Tuesday, June 6, 2006

The Bedford Boys

The Bedford Boys: One American Town\'s Ultimate D-Day SacrificeToday is D-Day, the anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normady which signalled the beginning of the end of the Nazi regime in Europe. I've recently read several books about World War II, and I was looking for a book which told the story on a more personal note. The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice by Alex Kershaw is such a book.

The book recounts the story of Company A, 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division during World War II. Most of Company A came from the small town of Bedford, Virginia, where the young men had joined the National Guard during the Depression to help pay the bills at home. When the war started, the unit was activated, and eventually sent to England where they spent 22 months training for the invasion of Normandy. Company A was among the first wave to go ashore at Omaha Beach on D-Day, and suffered heavy casualties. Nineteen of the Bedford Boys died on the beach, and three more during the Normandy campaign.

I found the book well written and a surprisingly quick read. Kershaw develops the personalities of the young men and presents them as real people.  As a result, the conclusion of the book can be a bit difficult to get through emotionally.  In the end, though, it made me more grateful for the men who sacrificed themselves then, and those who continue to do so today.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad

Nothing Like It In the World : The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869This summer, I've embarked on an ambitious reading campaign, mainly aimed at consuming spare time and increasing my exposure to material outside of my engineering vocation. So, far, I'm averaging a book a week, with the latest victim being Stephen Ambrose's Nothing Like It In the World : The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869.

I found it an enjoyable read. As its title would indicate, the book tells the story of the American Transcontinental Railroad, from conception to completion. Although he does get into the business aspects of building the railroad, Ambrose focuses mainly on how the men actually built the road, the logistics behind organizing and funding a vast labor army and of conquering imposing mountain ranges. He tells the story as it was seen from the men laying the track at the end of the line, from the Irish and Chinese immigrants, to the Mormon workers near Salt Lake.

Like most of Ambrose's work, I found the book well researched and easy to read. At almost 400 pages, Nothing Like It In the World can be a bit lengthy for some, and I got bogged down a couple of times wondering when the workers would just finish the railroad. The feeling didn't last long, and overall, I enjoyed learning a bit more about this fascinating piece of American history. After finishing the book, I figure it's time for another visit to the Golden Spike National Historic Site.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

A Visit to Arches

Delicate ArchAs one of our summer ideas this year, Heather and I wanted to go to Arches National Park in Southern Utah. After other plans fell through, this past weekend turned out to be the perfect time to go. The weather was a little warm, but not too hot, and we were both able to get Friday off of work. Plus, Heather's pregnancy is not to the point which precludes us from doing active things.

Arches National Park is just north of Moab, Utah. I have driven past it many times during the course of family vacations, but never had the chance to stop and see it. This time, we decided to make the three hour drive south and we were rewarded. We left Provo around 11am on Friday, and made good driving time. We arrived at Arches around 2pm, and stopped by the visitors' center. Finding a place to stay the night was a priority, but unfortunately, the campground in the park was full. Instead, we managed to find a lovely spot along the Colorado River just outside the park.

Campsite along the ColoradoWe spent most of Friday afternoon and evening working out way through the park, admiring the giant stone monoliths and arches. Along the way, we stopped and read all the interpretive displays which describe the process of arch formation, the kinds of rock which are currently visible and the other geologic processes at work. We ended the evening by hiking out to Delicate Arch, the unofficial symbol of Utah.

After a restful night, we again went back to the park to see more arches and formations. After seeing Broken Arch, Sand Dune Arch and Skyline Arch, we finished our stay with a hike to the extraordinary Landscape Arch, which spans over 300 feet. The sign at Landscape Arch, which is only 6 feet thick at its thinnest point, shows a picture from 1991 when a 60-foot slab of rock broke off. The arches in the park are still forming, and geologic processes continue.
Dead Horse Point

On the way home, we stopped at Dead Horse Point State Park, just a few miles out of Canyonlands National Park, and admired the views. The point overlooks a sweeping turn the Colorado River over 2000 feet below, and, according to legend, was used as a corral by cowboys in the 19th Century.

