Technical Difficulties from on Top of the Mountain
  Its alive
On my list of things to get done eventually this summer was fix my car. Last year wasn't a very good year for it, though given that its now 16 years old, its in pretty good shape considering.

The first problem I had was that the rings had loosed up over time and the vehicle was burning oil faster than I was checking it. It got to the point that one afternoon I hopped in the car, pushed the gas, sped up down the dirt road only to get about 2,000 feet from the house and have the engine seize up completely. When the starter can't turn the engine over (because the pistons have welded themselves to the side of the cylinder), you know you've seriously messed things up.

Unfortunately, Burke, my regular mechanic had retired, so I had to call around and find someone else who would work on it. Of course, the first thing everyone asks after hearing about how old this car is is, "and you want to fix it?" Well, my car may not be the prettiest thing after 16 years, but spending a thousand or two on it to get it back and running is still a lot cheaper than buying something new (or even used). Turns out that the Mitsubishi Eclipse (the sister car to the Plymoth Laser) was a hot car for many years over in Japan. This is a good thing, because they have some seriously strange laws about old cars over there, so after five years or so, its no longer practical to keep your car, and they junk them all for parts. So turns out if you really want to scrape the bottom of the barrel, you can pick up an entire engine for $400. I went one step up, got a block that had been drained of the shipping gunk, had new belts put on and spun up to check for about $800.

To remind myself to check the oil in the future, the old engine head cover now lives on my garage wall.

So I was back on the road, but my car wasn't done with me. It started hesitating on me when I tried to really punch it (I mean, that's what a sports car is for, right?). I took it too another mechanic to take a look at (not being totally happy with the guys who did the engine replacement), and he adjusted a few things, but it still wasn't happy. Then one evening I took it to the grocery store and it wouldn't start when I came out. Not being one to take a dying car lightly, I inched across the entire parking lot using just the starter motor; tried push starting it as well, and finally after twenty minutes of harrassment I got it to start. Things didn't get better though, pretty soon it wouldn't start warm at all, and I had to leave the car overnight in a few parking lots around town. Unfortunately my mechanic couldn't really tell what was going on at this stage, because he didn't have time to drive the car around long enough to warm it up where it wouldn't re-start. So I drove it around a bit more (I'm a glutton for punishment), and then I got it to the point where it wouldn't start at all. Success!

Larry took a look at it again, and found that the ignition wasn't firing at all. The computer wouldn't run the car. He was out of his element at this point, and his friends at the dealers all warned him that this was a doomsday car and it should be junked. His best guess was that the security module had decided that I was trying to steel the car and had engaged the anti-theft features. Somehow we got the car started one last time, and I drove it home where it sat in the yard for the next year.

So I was cruising the industrial machine section at ebay the other day, cause I'm always on the lookout for a good deal on a CNC gantry table or Synrad engraving CO2 laser, when my search string accidentally picked up "90 Plymoth Laser ECU replacement". Since I have a 1990 Plymoth Laser, I clicked through and pretty soon I ran across this section of text:

4. Symptoms

If any one or more of the following are occurring, a Motoguy's Garage Rebuilt ECU may help

Intermittent 'clicking' behind the radio

Random stalling and only restarting after several tries, or when the car has cooled

Running poorly with a severe decrease in power

Unable to start

No spark on two cylinders

Low, unsteady or oscillating idle

Check Engine Light always on

I don't use the radio that much (and its not a stock one anyways), but out of the other six symptoms I was hitting five pretty regularly. For an investment of $30 to $300 it sounded like I might have a working car soon.

First, I needed to find my ECU, as apparently there are a number of different models depending on year, engine, point of origin, and other some-such. I didn't really bother to pay much attention to the directions for finding it. I figured, how hard can it be to locate? 800 screws later, as I was about to detach the entire dashboard from the firewall, I decided to take a break and go back inside and look it up. Turns out I had past it an hour ago, sitting right there under my radio.

So my car runs on a MD128622 (also refered to on the side as 8622). 2.0L DOHC, non-turbo, california emissions version. In this case, it doesn't run; cause of fourty cents worth of bad parts—capacitors specifically. Seems that from about 1988 to 1994 a number of Japanese auto companies bought these capacitors from a vendor who didn't engineer the parts for the abusive environment that a car puts electronics through. So after about 10-15 years, the capacitors broke down, leaking all their electrolytic material out. This didn't just ruin the capacitor—it happened to ruin a fair number of the parts around it on the board:

Pulling the top off, things look ok at first glance. But then you zoom up into the center where the black can capacitors are, and the sight is not so pretty.

