Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Odds and Ends on the Night of a Sudden Jihadi Attack

New York City this time, on a bike path in the yuppie heart of the city.  No ARs, no bump stocks, no guns at all - just enough BB guns to ensure "suicide by cop" and go collect his 72 virgins.  Except this is NYPD we're talking about here, and we're lucky they gut shot him and didn't just kill nine other people on the bike path

H/T to The Abode of McThag for the "why didn't I think of this" post of the day:
If only it were mandatory to register any vehicle which will be used on a public roadway.

If only it were mandatory to obtain a license to operate such a vehicle before driving it on a public roadway.

Probably keep them from being used for criminal activity.
That's it!  Mandatory registration of all pickup trucks, so that they're not allowed on the roads without registration.  We'll make them carry a state-issued, metal plate to prove they're registered!  Mandatory licensing and training of anyone who would own, or rent a pickup truck.  We'll make the drivers pass a state-given test and make them carry it as photo ID to ensure they're licensed to use that truck. 

In other words, all of the gun control arguments in two sentences.  If he had put a brick on the accelerator to speed his rental truck we'd have the bump stock argument, too. 

Blog administrivia.  I made some unannounced changes a few days ago and have been in a slightly different direction for the last couple of weeks.  First, I added a note about comments, hoping people would see this:
Comments are always welcome, with the same provisos as everyone: keep it civil, and no spam. All comments to posts over 14 days are moderated, but only spam is deleted on sight.
Everyone handles comments differently.  Some of us reply to each and every comment and strive for conversation; others (and I'm one) tend to not answer unless it's a specific question or seems to be directed at me.  I'm not likely to answer things that seem to be for everyone.  I'll be the first to admit that's not like a law of physics that can't be violated.  Sometimes it can be hard to tell.

That said, comments are always welcome, contrasting opinions are always fine, and the only comments I ever delete are those that are obvious SPAM.   I'm talking to you, "Packers and Movers of Bangalore"!

The other change is in the blog description, which I bet nobody reads. I changed it back closer to what it used to read.
The focus of this blog is on doing things, from radio to home machine shops and making all kinds of things, along with comments from a retired radio engineer running from tech or science news to economics; from firearms to the world at large.
I intend to do more of the "how to" and "what is" (i.e., explanatory) kind of posts.  These take a bit more research and time, but are more helpful to people than the typical "X happened in politics today".  Not to mention more interesting.  This will include more posts like the one on Voyager, looked at the from radio designer's link budget view.  I will also keep posting news that I find cool or interesting from either the engineering trade magazines or the big shows.  And, of course, I intend to be more than just a gun-friendly blog, and anything interesting or new to me from the shooting world will be posted, too. 

That said, Blogger says that around 1500 unique visits happen per day, and I have to assume readers are coming by for something.  If there are things you'd like to see addressed, drop me an email - the address is in the right bar under "Contact Me": SiGraybeard at gmail dot com . 

That said, let me give a peek into my next little shop project.  They're called soft jaws for the lathe. The hexagonal pieces in this view from that website.

What are soft jaws?  The jaws on the lathe chucks and machinist's vises are hardened steel that can and will mar the metal you're working on.  You end up having to machine away the damage from machining the part.  These soft jaws will be made from a bar of aluminum hex stock, which won't mar steel as badly as steel jaws can.  When I built my little steam motor the other day, the two shafts were held in the lathe jaws for threading, and the shaft of the one that was critical, the 1/4" diameter main shaft, was boogered up by the lathe. Nasty marks that I had to file down, which made the fit even worse.  Soft jaws should prevent that.

It falls into the category of an old story I read when I was first getting into machining:
Watcha makin?
What for?
To fix my other tools.
So I can make more tools.
Tools for making tools for making tools.  Sometimes.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Largely Wasted Day

Today was largely spent on hold on the phone with our bank, which is actually a local credit union.  We switched over to them a couple of years ago from Wells Fargo.  I know it was between different Wells scandals, but I'd have to try to remember which scandals they were.  The credit union has been excellent: they offer all the services we want, they've been very easy to work with, and they've paid us higher dividends than we earned at the big bank, by large margins.  In every instance, they've been equal to or better than Wells Fargo. 

This past weekend, they unveiled a new "digital banking system".  It's probably best described by just calling it inept.  I actually thought the web site had been hacked by Nigerian scammers, some ransomware pigs from Eastern Europe, or some group that was just as adept at fraud.  The CU never posted any big alerts on their website saying "Big Change Coming This Weekend!  Learn About It Here!".  They never sent emails.  They never communicated anything.  Mrs. Graybeard goes to check something Friday night and the previous system of logging in, which involved echoing back answers to one of a handful of preset questions, is gone.  In its place a simple User Name and Password.  And it only allowed two tries before locking us out for the weekend. 

We called in to get the password reset at about 9:30.  We were caller 89.  The call wasn't completed until close to 11:30.  That's when we found out that we needed a special identifier for each computer that would log onto the system, which might have been what the system was waiting for Saturday.  When I logged on a bit later, I found that a scheduled payment had been lost when the change was made, and wasn't paid when it should have been last Friday.  Back to the phone for another couple of hours to track that down. 

There are more aspects that wasted time - it really was total fustercluck.  I've never seen a digital changeover this clucked up. 

On the other hand, the day was gorgeous and it was nice to wander outside a few times.  I rolled out the cold smoker and smoked a couple of pounds of cheese (cheddar and pepper jack), then switched to hot smoking and smoked 5/4 of a chicken (a tray of chicken quarters).  Fall has finally arrived here in the Silicon Swamp.  Thursday morning it was 53, Friday about the same, Saturday was rainy, and it cooled off again yesterday.  It was 47 this morning and about the same is forecast for tomorrow, before warming for few days and settling into a string of more or less 70 low and 80 high for the next week.

Finally, I just have to repost this picture, even though it's completely unrelated to anything in this post. 

Did you know if you put a marshmallow Easter bunny into a bell jar and subject it to higher pressure, it turns into Kim Jung Un? 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

As Daylight Saving Time Ends, Some Plan an Exit Strategy

Next week is the weekend we all "fall back" and go back to standard time.  As DST ends, though, some New England states are looking for a way to eliminate DST and stay on one time zone all year long, according to a story at The Weather Channel.
  • As Daylight Saving Time's annual end approaches, some New England leaders are discussing a plan to eliminate it.
  • Their plan would move three states – Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts – one hour ahead, to the Atlantic Time Zone.
  • Supporters say it could help the states that adopt the change, while detractors say it would do the opposite.
Frankly we hear this sort of thing every year at the start and end of DST, so I don't give it much chance of happening, but I've never heard of the approach of going one time zone forward.  That's equivalent to staying on DST all year long from the standpoint of being in the Eastern time zone.  They'd "spring forward" once and stay there forever  TWC links to an article on Quartz and I'm going to bounce back and forth between them. 
There are well-documented costs of changing clocks each year, including car accidents and heightened stress. Not every country, or even state, observes twice-yearly time changes, and those that do, change clocks on different days. It creates a semi-annual state of chaos.
Written by public health advocate Tom Emswiler, he argued that the 99-year-old tradition should go by the wayside, at least in New England, because sunsets at 4:15 p.m. aren't just inconvenient – they're negatively affecting business. For one, Daylight Saving Time is a farming-driven idea, and with so few farms in New England, there isn't much need for the time change. Secondly, Emswiler said the early sunsets might drive college students elsewhere to areas where it's not dark by 4:15 p.m. in the dead of winter.
I've also seen articles written by farmers who hate DST as much as anyone and say they have no particular use for it either so don't blame it on them.  In fact, the idea that it was for the farmers is just part of the mythology behind DST, at least according to Popular Science Editor Rachel Feltman, writing in the Washington Post on "5 Myths About Daylight Saving Time".
In fact, the inverse is true. “The farmers were the reason we never had a peacetime daylight saving time until 1966,” Downing told National Geographic. “They had a powerful lobby and were against it vociferously.” The lost hour of morning light meant they had to rush to get their crops to market. Dairy farmers were particularly flummoxed: Cows adjust to schedule shifts rather poorly, apparently.
It's unavoidable that we'll face longer days in the summer and shorter in the winter.  That change in sunlight hours is part of the change of seasons  caused by the 23.5 degree inclination of Earth's orbit.  I'd guess that most of us have traveled enough to notice that day and night length vary with latitude at any time of year, and it gets more extreme the farther toward the poles you go.  Here in the southernmost reaches of the US, (I'm not in the tropics - none of Florida is) we have less variation.  On the summer solstice, our day is just short of 14 hours long - 13:55:30.  On the winter solstice it's 3 hours 34 minutes shorter, 10:21:43. (source)  In Minneapolis, MN, the longest day lengthens to 15:36:48 - just over two hours longer, and the shortest day shortens down to 8:46:12, virtually seven hours shorter than their longest day.  Nothing can be done about that.  All DST does is change what we call those hours.

