Technical Difficulties from on Top of the Mountain
2005-01-28
  Wandering through the universe
What starts out as a simple mission, usually takes me to places I never imagined I'd go.

It started out with a Manifesto at ChangeThis about not buying more stuff than you need and a clothing company that is trying to create a society of abundance (not by making more stuff, but by getting people to be happy with less things), and it quickly wandered all over the place from there.

After taking in the story about Local Lucy and the Tale of Two Tomatos, I was soon marvelling at the massive engines and other parts at How Diesel Locomotives Work and all the cool switches the engineer gets to play with when he starts the engine. One of the many things I did not know about trains was that the diesel engines on a train are 2-cycle instead of 4-cycle, and as a consequence of that, they have to be turbo-charged or super-charged.

This led me into the land of supercharging stock car engines, where I learned that unlike modern turbochargers which are radial turbines; the best superchargers use positive displacement pumps, the most favored being the twin screw design. This is same style of compressor that is used on the first stage of high volume industrial air compressors which I had been studying previously, because compression (with cooling and subsequent expansion), is one way to cool air down enough that it liquifies and with care can be seperated into its various gasses (argon, nitrogen, oxygen).

But that's a story for another day.

 
2005-01-27
  Robots everywhere
Little did I realize, but the top selling toy this last christmas in the UK was Robosapien (according to the Scotsman).

While this little thing can walk around and even pick stuff up (once you've masted the remote-control), the press identified the true wining features that led to its success:

A "HUMANOID" robot that breaks wind and raps was the best-selling Christmas toy, according to industry figures published yesterday.
As always, apealing to the lowest common denominator is the secret to success.

[Some dunderhead changed their image, non work safe image here: here. ]

 
2005-01-24
  Almost working
I am very close to getting my TIG welder up and running. In a flash of brilliance this weekend I picked up a short run of romex (10 gauge) and just stuck a plug right below the breaker panel in my garage. I'm still trying to figure out how to run conduit all the way across the garage to the workshop so I can get 50A over there for the wire feed welder (MIG), but luckily the TIG machine only needs 30A.

I'm still not sure exactly what I want to do with it once I get it running, but the whole point is that any idea I can think of, I can create. While I'm not going to be creating anything interesting right off (welding takes practise, and I'm a little rusty), the possibilities are endless.

Just imagine where the world would be without The Conference Bike which allows seven people to pedal together, facing each other (don't worry the person facing forward steers). You can be sure something like this would never be created by big-business; it took a rugged individual to come up with this unique creation.

And if I ever run across 24 working chainsaws, I could build a motorcycle like this one. Of course one might not have any energy to ride the thing after starting 24 engines seperately (the dolmar team gets help from the ladies handball team from Süderbraub).

Actually, beyond what I actually create with these tools, I see them getting a lot of use from my three sons. Just the other night I was having a dream where the three of them were dicing up the sides of my pickup with a plasma torch for some creation they had in mind.

Oh well, I wasn't really using it. The cats get more use, sleeping in the back of it, than I do.

 
2005-01-19
  If it were only true
Back in the late 80s & early 90s, when we were just coming out of the stone age of user interfaces (and companies were suing each other over the "look-and-feel" of things like a trash can), one arguement you'd commonly hear is that desktop applications needed a standard way of doing things so that users could move from one application to another without having to learn how to do everything all over again from scratch.

One common analogy used was the interface on a car--how all cars were standard, so once you learned how to drive one car, you could drive any other one.

Well, sadly, this analogy (like so many others people tried to apply to the computer industry) is flawed, if not a complete myth.

Oh sure, the gas pedal and brake are roughly the same shape and one can usually press the proper one without much thought; but as soon as you get past the basics, every single car goes its own way. And these days some of the gadgets don't even try to be obvious. Maybe it was simpler once apon a time, but the last car I bought came with a 500+ page owners manual.

I spent last week driving around in an american made van, and absolutely everything was in a different place than I was expecting it. The lights were on the dash instead of the column, the wipers were where the lights should have been, the shifter was where I expected the wipers to be, and the parking break was where I was expecting the shifter (which took me several moments to unravell since I just got done retraining myself to a floor pedal break in the highlander). Luckily I didn't need to quickly reach for any of these controls in an emergency, or it would have been all over.

