Technical Difficulties from on Top of the Mountain
2006-03-30
  Passionate about metal
The other thing the Creating Passionate Users people are looking for, is passion for causes.

Due to the odd circumstances of there being a window in my woodstove, I became curious about the temperatures going on there, and the possibilities of doing stuff like working metal with that heat. That led me to start experimenting, and then finally take some classes in metal working at night.

With that class, there was all kinds of things I could do. Melting down aluminum and casting it, cutting sheet metal and forming it, hand working copper and heated cast iron, machining metal on the lathe and mill. And then there was the welding.

But the high school shop that the community college rents was not the paragon of high technology. It was almost frightening to study a chapter in textbooks (written in the 1970s) and then look up and see exactly the same machines in the shop as in the illustrations for that chapter. Sure, you could make simple things, but when you really started letting the imagination run wild, you quickly got ahead of what the tools were capable of.

I kept hanging around after I finished the first class. I took the welding class after metal shop, then just started hanging around and poking at this and that. The teacher had bought a CNC plasma cutter in kit form, and another teacher had tried to put it together and managed to make a fine mess of things. So I took the project as my own and step by step fixed, adjusted, and replaced bits as needed, finally getting it to an operational state. Made a couple of cool things along the way too.

At some point the economy picked up again and I was making more money than I really needed, so I started picking up other things for the shop. First it was an infrared thermometer so we could read the temperature of the melted metal (they had been using a pyrometer before, but besides being slow, the high school students tended to leave the burner on while taking a reading, thus melting the wires in the probe.)

My next adventure was trying to bring the welding side up to snuff for TIG welding. The welding area has three types of welders available: gas, wire feed, and arc; and the arc machines can do stick welding, or TIG welding if you have the proper setup. Unfortunately if you go down to the local welding supply store, the proper setup for one machine can cost hundreds of dollars. Instead, thanks to the power of ebay, I was finding boxes of torches, collets, lava cups, back caps for next to nothing. Pretty soon I had more TIG stuff in my garage than the three local welding supply stores put together, and the school shop had complete setups for all of its Arc machines.

After hanging around so much at night, and coming by during the day; the teacher suggested I should just teach the class at night. That way he could take the night off (he teaches the highschool classes as well), and I could get paid. So now I run a dozen of so students every week through all the tools in the shop, and just hint at some of the possibilities. The students always come up with the most interesting ideas, from bringing in a titanium rod to experiment with on the lathe, to cutting designs with the plasma torch in quarter inch plate steel, and then pouring brass through the openings to create a brass/steel laminates. All the while I continue to collect more parts, tools, machines; all the while scheming to do bigger and crazier things, like getting a 3D prototyping machine to make shell molds for the foundry.

The other teacher shakes his head at all this activity. He was planning on retiring last year, but now has to stick around and figure out how to help raise the $25,000 for new stuff we want to do (on top of the $8,000 he's already come up with to pay for things I brought in after paying for with my own money). A few more years, and we should have all the tools we need to build a electric race car, or rocket ship, or something else the students will come up with that I can't even imagine right now.

 
2006-03-29
  Passionate about pixels.
Over at Creating Passionate Users they're currently fishing for book content, looking for users that are passionate. Out of the four things they are looking for, I've got two covered pretty well:

> 2) Anyone who is passionate about any tech product

I have always been a resolution nut. Screen space is king when setting up a computer. It probably came from having access to HP workstations back in college (circa 1986) where the screens did 1024x768, vs the sad state of "hi-res" on computers like the apple 2, ibm pc, etc. A few years later there was a bump to 1280x1024, then at Xerox I got the monster Sparc 2 with a 1170x900 color screen next to a 1600x1200 monochrome monitor. Ah the wonderful debugging sessions done with that real-estate.

About the mid nineties we had enough money to do some upgrades so I got myself the 24" super wide hidef Sony monitor: GDM-W900 which supported 1920x1200 resolution. This became my main screen, and outlasted several computer upgrades.

This was a great monitor, but it was a CRT--the last vacuum tube left in the computer from the 1950s. It weighed 130 pounds, used several hundred watts of power, was about two and a half feet deep (requiring a custom table with extra depth and re-enforcement), and its rounded screen created an interesting effect when sitting about 14 inches away, looking from the center to the edges was like looking out across the horizon of a planet from space. After many years, the CRT was dimming and losing focus; LCD panels were finally catching up, and my wallet was getting ready for another big purchase.

