Thursday, December 31, 2015

Happy New Year - 2016

New Year's Eve is upon us, and I just want to wish all of you a happy New Year.  

I think 2016 may turn out to be pivotal year.  Many of us have the sense that we're sliding into some sort of really bad times, including probable civil disturbances and possibly widespread conflict.  By some measures, we're already in recession; certainly in a bear market.  A stock, stock market sector or the overall market is widely seen as being in a bear market when it falls 20% from its 52-week high.  Of course, we've not really recovered completely from the '08 crash.

This graphic from Bonner and Partners shows that the overall market is down 19.4%, awfully close to - but technically short of - that 20% number, while energy, materials, telecom, and consumer discretionary spending are all down over 20%.
Of course, we have the insanity of the elections going on, with the daily horse race capturing headlines and attention.  I've long thought that once we get past the holidays, the number of people paying attention will go up, and the level of "seriousness" those people devote to the primaries will go up.  That doesn't mean it will get any better. 

At best, we're in for difficult times.  Enjoy a day off.   As we stumble into 2016  remember to drink responsibly and I wish you all a happy, healthy, prosperous, safe and free New Year.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Maintenance Day

Guitar maintenance day, that is. 

One of the realities of owning and playing guitars is that sets of strings are disposable items.  Some performers replace strings for every show.  Many hobbyists, on the other hand, run a set of string far too long.  I guess I'm in the middle ground, replacing them when I start to see excessive gronk on the strings, discoloration or other signs of corrosion.  They'll start to sound different, too; less lively, which I think means the harmonics of the note get weaker.  I wipe them down after every use, but I suppose that's only surface, and isn't very good.  There are various products on the market for cleaning your strings regularly, and I've used some.  

The problem I have is that when you have a few guitars, it turns into a lot of work.  That was set aside for today.  Armed with sets of strings, pliers, an electronic tuner (I love these things!), and several other tools, I got to work around noon.  Last week, I got myself a little gift to make that easier - a power winder instead of using the manual kind.  That made a lot of difference, and was a great addition.  The first thing I did, though, was strip the strings off of my kit guitar and correct something I built wrong the first time - I put the tuners on backwards so that it tuned backwards from every guitar I own.  While she was apart, I polished her body, oiled her fretboard with lemon oil, and generally treated the guitar to a "spa day".  I adjusted the action a little on a couple of guitars.
My Gibson Les Paul, with all the tools on the bench.  The power peg winder is to the left of the neck, near the wooden block I rest the neck in while working.  The blue Snark tuner is just left of it.  Screwdriver and feeler gauges, for doing action setup work closer to the camera from that, and in the background, boxes of string sets.  On left is a box of Ernie Ball Super Slinky strings (pink on the box) and to its right, a box of regular Ernie Ball Slinkies (slightly larger diameters).  Just to the right of the neck support block, you can see a small white bottle; that's guitar polish safe for the nitrocellulose lacquer finish on this Gibson, and fine on the poly- finish everything else has.  Behind that, a pair of hook cutting fishing pliers, which make easy work of cutting guitar strings.  Elsewhere, you can make out calipers, canned air for blowing out dust and a small bottle of lemon oil for the fretboards. 

The last time I did this was on Sunday afternoon in early September, so you could say they were overdue for it.  I can tell the difference in the sound of the new strings vs. the ones I pulled.  I spent a few hours doing this, but it was enjoyable time.  I'm extremely blessed to be able to do it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Techy Tuesday - Will Fuel Cell Cars Ever Be Practical?

Design News editor Charles Murray opined this week that for fuel cell vehicles to be successful, cost-cutting will be critical.  While I know that there's such a thing as a cost curve, and that the lower the cost of any new technology, the more adopters there will be, I'm not convinced that's a good answer.  I think the situation is more complex than that.  Murray writes:
Industry analysts who’ve studied the new breed of cars from Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai say that fuel cell stacks, even those built in-house by automakers, are still exorbitantly expensive. Outside suppliers are selling stacks for prices ranging from $90,000 to $150,000, and automakers’ in-house stacks are estimated to cost between $50,000 and $100,000, says Lux Research. For automakers, the bottom line on fuel cell cars is likely to be written in red ink until those costs go down. 
Then goes on to the real message, the real arrow through the heart of anyone with half a brain:
"The price of the cars can only be reasonable with a lot of government support,” Christopher Robinson, an energy storage analyst at Lux Research, told Design News. “And even then, the automakers are probably taking losses on every car they sell right now.”
And there you have it.  The market will never go for the costs of a fuel cell vehicle, only with the government buying some - or most - of the car will those cars ever sell in any kind of number.  The is using your money and mine to do this right now.  Why?  I think the theory is that they'll boot the fuel cell industry volumes and get cells to a low enough cost that fuel cell car sales will take off on their own.  Did you get a voice in that decision?  I sure didn't.  Besides, look how well they did that with Solyndra and the other green companies they spent our money on.  Commenter patb2009 put it this way:
"Fuel Cell Cars $100K per, $2 Million dollar fueling station and a $40 fillup that takes you 120 miles, plus all the systems of an electric car anyways.

If the Feds throw $50K into each FCV they might sell for under $40K..."
But let's pretend that someone develops an unobtanium fuel cell, and they come closer to conventional car prices.  FC cars become attractive even without you buying them for people you don't even know.  Is the world likely to shift over to them?  That's when you need to consider the infrastructure costs and the basic technology itself.  Commenter Trenth has lots of data on that:
Hydrogen production is too inefficient, though I keep hearing rumors of better systems. Hydrogen storage is expensive, heavy and dangerous.  It is the super high pressure storage danger that dominates my negative view of hydrogen power.

The math for a hydrogen air explosion in the 11 lb tanks Toyota is talking about. Assume that about half the hydrogen is replaced with air, that is a nice explosive mixture at 10,000 psi! That's an energy of around 300 MJ! that's the equivalent of about 300 sticks of dynamite! nearly 80 lbs of TNT. Tanks over 11,000 MJ are being planned for trucks.
I'm pretty sure 10k psi leaks would cut through flesh like butter too. Wait till those hydrogen filling stations spring a leak on someone. It will fly around like a fire hose. Even shop air at 80psi has killed people by injecting gas into the blood stream.
10,000 PSI hydrogen will never be safe. Even the experts have explosions and deaths.
I don't think it's going to work out, regardless of the cost of the car.  There are too many fundamental obstacles. 
Honda Clarity, fuel cell vehicle.  I'm not suggesting that nobody works on these things, that's how big breakthroughs happen, I'm just suggesting the odds for that aren't very good and that those R&D projects should not get funded out of tax money.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Staring At the Computer Screen

With the exception of a run down to the Professional Bass to see if they had anything irresistible (they were out of pork rinds!  I'm shaken to my core!), I've spent the day putzing with converting my ham shack computer over to Ubuntu (14.04 for the cognoscenti).  This is the view at the bottom of the monitor. 
Left to right are some .223 rounds that are un-primed and empty, followed by brass from .223, .308. .30-30, and .30-06, followed by .45ACP, .40S&W, 9mm, .380ACP, .25ACP, .22Magnum and .22LR.  Which is pretty much every projectile shooter I have to my name. 

The computer needs to replace a few ham radio programs I've been using that are all built into one suite.  I found some programs to handle these tasks and I'm trying to get everything running.  To make this all work this requires low level knowledge of ports and how things are controlled.  It's painful to setup the first time in a familiar OS, and rather unpleasant (at the moment) in a new OS.  Everything is working at about the 50 to 75% level, just not completely.  

So I'll get back to it.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Rechargeable Battery Basics

Energy is life.  It's really that simple.  Anyone who has shivered through a cold night without fuel for their heater knows that simple truth.  Whether it's wood or coal to burn or electricity for an electric heater, the outcome is the same: if it's cold enough with no energy for a heater, bad things happen.  In my mind, the difference between bare survival and comfort is energy, and energy storage is a big part of that equation.  Today, that often means batteries.

