Technical Difficulties from on Top of the Mountain
  Just trying to keep track of it all
Today was supposed to be a work day, but the kids are still home, and Jonmarie went to go be tortured by the dentist this morning; so I wasn't planning any heavy lifting. I did tinker around in the morning, discovering that nobody knew the access codes for the database servers on node-x because nobody was supposed to be accessing the databases there, and why would you want to do that anyways? (I shudder when I hear that term, its like dry rot of the brain.) Still I poked at this and that downstairs until the pre-lunch tantrum monsoons arrived, then I went upstairs to pry screaming monkeys apart.

I decided at that point that the best thing for me to do would be to take the littlest one out to do chores, leaving the wife with slightly improved odds. I actually had in mind to make stops at three different hardware stores for various parts the many odball plans and schemes I have require. Yes its true. You can't drag me into a department store to try on pants, even if my last pair is split at the crotch and missing both knees, but mention an after Chrismas sale on 110 gallon air compressors and table saws and I'm out the door faster than you can say, "Tim 'the tool man' Taylor."

Now Flagstaff is big enough that we have several hardware stores; but its not big enough that any one of them is worth a darn when it comes to one-stop shopping. Maybe they'll have that Grade 8 bolt in the size you want, or maybe you'll have to make another trip over to Copper State Bold & Nut Co. Sure Home Depot will sell you an L6-30 twistlock plug, but they don't actually have any faceplates that fit it. You'll have to go to Anderson Electric for that. And on and on.

Today was mostly a plumbing day, but I also needed more plastic storage containers to try and constrain the ever growing collection of legos which we sort on an ongoing basis as a sort of therapy (block, wheel, block, flat piece, block, block, special piece, bionicle, block, ...). The containers are on sale at Home Depot right now, and I was also going to check to see if they had any more pellets in stock as the last batch did not crude up my stove as the installers had warned and they're they cheapest in town (which is probably why they don't have any in stock). Unfortunately when it comes to plumbing, they suck. And its not just like the electrical example above. They really suck when it comes to plumbing. If they gave half as much space to plumbing as they do to theme'd carpets and the Disney licensed paint section, they'd be ok; but I guess there's just not as much money in cast iron fittings as there is in "Sleeping Beauty matte pink (tm)".

To their credit, the Ace Hardware actually does a decent job on plumbing. You can get most things you need for the average home "improvement" project there, and even some things you really shouldn't need: like a brass 1/8 NPT to 3/8 barbed fitting needed to hardwire the air into a Hypertherm plasma machine. (Everybody else on the planet uses a much more standard 1/4 NPT, but these guys had to be different.) Down in Sedona, I was worried that the selection wasn't going to be as good, and in fact the entire Sedona Ace Hardware building would probably fit in the lumber section of the Flagstaff Home Depot, but they still managed to cram in a decent supply of plumbing parts, all the way up to 2" which is what we are using for the supply side up to the main transport pump. Ok, so the pump only has a 1 1/4" inlet, so why use 2" for the rest of it? Because it cuts down on flow resistance, which in cold grease could be considerable. Plus it looks more macho. Unfortunately, while they had a considerable supply of elbows, T's, nipples, caps, plugs, bushings, reducers and the like (which we pretty much cleaned out), they did not have any crosses which I wanted to use at the main intersection of the tank drains, pump and external inlet. So our project was on hold, partially assembled, until I could make a trip to Central Arizona Supply which has a warehouse of just plumbing supplys about the same size as the entire Home Depo building.

Since I was going to the meca of all things plumbing, I figured I should also get some parts to fix the kitchen faucet which has been leaking for the last month. I've lived with it that long because you can stop it from leaking by turning it all the way shut (where it leaks), and then turn it on just a crack (where it will stop leaking). Most of the time I'm not the one using the sink though, so it leaks a lot. This would be a bad thing if we were on city water, but we aren't. We have to haul water in by truck, so its even worse. So this morning while I was supposed to be doing babysitting duties, I was actually taking apart the sink while Max banged various wrenches against anything in the kitchen that would make noise. Jonmarie was not impressed that her sink was disabled when she got home (though I didn't break the salad sink, so she had a backup), but adopted a wait-and-see attitude towards my vision of a drip-free outcome.