Like the stories say, looks like things leaked out and and have a made a fair mess out of the solder joints and parts near by. Also it looks like the protective shalack on top has been cracked and discolored. Reading the label on the side of the capacitor we learn a couple things. 1) the capacitor was manufactures in August of 1989, 2) the temperature rating for the part is supposed to be 105°C, and 3) Rubycon made some crappy capacitors back then.

Scanning the listings and reading more stuff on the net, it looks like the problem was pretty widespread, ranging from 1988 to 1994 and hitting Mazda, Mitsubishi, Honda and Nissan. By about 1995 things were under control in Japan, but interestingly enough this was not the end of the story,

On September 13, 2002, it was reported to Passive Component Industry Magazine by contacts in Japan that an unusually high rate of failures of low-ESR aluminum electrolytic capacitors produced in Taiwan by Lelon Electronics, Luxon Electronics, and other aluminum capacitor manufacturers had been traced to a problem with an aqueous electrolyte that had been used throughout the Taiwanese electrolytic capacitor industry.

Reportedly, the problem developed after a materials scientist working for Rubycon Corporation in Japan left the company and began working for Luminous Town Electric in China. The scientist then developed a copy of Rubycon P-50 type water-based electrolyte, used in low-ESR aluminum electrolytic capacitors developed by Luminous and equivalent to the Rubycon ZA and ZL series. Subsequently, the scientist's staff members defected with the formula, and began to sell and electrolyte at a low price to many of the major aluminum electrolytic houses in Taiwan, including Luxon Electronics, Lelon Electronics, and other aluminum capacitor manufacturers. (IBM has stated that five companies were affected, while other sources in Taiwan suggest that as many as 11 companies were affected.)

Unfortunately, the staff members who defected from Luminous Town Electric with the formula copied only the partial formula, and the subsequent electrolyte produced was unstable when packaged in a finished aluminum capacitor. The instability of the electrolyte in the low-ESR aluminum electrolytic capacitors using this water-based electrolyte leads to the build-up of excess hydrogen inside the aluminum can, which results in either a rupture of the can itself or destruction of the rubber end-seal. Either failure is potentially catastrophic due to the leaking electrolyte. According to top material scientists in the aluminum capacitor industry, if the correct amount of additives is not mixed into a water-based electrolyte, electrolysis will occur, releasing a high amount of hydrogen gas in the can and resulting in catastrophic failure.

From Passive Component Industry Magazine, October 2002.

In any case, with another replacement ECU, my car is alive, though a little out of sorts due to the battery sitting dead for a year and a clogged air flow sensor. But its alive!
  Empires of Light -- A book report
This summer has been flying by, but between periods of frantic coding and yard work, I have managed to get some reading done.

One very good book I've managed to finish is Empires of Light by Jill Jonnes (recommend from an EE times article dated Feb 2004, yes I'm a little behind on my EE Times reading as well). While it focuses mostly on the race to make use of electricity and build an electric infrastructure in the united states by Edison, Westinghouse and Telsa; there's also a very interesting section at the beginning on the foundation of electricity which I found facinating.

While investators into natural phenomina had been playing with static electricity for hundreds of years, things really got cooking around 1780 when Volta build the first battery. (more images here and here).

Not only did this revolutionize the investigation of electricity and eletrical effects, but it also revolutionized chemistry, as Humphry Davy not only demonstrated that the battery worked by electrochemical reaction, but he was able to extract the raw elements Sodium (Na) and Potassium (K) which did not exist otherwise in nature (nor could these metals be formed by chemical reduction as they are each the most positivly charged in their atomic groups). He went on to further extract Magnesium, Calcium, Barium and Strontium.

Not satisfied to only revolutionize chemistry and the understanding of the battery, Davy also invented the arc light, forming useful (though limited in life) work from this electric stuff.

Even with all these accomplishments, Davy will probably be remembered most for discovering something else entirely: Michael Faraday. Besides becoming a brilliant chemist (discovering benzene and the process for the liquefaction of gasses), Faraday was encouraged to look into electromagnitism, and would soon discovery the process of generating electricity from magnatism and invent a number of electric generators.

With all the scientific foundations laid out, it was now time for the engineers to come in and make it useful.

SF Chronicle review of Empires
Jill Jonnes: NY unplugged, article
wikidpedia on Fichael Faraday
The Royal Instituion Biography on Michael Faraday

Experimental Researches in Chemistry and Physics
The Chemical History of a Candle

  Just when you thought you already knew it all.
I've been using the text editor VI for a long time, like over 20 years. After 20 years, there's not a lot that surprises me about vi anymore. Sure vim and gvim have fancy new features, but they're not real vi so I don't worry about it much.

Pierce pointed me at this, and as I was reading the reference contents I noticed something new:
:> n - indents n lines.
Not a earth shattering command, but its always fun to find out something new about something you've been using for over 20 years.

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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