Friday, October 24, 2014

'tis The Season

Not that season, the Halloween season.

I can't say I'm much of a Halloween freak, like the guys down the block with spiderwebs, ghosts, and all sorts of things in front of their house.  I didn't even know they had Halloween lights to hang outside!  Obviously, I can't say I pay much attention to it at all.  If some adults want to dress up funny once a year, who am I to object?  I have to admit, dressing up your preschool-age daughters as little prostit-tots fills the air over my head with Looney Tunes-style question marks, but if an adult wants to dress the part for a party, that's entirely different. 

To me, a highlight of the season is that I get to see the fresh work from Jon Neill at the Neill Studios.  Without a doubt, year in and year out, he carves the most amazing pumpkins I get to see.
If you’ve never given any thought to where your Halloween pumpkin carving skills might take you, you might not have heard of Jon Neill, a famous sculptor and pumpkin carving master who creates some of the best Halloween pumpkin carvings we’ve ever seen.

Neill, who is now a member of the Laguna College of Art and Design, began his career in movies as an artist for clients like Michael Jackson, Jurassic Park, and Universal Studios.
Neill does some amazing work.  Take this one, which is kind of plain for Jon:
There's a video of him carving one of his scarier looking pumpkins here.  Jon's work is a highlight of the year.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I Note In Passing

I note in passing that it's turning into fall for most of the country.  Well, it's turning into fall here, too, but you'd never notice it.  Fall just means the humidity is a bit lower, and it's not fully Crematoria.  It's averaging low to mid 70s at daybreak to mid 80s for the high.  We've had a couple of days where the low approached 60, but nothing you'd consider a "chill". 

And I note that the outdoors shops are running a flannel sale.  If we have a "flannel season" in the Silicon Swamp, it's a week or two in January but probably not two consecutive weeks.  I think there have been stretches of maybe a full five days where it was called for.  I have a flannel chamois shirt I bought a few years ago; I'd be surprised if I've worn it 5 days. 

Meanwhile, since I was overcome with some busy today, my favorite cartoon of the week:

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Techy Tuesday - Remember the Biolite Kickstarter? Did You Buy In?

Back in Mid-June, I did a post about a Kickstarter campaign I found for a Biolite BaseCamp stove.  I took the bait and bought one, knowing I wouldn't get it until late September or early October.

Well, it's here, and so far I'm underwhelmed.

The attraction of the Biolite stove isn't that it's a nice little woodburning stove to cook on - I have at least two of those - the attraction is that it has a thermoelectric generator that will charge things you would charge with a USB charger: 5V at 1A.  The stove has a little panel on it with status LEDs that tell you the charge state on its internal 5V 2.2 AH battery, and the intensity of your fire.  This is the only picture of it I could find (and didn't think to take my own).  (Biolite photo you can see lots of other pictures of it at their place.)
The battery status is on the left (four LEDs) while the fire is a 2 LED fire.  My issue is that I've never been able to charge the internal battery and get it to go past the second LED.  We've run the thing more than three hours spread over two occasions and have yet to see the internal battery charge.   Most of that time, I've run it at fire levels I'd never want to grill on.  We've connected the charger to an iPhone and a Kindle and neither one charged.  The charger would only turn on briefly, when the battery was at the second LED, then turn back off. 

My impression is that it's defective and I've initiated contact with their Customer Support folks, who asked for some more details. 

Did any of you guys also get in on this kickstarter?  If so, is yours working better than mine?  If there's interest, I'll let you know what's up with it. 


Monday, October 20, 2014

The Three Gun Meme

I don't know about y'all, but I found the discussion of grail guns on Borepatch's place to be an interesting diversion.  I didn't really start out having a grail gun, just a handful of guns I'd like to shoot, but there was a lot for my imagination there.  I'd like to shoot a Barret M82A1, but I'd also like to try an Armalite AR-30A1 in .338 Lapua Magnum, and a high zoot Palma rifle (.308) like the one at the bottom of this page.  Since those are current production guns, I guess I just don't dream big enough. 

This meme came from Cheaper than Dirt over the weekend.  If you could only have three guns and 300 rounds of ammo for each one, which ones would they be?  Their staff roundly chose a Glock 19 in 9mm, an AR-15 and then the pattern got a little spread going.  Of course, my reaction was to ask what the scenario is: is this for urban survival, an African hunting trip, or just what?  Is that 300 rounds for each forever?  No such information was given.  So here's my take on it.  None of these are grail guns; they're pretty ordinary.

  • Handgun: a Springfield XD Subcompact in 9mm.  Figure in the wide availability of 9 mm and it's a natural.  This is Springfield Armory's equivalent of the G19, but it fits my hands better.  For me, it's a natural shooter.  Conceptually, it's a "ho-hum".  Same as most of their staff. 
  • All purpose:  Mossberg 500 and a couple of barrels.  A longer barrel for hunting and a shorter one for self-defense or "social work".  My 300 shells would need to include some rifled slugs as well as buckshot and birdshot, say 50 slugs, 100 buckshot, and 150 assorted bird shot.  Again, a ho-hum.  Several staff chose 12 ga. pump guns, but they all went with Remingtons. 
  • Rifle: Remington 700 in .30-06 or .308.  This was tough one for me.  AR or bolt action?  I like my ARs, but I went with the bolt action thinking of the Scout Rifle concept, a rifle equally adept at hunting and as a battle rifle, capable of taking down pretty much any North American predator, four or two legged.  
My 30 year old Remington 700 in .30-06, as currently modified.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Watching the Markets and Twitching

Me twitching?  No, no, no.  But many people are.

Bill Bonner's free newsletter opened the other day with the subject, "The Most Dangerous Market Since 2008" - and this was early Thursday before the market recovered slightly on Friday.  But a single day or week doesn't make a bull market, no matter how bad it looked.  The problem is that the Federal Reserve Bank is running the market by supplying virtually unlimited amounts of money to the TBTF (Too Big To Fail) banks, who get it first.  The US stock market is absurdly over priced!  As Bonner says:
First, as we have been warning in these pages, it is overpriced. Ned Davis Research puts the Shiller P/E or CAPE (cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings ratio) of the US market at 23 – well over our limit of 20. Mebane Faber calculates it differently, and comes up with 25. Robert Shiller, who popularized the metric, puts it at just over 24.

By way of comparison, that makes US stocks about twice as expensive as shares in Britain. The CAPE for the British stock market is about 12.

And compared to Russia, US stocks are four to five times more expensive, per dollar of cyclically adjusted earnings. The Russian stock market trades on a CAPE of just 5.
Sell US, buy Russia?  If you're chasing yield, it may not be a bad idea.  Since the flow of the really big money is what moves the market, it's worth looking at an index of the "Core Holdings" of these big investing corporations.  These are the ones that they rely on the most.  This chart, from the daily newsletter, shows the climb in the prices remaining in a well defined channel until about August, when it started going largely sideways.  You might remember the Dow hitting it's nominal peak (not adjusted for inflation) back in Early September. 
The drastic drop below its lower (or support) line is a red flag warning.  This was Thursday's data, so not 100% up to date, but it's unlikely Friday's rally changed it much.  So if these banks are getting out of their core holdings, where are they putting their money?  Russia?  Europe? 

From MarketWatch, we get this comment:
Facts are hard to dispute but easy to spin. Already, the Russell 2000 is in a 10% correction. Judging by history, the Dow Jones Industrial Average shouldn't be far behind. A major correction or crash would be definitive proof this market is wearing no clothes.

Failed rallies are extremely significant. Previously, whenever there were major or minor selloffs, buy-on-the-dippers would come in and change the market's direction. On a chart, you'd see a distinctive "V" pattern as buyers overwhelmed sellers. This pattern has continued for months – until recently.