 
2005-01-16
  Every bit as stupid as anybody else
Scott Adams has a theory that even smart people have the ability to make a complete fool of themselves, or as he puts it (in his own defense):
the odds are overwhelming that some reasonably smart person is eventually going to do something stupid.
I always keep that in mind when I find myself doing something questionable. Like today.

I had just finished putting the garage door back together (my wife had a small incident with ice and an overachieving garage-door opener), and was headed out to run some errands when I took a look at the four feet of snow in my yard which had partially melted, and decided to cross the snow instead of meekly driving out the part that had been plowed previously. I mean that's what a AWD is for, right?

I actually got pretty far. All the way across the yard, around the bend and up the back side, into the area that hadn't melted quite as much because its shaded by a couple of really ugly trees along the fence. That's were I ran aground the first time. Yes, the first time, which is how I tell it apart from the second-time. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

So after realizing that AWD translates into zero wheel drive when that's how many wheels are touching the ground, I had to trek back through the snow to the garage and get a shovel. I then started digging around the wheels, and when that didn't help enough, I started excavating under the car also. After about an hour I had shovelled clear a decent portion of the drive around the car and had some mobility again. With a little more prodding, I had the car moving several feet, and unstuck.

At this point I could have backed up, retracing my tracks back to the garage, and gone on about my business; but I was feeling lucky, so I decided to see if a running start would help any in getting out of there. Turns out it helped for about seven feet. My son came out at that point to see what I was doing (and help out), so we dug in the snow, went and brought out more shovels, made footprints up and down the driveway, and finally when he complained about getting cold, I got the car unstuck and backed it in the tracks to the garage so we could go run our errands.

I guess I'll have to wait for things to melt a few more days before trying that again. Could be worse I suppose. Some people go out and do this kind of thing for fun.

 
2005-01-14
  Anti-Management Patterns
While talking to a friend the other night, he was grousing about the complete lack of input he was getting in his job which reminded me of my top all-time most hated form of mis-management: management by "no, that's not it, try again."

While there's lots of ways that managers can annoy me (which is why I make a lousy employee), and I'm by no means very good at organizing the tasks of others (just ask those that have worked with me); management by "no, that's not it" is a especially grating because of the values (or lack thereof) it exposes.

More than once, i've worked for others that have become so under-the-gun that they stop making rational decisions or doing any planning at all, and just start flinging tasks out the door of their office to the first hapless subject unlucky enough to be passing by or otherwise in range. The task starts out with hardly any definition, background, or constraints. But of course has the upmost importance & highest urgency. Once something is rushed through, it is brought back to the manager (who is of course gatekeeping the stakeholders and any information there might have been about needs and requirements) and the results are deemed insufficient, inadequite, or somehow lacking.

"No, that's not it, try again."

Thats about all the time and feedback you'll get to, unless you're willing to take drastic action (which will still not help in the long term, no matter how enjoyable slapping the manager silly would feel). I've gotten somewhere by bringing my work into the manager's office and refusing to leave until I've gotten somewhere, but that doesn't really solve anything. The problem is that ultimately the manager can't let go of the problem and hand it off to someone else. They don't trust others, combined with not valuing other's time and effort; so they send other scurring about ineffectively while internally they know they haven't solved anything and since they've set up the employee to fail, they'll have to take the project back eventually and finish it off themselves.

Without some major course correction, these guys are are headed straight for a crash-n-burn. Do not attempt to apply first-aid, run instead in the opposite direction as quickly as possible.

 
2005-01-10
  Up up and away
After several false starts and numerous natural disasters, I am finally on my way to the Bay Area again. The last flight of the day seems to be the charmed one as this is the first flight that has flown in three days. The last one I was on was the same as Flagstaff was coming off of several days of no power and several feet of snow. Even so, despite the lack of service, there are only six people on this flight. Maybe everyone else got used to driving to phoenix.

