Technical Difficulties from on Top of the Mountain
2006-06-24
  Taking it easy
Taking a break from LEGOland, we pondered our activities for the day. In the first corner, weighing in with a brand value of over $32 billion dollars, and an annual advertising budget bigger than some countries GNP: Disneyland. In the other corner: some sand.

Sorry Disney. No lines, infinite space, and the possibility of discovering strange green sea worms trumps space mountain. Maybe tomorrow.

 
2006-06-22
  Vending machines
the running man

In Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Running Man there are all kinds of pop culture jokes. (The whole premise of the movie is put Arnold on a game show where convicts are chased by WWF thugs with weapons to see who can outlast who. Richard Dawson does a great job as the game MC.) But its not the usual thrills and spills that came to mind today.

There's a scene in an office building where the girl, after surviving her first encounter with the hero, is back at work and is helping her friend get a soda from a soda machine. Its just that they're having a problem coming up with $5 in change. Everybody laughed back then (this was 1987), everyone that is, except for the vending machine people.

Vending machine people were already planning for the age of the $5 soda and had just a bit before suffered a major defeat in their plans. Their first solution was the classic blunder of vendor control—the most obvious case of this was when the movie companies came out with a DVD player that charged you more money every time you watched a movie from your shelf—but the vending machine people did something almost as bad, they tried to get people to use coins that were convenient for machines, not for people.

You may or may not remember the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin. Most likely not. It was designed to be inexpensive, round (like existing coins), and small enough to fit through the existing slots on vending machines (IE almost exactly the same size as a quarter). The problem is that you can't tell it apart from a quarter without really looking at it. But nobody has ever had to look at their coins to tell them apart before. A nickel is completely different from a dime, and both are much smaller than a quarter (pennies are somewhere between a dime and a nickel in size, a completely different color, and not worth anything anyways, so nobody really cares about them).

Having completely blown it with the Treasury department (and set them back 20 years in getting a dollar coin out into the market), the vending industry had to come up with something else. The next step was the paper dollar handler which has become a fairly regular occurrence on soda machines, especially in places where the price is outrageous. However the dollar counter is error prone, has a hard time with paper money that wears out, and still requires the handling of a lot of cash by poorly paid employees. So they needed something more.

The soda machine in the hotel tonight has a credit card slot on it. This is almost necessary, since its trying to charge $2 for a can of soda. In all fairness, there's probably a $0.25 charge for the machine and dataline, and a $0.25 charge for transaction from Mastercard, but that still leaves $1.50 going to the hotel for one can of soda. Instead I went next door to McD and got a large fountain drink (4X the can) for $0.65.

NOTES: Currency flops through the ages @ CNN.

 
2006-06-21
  On Vacation, Day 2
legoland

So we're on vacation, at Legoland, the purpose for this entire trip. Its not the same kind of park as Disneyland & Magic Mountain, because its not about characters & rides so much. Its about blocks. Sure, there are rides, but they're not as big as an attraction as the big shop (an 8,000 sqft store of just legos). The stores are such a big thing, that you can actually go to legoland for free on a shoppers pass (see shopping in the faq for details).

There are actually a number of uniquely LEGO things to do there, that don't seem like theme-park kind of things, but are fun to do. One is to sit in the parts shop at the back and just pickout parts and build things. Come up with a cool enough creation, and you can take it home (for only $28/pound), and there are some pretty cool statues of things made out of legos.

While things could have gone either way, two things really ended up making the park experience for Max. One, was an area where you built a small LEGO vehicle and then raced it against others (Max's was the fastest). The second was lunch.

Max doesn't eat a wide variety of foods, and in the protein department, he is especially picky. Vacations are a real challenge cause you don't run into vegan cheese, tofu icecream or yogurt drinks very often. He'll eat regular cheese on a few things, like quesadillas and pizza. But only pizza without any sauce on it. Legoland had a pizza place, but I was quite surprised when I asked if we could get a pizza without sauce and the helpful person behind the counter went out back and put one together special just for Max.