All-in-all, the trip was well needed and a great time for both of us.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Robots Racing Robots

As a soon-to-be newly minted graduate of Brigham Young University, my final course in the Computer Engineering curriculum has been the infamous Senior Project. Each semester, the department offers several projects which are designed to represent a range of specialties in the electrical and computer engineering space. External sponsors typically fund the projects and students go from the concept generation through design and construction to prototyping the actual product. In the past, projects have included robotic soccer players, solar powered gizmos and a mini MRI device.

The project I had heard much about and was looking forward to participating in was the robot soccer project. Alas, the project was cancelled for this year to be replaced by the Robot Racers competition, so I signed up for that one instead. The basic premise of the project was to design a robot on the chassis of an R/C car capable of navigating a course autonomously. When the teams were decided, our group was basically the people that weren't picked for any other group. We didn't have much expertise in the areas of control or vision, but we all learned quickly and managed to have a working system in place by the competition yesterday.

As it turns out, our system worked better than any of the other groups. We were the only team which managed to complete the course with some degree of regularity in the time trials and won each of the heats in the head-to-head competition. Part of this was due to the excellent vision work done by Rick and to the great control algorithms designed by Alex. Mike developed the desicion making code, while I kept everyone on task and also wrote the PC based gui which allowed us to quickly change operating parameters between runs.

All-in-all, it was a good experience, and a nice culmination to my time here at BYU. Hopefully, my time as a grad student at the University of Texas will be equally rewarding.

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

174 days and counting...

We told our families on Christmas, and we've started getting around to telling friends and acquaintances: Heather I are expecting. The new addition to our family should come sometime around August 1st. It's too early to tell what the gender of the baby is, but we're excited either way. It is quite sobering to think of our pending responsibilities in caring for someone who can't yet do anything on his own.

In the interim, we've decided to call the baby "Peanut." It isn't a name that we could use permanently, so we aren't afraid of it sticking, but at the same time, it's fun to refer to our new child by some kind of personal name, instead of just "it. The next few months are going to be pretty long, as we wait with anticipation for Peanut to come.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Hiking in Spring Hollow

Snowshoeing in Spring Hollow Martin Luther King Day offered and excellent chance to enjoy some of the great outdoors. What made things even better was the fact that it had just snowed quite a bit in the mountains the weekend before. I woke up and left Heather to enjoy breakfast with her sisters-in-law as I rode with Erik, Bruce and Berkley up to Spring Hollow on the South Fork of the Provo River.

We arrived at the trailhead and put all of our gear on. There was only one other car there, which was probably due to the rather cold temperatures, somewhere in the mid-teens. We finally started up the drainage around 8am.

The temperature remained cold, but we had a blast! We got the see the run rise on back of Cascade Mountain and then as the shadows gradually fled from the narrow valley we were hiking through. We followed snowmobile tracks for a while, and then the tracks of a lone snowboarder. Finally, we broke just a little trail of our own and stopped and simply enjoyed the beautiful scenery on a cold morning in the mountains. We had hiked around 4 miles and gained over 2,000 feet of elevation.

When we finally started to get cold again, we turned around and hiked out. We saw several groups of people closer to the trailhead, and we were grateful that we got our early to enjoy the solidarity and quietness of the mountains. We made it down to the trailhead, stowed our gear and took off. As we drove out of the canyon, we saw storms brewing on Cascade, and we were glad that we had turned around when we did. All-in-all, a great way to get out for a few hours on a wonderful winter day.

Thursday, January 5, 2006

Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns After visiting Timpanogos Cave National Monument in October, Heather and I decided to head down to Carlsbad Caverns National Park on our way to Texas for the holidays. The weather turned out to be wonderful, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

After a long drive from Provo to Carlsbad, we got up early to be at the cave when it opened the next day. The drive to the visitor's center was quite pretty as we made our way through a canyon to a bluff in the Chihuahuan desert. We opted to walk in the natural entrance, which is a daunting mile-and-a-half walk through down a paved path. One wonders how the original explorers, mainly Jim White, managed the decent over a century ago.

Once down in the cave, we rested for a bit at the underground rest area, and then departed on a ranger-led tour of the Kings Room. In addition to the Kings Room, we took the self-guided tour around the Big Room (ground area of over 14 football fields!) and saw many other formations and features. When we'd had our fill of the caves, we took the elevator the 750 feet back up to the surface and began the long drive to our destination in Dallas.