While its tough to leave the wife and kids, its nice to get a little time in the big city where everyone is in a hurry to get where they're going and the conversation at lunch is always about the next great big idea that is going to turn into a billion dollar business. While SW programmers in the rest of the world may complain about VCs and their distorted and sick business views, everyone out here has just adapted, and is working on the next netscape with pie in the sky forcasts that have a marginal chance of succeeding but are ready to burn cash like mad the minute a VC signs the check.

Actually, what I'm most looking forwards to, besides some good take-out, is hitting the geek mecha "Fry's Electronics". Though I don't usually buy a lot, there's something about wandering up and down isle after isle of USB cables, wifi adaptors and cheap robot toys from China, that you just can't get online at pricegrabber or amazon. Of course, thanks to my treo I can actually comparison shop online if I do see something, and if the need strikes me, I can even order it (though I have yet to actually buy anything online so far).

The only improvement would be some barcode scanning software for the treo camera, and a UPC interface to pricegrabber. I'll have to add that to my list of things to write for the Palm.

 
2005-01-09
  Getting things right
I've been spending a lot of time out in the garage, what with moving the pump down into its new home under the workshop (where hopefully it won't freeze), then having to pump the entire space out when it flooded with water two weeks ago, then trying to run the pump last week on a generator when we were out of power for 40 hours (thanks to several feet of snow), then hooking the heater back up when we got a cold snap and the pressure sensor line froze, and finally this weekend cleaning the last bit up, hooking up new GFI plugs (cause the old ones stopped working when they got wet), and digging a sump hole for the sump pump.

Each time I go out there, to fix things, I keep thinking to myself, when am I going to hook up the TIG & MIG welders. Not anytime soon it seems. Such is life.

One addition I made when redesigning the pump plumbing, was to add a second larger pressure tank along side the original. This is to keep the pump from coming on so much, extending its life and saving some electricity.

Unfortunately I didn't have an gauge to test the air pressure in the tank when I got it (yes a pressure tank for water has air in it as well, that's the part that compresses and allows water to be stored), so I didn't know if it was doing anything at first. I later borrowed one from my dad, and when I was able to let the line pressure drop off to zero (leaving the pump off while the washing machine is going will do that), I took a reading and confirmed that there was plenty of air in there. Forty pounds in fact.

It occurred to me later that maybe this was too much air pressure, since my pump switch turns the pump on at around 20 and off at 35-40. Without going any higher, the pump would never be able to get any water into the new tank, since the pressure of the air was higher. Something wasn't right.

So today, while rewiring and digging, I left the pump unplugged again and ran the pressure out. I also found the directions that came with the tank. They were buried in the corner under some bags of electric parts, because I originally wasn't too worried about reading the manual on a steel tank. I mean, it just sits there, right? But now realizing there might be a little more to it, I checked to see if it had a pressure table, and sure enough it explained that it was pre-pressurized for high pressure systems, but for a lower pressure system, some of the air should be let out.

Ok fine, so I dumped about half the air out of it. The book called for dropping it to twenty pounds, but the other tank was charged at twenty four, and it was taking forever to let the air out, so I got it as low as twenty five and left it at that for now. I kicked on the pump and it ran for a good long time working its way up to twenty five quickly, then charging up the tanks for a while, and finally switching off after hitting thirty six or so.

So after describing to my wife all the other amazing and complicated things I had accomplished this afternoon, I explained that the pressure tank had been adjusted and should be contributing its additional capacity properly to the water supply.

"So it wasn't working before?" my wife asked.
"No, it was set for a higher pressure from the factory. I checked the directions at it needed to be lowered for our system."
"You didn't read the directions when you got it?"
"No."
My wife would of course have read the directions in their entirety and possibly have put together a checklist of steps for installation, as well as a list of items required to complete the job. My wife would never have to a second trip to the hardware store to get the right part (never mind the five trips I had to make to get the right fittings to hookup the gas stove in the bedroom).

But that's not the way a "Guy" does it. Us "Guys" never read the instructions, we don't ask for directions, and we love the phrase, "lets see what happens if we do this instead."

Luckily, even "Guys" are allowed to learn from our mistakes, so over time we become a bit more useful. I've learned that its easier to buy $200 in parts for a $50 job and return anything left-over (or heck, lets just keep it around for the next project, I'm sure we'll find a use for it somewhere). I'm even big enough to admit that my designs aren't always perfect the first time, like having a five foot deep hole with critical mechanical systems in it and no sump pump.