So with Oscar slung up tight, I headed out into the wild to hunt for the elusive parts needed to restore order to my household and continue my other mad scientist schemes. I picked up the containers at Home Depo, confirmed that they were still out of pellets, and on a whim decided to visit the dejected plumbing department and see about a new spring & seal for the faucet. To my shock they actually had a replacement kit, so I grabbed it, as well as some replacement set screws which I noticed one handle was missing. As I checked out, I took inventory of what was left on my acquisition list, now that the sink was covered. I still needed the iron cross, but that was it from Central AZ Plumbing. I was also going to go to Ace, but for the life of me I couldn't remember why. There was something I was going to get there, but now I couldn't think of what. While I have the "take things apart and maybe fix them" gene, along with the "cook things with an open flame" gene; I suffer from the lack of a "write things down" gene (along with the more usual "ask directions" gene).

So hmmphh. I wasn't going to drive all the way across town just for one piece of pipe. Guess I'll have to get it later. Well now I'll be home early and have time to check on the auction for the 8100 pound electromagnet. Now that's macho.

  Tow Roving Winders and Creel
Ok, so I was a little off the beaten path already.

I had past the solid state relays a little while back and turned left at the immersion heaters when I stopped to admire a 110 ton cooling tower. Not something I need today, but you never know. I turned around and there it was:

12 positions of Leesona Tow/Roving machines with a 168 postion creel equiped with yarn motion control and power supply by Appalachian Electronic Instruments. Creel also equiped with 6 Eltex SMG 156 eye sensors. The Leesona winders have Veeder Root counters attached.
Its english, but I don't understand a word of it. Tow Roving? 168 position Creel? Veeder Root counters? Wow. Better turn around and head back towards the legos and inverter based welders. I'm totally lost out here.
  Those ingrates
Last week was the final week of classes officially, but this year Halloween was on the same day as class, so instead of telling my three little kids that daddy couldn't take them, I cancelled class. I even put up a sign on the door in case anybody forgot.
No class
MIT 298a
Halloween Night

I'm going
see you
next week

I've learned to be very specific with posters after a bad experience in college:
How to succeed
in business
really trying

Baxter basement
This saturday
2pm to 6pm.

I made up this poster and put up about 100 of them around campus the week before auditions. Unfortunately I didn't keep track of where I put all the posters, so I kept running into these things weeks later around campus. I wonder how many people showed up a week later hoping to audition. I hope not many.

Anyways, since I had skipped out on teaching class, I figured I owed them a makeup class, so since nobody could agree on a different day during the regular semester, I decided to have a makeup class Monday. I told everyone for two weeks and even called those who I had a cell phone number for. Didn't expect a lot of people to make it since it is holiday break now, and some of them are just going to take the open project class next semester anyways, but I thought at least somebody would show.

Nope. Got a big zip. Sigh. I hung around for a while just in case, and I had to pump up the tire on my car anyways (which was pretty much flat from a slow leak). This would have been easy to do with the shop air except that the compressor is actually located over in the autoshop and they turn it off nights and weekends because the lines have so many leaks in them which would run the compressor all the time.

Luckily I had brought my air compressor in case we needed to run the plasma table, to I lugged it out of the back of my car and plugged it into the plug besides the wall. Unfortunate the circuit running by the door seems to be suffering from a bad connection somewhere or is wired with under gauge wire (not likely given that it has 20amp plugs on the end), and the compressor couldn't draw enough power to start-up. The next easiest thing to do would have been to open the shop door and drive the car in to where there was a working plug, but unfortunately Adam had decided to make the shop his personal parking spot for his jeep over the holiday. So I ended up lugging the compressor into the shop, running it to a full charge, then dragging it back enough towards the door that I could reach the tire with the air-hose. A couple of back and forths and I was good to go.

Since there still weren't any students at that point, I locked up and took off. On the way home I made two mental notes:1) get my tire fixed, and 2) no more makeup classes after the semester is over.

