Older blog entries for steve (starting at number 195)

Goodbye Acura RSX

In my last post I told you about the theft of my Acura RSX. It was stolen from our driveway in the early morning hours of Sunday, Sep 27. The police didn't come out and collect any evidence, they just took a report over the phone. We did a little evidence collection on our own, finding a clipped wire, a plastic pop-rivet, and a pair of black latex gloves. If real life was like the CSI TV show, they'd just turn the gloves inside out and grabs some prints.

A few days later, my Acura RSX reappeared on the shoulder of 75 near Mockingbird Lane. It was stripped. The police had it towed to their impound lot but were otherwise uninterested in it. They didn't check for finger prints or any other type of evidence. Their only concern was letting me know that I owed them a hefty storage fee that would increase by $20/day.

For now, I'm driving a Nissan Versa rental car paid for by State Farm insurance. State Farm picked up the car from the impound lot and move it to a State Farm location yesterday. Before they picked it up, I made a trip over to the impound lot myself to check for any personal belongings the crooks might have left in the car. Oddly, I'm less annoyed by the loss of my car than by the loss of several hard to replace CDs, my prescription sunglasses, a Mega-Donkey t-shirt and an assortment of robot parts.

The Dallas Police impound lot is huge. It's like a shopping mall parking lot but without the shopping mall. There are vans that transport people from the main office to the section of the lot where their car resides. Tow trucks are coming and going like cabs at the airport. It was an interesting experience. I brought my camera along and shot a few photos.

The woman who drove the van I was in described how to break into each of our cars. "Oh, on this model you pop off a panel and cross two wires to disable the alarm. On that one you use a jiggler key." One of the other guys in the van had a club on his car. His car was stolen and the thieves left the club lying in his driveway. Our driver said, "Clubs are worthless. Just spray freon into the lock, tap it with a hammer and it opens right up". She went on to describe how to overcome alarms, immobilers, and all sorts of other things.

My RSX had an alarm plus an RFID-based immobilizer which is supposed to shut down the engine if it's started without the encrypted key present. Yet, the thieves drove it away in seconds without even breaking the glass. Turns out you can buy a Honda/Acura jiggler key online for $30 that will open any Acura RSX easily. Once inside, it's apparently trivial to disable the alarm and override the immobilizer. There are several methods of doing it that can be found online with a little googling. Brad Stone wrote a piece for Wired on the ease with which you can steal cars. Some methods are so easy they're stupid - write down a vehicle's VIN, visit the dealer and tell them you lost your key, use your new key to steal the car.

Yesterday, I spoke with the Irving Police detective about my case one last time. She was friendly and sorry about the theft. But at no point did the police send anyone out to the crime scene or the recovered car to look for evidence. When I described the black latex goves, she said they hadn't heard of them being used but weren't interested in investigating further. At the impound lot, I noticed my car was coated in a sticky substance similar to Cosmoline. I hypothesized this was to prevent or obscure finger prints. The detective said they'd never heard of this being done. I suggested it might be helpful to analyze the chemical and find out what it was. Perhaps it would offer a clue to where the chop shop was. She didn't think it would be worthwhile. If my casual observation turned up two things the cops have never noticed, you have to wonder what a trained crime scene investigator might find.

I also noted that my car was found on a major freeway monitored by 24/7 traffic cams. I suggested it should be possible to check the traffic cam recordings to find the make and model of the vehicle which dumped my car there and perhaps even track it backwards to the point it entered the freeway, offering a clue to the chop shop location. She didn't think it would be worthwhile to do all that work. I asked if anyone had thought of correlating the locations of theft vs the location where cars are dumped. With dozens of cars stolen every day, you'd think that might be useful. She thought there was a "task force" somewhere that did stuff like that but it wasn't something she could do. As far as the Irving and Dallas police are concerned, the case is closed.

Missing: Blue 2002 Acura RSX Type-S

If anyone notices my Blue 2002 Acura RSX Type-S license plate GSK-950 around the Dallas/Ft.Worth area, please contact me or call the police. It was stolen between 11pm Saturday, Sep 27 and 10am Sunday, Sep 28.