Finally, as I pondered new ways of spending thousands of dollars, I settled on the Apple Cinema 30 display for my new computer setup. More resolution than before, and a bigger physical size than the old 24" monitor. (The IBM T221 actually has more pixels, but is only a 22" display, so its just a lot of very tiny dots.) With a second smaller 20" LCD monitor beside it, turned on its side (so that it matches the apple monitor in height and pixels), I now have a workspace 3760x1600 (6MP). This is about as close as I'm going to get to my ultimate dream station with the technology available. Helping someone else out on their tiny 17" CRT running at 1024x768 is physically painful these days.

Besides allowing me to work with a multitude of programming windows, read tabloid size trade rag PDFs in 2 page mode with full resolution, or tracking four different web pages at the same time; the cinema display makes movies look great, and makes hidef content look even better.

I couldn't find anything interesting that exactly fit the resolution of the display, but I did find a fairly high resolution background image Earth at Night from the NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day

more about my bigger screen.

 
2006-03-24
  Take your son to work day.
What could be better than doing some father-son bonding, by taking your kid to work.

baby at work

Ok, maybe not at that age. But my oldest is now five, so if one day at work is good, then having him fly out with me for a trip to California for a whole week--that would be insane.

That's how I spent my spring break.

 
2006-03-22
  Maybe some help
I hate physical media, just cause it takes too much abuse in the real world.

Of all media, I hate tape the most to the point that I've removed all sources of it in my life. No more cassette tapes fading over time in my car or for my home music, no more floppy disks or cartridge tapes losing data when travelling between sites. And no more video tapes showing dropouts and color shifts.

For data storage, flash media has become my favorite, but that has not stopped me from occasionally running over one with a rolling chair or otherwise crushing them. Their diminutive size works against them in these cases, as well as when it comes time to keep track of them. (I've also lost several SD cards on various trips.)

For archiving, and purchasing pre-formatted data, CDs and DVDs are a large improvement, but they are not invulnerable either. One particular album I like, I've had to purchase 3 copies of. The first one was stolen, the second one was scratched beyond all hope of reading, and the third one was warped by heat (luckily after I ripped mp3s of it). My music collection now lives on various computer harddrives where I listen to it. But I still tend to scratch up disks from time to time.

Thanks to Make: Blog for the link to Instructables, there may be an answer. Brasso metal polish.

I'll have to give this a try.

 
2006-03-11
  Just not my day
10am
Wife calls to check in. Lets me know its snowing a bunch. Suggests I stay out in the bay area longer. "Sorry, its a non-refundable ticket." I'll have to brave the storms whether I want to or not.

1pm
Call the airline just on the hope that they've declared Flagstaff a disaster area. "Oh, you're flight's been cancelled." "So Flagstaff is closed?" "No, actually, the San Jose flight was cancelled. You're rebooked at 6:20pm."

So now I'm supposed to be flying into Flagstaff at 11pm at night in the middle of a blizzard. The roads out of town are even closed. You can drive a car around hardly and they think they're going to get a plane in there?

5:30pm
Still no change in their optimism so I hand over my bright yellow bag of goodies to the luggage machine and wander through security.

9:30pm
The flight wasn't so bad up until the end when we hit the storms around Phoenix. That's right its a monsoon in the middle of the desert. Any guesses what's happening up at 7,000 feet? Snow maybe? Still the computer is showing on time so that's all they're giving me.

9:35pm
The flight's cancelled.

We're directed to go mozy over to the customer support desk and dutifully gather around while they come up with some creative solution at the rate of about two per hour. Being at the end of this long line, I get on my cell phone and call Flight-fund. They ask me what I want to do, and having no great desire to try driving a rental car up the hill without chains, I suggest that I go back where I was before and just pretend this never happens. They let me know that they can't re-arrange my schedule because the computer hasn't released the Flagstaff flight yet, but that I should run over to gate A30 and throw myself upon the agents there.

Being that I am at gate B7, I sort of shlep my way over to A30--which is pretty far out there (maybe half a mile). Sufficiently winded and a little over-heated, I pant in front of the gate counter while listening to the agents wring their hands over not having enough flight attendants to send out the flight on time.