(Day length vs. Latitude for the year.  Source)


I Have a New Goal in Life

From Common Sense Evaluation:

A site that's hard to categorize, but more than occasionally funny.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Meet Mr. Green

Mr. Green is the name we've given to a new resident of the back porch. 
For all I know, this is Mrs. Green; they don't exactly have ways of conveying that information, so I'll use the sexist stereotype and use the masculine name.  Yeah, I know:  I'm a hater.  Further, we know there is a Mrs. Green.  We've seen them engaged in martial behaviors, if you get my drift.  I saw her hounding him to take out the garbage and throw out those tiny beer cans.

We first saw him back before Irma, and we encountered him several times while putting up and taking down shutters. 

Why do I care?  When I grew up in Miami, green lizards like this were everywhere, and we called them chameleons.  I don't know if Mr. Green can change colors, but there doesn't appear to be any effort on his part to change color to match his home, a fossil clam geode from Ft. Drum, Florida (one of a small handful of places where collectible minerals can be found in Florida).  The chameleons I grew up around would get kind of reddish, brown, or bright green.  I remember seeing one jump onto a plaid chaise lounge chair by the swimming pool where I had a summer job, and watching the poor lizard get confused trying to change colors to match the plaid.  I think he died of a hernia.

No, I made that up.  The little green lizards disappeared when invasive Cuban Brown Anole (pronounced "a-no-lee") lizards spread into more ecosystems.  By the 1990s, the Brown Anoles were the most common vertebrate in Florida.  Until we spotted him in the yard, I hadn't seen a little green lizard like Mr. Green here in long time; probably since the 1970s.  What kind of lizard is it really?  I don't know.  I think he's a Green or Carolina Anole, but the pictures vary and I don't know what key identifying characteristics to look for.  As long as he eats bugs, he's welcome. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

There's a Fine Line Between Hobby and Obsession

and Jack Bally crossed that line about 10 years ago.

Back in January of 1999, Jack Bally was having a few beers with friends and thinking of his next project.  Presumably it was because alcohol was involved that Jack decided to get a set of scaled plans for a B17 bomber from the RC hobby world and make it a plane that a human pilot would fly.  Jack bought a set of 1:9 scale plans and scaled them up to 1:3.  This video was made in 2016, and at one point in the video, Jack said he had been working on it 17 1/2 years.
Wing Span: 34 ft. 7 in.
Length: 25 ft.
Tail Height: 6 ft. 10 in.
Power Plant: 240hp
Fuel Capacity: 42 gal.
Empty Weight: 1800 lbs. (Est.)
Cruising Speed: 110 kts. (Est.)
Crew: 1
Number Built: 1
It was reported by the Experimental Aircraft Association that Jack's plane had its first flight on November 14, 2016, taking a short hop from his own small field to a local airport for more testing.  It was just three months after the previous video was shot.

I thought Pierre Scerri's model Ferrari 312 PB was the most amazing model I've ever seen.  I need to broaden my category of "most amazing model I've ever seen". 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Shot Back at Google/YouTube Censorship

By now, everyone has heard horror stories about YouTube refusing to allow some small gun channels, like The Firearms Blog, and Royal Nonesuch to monetize their channels with ads.  I hate ads as much as the next guy, but I understand that for someone with legitimate costs for putting content on YouTube ads may be the only way they can make up some of those costs.  My YouTube channel has been unaffected, as far as I know, but I don't make any attempt to monetize it and it's essentially an extension of this blog.  Aside from a short video of cutting out the fire control pocket on an 80% AR lower, there's no gun content and no political content, so perhaps I'm under their radar.

It's worse than just shutting down small gun video guys; they're also censoring or even refusing to run videos from people with conservative viewpoints, or restricting them to their equivalent of XX rated.  Bill Whittle's channel has posted about this, as have comedian Steven Crowder and others.

The latest to suffer being shoved aside by YouTube is Dennis Prager, whose Prager University produces short, high content videos with a strong moral and conservative viewpoint - what everyone over the age of 40 grew up hearing as "common sense".  Unlike everyone else, Prager apparently has the resources to sue YouTube and Google for discrimination. On his own website, Prager lists a very short explanation:
Little David, PragerU, is taking on the mighty Goliath, Google/YouTube. It’s a free speech issue. Google is restricting over 30 PragerU’s videos for being violent, pornographic and unsuitable for children — no kidding. This is nonsense, of course, the real reason PragerU’s videos are restricted is ideological.
He then links to a longer explanation on Fox Business.
A lawsuit filed Monday evening in federal court in San Francisco says YouTube's more than 30 million visitors a day make the site so elemental to free speech in the digital age that it should be treated as a public forum. The suit argues the site must use the "laws governing free speech, " not its own discretion, to make decisions about what to censor. 
Since last year, more than three dozen PragerU videos -- on subjects including the Korean War and Israel and Palestine -- have been restricted by YouTube. As a result, those who use YouTube in "restricted mode," including students at some universities and children whose parents have put parental control filters in place, are prevented from seeing the videos; all potential ad revenue from the videos is also cut off.
I can't say that I've watched all of PragerU's videos, or even most of them, but calling them violent, pornographic or unsuitable for children doesn't sound like anything I've seen.  PragerU videos may touch on non-PC subjects, like why murder is wrong, or question that some cultures may actually be better than others, but being politically incorrect is not pornographic, nor violent, and may - horror of horrors! - lead children to think.

YouTube, like all online and broadcast media, has been hammered by well-orchestrated campaigns by groups like Media Matters, a far left organization that was founded to destroy Fox News and destroy any media voices they disagree with.  That's not me saying it, that's Fox News' liberal analyst Juan Williams.  And, yes, Media Matters is another one of George Soros' trained monkeys.  They apparently ran the campaign to get Bill O'Reilly kicked off the air, one of their biggest victories. 

One of Media Matters favorite tactics is to threaten companies with boycotts if they advertise with one of those voices they don't like.  If they convince YouTube not to allow those "icky gun videos", they're going to hurt TFB or Demolition Ranch, but Springfield Armory or Savage or any of  the other gun makers are going to still be there.  Their YouTube channels are part of their advertising budget.  They're monetizing YouTube, not the other way around.