On the market's worst days, the Fed would conveniently appear with a new QE program or a promise to keep interest rates low for a considerable time (that's getting old). Soon, though, these bandages will not work. Failed rallies mean the party is almost over and a bear market is getting closer (and may even have arrived).
Is this a bear market or just a correction?  It's only down around 7%.  It has been argued (and reported here) that we're well overdue for a big correction.  A target DJIA number tossed around is 6000, which can be seen on the charts at that post, and that would mean the market goes down by over 60%.   Blood in the streets.

Scared of the market?  I am.  But what's the alternative?  Bonds?  From Zerohedge:
Anyone who would be buying government bonds denominated in dollars from a central bank committed to devaluing that currency needs to have their head examined - but that's what's happening.  In the last month, two of the last remaining inflation hawks in the Federal Reserve governing committee have retired (or been drummed out).  Janet Yellen now has nobody trying to tie her hands back except herself.  While these two governors had been arguing to continue tapering the Quantitative Easing (money creation) at $10 Billion per month, the board voted to reduce the tapering to $5 Billion/month.  In plainer English, they're not arguing to not create money out of thin air, they're arguing to create $10 billion less per month, and that's too radical for the Fed!  In fact, there are those on the Fed who think we need to drop interest rates even further, and since they're essentially zero, that means more QE. 

So here we are in the mildest of corrections (if that's what this is) and already Fed member James Bullard (head of the St. Louis bank) said we need to extend QE.  QE4?  And that's what propped the market back up on Friday.

Tell me the Fed doesn't completely own the US market.  

Time will tell if this was a minor burp in the market due to concerns over Europe or Ebola or "... an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato..."(to quote Scrooge), or if it's the beginning of the snap back that the market patterns predict.  Jim Rogers, who's a pretty good investor appears to think it's the snap back.  He says, "It's time to sell everything and run for your lives". 

(Usual disclaimer: I'm just some dood on the intertubes with a blog; if you're listening to me for financial advise, you're really stoopid).

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"You Never Want to Let a Crisis Go To Waste" - Ebola Edition

Everyone knows the Rahm Emmanuel quote, and I'm sure it popped into everyone's heads with the lunatic fringe left saying Ebola is all the Republicans' fault because if they just let us have a surgeon general, this wouldn't happen.  Along with all the usual suspects (cough... CNN... cough MSNBC) chiming in chorus. The president, showing his usual approach, nominated an "Ebola czar" without a medical background, and no relevant experience: Ron Klain, whose only experience has been political, having been Chief of Staff to both Joe Biden and Al Gore.  Yeah, that's some qualifications right there. Plus, we're treated to the head of the NIH saying if those mean old Republicans hadn't cut his funding, why he'd have had an Ebola vaccine on the shelf and ready to use.  Riiiiiigghht.

There's a lot wrong about this stuff; in fact there's absolutely nothing right in any of that.

Let's start at the top.  Yo!  CNN, in answer to your "We need a surgeon general right now" piece.  We already have a surgeon general right freaking now.  Meet Acting Surgeon General, Rear Admiral Boris Lushniak, M.D., M.P.H.  RADM Dr. Lushniak served as Deputy Surgeon General from November 2010, until July 17, 2013, when he assumed the duties of Acting Surgeon General.  RADM Lushniak started working in the National Health system in 1983, right after getting his M.D degree and about the time controversial Surgeon General nominee Vivek Murthy was going into first grade (Murthy was born in 1977).  To say RADM Dr. Lushniak has much more experience than Murthy is a gross understatement; he has been an MD pretty much as long as Murthy has been capable of organized thought. 

The problems with Murthy, though, only start with him being too young.  First, he hasn't really done anything noteworthy in his career (my interpretation of his background here);  he's just not distinguished enough to be Surgeon General at 37.  There's no "Murthy procedure" known by surgeons far and wide; there's no "Murthy test" that internists use to diagnose something.  He was never "Dean Murthy" of Prestigious Medical School (or Ordinary Medical School); he was never department head of any hospital, or chief surgeon or chief anything.  With the exception of being a little too far to the "Quackademic" side of medicine, he comes across as really ordinary.  He doesn't appear (to me) any more qualified than my own Family Practitioner to be Surgeon General, and probably not more qualified than my cat's veterinarian.

Murthy's really big problem is that he started down the "guns are a public health menace" rabbit trail and keeps pushing it.  That, naturally (and thankfully) got the NRA, the NAGR, and everybody else on our side against him.  Which, as night follows day, turns the narrative into "that nasty old NRA is getting another godlike Obama appointee blocked!", and "those evil Tea Party zealots like Rand Paul are keeping us from having a surgeon general!" - totally ignorant of the fact that we have a surgeon general.

So how does a rather ordinary guy like Murthy  get picked to be nominated at all?  Of course it's a trick question!  This is Obama: Murthy was picked for his political activity.  He was picked for starting Doctors For America, a money bundling, pro-Democrat/pro ACA group that helped lobby to get the ten pound turd of Obamacare passed!   

Which brings us to the newly-appointed Ebola czar and former chief of staff for numbnuts Biden and "even numb-er nuts" Gore.  Because we absolutely need an Ebola czar.

Guess what?  We already have an Ebola czar, too!

Not ten years ago, the federal government created and funded a brand new office in the Health and Human Services Department specifically to coordinate preparation for and response to public health threats like Ebola. The head of that department is Dr. Nicole Lurie, who is still very much on the job - despite the fact that no one has mentioned her, no one has interviewed her and no one has brought her forward as the doctor in charge of the "emerging diseases branch" of the NIH.
As National Journal rather glowingly puts it, “Lurie’s job is to plan for the unthinkable. A global flu pandemic? She has a plan. A bioterror attack? She’s on it. Massive earthquake? Yep. Her responsibilities as assistant secretary span public health, global health, and homeland security.” A profile of Lurie quoted her as saying, “I have responsibility for getting the nation prepared for public health emergencies—whether naturally occurring disasters or man-made, as well as for helping it respond and recover. It’s a pretty significant undertaking.” Still another refers to her as “the highest-ranking federal official in charge of preparing the nation to face such health crises as earthquakes, hurricanes, terrorist attacks, and pandemic influenza.”
So why doesn't everybody know about Dr. Lurie?  You'll have to ask Obama about that.  Maybe his Top Men don't even know her office exists.  And maybe it has to do with corruption her office has been involved with (this is the Obama administration, after all):
There are a few interesting things about the scandal Lurie was embroiled in years ago. You can—and should—read all about it in the Los Angeles Times‘ excellent front-page expose from November 2011, headlined: “Cost, need questioned in $433-million smallpox drug deal: A company controlled by a longtime political donor gets a no-bid contract to supply an experimental remedy for a threat that may not exist.” This Forbes piece is also interesting.

The donor is billionaire Ron Perelman, who was controlling shareholder of Siga. He’s a huge Democratic donor but he also gets Republicans to play for his team, of course. Siga was under scrutiny even back in October 2010 when The Huffington Post reported that it had named labor leader Andy Stern to its board and “compensated him with stock options that would become dramatically more valuable if the company managed to win the contract it sought with HHS—an agency where Stern has deep connections, having helped lead the year-plus fight for health care reform as then head of the Service Employees International Union.”

The award was controversial from almost every angle—including disputes about need, efficacy, and extremely high costs. There were also complaints about awarding a company of its size and structure a small business award as well as the negotiations involved in granting the award. It was so controversial that even Democrats in tight election races were calling for investigations.

Last month, Siga filed for bankruptcy after it was found liable for breaching a licensing contract. The drug it’s been trying to develop, which was projected to have limited utility, has not really panned out—yet the feds have continued to give valuable funds to the company even though the law would permit them to recoup some of their costs or to simply stop any further funding.