I slept late Sunday morning. Around 10am I went out in the garage to prep the lawnmower for the weekly mowing of our yard. I opened up the garage door and pushed the mower outside. Usually I push the mower down the driveway, between our two cars, and start mowing down by the front sidewalk. Today, however, I didn't. There was something missing in the driveway. It took me a moment to put my finger on it. There was Susan's red Acura but beside it, where my blue Acura RSX is usually parked, there was just empty driveway. This was such an unexpected, out of the ordinary thing, I walked back in the house and asked Susan if we had left my car somewhere. Surely we'd dropped it off at the dealer for service or something like that and I'd just forgotten. As I thought about it though, I knew that wasn't the case. It was gone. Stolen; right out of our driveway while we slept.

We did all the things you're supposed to do. I called the police. They took a report over the phone and gave me a report number. As with most crimes these days, that's about all the police do. They're really just heavily-armed data entry clerks as far as I can tell. They don't really come out and investigate crime scenes like you see on TV, they don't put out an APB like in old movies ("calling all cars, be on the look out for a stolen blue Acura"), they don't look for clues and solve crimes like Sherlock Holmes. They just enter a description of the crime into a database and generate a report for insurance purposes. And they aren't really open on Sunday anyway for minor things like auto theft.

They said they'd pass the report along to a "detective" on Monday but it didn't sound like any actual detecting was likely to happen. However, they said if someone happened to pull over a blue Acura RSX for a traffic violation, they'd probably run the plates, might even notice it was stolen and perhaps would detain it. And they also noted that many stolen cars are found within a month or two, just not in one piece. They said mostly like it would turn up in a few weeks as a burned out hulk on back road somewhere. Nice.

Next I called State Farm insurance. Like the police, they don't do much on a Sunday other than take reports on the phone. Apparently Saturday night/Sunday morning is a great time to steal cars since it gives you a 24 lead over the police and insurance companies. State Farm said someone would get in touch with me anywhere from a day to a week later. The weekend report-taking crew wasn't able to give me much information about what happens next.

Last, I called our neighborhood association and let them know about the theft. They provide weekly news to the neighborhood residents about things like that, so maybe we can at least prevent another theft from occurring.

Since nobody else showed any interest in the crime scene, I decided to investigate it myself. The first thing I noticed was a half-inch long piece of wire. It was stranded copper wire with a black plastic sheath. It had clearly been cut with diagonal cutters on both ends. Nearby was what looked like a small plastic pop-rivet. My guess is they cut the wire to the car's alarm system, opened the door, popped one of the plastic panels off the steering column, and hot-wired the ignition. I saved the "evidence" in a plastic bag in the unlikely event that anyone official got interested. Next, I examined Susan's car. The crooks had unlocked it and there were marks in the dust on the passenger side window. Nothing was missing inside. I guess they didn't want her car or could only take one at a time.

On Monday I called State Farm again. They told me there was a 14 day waiting period before they could process the claim. It seems most stolen cars are either discovered within this time period or never. Fortunately, they'll cover a rental car in the interim and they offered to help me set up the paperwork at a nearby Enterprise car rental office.

I also called the police again and spoke to the detective assigned to my case. As best I can tell, the procedure used by the modern, high-tech police detective to solve auto theft consists of - doing nothing at all for 30 days. If doing nothing hasn't solved the case in that time period, they figure it's probably impossible to solve and file it away. But, if you're lucky, the car thief will be stopped for a traffic violation or use the car in a crime and maybe end up in one of those high speed chases that ends with the suspect wrapping the car around a tree. In that case, the detective will examine the remains of the car for clues that might solve the crime. Yippee.

18 Sep 2008 (updated 18 Sep 2008 at 17:14 UTC) »

Software Freedom Day 2008

It's that time of year again. Software Freedom Day is coming up this Saturday, September 20th. There are more than 500 events planned in over 90 countries this year and that includes Dallas, TX of course. The Dallas Ubuntu Team is organizing the Dallas SFD event again this year (why don't we have a Dallas Fedora team?) The best place to get in touch with them if you need more info is the Ubuntu-Dallas IRC channel.