Organizations like Media Matters and the rest of Soros' harem have focused world governments on the internet and turned the issue of censorship into government regulation issues - which is just what a globalist like Soros wants.  As Juan Willams says, "There are many words one could use to describe Media Matters but there is one thing they are not: liberal", and he's absolutely right.  They're tyrannical, One World Government types who want power over everyone.  Dictators don't care about your free speech, only their own.

Sharyl Attkisson wrote a very interesting sounding book about Media Matters (among others) and their tactics called, "The Smear", subtitled, "How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote".  She's a victim of The Smear herself, and it's an interesting interview to hear her talk with Glenn Beck - how Media Matters got him off Fox is part of her book. 

Like it or not, this has turned into an argument over YouTube as a public utility, which invites the heavy hand of government and that almost never ends well.

The swarm of companies that all emerged from or were absorbed into Google - YouTube was one of the first, IIRC.  Now they're collectively called Alphabet.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Yet Another Interesting Tweak for Lithium Batteries

Lithium batteries are almost a regular series around here; a quick search of the phrase "lithium battery" or "lithium batteries" returns well over a dozen posts on the subject.  This latest update comes from Design News (not the first battery post from them) author Elizabeth Montalbano on the discovery that adding asphalt to Lithium Ion batteries not only increased energy storage but allowed the batteries to be charged faster.
Researchers in the lab of James Tour, a Rice professor and chemist, have developed anodes that comprise porous carbon made from asphalt that showed significant stability even after more than 500 charge-recharge cycles, he said.

“They are very easy to make and have very high capacity—about 10 times more capacity than present battery anodes,” Tour told Design News . “Moreover, they charge in five minutes rather than two to four hours.”
Back in May, I quoted Charles Murray from Design News, saying,
While battery makers desperately try to figure out how to reach a specific energy of 450 Wh/kg (Watt-hours per kilogram), gasoline already offers 12,000 Wh/kg.
That problem still remains, although the Dr. Tour's batteries have more than doubled their specific energy to 943 Wh/kg from the cited 450 Wh/kg.  Now instead of having a 26.7:1 advantage, gasoline has a 12.7:1 advantage.  That has to be able to improve an EV's range (Electric Vehicle), but there are no practical numbers to base conclusions on. 
(Scanning electron microscope images show an anode of asphalt, graphene nanoribbons, and lithium (left) and the same material without lithium (right). The material was developed at Rice University and shows promise for high-capacity lithium batteries that charge 20 times faster than commercial lithium-ion batteries. (Image source: The Tour Group, Rice University))

Left for last in the DN article is the second most important aspect of this technique, which overcomes a common issue with Li-Ion batteries, their rather gauche habit of catching fire.
Testing also showed another improvement that the carbon brought to the batteries in that it mitigated the formation of lithium dendrites, or mossy deposits that can invade a battery’s electrolyte, researchers said. It’s these dendrites that can make batteries fail, catch fire, or explode because they can short-circuit the anode and cathode.
Recharging faster is very important for cars, as demonstrated in the recent evacuation of Florida for Hurricane Irma.  Twice the capacity may be even more important, since you'll get farther on a charge (Tesla Motors was reported to have issued an Over The Air software upgrade to some Teslas in the state to remove some software restrictions on the battery and increase their range).  Doing both of those while being a safer battery sounds like a real good change for the industry.  Before you ask, there's no mention of a patent or how Rice University manages such things.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Too Hard to Categorize

A couple of odds and ends that don't go together and don't go with anything else I see in the next few days to create a coherent post.  Coherent post?  Why should I start now?

First:  during all the talk of tax reform, and the idea that "your tax return will fit on a postcard" there's a trap to keep an eye on.  Fix your study on reform: rates, deductions, and the hard stuff, not simplification.  The simplest tax return there is can be done in two lines:
  1.  How much did you make last year?
  2.  Send it in. 

Second: amid the talk of Blade Runner 2049 being a disappointment at the box office, Mrs. Graybeard and I went to see it last Friday.  Other bloggers (ASM826 @ Borepatch comes to mind) saw it and said they thought it was visually beautiful but too long.  Nobody that I read said it was bad or not to waste your time.

I agree that it's visually stunning.  It may be the most visually stunning movie I've ever seen.  The design of the futuristic dystopian world they create is really incredible.  It's literally world creating, not set creating.  The sets - however much is CGI and how much is carpentry and paint I can't say - are simply amazing.  If this doesn't get academy awards for cinematography and sets, I can't understand. 

Probably more importantly, I don't think it was too long, and it's over 2 hours long (2:43).  I don't recall ever looking at my watch thinking, "how much more of this do I have to see?"; it was over an hour until I looked and then an hour after that before I glanced for the second time.  Its was more "how much more of this do I get to see?"

A small sample of the world building I refer to.

It's not going to be on the big screen much longer, if you want to see it at it's best, you best get going.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Son Of Side Project

Back in June, four months ago to the day, I gave an update on my side project, my Breedlove guitar.  At that time, I had put some kerfing strips in the side pieces in the gaping 14" hole in the side of the guitar allowing me to cap the missing side with a plexiglass piece and called it done.
Such projects are never "Done" done,  and it was mere hours before reader Raven prompted me in the comments to consider replacing that plexiglass with wood, and offered me a piece of scrap from his bin.  Son of Side Project was born.

Let me just say right out front that I don't know what I'm doing, OK?  I figure I'll make a few mistakes and eventually get there, but this is such a radical repair job that chances are pretty high that nobody has done a repair like this.  It's a training piece that I hope to learn a lot of things from.  Even more, I hope the things I learn will be useful on some future projects.  I have four or five books and I have a friend in town who is guitar technician/repairman.  He has been willing to share all the tools and techniques I can ask for.

Strangely enough, he found a useful video that contains ideas to emulate on my guitar, and I started down this road.  It took a while to get to this point, but by early August I had the side glued where my plastic side used to be and I was looking forward to trying to get that finished.  That's when I found the problem in the upper left hand corner of the side in this view.  At some point, the backing piece of wood I had in this corner broke out, falling into the body, and the wood had a little give to it. 
The rest of it felt solid, but that little piece is important because other things need to be glued to it.  My friend said, "pull it off and start over".  Gulp.

I had glued the side on with TitebondIII wood glue.  That's removable, although it takes a lot of managed heat and the proper mixture of delicate but strong touch.  The majority of luthiers prefer to use hide glues because they're removable with steam and joints are reworkable.  A little steam generator will loosen the glue and make removal easy.  I had to head back down to the friend, hat in hand, to use a heating pad he has for this sort of task. 

With the side removed, I came home, expecting to spend hours chiseling out the old kerfing strips to replace with new ones I ordered.  Thankfully, they removed easily with a combination of a very fine-toothed saw to cut open the glue-filled saw kerfs, wood chisels and a cabinet scraper.  (True story: I bumped the chisel into my finger and when I looked at it and realized it hadn't cut me down to the bone, said, "I need to sharpen these chisels").

Finally, with the back and sound board cut back to clean wood, it's time to glue in the new kerfing boards.  This is the top.  
That's when I found some damage in the guitar's body, in the lower bout.  From time to time, the guitar has fallen over, or taken a small beating on my workbench, and one time, a worse fall.  It probably happened then.  Not a big deal; if I have the glue out and clamps ready, what's a few more joints?   

I'm notoriously bad at estimating how long it will take me to do things, but it looks to me like I could have the new kerfing in place along with the replacement side by the middle of this week.  There's still a lot of work, because I have to duplicate this trim on the top edges.
The center, faux abalone shell, has the thin black border on it from the factory.  The two other black strips, the white spacers, and the two other white strips are all separate pieces of plastic. 

