Wednesday, November 30, 2011

First rule of new ideas

If you think of something you think is awesome there is a very good chance somebody else already thought of it. First step when you think you have a new invention is to look it up. It's called Prior Art in the patent biz. And it's FUCKING COMMON SENSE! There are 7 billion people in the world. If you have a one in a million idea then 7000 people had the same idea. Get a load of this press release from NC State. They modified this baby seat and did some ergonomic research on it and released “Comparison of infant car seat grip orientations and lift strategies”

This made me all ranty. Why is an engineering school using this embarrassing PVC pipe mockup of a better car seat handle when THIS ALREADY EXISTS IN THE REAL WORLD? I don't know a thing about babies. I don't have one, don't have any close friends with one, nothing. But I am alive and observant and I just know I've seen one of these and thought, "Oh, that's a good idea." In under 10 seconds of searching I found this one.
Now come on NC State. Couldn't you have sprung for a model already on the market and compared those? I'm pretty sure that obscene franken-handle with the exposed bolt threads did nothing to decrease the weight. You couldn't get a doll that looked embarrassed to put in there? At least one pretending to be asleep so her friends don't see her in that thing.

I actually used to do some consulting for a mechanical design company back when I was professionally viable. They had a client that made baby stuff in China to sell at Walmart. They had me do some sewing work on a prototype baby bathtub that was a sort of hammock framed thing. Our main objective for the design was that it be stackable. Walmart wanted to optimize shelf space. I don't think these seats are stackable at all. Might not be a Walmart type product. Still, of all the things that can make a car seat more fancy and expensive I think putting a little kink in the molded plastic handle is pretty cheap. I hope it catches on. I'm not going to depend on NC State to drive innovation though.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Pedant and the Advent Calendar

I relate to this article in The Guardian: Your moons are rubbish, astronomer tells Christmas card artists.
Peter Barthel... belongs to that group of scientists who notice things that most of us, through ignorance or lack of pedantry, are happy to overlook.
Oh, I'm definitely in that group.
"The lack of knowledge concerning the physical origin of the moon phases, or lack of interest in understanding, is found to be widespread," Barthel concludes.
No kidding. One of my in-law cousins (who is a degreed electrical engineer and should know better) came back from a trip to India and told me that the moon comes up in the middle of the day there! Umm, yeah? It does that everywhere! She just wasn't paying attention to the sky for the first 35 years of her life.
In the paper, Barthel answers the question that fast comes to mind: who cares? The errors are innocent, he says, akin to impossible rainbows that have the red arch drawn on the inside instead of the outside. "Now, watching beautiful natural phenomena like rainbows and moon crescents is one thing, but understanding them makes them all the more interesting. Moreover, understanding leads to knowledge that lasts," he writes.

The phases of the moon are easy to grasp. A full moon is directly opposite the sun with respect to the Earth, and so rises at sunset and sets at sunrise. A waning moon, moving from its third quarter to a new moon, has its left side illuminated to create this shape ( in the northern hemisphere. It rises around 3am and is visible very late at night or in the early hours of morning.

A waxing moon, on the way to its first quarter, has its right side lit and looks like this ) in the northern hemisphere. This type of moon is visible from afternoon twilight into the evening.

I don't think any of these proper orientations would detract from the artistry of the card, especially since most of them offend me on some other level anyway. Might as well scale back the pedantic wrath by getting one thing right. It reminds me of watching sci-fi, like Avatar. I don't mind about the future stuff they made up. But the things they got wrong that are current, every day things, it's just distracting. Maybe if these things are depicted properly people will appreciate the importance of them. The moon is a gateway celestial body. I'd like more people to care about exploring other planets and moons.

I noticed yesterday while I was watching the Mars Science Lab launch that there were less than 7000 people watching the live stream. This is a big deal! NASA is sending a rover the size of a small car to another planet to measure it and send back data. We've only sent things there a handful of times. Lots of missions to Mars don't even make it. I want to know how it's going to turn out, as it happens! But how many people watched Kim Kardashian get married? Out of how many marriages that happen every day? And they do and say the same thing in all of them! Why is that at all interesting!?! It's ALL been done. It's even over already. I would like to see Kim Kardashian's marriage end with an orange and white striped parachute and a skid mark on the steppes of Kazakhstan. The Soyuz landings always seem slightly undignified to me, as does everything associated with reality celebrities. Well, for them, very undignified.