If you're a free software user or developer, join us for the celebration. If you think free software is a communist plot, you're welcome to join us too. We can have a friendly debate over beer and you'll go home with a GNU/Linux CD to try out. Sadly, we don't expect to have any SFD cheerleaders at the Dallas event.

Location: Dave and Busters, Stonebriar Centre, 2601 Preston Road, Suite 1200, Frisco, TX

Time: Sat, Sep 30, from 3pm until we feel like leaving

If there any other Advogato or robots.net users in the Dallas/Ft.Worth area, I hope to see you there!

Jaap van Zweden at the DSO

On Saturday, Susan and I attended our first Dallas Symphony performance since Jaap van Zweden took over as Music Director. His conducting style is very different from Andrew Litton. Litton always seemed to be conducting a few notes ahead of the orchestra - he waved the baton and a second later you'd hear the orchestra hit the note. Jaap van Zweden, on the other hand, gives the appearance of conducting in real time. The orchestra hits notes at exactly the same time that his baton makes the move. I'm sure there's a technical name for that difference but I have no ideas what it is.

Jaap van Zweden did seem to be squeezing a little something extra out of the musicians during their performance of Mahler's 5th Symphony. The conductor wore a black Dr. Evil outfit and tends to be very animated as he conducts. More than anything, he seemed to be using his baton as a magic wand and looked like an evil wizard madly casting spells.

Pianist Emanuel Ax performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25. We last saw Ax perform John Adams' Century Rolls. While I prefer Adams to Mozart, it was still an enjoyable performance.

Robots and Found Objects

I've been welding on Thursday nights for a while now, since I took a welding class several months ago. So far it's all been practice welds of random steel scraps. I've been thinking about trying my hand at something a bit more artistic. Sculpture from found objects has always interested me. Robots have always interested me. Why not combined all this into something like a robot sculpture from found objects? It's been done before by artists like Gordon Bennett and Clayton Bailey.

The first challenge I'm facing is figuring out how one goes about finding these so-called found objects that artists are always talking about. In my case, I'm particularly interested in steel objects. Susan and I have been going to estate sales on the weekends and I've visited numerous thrift shops around town. It seems like the best source would be something like a wrecking yard. There are plenty of them around but very little info about them online. Apparently not all of them let you wander around with tools pulling interesting parts you find. Maybe there are some in the smaller towns surround the Dallas area. I'm surprise there aren't any web sites that review wrecking yards (at least that I've found yet).

New Camera

Well, I finally did it. I bought a new Canon 40D with a 17-55mm f2.8 zoom. I also picked up an EOS to FD adapter on eBay so I could get at least some use out of my existing FD lenses. This is the third Canon I've owned. My first was a Canon A1, my second was the T90, which I still have. I thought some other old-timers might be interested in a comparison of the Canon T90 film camera with the new Canon 40D digital, so I put a few photos and comments of the two bodies up on flickr.

I should be uploading some photos taken with the new camera soon. Stay tuned to my flickr account if you're curious.

My old FD equipment is destined for eBay soon, starting with my Canon FD 2X extender Type A.

Work and Photography

Wow, I've been so busy lately. Has it really been over two months since I posted any sort of an update here? Well, work has mostly been a blur of SQL, Perl DBI, and RETS. I've been shooting lots of photos in what little time off I could manage: there was the Deep Ellum Arts Festival in April, followed by a little art exhibit by local roller derby girls called Derby Does Art, then Scarborough Fair, and the Continental Gin art collective's open house.

May was more of the same with 90% work and 10% hitting unusual local events to photograph people and things. I caught the Dallas Asian Festival and the Flesh and Bone Erotic Arts Show (warning, some photos not work safe - but I think flickr defaults to safe mode these days, so unless you're logged in and have safe mode off maybe ok?).

We did manage to take a weekend off in May to go to the Houston Art Car Parade. We saw lots of crazy people and cars as always. We drove down to the Orange Show art structure but it was closed during the art car events, so we weren't able to go inside. Maybe we'll get to see it next time we visit Houston.