When you ask Max what his favorite part of Legoland is now, he says, "Pizza!"

 
2006-06-20
  We're on vacation
Technical difficulties hits the road. Me and jr difficulties are on the road this week to legoland and points unknown in california, leaving the wife and other difficulties in training behind.

Step 1: 500 miles of driving. Down I17, around the worst of Phoenix via the 101 loop bypass, out to the west on I10 into the middle of nowhere.

Big surprise (not): all the fast food places with playlands have the playlands enclosed and aircondtioned. (Its reading 112°F on the vehicle too-hot-o-meter).

tank

Discovery of the day: In the middle of the Mohave desert, at Chiraco Summit (home of the $4 gallon of gas), is the General Patton Museum. This is a different museum then the Patton National Museum of Cavalry & Armor. Get there a little early, as it closes as 4:30pm. Don't get there too early though, cause its hot and you don't really want to spend more than 15 minutes outside poking around old tanks and looking for rattlesnakes under rocks.

After that, the only other interesting sight on our trip was the windmills in San Gorgonio Pass. The first thing you notice is that big windmills seem to be sprouting little baby windmills (though the short ones were probably there first). The second cool thing you notice as you get closer is that there doesn't seem to be anyone hauling off broken propeller parts: blades seem to litter the ground around the windmills, and a number of windmills are out of service, having only one or two blades left. You'd think with energy costs being what they are, somebody would be out there fixing windmills as fast as they could. Well, maybe next year when electricity prices are up to twentyfive cents a kilowatt.

If you've planned ahead enough, you can even take a tour of the windmills. Website doesn't say how much though.

 
2006-06-09
  The word of the day
Today's word of the day is Hentriacontane (also known as C31H64). I was going to go with Hexatriacontain which is the longest alkane listed in the Higher Alkanes table on wikipedia, but hentria sounds cooler. Plus its naturally created by bugs. (When you have three boys, anything having to do with bugs is cooler.)

hentriacontane

Not much to look at, but supposedly useful if you're trying to attract other bugs. Probably work better than this:

 
2006-06-08
  Its hiding out there
This weekend I had the kids at Home Depot and after they finished painting their creations together, we wandered into the store to look around and to wash their hands. As we headed in, I browsed various prices on various things but was in for a rude shock in the electrical department.

romex

I keep a fair amount of wire around the house, just for whatever. Some 14 gauge for light work, lots of 12 gauge (yellow is pretty), and even some 10 for those welder circuits. I also have a bunch of heavy duty welding leads that look like giant jumper cables (handling 400amps takes a serious cross section of metal, otherwise all the energy heats up the wire and not the weld).

The last batch of 12/2 I bought around a year ago was $60. The same roll is now priced over $100. Why? I thought to myself. Sure oil is expensive, but shipping can't be that much on a roll of wire to get it to Flagstaff. Turns out Oil isn't the only thing that's more expensive in the last year. I knew silver was up there (the last silver I bought was at $4/oz, now its at $11), but I thought that was riding the gold bug's coattails. Turns out not, a bunch of industrial metals are higher as well, including copper. As recent as a month ago it was dancing around $4/pound, where as historically its been sitting around $1.60/pound. That's quite a jump.

That's going to have an impact on things—lots of things. Think you're safe because you're not accumulating electrical wiring like me? Well, are you going to be buying anything in the near future that uses electricity? has a motor? or a transformer? or a circuit board? Well, guess what those use: copper. Anything made by equipment that uses electricity: same thing. Replacement costs for pizza mixers, air conditions, and shop cranes is going up; and its going to take the rest of the economy with it. And with those other metals, you are basically seeing a 4X increase in materials for just about anything metal (even stainless steel—lots of nickel in there).

The fed has been trying to hide inflation for quite some time now, looks like its run out of places to stick it.

