Thursday, December 8, 2016

A better map of the 2016 election results...

A better map of the 2016 election results...  Friend, former colleague, and not-yet-escaped Californian Simon M. sent this along.  It's an interactive “prism map” of the county-by-county election results (a snapshot of this is at right).  The color of each county shows a summary of how the county voted, from dark blue for massively pro-Clinton to dark red for massively pro-Trump.  That much is familiar, as it's been used on many web sites.  The height of each county shows something else, though: the relative number of votes in each county.  Here you can see why even though most of the area of the country is red (pro-Trump), the massive number of votes in the blue (pro-Clinton) counties has even more votes.  Most of this map actually looks like a bunch of blue towers on a red lawn.  Utah has its own small blue tower, in the counties encompassing Salt Lake City.  All of the other blue towers are also counties containing cities.  On the entire map there are just a few reddish towers.

As I mentioned, the map is interactive.  Play with it for a few minutes and you'll gain some insight about the geographical dimension of our country's polarized politics.  For example, take a long look at Texas.  I spent some time looking at the population desert that is the part of the American West that I love, and that I live smack in the middle of – that bodes poorly for our future, I'm afraid, with massive populations all around us.  There's a blog post about the map as well.

Paradise ponders, broken weather forecast edition...

Paradise ponders, broken weather forecast edition...  The current weather forecast calls for a low temperature of 27°F today.  The current temperature is 7.1°F.  Apparently the weather man can't be bothered with looking out his window!  I ventured outside, very briefly, in just my jeans and short-sleeved shirt – I dashed out to turn on the yard lights when I let the dogs out.  I wasn't sure how awful it would be, but it actually wasn't too bad.  I got my coat on before I walked over to my office in the barn a few minutes ago – I think that 50' or so would have been too much in shirtsleeves at this temperature!  I enjoyed the crunchy granola sound my feet made in the snow; it's very different when it's so cold.

Well, yesterday I did manage to actually finish the last bits of the mud room wiring.  Even better: our builder showed up with the trim for the inside of the new front door, and he installed it.  This trim was tricky because it had to fit the curve of the arched top window – that's a bit hard to do with wood (though not impossible if you happen to own a steam cabinet).  Arched windows are common these days, though, and the construction industry came up with an alternative: flexible trim made out of a rubbery plastic, pre-curved to approximately the right radius and then adjustable (slightly) to fit the actual window.  Now I have a new job: caulk and paint that new trim. :)

I received a Fedex package from Tesla Motors, and of course my first thought was that they were going to tell me my car was ready.  Alas, that was not the case – though the first sentence was encouraging:
“Your Tesla Model X will be ready for delivery very soon.” 
Of course, “very soon” is one of those painfully ambiguous terms that could mean five minutes or five years.  Sigh.

So what was this package about?  Well, it turns out that it contained a temporary registration and an application for an actual registration, along with a form declaring delivery outside the state of California.  The temporary registration was for California, though – as was the application for actual registration.  Ack!  I thought there was some mistake, and immediately called my Tesla contact.

That's when I got a little education into the silly things that Tesla has to do in order to sell cars in Utah (and most other states, too).  They are not licensed to sell cars in Utah because the car dealers lobby has successfully (so far) lobbied to require new care sales to be handled through a dealer – not directly from the manufacturer.  Of course, Tesla has no dealers, they only sell direct.  This much I already knew, but I also knew that I could buy the car directly and then pick it up from the Tesla showroom in Salt Lake City.  I wasn't clear why that was ok even though the showroom wasn't a dealership, though.  Well, now I know.  It's because I have to buy the car through the state of California, then transfer my registration to Utah.  Tesla can deliver the car to Utah, but they can't actually sell it to me here.  So we play this silly game of buying it in California but delivering it to me here.  There's no money involved, just a bunch of paperwork – wasting everybody's time and energy but accomplishing nothing.

It's another great example of government getting in the way of a simple transaction, then of a business cleverly finding a way around the issue.  In this case, Utah – generally very much a pro-business state – is actually making it harder for Tesla to do business here, but is protecting a group (new car dealers) that donate a great deal of money to politicians each year.  At the same time, they're dealing themselves out of some sales tax revenue – I'm paying California sales tax, not Utah (and if you know me well, you'll understand just how much that pains me!).