I think that houses with modern appliances have a range of storage batteries, from the standby lead-acid batteries (gel cell or the more modern AGM), Nickle-Cadmium (NiCd), Nickle Metal Hydride (NiMH) and Lithium Ion (Lithium Polymer or LiPo) batteries.  The problem with this range of batteries is that they all require different charging methods and strategies.  Even worse, it can even take a different charger depending on the size of the battery you're charging!  All rechargeable batteries discharge when they're just sitting there (called self-discharge); some are worse than others at this.  It means you need to pay attention to keeping batteries maintained so that they're working when you need them. 

There's a wealth of information at Battery University, in enough depth to allow engineers to design charging systems.  If you want a bachelors in batteries, head over there.  I just want to point out a couple of things.

The most common batteries are lead-acid.  It's one of the oldest chemistries for a battery in production and so there's more of them available surplus and at hamfests, typically as sealed lead acid and gel cells.  These are relatively easy to charge, but don't tolerate fast charging.  Slow and gentle is the key, although exactly what constitutes "gentle" is up to debate.  A charging voltage of 2.30 to 2.35V/cell gives the longest service life, but the capacity (in Amp-Hours) can go down with charging cycles due to sulfation.  Stepping the charge voltage up to 2.40 to 2.45V per cell results in better capacity, but may lead to corrosion and dry out the electrolyte.  This is easy to live with when the battery isn't sealed, but both of these types are, so it's wise to keep the charging voltage down closer to that 2.4V/cell (14.4V for a "12 Volt" battery).

Absorbent Glass Mat, or AGM batteries, suspend the electrolyte in a specially designed fiberglass mat which has the benefit of making the battery spill proof. This construction offers several advantages including faster charging and instant high load currents on demand, while offering good performance at deep discharge cycles.  I think of them as good, all-around batteries.  The down side is that, like all gelled and sealed units, AGM batteries are sensitive to overcharging.  These batteries can be charged to 2.40V/cell (and higher) without problem; however, the float charge should be reduced to between 2.25 and 2.30V/cell. 

I have a dedicated "smart" charger for lead acid batteries, made by Schumacher, one of the big names in the field, and use it for conventional starting batteries, gel cells or AGM.  This is a beefy charger, and will deliver 15 Amps in the fast charge, Constant Voltage/Constant Current mode for charging a starting battery that's in need of a fast charge, but I prefer the slower charging cycle which is current limited at 2A.  This charger offers three charge rates, fast, regular and maintain.  It's intended to be hooked to your boat or RV and left over the winter, so it measures the battery charge state continually, and turns on the trickle charge when needed. 
After lead-acid batteries, NiCd batteries are probably the most common.  Both gel cells and NiCads are used in power tools, with most now moving to Lithium chemistries.  NiCad batteries were the backbone of portable radio and other electronics, but as the awareness of the potential toxicity of cadmium started to rise, the industry began looking for replacements, eventually developing profitable ways of producing Nickle Metal Hydride batteries.  NiMH has taken over the market segment from NiCd now, both of them filling the niche for batteries with lower capacity (in Amp-Hours) than lead acid; that require rapid charging, and can be dropped in place of a dry cell (alkaline battery) in most applications.

For example, a NiMH AA cell can replace a AA alkaline in almost any application, although the NiMH has a lower initial voltage, 1.2 vs. 1.5V in the alkaline.  In applications where that voltage is more critical, perhaps in a series string of batteries, where the lower cell voltage adds up to a substantially lower voltage than a string of alkalines, it may not be a good substitution.  On the other hand, the NiMH battery is rechargeable 500 or 600 times (many variables affect that), so while it costs more than the alkaline, your total cost may not be bad.  Another area where the NiMH isn't a good choice is in something sits around, standing by "forever" and not getting used.   NiMH's higher self-discharge rate than alkaline will empty the battery within several months, while alkalines can sit for years.  Consider a flashlight that you want to work that one time you need it; use alkalines, not NiMH.  

In terms of capacity, the two chemistries are very similar, but capacity is funny number.  You've undoubtedly seen batteries rated at some number of Amp Hours; perhaps 2500 milliamp hours (mAH) in the case of these AA size batteries.  This is at a specific charge discharge rate; specifically 1/10 of the capacity.  In the case of this 2500 mAH, for instance, that's only if you discharge the battery at 2500/10 or 250mA.  If you setup the battery circuit to draw 250 mA, you should discharge the battery in 10 hours.  Higher current normally leads to shorter battery life and it's not a simple relationship; that is, if you take twice as much current, the battery might not last half as long.  There's a useful chart of this here.  Take the second line, a Duracell "CopperTop" AA.  At a 100 mA discharge current, it showed a 2200 mAH capacity (shown as 2.2 AH); at a 1 Amp discharge, it showed 830 mAH, 1/3 of the capacity at 100 mA drain.  The bottom line of the table is a Powerstream 2000 mAH NiMH battery; at the 100 mA current, it showed less capacity than the alkaline, that 2000 mAH vs 2500 in the Duracell.  At higher current, though, of 2 Amps, its capacity dropped much less than the Duracell, only to 1940 mAH, 97% of the 0.1 A rate.  Further, at a 5 amp discharge rate, its capacity was actually greater - 2110 mAH (although its terminal voltage was lower).   

The simplest way to charge a NiCd is to current limit the charge to 0.1C, leave the charger voltage greater than the battery's voltage, and pull the battery off after 15 or 16 hours.  Don't leave it on the charger.  Fast charging needs a smart charger that either measures small changes in the charge rate or the temperature of the pack.  The battery will stay cool (charging room temperature) until just before it's full, when it will go up.

NiCd, NiMH and lead chemistries have a tendency to develop increasing internal resistance, and if they aren't discharged fairly deeply (how deep depends on the battery), will act as though they have much less capacity than they should.  Many smart chargers offer programmable discharge functions, although the Schumacher pictured above doesn't.  To discharge that 35 AH AGM battery, pictured above, I use a 12V inverter to produce 120VAC and turn on a light bulb (incandescent).  I can let it run until the inverter shuts off, or until I measure the desired voltage across the battery to decide when the battery is deeply enough discharged and then turn it off manually.

This photo shows a multi-chemistry smart charger that has a strange story behind it.  I had ordered a similar but different brand/different features charger from Amazon, but fulfilled by someone else.  Within a day or two, they notified me they were out of that charger, couldn't get more, and offered me this one that they had started selling in the store for the same use.  This charger has separate routines for NiCd, NiMH, LiPo, LiFe (lithium iron), Lithium Ion and Lead chemistries, and came with a handful of connectors/adapters for common RC model connectors.   I think this is roughly equivalent - maybe somewhat more capable. 
The battery, as you can read, is an Icom 9.6V 2800 mAH battery pack.  You can read in the display that I've set the charger to 0.6 A, which is roughly the C/5 rate (0.2C), and it had a terminal voltage of 12.05V (on a 9.6V battery).  The number in the lower right, 1281, was how many mAH it had delivered at the time of the photo.  After a few charge/discharge cycles, I returned this to the 0.1C rate, 300 mA (0.3A) and ran it until it was full.  This charger won't just run for 15 hours; it shuts off after 300 minutes (5 hours), so I needed to run it until it timed out, start it again and run it until it timed out again, then start it and run it until it said it's fully charged.  Somewhat of a pain in the rear.  This is an old battery, though, and didn't handle 0.2 or 0.3C charge or discharge well.  It would take the gentle 0.1C charge and take close to its 2800 mAH rating. 

Lithium Polymer is a coverall term that embraces several different chemistries, so lithium batteries are a complex subject on their own.  Li-polymer systems include Li-cobalt, Li-phosphate and Li-manganese.  Most so-called Li-polymer packs are for the consumer market and are based on Li-cobalt.  As far as the user is concerned, lithium polymer is essentially the same as lithium-ion. Both systems use identical cathode and anode material and contain a similar amount of electrolyte.  