 
2006-06-04
  Great information from the original wayback machine
If you want to learn more about something pretty recent, the internet will do ok. Its better if its a subject commonly referred to by geeks, but even basic stuff might get some treatment out there if you're willing to dig far enough. If you want to further back, looking for information on old topics, you've got to think out-of-the-box; or rather off-of-the-net. My favorite place is the local library.

beryllium beryllium-ingot Take any topic that was important/interesting/popular 20 years ago, and there's a good chance that your local library has all kinds of information on it. I've found lots of great stuff on metal casting (including a couple of styles of casting that have been subsequently banned by EPA); information on working with Beryllium (now recognized as a highly hazardous material), and other kinds of great stuff there. Its especially good at topics that were at the peak of their hype curve 20-25 years ago, then fell into a lull, only to return recently. (For those of you less that 30 years old, the one I'm currently thinking of has to do with one particular solution offered for the energy crisis of the late 70s: solar power).

In the mid fifties, researchers at Bell Labs had put together one of the first practical solar cells (or solar batteries as they were called back then), based on silicon (which is what most modules use today). While the price was horrifying, and the efficiency wasn't that great (around 6%); it was a solution made to order for space based applications where it got its first use. By the 70s its use in space, by the government and the invention of the amorphous crystal cell (which was used in solar powered calculators and the like), helped bring the cost down from the hundreds of dollars per watt, down to around $10 a watt. As the government started throwing massive amounts of money at further research into solar, the possibilities became endless and future looked bright.

Into this environment came a number of books, including: Photovoltaics: Sunlight to Electricity in One Step.

This is actually a quite brilliant book, with quite a few excellent illustrations, tables of facts, and information about the solar cell and the electricity industry in the early 80s. While the projections of the DOE and those of the authors are off by a mile (by 1985 gasoline was back down to 80¢/a gallon and nobody cared about alternative energy any more, especially not the government), the analysis was quite good on what was possible at the time, and what should have been possible in the future.

Fast forward 25 years, and gasoline is back over $3 a gallon, and everyone is screaming for alternatives. According to the book, 178 trillion killowatts strike the earth every second. Now a bunch gets reflected, and a bunch more gets turned into heat; but there's still at least 40 million gigawatts getting down to us at ground level. Given the 9.6 million square kilometers of land of the united states, and a hypothetical six hour solar exposure every day; that's 71,971 Quads of energy per year hitting this country from the sun. Putting this in perspective, the US used 98.2 Quads of energy in 2003 (pdf). Of that 40 Quads of energy (fuel) were used to create 12.5 Quads of usable electricity; so clearly there is the potential to harness the great deal of sunlight striking us to generate some (if not most) of our electrical power.

The book is full of physics, presenting concepts that I've struggled with for decades in such a clear way as to instantly provide enlightenment. There's also interesting data on different types of solar cells (historic, current and possible future). One interesting table for instance lists the issues of efficiency in the typical silicon cell:

Energy loss due topercent lost

Overly energetic photons32
Under energetic photons24
Internal cell losses21
Front surface reflection3
Shading by electrical contacts3
Cell packing gaps2
  Total85

Shows that some progress has been made over the last twenty years in internal cell losses, as current state of the art for single cell is 22%. Also shows why multiple junction GaAn cells are so useful (captures more of the overly energetic photons).

I hope to post more figures & tables from this book over time, if nothing else, for my own personal reference.

 
2006-06-01
  So much for tacos
So there I was, minding my own business down in the basement, doing something unimportant when I hear my wife upstairs yelling: FIRE. Gads.

So I run upstairs, not having any idea what to expect, and find that something has caught fire in the toaster oven. We quickly escort the offending items outside, and I extricate the flaming mass from its container, letting it burn a little before finally stomping it into little bits.


(sorry, no flamage pictures)

So I guess we're not having tacos for lunch?

 
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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