The car dealership's behavior is certainly understandable: they make their money mostly on maintenance and warranty repairs, kickbacks on financing, upsells, and some on the direct profit margin of the car sale (though that's much less than most people think).  When cars broke down every few hundred miles (as they did when I was young), one could make a good case for the need of a dealer nearby, with a stock of parts and expertise.  Cars these days, though, are vastly more reliable than they used to be – and at the same time, modern logistics has practically eliminated the need for local stocks of parts (you can overnight a part from Shanghai if need be).  Then there's the fact that the Internet allows the instant delivery of any car's maintenance manual to any garage, almost anywhere on Earth.  What essential function does a dealer provide these days?  None, is the obvious answer.  So now that they can't justify their existence on business grounds, they've managed to get laws passed in many states that mandates their existence – and without those laws, they'd almost certainly be out-competed by alternatives.  One such alternative is Tesla with their direct sales model and manufacturer-provided maintenance, so they're fighting it as hard as they can.  I think they know that they're fighting a war they'll lose in the long run, but like a drowning rat they're paddling as long as they can...

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Why most customer support organizations would like to strangle their engineering teams, part 77,432...

Why most customer support organizations would like to strangle their engineering teams, part 77,432...  This morning we received an electric heater that we bought to warm up our sun room in the winter.  The room is built with double-pane glass, but there's no heat to it, so the cold seeps in anyway.  We got one that resembles a wood-burning stove, complete with “flames” and glowing embers.  The photo at right is the store photo of the model we got.

Naturally, it was a kit, though it was an easy one: I just had to screw 12 screws into the four short legs.  I put it on its legs, turned the power switch on in the back, and started test it.  I could turn the front-panel power button on and off, control the timer function, and adjust the brightness of the fake flames and embers – but when I tried to set the temperature, I just got an “E3” in the numeric display.  I figured that was an error code, so I read the manual from front-to-back trying to find it.  No luck.  Then I called the manufacturer's service number (to their credit, prominently written on the manual) and got a recording saying they'd get back to me within a day.  I left the requested message and figured I'd be lucky if I heard from them within a week, given the season.

But an hour later, the phone rang and a friendly lady named Jolanda asked me what was going on.  I described the issue to her, and she said “Oh, you have the interlock switch on - you need to turn it off.”  I had not seen any interlock switch, nor did the manual mention one at all.  I did find a “heater enable” switch, and I had turned that on.  I told Jolanda that, and she said that that was the interlock switch, and it needed to be off, not on.  Huh?  You can see the switch and label on my unit in the photo at left.  Does that look to you as though you need the switch to be in the off position in order for it to work?  One can only imagine how many calls their poor customer support people are getting!  And all because some disconnected-from-any-sense-of-reality engineer decided that turning a switch on should turn the heater off.  I asked Jolanda if this “feature” was limited to this model, and she said “Oh, no, sir - all our heaters are made this way!”  You could cut her contempt for engineering with a knife.  I decided it would be better not to let her know that I was a retired engineer. :)

Pearl Harbor Day...

Pearl Harbor Day...  75 years ago today the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  Over 2,000 Americans were killed, and more than 1,000 wounded.  The attack led directly to the American entry into WWII, both in Europe and in the Pacific.

A few days ago I read that amongst Americans under 40 years old, less than one in ten can identify the nations that were the attacker and defender in the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Less than half of those could place the event in the correct century, and only half of those in the correct decade.  Sometimes I'm a bit relieved to know I won't be around when that crowd is in control...

Paradise ponders, snowy future edition...

Paradise ponders, snowy future edition...  Check out our ten day forecast at right (click to embiggen).  All that purple area represents periods with a significant chance of snow.  If we were to hit the maximums on the snow forecasts, we'd have 26" of snow on the ground.  Yikes!

I did a bit of electrical work on the mud room yesterday, including the only challenging bits remaining (locating the holes I'd cut into the OSB sheathing before wall board was put up).  I've got a half hour or so to do today, and then the mud room is completely finished and ready for the cabinet maker to get started.  Woo hoo!  Well, come to think of it, that's not quite true.  On the outside of the mud room I have yet to mount a doorbell switch and the house numbers.  Next spring, when the ground becomes workable again, we'll be putting in a walkway to the driveway, putting stone over the concrete porch, and mounting railings.  So probably I should say the mud room is now usable.  Still a huge milestone for us!

Yesterday we had a load of firewood delivered, the first firewood we've actually purchased up here.  This is because we now have an actually working fireplace that we are using on a near-daily basis, and we've run through all the split firewood our neighbors gave us.  Also I wanted to get hardwood instead of the (mainly) softwoods we've been burning; it burns cleaner and hotter.  So I located a source, and he delivered his last available load of hardwood yesterday.  It's about 2/3 of a full cord, nicely cut to 16" or shorter, and split in a nice mix of sizes.  It's all dry, and best of all, it's all a mix of species: black walnut, black locust, oak, maple, ash, plum, apple, Chinese elm, and some others I can't identify.  I feel guilty burning some of this stuff, as it's gorgeous.  In fact, I've asked the vendor to save me some full logs (not split) for turning on the lathe next year.  He gets all this wood from the tree trimming he does, so it's all from people's yards within about a 50 mile radius.