I'm not really that up on Lithium batteries as everything I have with one has a dedicated charge controller in it.  If you have a phone or tablet or other device with a LiPo battery in it, I'll bet there's a dedicated smart charger IC in the device that manages it.  There's a lot intelligence built into things we take for granted, and it might be that if you sat down to design a charger for lithium batteries, you'd find it pretty hard to do.  I came across a very complete web site with a ton of details on Lithium polymer batteries to consider.  It goes into a refresher on battery terminology and enough details to geek out over for days.

I think if you don't have something like these chargers and you have storage batteries in your plan, you should consider getting something.  My dream system would handle any chemistry, do a programmed discharge and programmed charge, and not limit the charge time, just keep charging.  The TAZR charger pictured will only discharge up 1A, which is a bit low, even for that 2.8 AH NiCd pictured, let alone the AGM battery at the top. 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas!

It's sort of annual tradition on my part to put up this post, or at least the essence of it, since I revise it regularly.
On this night 47 years ago, Christmas eve of 1968, Apollo 8 was on the world's first mission to the moon. Like sailors sailing out of sight of land for the first time, man was leaving the safety of shore for the first time. We were becoming a space-faring population.  Here on the ground, 1968 had been a tumultuous year but we were united in watching the Apollo 8 mission in a way few things have united Americans.  

I'll never forget that message they sent down, that Christmas eve.  Especially after roughly 1:20 into this video.

Churches, like all groups, have personalities, and in the one I attend, it would be remarkable to toss a wadded up paper ball and not hit an engineer, nurse, doctor, or a tech professional.  It's not news to this bunch that Jesus was probably born in the spring or fall rather than in the dead of winter, nor is it news that the December 25th date comes from adapting to the Roman Saturnalia or other pagan holidays; nor would they be shocked if you told them Christmas has more secular than holy traditions associated with it and many things that are totally ingrained in the holiday traditions started out as advertising gimmicks.  There was no little drummer boy when the events we portray as the nativity happened; in fact, the scene we call the nativity is a conglomeration of bits and pieces from multiple Gospels, and certainly did not happen within the first couple of days of Jesus' life.  Nobody knows how many magi ("wise men") came to visit the child; we say three because of the three gifts listed, but it could have been almost any number.  Furthermore, it wasn't at his birth; it was when Jesus was closer to two years old. 

A friend sent me this contribution on the question of the exact date.
The truth is we simply don’t know the exact date of our Savior’s birth. In fact, we don’t even know for sure the year in which He was born. Scholars believe it was somewhere between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C. One thing is clear: if God felt it was important for us to know the exact date of the Savior’s birth, He certainly would have told us in His Word. The Gospel of Luke gives very specific details about the event, even down to what the baby was wearing – “swaddling clothes”—and where he slept—“in a manger” (Luke 2:12). These details are important because they speak of His nature and character, meek and lowly. But the exact date of His birth has no significance whatsoever, which may be why God chose not to mention it.
I've heard another explanation for why December 25th was chosen.  It's close to the solstice, the longest night of the year - which made it the darkest night of the year in those days. Jesus was the light of the world, and the symbolism of bringing light when things are at their darkest fits perfectly with the story.  If someone came out with a convincing line of evidence that Jesus really was born on December 25th, I'd be surprised... but not very.  We use a different calendar today than was used in those days, and I'm not sure today's December 25th is the same day as that era's December 25th.  Again, paraphrasing that previous quote, not that it matters. 

"And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled 'till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more." -- Dr. Seuss

Hold close the ones you love.  If we're very lucky, this will be the worst Christmas of our lives and everything in life gets better year by year for the rest of our lives.  And if things get worse, we'll remember this as the "good old days".  Either way, hold tight.  And do it "before you dot another 'i' or cross another 't', Bob Cratchit!"

It's one my of my blessings that a group of really great folks stop by here to share my blather - Google says about a thousand of you every day, which blows my mind.  Thanks.

So however you mark this day, enjoy it well.  Spend time with family or friends or both.  Remember the good service members deployed far from home.  If you're Military, LEO, or fire; EMT, Nurse or MD, and are one who must work while the rest of us rest, thank you.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

My Favorite Christmas Song - A Repost

Regulars here know that I'm somewhat of a blues fan.  I've introduced the outrageously talented Joanne Shaw Taylor,  country blues master (and songwriting partner to Eric Clapton) JJ Cale, and even mentioned my own meager study of the art.

So it might not come as a surprise that my favorite Christmas song is the bluesy, melancholy, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas".   The song dates from 1944, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine for Judy Garland's 1944 movie, Meet Me in St. Louis.  The sad tone is understandable; Christmas of 1944 was three years into World War II, and many people had undergone the hardship of losing family members. The war was wearing on the national psyche; the death toll was the highest seen since the Civil War.  They were dark days. 

In a 1989 NPR program, the authors spoke of having written the first drafts of the song and Judy Garland objected to the lyrics, saying they were too sad.  According to Hugh Martin's book:
Some of the original lyrics ... were rejected before filming began. They were: "Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last/ Next year we may all be living in the past / Have yourself a merry little Christmas / Pop that champagne cork / Next year we may all be living in New York."
Martin revised the lyrics getting approvals from Judy and the rest of the production staff.  Eventually, Judy Garland made this recording:

You'll note that at the crescendo of the song, the line isn't "hang a shining star upon the highest bough", it's the more morose "until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow".  Much more fitting to a sadder song written during WWII.   That change (which seems to be the last) was prompted by Frank Sinatra in 1957.  According to Entertainment Weekly,
Among the never-recorded couplets — which [Martin] he now describes as ''hysterically lugubrious'' — were lines like: ''Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last.... Faithful friends who were dear to us/Will be near to us no more.''
Then, in 1957, Frank Sinatra — who'd already cut a lovely version with the movie's bittersweet lyrics in 1947 — came to Martin with a request for yet another pick-me-up. ''He called to ask if I would rewrite the 'muddle through somehow' line,'' says the songwriter. ''He said, 'The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?'''
That request led to the line we hear most often.  "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has become one of the most popular songs year after year.  EW says it's second only to "The Christmas Song" (which most people think is called "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).  It has been covered by a gamut of artists from Sinatra to Connie Stephens, to James Taylor (who sings something closer to the '40s, Judy Garland version) to '80s metal band Twisted Sister".  I think I'll go see if I can work up a jazz tone and play it a bit right now.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Techy Tuesday - SpaceX Raises Their Bar

Seems like only a month ago, we were talking about Jeff Bezos' company Blue Origin landing a rocket on land for reuse.  Oh wait... it was just under a month ago, November 23. 

At the time, I posted that SpaceX had done it already and was trying to land their first stage booster on a ship at sea. 
... I think the Engadget article headline, "Jeff Bezos beats Elon Musk's SpaceX in the reusable rocket race" is not just misleading, it's wrong.  SpaceX made a landing of a suborbital rocket on ground over a year ago, and did it with their Grasshopper technology demonstrator in 2012.  SpaceX has failed so far to land a Falcon 9 booster on small, moving ship at sea, dropping from a greater height.
Last night, December 21, SpaceX had a return to flight mission that included an upgraded Falcon 9 rocket and landing on a concrete pad on the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.   This was an operational mission, with the Falcon 9 carrying 11 satellites for Orbcomm - Generation 2
SpaceX argues that reusability is the key to reducing the cost of flight and getting more people into space.  It was the original argument behind NASA's Space Shuttles, although I they never made their cost goals.  As time went by and it got progressively cheaper to build throwaway rockets, the gap widened again.  This is where companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin can make their name.  
We're all familiar with these time exposures showing rockets leaving for space and leaving a glowing trail image.  But this isn't two launches, and even if it was, what's that third arc, top-center of the frame?  The shorter arcs are two separate burns of the first stage for the return landing.

We went out in the yard to watch the launch last night, but came in to watch the landing on video.  We're far enough from the landing area that it's below our horizon, not to mention behind/below trees, houses and all. All we'd possibly see is the sky lit up from the rockets. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Not Quite With It Tonight

Although last Friday was my last day of work, I had a dentist appointment looming today that felt like the last thing I needed to go through to be Done.  To be honest, I've been dreading this.  Removal of an old filling.   Along with the knowledge that if it doesn't go exactly right, it's time for a root canal. 

