Sunday, April 20, 2014

Every home has its quirks...

Every home has its quirks ... and Friday I found the first big one in our new home, up here in Paradise, Utah.  It's a doozy :)

I did some electrical wiring work in our TV room because of the new piece of ceiling that now covers the previously-exposed heating duct.  All of this work was simple, straightforward wiring – Romex, wire nuts, and junction boxes, nothing fancy.  The biggest part of this work was to wire up four new recessed lighting fixtures, and that all worked on the first try.  I also wired up a new utility box for our (wired) fire alarm in that room.  When I finished wiring it, I re-installed the alarm to test it before I buttoned up the work.

The test failed – there was no “juice” to the alarm.  I figured that I must have somehow blown a circuit breaker while doing the wiring, so down to the electrical panel I went.  No joy – none of the breakers had blown, nor were any of them off.  Now I noticed that all the fire alarms were without power.  Yikes!

My next thought was that maybe they were powered from the relatively new sub-panel in the basement.  Down the two flights of stairs I went, and searched the sub-panel.  No joy, again.

Then I remember that I had done some really minor work in another basement room (the big room that we're going to use as an indoor cattery), removing a bunch of duplex outlets that were poorly installed, and that we'd never use.  Maybe I accidentally disconnected the fire alarm circuit!  Down into the basement I went again, and checked that circuit.  No joy, again – it was reconnected correctly and had juice.  I noticed, however, that the lights in that room, and on the basement stairway, were no longer working.

What the heck was going on?

I climbed back up to the second floor, where Lane and Pasquale were working hard, and decided to just sit and think for a few minutes.  It acted exactly as if a breaker was blown, or a circuit disconnected – but I couldn't find any place where that had happened!  Lane came over to commiserate, and offered to talk it over with me in the hopes of coming up with an idea.  In the course of doing that, he asked if it was possible that a GFI (ground fault interrupter) device had tripped somewhere.  I couldn't imagine that anyone would be crazy enough to put fire alarms and lighting on the same GFI circuit, but Lane said he'd seen much worse than that.  Then both of us remembered, at the same moment, seeing a GFI outlet in an unlikely place – near the floor in the big room that we're going to use as a cattery.  We went down there, and sure enough that GFI was tripped.  I pushed the little red button ... and the lights came back on in that room.  Next room over, the fire alarm's green LED was glowing brightly.  We ran back upstairs, and – all the alarms were now happily glowing green again.  Even the one I had just wired was working correctly.

So someone, sometime, had wired two duplex outlets, the track lights in the cattery room, the basement stair lights, and all 10 fire alarms in the house onto the same circuit – all “protected” by a single small GFI device.  Oh, my.  That's another thing on my long list of things that need to get fixed :)

More remodeling progress...

More remodeling progress...  Left-to-right below: a crazy little nook in our entrance hall, now enclosed to make a linen closet on the other side; our TV room's 2" floor height difference fixed with a pony wall and ramp, and exposed HVAC duct-work covered over; the one unfinished room in the house (a small storage room) now finished.

The only thing left to do on these items is to “tape” the wallboard and apply orange-peel finish, and to paint.  The “taper” (a fellow named Nemo :) visited yesterday to estimate the job; he'll do it this coming Tuesday.  The painting will be done along with the rest of the house in the last step of our remodel...

Progress – it's a good thing...

Former nook, now closet
TV room completion
Last unfinished room

Blooming in Paradise...

Blooming in Paradise...  I found this lone flower in front of our new home in Paradise, Utah.  Click the thumbnail to embiggen.  I have no idea what it is, but I see many more that will be blooming in the next week or so – they're planted all around the house.  It has no bouquet that I can detect.  If you know what it is, please leave me a comment...

Cat and ducklings...

Cat and ducklings...  A sweet story, via my lovely wife.


Awesome!  Lightning and ash over the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallaj√∂kull as it erupted in 2010.  Click to embiggen.  Via APOD, of course...

Digital imaging (photo geek)...

Digital imaging (photo geek) ... more than you ever wanted to know about noise, dynamic range, and bit depth.  The article's headline implies that the discussion is specific to DSLRs, but it actually applies to any digital imaging system.

Stock photos that don't suck...

Stock photos that don't suck...  Another great web resource.

101 useful web sites...

101 useful web sites...  This is a great list!  Over half of these are sites I'd never even heard of before...
1. – record movies of your desktop and send them straight to YouTube.

2. – for capturing screenshots of web pages on mobile and desktops.

3. – shorten long URLs and convert URLs into QR codes.

4. – find the original URL that's hiding behind a short URL.

5. – find the local time of a city using a Google Map.

6. – copy special characters that aren't on your keyboard.

7. – a better search engine for Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

8. – create flowcharts, network diagrams, sitemaps, etc.

9. – the best place to find icons of all sizes.

10. – download templates, clipart and images for your Office documents.

11. – the easiest way to setup email reminders.

12. – scan any suspicious file or email attachment for viruses.

13. – gets answers directly without searching - see more wolfram tips.

14. – print web pages without the clutter.

15. – reformats news articles and blog content as a newspaper.