For this work, I'm switching to fish glue.  The main difference between fish glue and hide glue is that it has a longer shelf life, especially if you keep it in the refrigerator.   Like the hide glues, it's reworkable with steam, or even water.  This is where the products out of "primitive cultures" frankly amaze me.  Who thought, "you know, I bet if we put the left overs from the horse - hooves; ligaments, whatever - into some boiling water we could make some really handy glue"?  How much refinement was required to get today's hide glues?  Likewise fish glues.  This artists' site says fish glue is made from the swim bladders of sturgeons. Who guts a fish, looks at the swim bladder and says, "I bet I can make some glue out of that"?  I'm betting the answer is "no one".  I'm betting someone that was starving gathered up the fish entrails, heads and whatever they could and tried to boil it into a soup.  I can hear them saying, "this is the worst fish stew I've ever had! And look, the spoon is sticking to the bowl like it's been glued."  Yeah, I know; necessity is a real mother.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Steampunk Computer Rover Heading for Venus?

Today's fun fact is that Mars is the only planet known to be inhabited entirely by robots.

It may be there's another planet that will soon share that title: Venus.  NASA is currently investigating a robotic explorer to land on Venus and explore. Unlike the rovers on Mars, this rover has decidedly steampunk character to it; it's all mechanical.

If there's any planet that seems like a good definition of hell, Venus is a strong candidate with a surface temperature of approximately, 450ºC or 850ºF, which is high enough for paper to spontaneously combust and melt lead. The atmosphere is a mix of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and sulfur dioxide, while the surface pressure is 92 bar or 1,334 psi. The atmosphere is dense enough to crush a submarine.  Some data says Venus' atmosphere undergoes critical refraction and it's possible for light to circle the planet, above the surface.  Ray tracing computer modeling suggests that with a strong enough telescope, a hypothetical astronaut in the right place could see himself in the distance.  

The electronics geeks, hams and experimenters might have had the thought "hot enough to melt lead?  What about solder?" and it is.  Parts can be welded onto a substrate, but "hot enough to melt solder" is an important consideration.  The NASA lab planning the mission, NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program (NIAC) had developed a conceptual robot based on mechanical computers and WWI tanks because mechanical parts should survive the environment. Called AREE (Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments), the design has been referred to as a Steampunk Robot or Clockwork Rover.  Shades of Babbage's Analytical Engine
AREE was first proposed in 2015 by Jonathan Sauder, a mechatronics engineer at JPL. He was inspired by mechanical computers, which use levers and gears to make calculations rather than electronics.
Sauder said these analog technologies could help where electronics typically fail. In extreme environments like the surface of Venus, most electronics will melt in high temperatures or be corroded by sulfuric acid in the atmosphere.

"Venus is too inhospitable for kind of complex control systems you have on a Mars rover," Sauder said. "But with a fully mechanical rover, you might be able to survive as long as a year."
Venus has had only two robotic missions land on its surface, both from the former Soviet Union, the Venera and Vegas landers.  They were able to function only for minutes: specifically 23 and 127 minutes before the electronics failed in the oppressive environment.  To survive on Venus long enough to do any good science clearly requires thinking well outside the proverbial box.
AREE includes a number of other innovative design choices.

Mobility is one challenge, considering there are so many unknowns about the Venusian surface. Sauder's original idea was inspired by the "Strandbeests" created by Dutch artist Theo Jansen. These spider-like structures have spindly legs that can carry their bulk across beaches, powered solely by wind.

Ultimately, they seemed too unstable for rocky terrain. Sauder started looking at World War I tank treads as an alternative. These were built to roll over trenches and craters.

Another problem will be communications. Without electronics, how would you transmit science data? Current plans are inspired by another age-old technology: Morse code.

An orbiting spacecraft could ping the rover using radar. The rover would have a radar target, which if shaped correctly, would act like "stealth technology in reverse," Sauder said. Stealth planes have special shapes that disperse radar signals; Sauder is exploring how to shape these targets to brightly reflect signals instead. Adding a rotating shutter in front of the radar target would allow the rover to turn the bright, reflected spot on and off, communicating much like signal lamps on Navy ships.
To be clear, this isn't a mission that's on the calendar and being planned, it's one of a few options being discussed.  Mechanical computers are interesting, but incredibly slow compared to electronics for a general purpose computer.  Even a 1970s processor like an 8080 would be orders of magnitude more capable than rotating gears.  Perhaps there might be ways to customize the mechanical computer, but could they do mineral analysis, or some of the other science work Curiosity and the other Mars rovers do? 

A mission like this would be interesting from the technology-geek standpoint, but one has to wonder if there might be ways to cool electronics to get more science done.  NASA's Space Technologies Directorate talks about RTG-powered refrigerators (Radioisotope Thermal Generator - the type of power generator powering the Voyagers and some other deep space probes) has some high level summary. 
Two enabling technologies, RTG powered cooling systems and high temperature electronics, have been proposed to enable long duration in-situ Venus operations. The former is highly complex and requires billions in R&D to cool a small chamber of electronics, while the latter is not close to the integration level required for a rover....

...The automaton rover is designed to reduce requirements on electronics while requiring minimal human interaction and based on the subsumption architecture from robotics, where simple reactions of the rover lead to complex behavior. AREE combines steampunk with space exploration to enable science measurements unachievable with today’s space technology.

In Phase 1 purely mechanical rover technologies were compared to a high temperature electronics rover and a hybrid rover technologies. A purely mechanical rover, while feasible, was found to not be practical and a high temperature electronics rover is not possible with the current technology, but a hybrid rover is extremely compelling. Phase 1 mitigated our highest risks, demonstrating passive signaling was possible, the power budget balanced, and the rover fits within current EDL systems. Building on the design created in Phase 1, the objective of this proposed work is to finalize the trades with regards to implementation of locomotion and signaling systems, develop an end to end rover design, and perform Venus environmental testing of a representative prototype.
That last paragraph makes it sound like the mechanical AREE might be getting close to being approved to go to Venus.  For real.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Bezos' Blue Origin Just Passed A Major Test

In the private Space Race, don't overlook Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos' company.  Ars Technica tells us of a successful test of their BE-4 engine which has gathered lots of attention in the industry - although it was a short, three second test and only running at 50% power.
New space company Blue Origin has spent the better part of this decade developing a powerful rocket engine for use in its orbital rocket, New Glenn, and potentially other US-based launchers. This engine, the liquid natural gas-powered BE-4, has been closely watched both within the aerospace industry and in military space because it uses innovative new technology, has largely been developed with private funding, and is fully reusable.