Expedition 29 Landing (201111220002HQ)
Expedition 29 Landing (Nov 22, 2011) Photo NASA, Bill Ingalls

My favorite part of the Mars Science Lab launch was video of spacecraft separation. I saw they had that for the Aquarius launch and it just tickles me to no end!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Rate Debate

I didn't have to do any long distance driving this holiday weekend, thank goodness. But my brother brought my niece Kate up from south Florida and my step-sister Beverly was in town from South Carolina. I thought it was the perfect time to attempt my first scripted video, with cast and lines, costumes and locations (all less than a mile from my house.) Kate is in the 10th grade but she already has more training in this kind of thing than I do. She's in the TV Academy in her high school. They have professional cameras and boom mics and all kinds of stuff I would love to have. I just used my trusty old Casio EX-FH20 to shoot this. My budget was $36 for a genuine military BDU coat and a sheriff patch from Amazon.

My step-sister Bev is no amateur. She moved out of New York and is taking a break from professional comedy because she has small children. Looks like she hasn't updated her website in over a year. (I can relate.) My graphic designer friend Stephen Leacock came up from Tallahassee to play the part of the do-right man. Kate and I planned ahead so we only took an hour of their time, not counting making them drive out to my house. I am not very comfortable with asking people to do stuff for me. I think I need to embrace wasting other people's time if I ever do this again because I pretty much only had one usable take for each clip. Camera was out of focus, or just not even recording, when I thought it was good.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Radiosonde in the Pond

Today I did my last heinous chore before I can go full hermit -- got a new drivers license and car tag. Out here in the country that involves going to the county seat of two different counties. On the way back I passed a boat ramp on the local tributary of the Gulf of Mexico so I stopped to see how low the water is. Very low. I made a mental note that I need to go back with a trash bag and some gloves so I can clean up around there, then I realized I was going to need more than that to get the washing machine and bed somebody had dumped in the river. This is one of the things that makes me so uncomfortable with this society. I really don't want to know anybody who would throw a washing machine and a bed in a river.
When I got home I decided to walk to the pond down the hill from my house to see if I could catch some gambusias (Gambusia holbrooki, aka mosquitofish) to put in my birdbathtub. I couldn't get close enough to the water's edge because the bottom of the pond is a very spongey mat supported by water lily roots. But the closer I got the more water came up around my feet so I decided to try again wearing my shrimp boots.

As I was walking back I saw a piece of trash. Here?! There is no trash in our pond! It's entirely contained on our property. So I went to pick it up to carry it back in my empty bucket. It was a waterproof envelope. How'd that get in the pond? I imagined loose paperwork flying out of a forestry service helicopter. But it was better.
NOAA is dropping their mail in my pond? I must have still been impaired from the fugue state I put myself in during the hour and a half wait at the drivers license office where 30 people were talking loudly to each other, their cell phones, and their babies. What is this envelope doing here of all places? In a dried-up pond?

I pondered this while I took a few more steps and then I found what I assumed was the remains of a radiosonde.
The configuration of this lump of corrosion separated by sheets of something non-corrosive leads me to believe it used to be a capacitor/battery. The wire harness next to it looked pristine though. I picked it up and put it in the bucket and then got distracted by a phone call. An hour or so later I started thinking about it again and realized I should look to see if there was anything IN the envelope. No, but there was something written on the outside once I unfolded it all the way.
Oh, I get it. They attach the envelope to the radiosonde when they release it so if you find it you can send it back. I'm pretty sure they can't recondition this one. It's interesting that the only three parts that survived in the pond and in the sun was the wire, some of the battery, and the NOAA - National Weather Service Radiosonde Reconditioning Group mailing envelope. 

(I really hope when I go full hermit I get back some of my mental faculties. I should have figured this out much faster.)