16. – a search engine for RSS feeds.

17. – a simple online timer for your daily needs.

18. – if a site is down due to heavy traffic, try accessing it through coral CDN.

19. – pick random numbers, flip coins, and more.

20. – lets you can quickly edit PDFs in the browser itself.

21. – Preview PDFs and Presentations directly in the browser.

22. – simultaneously upload videos to YouTube and other video sites.

23. – your virtual whiteboard.

24. – share you email address online without worrying about spam.

25. – now get read receipts for your email.

26. – visualize and compare the size of any product.

27. – quickly determine the font name from an image.

28. – a good collection of open source fonts.

29. – find data hidden in your photographs[/url] – see more EXIF tools.

30. – broadcast events live over the web, including your desktop screen.

31. – helps you search domains across all TLDs.

32. – design from scratch or re-model your home in 3d.

33. – share you screen with anyone over the web.

34. – recognize text from scanned PDFs - see other OCR tools.

35. - Track flight status at airports worldwide.

36. – for sharing really big files online.

37. – best-sellers on all subjects that you can download for free.

38. – check your writing for spelling or grammatical errors.

39. – easily highlight the important parts of a web page for sharing.

40. – work on the same document with multiple people.

41. – planning an event? find a date that works for all.

42. – a less confusing view of the world time zones.

43. – the perfect tool for measuring your site performance online.

44. – print music sheets, write your own music online (review).

45. - chat with your buddies on Skype, Facebook, Google Talk, etc. from one place.

46. – translate web pages, PDFs and Office documents.

47. – create paintings and sketches with a wide variety of brushes.

48. – discover new sites that are similar to what you like already.

49. – quick summarize long pieces of text with tag clouds.

50. – create mind-maps, brainstorm ideas in the browser.

51. – get color ideas, also extract colors from photographs.

52. – share your photos in an album instantly.

53. – when your friends are too lazy to use Google on their own.

54. – when you need to find the name of a song.

55. – automatically find perfectly-sized wallpapers for mobiles.

56. – send an online fax for free.

57. – get RSS feeds as an email newsletter.

58. – quickly send a file to someone, they can even preview it before downloading.

59. – transfer files of any size without uploading to a third-party server.

60. – setup a private chat room in micro-seconds.

61. – create text notes that will self-destruct after being read.

62. – track the status of any shipment on Google Maps – alternative.

63. – Download the top 1% of freeware and shareware plus news, occasional reviews and computer help.

64. – find if your favorite website is offline or not?

65. – find the other websites of a person with reverse Analytics lookup.

66. – find the web host of any website.

67. – found something on Google but can't remember it now?

68. – an online audio editor that lets record, and remix audio clips online.

69. – create a temporary web page that self-destruct.

70. – find definitions of slangs and informal words.

71. – consult this site before choosing a seat for your next flight.

72. – download stock images absolutely free.

73. – view very high-resolution images in your browser without scrolling.

74. – quickly create custom Google Maps online.

75. – quickly setup email reminders for important events.

76. – Picnik is offline but PicMonkey is an even better image editor.

77. – you can ask or answer personal questions here.

78. – an excellent layer-based online image editor.

79. – find if that email offer you received is real or just another scam.

80. – master touch-typing with these practice sessions.

81. – send video emails to anyone using your web cam.

82. – create timelines with audio, video and images.

83. – make a movie out of your images, audio and video clips.

84. – check the trust level of any website.

85. – a beautiful to-do app that looks like your paper dairy.

86. – you'll need this when your bookmarked web pages are deleted.

87. – quickly capture effective notes during meetings.

88. – Watch YouTube channels in TV mode.

89. – quickly create a video playlist of your favorite artist.

90. – Send tweets longer than 140 characters.

91. – create a free and simple website using your Dropbox account.

92. – find the technology stack of any website.

93. – research a website from the SEO perspective.

94. – broadcast live audio over the web.

95. – bookmark online videos and watch them later (review).

96. – add QR codes to your documents and presentations (review).

97. – the easiest way to write short text notes in the browser.

98. – send rich-text mails to anyone, anonymously.

99. – hire people to do little things for $5.

100. – easily manage your online files on Dropbox, Google Docs, etc.

101. – create a connection between all your online accounts.

Meatball police taking action...

Meatball police taking action ...  and Delingpole is not happy about it...

Honey badger escape artist...

Honey badger escape artist...

Obama's latest trick...

Obama's latest trick...  Here was Obama's dilemma: Congress overwhelmingly passed a law that called for barring an Iranian diplomat from entering the U.S. to attend his mission at the U.N.  Why?  Because this particular diplomat was one of the Iranian terrorists behind the raid on the U.S. Embassy to Iran back in 1979, and the subsequent holding of American hostages for over a year.  The problem for Obama is that he doesn't want to bar this diplomat, and Congress easily had enough votes to override his veto.

So Obama signed the bill, then immediately announced that he wouldn't enforce it.  Seriously.

I can't help but be reminded of Hugo Chavez's executive overreach on his way to overtly seizing power in Venezuela.  As the linked article also notes, the action drips with hypocrisy, as Senator Obama harshly criticized George W. Bush for doing the equivalent.