My dentist uses the CEREC system by Sirona for doing the crown there in his office.  He takes laser profiles of the area and then models the crown in a 3D CAD program until he gets all the details right.  Once he's done, he sends the file to a small, water-cooled, CNC mill which carves a porcelain crown with diamond cutting tools, a process that only takes about 20 minutes.  Once the size is confirmed, they treat the porcelain with a glaze-like compound that brings it to the proper hardness.  With all this technology, the procedure is done in one visit, as opposed to sending off an impression to get the crown made and wearing a temporary crown for a week or two.  I was in the chair by 9 AM and done around 12:30. 

Getting it done in one day doesn't make it any more pleasant, though, and I'm a hurtin' puppy tonight.  He took at least a half hour to carve away the old filling and then carve much of the tooth away to function as a post to hold the crown.  Too many moments, like shoving the laser dimensioning probe into my mouth, felt like this classic Far Side cartoon. 

More content tomorrow.


Sunday, December 20, 2015

OK, This Just Doesn't Fit

I saw a report this weekend that Bruce Dickenson, the front man for the metal band Iron Maiden, is going to fly the band around for their next tour - in the captain's seat of a 747.
When heavy metal pioneers Iron Maiden set out on their world tour in 2016, lead singer Bruce Dickenson will pull double duty as pilot of the massive Boeing 747-400 that will take the band to concerts in 35 different countries.
That surprised me, but I don't particularly follow metal bands or Iron Maiden.  The article goes on to say that on their last world tour, Dickenson flew them in a 757, a smaller aircraft with much less capability.  The name "Ed Force One" comes from the name of their iconic, sneering "mascot" (zombie? ... or something) Eddie. 
Dickenson issued a statement saying,
“When the opportunity arose from my friends at Air Atlanta Icelandic to lease a 747 for The Book of Souls World Tour, of course we jumped at the chance, who wouldn’t? The greatest benefit of travelling in a 747 is that because of its colossal size and freight capacity we can carry our stage production and all our stage equipment and desks in the cargo hold without having to make any of the immense structural modifications needed to do this on the previous 757, the extent of which fans will have noted on the Flight 666 DVD. Although in reality we cannot carry much more gear the savings in complexity, time and cost make using the 747 even more practical. All we will need to do is “paint” it and move a few seats around, with the added advantage that there is much more room for band and crew – our Krew can almost get a row of seats each to catch up on sleep on the flights! Furthermore, it is marginally faster 0.85 MACH and the range of around 7000NM (13,000 km) is much greater which means we will not have to make the refueling stops we needed to with the 757.”
He goes on to say that he's not certified in the 747 yet, so the tour doesn't begin until he gets his captain's rating. 

I don't know about you, but a heavy metal band singer flying a 747 for their tour is a new one on me.  

Now This Is Knife Making!

I have a Pinterest account, which I mentioned here when I first started playing around with it.  To be honest, I don't quite know what Pinterest is good for, except maybe sharing recipes or something, but occasionally I do stumble across something cool.
The original links to a post on DeviantArt by Raudan Valmistus, where you'll need to go to really see this image at the right size.  The post follows his project from mining the local iron ore from the bottom of a lake, through refining that ore, and finally to a steel knife.  Steel?  He writes:
Analysis was made for another blade I made at same time, from same iron. Its carbon content is about 0,531%
The American Iron and Steel Institute defines carbon steel as having a carbon content of 0.12 to 2.0 %.  The carbon in this process seems to be absorbed from the charcoal used to work the iron.  It's one of the most profound and serendipitous "accidents" of the way the universe is put together that the way to make elemental iron more useful is add the element most likely to be added by the simplest ways of melting it: a wood or charcoal fire.  It guarantees that steel, arguably the backbone of civilization, would be discovered as soon as man learned how to control fire, blow air across it to make it hotter and allow us to melt elemental iron. 

But that sounds like the universe was intelligently designed and didn't just happen from an un-namable number of random interactions, and we know intelligent people can't hold that idea, right?   

Saturday, December 19, 2015

I Can Can't See Clearly, Now

A few weeks ago, with the coming retirement meaning benefits were going away, I went to use up my vision coverage benefit and visited the Optometrist.  Got a new prescription, and ordered both a pretty nice pair of "walk around" glasses and computer glasses.  It was the weekend after Thanksgiving, and the fact that I got my computer glasses today probably tells you there was a screw-up involved.  They lost my order.

Unfortunately, I found out today that there was more than one screw-up.  The computer glasses are wrong.  They're just the reading prescription focused at infinity, not at arm's length for the computer.  To see this monitor clearly puts me so far away that my hands don't reach the keyboard.  I'm typing this with my regular glasses on, made with the Physio blended bifocal lenses.  They're good, but I'm leaning back a bit more than is comfortable. 

The other big time sink for the day was assembling a new benchtop bandsaw I picked up today and setting it up for its first cuts.  It's a Craftsman 10" bandsaw, and I picked this one after reading several online reviews, to replace a dreadful little three wheel, Horrible Freight bandsaw I have.  It always sounded like it was ready to disintegrate, so at least that's gone.  I don't do much wood and plastic cutting, but a general purpose little bandsaw is almost indispensable in a small shop, especially if you make knives and things (just not the way I've done knives before).  
Like many other lower end machine tools, you'll find the same basic look in tools by several brands, like Jet, Rikon, Harbor Freight, and some others, and like the metalworking tools, there are differences the different companies order when they get them made.  At $170, the Craftsman seemed to be a good choice.

Friday, December 18, 2015


That's it.  Today was my last day - at least in this go around.

I started working full time in late 1975.  Before that, I worked part time while going to school.  Since '75, I've been unemployed for 6 weeks.  It was '82, during the post-Carter recession, when Fed Head Paul Volcker raised the prime rate to 21.5% (at one point) to stop the near-runaway inflation of the late 70s.  Since then, I've been laid off, but left one job on Friday and started another on Monday. 

Suffice it to say that not punching the alarm on Monday is going to be strange.  A friend who retired and is back (where I just left) said it took about 3 or 4 weeks for it to sink in, and I'm thinking the second week of January will be when I realize I'm retired.  It's the holidays, after all, and the plant shuts down next Thursday until January 5th, so I think I'll be in the Christmas break mindset for a while.  Once everyone is back at work, it will sink in.    

Everyone was asking what I'm going to do.  Projects, of course.  To begin with, all of my ham radio antenna projects begin with the phrase, "when it cools off, ..."  It hasn't really cooled off to the extent it can in a Central Florida December; tonight's forecast low of 52 is probably the coolest it has been since last March, but it sure isn't summer, either.  I need to do some maintenance on my little antenna tower, and see what kind of shape it's in.  I really haven't done a thorough look at all of it in at least a year.  Then I need to fix anything that needs fixing.

The main project is the CNC conversion of my Grizzly G0704, which I've written about many times, and I think I can get that going pretty easily now that I have more than just 3 or 4 hour days on the weekends.  Then comes a bunch of projects, but I don't really have anything chosen, yet.   

I have to admit, though, I'm a radio designer and I'd like to keep my hands in it, perhaps developing a Software Defined Ham Radio - although that market is saturating these days.  One of my good friends sent me email about an interesting option for serious home SDR or other programming options.  Computer graphics giant NVIDIA has put together a small computer based on one of their graphics engines, and calls it the Jetson TK1.  The heart of it is the NVIDIA Kepler GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) with 192 cores.  To control and run that, it has a quad-core ARM Cortex-A15 CPU; similar to the processor on the new model Raspberry Pi, except it's probably faster.  