I had a friend that was in an '80s cover band with a bunch of meteorologists and I tried to get them to use the name Rocketsonde after they vetoed Hose Clamp (which I still think is the best name for a metal band EVAH!) They called themselves Decade of Excess, which I desperately opposed because I remember the '80s and there was nothing excessive about it. I was broke the whole time. Radiosonde would be a good name for a band too, maybe an R.E.M. tribute band.

It occurs to me now that there may be some people that haven't heard of a radiosonde or a rocketsonde. (See? I'm stupid! What is this impairment?!) A radiosonde measures things like temperature and pressure and logs them relative to altitude and position and transmits it back to a ground station. You can drop it out of a plane into a hurricane or send it up on a weather balloon or even shoot it up with a rocket. It's the internet so I'll look it up and put in a link. (I want my mind back! I just thought to Google "NOAA radiosonde.") Here's the description on the NOAA site. Oh, look a picture! It's just a chinese takeout container! No wonder there's nothing left but the envelope and the battery and the wire. According to the instructions for sending it back you're supposed to throw away the battery first anyway. 
(2) Remove and discard the battery inside the radiosonde. NOTE: The radiosonde battery (generating 8 to 18 volts, depending on the model used) is water soaked and uses a chemical containing sulfur. If the battery is still active when you find the radiosonde it may be hot to the touch and emit a strong odor and hissing sound for up to several more hours. Keep the instrument outside and wait until the battery has cooled off before removing it.
Yeah, it was water soaked alright! I feel bad for the radiosonde people now after reading this website.
The current radiosonde tracking systems are 1950's vintage and the data processing computer is a 1980's IBM PC/XT. These systems are obsolete and are increasingly difficult to maintain. NWS has begun a program to replace the ground systems at all NWS stations with a new GPS radiosonde system. The program has four objectives:

- Maintain system availability

- Reduce maintenance activity

- Use less radio frequency to avoid radio interference with other users

- Provide improved data sets with better wind accuracy and higher vertical resolution.

That's the saddest thing I've heard all day. I had an IBM PC/XT in the 1980s. I'm telling you, not a decade of excess. Good luck with that upgrade, National Weather Service. Maybe your next generation should be contained in whatever that envelope is made of. That thing is supreme.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

How to put your 'puter on a pole

My house is very small. I used to have a normal house in Atlanta. Actually it was a big house, over 3000 sq ft. But there was a bad recession in 2003, maybe you missed it if you weren't in high tech, but it hit high tech cities like Atlanta and San Jose bad. I was in a pretty bad fix. Then one day I was watching the Food Network on TV. Paula Deen was cooking fried chicken for President Jimmy Carter in his home town. She asked him, "You are a highly successful and famous man. You could live anywhere in the world. Why do you live in PLAINS, GEORGIA?!"

"Because that's where my land is," said Jimmy Carter.

Well slap me hard and call me Nelly! It's so simple! Why didn't I think of that?!

I hate my hometown. I mean, I loathe it. I was so happy when I left there to go to Georgia Tech when I was 17. It was the first time I ever met people (not relatives) that had things in common with me. It never occurred to me in the whole 20 years I lived in Atlanta to go back there. But that's where my land is. Jimmy Carter knows. It was the SOCIETY I didn't like there. I liked the land. That's where my land is.

So that's the beginning of how I came to live in a tiny house. I've been compared to Thoreau, that whole Walden Pond thing. Yeah, well his house was 15'x10', or 150 sq ft with no bathroom. If you don't count my bathroom my house is 12'x12', only 144 sq ft. And Thoreau only lived in his house for 2 years. He doesn't impress me.

I've looked at the plans for his house. I bet it was uncomfortable as hell. Drafty! My experiment is not just how to live without society, it's how to live WELL without society. I already beat Thoreau's 2 years on Walden Pond by living in my little house for 5 years before I went to Austin for a year. But now I'm back and it could be for good this time.