The Los Angeles Times revealed that, during the fight over the grant, Lurie wrote to Siga’s chief executive, Dr. Eric A. Rose, to tell him that someone new would be taking over the negotiations with the company. She wrote, “I trust this will be satisfactory to you.” Later she denied that she’d had any contact with Rose regarding the contract, saying such contact would have been inappropriate.
So, let's review:  we don't need a surgeon general right now because we have one in the job.  The current nominee isn't being held up because "rethuglicans are mean", it's because he's not really qualified.  We don't need a new Ebola czar because we have one already, and while the one we have is only marginally qualified (largely by her experience), the one Obama nominated is completely unqualified.

The other big lie you hear now is that the NIH is underfunded.  This is the quote you'll come across:
“Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready.”- Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
The slide, such that there is one, is caused entirely by the inflation the government is trying to create (through the Federal Reserve's QE).  I read that the NIH’s budget has increased from $29 billion in 2007 to $30 billion this year, which we'll call a cut because of the inflation caused by the Fed.  But that's overlooking an important fact:  vaccines don't just happen;  you don't just pour federal dollars in a blender and out pops a vaccine.  It's difficult, slow work.  In the last decade, the NIH has prioritized other diseases, principally AIDS, over Ebola; it's only natural when all the Ebola outbreaks in history have killed 1/1000 of the number killed by AIDS in 2012.  If you don't have infinite resources (which you never have) do you go after the big killer or the little one?  And don't forget all the insane stuff NIH has spent their money on:
  • $702,558 grant for the study of the impact of televisions and gas generators on villages in Vietnam.
  • $175,587 to the University of Kentucky to study the impact of cocaine on the sex drive of Japanese quail.
  • $55,382 to study hookah smoking in Jordan.
  • $592,527 to study why chimpanzees throw objects.
  • Last year there were news reports about a $509,840 grant from NIH to pay for a study that will send text messages in “gay lingo” to meth-heads.
  • And who can forget the money spent on the study of why lesbians tend to be fatter than gay men
It looks like the NIH isn't underfunded so much as they're really poorly managed.

But looking at that list, does anybody else get the impression the NIH is full of fat, older lesbians having problems with hot flashes? 

On This Day In History - October 18. 1954

Texas Instruments announced the Regency TR-1, the first commercial consumer transistor radio.

Today, transistors that would be used in an AM radio are silicon, but in the early 1950s (and for another 15 to 20 years) another element, germanium was used in making most transistors.  TI had been making germanium transistors but the market had been slow to respond, comfortable with vacuum tubes.  A vacuum tube portable radio was a large thing to lug around.  The typical portable tube radio of the 1950s was about the size and weight of a lunchbox, and was powered by several heavy, non-rechargeable batteries. A transistor radio could fit in a pocket, weigh half a pound, and be powered by a single, small, 9V battery.
With these pros in mind, TI’s executive vice president Pat Haggerty “decided that the electronics industry needed a transistor wake-up call and that a small radio would provide it,” according to TI’s Web site

TI started down the path to the TR-1 in the spring of 1954.  Although they had made transistors for a few years, individual transistors were hand made(!) and radios made with them frequently needed manually selected parts, due to the varying parameters in the production transistors.  TI partnered with Regency Electronics, where engineer Richard Koch developed a feedback circuit that accommodated the variation in the transistors.  With this circuit, it was possible to open the floodgates of manufacturing, stuffing printed wiring boards with miniature parts to make the pocket-sized receiver.

The new transistor radio would be introduced in New York and Los Angeles by mid-October to take advantage of holiday sales. The 5×3×1¼-inch radio used four TI transistors and a TI subminiature output transformer.  When it went on sale on November 1, the Regency TR-1 cost $49.95. Although its price was high in terms of 1950s dollars, nearly 100,000 of the pocket radios were sold in a year.

Transistor radios were more than a new market, they became a cultural icon and gave rise to much of the music-centered culture of the 50s and 60s, from Elvis to the Beach Party movies of the late 50s/early 60s to the Beatles, the Beach Boys and beyond.  It has been estimated that over seven billion transistor radios have been manufactured.  

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ham Radio - Antennas 2

This started out in comments to previous comments, but I pretty quickly ran out of space in the comments form.

Multiband vertical antennas are common good compromise, but they have a reputation for being noisier than horizontal antennas.  It's true because electrical fields have to intersect the ground at 90 degrees, making the fields from noise sources become vertically polarized near the ground. They are ideal for tiny yards, though, since they take up little horizontal space.  A true 1/4 wave vertical is close to 35 ohms impedance, and requires another quarter wave worth of wire extending out from its base to create the "ground plane" the radiating part works against.  A lot of effort has gone into making "no ground radials needed" verticals.  I had one.  It worked, but my replacement antenna with ground radials has worked better.  

Wheelgun commented "I have considered buying one of the All-in-one verticals. Hygain, and MFJ (or whatever part of MFJ) and a few others sell them. Just not sure I trust the reviews or not."  I understand.  My first antenna in 1976 (the Novice class had privileges only on 80, 40, 15 and 10m) was a Gotham vertical (a good honest critique).  These were advertised in QST as "all band, 80 to 6 meters".  What they were was about 20' of aluminum tube with poor joints and a B&W Miniductor at the base.  The hidden problem is that as the antenna went from being too short to too long when you used it above 40 meters, the loading element needed to switch from a coil to a capacitor.

It was essentially useless as sold, being as much an "all band, 80 to 6 meters" antenna as any other 20 feet of tubing from the hardware store.  After I fixed the joints and changed it from a segmented arch to actually being vertical, I used it as a support for wires on 15 and then 10m.  

So while I know from friends that the Cushcraft R8 is a good multiband vertical, I'm still concerned about ads vs. reality.  I've owned a GAP Titan, and they really are good on the rated bands.  My current 80 to 30m antenna is a Cushcraft MA8040V.  I was scratch designing an antenna for 80 and stumbled across this one, which looked so much like my design, with 40m added, that it was almost a kit for my design.  Another standby for small spaces is the 5BTV (5 Band Trapped Vertical) by Hustler and its 6 Band sibling.  In short, HyGain, Cushcraft, GAP, or Butternut (and probably more) all produce good antennas I'd trust.  I also echo Weetabix' comment that eHam or other review sites (including the ARRL) should be in your reading.

Making antennas isn't hard.  Measuring their performance can be pulling-your-hair-out hard because they interact so strongly with the environment - it's their job!  (Which I tend to believe is what's behind the Crossed Field Antenna's mixed history).  It's especially hard below VHF frequencies because of the sizes of everything needed. Simply getting a list of what someone worked is pretty useless; any antenna might work anyplace if the conditions are good.  The best way to evaluate an antenna without a lot of test equipment is to A/B switch it vs. a standard; pretty prohibitive in cost and area to do at home.  If you can switch antennas during a contact you can quickly see if one works better; if you take the old one down and use the new one, you can't get that immediate comparison.   

BTW, Wheelgun, you also commented on Software Defined Radios for HF.   The Flex 6000 series is an almost identical block diagram to one I did a few years ago (and published).  Unless they did something really stupid, that will outperform any conventional radio around.  

NVIS (Near Vertical Incidence Skywave) is a local HF mode created by forcing the fields from the antenna up by running the wires close to the ground.  I've seen articles on field expedient antennas simply say to mount the antenna a foot or so above the ground.  The permanent or semi-permanent installations say to mount it between 1/8 and 1/4 wave up, and some say to use a wire director under the radiating dipole, like a beam would use.  Any horizontal antenna mounted close to the ground has a significant high angle radiation. NVIS systems optimize this.  