However, while there was great promise with the new engine, it still had to perform. And so the aerospace community has been watching development of the engine to see if it could pass a key hurdle—a hot-fire test. After months of waiting, that's what finally happened on Wednesday at the company's facility in West Texas when the BE-4 engine fired at 50-percent power for three seconds.
When you read that it was a 50% power test, that's still a lot of power with this engine.   The BE-4 engine is rated at 550,000 pounds of thrust making it the most powerful rocket engine developed in the US since Rocketdyne built the RS-68 engine two decades ago.  Half power for the BE-4 was 275,000 pounds of thrust, 45% more than the SpaceX Merlin engine at full power (190,000 lbs. of thrust) . 
(supersonic flow patterns, called Mach Diamonds, in the exhaust stream of the BE-4 - Blue Origin photo)

Did you notice that they state the engine has largely been paid for by "private funding"?  Rumor has it funding was from pocket change found between the cushions in Jeff Bezos sofa.  I know it's a rumor out there because I made it up and emailed it to people, but Ars elaborates on the real story. 
The company's success is all the more significant because it was largely funded by Jeff Bezos, without direct cost to taxpayers. Up until a few years ago, every US-based rocket engine was funded almost entirely through government contracts, such as the Saturn V's F-1 and the space shuttle's main engines. SpaceX changed the model by building its Merlin rocket engine (190,000 lbf) largely on its own, and then using nine of them to power the Falcon 9 rocket. 
Blue Origin is talking about putting seven of these engines - almost 4 million pounds of thrust - on its New Glenn rocket, a massive 82-meter-tall (270 feet tall ) rocket with the capacity to lift 45 tons to low Earth orbit and an impressive 13 tons to geostationary transfer orbit.  It will also be reusable—up to 100 times—according to Bezos. Blue Origin is attempting to position the New Glenn rocket as a centerpiece of a human return to the Moon and is working toward first launch of this rocket by 2020. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Voyager - Looked at From My Home Turf

We talked about Voyager in August, as the farthest objects mankind has ever launched, and the first manmade objects to leave the solar system.

Likewise, I know I've said I retired from a career as an RF (Radio Frequency) engineer, so communications links, like the two Voyagers' links back to Earth are what I spent most of my life doing.  It's my home turf.  We still have contact with the two probes yet their signals are astonishingly, mind-blowingly weak.  Microwaves and RF magazine editor Lou Frenzel reminded me of some of these things in a piece this Tuesday.

Lou starts out by saying the speed of light is too slow.  We used to ask technician job applicants what the speed of light is, and some didn't know, so let me put it here:   299,792,458 meters/second or 186,383 miles/second.  At 186,383 miles per second, Voyager 1's signals take 19-1/2 hours to get to Earth.  Voyager 1 is 13,082,682,600 miles away, give or take a few million in approximation errors. 13 billion miles away.

One of the fundamental problems in communications links is that the signal strength falls off as an inverse squared relationship (1/Distance(squared)).  We use the term path loss to describe how much signal is weakened by this effect.  How much loss is there for Voyager 1's signals?  The number is astonishing:
The free space path loss is computed with the expression:

dB = 37 dB + 20log(f) + 20log(d)

Here, f is the frequency in MHz and d is the distance in miles. The Voyager 1 used two frequencies, 2.3 GHz in the S band and 8.4 GHz in the X band. Using the lower frequency and the previously estimated 13 billion miles distance, the path loss is:

dB = 37 + 20log(2,300) + 20log(13,000,000,000)

dB = 37 + 67.3 + 202.3 = 306.6 dB
That's a phenomenally large amount of path loss; you can say the power is reduced by 10^30.66.  Ignoring the .66, that's 1 / 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000  of the signal getting here.

The next thing we need to do is determine how much signal gets here in power units.  The transmitter on Voyager 1 delivered 23 watts to its antenna at some point.  Whether it does now or not, I can't answer.  It's common for receiver designers to refer to powers as dBm, that is, powers with reference to a milliwatt, 1/1000 of a watt, in 50 ohms.  If that transmitter is still delivering 23 Watts, the power would be expressed as 43.6 dBm.  To be my pedantic, some-would-say AR self, a dBm is a power; a dB is a ratio of powers.

Here is where you find out why we always work in dBs: it turns multiplication and division into addition and subtraction.  We find the power at earth by subtracting the path loss from the power output. 43.6 -306.6 = -263 dBm.  Again, an astonishingly small signal.  For VHF or HF radios that most hams or hobbyists have, they're concerned with signals around a microvolt; millionth of a volt.  Perhaps 0.5 microvolt.  That's -113 dBm, 150 dB stronger than Voyager 1's signal; 1,000,000,000,000,000 times stronger.

The other fundamental problem in communications links is that there's an inherent limit to the strength of a signal we can receive, and that is set by the inherent thermal noise of our components.  If you were to put a 50 ohm resistor on a bench and measure the power it produces from just being at room temperature, you would find it produces -174 dBm.  Much lower than the -113 dBm above, but still far, far stronger than the -263 dBm from Voyager.  Perhaps you've heard of radio telescopes being cooled by liquid helium to almost absolute zero?  This is why.  

How can we possibly handle signals that much weaker than the thermal noise?  We get apparent amplification out of antennas, also called antenna gain, on both ends of the link.  Voyager's antenna itself gives 57 dB gain.  (Antenna gain is worthy of another article itself).
At the receiving end of the link is one or more big dishes. There are several large antennas at NASA’s Deep Space Network stations, such as Goldstone in the U.S., Canberra in Australia, or near Madrid in Spain. There are six antennas—one 26 meters (85 ft), four 34 meters (112 ft), and one 70 meters (230 ft)—each having super cooled front-ends for low noise. Using the 70 meter Goldstone dish gives the signal an 82 dB boost. The antennas can also be arrayed to produce more gain and improved reception.
Adding 82 dB gain from the Deep Space Network to the 57 dB gain from Voyager and we can add 139 dB to the signal from Voyager.  That brings up the level to -124 dBm.

One last concept to introduce; that the noise we get depends on the bandwidth we measure in.
P = kTB 
where k is Boltzmann's constant, T is temperature in degrees Kelvin and B is the bandwidth in Hz  

To really fill in those numbers, I need to know things I don't know, in particular, the modulation scheme used by Voyager and the temperature of their "super-cooled front-ends", but it passes a rough sanity check.  Lou Frenzel says Voyager is transmitting 1000 bits/second or so.  I'll swag a bandwidth of 1500 Hz and say I'd need a signal of -136 to decode Voyager, if the data modulation is similar to others I worked with in the early '80s.  So it looks like we can receive Voyager with some margin to spare.

Hope y'all enjoyed a little trip around the old block for me.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

One Step Closer to "Real Steel"?

The 2011 Hugh Jackman movie, Real Steel, was a fairly predictable story about a "struggling promoter" of robot boxing who takes a gamble on a "discarded robot".  It includes the obligatory cute kid we want to root for as Jackman's son; Jackman's character is a "rough guy with a heart of gold"; a fight scene against the champion; and the beautiful friend who's sort of a romantic interest.  (I could go into details about the actors in this movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I'll leave that lookup to those who care about such things.)

The main idea in Real Steel is that boxing between humans has become obsolete, and the audience (read "gambling") follows robots.  It turns out that might be closer than I thought.

NPR reports that an American robotics company challenged a Japanese robotics company to a duel - to be fought by robots the two teams create.  The fight has already occurred, and might even have been broadcast by streaming video already.
This long-awaited match between the monstrous robots — built by MegaBots Inc. of the U.S. and by Suidobashi Heavy Industry of Japan — will be broadcast on Tuesday via the online steaming site, Twitch. It's billed as the "first ever giant robot fight."

"This is a personal dream of mine come to life," says engineer Gui Cavalcanti, MegaBots' co-founder. Cavalcanti tells Morning Edition host Rachel Martin that it was both "awesome" and "terrifying" to co-pilot the 16-foot-tall, 12-ton robot – named Eagle Prime – during the duel. Cavalcanti, and his co-pilot Matt Oehrlein, were actually inside the robot controlling where the robot went, what its legs and arms did, and deploying its weapons.
(Matt Oehrlein and Gui Cavalcanti, co-founders of the robotics company, MegaBots, with giant robots MK2 (left) and Eagle Prime.)