Another interesting May event was the Great Texas B9 Build-Off where Lost-in-Space B9 builders and Star Wars R2-D2 builders from all over the US showed up for a day of robot construction. A lot of local robot builders including several DPRG members showed up as well. Some of the photos I took at this event will show up exclusively in the next issue of Robot Magazine, which should hit the stands in another month or so.

All this photography has got me interested in finally upgrading from my Fuji sf6000d to a true digital SLR. I really miss using my old Canon T90 35mm film camera and I've slowly convinced myself I need to buy the Canon 40D. Canon is doing their part by offering significant instant rebates this month, so it may actually happen this time.

A Few Fun Things

It's way past time to catch up my readers on what we've been up to lately. Since my last post we went to the La Reunion winner announcement party for their Make Space for Art architecture contest. While there we heard a really cool music ensemble that called themselves the Escalator Maintenance Society. In addition to a cello and bass, they played an amplified mechanical typewriter and a child's toy piano. It was some fun, minimalist-sounding music. After the event, I ran into the manager of Club DaDa outside and she said the group would be playing there soon. We'll probably go hear them again if we can work it out.

We also went to the Dallas House of Blues for the first time to hear They Might be Giants and Oppenheimer play. I'd previously been to the Las Vegas HoB and spent a lot of time in the Foundation Room there hanging out with bizarre local characters. We weren't lucky enough to know anyone with Foundation Room access here but still had a good time. It's an interesting place and a pretty good mid-sized music venue. We got the cheap tickets for the standing-only area near the stage but it turned out there are a couple of bars near the back and we managed to snag some bar stools there. It was further away from the stage but the view wasn't too bad. As is frequently the case, the audio was mixed so that the instruments were 10 times louder than the vocals so you couldn't make out any words. For some bands that's not a problem but TMbG's music is largely about the humor of the lyrics so it was a bit disappointing.

Last weekend, I went to All-Con 2008. The Dallas Personal Robotics Group was invited to display and do some demos so I went along to take photos. This was the first science fiction convention I've been to in many years and it was a lot of fun. There were all sorts of robots to be seen. Aaron Douglas (Chief Tyrol of Battlestar Galactica) was one of the guests, and I suppose we can count his character as a robot too. There was a fun demo by the Assassination City roller derby girls, a local group that does flat-track roller derby. I was also surprised to see the Lollie Bombs there. The Lollie Bombs are a Deep Ellum burlesque troop and this was the first time I'd seen them. Also a lot of fun. I met lots of other interesting people and posted a flickr set of All-Con photos. I stayed out way too late and ended up coming down with a cold the following week, probably from some alien bug I caught at All-Con.

This morning, Susan and I went to La Reunion's first annual tree carving and open house event. La Reunion is a new art collective in Dallas with 35 acres of land south of downtown. The land is near the La Reunion Fourierist utopian community that existed from 1855-1860 (thus the name they chose for their group). They plan to build an off-grid, green facility there at which artists can live and work. As part of the process of preparing the land, they need to remove dying and non-native trees. They chose to do it in a way that would be healthy for the ecosystem. The trees will be carved by artists in a way that causes them to decay slowly, turning into food and homes for a variety of life forms.

There were also several representatives of the Texas Discovery Gardens on site to conduct tours of native flora. We wandered around on our own, exploring the site and taking a few photos along the way.

A Programmer Learns to Weld

That's right, I'm taking a welding class. Some fellow DPRG members found the community education class and were getting a group together to take it. Granted, welding isn't a skill I generally need in my daily routine but it intrigued me enough to join the class. It might come in handy if I find the need to create a giant robot, or a big metal dinosaur for the front yard.

The first day of class was spent on the use of a fuelgas welding rig to cut and make holes in metal. Practical lesson #1: sparks fly everywhere and, while they're harmless if they hit your skin, they have deleterious effects on some types of clothing, like those cheap hoodies you find at Sam's Club that are covered with a thin later of fuzzy stuff. The sparks create mysterious little craters in the fuzz. Practical lesson #2: if you're wearing non-leather shoes, watch out for blobs of molten metal falling on your feet.

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