Weetabix, it sounds like you've got it made.  You just need to hoist the center of that "Maple Leaf Mini" up on a TV mast or something to get it up in the air.  Shoot for 1/8 wave or higher on the lowest frequency of interest, and don't be afraid if it's not perfectly straight and level.  You can drape the ends down, or slope the whole antenna down.   I ran a 15m dipole sloper off the eaves of my house in the late '70s for a while.  It got me contacts until I could put up a better antenna.
Any antenna put outside like this will outperform one left in its box. Guaranteed.  It's also pretty stealthy; the only thing conspicuous is the coax running to it, which can be the small RG-58 if you're running 100W. 

My current antennas are the MA8040V vertical (with radials) for 80, 40 and 30.  For 20 to 10, I have a Tennadyne T6 Log Periodic and for 6m, a small log periodic called a KMA5054 which also works well on 2m and puts out something on 432 - KMA Antennas seems to be out of business.  The two LPDAs are mounted on a short Aluma tower - which used to be called something like a "ham's special".  It cranks over with a steel post and boat winch rig  which I designed myself.  The T6 is at tower top height, about 25', and the KMA is at the top of the mast, about 30'.  This is a pretty low end station, but represents itself pretty well. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Ham Radio - Antennas

Thanks to some comments on my Monday post, I got thinking about collecting some thoughts on antennas.  I've been a ham since 1976 and an RF (radio frequency) engineer (but not an antenna designer) since 1986, and along the way have used various antennas, both full size and smaller.  I hope this is useful.  For lots more about antennas than you can imagine, the ARRL Antenna Book is the standard ham's book. 

Let's start at the beginning: why do you need to care about antennas?  We're surrounded by radios that don't seem to care what we use.  An FM radio with a whip antenna doesn't seem to care if the whip is fully extended or not, and a lot of folks will clip or twist a wire onto the end of it to try and get more distant stations.  If you're old enough, you remember putting aluminum foil flags on your rabbit ears - the TV antenna.  Our smartphones or cellphones are radios, and they don't have bulky obvious antennas (at least, not anymore). 

It's the difference between receiving and transmitting.  Transmitting is about getting power out over the air over to a receiver.   A receiver cares about getting something into the first amplifier it can amplify.  In the case of your car radio, an AM broadcast radio or that FM radio, just getting some voltage is all it needs, and almost paradoxically, they don't need power, just voltage.  Those radios are designed with antennas as voltage probes to get a small amount of voltage (millionths of a volt will do) out of that miniscule radio frequency power going by. To get the most power out of a transmitter, antennas need to have the same impedance the transmitter was designed for, and just about all transmitters are designed for 50 ohm antennas.

The problem with saying you want a 50 ohm antenna is that they're only 50 ohms at one frequency, and you probably want to transmit in many places.  The reference 50 ohm antenna is a half-wavelength long dipole, usually made of wires.  (In theory, they're closer to 75 ohms, but in our environments  and the way we usually mount them, that value comes down.)  The length of a half wave dipole in feet is 468/f with f = frequency in MHz.  If you want a 40m dipole, then it's 468/7 or around 66 feet tip to tip.  You can do that for the 40m SSB and find a shorter antenna, so the procedure is to cut it for the part of the band you want.  You can also make a shorter antenna and tune it on frequency with electrical components. 

All of which doesn't answer the question of how you'd transmit on any HF ham band with one antenna. The most direct answer is either an antenna with empirically found dimensions - I've heard good things about the "Carolina Windom" - or a simpler design with an antenna tuning unit. 

I've personally used an off-center fed dipole with a 4:1 transformer in it for years, and the tuner built-in to my HF rigs (I think all Icoms with a tuner use the same basic design) allows it to cover the entire HF spectrum and even up to 6m.  I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this approach.  My 40m OFCD is 66 feet of wire, but instead of being attached to the transmitter in the exact middle, 33' and 33', it's fed at half of 33' (16'6") from one end, so that the long side is 49'6" long.  (Don't get hung up over exact dimensions: 17 and 49 will work just as well).  The feedpoint was hung from the side of my tower at about 18' up, and each end tied off after sloping down toward the ground.  Impedances ranged from 4 ohms on 80m up to over 100 ohms on 6m; the rig was perfectly happy tuning it and running full power.  An antenna analyzer plot of impedance magnitude, angle and SWR looks like this.  Ain't nothing 50 ohms about this antenna!  I've had literally hundreds (thousands?) of contacts with this antenna, including some pretty exotic DX on 40 and 30m. 
On a road trip playing QRP portable, I made a 17m dipole (18.1 MHz), about 12 1/2 feet on a side, and with an LDG Z-11 autotuner, I was able to operate all HF bands.  Even smaller than the home OCFD for easy packing.  I'm sure if you cut a dipole for a lower frequency it would work just as well for you with an autotuner. 

The ARRL has plans for a parallel set of dipoles which works well on the "old" ham bands, 80, 40, 20, 15 and 10, due to their harmonic relationships.  A set of wires cut for 40, 20 and 10 will work on 40, 20, 15, and 10.  I ran one of those for a year while in a rental apartment, the midpoint held up by a TV antenna pole (15'? 20?) and the ends drooping off to the ground. I was shocked at how well that worked. 

Of course, there are lots of commercial options and while I've emphasized antennas I've built, you can pay someone to make the wire antennas for you.  I've bought some baluns so I'm not A/R about doing everything myself.  The point is not to over complicate things.  These simple, wire antennas will usually work very well if you get them in the clear. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Techy Tuesday - Will New Cars Have Radios in 2020?

According to the electronics trade magazine website Planet Analog, there's talk in the industry that cars may not have AM or FM radios in the not-too-distant future. 
These are difficult times for the commercial broadcast-radio business, both AM and FM. According to various articles, such as this one from The Los Angeles Times, listener ratings are continuing to fall, and some carmakers -- where most radio listening is done, apparently -- are considering eliminating radios in the car completely, and not even offering it as an available option. Today’s drivers don’t need old-time radio (a.k.a. "terrestrial radio") for music, weather, traffic, news, or whatever, as they have smartphone connectivity, MP3 players, satellite radio, and much more.
The linked LA Times article about format changes at KFWB AM in El Lay talks about dwindling numbers of listeners for AM radio.  It includes this line:
KFWB has been particularly hard hit as listeners have abandoned AM radio at a steady rate.

The station drew 172,000 listeners a week in July, a small sum considering that it broadcasts to a region that has millions of potential listeners. Top-rated music station KBIG-FM (104.3) pulled in nearly 3.5 million during the same time frame.
The Wall St. Journal, though, presents this graph of what audio sources car owners are using:
Survey respondents still said they tended to get their new music from AM/FM radio.  Some 75% say they listen to the radio to stay up to date, while 66% get new music from friends and family. YouTube and Pandora come in third and fourth with 59% and 48%, respectively.  That varied with age, though.  Younger people are more likely to use digital sources. YouTube takes the top spot among 12-24 year olds, with 83% using the site to keep up with new music. Friends/Family and Pandora are tied for the second spot with 71%.  But even among young people, 65% still use radio to stay up to date.

Buried in all that data is a statistic that surely has an effect on all this.  The average age of cars on the road is 11.4 years - the oldest ever.  That was in the infancy of digital music.  The iPhone has only been around for about seven years, with the first Android phones hitting the market six years ago.  MP3 players existed then, but services like Pandora, I Heart Radio, and other streaming audio services didn't exist.  What else are you going to listen to in a car that doesn't have the most modern services?  Someone did this image depicting the change in car radios we're talking about: 

Like all good humor, there's a kernel of truth in there.

Personally, I find it hard to imagine not having radio services in the car, but I've been a radio geek since I was a tiny kid.  One of my earliest memories is sitting with a cousin on the sand of Miami Beach at night listening to this marvelous thing he had called a short wave radio.  I don't even remember how old I was, just that I was old enough to know that England was a long way away and hearing the BBC was magical.  Years later, in 5th or 6th grade, my parents got me a clock radio so that they didn't have to wake me up for school.  I learned that if you tuned carefully across the AM dial, you'd hear stations from far away.  WABC in New York City or WCKY in Cincinnati?  Easy catches any winter night when the thunderstorms were gone.