One of the difficulties of little house life is finding a place to work on the computer. When I first lived here I just had my laptop and it didn't work that great. My counter is too narrow. So I got a 20" iMac. It has a smaller footprint than a laptop. But while I was in Austin I got one of the new Mac minis. It has the new Thunderbolt interface. So I sold my regular Apple LCD Display in Austin and ordered one of the new Thunderbolt displays to be sent here. But good lord, that thing is huge. I can't just shove it to the end of the counter when I want to eat here. I need some mechanical advantage. I consulted my friend the professional home theater installer and he assured me that my idea to hang the whole outfit from the ceiling was valid. I got to doing my research and finally worked out a combination of institutional TV mounts and high end desk mounts. I ordered all the parts on Amazon (See Bill of Materials at the end). I finally got all of them Monday afternoon. I immediately started putting it together.

The ceiling is really the floor of my loft, which is the platform for my mattress. I already had a pair of bookshelf speakers mounted up there. I decided it was ridiculous to try to run the signal all the way to my giant amp under the ladder so I ordered a little amp too. I put my giant amp in my mini-warehouse with the rest of my home theater and put my printer down there instead. Now I have room for more food in my cupboard, which is where the printer used to live.

I propped the mattress up with a stool so I could start drilling holes from the bottom to mark where I wanted stuff to go. Then I went up in the loft and drilled a big ol' hole in the floor/ceiling. After I got that cleaned up enough to keep working I ran the wires to see how that was all going to work out.
Monitor power cord.

Mini power cord
DC power for the amp
Looking good! But I haven't plugged them in yet.
I put a UPS at the end of the bed to power all these goodies. Yes, that's another Mac mini and 27" TV in the loft at the foot of the bed. I like computers. Shut up.
OK, damn. That's plenty long enough for the mini, but the monitor is going to need a LOT more slack than that. I need an extension cord. I have to go look in the shed.
That nice tan-colored flat cord would work but I'm hesitant to disturb the ecosystem that has developed around it.
This orange outdoor rated one has a lot less spider webs on it. It only took me ten minutes to clean the bird and spider dookie off it enough to take it in the house. Two words -- baking soda.
OK, now we're in business. Cord reaches all the way to the counter.
But that cute round end Apple puts on their cords won't fit through the hole in the pipe.
No problem. Just go the other way.
So here it is screwed to the ceiling. The ceiling mount didn't come with any mounting screws or anything. I used Woodmate sheet metal screws. These are the same things I used to screw my roof to the wood purlins. They have a nice rubber gasket on them that squished all the way up in that oversized hole in the part and made it fit nice and snug. I painted them black later with some touch up paint that came with the aluminum table on my front porch. Next I mounted the articulating arm to the bottom of the pole but didn't take a picture.
Next step was to get the new monitor out and see how the VESA mount adapter works. It comes with a little plastic card you slide into the joint of the base and it unlatches it so you can get to the row of Torx head screws that hold it on the internal pivot. I am delighted to know how that works. I followed the clear instructions on how to make the swap.

The mounting point on the articulating arm has slots on top instead of holes so you can put the screws in the monitor and just drop it on and it will hold it there while you put the other screws in the holes and tighten them. Yeah, but it's still little ol' me lifting a 27 pound monitor above shoulder height while trying to see where the screws and slots are. I'm still feeling that 4 days later.

I got it on there though! I was so excited to see how it moved right where I wanted it plus out of the WAY! That's the old iMac on the other side of the counter. I could actually get another arm and mount the iMac on that same pole. But that's just ridiculous.

I still have to hook it up to the computer though. I got a little shelf that mounts on the pole. It's intended for DVD players for ceiling mounted TVs, but it's big enough for all my stuff.
I finally got it all done for the night and tested it out in Portrait mode. In case I want to feel like I'm at the airport? This monitor is too big for that.

The next morning when I was ready to mess around with my new computer some more I got a call from the glass company that they had my new window. Remember my fogged glass picture from a few weeks ago? Well I had somebody come look at it. They quoted me a price for a 1" air gap, low-e insulated window not that much different from what I just spent for all the components to hang a computer from the ceiling so I figured it was fair and ordered it. It only took them a few days to get it and then they gave me all of 20 minutes notice that they were on their way. I scrambled to move all loose objects that might be in the way. I still haven't put back all the stuff I piled in the bathtub. Man this house is small.

