To Dallas, to ATLAS, and beyond!

As I announced in my professional blog the other day [1], Jodi and I will be joining the faculty at Southern Methodist University [2] in August. We are VERY excited about this – the move to Dallas, teaching, mentoring students, hiring post-docs, establishing our future research careers. We rarely have such big news as this, so we actually went way too far and created a little newsletter to send to family and friends. Click the image below to download a copy.

We are already thinking ahead to the kind of work we want to do. Jodi is going to continue in her leading role in the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS), and develop facilities to support future dark matter experiments (including SuperCDMS). I am going to join the ATLAS experiment, a process which I am slowly starting now. Over the next few months we’ll being travling, apartment/house hunting in Dallas, and thinking about how we’ll want to pursue external funding and attract people to work with us at SMU.

I’ll keep my faithful readers posted as to the developments in our life and careers over the next few months and years. Now, the real fun begins!

[1] http://steve.cooleysekula.net/goingupalleys/2009/03/30/thinking-about-the-future/

[2] http://www.smu.edu/

Time with family

Last Thursday, I effectively went into a communication blackout owing to the visit of many family members. Jodi’s mom and dad, her sister, and her sister’s twin sons, all visited us for four days. We rented a minivan so that we could get around, stocked up on food for the boys, as well as clearing space in the apartment for their pack-and-plays (doubling as cribs) and for their active little bodies. The boys are in the awkward first stages of walking, and can get more than a few feet on their own. They’re very curious, and like to climb on things and run from person to person. They also got the limits of their attention taxed this week as we did a variety of activities, including going to the Oakland Zoo, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Exploratorium.

The boys brought with them sniffles that blossomed into colds over the days they were here, and I managed to catch their cold. I feel like hell now, somewhere between having a bomb go off in my sinuses and having a wolverine running loose in my throat. I can only imagine how they felt, though they toughed it out pretty good. Being sick put me on the couch at home today, an unexpected day off from work. I couldn’t see myself moving or thinking, and I’m only writing this because I felt like doing something other than laying and drinking tea.

Drew, Connor and Steve at the SLAC Main GateJodi and I brought the family into our respective work places, and even snapped pictures with them in front of the main gate of SLAC. We scared up a bunch of toys from my office that the boys seemed to take to and brought them home (yes, I keep toys in the office – you never know). Later that same day, we went up to the Oakland Zoo. It came highly recommended by some friends of mine (they have elephants), and we were not disappointed. half a dozen primate species, lions, a tiger, a sun bear, elephants, alligators, fruit bats the size of small dogs, otters . . . you name it. The boys had a great time and did a lot of walking around. They even got some nice sun (although they were loaded up with long pants, sunscreen and sun hats) without getting burned.

Mom and son and jellyfishThe aquarium in Monterey was probably their favorite, since they got to see and touch a lot of stuff. They couldn’t do as much walking, but they lunged at colorful signs describing fish and other creatures, they pressed against the big tanks holding all kinds of marine life from the inner and outer Monterey Bay, and they splashed water and grabbed at sea creatures in the interactive petting displays.  A favorite toy was the periscope in the ray tank, where they could spin the periscope and zoom in and out with a big toggle switch. The boys love things with buttons and handles, and they seemed to have no end of fun using the periscopes. We even got to stand up next to a tank that contained birds and fish and sharks, and a small shark swam up to the glass, bared its teeth, and swam away.

Drew, Jackie, ConnorThe last day was the shortest outing, driven mainly by the exhaustion of my nephews, but this was the most interactive time they had. The Exploratorium in San Francisco lets kids (and adults) play with all of their exhibits. From mechanics and particle physics to life sciences and robotics, they have just about everything. We only saw about half the exhibits before taking two very worn out kids home in the van, but everybody had a good time.

They left today, leaving behind a cold for me and a dirty house for Jodi. It was worth it. We probably won’t get to see them again until after the summer, so this was time needed and well spent.

Lessons Learned: MythTV and the Comcast/Motorola DCT700

Now that digital cable seems well under the control of sTeVo, my MythTV box [1], I thought it would be helpful to post some of my lessons learned in this process.

Lesson 1: MythTV is robust and flexible. The dedicated team of MythTV developers have made an adaptable product. The fact that the software was ready to go, letting the tuner change the channel or an external IR emitter control the cable box, is a testament to the foresight of the team. Modifying MythTV to use the new emitter was as easy as following a short web page, and was the least of my problems [2].

Lesson 2: Digital cable signals are not robust. The fact that something in the cable wiring of our rented cottage causes attenuation or corruption of digital cable signals suggests that the new digital cable system is teetering on the verge of success. It makes me wonder what I’m spending $70 on every month. Yes, I now have 4-5 public TV stations on which I can get a later showing of the Lehrer News Hour. But who cares, when I have to go through undergrad-quality lab techniques to get the signal stabilized? I’d rather have fewer channels and a system robust against small problems (e.g. the analog system) than a big buffet of grade Z digital comestibles.

Lesson 3: Changing the channel is a tricky business. First, to control the DCT700 you need an LIRC remote transmitter definition file. I found one that solves the infamous “zero” problem, where sending “0” doesn’t work (making it hard to get to channel 10, for instance!) [3]. I found a very nice script containing the raw key codes for the remote, with extra code characters that FIX the “0” problem [4]. I also added the “exit” raw code to this file, which is given by:

name exit
9000    4400     550    2200     550    4400
550    2200     550    2200     550    4400
550    2200     550    2150     550    2200
550    2200     550    2150     550    2200
550    2200     550    4400     550    2200
550    4400     550    4450     550

This is really a necessary code, because often when the signal doesn’t get transmitted cleanly to the DCT700 it leaves menus on the digital cable screen that make changing the channel a second time impossible. This prevents all future channel change commands from working. You need to be able to tell the box to exit this state.

The other part of this lesson is the delicate timing, and repetition of commands, needed to make a successful, guaranteed channel change. The DCT is SLOOOOW, and inaccurate. I found that I had to write my own channel change script, enforcing the following sequence of commands: “Change to channel XYZ, sleep for 1 second, send the exit code, sleep for 0.3 seconds, change the channel to XYZ one more time, sleep for 1 second, send the exit command, sleep for 0.3 seconds, send the exit command again.” This sequence helps to guarantee the channel change, and the removal of menus from the screen during recording. This is ESPECIALLY necessary if your IR transmitter isn’t quite placed over the “sweet spot” of the DCT700 receiver.

I hope this help anyone else making the switch. For giggles, I uploaded the channel change script; you’re welcome to it [5].

[1] http://www.mythtv.org/

[2] http://www.mythtv.org/wiki/Using_an_IR_Blaster_with_MythTV

[3] https://help.ubuntu.com/community/Motorola_DCT700_Channel_Change_Script

[4] http://www.mythtv.org/pipermail/mythtv-users/2008-June/224658.html

[5] changechannel script