I had Sirius satellite radio for a while but when most of your driving is 15 minute commutes, it doesn't make much sense.  On long trips lately, I've just plugged my phone into that aux jack and a USB charger, listening to streaming radio.  It's music or programming I want to listen to, but it doesn't have the local flavor of the local stations; the local talk show that discusses the goings on around town.  Homogenizing the country so that everyone listens to same programs is great, to a point, and there are FCC appointees (at least one) dedicated to killing off local broadcasting; the better to quell dissent with.   We still live in our communities, and local stations can reflect that.  

What do you think?  Is local broadcasting so dead that car makers shouldn't even provide the radio as an option? 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Weekend Find

Saturday was the annual hamfest here in the Silicon Swamp.  I report on hamfests regularly because Mrs. Graybeard and I go to a couple regularly.  Not every one within a few hundred miles, but a couple.  For those unfamiliar with the term, a hamfest is a generally a swap meet with a lot of other interactions - a place where hams meet in person, catch up with old friends, share new stories and just be social.  Some fests have a full schedule of meetings and technical talks; some are simple swap meets.  Amateur radio is a social hobby, by and large, and is full of guys who can talk for hours on many things.  The granddaddy fest is held every year in Dayton, Ohio, the Hamvention.  If you're a ham, you should go to Dayton at least once.

For the first time in several years, I found something I wanted to take home.  A radio called an Icom IC-703 in a complete station.  Here's the illustration from their brochure. 
The '703 is not currently in production, but I consider it a good SHTF radio, and it frequently gets mentioned in places like Arfcom.  It covers all of the HF ham bands from 1.8 to 30 MHz and the 50 MHz 6 meter band.  The radio I found came with that microphone and backpack you see, along with too much to list.  It included the 9.6V BP-288 NiCad battery pack Icom sold for the radio.  The radio is a low power (also called QRP) transmitter, 5W off that 9.6V battery, but 10W off a car battery (or my 35 AH AGM battery from my solar panel).  It didn't come with that antenna, though! 

The Icom specifications page shows the transmit current draw to be 2 amps with unsquelched audio from the receiver around 350 to 400 mA.  Most commercial radios are rated for about 20% transmit, which would equate to 0.72 Amps average (20% 2 and 80% of 0.4).  That 9.6V battery pack's 2800 mAH will power around 4 hours of operation at that current drain.  My 35AH battery will power it for over 38 hours (and it will transmit at twice the power output). 

The radio was in excellent shape, the subject of an estate sale.  The ex-owner's widow was selling it and said she thought he had never used it.  Regardless if that's true, it looks mint and had virtually everything that comes with the new radio along with a good assortment of accessories.  I had it on the air long enough to verify the major functions are working.  The antenna tuner was happy with my antennas (it should be: they're all full-sized, good antennas), the DSP worked, it had an optional narrow filter for CW (Morse code) operation, and an hour of poking around with it showed no problems. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Taking "Business Class" To Absurd Levels of Opulence

When Airbus announced the A380, my first thought was that it was going to be a cattle car.  A double decker aircraft with a capacity between 525 and 853, depending on version, it just seems like the emphasis was reducing passenger cost per mile. You'll want to moo while boarding. 

It turns out that with all that space, some airlines thought there was a market for business class that went beyond the generous business class ordinarily available to new levels of opulence and decadence.  Singapore Airlines introduced their Suites Class in 2008 for their flagship A380 service.  They go beyond the "pods" that US airlines feature (I've seen Delta's) which offer a seat that reclines into a flat bed all the way to private cabins with sliding doors and a level of luxury that blows my mind.

A young guy named Derek Low was somehow able to do a photo shoot of a flight in Suites class from Singapore to New York and posted his photo blog here.  He calls it "What It's Like to Fly the $23,000 Singapore Airlines Suites Class". 
This is a whole 'nother world from anything I've ever seen or experienced.  Unless you're extraordinarily wealthy, you probably haven't either.  But interesting to see. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

We Have Chips

Made the almost-ceremonial first cut with my mill today; deliberately chosen to be something I never would have tried on my CNC Sherline:  0.2 deep slot across a 1" steel bar.  12L14 or Ledloy for you cognoscenti ;-)
The mill did just fine.  I, on the other hand, did less than 100%.  I hadn't tightened down the vise holding that bar all the way and had some rude shaking.  Nothing that slowing down didn't fix. 

In this past week, I've gotten some familiarity with the machine, evaluated it somewhat and made some measurements of run-out on an end mill in a collet and on a couple of drill chucks.  The 3/8 end mill had less than .001"; that is, a dial indicator contacting the part doesn't change by more than .001 as the cutting tool's shaft rotates once.  The drill chuck, advertised as .004, showed .009.  The R8 adapter arbor it was on had less than .001.  I emailed the seller, Little Machine Shop, on Wednesday and had the replacement via Priority Mail today.  This one comes in at .004.  (Yeah, that's an endorsement.  They treated me well and I'll keep going back to them.  FTC - they don't give me anything.  I buy it).  By the way, the Grizzly chuck that comes with the mill had almost .015 run-out.  Maybe that's acceptable for a drill chuck.  Precision machinists don't use drill bits except for very rough operations.  But I prefer the .004" run-out. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Stupid iPad ... Stupid Apple

Just a gripe.  Like most owners, I went to OS8.02 last week when Apple released it.  Since then, my iPad has awful WiFi performance.   If I reboot, my first attempt to use the internet works fine.  The next attempt is slower, and the third or fourth is so slow I give up.  I tried to load Bayou Renaissance Man and gave up after two minutes with no movement of the progress bar at all. 

Rebooting after every attempt to read a page is the only thing that works, and that's no way to live. 

The user community is filled with people complaining about this.  I restored my iPad to factory settings and then reloaded my backup with no success.  Right now I'm restoring it to factory new, and install everything manually. 

Meanwhile, a cartoon that tickled my funny bone. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Things Are Turning Nasty in Texas

The death of Liberian Ebola victim and border crasher Thomas Duncan isn't the nasty turn - that was pretty much expected with a disease that has death rates as high as Ebola does - the nasty turn is that Sheriff's Deputy Michael Monnig is being hospitalized with symptoms consistent with Ebola.

As soon as I heard the story of how Duncan was treated in the ER - being sent home and going back days later when he was bleeding out - I started doing the multiplication in my head.  Everyone in the ER when he was admitted is at risk.  Everyone in the ambulance that carried him to the hospital.  Everyone who rode in that ambulance with that crew or any other crew is at risk.  Add to those all the people who went through the ER or the public areas of his apartment building until (if?) they fumigated with chlorine.  Those family members under armed quarantine?  Chances are they're dead already, they just don't know it.  Deputy Monnig was there for a short time.  The family was in close contact for days, before being evacuated to the luxury place they're staying.  From there, the chances are harder to figure.  What about people who were in contact with people who were in the ambulance?  It's hard to know

It appears that this virus is transmitting faster and easier than the authorities are saying it will/should/ordinarily does.  No one quite knows how they get a virus, after all, but the spread in Spain is perplexing the experts.   Deputy Monnig's son said, “He was in the apartment for 30 minutes, which we were told is no chance to contact the virus”.  Reports out of Spain are saying people who were around the first nurse, Teresa Romero Ramos, are now showing symptoms.