The Amazon description refers to NVIDIA Kepler chip as having "192 CUDA Cores".  What's a CUDA Core?  The important thing to know about graphics chips is that they're floating point math engines, so at its heart a CUDA core is like the old "math coprocessor" chips you may remember.   Floating point math is more involved for a processor than integer math is, so floating point operations take longer than integer operations.  You may have seen reference to a computer running some number of "MIPS" - Million Instructions Per Second.  The equivalent to Instructions Per Second is referred to as FLOPS - Floating Point Operations Per Second, and a million of them is a MegaFLOP.  The Jetson TK1 runs 326 GFLOPS or 326 Billion FLOPS; almost a third of trillion floating point operations per second. 

At a third of a teraflop, this is essentially a supercomputer in the palm of your hand for under $200.   

I see at least one book on CUDA programming,  which says:
CUDA is a computing architecture designed to facilitate the development of parallel programs. In conjunction with a comprehensive software platform, the CUDA Architecture enables programmers to draw on the immense power of graphics processing units (GPUs) when building high-performance applications. GPUs, of course, have long been available for demanding graphics and game applications. CUDA now brings this valuable resource to programmers working on applications in other domains, including science, engineering, and finance. No knowledge of graphics programming is required–just the ability to program in a modestly extended version of C.
C is not my native programming language, but I've taken a class in it and done enough that I shouldn't be completely wet behind the ears.  I think with some refresher time, maybe online training, I might be able to crack the nut of developing the software and hardware of an SDR. 
The NVIDIA Jetson TK1

So far, I only have one job offer and I can't say for sure how serious it is or if I'm going to do it.  I have some things I'm interested in looking at to supplement income, but for now, I'd like to stay retired.  At least until summer when the weather gets crappy for being outside again. 

The same friend who sent me the information on the TK1 once told me that a previous office mate of his had done a lot of analysis on retiring ASAP or working longer.  This FOAF had done a thick binder of Excel sheets of scenarios.  The conclusion?  "Retire early - and often, if you have to".  In other words, get out ASAP, and if you need to go back to refill the account now and then, worry about it then.  Those are words to live by.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

It's Not Just The Spending

For a long time, I've said, "it's the spending, stupid".  The year in/year out deficit spending that's slowly killing our country is a problem that must be resolved. 

It's time to admit that it's more than that: it's not just the amount of spending, it's how they spend.  More precisely, it's the process. 

Last night just before midnight, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced negotiators had come to an agreement on the “omnibus” government funding bill for 2016.  That means the federal budget is finally agreed to, just about three months late (it's due before the start of the fiscal year on October 1).  Naturally, that means we're under the threat of yet another fake crisis "government shutdown", and the bill will very probably be passed when the minimum 3 days has elapsed for everyone to read this 2,200 page deal (with an additional 1,000 pages of explanatory materials). 

If they worked 24 hours a day for three days, they'd need to study 30 pages each hour, and each page represents around a billion dollars of spending.  The congress critters' job is to decide whether spending that money is really in the country's best interest.  Working 24 hours a day is unreasonable, but there's no way to make the load reasonable.  Work 12 hour days?  Double that to 60 pages/hour.  Even if they split the 60 pages per hour up among a team of advisors, how could they possibly get that done? 

And as always, the process brings this complex decision making down to a binary "yes or no" vote.  Either every single penny of spending / tax cuts / whatever is passed or it's all voted down.  If it's voted down, you can be sure the left stream press would howl like banshees about the stupid party shutting down the government, starving children and shoving granny off a cliff. 

It's not that there were no negotiations, that has been going on for months, it's just that the only people who get a voice on what's in that omnibus bill are the few in the subcommittees.  Most representatives or senators have no input whatsoever, they either vote yes or no; up or down.  If there are parts they adamantly oppose, they either get blamed for having "shut down the government" or go along. 

Imagine you had a meeting at your house to determine the budget for the coming year.  Of course there was food, clothing, cars, all the reasonable stuff, but your teenagers put in money for cocaine or porn or an exotic vacation.  Suddenly it's time to vote and you object to that expense; "we don't have the money to take that trip!" or "you're my kids and I'm responsible for you: you're not getting drugs and porn".  But when you kill the budget, the nosy neighbors threaten to call Child Protective Services on you for starving your kids.  

This is what they mean when people talk about DC being broken.  This process is broken.  It doesn't matter how much good your congressman or senator wants to do, the structure prevents it. 
(obviously a little old, but substitute random Stupid Party member for random Evil Party member)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Techy Tuesday - "Drone Control" Goes Live

Got a new drone for Christmas?  The FAA's mandatory drone registration goes into effect December 21, with a staggered implementation.  (Warning for self-starting audio at that link)
After Dec. 21, new buyers of all UAS weighing 0.55-55 lb. must register their aircraft before flying outdoors. Existing owners have until Feb. 16, 2016, to register their aircraft. The FAA is working with retailers to enable registration at point of sale, FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker said.

Online registration requires the owner’s name, physical address, email address and a $5 registration fee, which will be waived for the first 30 days to encourage compliance. A credit card transaction will be required to pay the fee and validate identification, but the $5 will be refunded for the first 30 days.
Whitaker said the $5 fee is because the FAA is required to cover their costs to process the application (data entry?) and is the same fee they charge regardless of aircraft size.  In other words, your 9 ounce toy drone costs the same to register as a Boeing 747.

Drones are expected to be a hot gift this Christmas, with sales geeks predicting 400,000 new drones flying around.  The other hot gift I've heard of is a GoPro camera, which makes me think there will be a a tendency for those new drones to have a new GoPro camera.

It's reasonable to ask why the FAA thinks they need to do this.  Industry-insider publication Aviation Week says that in a study of 925 drone sightings reported to the FAA, 10% were close enough to be considered a near mid-air collision.
The analysis, by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, New York, examined 921 incidents reported to the FAA from Dec. 17, 2013-Sept. 12, 2015. Of the incidents, 64.5% were classified as sightings that posed no immediate threat of collision.  [Note:  "Center for the Study of the Drone"?  Seriously?? - SiG]

Of the remaining 35.5%, classified as “close encounters” by Bard analysts, 90% of incidents occurred above the 400-ft. altitude limit for flying small unmanned aircraft, and a majority occurred within 5 mi. of an airport, where operations are prohibited without approval from the tower.

“Our findings indicate that incidents largely occur in areas where manned air-traffic density is high and where drone use is prohibited,” Bard said.
“We counted 158 incidents in which a drone came within 200 ft. or less of a manned aircraft . . . 51 incidents in which the proximity was 50 ft. or less, and 28 incidents in which a pilot maneuvered to avoid a collision with a drone,” the college said.

Of the incidents categorized as close encounters by Bard, 116 involved multiengine jet aircraft—90 of which were commercial airliners ...
So given the exponentially increasing number of drones, they apparently think they need to be able to track them to the owner/flyer, presumably by serial number or other ID on the drone.  Are they thinking that they recover a charred drone from the burned out engine of an air transport aircraft and track it down to the person who caused the incident?  My guess would be: most likely, yeah.  

Private pilots I know, who have considerably less momentum and mechanical resilience on their side than these multiengine commercial airliners, are rather concerned about these little toys.   The pull quote in there, IMO, is that the near-collisions are happening "in areas where drone use is prohibited".  Which would be a better use of FAA funds and attention: registering drones so they can track down who caused an accident or educating the new owners what the restrictions to flying that new toy are? 

It's an old observation that many laws, like FAA or Maritime laws, are written in blood (example).  An unsafe condition lasts for some amount of time, and then there's a bad accident where many people die.  That accident leads to the development and mandating of systems to prevent that sort of accident.  An example is the terrible 1986 midair collision between an Aeromexico DC-9 and a small airplane (Piper Archer N4891F) near the Los Angeles International Airport that led to the law mandating the use of Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS) on commercial aircraft (and affording your correspondent and many of my friends years of gainful employment). 

In this case, there is no system to prevent a 737 from sucking a Bebop Drone into its engine intake if someone flies that drone into its flight path.  Even Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx conceded that registration is only a "first good point" of getting to know who owns drones, and realizes the "bad guys" won't register their drones. 