Hey, that gasoline powered industrial pump from the rental company had those four thousand gallons of water out of there in no time.

 
2005-01-02
  Dealing with change
I've had my treo about five weeks now, and besides the usual new technology problems (exchanging a defective unit, several hard resets from corrupted apps), I'm just getting over the first hump of understanding how to use this thing.

The first thing I had to do was stop thinking it was a laptop. It just isn't the same.

Now it doesn't help that the current OS is a throwback to the dark ages. Some have compared it to Mac classic, but even the Mac could keep multiple apps running at the same time. It's really like DOS: one app running at a time, each with a slightly different interface (some supporting the newer navigation buttons better than others), each being loaded into memory and then pushed back out again when done.

Now a few apps have hacked a sort of background run mode (kind of like the old borland popup interrupt utility that could bring up a notepad, calculator, and calendar; while in another program), so you can play music in the background or stay connected to an Instant Messaging service while doing other things, but by in large, most apps shut down when you switch to something else.

One of the most annoying examples of this is the browser. You have to sit there and watch it load, and wait for it to finish completely to even have a chance for it to keep its page around when you switch out to another app and the back. Even then it's likely to have to reload from scratch, if it doesn't forget about the page and the link history all together.

So after unlearning all my old habits, I set out to learn some tasks that would be effective on the Treo.

Trying to solve old problems with new technology is rarely productive. Thats one thing that makes learning new tools difficult. Without someone guiding you through new problems while you get your feet wet, you end up projecting each feature onto old problems and comparing it with other tools you're much better acquainted with.

This is what has made it so hard to learn a new programming language. I already know several, and when I start learning features in Lua or OCaml, I compare them against perl or C++ and for old problems I know, these tools are much better. It doesn't help that one of the favorite things for functional programming people is language parsing & AI, two topics I have very little interest in.

So one big advantage the Treo has over my laptop, is availability. The treo fits handily in my pocket, and I don't mind carrying it around, unlike my goliath class laptop. Its form factor is also more convenient in tight spaces, like in the cramped quarters they refer to as coach class on "modern" airlines. Battery life is another advantage, with the Treo lasting all day on one charge, even while playing music and using the internet. (The comparison is a little one-sided at this point, just because my laptop battery is close to dead and lasts maybe 3 or 4 minutes.)

So given that browsing is brain-damaged, the first killer app is email. With the ability to pull new mail quickly and the small fonts for viewing, working with email is great. My only request (besides wanting an update to versamail that doesn't reset the whole unit constantly and corrupt all the memory setting) would be a shortcut to pull new email for all my boxes (I currently have four different accounts setup).

Reading is also pretty good, though the Adobe eBook reader won't switch to smaller fonts. Loading reading material takes a little work as well, but I've managed to get a number of documents loaded.

The most surprising killer app is writing. Though the keyboard is not as convenient as a full size one, I can still type out a couple dozen words a minute, with enough time to spare to think about what I'm writing. While I don't pound out thousands of words in a session, I can eventually get at least a few ideas written down.

I'm still working on this thing, figuring out what's what, but I'm willing to declare this gadget useful. At least until the next big thing comes along.

 
Life in the middle of nowhere, remote programming to try and support it, startups, children, and some tinkering when I get a chance.

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Blogroll
Paul Graham's Essays
You may not want to write in Lisp, but his advise on software, life and business is always worth listening to.
How to save the world
Dave Pollard working on changing the world .. one partially baked idea at a time.
SnowDeal
Eric Snowdeal IV - born 15 weeks too soon, now living a normal baby life.
Land and Hold Short
The life of a pilot.

The best of?
Jan '04
The second best villain of all times.

Feb '04
Oops I dropped by satellite.
New Jets create excitement in the air.
The audience is not listening.

Mar '04
Neat chemicals you don't want to mess with.
The Lack of Practise Effect

Apr '04
Scramjets take to the air
Doing dangerous things in the fire.
The Real Way to get a job

May '04
Checking out cool tools (with the kids)
A master geek (Ink Tank flashback)
How to play with your kids

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