  Burning myself out of house and home
So after using the pellet stove on and off in November we got serious and started running it all the time in December. From the 2nd to the 12th it was on constantly (though turned down during the day), and to its credit, the house was very warm. It also ate pellets like mad.

From the 1st to the 12th we used another 1000# of pellets. I think this is a bit excessive.

So for the last three days I've turned the stove off in the morning, and re-lit it before bed time; while running a fire in the wood stove. (The wood stove can run day and night and I don't care as much as I have a fair amount of free wood out back to burn. All I have to do is split it first and that's actually going fairly well as the stuff is really dry.) With all this I've gotten consuption back down to fourty pounds a day. We're still going to need more pellets, but not a whole rail car full.

With the stove going I've also managed to come up with a third way to manually light the stove that I really like. The stove does have an automatic lighter but its electric based and smokes a bunch starting up, and some of that smokes leaks out and smokes up the basement. So I've been doing manual lighting.

[propane torch] [starter gel] [hot coal]

The first way was to wedge a propane torch inside the burn compartment so it acted like a pilot light and eventually lit the pellets. Unfortunately this was slow, prone to errors (like the torch going out), and used a lot of propane. The second way was to use the pellet starter alcohol which still was problematic, would blow out if it wasn't layed down evenly, and still needed the propane torch a little bit to nudge along. The third way takes advantage of the fact that I have a fire in the wood stove going every night now: I lay down a bed of pellets, go upstairs with a tin can and my thick gloves on, blast up the coals in the woodstove till they're glowing good, grab one quickly with the fire implements and put it in the can, dash downstairs with the coal smoking and trying to set fire to the paper on the can, toss the ember on top of the pile of pellets, nudge the pellets to surround the ember, turn the fan on and close the door. As simple as cake, and it lights every time. Well ok, last night I wasn't quick enough with the first coal so I had to go get a second one, but as long as there is some life when the ember goes in the box, it will light.

I don't think I'm going to be able to get my wife to try that lighting method though. When I have to go on another trip, I don't think she's even going to try any of my lighting methods. She's probably going to use the electric start. Or more likely she's going to leave the stove going all the time and never have to start it at all. I'll just need a lot more pellets when I get back, but at least she'll be warm.

  Getting off my butt
For a long time I've considered Biodiesel an important thing that I should be involved in. I've read about it, commented on it, told others about it, but I hadn't done anything myself.

Well, that stopped today. When a friend of mine mentioned that he was working on setting up a processing plant I said, "great, how can I help?" Turns out there are several ways I can help (from remembering the basics of pipet operation to creative plumbing). So we went down to the "plant" today and surveyed the lack of water, the lack of air, the lack of stands, the lack of space, the lack of ventilation, and the lack of anything to experiment on. We do have container though. Lots and lots of containers.

[steel bar] [angle iron]

First order of business is to make some stands, so tonight I surveyed the stockpile at the shop (when not hovering over the students milling titanium parts), and found we have almost all the stock we need to make a couple of stands. One big sheet of 1/8" plate (4' by 6'), lots of square tubing and angle iron, some round rod, and a multitude of sizes of C channel. So the next step is to get cracking.

Actually the next step is to get back to work for a bit. Then I can get cracking.

  Just the cutest
Say what you want, but our kids are the cutest.

(click for larger size)

And thanks to the economy of digital photos, they are going to be so embarrassed when they start dating.

  Playing ebay roulette
I had a brain flash a bit back that while the Tungsten TX is a pretty good device (great screen, wifi, lots of memory), it falls down when you go to type something. Even entering in the kind of mixed case with special symbols passwords I tend to use is a real pain. Half the time I have to go look up how to draw an ampersand or semicolon again. So I decided that my gadget clutch was in need of yet one more item: a wireless keyboard for the phone. While the Laser virtual holographic keyboard is pretty cool, I'm too cheap to spend $200 on it. The next step down is bluetooth, so I went hunting.