What really needs to happen is to get everyone to realize that once they put that drone in the air - guess what? - they're a pilot.  They have a lot of responsibility, and they need to know the rules on when and where they can fly.  Autonomous drones are a whole 'nother level of trouble and concern. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Paris Climate Conference

Was a colossal waste of time and money, producing an agreement that will have no discernible effect on the global temperature.   The bottom line is that a bunch of self-impressed politicians and diplomats flew there to be seen with each other, stay at expensive hotels, eat expensive food, and pose for pictures, just so they can feel good about themselves.

Over five years ago, May of 2010, I posted an article called "Imagine There Is Man Made Global Warming".  In it, I took some published numbers from the global warming folks and did some calculator button pushing to show that nothing they were suggesting would make any difference.
That's our magic number-1,767,250 million metric tons of CO2 per ºC.  To the precision we know such things, that's more like 1.8 million mmt (million million metric tons).

So let's say you wanted to reduce your carbon footprint.  Being a fanatic little greenie, you decide to give up your car.  According to some online sources, if you stopped driving your average mid-sized car for a year, you'd save about 5.5 metric tons (or 0.000055 million metric tons, mmt) of CO2 emissions per year. Divide 0.000055mmtCO2 by 1,767,250 mmt/ºC and you get 3.11 * 10^-12 degrees C (3.11e-12 in calculator-jockey jargon).  If you took every car in the USA off the road, roughly 150 million, you've only changed the temperature .000466C per year. 
There has been talk about reducing the US CO2 output to 80% of its current levels - at one time that was in the Cap and Trade bill that has been in congress off and on for the last year. The 2005 carbon output was about 6000 mmt, so 80% below that is 6000-4800 or 1200 mmt. 4800/1,800,000 is .0027C. So if you took 150 million average mid-sized cars off the road and reduced the power generation and other carbon uses, those add up to a whopping .003C! In other words, nothing. In no statistical test could you distinguish that result from zero. Bupkis.
And that's the dirty, stupid little secret.  Imagine there really is man made global warming.  Use their numbers.  Calculate how much effect you would have on temperatures by virtually destroying everyone and everything you now know or ever have known, and it has no effect at all.
Today I stumbled across a link to a calculator at the Cato Institute (H/T to 90 Miles) that will allow you to calculate the change in average global temperature from reductions in CO2 emissions from just the US or the whole industrialized world, with your choice of four different Climate Sensitivity numbers.  A few minutes with this calculator confirms everything I said in that old post.  90 Miles links to the Daily Signal for this wisdom: 
Paul Knappenberger and Patrick Michaels [at Cato - SiG] estimate that the climate regulations the Obama administration are imposing on the energy sector – costs that will be passed down to households – will avert a meager 0.018 degree Celsius of warming by the year 2100.

What’s worse is that if you included 100 percent cuts from the entire industrialized world in their modeling, then you would only avert warming by 0.278 degree C by the turn of the century.
I have my doubts that an average global temperature change of 0.018 degrees C could be determined with today's technology.  When you consider all the uncertainties involved in predicting 85 years into the future, along with how poorly the Global Climate Models have been doing and all the other arguments, I maintain they not only couldn't determine if these numbers are correct, but can't even tell you if the temperature is going to change.  Furthermore, I link to a video in that previous post where an insider at the Chicago Climate Exchange says exactly this. 

It's a scam; the insiders know it's a scam, the only people who don't think it's a scam are the useful idiots in the parties and the press that vote for these guys.  The insiders, Kerry, Obama, and the crooks  selling carbon credits are just in it to fleece us.  If it's not the largest criminal enterprise in history, that's only because they haven't gotten everything they want.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


It was a busy weekend getting ready for the holidays, but we got our tree up and festively decorated.  All the shopping is done and some of it has been delivered.  

Aside from some lengthy comments to some prior posts that are generating a lot of traffic, I added the two receiver articles from last week to separate pages:  "The Least You Should Know" Series and the Alternative Communications page. 

Meanwhile, this came in the emails this morning and stands on its own.
This will be a busy week.  I retire on Friday, and begin that long-anticipated and somewhat mythical phase of life.  I'm doing my best to clean up my stuff and help the friend taking over for me.  But I'm the kind of guy who will take a rental car to a car wash if it seems like it's dirtier than it ought to be, and cleans up the inside of the rental regardless of anything else.  

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Doctors and Guns

I get the daily Ammoland Shooting Sports News, and an article on whether we're seeing a fundamental turning point in the war against guns led me to an unexpected and interesting group: Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership.  The Ammoland article was talking about how flat the president's last speech went, and contained the quote:
At the same time, notice how flat the response to his speech has been from all sides. No one outside his administration is strongly defending his approach to ISIS. His partisans seem happier to jump on the ‘blame guns’ bandwagon again than to critique the absence of leadership that is so glaring to non-partisans.
Which led to the quote that really caught my eye:
Normally one just stays calm and holds on—to one’s gun, to one’s honor, to one’s temper. But this is beyond comprehension, even for a psychiatrist.
Yes, the article was by Robert B. Young, MD, a psychiatrist practicing in Pittsford, NY.  Dr. Young is an associate clinical professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership?  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.  While I currently don't hang around socially with any medical doctors,  they are pretty rational people, inclined to strict empirical science.  We hear about the bad ones, the ones who have issued politicized studies, like the infamous "a gun in the family is 43 times more likely to kill a family member than a criminal" that has been debunked many times.  (The doctors who committed this fraud were Arthur L. Kellerman, and D.T. Reay, in the New England Journal of Medicine, June 12, 1986.) and we hear about our anti-gun surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy who is always trying to get guns declared a health issue (so he can get rid of them).  It's about time we hear about the rational doctors.

Their website contains a paper on "What to Do When Your Doctor Asks About Guns" that might be helpful.

  • Doctors receive absolutely no training about firearm safety, mechanics, or tactics in medical school or residency. They are completely unqualified by their training to advise anyone about guns.
  • Gun ownership is a civil right. A doctor’s abuse of his position of trust to pressure you to give up that civil right is professionally and morally wrong. In some states it is illegal. You DO NOT have to tolerate it.
  • You as a consumer have great power in the doctor-patient relationship. Do not be afraid to use it.
  • It's worth looking around over there. 

    Friday, December 11, 2015

    Tales From the Over Regulated State #19 - Your Property Belongs to Threatened Species

    I should say threatened, endangered or whatever critter has gotten favor from the Over Regulated State.

    A friend living a few blocks over, I'll call him "Tim", tells me one of those stories that sends ice through the hearts of homeowners.  One night a few weeks ago, Tim's wife told him she saw a gopher tortoise near a back corner of their house.   Gophers are called that because they're borrowing tortoises and he became concerned about it perhaps digging enough that it undermines the foundation.  The next day he went out and found piles of sand next to a burrow apparently going directly under the house.  Some research showed that they ordinarily tunnel at a shallow angle and probably wouldn't endanger the foundation, but after considering the possibility concluded that they'd rather the critter not be under their house.  That's when the "fun" started.
    That's when he found out that it's illegal.  Gophers are considered endangered both by the state of Florida and the, and one doesn't simply pick up the tortoise and move it as they please.  Oh, no.  There's a process.  The Fish and Wildlife Commission states:
    If you have gopher tortoises on your property, you need to get a FWC relocation permit before disturbing the burrows.  A disturbance includes any type of work within 25 feet of a gopher tortoise burrow. Most typical activities associated with residential lawn and landscape maintenance do not require a permit, provided they do not collapse gopher tortoise burrows or harm gopher tortoises.
    I read that to say if you don't get a permit and you do accidentally collapse a gopher tortoise burrow while mowing, or God forbid hurt one, "you're in a heap of trouble".  Continuing...
    The 10 or Fewer Burrows Relocation permit is for projects, usually single residential construction, which require the relocation of five or fewer tortoises (10 burrows or less).
    If tortoises are going to be relocated on-site (within the boundary of the development specified in the application) the individual capturing and relocating the tortoises must complete the FWC online training prior to capturing gopher tortoises. If tortoises will be relocated off-site (outside the boundary of the development specified in the application) a permitted authorized agent must capture and relocate the tortoises.
    Notice that all a homeowner is allowed to do, even after taking the one course and getting the state's permission, is to move the tortoise within the boundaries of their property.  If they want to move the animal off their property, they can't just drive it to a nearby park, for example, they're only allowed to use a state-certified recipient site.  And the homeowner can't just capture the tortoise, put it on a pillow, and have a helper fan the tortoise with a palm frond while they drive it to the recipient site; the transfer can only be done by an Authorized Agent.  Being an affair of state, don't expect to get away with doing this at no cost, either:
    To obtain a 10 or Fewer Burrows permit, the individual handling the gopher tortoise(s) must either complete the online e-Learning curriculum or have an Authorized Gopher Tortoise Agent permit, and submit a $207 mitigation contribution.
    Tim had to take the one hour online FWC training to get the permit to capture his new (rent-free) tenant.  He took the course and found that the system didn't credit him for taking it.  Annoyed by this point, he sat back and waited.  A few days later, an email from the State FWC's IT department told him they fixed it and he was given his due credit.