So here's the gross old window. I was very glad I made the loft ladder removable or we'd have never gotten that out and the new one in. I was struggling to remember the details of how I installed it in the first place. I was nervous about the sliding glass doors for windows.
I liked the house at this stage. But I was not sure how to do a rough opening for a sliding glass door turned plate glass window. I put off installing those.
I did all the other windows and a complete outdoor shower before I figured out how to put in that window. That Tyvek was working so well.
Look how pretty Tyvek windows are at night. This is the north side just before I moved in.
Here it is after I got that first repurposed sliding glass door in the opening. I had to have help with it because it was so heavy. My boyfriend came from Atlanta and helped me lift it up there. I moved in when the house was like this. It was November. I imagine this is what Thoreau's house was like. Fuck that. It was cold as hell. And there were a lot of wasps living up around the underside of the roof. Before they got aggressive in the spring I had the whole thing sealed up with spray foam. Thoreau would have never left Walden Pond if he'd had access to icynene insulation.

But my nostalgia is beside the point. I now have a window that cost more than all my other windows and doors put together. I need to devise an experiment to see if there is a measurable improvement in performance.
Price included installation! It didn't include redoing all the trim on the inside. It took me 5 more hours after they left to finish this job, plus another hour the next day to get the blinds cleaned and put back. I wiped every slat and rubbed off each fly speck with baking soda. (Did you know "fly speck" is housewife code for "spider shit"? Well, actually flies leave their own spots of shit, too, but because spiders hang out in the same spot for so long it really builds up. I clean it off my house exterior regularly because the smell of it attracts more flies.)
So here it is today, new window, computer on a pole, and overcast so I can take pictures and make a video to show how it works. I'm pretty pleased with it. I have to tweak the equalizer on iTunes a lot to get the audio to not be distorted in the high end, but that's not bad for a $35 amp (on sale) and $55 speakers from Parts Express. The LED on that amp is insanely bright. It lights up my whole kitchen at night. I now have my path to the bathroom fully illuminated with LEDs on devices. I have my Apple Time Capsule wall mounted in the bathroom so the green power LED shines right in the toilet. So this kind of seems right for my idiom.

Here's some finished project closeups. The underside of the loft is only 6'8" high so I can actually reach the back of the mini to pull out a camera memory card while seated. 

I tested this HP 6mp laser printer with the new mini running Lion yesterday. I'll be damned if it didn't just work! I am floored by this. I bought this printer new in about 1997, before USB was even invented. I think I paid as much for it as my Subzero refrigerator. It works with Mac OS7 and everything since. When I got my first USB powerbook I bought an $80 Belkin cable with a parallel connector on one end and a USB connector on the other. There was a setting in the old OS to pick the kind of connection you had, parallel, etc., and I was surprised as hell back then that it worked. I'm still surprised it works every time I get a new computer. At least seven different computers and every Apple OS works with this printer. You turn on the printer, connect to a USB port, boot up the computer, it sees the printer, and prints to it! It made an HP automatically. I searched the finder for HP 6mp to find it. I set the driver to the generic HP PCL driver and then ran Apple Software Updates. It automatically retrieved new Lion drivers from HP! I selected the HP Laserjet 6mp driver and now I think I've got the best I can get. I am still pretty staunchly paperless. I did without a printer at all in Austin for over a year. But as a hermit I might need to print out labels with bar codes so the UPS man can just pick up whatever I decide to sell on eBay. It can live under the ladder until I need it. I have no intention of ever buying another printer again, ever.

I made a video to show the range of motion of my new set-up.

Bill of Materials:
Ceiling Plate, Chief Mfg. CMA102, Quantity 2 (I put one on the bottom too because I thought it looked better than a pole ending in threads.)
Fixed Extension Column, 36", Chief Mfg. CMS036
Pole Mount Accessory Shelf, Chief Mfg. PAC102B
Dual Arm H/A Pole Mount, Chief Mfg. KPG110B

Thunderbolt Display
2.5 GHz Mac mini

DTA-1 audio amp

I got the speakers and mounting brackets years ago. I don't see the same kind of mounting brackets anymore. The speakers are similar to these.
MTX Monitor 5i bookshelf speakers

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Finger

As I drove home last week through the Deep South I kept having this automatic muscle reaction to certain roadside advertisements. My middle finger would just FLY up on the steering wheel. There are a LOT of religious billboards in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. There's an anti-abortion billboard right here in Beachton. I usually keep my displeasure at them to myself, even if I document it on my phone just because my involuntary physical reaction is interesting to me. I'm sure the people that put up those signs find me just as repulsive, so I'm not really sure I want to get right up in their face with my finger. I'll just keep it in my car. And on the internet apparently, where my people are stronger.
Back at ya!