After skipping past some desktop keyboards, I came across a couple candidates. Eleksen makes this cool cloth keyboard that you can roll up, but I couldn't actually find anybody selling it. That narrowed it down to the ThinkOutside Stowaway and the FreedomInput portable keyboard. The first one showed a list price of $150 and the second $100. Still too much, so go hit Froogle and see how much improvement we can get. Didn't do much for FreedomInput, just knocked a few bucks off, but ThinkOutside was down to about the same price $90 on some commerce sites. Then I hit the ebay listers.

Over on ebay there were a number of listings in the $70s and $80s but as I dug through them I ran across one or two that weren't seeing the extreme bid-up the others were. Of course their descriptions were like: USED ITEM, UNTESTED, MAY NOT FULLY WORK, SOLD AS IS. So the question is, do you feel lucky? For $20 I decided to take a spin. And the result? Winner! Works just fine. Ok so the little plastic tray that is supposed to hold up the phone is completely missing, and it came with absolutely no documentation (but in this day and age you're only a google away from the online manual where you can learn the secret ctrl-green alt-blue alt handshake to turn the unit on); but its already exceeded my expectations by working at all, so I'm happy.

  Maybe this isnt what they meant
They say google raises your IQ by ten points. It certainly can pull up the odds facts without the least bit of effort.


For instance, this weekend the kids started watching Madagascar. (Oh wait, that's not the right link, try this one). Anyways, besides watching the main file over and over, they take a break once in a while to watch the penguins chrismas caper short. The story revolves around the private wanting to help out a lonely polar bear and then things go horribly wrong because he doesn't follow the penguins credo (no no, not the one about hot oil and bisquick--the other one).

Anyways, it all works out in the end, and as they're hanging out with the Ted the polar bear, he has a few lines. And as I'm listening to this in the background for the 78th time, I'm thinking, "Hey, that voice sounds familiar. That sounds like Patrick Star"

Google: polar bear patrick voice
Bill Fagerbakke

There you go, it was Mr. Bill Fagerbakke, just like I thought. See, Google does make you look smarter. At least to your five year old kid.

  Trying to keep warm
Well a month has gone by since the weather turned cold and so far the pellet stove has done ok. Total usage for the month was 1,200 pounds of pellets which is a little disturbing as November isn't a full winter month proper. Its more like the warmup month. Dec/Jan/Feb is when the real cold comes (like the -20°F nights) and if I needed over a thousand pounds of pellets for last month, I could be in for some serious usage the next couple of months.


So obviously 4,000 pounds would be minimum amount I'd need for the rest of the winter, but I could easily use another 8,000 pounds if things get serious. Now that's not actually that expensive. 100 pounds is about $9.45. But I do have to get the things, load them, store them somewhere, and then treck them across the yard in the middle of the winter (no doubt while there is snow on the ground), and then drag them down to the basement where they actually get burned.

So far I've done pretty good shlepping them down a somewhat narrow set of basement stairs, but that's been during pretty dry conditions. I'm not looking forward to carrying another 200 bags of pellets down stairs during a snow storm with a couple of inches of ice on the stairs. Sounds like trouble.

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

January 2004 / February 2004 / March 2004 / April 2004 / May 2004 / June 2004 / July 2004 / August 2004 / September 2004 / October 2004 / November 2004 / December 2004 / January 2005 / February 2005 / March 2005 / April 2005 / May 2005 / June 2005 / July 2005 / August 2005 / September 2005 / October 2005 / November 2005 / December 2005 / January 2006 / February 2006 / March 2006 / April 2006 / May 2006 / June 2006 / July 2006 / August 2006 / September 2006 / October 2006 / November 2006 / December 2006 / January 2007 / February 2007 / March 2007 / April 2007 / June 2007 / July 2007 / August 2007 / September 2007 / October 2007 / November 2007 / December 2007 / January 2008 / May 2008 / June 2008 / August 2008 / February 2009 / August 2009 / February 2010 / February 2011 / March 2011 / October 2011 / March 2012 / July 2013 / August 2013 / September 2013 / October 2013 / November 2013 / December 2013 / December 2014 / February 2015 / March 2015 / July 2016 / September 2016 / December 2016 /

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.
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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