In response to my light hearted cartoon post Monday, an anonymous commenter left this (minor edits, so errors are mine):
Here is the imminent threat: Ebola or some other disease will spread. It will get to Mexico and the rest of Central America. Their health care is inadequate for the challenge and the disease will be certain death if you catch it. They will choose the only logical choice and head North where health care is exceptional and "free". As such they will be considered "refugees" and our laws are so mucked up that we will be forced to allow them in. Our once outstanding and capable healthcare system will be over run and become ineffective. Millions may die. [make that will die - SiG]

A few months ago this would seem unlikely. Today it is more likely then not. Consider how our government choose to respond to Ebola and people coming here from West Africa. The system doesn't work. They will only take the correct steps to save Americans AFTER a lot of Americans die and after the disease is established here. They tell you "we got this".  Our health care system is second to none.  But think about it.  How many health care workers does it take to manage one Ebola patient 24 hours a day 7 days a week? That number is 108. How many total beds in the entire U.S. are their for level 4 quarantine patients? less then 30. It will take less then 30 Ebola patients to overwhelm our system. After that you will be sent home and your friends and family must care for you. Then everyone who touches you or anything contaminated by you becomes sick. The progression is exponential. Does it sound unbelievable to you? Fair enough that is the nature of human nature. On Sept 10 2001 flying passenger jets into the WTC sounded unbelievable too. Sadly by the time you and the CDC and the president "believe" it then it will be too late and we will be subject to the reality of a fast spreading disease. Will it happen this time with Ebola? I don't know but it could and if we get lucky and it doesn't, what next?
Ebola burns out quickly.  If you're exposed to it, you're either dead within 30 days or you're recovering from the fight of your life.  Because of that, quarantine is possible.  It's a shame our CDC is doing exactly what Anonymous said, and is just telling us "we got this".   But in a nearly 100% incompetent administration, what would you expect?
Dr.  Gil Mobley did a one man demonstration at Atlanta Hartsfield Airport last week.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Techy Tuesday - New Fiber Optic Speed Record

It will take a while to make it down to the commercial sector, but a new world record for speed in a fiber optic link has been set. The High-Speed Optical Communications (HSOC) team at Denmark Technical University (DTU) has announced a new fiber-optic technology that transmits at 43 Terabits per second (Tbits/s) using a single laser source.  The team broke the existing 26-Tbit/s record set by researchers at Germany's Karlsruhe Institut für Technologie.

The details are a bit esoteric and I need to talk a little about how data is sent over fiber optics.  To begin with, most fiber optic lines are capable of carrying many different colors of light.  They are optically big compared to the wavelength of light, so light bounces around in there without regard to color (and optical guys always refer to wavelength, not color).  It's literally like wire; you can put many frequencies on it and they propagate down the fiber just as easily.  Electromagnetic field guys would say that the light's EM field can take on many different patterns, making it a multi-mode fiber.  In contrast, there are also single mode fibers which are more selective in what they transmit, only allowing certain frequencies.  It's intended for single wavelengths and one mode of transmission, but other wavelengths can fit in there, too.  Usually shorter wavelengths/higher frequencies; in light a green wave can fit in a red single mode fiber, or blue in green single mode fiber. 

Radio guys will note the analogy to coax and waveguide.  Multimode fibers are more like coax while single mode fibers behave more like waveguide.  The data transmission in multi-mode fiber tends toward the simpler types: on off keying; simple codes.  The data sent in single mode fiber is often more like other data communications at radio frequencies. 

What's novel about this is not just the speed, but the approach.  The DTU team used an optical fiber with seven single mode fibers in it, an idea from NTT.  One of the fiber paths was used to synchronize the other six, and each of the six carrying a 320 Giga-baud (billion baud) channels on a different color light (called Wavelength Domain Multiplexing).  The six WDM channels were then polarization-multiplexed (that is, one set of data are polarized in one direction, while the other set of data takes an opposite polarization) with each optical pulse carrying two bits of information in quadrature using the differential quad phase shift keying (DQPSK) format.

(generic artsy picture of optical fibers that don't have anything to do with this news - source

How much data is 43 Terabytes?  In the last ten years or so, someone coined the phrase Library Of Congress for large amount of data.  One LOC is 10 Terabytes or 10,000 gigabytes.  This system would transmit 4.3 LOCs in one second. At 50 GB in a Blu-Ray DVD, 43 Terabytes is 860 Blu-Ray DVDs per second.  Look at it this way, that 5 Zettabyte data center the NSA just built in Utah?  It would take 116,279,070 seconds to fill it with this data hose.  1346 days.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Isis Comes to America

Florida, Texas, Alaska or pretty much any one of the free states.  Just not California, New Jersey or those gunfree sewers like New York City or Chicago.
Really pretty simple, after all.  Chip Bok at

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Global Warming Pause Reaches Voting Age

The period over which no statistical test can distinguish warming is now old enough to vote: 18 years and 1 month.  During that time CO2 levels have continued to rise.  

First, satellite temperature data:

and now the Mauna Loa CO2 levels - the ones typically used as the global sample.
It's pretty easy to see that CO2 levels have continued to climb since 1997, but the temperature has not.  

In my world, that marks two uncorrelated variables.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Mostly Done

I had said with some luck I'd have the machine in place and checked out by now.
The mill is in place, the heavy shipping grease (like cosmoline) removed and all I have left to do is do the motor checkout.  The manual describes an hour test, running the motor at 600, 1000 and 2000 RPM for 10 minutes each, forward and reverse.  It says not to leave the room. 

Everything went as planned, with really only one snag.  Assembled the crane, rolled it into the garage, lifted the mill out of the shipping crate, put it on the garden cart, rolled the mill over to near the stand, rolled the crane over to it, lifted and put it in place.

The snag was that the mill had four metric bolts of unknown size to mount it to the stand, and one of the holes in the stand wouldn't accept its bolt.  I thought it was misalignment - the threads on the bolt were boogered up and I thought it was from cross threading.  Lifted the mill again, repositioned everything and it still wouldn't thread.  Cleaned up the threads with a triangle file (I don't have metric taps and dies) - still wouldn't work.  I pulled a mounting bolt from the shipping crate, verified it was the same, and it wouldn't thread in.  Aha!  That meant the nut in the stand was the bad part!  The closest tap I had was 3/8-16.  Its threads would overlay the unknown bolt for almost half an inch.  With nothing to lose, I tried it.  Gently threaded it in a few turns past the part that wasn't smooth.  Voila, the mounting bolt now worked and I have the regulation four mounting bolts holding it down.

Not a bad day's work.  I think tomorrow we'll smoke a pork butt and make some pulled pork to celebrate. 

My Ghost Guns Are Ghostier Than Your Ghost Guns

I haven't said anything about Defense Distributed's new CNC machine Ghost Gunner.  It's cool.  By all means, check it out if you haven't.

The selling point, IMO, is the open source hardware and open source software behind this.  It claims to take the expertise out of the process and make it a turnkey operation.
Ghost Gunner is a miniature CNC machine designed to automatically manufacture publicly created designs with nearly zero user interaction. No prior CNC knowledge or experience is required to manufacture from design files. Defense Distributed's first design is the venerable AR-15 lower receiver. Ghost Gunner automatically finds and aligns your 80% lower receiver to the machine, with simple installation instructions, point and click software and all required tools. Just follow a few simple instructions to mount your 80% lower receiver, tighten a couple screws (with simple tools we provide), and on day one, Ghost Gunner can help you legally manufacture unserialized firearms in the comfort of your own home.
Finding and aligning to your part automagically is fantastic!  Further down the webpage it says that auto alignment only works on metal, but that manual alignment, for plastics, is designed to be easy, too.  But, again, it's more.  They've developed a file format, their "open source Physibles Development SDK (pDev)" files in a new '.dd' file format.  The new format contains all installation and assembly instructions, any required jig files to hold the part in place (that users can print with a 3D printer), and all machine definitions and code to physically manufacture a particular design. Slick!
A single file can contain specific code and installation instructions for any number of machines. A user with both a Ghost Gunner and a Tormach P1100 could manufacture a particular .dd file on either machine and manufacture the same physible with zero additional user knowledge, as only the instructions required for a particular machine are revealed to the end user. The .dd file format is a CNC response to 3D printing's universal .stl file format.
So don't think of this as a device for making only guns. Think of it as a new universal 3-axis CNC machine capable of making anything in its envelope.  DD promises AR-10s and 1911s will follow, but beyond that, expect users to start making files for anything useful that fits in its work envelope (~6.75 x 2.95 x 2.35").  The world of CNC opens for the non-specialist.  Plop it on the desk, and within a few minutes, it's milling a lower receiver for you.