We had our first fire with this wood yesterday evening, and it was all we'd hoped for: five piece of wood burned like a blast furnace for six hours; our heater didn't run at all in that time.  The recirculating hot-air system in our fireplace works great with such a hot fire.  One thing I didn't really anticipate: the hardwood smells good when its burning.  So far the plum wood is my favorite for the aroma.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Paradise ponders, almost single digits edition...

Paradise ponders, almost single digits edition...  As I write this, the temperature outside is 10.1°F; it's clear and the sky is full of bright stars.  My walk out to the barn at 5 am was a veritable crunch-fest – the snow remaining on the driveway had partly melted and then refroze in the cold night, turning the powdery snow into something like a fluffy ice cube.  I ventured outside onto our deck in just my shirtsleeves; it didn't really feel all that cold to me.  Acclimated, I am becoming...

Yesterday I got the lighting in the mud room all wired up and tested.  It all worked on the first try, amazingly enough.  The photo at right shows what our home's new entrance looks like at night, with both the chandelier inside the mud room and the lights outside turned on.

This lighting was just a bit trickier to wire up than you might think, because there is a feature we wanted that complicates things.  We wanted the outside lights to come on under either of two circumstances: when motion is detected outside, or when the interior chandelier is on.  We did not want the interior chandelier to come on if motion was detected – only if the switch was turned on.  Making this work required a double-pole, single-throw (DPST) relay.  The relay is energized when motion is detected.  When there is no motion detected, the outside lights are connected to the chandelier's switch.  When there is motion detected, the outside lights are connected to power.  Simple enough, but more complicated than a simple switched light.

Back in October, when the county inspector came out to check over the mud room's electrical work, this relay circuit was the subject of an amusing (for me, anyway) conversation.  The inspector had a basic idea of how a relay worked, but had never seen one used in a building.  He didn't know if there were any code requirements.  I showed him my circuit diagram, and he was completely lost.  Out loud he said that he didn't know any basis on which he could either approve or disapprove the work.  He asked me if I knew what I was doing. :)  I had mounted the relay inside a standard 4" utility box; other than the relay itself everything about the installation was bog-standard.  So, desperate to move the inspector past this obstacle, I pointed out that the relay was UL-approved.  “Well,” said the inspector, “that’s all right then!” – and with that we were approved. 

That made me curious, and I did some research into the building code myself (it's all online here, so that was easy).  I found just one reference, where it was mentioned (but not clearly mandated) that the relay be mounted in a metal box (I had used plastic).  I found no other mentions.  I'm guessing, therefore, that the use of relays in construction is really rare.  I'm surprised by this, as using relays in home construction could save a lot of copper wire (by running power straight to fixtures and outlets, instead of out-of-the-way through switches.  The U.S. Navy used this technique extensively on the ship I was stationed on (and, I presume, in other ships as well).  Their implementation was actually pretty clever: the circuit breakers in the central panel doubled as SPST relays; they were controlled by low-voltage switches connected by relatively tiny wires.  I could easily envision a modern equivalent where the circuit breaker/switches were controlled digitally and the switches using RF instead of wires.  How convenient that would be!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Paradise ponders, electric walnut edition...

Paradise ponders, electric walnut edition...  Yesterday was a day of getting things done, for me.  That was very satisfying, I'll tell you.

I'm listening to Christmas music as I type; Pachelbel's Canon right now.  I love Christmas music!

First thing in the morning, I went to work on the threshold between the mud room and our entranceway, which I've mentioned before.  I figured it would likely take me all day to get this right.  I had envisioned building it as three separate pieces of walnut: one on the bottom, matching the tile line in the mud room, a second on the bottom matching the tile line in the entranceway, and one on top that was shaped so that you didn't stumble on it, but which was tall enough to engage the weatherstripping “sweep” on the bottom of the door.  The first photo below shows the hole I was filling along with the three pieces of wood I cut; mud room on the left, entranceway on the right.  The second photo shows all three pieces of wood assembled in place, but not yet glued.  The third photo is the same, but with the top piece removed.  Next to last photo shows all the pieces in place and glued, and the last photo the same but with two coats of Watco natural penetrating oil finish.  Amazingly enough, it all worked on the first try.  It looks great, and seals the door very nicely.  We care about a seal here because we know the mud room will always be cooler in the winter: it's a small volume with all but one side exposed to the elements.  The only hitch I ran into during this work was that some of the mastic from both tile installations had to be chiseled out (hence the hammer and cold chisel visible in some of the photos).  I was all done by 10:30 am!