    The tortoise, though, remains under the house.  Tim says that in the early morning quiet, he can hear the sound of the tortoise's home theater system coming through the concrete slab and in the mornings, it smells of stale beer outside.  No, that last sentence isn't true.  I totally made that up.   

    The disturbing part of this is how common it is.  All across the country, we hear stories of threatened or endangered species interfering with people's activities.  Consider how the diminutive delta smelt's threatened status led to stopping irrigation in California's central valley, some of the richest farmland in America.  The resulting man-made drought continues to this day.  Need I point out that the real problem is conflict between people using the smelt to argue for restoration of a "Garden of Eden", pre-human California, and people who argue humans have rights, too?  The irrigation pumps were stopped despite genuine debate that they were responsible for the smelt's decline.   It's a recurring theme around the country.

    Wednesday, December 9, 2015

    Over 100 Million Guns Sold Since Obama Became President

    Just a happy little story from Gateway Pundit, saying that according to a report on Fox News on 12/8, that 100 million new guns have been sold since 2008.
    A poster showing Barack Obama is seen in the background as customers line up to look at firearms at a gun shop in Fort Worth, Texas, Thursday, Nov. 6, 2008. The Cheaper Than Dirt gun store recorded a record day of gun sales the day after the election of President-elect Barack Obama and is having trouble keeping up with the demand for assault riffles. (Flickr)
    Of course, you've seen the reports that this year's black Friday broke both the NICS check record for that day, and black Friday weekend broke the NICS check record for that weekend, too.  
    Standard disclaimer:  NICS background checks don't match gun sales 1 for 1, as someone buying more than one need only go through one check. 

    Fox reporter William La Jeunesse said,
    “Americans are not just putting them in their closet and waiting for a burglary. They’re taking classes on how to protect themselves. Background checks on Black Friday topped 185,000 that’s 8,000 guns sold every hour. 2,000,000 in November and and almost 20 million this year.”
    My guess is we'll go over 21 million for 2015.  You see various estimates for the number of guns in America and I think the best answer is "nobody knows".   All you can say is that it's going up steadily and is almost certainly past 350 million.  Might be 400 million.  But that's pure speculation based on me reading that there were 300 million back in '09 or 10.  

    Tuesday, December 8, 2015

    Techy Tuesday - Ruminations

    Since the last couple of days have been all tech, all the time, tonight will be a little light fare that struck me as interesting little things.  Nothing major, just kind of cool.

    Two and a half years ago, I had a "one of those days" moment.  While pulling our boat up to the dock, I fell out of the boat.  I never watch the show, but I think of it as an "America's stupidest home video" moment - feet on the deck while stretching out to reach for a piling - and doing a belly flop into the saltwater lagoon.  The only really bad part of that, the only thing that really cost me, was that I had my iPhone 4s in my pocket at the time, and the saltwater bath killed it. 

    Since then, I've become a little sensitive about waterproof electronics, so I was interested to note that Kyocera introduced a waterproof/water resistant phone that they advertise being washed with soap and water.  It's not an earth-moving event, but it sure has its advantages.  The phone, which hasn't yet been announced as coming to America, will cost about $450.  Better yet, they filmed a commercial, which comes across as a kitschy '60s type vibe to me.  It's 100% in Japanese, but it's not a waste of your 55 seconds to watch it. 

    The video depicts a nice looking home, say American upper-middle-class, and that hides the fact that for most of the world the cell phone is becoming (or already is) an indispensable piece of technology.  If  a new nation wants to bring phones to everyone in their hinterlands, they don't need to worry about building out quite as much infrastructure.  They don't need to worry about wiring "the last mile", they need to wire towers into a phone network.  Power companies, though, do need to bring that wire all the way to the last outlet, because wireless power is impractical.  There are ways to wirelessly beam power around at levels that can power infrastructure, but that much energy is dangerous no matter how you get it there; that is, the AC power line can kill you and so can the same energy in a radio field.  

    Consider "wireless power charging".  There has been a lot of buzz over wireless charging stations for phones,  but the technology hasn't really taken off.  Yeah, they allow you to put your phone on a mat, or a special pad like the Samsung charger pictured, but the bottom line is that it doesn't buy you much.  Your phone isn't very usable while it's charging - at least, not as a phone.   How different is leaving your phone on a pad overnight from leaving it plugged in overnight? 
    In a guest column for Power Electronics magazine, one author went so far as to as to call wireless charging a $13 billion strikeout.  Bear in mind he's the CEO of company that has a "better mousetrap" to compete with it: portable hydrogen fuel cells that the believes will solve energy problems for good.
    Within the next five years, with developments in embedded hydrogen fuel cell and solar and wind technologies, energy freedom will become mainstream. These new ways of delivering power have the potential to alleviate dead battery conditions, eliminate charging-station clutter, and remove infrastructure problems. Unseating entrenched conventional technologies and infrastructure will take time, and while it presents a challenge, it is an equally significant opportunity that will be instrumental in bringing the next 1 billion people online.

    We believe in the long-term that, in the future, all consumer electronics could be powered by embedded hydrogen fuel cells, freeing customers from the grid entirely. Similarly to the Wi-Fi revolution, the next revolution in electronics is energy freedom and we’ve already proven it can work. It’s time to challenge the limitations of today’s power limitations. Just imagine the possibilities…
    I'm not sure I buy into that stuff about solar and wind being much better in five years.  15 years, maybe, and solar, maybe, but not what he's saying.  On the other hand, I've heard Ray Kurzweil say that solar cells will continue to decrease in cost and increase in efficiency, until they become ubiquitous, so there's some collaboration.

    Monday, December 7, 2015

    Receivers and Other Radios - Part 2

    An anonymous comment to Part 1 brought up a question I think I should answer, and as I've said before, the only real privilege to owning a blog like this is getting to write a wall of text to a simple question.  The question was:
    Can I ask why you chose the VX-6R and not one of those Baofeng radios from China? Your Yaesu is over $200 while the Baofengs are under $50.
    The cheating answer here - in the sense that it doesn't answer the real question but is the truth - is that I hadn't heard of Baofeng when I got the Yaesu, and I don't think Baofeng radios were imported into the US at that time.  Again, that's not the answer Anon wants.

    What I said yesterday was that for trying to hear the AM,FM or Shortwave broadcast bands, the $18 Kaito outperformed the Yaesu VX-6R, so if I'm understanding you correctly, you're thinking why not get a Baofeng for transmitting on VHF/UHF and the Kaito for general coverage?  In short, I think that's a fine approach!  I don't have any personal hands-on experience with the Baofeng or other Chinese radios, although friends tell me they're entirely serviceable.  Given that, something like this would serve your 2meter/440 FM needs for $34.  Add the Kaito and you have much of the capability of the VX-6R, but not all of it, for well under half the price.  The Yaesu tunes through other services you might want to listen to, like land mobile (police and fire), weather radio, Family Radio (FRS) and other scanner fare.  Plus, it transmits on the 225 MHz band, which that particular Baofeng doesn't.  Finally, the VX-6R is submersible; waterproof to 3 feet of water for 30 minutes (Japanese Industry Standard JIS7), although there are things the user needs to comply with to keep it from being damaged. 