Unlike Real Steel, in which the robots are controlled from the sides of the rink, in the Real Life version the fighters are inside the robots.  Think of another movie, Pacific Rim where the giant robots were piloted by a team of two as they fought the invading monsters from another dimension.
"We're sitting on top of 430 horsepower Corvette engine," Cavalcanti says. "You can actually feel the robot just kind of shaking and quaking around you as you get punched, as you lean into a turn, as you fire the weapons or throw a punch."
Wait... weapons?  The article just says, the robots "can be outfitted with a range of weapons from cannons to a chain saw". 

Much like the movie,  Cavalcanti says this is about more than just a giant robot fight and a battle for technological superiority.  He says their goal is to form a new giant robot sports league and turn it into the next arena and stadium sport.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

This is a Professional Physics and Science Website?

The website Physics-Astronomy.com after (I would assume) layers of editorial approval posted a story with the headline, Uranus Opens and Shuts on a Daily Basis.
Modeling the system around Uranus, they found that its magnetosphere occasionally opens up to allow solar wind through. This seemed to happen almost every day, about every 17 Earth hours.

This opening and closing happens around Earth, and it’s called magnetic reconnection – where the magnetic field lines of our magnetosphere and the solar wind align. This produces aurorae at its poles, and it’s likely doing the same at Uranus. But at Earth, this process is fairly irregular. At Uranus, it seems to be much more frequent.
OK, interesting enough, and the video at that magnetic reconnection link is pretty cool, but I could do without the juvenile and misleading headline.  It's not the planet that's opening and shutting, it's the planet's magnetic field.

The site is a bit prone to hyperbole and can't seem to let the juvenile Uranus jokes go by without playing.
Artist's drawing of Uranus and the system.  I think the rings around Uranus are brighter than they'd appear if you were there to look.  Image from Physics-Astronomy.com.

And if you're dying for more Uranus jokes, the Internet's canonical joke list is probably here. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

This Is Not a Parody - Texas State Looking to Hire Social Justice Math Professors

If there is any field where your socioeconomic, ethnic, cultural, or any other factor shouldn't matter, it's math.  I will bet my life that anyone who solves a math problem will get the same answer if they set it up and cranked correctly.

Nevertheless PJMedia links to Campus Reform to report that Texas State University - read that again: Texas State - wants to hire two math professors "committed to social justice"
Texas State University is hoping to hire two Math Education professors with a demonstrated and longstanding commitment to “social justice.”

According to the job postings on Inside Higher Ed, the two new professors must not only share TSU’s commitment to “education equity” and “social justice,” but should preferably also have a demonstrated record of engagement or academic research on the issue.

The openings are for both tenured or tenure-track positions at the “ranks of Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, or Professor,” with different levels of social-justice expertise preferred at each level.

Among the preferred qualifications for the Assistant Professor rank is a “demonstrated knowledge and engagement” with issues including “social justice, equity, access, and multilingual learning,” while the Associate and Full Professor ranks prefer “evidence of research and practices” on such topics.
Back during the dark years of the previous administration, the idea of Social Justice Math came up and in 2011 I downloaded a file called "A Guide for Integrating Issues of Social and Economic Justice into Mathematics Curriculum" by a guy named Jonathan Osler (pdf warning).  It's really hard to ridicule this too much, or to ridicule the fact that it's taken seriously.  I can see "multilingual learning" - maybe - because of the demographics in Texas, but the rest is self-parodying.  

As always, never underestimate the enemy.  Osler has become the founder of a group called Radical Math dedicated to pushing his ideas.  Look around at Radical Math - won't take you a minute.  While I laud the idea that perhaps the math doesn't seem relevant to kids, and it's possible that Osler and his acolytes may take rational approaches to the problems they set up, I'm extremely doubtful any good comes of this.  Maybe they can dress up problems in different ways and get people to pay more attention.  Maybe, maybe by trying to be "relevant" to some subset of students, math teachers may reach more of them, but the last hundred and twenty years of history says this probably isn't a good thing and it makes me a bit sick to my stomach.    

Probably the best known quote about math and statistics is, "figures don't lie, but liars can figure".  Somehow that goes here.
(Just looking for a snazzy looking picture that doesn't necessarily mean anything.  H/T to Peak Prosperity)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

What Did You Get at the Hamfest, SiG?

Funny you should ask.  I bought only one thing, a book on vacuum tube circuit design.
The author himself was there at the hamfest, selling copies for $20, considerably less than what Amazon is asking. 

Why?  First, a story. 

When I first got interested in electronics as a hobby, vacuum tubes were the mainstay of everyday electronics.  I started out testing tubes at the local drugstore to see if it would fix the family TV, as have tens of thousands of others in my generation.  Transistor radios were common, but so were millions of vacuum tube radios - some version or other of the All American Five - that took 20 seconds to warm up and start playing.  I've worked on vacuum tube circuits, troubleshot and fixed tube radios as a hobbyist.  I still have a couple of vacuum tube radios in the ham shack.  They haven't been turned on in a while.

By the time I started working in engineering, vacuum tubes were used only in a few applications where there was no alternative - mostly high power transmitters.  I started out designing in a mix of discrete transistors with a few integrated circuits and over the years, design shifted as semiconductor makers continued to put more and better integrated functions into a single package.  We could replace complex multi-transistor circuits with a single integrated circuit, often in the same area as one of the transistors we replaced.  This did good things for both manufacturers and our customers: more circuit sophistication brought better performance and getting that sophistication with fewer parts brought more reliability and lower prices.  I'm not quite sure when I last designed a discrete transistor circuit into something, but it was probably over 15 years ago.  After that, the only reason to design in one or two transistors would have been to band-aid a circuit already in production or to design a piece of custom test equipment. 

So why the book?  Now that retirement brings some more time (Hah!) I want to look into some aspects of vacuum tube design.  The audio market for vacuum tubes is alive, vibrant, and getting big premiums over transistor amplifiers.  I have no desire to pay those premiums but would like to hear one side by side with the solid state amp I use.  Perhaps designing and building a vacuum tube-based guitar amplifier would be right up my alley. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Hamfest Weekend

This weekend was the annual Melbourne Hamfest and ARRL State Convention and as you can see by that link, the 52nd such get together (not every year is the state convention).  I've mentioned this activity many times, and it's one of two shows we pretty much go to every year, partly because the 1976 Melbourne Hamfest was the first hamfest I ever went to.

This subject should really be broken in two parts.  First off, there's a lot of new hams that frequent the same blogs I do and I don't know if other bloggers have talked about local hamfests.  Should you go?  Well, yeah.  Why should you go?  That's marginally harder to answer because it kind of depends on your local show and you won't know unless you go.  The local hamfest is likely to have lots of used equipment for sale, quite possibly a lot of new equipment and lots of opportunities to learn.  The exact mix of used vs. new depends, again, on your particular show.  Melbourne used to have more new gear than it has had for the last couple of years as the commercial sellers have gone elsewhere one by one.  It's a good place to make meatspace connections with local hams. 

A lot of shows will feature talks by local groups of some sort, contest groups, public service, experimenters, or technical talks by individual hams.  This year featured a speaker from the local National Weather Service office with some storm spotter information and other things to know.  I attended a talk on Software Defined Radios a few years ago and there have been some good technical talks over the years.

All that said, it was pretty lame this year.  None of the big dealers were present, and really nobody selling anything other than new accessories from MFJ (kinda the big name in ham radio "do-dads").  If you wanted some 50 year old ham gear from Collins or Drake, they were there, along with a few Heathkits and other old gear.  I've been licensed since 1976 and there was gear there that was old when I started.   