Bob Owens at Bearing Arms says that making guns isn't really the point and the machine is expensive for that.  Using nothing more than a $70-100 drill press or even a hand drill with jigs, people have been completing perfectly functional AR-15 lower receivers since at least the 1990s.  Likewise, you can buy all the equipment necessary to build a small factory churning out AKMs (the correct name for AK-series rifles that the media continues to call AK-47s, even though the original Ak-47 series hasn’t been made since 1960) from parts kits and receiver flats for less than $700.

Bob rhetorically asks, "Is the “Ghost Gunner” worth it?"  and concludes with:
If your goal is to terrify and infuriate the agents of an ever-more-intrusive government, however, the Ghost Gunner serves its purpose well, and that is precisely the role of everything produced by Defense Distributed, which exists for the explicit purpose of ticking off all the right people.
If I knew buying this would personally tick off all the right people, I'd sign up for two!  The feeling must be widespread: Wired reports DD sold out the first level in 36 hours.  The first 10 sold for $99, the next 200 for $1199, and according to their webpage right now, they're at 97 left of the third group that sell for $1299. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Update One

It was a long frustrating day waiting for the delivery truck.  They said they'd be out between 10 and 2. I neglected to ask, "Do you mean 10AM and 2PM? On the same day?"  Delivery was around 6 PM.  When you think about it, I suppose it's always between 10 and 2 in some way of counting. 
Aside from that aggravation, the delivery guy was great.  He offered to load it up on his pallet jack and put it in the garage, so I let him.  I put the nifty little stand (it has shelves inside) approximately in place.  That little bookshelf on the right was never intended to go there, and just got shoved over there to get it out from under foot.

By this time tomorrow night, I should have the mill in place on that stand and checked out.  I don't have a mill vise, Tee nuts or other clamping hardware that will fit it - that all comes Monday - so I doubt I'll actually cut some metal, but it should be running.  With a bit of luck.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Odds and Ends

Need to spend some time in planning for mill as I got the message it's on the way.  Supposed to be here Friday, but how that really works is the freight company will call me on Friday and we'll arrange a time to meet them here.  I paid extra for liftgate service, which lowers the crate on a hydraulic lift to the sidewalk or street level, but I don't quite know what I need to get it up the driveway into the shop.  Pallet jack?  Is a cart adequate?  It only weighs 375 pounds, so I don't need extremely heavy duty tools.  Do they offer that service for some extra buckaleros? 

Is it just me, or is it really the case that there are no adults left in charge in the country?  These guys are worse than the faculty lounge crowd, they're more like the student council!  There are so many examples, I don't know where to start, but WTF happened to the secret service?  Didn't they used to be competent?   We have agents being sent home for being drunk from the Netherlands, from Miami  and there was that rather big incident with the Colombian hooker.  We have the president in close proximity with a guy with convictions for assault and battery, who was carrying an illegal firearm. And, of course, we have this story, which is sucking up most of the air.  (Holbert at
The NIH is finding cultures of deadly diseases lying around in old boxes, and the CDC exposed employees to anthrax, so no worry about them letting ebola into the country. 

No, no, no.  Everything is fine.  They're smarter and better than us.  We just don't understand how lucky we are to have them.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Techy Tuesday - Biohacking

In recent years, the term hacking has drifted back to its original meaning, and extended the range of things it's applied to.  Originally, hacking was experimenting on something with clever tricks to get the best results out of it; perhaps even finding ways to make systems do things their designers didn't know those systems could do.  Hardware hacking, for example, might mean figuring a way to increase the clock speed of a CPU to get software running faster; software hacking might be coming up with an elegant trick for sorting lists faster.  The term started being applied to felons breaking into computer systems and became a derogatory term, but within the last couple of years, it is being used more like the original meanings. 

Today we hear of Lifehacking, coming up with little tips and tricks to make life easier and better.  Another version of life hacking comes from Dave Asprey, former Silicon Valley entrepreneur and venture capitalist, who spent $300,000 of his own money investigating how to improve his body and mind non-invasively.  His small business, The Bulletproof Executive,  sells things he's productized and information he has gleaned to improve health.
Dave lost 100 pounds without counting calories or excessive exercise, used techniques to upgrade his brain by more than 20 IQ points, and lowered his biological age while learning to sleep more efficiently in less time. Learning to do these seemingly impossible things transformed him into a better entrepreneur, a better husband, and a better father.
As he puts it, he hacked his own biology to become better at everything.  (I've heard him interviewed once or twice - he's an interesting guy!)

But hacking ourselves goes beyond this, into the emerging field of biohacking: people doing direct surgical modifications of themselves and introducing technology into their bodies in an attempt to improve or enhance themselves.  This piece, on the UK website describes some of the things people are having done to themselves:
“Sorry about the mess,” says Steve Haworth, as we walk down the stairs to the surgical theater in his basement. My friend Ted is visibly pale and sweating – for good reason. He’s about to get a sixth sense the hard way: by way of a scalpel, a needle and thread, and a tiny, gold-plated rare-earth magnet. Haworth is a body modification expert with a particular interest in what’s called “biohacking” – the practice of merging consumer technology and the human body to produce uniquely functional body modifications.
Why implant a magnet into your finger?  To "experience" magnetic fields in new and different ways.
Haworth has several already installed in his own body, which he shows us as he moves his hand through the air next to his running can opener. Sure enough, you can feel the magnet twitch and jump in response to the electromagnetic field generated by the motor. It’s startling, and shows off exactly what you’re getting for your three hundred and fifty dollars: the ability to feel the shape and strength of electromagnetic fields in the world around you. Our host describes someone who had the procedure done, and was startled, when walking through New York City, to discover the powerful electromagnetic field produced by an electrical junction under the sidewalk.
There's an unmistakable scent of "latest hip trend here" and attracting people intently wanting new experiences.  For example, the MakeUseOf piece has an embedded video by a young German girl playing with the magnet in her ring finger, and one of the comments is from a 13-year old asking if it was legal and if he could get it.  But it goes beyond that.  Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at Coventry University, was the world's first man to get a silicon chip implanted in his arm and learn to control things in the outside world with it. 
By capturing electrical signals flowing down his arm, Warwick was able to control a robotic wheelchair, and remote-control a robotic hand over the Internet. Later, his wife had a similar electrode grid implanted, allowing them to communicate with direct nerve impulses via the Internet.
It made the Warwicks the first people on earth to feel each other's nerve impulses.
“It didn’t feel like pain or heat or seeing. It was like an entirely new sense. And that was part of the experiment: to see if the brain can adapt and take on new types of input and learn to understand. The brain is very clever like that—I just want to see how far we can push it.”
There are obvious applications here for better prosthetics and better cyborgs (Warwick himself has been called "Captain Cyborg").  Imagine developing interface chips that can be implanted in someone who lost a limb, and a prosthetic that takes the same nerve impulses that used to move the real arm and turns them into equivalent motions in the prosthetic.  It doesn't seem remotely more difficult to give tactile feedback to the person through those same interfaces.

