Vernal Equinox, Easter, Purim, Norooz, Holi, Magha Puja, and house finch singing day to everyone! Here, have some chocolate.

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[ 21:42 Mar 23, 2008    More misc | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sat, 22 Mar 2008

Convair B-36 Peacemaker

Dave was browsing old airplane pages and stumbled across a neat find.

The Convair B-36 Peacemaker has a wingspan of 230 feet (for comparison, a Boeing 767's wingspan is 156 feet), and it's powered by four pusher-prop radial engines plus four turbojets, ten engines total. Wow!

But that's not even the cool part. The cool part is the list of B-36es still in existence. There are apparently only five of them left: one at Castle Air Force Base (hey, that's not that far from here -- a two or three hour drive, and we used to autocross there now and then); one at the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio; one at the Pima Air Museum in Tuscon, Arizona; one at the Strategic Air & Space Museum in Nebraska; and one in pieces in a field in Newbury, Ohio owned by a Mr. Walter Soplata, who bought the plane when the Air Force was about to scrap it.

Wouldn't that be a cool accessory to liven up your back yard?

[ 14:50 Mar 22, 2008    More misc | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Tue, 18 Mar 2008

Setting app name and class in Xlib

I was looking at Dave's little phase-of-the-moon Mac application, and got the urge to play with moonroot, the little xlib ditty I wrote several years ago to put a moon (showing the right phase) on the desktop.

I fired it up, and got the nice moon-shaped window ... but with a titlebar. I didn't want that! Figuring out how to get rid of the titlebar in openbox was easy, just

<application name="moonroot">
... but it didn't work! A poke with xwininfo showed the likely cause: instead of "moonroot", the window was listed as "Unnamed window". Whoops!

A little poking around revealed three different ways to set "name" for a window: XStoreName, XSetClassHint (which sets both class name and app name), and XSetWMName. Available online documentation on these functions was not very helpful in explaining the differences; fortunately someone hanging out on the openbox channel knew the difference (thanks, Crazy_Hopper). Thus:

I didn't see much in the way of example code for what an app ought to do with these, so I'll post mine here:

    char* appname;
    XClassHint* classHint;
[ ... ]
    if (argv && argc > 1)
        appname = basename(argv[0]);
        appname = "moonroot";

    /* set the titlebar name */
    XStoreName(dpy, win, appname);

    /* set the name and class hints for the window manager to use */
    classHint = XAllocClassHint();
    if (classHint) {
        classHint->res_name = appname;
        classHint->res_class = "MoonRoot";
    XSetClassHint(dpy, win, classHint);

And if anyone is interested in my silly moon program, it's at moonroot-0.3.tar.gz. moonroot gives you a large moon, moonroot -s gives a smaller one. I'm not terribly happy with its accuracy and wasted too much time today fiddling with it and verifying that it's doing the right time conversions. All I can figure is that the approximation in Meeus' Astronomical Algorithms is way too approximate (it's sometimes off by more than a day) and I should just rewrite all my moon programs to calculate moon phase the hard (and slow) way.

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[ 21:15 Mar 18, 2008    More programming | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 06 Mar 2008

Review of Toastmasters manuals

With all the zillions of Toastmasters club web pages, very few people seem to write about them. A conversation in our club today about the advanced manuals made me realize that I'd never seen a review of the various Toastmasters advanced manuals -- which ones are useful, which ones are fun, which ones are poorly written or contain gotchas that makes it hard to complete their projects?

So I wrote one: a Review of Toastmasters manuals.

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[ 21:16 Mar 06, 2008    More speaking | permalink to this entry | comments ]