People have been predicting the demise of the hamfest for almost as long as I can remember; certainly since eBay became a hamfest that's going 24/7/365.  If nothing else, they will evolve and change.  A problem this year was the city, who owns the place the hamfest was held, suddenly changed the rules making the tailgate swap area off limits for overnight camping.  If you're driving from far out of town, expecting to put out a table of gear, and then take it back in while you sleep in your RV, suddenly being told you can't do that is a big impact. 

The big hamfests seem to have a different niche and are doing better.  The Orlando Hamcation is doing well and bills themselves as the "second largest hamfest" in the US, behind the "granddaddy", Dayton Hamvention.  Usually just referred to as "Dayton" by hams; as in "you goin' to Dayton this year?";  Hamvention has outlived the city's HARA arena it has been held in forever and this year moved to nearby Xenia, Ohio.  Behind those two, though, and a handful of large ones, how well they'll do is an open question.   

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Two Conflicting Stories of the Las Vegas Shooting

Last Friday, the generally insightful and funny Mark Steyn was on Fox and Friends and told a story of a contact he had.  Mark Steyn narrates from his web site:
On Friday morning I started the day on the curvy couch with "Fox & Friends" to discuss the latest developments in the Las Vegas attack and the Democrats' push for "gun control". The perpetrator of the deadliest single-shooter massacre in US history is so unlike his predecessors that it seems to me that nothing in his history is coincidental: there is a reason for everything, even if we will never know it - all the way down to, for example, such peripheral details as the fact that he owned property in both Mesquite, Nevada and Mesquite, Texas.

It is also interesting to note that Stephen Paddock apparently cased the "Life is Beautiful" concert in Las Vegas, headlined by the rapper Chance. The victims at that event would have been very different from those at the country music festival, and the press coverage would have been, too: Democrats would have stampeded down the "white supremacy" track rather than "gun control". One senses that the killer, in his cold calculations, was aware, for whatever reason, of all these factors.

Among the many emails I've received is this one, from a gentleman at a London think tank whose job is to focus on "the analysis of economic and political issues and outcomes".
Mark then outlines the case this "gentleman at a London think tank" proposes as Paddock's motive.  The think tank guy proposes that Paddock deliberately conceived and executed the attack to cause the focus on gun control.  I'm going to excerpt parts of it and then tell you why I disagree.  I think there's an alternative explanation that's just as plausible.
The fact pattern in this event is striking for not fitting any known profile. In particular:

The gentleman concerned had no known political or religious affiliations.

The level of premeditation is unusual and crystal clear from his mass buying of guns and the cautious systematic smuggling operation to ferry them to his room together with the illegal modifications and the position of the room he chose and occupied for several days beforehand.
This man amassed (rough figures) 24 guns in the hotel and another 19 at his home - 42 guns in total. He spent some $100,000 on buying them. The guns at his home are one thing but he also spent days filling his hotel room with more weapons and ammunition than he could ever conceivably use along with an array of advanced modifications and accessories.

Everything brand new. And very expensive. And mostly entirely redundant. Representing in effect an enormous waste of money and time and risk.

Except that is in the realm of generating massive publicity. Guaranteed massive publicity.
this gentleman did not simply fail to leave behind a motive; He took substantial trouble to ensure that no motive could be found - or attributed to him. All of which can lead us to only one conclusion:

It has been said that 'the medium is the message'.

In this case that is the literal truth. There is only one plausible motive for what this man did. And here it is:

This man wished to telegraph to America in graphic form the hard irrefutable evidence that guns and gun ownership and the ease of gun purchase in America are an evil and must be controlled.  On that hypothesis everything now makes sense. ... [emphasis added - SiG]
I have two problems with this argument.  First is that it inherently contradicts itself.  How does one say the guy has "no known political or religious affiliation" and then say he martyred himself for a political argument?   His political affiliation is known and on display right there!  The very concept behind his explanation contradicts the idea Paddock has no known political affiliation - unless one thinks of guns as being so universally despised that no political affiliation exists.  Anyone in America knows that's false, and in my mind can only be reconciled by the author from "a London think tank" being anti-gun himself. 

The second problem I have with the argument leans on the first: the author reaches this conclusion because the author already thinks America needs more gun control.  The author is imposing his own agenda on Paddock.

If, indeed, the medium is the message and Paddock was trying to focus attention on gun control, I can argue that there's an alternative interpretation that fits the facts just as well.  Paddock could have been saying that gun control is futile.  He could have been saying, "it doesn't matter that automatic weapons are outlawed or highly regulated; it doesn't matter that we have background checks, it doesn't matter that you prohibit "high capacity" magazines, it doesn't matter that you declare gun free zones, and it doesn't matter what control measures you put in place.  Someone that's determined to commit mass murder can do this".  The problem isn't the gun, it's the shooter's heart so fixing it doesn't start with guns it starts with fixing hearts.  If there are lessons to the last century, this is one of the big ones.

Perhaps Samuel L. Jackson wouldn't mind giving us a good quote to wrap this up tonight.  

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Hurricanes are Nowhere Near as Scary As This

Lost in 24/7 news cycle about a big name Hollyweird producer playing casting couch with any hot young aspiring actress he came across - not to mention assorted fruits, vegetables and barnyard animals - was a scary story out of the Canary Islands.  The Canary Islands, off the NW coast of Africa, are the home to La Palma a volcano that ought to scare the snot out of you if you live anywhere in the Western Hemisphere that's on the Atlantic or on water connected to it and under a few hundred feet in elevation.  If you live inland, and there's a ridge that high between you and the ocean, you're probably OK; otherwise, you might want to pay attention.
The islands of La Palma, Tenerife and Gran Canaria have now been rocked by 50 tremors after a “swarm of seismic” movement of low magnitude between 1.5 and 2.7 were measured. 

Express.co.uk reported on Tuesday the islands, popular holiday destinations with Britons, had been struck by 40 earthquakes in just 48 hours.
This is reminiscent of the earthquake swarms in Yellowstone over the last few months, which prompted a lot of "what if the Yellowstone volcano blows?" speculation.  Similar thoughts go here, but the threat is entirely different. 

The shape of La Palma hints that a likely scenarios is for the southwest slope of the volcano to slide into the sea.  This would create a tsunami that puts the 2011 Japanese tsunami into the "tiny" category.  Perhaps millions of cubic feet of rock and dirt sliding into the Atlantic at hundreds of miles per hour.  Displacing millions of cubic feet of water. 
The physics-based simulations of what would happen have yielded predictions for much of the Atlantic coast line.  Tsunamis behave differently in the open ocean than along beaches and shorelines and the shape of the underwater slopes cause the local effects that will be experienced.  The calculations predict tsunamis of 20 to 30 meters high along the entire US east coast, followed shortly by tsunamis of 10 - 20 meters along the gulf coast.  All this transpires about 7 to 9 hours after the volcano slides into the ocean.

Over the years, there have been many big budget movies based on the idea that some number of people suddenly find out they had days or hours left to live. The one kids talked about when I was in 8th or 9th grade was "On the Beach", about Australians waiting around after a thermonuclear war, knowing they all would die.  Much more recently, "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" both showed society waiting for Earth to be hit by a recently discovered comet.  The reality of a big slide is something like the last two, waiting for the impact tsunami to hit.

Are you in a position where you could get to a couple of hundred feet elevation in a short drive?  How about in under 8 hours?  You'd have to be ready to hit the road the moment you heard the volcano blew.  Every reporting station in the area would be wiped out, but other seismographic stations would report quickly.  Like so many other situations, it would be better to leave an hour early than a minute late.  We've just seen the problem in Florida during the Irma evacuation.  There's really only two highways out of the state.  It seems that being on one of Florida's highest elevations might be enough to survive. 