The progress in cochlear implants for the deaf has been remarkable, and there's talk that video implants are not far behind.  Blindness and deafness defeated?
Most forms of total deafness are curable these days, via the use of a cochlear implant — a chip implanted in the nerves of the ear that uses several electrodes to translate sounds from a worn microphone into electrical signals to the brain. The audio quality is not as good as in a normal ear, but electrode densities are improving, and modern cochlear implants are good enough to understand speech without lip reading in a quiet room, and even to appreciate music (though audiophiles will probably complain about the bitrate).
Even more ambitiously, scientists have reverse-engineered the retina, and created a computer program that reproduces its operation. This allows you to connect cameras to the optic nerve as though they were living eyes, and have the cameras speak to the brain on its own terms, providing a much more natural approximation of normal vision than has otherwise be possible. In principle, these cameras could eventually exceed human vision – implementing optical zoom, active night vision, and the ability to see the non-visible portions of the spectrum.
Steve Mann - quite possibly the first victim of anti-cyborg hate crime - and a version of Eyetap.  That's not a Google Glass, it's physically attached to his skull by several screws. It entirely captures the visual input to one eye, runs it through a computer to attach additional information, and then displays it on a small near-eye screen.

This is clearly the beginnings of transhumanismperhaps the early stages of Vernor Vinge's Singularity that has been written about at great lengths elsewhere.  There are parts about all of these procedures that are creepy: the discussion about the surgery to implant the magnets made me think of the Joker getting his face fixed in some dirty ex-hospital, or Tom Cruise getting new eyeballs in Minority Report. I'll hand the conclusion back off to MakeUseOf:
The future is here – and, while it’s often rough around the edges, anyone with two cents worth of vision to rub together can see that near future is going to be tumultuous and wonderful and strange beyond measure. That’s the philosophy that drives biohacking – fulfilling the promises of science fiction a little at a time, as the future slowly becomes more evenly distributed. Right now, it’s expensive, painful, and sketchy enough that it’s pretty much reserved for enthusiasts, DIYers and other people who are not entirely sane. The tech is getting better, though, and sooner or later it’s going to move into the mainstream in the same way that tattoos and piercings have.  Your grandmother may someday be showing off the implants that remind her where she is and monitor her health to call for help if something goes wrong. Your aunt might have robotic eyes that can see things that human eyes never could.  When you’re old, maybe you’ll opt for enhanced legs and a porcine heart. At this point in time, it’s a question of ‘when’, and not ‘if.’

Monday, September 29, 2014

Outfitting the Small Shop - Part 2

Update to my post from a couple of weeks ago, I just pushed the button on the new mill for my shop.
The Grizzly version of the BF20 mills sold a few places. These are built by Chinese company but not Seig, makers of the other mill I highlighted in that previous post. 

There's a few reasons for this: the size and power put it right in the range I'm looking for, capable of taking relatively very heavy cuts (compared to what I'm used to).  I think an 80% lower will be a Saturday afternoon job instead of a spare time for a week or more, and it brings possibilities of lots of other gunsmithing adventures.  There's a lot of online support for it - this one is referred to often. 

Obviously, it's not CNC ready, so there's that.  Frankly, I've never turned the cranks on a milling machine and I don't know how I'll do with that.   I definitely need to look into one of options for a DRO (Digital Read Out - a digital reading of position).  Yeah, Griz sells one outfitted with a DRO, but I've seen DROs made out of digital calipers.  For two of the axes, that should be reasonably cheap.

The adventure will begin in earnest next week at about this time, with a few hundred pounds of machine-tool kit in the shop.  Meanwhile, the next level of planning begins.  And this is totally ignoring the L-word: a tool room lathe. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Lava Fountains Taller than the Statue of Libery

The Bardarbunga volcano made headlines about a month ago for starting to erupt under ice fields.  The website RUV notes that Bardarbunga has created a lava field 11-12 square kilometers in size, containing erupting fountains of lava which have been measured at 130 meters high - 427 feet high. The Statue of Liberty's torch is 305 feet above the ground. 
"We returned to the fissure early this morning and saw considerable volcanic activity at around 7 AM," says Dr. Hoskuldsson. He and other scientists spent the night at a mountain hut nearby, after an evacuation was ordered yesterday when volcanic tremor was detected in the area, leading to fears that a subglacial eruption was imminent. "The main craters are now very active and the lava fountains from them rise up to 120 - 130 meter height," he says.
 A commenter at Ice Age Now said,
At the moment this eruption alone is pouring out more SO2 than the whole world’s human production.

I saw some Iceland Met office figures a day or so ago. 80%+ of the emissions are H20. 15% CO2 and 5% SO2 + assorted.  If the fluorine count increases this will be a real worry.

There are some reports that the Laki fissure eruptions of the 18th century had lava fountains over a kilometer high.

I'm impressed that one volcano gives off more sulfur dioxide than the entire human race.  So far, this is considered a small eruption.  But remember: your SUV, or the exhaust from your lawnmower, or from your outboard motor, are a threat to the planet.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

10 Years Ago Today

We were in the cleanup and aftermath of Hurricane Jeanne, the second of the two hurricanes to hit us directly in 2004.  Charley, which was a small but intense Cat 5 storm when it came ashore in Charlotte Harbor, brushed us in late August but only at tropical storm strength.  The storm came ashore almost exactly where Hurricane Frances came ashore on September 5th, they came ashore within roughly 8 miles of each other, between the cities of Ft. Pierce and Stuart on the SE coast of Florida. 

Jeanne had one of those peculiar paths hurricanes sometimes get, going north of the Bahamas, well offshore from here, but then doing a loop and coming back to hit us.  From our standpoint it was convenient, if not a little spooky.  After the clean up from Frances and life getting back to normal (traffic lights actually working), we took off for a week's vacation in the upper peninsula of Michigan to look for samples of the native copper it's famous for up there.  As I recall, we flew back into town on Wednesday and the storm hit on Saturday night (it came ashore Sunday morning).  It's as if it waited for us to come back. 
Like Frances, our power stayed on until the eye was well past and the winds shifted from easterly to more southerly.  Unlike Frances, we'd bought a few battery backup power supplies for the critical stuff, so I could watch some goofy movie on the Sci-Fi channel and as the lights flickered, I could still watch the movie.  After Frances our power was out from just before daybreak until 9 that night - about 15 or 16 hours.  After Jeanne it stayed out about 36 hours.  Both of those times are exceptionally short, for reasons I've never understood.  Many friends were without power for weeks after Frances only to lose it again for weeks after Jeanne. 

More hurricanes would hit elsewhere in Florida that year, but Wilma late in the season of 2005, was the last before the current 9 year gap (and counting) without a hurricane making landfall in Florida.  Wilma removed the new roof my brother put on his south Palm Beach County home after Frances and Jeanne, but Wilma is only notable to me because it was late October and the cold front pushing it northeast and over the state actually got me cold while I was outside cleaning up.  It was the only time in my life I've gotten cold cleaning up after a hurricane or tropical storm! 

It is beginning to look like the era of 'high spin cycle' tropical cyclone activity in the Atlantic basin that started in 1995 has run its course with only five named storms recorded through today (and none expected through the end of September). There were hints of that demise last year with a below normal level of hurricane development, i.e., only two Cat I storms - the last time that the Atlantic only had two hurricanes in a season was 1982. The last time that a season had three or less named storms by August 31st was in 1994 - the last year of the previous 'quiet cycle' in the Atlantic.

Since the lack of activity cannot be blamed on an El Nino event (it has not yet started), it is increasingly likely that the period of Atlantic high tropical cyclone activity has ended. However, it is important to remember that the likelihood of a U.S. hurricane landfall is about the same (approximately 22%) during a 'quiet cycle' era as it is during an 'active cycle' era - and that is also true for a Florida hurricane landfall (about 5%).