The weather outside was frightful, so I went to work on some interior electrical work that had remained unfinished.  First up: the sun room (photo of finished work at right).  I installed the three lights on the one solid wall.  That went without a hitch, except for the minor problem of figuring out how to get a ladder in there.  The only other thing left to do was the covers for the switches and outlets, and now they're all in.  Last night we tried the lights after dark, and they work great: lots of nice, even light throughout the sun room.

I still had most of my afternoon left after I finished this.  The temperature outside had risen to a balmy 38°F, and the forecast had this being the warmest day for at least ten days (and maybe all winter, for all I know), so I bit the proverbial bullet and decided to put up the lights on the mudroom exterior (photo of finished work at left).  My fingers are full of dry-weather cracks, made worse by both my Raynaud's disease and my pernicious anemia, so working out in dry, cold weather was ... unpleasant.  I got them both up, though, along with the motion sensor (just visible at the top of the arch).  I had a small challenge with the last step, mounting the motion sensor: the cover of the electrical box was missing its bolts, and nothing in my collection of bolts would fit.  I made a quick run to our local hardware store and bought 4 pairs of bolts: one pair for each of the weird sizes that it might possibly be.  It turned out to be 10-32 bolts that were needed, the last one that I tried.  Of course!  I couldn't test these lights, as I still have some interior wiring to do.  I expect to be working on that today.

By the time I'd finished with all this, it was about 3 pm and starting to get dark.  Earlier in the day, on one of my million or so trips to the barn for parts and tools, I noticed a 24 year old mare (Sally) belonging to one of our neighbors (Nick and Maria S.) standing in the corner of another neighbor's field right near my barn.  I went over to say hello, and noticed that its right rear ankle was bloodied.  I texted the owners, along with Tim (the field's owner) to let them know, including the photo at right.  All of them were in church, though, and weren't looking at their phone.  Just as I sat down for a rest, Debbie looked over to see her being harassed and bitten by Tim's two geldings (who are much larger than Sally).  They actually knocked Sally off her feet.  So up and out I went, to see if I could lead Tim's horses away and into another paddock.  Just as I got out there, everybody got out of church and called us.  Within a few minutes, we had Nick, Maria, four of their kids, Tim, his wife Jeannie, and I out there with the horses.  Tim has been around horses all his life, and immediately knew what was going on: Sally was coming into heat.  I hadn't noticed any of the signs, but later I did see them (raised tail and winking vulva).  His geldings, despite missing some parts one might think would be essential, were very excited; the larger one had probably kicked Sally, and hence the cut.  The wound got examined thoroughly and appeared to be a shallow cut above the hocks, so not serious so long as its allowed to heal.  A thorough washing was prescribed, along with possible veterinary treatment if the cut turned out to be deeper than it appeared, and Sally was led off to be in her own paddock.  I had two roles in this little animal drama: sounding the alarm (which I'm glad I was able to do!) and holding the lead while Tim and Nick examined the ankle.  This morning we saw Sally in her own little paddock, looking a little lonely but physically ok.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Paradise ponders, swinging from the chandeliers edition...

Paradise ponders, swinging from the chandeliers edition...  It seems like I spent most of yesterday on the road – I made two separate trips to downtown Logan to get parts for the work I'm doing in the house.  In the morning I hung a five-lamp chandelier in our new mudroom.  It looks nice, and it should throw plenty of light in there (can't test it yet, because I can't energize the circuit until I mount the two outside lights).  Today I'm working on the threshold for the door between the mudroom and the old entranceway.  This is a complicated piece of wood (black walnut) that will not only act as the door's threshold, but will also adapt between the slightly out-of-alignment tile patterns and slightly different sub-floor heights.  I'm going to use three pieces of walnut glued in place (well, at least that's the plan).  Each piece will be separately planed and sawed to fit its respective niche, and hopefully all three can then be glued together in place.

Yesterday afternoon, feeling lazy, we went out to eat at a place we've only been to once before: El Salvador, aka Los Primos.  The first time we visited was last week, with our friends Jimmy and Michelle.  We had a great meal then, and loved the homey, family atmosphere.  Today it was fairly busy when we got there, and we were the only non-Hispanics there – definitely a good sign for the authenticity of the food!  Debbie ordered the carne asada plate (first photo), and I had a chicken gordita (second photo) and carnitas sope.  Both were great, but the gordita was my favorite – so I ordered a second gordita, this time carnitas.  We had Jarritos from bottles for our drinks.  We were there for just over an hour, and only saw one other non-Hispanic family: German tourists.  This place hasn't been discovered yet!  Great food, friendly and smiling waitresses, and happy people all around us.  Even with a generous (and well-earned) tip, we got out of there for under $25.  It's on the south side of Logan, too – closer than any of the other restaurants we haunt.  We'll be back here often, I'm sure!