Either that, if you have a boat, get in the boat and prepare to be buffeted around by currents and floating debris.  From what I recall seeing of the Japanese tsunami in 2011, the "seas" in the sense of waves are not a problem, it's the floating crap and obstacles.  Those are NOT trivial, but nothing about this scenario is. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

This Looks Like a Job For...

Us.  Not a superhero; you, me and everyone around here who knows how to do stuff.

According to Zero Hedge, Home Depot suddenly realized that they were having to hang their business on the millennial generation and few of them knew how to use the products they sell.
While avocado resellers like Whole Foods only have to worry about creating a catchy advertising campaign to attract millennials, Home Depot is in full-on panic mode after realizing that an entire generation of Americans have absolutely no clue how to use their products.  As the Wall Street Journal points out, the company has been forced to spend millions to create video tutorials and host in-store classes on how to do everything from using a tape measure to mopping a floor and hammering a nail.

Home Depot's VP of marketing admits she was originally hesitant because she thought some of their videos might be a bit too "condescending" but she quickly learned they were very necessary for our pampered millennials.
In June the company introduced a series of online workshops, including videos on how to use a tape measure and how to hide cords, that were so basic some executives worried they were condescending. “You have to start somewhere,” Mr. Decker says.

Lisa DeStefano, Home Depot vice president of marketing, initially hesitated looking over the list of proposed video lessons, chosen based on high-frequency online search queries. “Were we selling people short? Were these just too obvious?” she says she asked her team. On the tape-measure tutorial, “I said ‘come on, how many things can you say about it?’ ” Ms. DeStefano says.
As if to underline things, Zero Hedge posts the Home Depot "How to Use a Tape Measure" video.  Let me tell you: it's not a new phenomenon.  Around 1980, I was running the Quality Assurance department in an electronics factory.  I was amazed that adults in my group, 20 or 30-something women for the most part, couldn't read a ruler.   

My first thought when I saw this was, "it can't just be Home Depot; what about all the other companies that cater to Do It Yourself crowd"  What about all the companies for home woodworker's tools?  What about the tool importers?  Sure enough, they report that Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. has started offering gardening lessons for young homeowners that cover basic tips—really, really basic—like making sure sunlight can reach plants. 
Companies such as Scotts, Home Depot Inc., Procter & Gamble Co. , Williams-Sonoma Inc.’s West Elm and the Sherwin-Williams Co. are hosting classes and online tutorials to teach such basic skills as how to mow the lawn, use a tape measure, mop a floor, hammer a nail and pick a paint color. 
To be honest, this doesn't seem like that big of a difference.  For a long time, up until about '09, Home Depot's slogan was, "you can do it, we can help" and they regularly had classes in how to build a deck or put down ceramic tiles.  It seems they're starting a bit lower on the skills ladder, but they've always been in the business of helping the average guy buy their products.
Millennials are naturally the group that Home Depot and other retailers have to appeal to.  It's almost an iron law of demographics, that people spend more in their mid-20s to mid-30s than older populations do.  When a couple is just getting started, they spend more on getting into a house, spend more on fixing it up, spend more on many things than older people.  This slows down for a couple in their 40s to 50s because the older couple is more likely to have already spent their money making their nest they way they like it, or they don't have as many things left they want to spend it on.  Older still, and they're more likely to be deliberately down sizing in preparation for retirement. 
The data here are a little surprising.  As I expect, homebuyers by age tilt heavily toward the millennials; the percentage of homeowners who made improvements in the last year also tilts toward them, but not as strongly.  The other two plots: housekeeping supplies and household furnishings tilt exactly the opposite way, showing a strong lead to boomers, and I just don't expect that. 

Where I planned for this at the start is how we as people who do things can help.  Whether you're repairing your own car's - or lawn mower's - engine, pouring your own concrete, building a backyard deck, welding, or repairing household appliances, you know more than someone who knows nothing about it.  We can help teach.  Zero Hedge linked to an older article on their site full of ideas for things to learn.  I bet between us we've got it covered.

Monday, October 9, 2017

As Promised - An Engine

As promised last week, a running little steam engine.  As I said, the plans and a kit of stock came from Little Machine Shop (LMS). They sell a 2 DVD set of instructions and demos of how to make the engine made by company called SwarfRat . Don't recall if I got the plans from SwarfRat or LMS, but I think it was from SwarfRat.  Since this is pretty much a beginner machining project, if you're buying the LMS kit, you will probably benefit from the DVDs. 

This is my first little engine, and a fun project.  Although I used the CNC mill, it was almost exclusively used as a drill press with accurate readouts for where (in X and Y) and how deep to drill.  Aside from that, the mill was just used to square the two pieces of plate to size.  LMS says the engine can be made with a lathe the size of a Sherline and a drill press; I think that's right.  The majority of the project was lathe work, turning the flywheel and smaller, but more fiddly crank wheel (you literally cut away something like 80% of the aluminum you start with).  The cylinder is machined on the lathe with the four jaw chuck because of the square shape (doesn't go well with a three jaw chuck) and the need to drill and size the cylinder about 1/8" off center of the 1" square block it's made from, and then the cylinder is reamed to a final diameter.  In this case 0.499"  - here's my 0.499 reamer as the cut is starting.
After reaming the cylinder, the chuck is put back to centered, the four-sided cylinder cut to final length, drilled for a single intake and exhaust hole into the cylinder and another hole drilled and tapped one for a long, spring loaded screw that holds it to the upright part of the support.  Finally, the four jaw is replaced with the conventional three-jaw and the piston cut to fit the cylinder. 

Naturally, I did some things wrong and made some mistakes.  I've always said that life, much like working in the shop, is all about recovering gracefully from screwups.  The graceful recovery I get the biggest chortle from concerned a very minor part: a little steel pin: 0.142" diameter that's supposed to be threaded to 6-32 for 0.350" and then cut to be only 0.600" long.  I had only one die for 6-32, in a cheap Hazard Fraught tap and die set, and it simply wouldn't cut the steel.  In an effort to help it out, I trimmed back the pin from.142 to .134, which is probably too small in diameter to thread properly.  The die still wouldn't cut this soft, steel pin and just roughened the end.  In a final test, I turned back a little scrap of 1/4" diameter aluminum to .140 and tried cutting it with the die.  I could feel it cutting, but when I went to unscrew the die, all I found was the end of the aluminum pin sort of gnawed off with a large step in diameter. 

So I had to order a die.  I discovered these dies - with a built in die wrench (the eBay seller - no relation, etc.).  When it got in, I thought that I had messed up the pin too badly.  So where do I get a .140 pin or "rod" of it to cut?  At some point while pondering, one of the voices in my head said, "why not a nail?"  I didn't even know if I could thread a nail, but after a quick test showed that it would cut, I cut off the head and chucked up a few inch long piece of nail from my junk collection.  It was .160 diameter, so I turned it to the right size and threaded the nail.  The new die worked perfectly. 
This is just as I was preparing to cut it to length with the cutoff tool on the lathe.  The pin is in the engine as you see it.

There are more stories from making it, but probably not worth getting into.  While it's "done", I'll probably work on this a bit more.  It has had very little finish work done to it.  I'd like the look of a polished aluminum version, but that means taking it completely apart and lots of sanding time.  Still, it might be worth it.  

I've had it completely built since Friday, but was unable to test it because I didn't have a way to get compressed air from my compressor to the engine.  The last couple of days were spent coming up with ways to do that and rounding up parts around town.