What the hell has happened to my country?

RIP, John C. Houbolt...

RIP, John C. Houbolt...  A sad item in the news this morning – John C. Houbolt, a childhood hero of mine, has died at the ripe old age of 95.  He was a NASA engineer in the early days of the agency, when the Mercury and Gemini programs were just getting underway, and when JFK committed the U.S. to putting a man on the moon and bringing him safely back to Earth.

Back in the early '60s, I was avidly following the U.S. space program.  My discovery of libraries (first in the school system, later the County library) gave me access to the closest thing in those days to the Internet.  I realize this concept will be foreign to many of my readers, but back then if you wanted up-to-date information on science and technology, you simply couldn't get it from your home.  It wasn't possible.  You had to go to a library that subscribed to the (very expensive) science and technology journals.  Fortunately for me, even the elementary school I went to had some subscriptions to such journals, including some that were written in a way that was accessible to someone quite young.

In those journals I learned about the story of the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) mode that was eventually selected for the Apollo moon landings, and of John Houbolt's passionate advocacy for it.  When NASA was deciding which mode to use, the direct ascent mode was the obvious one that most people assumed is what NASA would do.  In that mode, a gigantic rocket (called Nova) would launch directly toward the moon, land on it, take off from the moon, and head directly back to Earth.  This seemed the simplest and safest route to just about everybody – except John Houbolt.  He did the math, and realized that it would be possible for a rocket less than half the size of Nova to take astronauts to the moon and back – but only if they did this crazy thing called LOR.

LOR, which is the mode used on all the Apollo lunar missions, required many more steps and complex-sounding maneuvers.  First, a Saturn V rocket would launch the Apollo spacecraft into Earth orbit.  It included a Command Module (which had the re-entry shield), a Service Module (with a rocket engine, fuel, and other supplies), and the Lunar Module (encased in an aerodynamic shroud).  Once in orbit, the shrouds around the Lunar Module were blown away with explosives, and then the combined Command Module/Service Module would pull away, turn around, and dock with the Lunar Module.  This combined spacecraft would then blast away (using the Service Module's rocket) toward the moon.  Once at the moon, they'd use the Service Module rocket again to slow the spacecraft down for injection into lunar orbit.  At that point, two of the three astronauts would crawl into the Lunar Module, undock from the Command Module, and use the Lunar Module's rockets to land on the moon.  Meanwhile, the remaining astronaut stayed in the Command Module, orbiting the moon while his two companions explored the lunar surface.  When the lunar mission was finished, the two lunar astronauts would climb back into the Lunar Module, and the top half of it would blast off back into lunar orbit, where they would rendezvous with their ride home (the Command Module).  This was always the most frightening part of those missions for me, following closely here on Earth.  If those lunar astronauts couldn't rendezvous with the Command Module, they were doomed to an awful fate, orbiting the moon forever.  That rendezvous worked every time, though.  Once the Lunar Module had redocked with the Command Module, the lunar astronauts would crawl back into the Command Module.  Then they'd undock from the Lunar Module, and light off the Service Module's rocket to blast them back toward Earth.  Once they neared Earth, the Command Module would disconnect from the Service Module, and just the Command Module would safely re-enter Earth's atmosphere and parachute down to an ocean landing.

If you manage to make it through my description of LOR above, I'm sure you'll recognize just how complex and Rube Goldberg-like LOR sounded to all the NASA engineers other than John Houbolt.  On more than one occasion, people called him crazy and much worse.  But with sheer persistence and a stubborn refusal to be silenced, John Houbolt eventually persuaded the rest of NASA that LOR was actually the only mode that had a chance of meeting JFK's goal for a man on the moon by the end of the '60s decade.  Why?  There were two main reasons.  First, NASA's engineers realized that they couldn't possibly build the gigantic Nova rocket in time.  Second, they realized that all of the maneuvers required for LOR were actually practicable in the time provided.  The challenges there were actually easier, engineering-wise, than building Nova.

John C. Houbolt's story was inspiring to me as a young man, and most especially, as a wannabe engineer.  His careful marshaling of facts and evidence to support his proposal fascinated me.  After LOR was selected, he led the engineering team that actually developed it – and that was another fascinating story to follow.  For nearly ten years, I devoured stories about he and his team as they developed the LOR systems.  On Apollo 10, the Lunar Module first flew separately in lunar orbit, and the crew successfully did the first lunar orbit rendezvous – and I remember reading about the relief and celebration in John Houbolt's team.  LOR worked!

That moment when something you imagined, designed, and built actually functions as intended – for me, that's the essence of what it means to be an engineer.  It's the kind of achievement that I find most satisfying and fun.  John C. Houbolt was the embodiment of that for me, in my youth.  His story inspired me, and I often thought of him when people told me I couldn't do something or other (which happened rather a lot :).  Though I've never met anyone else who said the same, I'd bet there are a lot of other engineers roughly my age who would.

RIP, John C. Houbolt.  That's a helluva a story you've left behind!