After a bit, I finally get the chance to tell my story, and they graciously offer to re-direct me back to San Jose. After I get the new ticket in-hand, I embarrassingly point out that I also checked a bag on the way out. They give my 1 in 3 odds that someone is paying enough attention to redirect the bag. I don't really care--I just don't want to sleep in the airport for the next two nights.

11:45pm
We arrive safe and sound in San Jose after a rough start climbing back out of the storm. Its always a comforting feeling when right after take-off the engines wind down in speed and the nose pitches down. But some how we manage to stay in the air and make it back where I started several hours ago. Of course my bag didn't make it, so I fill out the appropriate paperwork and leave it at that. After waking my friend Tim up, who drove back down and then took a nap in the parking lot, we head back to his place for the night.

1am
phone operator On a lark, I decide to call back and see about getting home eventually. After talking them out of sending my right back to Phoenix to be stuck all day again; I get them to book me for Monday. This takes about fifteen minutes on hold, as apparently the reservation computer still runs on cogs and belts. During that time they come back on the line and let me know that they've graciously decided not to charge me $100 for changing my reservation. Wow. You couldn't get me to Flagstaff tonight, and so you're not going to charge me extra to go another time.

I say nothing, as I'm too tired to respond with any wit or intelligence, and don't want to jinx my good fortune. Maybe I'll just go to bed now.

 
2006-03-02
  The grandslam of package delivery
We're a little bit out of town--enough so that I feel a little bad dragging the delivery trucks all the way out to our house to deliver something, especially when its a single box, or small order. Its even worse when we get multiple trucks coming out on the same day. Just seems like there ought to be a better way.

Today we hit the grand slam of overlapping delivery waste.


It started with DHL which drove out a regular van to bring me 70 pounds of welding cable. That was probably the biggest package they had in the truck, as there seemed to be only a handful of other items rattling around a mostly empty cargo area. Very quick delivery I have to admit as it shipped out of Florida three days previous.

UPS Next up was power converter from Flint, Michigan via UPS. This took a more typical week to get here. Its an odd week around here these days where UPS isn't out to our house at least twice in a week, and I'm sure there's been weeks when they've been out almost every day.

FEDEX Ground Next, Fedex Ground was out with an especially embarrassing delivery. One Switch. Even the box was impressive, it was probably smaller than a deck of cards. Still, I was glad to get it, as this switch fixes the Miller XMT 300 which wouldn't run off the front current dial control, as the control voltage was getting stopped by a bad switch.

USPS Finally, not to leave my wife out entirely, she received a package from her mom through the Post Office. Of course the post office won't deliver packages to our house. Since our mailbox is down the road a bit, instead they leave us a little note telling us how fortunate we are that we get to waste gas driving into town, fighting our fellow citizens over a space since the city refuses to come up with adequate parking, and then hang out in line for twenty or thirty minutes (if we manage to avoid a busy time) to get a box.

 
2006-03-01
  Coming into the final bend
So February didn't end up being that bad. A couple warm days (where warm is > 40° highs) and I was able to keep the burn to the minimum (midnight to 8am) instead of starting earlier. Even better, last night I didn't run it at all, though a chill has already descended upon the basement.

This is a good thing, as my reserve stock is down to its last couple of bags. I'd like to pick up a few more bags just to carry on, but the situation for purchase is not that great: home depot has been chronically out of pellets, and is rationing those small amounts that it does get in to 10 bags per customer, and to add insult to injury its raised its prices by over a dollar ($4.11/bag); mavrick has raised its prices from $3.50 to $4, and now $5/bag and to make matters worse, all its stock has been sitting outside where it got rained on last week, and pretty much nobody else has any at all. Maybe I'll keep upstairs warm with the wood stove and go back to wearing three layers of clothes in the basement.

Here's the usage to date:

November  1,200
December1,720
January2,000
February1,280
March...depends on supply

So, three tons and counting. Wonder if I could strike up a deal with the plant in showlow to ship me four pallets direct for next year.

Update: Walmart has just realized that people in flagstaff use pellets, and after days of trucks arriving loaded high with them, they've managed to fill their entire garden center with pallets of pellets. Only $3.77/bag, so at least they're not being mercenary about it. Better head over there tomorrow and grab me some.

 
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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