    I've heard that the Baofeng and other Chinese radios can be difficult to use, but I don't think they have anything on the Yaesu.  As Dr. Jim says, if I'm not using it regularly, I can forget how to do most things with it.  That's the problem with these little radios.  A big radio has room for a control panel with lots of buttons.  With these micro radios, to get some function you want, you'll need to press button A for two seconds, then press Button C for one second and it only works if you stand on your left foot with your tongue hanging out... that sort of thing.  I can switch VFO to memory and back, or key in a frequency in VFO mode, but that's about it.

    The first really broadband receiver I bought was a now obsolete Icom radio called an R10.  This tuned 0.5 to 1300 MHz, and the version I have has no frequencies blocked.  On any frequency, you could punch up any mode to listen to, broadcast FM, narrow FM, AM, even Single Sideband.  The Yaesu VX-6R and most of the newer radios will decide what mode you want based on the frequency you enter.  That made my R10 usable as a "poor man's spectrum analyzer", and I brought it to work for years.  Sometimes we'd hear something unexpected and it was a sanity check: if I heard it in the R10 and the radio I was working on, it was real.  If not, it was a problem in the radio I was working on.

    Like the Yaesu, if you put a signal generator on the antenna connector and measure its sensitivity, it's quite good.  If you hooked it to the meager little, rubber ducky antenna that comes with the radio, that's a disappointment.  A worthwhile experiment would be to try to put different length wires on the broadband radios and see what makes a good antenna.  A lot of shortwave listeners have just put up a random length of wire; 30 feet, 50 feet, whatever, and use it for listening to the entire 3 to 30 MHz spectrum.
    Despite the little rambling here, I hope this answered your question

    Sunday, December 6, 2015

    Receivers and Other Radios

    The topic of communications or general purpose receivers comes up a lot in our community.  On a couple of occasions, I've had readers drop me an email about radio receivers; either selecting one, or occasionally helping them with one that's not behaving the way they expect it to.  Since I've been designing receivers for most of my career, for everything from satellites and commercial aircraft to my home ham station, I have some experience that I'd hope would be helpful to folks.  I thought I'd put some of it down. 

    Let's start with a couple of broad questions:  should you get one jack-of-all-trades receiver, or maybe one specialized, good, receiver and one that's more "general purpose"?  How do you even choose one to buy?  If you're not just picking the nicest looking front panel, or the one with price and features you think you need, you're reading specifications, right?

    In your mind, you can easily turn that question into another one we always hear: one gun to do everything or a couple of specialized guns, right?  It's the same problem in several ways.  Naturally, opinions would vary, but I lean toward a couple of different radios and a couple of different guns.  Just like you may choose HF for cross-country (or around the world) comm. links, and a VHF for your local AO, you might have a "serious" transceiver and a small, innocuous radio for simple things, like a short power outage.  

    What about specifications?  In my earliest days of studying receivers, back in the late 60s/early 70s, the criteria that people cared about were "the two S" characteristics of Sensitivity, and Selectivity.  Sensitivity refers to the receiver being able to hear the weakest, just-above-the-noise signals on frequency while selectivity refers to being able to reject undesired signals.  Today, we'd add a third S: strong-signal handling. 

    For the last 30 years or more, sensitivity has rarely been an issue.  For one thing, to be blunt, we've gotten better at designing these things.  For another, and it's the main advancement in the field, it's easier to get lots of gain at low prices (gain is the term for amplifying; making small signals bigger).  Although Moore's Law hasn't really applied to radio circuitry in terms of increasing the number of functions in a part, the improvement in transistor performance that arguably comes from Moore's Law is one of the drivers in the producing this availability of gain.  The saying is that "gain is cheap" and it has revolutionized design.  Suffice it to say you really don't need to worry about sensitivity in radios designed since the 1970s. You'll have to go back to vacuum tube radios from the 60s and before - and cheap ones to boot - to find radios that need an external preamplifier to be sensitive enough.  

    Sensitivity is usually reported as some number of microvolts (millionths of a volt) of signal for a specific signal to noise ratio (SNR), but you'll only see that specified on radios with an antenna connector.  For a portable with a whip antenna here's a simple test you can do:  tune it to an unused frequency or a weak station in the shortwave band you're interested in.  Now simply grab the antenna.  If the signal gets better (lower noise, usually louder) the radio isn't optimized.  If the signal gets weaker, the radio is well-designed.  Ever seen people hang a wire off the whip antenna on a portable?  That's a sign of bad design.

    Selectivity remains a concern, and hasn't advanced as much as sensitivity - especially in ultra-small, portable radios.  The reason is that selectivity depends on filter technology and there haven't been any major advances in that area over the years.  The cliche here is that filtering comes by the cubic yard. To make filters narrower or to get better rejection of nearby frequencies requires either more parts, or higher quality factor ("Q") parts, and both of those mean "bigger".  For sure, today's continually-shrinking electronics have given us smaller parts to make filters with, but to get a given ratio of bandwidth that the filter is passing to the bandwidth it's rejecting (called its shape factor) requires a number of components that's set by physics, not by fancy design tricks. 

    Strong signal handling didn't really start being talked about until the early 70s.  Whether it was because of the change over to transistors from vacuum tubes going on around then, or whether it was because of the growing crowding in the RF spectrum, or some other factor, I can't really say.  A lot of factors go into determining the strong-signal performance of a receiver, but the ultimate answer is to make the signal voltages (or currents) small compared to the voltages (or currents) powering all of the circuits, so it's possible that the higher voltages of vacuum tube circuits helped the problem, but it still might be that the denser packing of users is what caused it. 

    Strong signal handling is sometimes called "Dynamic Range", but that's a term that I don't like to use because it's used for a lot of different things, and that causes confusion.  Because the terms aren't as standardized as pure sensitivity or selectivity, it also means you can be comparing two different radios and find different numbers for their strong signal handling, and that can mislead you into picking the wrong one.  (I prefer to rank by the output third order intercept (OIP3), but I'm not going to explain what it is.  For now.  It could take a post of its own.) 

    In your everyday use, I'd argue the two most important characteristics are selectivity and strong signal handling.  Improving the first makes the radio bigger while improving the second makes it harder on batteries.  Clearly, pocket-sized, battery-powered receivers are at a disadvantage. 

    Welcome to engineering, where everything is a compromise.  There are no perfect solutions.  If there were a perfect solution, everybody would be doing it that way and you wouldn't need to choose one.  

    Where is all this blather going?  There are many good little amateur radios with a broadband receiver in them.  I've mentioned before that my "EDC radio" is a Yaesu VX-6R, a handheld VHF/UHF ham transceiver that transmits on the 144, 222 and 440 MHz bands, using narrowband FM.  It also features a wideband receiver that tunes 0.500 MHz (below the standard AM broadcast band) to almost 1000 MHz (1.000 GHz) (the last few MHz below 1000 are blocked out due to being a US cellular phone band).  If you use the little antenna that comes with this handheld, you'll think it doesn't receive anything below the FM broadcast band.  The antenna isn't optimized for the receiver, it's to work with the transmitter, which is fussier about the antenna.  The receive side is just a broadband input.  If you give it a good antenna, it's fine, but good broadband antennas aren't at all trivial to build and I think any attempt to cover 500 kHz to 1000 MHz would require a few antennas.  Bottom line is that these little radios aren't going to be useful if you need to hear shortwave or below without building antennas.

    As an alternative, you can grab something like this: a Kaito WRX-911.  This little, sub-$20 shirt pocket shortwave radio will get AM/FM broadcasts and nine shortwave broadcast bands.  It passes my antenna test: touch the antenna and signals get weaker.  It's not very good at strong signal handling, but neither are handhelds like my VX-6R or its cousins.  That means that if you're in an area with lots of strong local stations, you might not hear anything but them. 
    Sometimes a simple radio has its advantages.