I decided to put these pictures up here today because of this clip on the Daily Show.

It was a bit of an epiphany. "Oh, so you're doing it to be dicks!" I was trying to rationalize that my neighbors are basically nice and they are proselytizing because of some benign reason. But this actually makes more sense. I mean, I still think they are basically nice, but the bossing people around with the religion really is getting pretty dickish.

Also I told Defiant Marshmallow on Google+ that I would put up this picture related to yesterday's post. Jobs. Let's talk about jobs.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Florida provides health care for marine mammals, not for scientists

I get a lot of insulting job ads emailed to me by the State of Florida automated system. But this one struck me as particularly ironic. Here's a screen shot of the header.

The minimum wage in Florida is $7.31 per hour. So you get an extra $3.69 for this job with no benefits. Let's see what the qualifications are. Here's a screen shot.

So basically Florida is asking somebody with a bachelor's degree in science to take care of sick and injured manatees, dolphins and whales but they aren't offering this person any health insurance and definitely aren't paying enough for them to buy any on their own. I think it is important for the sake of tourism to have professionals show up to deal with beached whales and propellored manatees, but what the hell?

Shouldn't this professional get at least the same opportunity for health care? I'm the last person to think people are more important than wild animals, but I can see right through this travesty. This isn't saying a whale's well being is more important than a person, it's saying drawing tourists to the state is more important than respecting the professionalism of scientists. $11.00 an hour? A maximum of $11,440 and it's over? No benefits? Are they serious? Fuck that job!

As for that comment in the box, I'm glad at least they're doing something about that title. My first job out of school in 1989 my title was Technician. I can tell you it chapped me pretty bad. By the time I got hired in 2005 with the title Technician I was just grateful to get anything with insurance, but back when I was 21 the memory of what I went through to get my bachelor's degree was fresh. Also it says right there on my diploma that I have a "Bachelor of Science in Applied Physics with all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining." I think not being called a technician is one of those privileges. Apparently somebody is trying to explain this to Florida.

How are the "job creators" supposed to hire professionals in a respectful way when the public institutions set such a bad example? And how can Rick Perry and those other idiots claim that scientists are motivated to lie about global warming because it gets them more money? What the hell money?! ELEVEN DOLLARS AN HOUR! That's only $0.625 an hour more than I get on unemployment. (If you divide my weekly Texas unemployment benefits by 40 hours. In contrast, Florida pays a lot smaller unemployment benefit. $11/hr is actually $4.125 more than you'd get on full unemployment benefits in Florida. By having unemployment benefits less than minimum wage they do sort of encourage people to take any shitty job. Of course it's not working. People just leave. That's why it was so much cheaper for me to drive that truck from Austin to Jacksonville than the other direction.)

But somebody will take this job. Some young environmental science major who grew up on a lake driving their dad's ski boat and they still have their room at their parent's house. And they will lie to their mother and tell her they have health insurance.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


I see on Twitter the start of many activities for November. Grow a mustache for Movember to promote men's health, write a book at 500 words a day for NaNoWriMo.

I guess this kind of group activity and support works for a lot of people, but I really don't get it. I'll write when I damn well feel like it. November is not the boss of me.

I like that Movember coincides with the 7 billionth baby being born. All the friends I have participating in Movember are non-breeders. As in they seriously don't want to ever have children. It makes me wish there was some kind of promotional event for that part of men's health. How to not have babies, how to still get dates when women find out you never want children, things like that. Not wanting children is worse than being an atheist for making a woman dump a man, according to my friends.

Since November isn't the boss of me but I'm standing here writing this anyway I'll just write badly and change the subject randomly, just to spite November.

Has anybody seen a news story about the first person to die after the 7 billionth baby was born? That would be fair and balanced.