Relocating to France

So I guess it’s official now.

In mid-September, I’ll be relocating to Paris.

Okay, that’s a little dramatic. I’m not moving permanently, just for a couple months.

Earlier this year, my employer asked if I’d be interested in relocating to Paris for a while. After talking it over with my family, I enthusiastically accepted, and the wheels were set in motion. Since my last trip went so well, I was looking forward to returning. It took a month or two of wrangling with Visa application documents, US records offices, and other red tape, but last week I received my travel documents. It’s on!

So, stay tuned for more missives from the City of Lights!

Bye Bye Volt

Alas, all good things, etc etc.

Tonight I returned the Chevy Volt I leased three years ago. In the intervening time I drove 54,000 miles, at an average of 98mpg, using 550 gallons of gas. Had I continued with the Passat wagon I had before that, which got about 28mpg, I would have burned 1928 gallons. That 1400 gallons saved 28,000lb (14 tons) of CO2 from being emitted. That’s about a years worth of emissions for a fairly efficient house.

Nowadays I work full time from home, so my daily mileage has gone from 70-75 miles a day down to about 6. In a sort of weird reversal of history, where in the above article I lamented trading in my Jeep for the Volt, I now have a 2000 Jeep TJ as my only personal vehicle. Of course Mrs. Geek has a Subaru wagon, which we use for most errands, trips, etc, but the Jeep is mine, and I adore it.

I did have a reservation in to buy a Tesla Model 3 when they were available (which is now), but given the low miles I’m driving, and that I’m spending more and more time out of the country, it doesn’t make sense to have an expensive electric vehicle just sitting at home.

So here I am in mid-life with “nothing but an 18 year old manual truck in the garage”.

I’m okay with that.

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Five Rules of Science

I was excited to hear that Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos has been renewed and will be airing new episodes next year. When I was in high school, I was absolutely transformed by Carl Sagan’s original series. I cannot understate the impact it had on my worldview and personal development as a critical thinker and supporter of science.

At the end of season two of Dr. Tyson’s series, he closed with, well, okay a slightly preachy, but still impactful commentary that included Dr. Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” quote. This was given during a lecture in Cornell in 1994. As Voyager 1 completed it’s mission and was getting ready to leave the solar system forever, Dr Sagan convinced the JPL to turn the Voyager camera around and take one last picture of earth from a distance of 3.7 billion miles.

I hadn’t heard the entire piece in quite some time, and it still brought me to tears.

That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

This, by itself, would have been a wonderful end to the series. But Dr. Tyson continued and presented his Five Rules of Science. In so many ways, these points build on Dr Sagan’s deep philosophical thoughts, and add concrete rules and guidelines. These are the foundations we should build our debates, our discussions, our ideas on….

Only a few centuries ago, a mere second in cosmic time, we knew nothing of where or when we were. Oblivious to the rest of the cosmos, we inhabited a kind of prison, a tiny universe bounded by a nutshell.

How did we escape from the prison? It was the work of generations of searchers who took five simple rules to heart.

  • Question authority. No idea is true just because someone says so, including me.
  • Think for yourself. Question yourself. Don’t believe anything just because you want to. Believing something doesn’t make it so.
  • Test ideas by the evidence gained from observation and experiment. If a favorite idea fails a well-designed test, it’s wrong. Get over it.
  • Follow the evidence wherever it leads. If you have no evidence, reserve judgment.

And perhaps the most important rule of all…

  • Remember: you could be wrong. Even the best scientists have been wrong about some things. Newton, Einstein, and every other great scientist in history — they all made mistakes. Of course they did. They were human.
  • Science is a way to keep from fooling ourselves, and each other.

There will, naturally, people who pick and choose from this list to simply further their personal agenda. These things cannot be taken in isolation. Either you accept, embrace, and follow them all, or you’re doing it wrong. Humility must go hand in hand with discovery. No one has all the answers. Be a searcher. Learn, grow, and explore.

I Made Electronic Clocks with my Son

It’s always a challenge to find things to do with a teenager just going through his first year at college. What could ye ole dad provide that more interesting than his new experiences with friends, classes and living away from home? So it was with some trepedation I reached out to Zach and asked if he’d be interested in taking a soldering class with me at MakeIt Labs, the makerspace I’ve been frequenting the last two years or so.

The class was presented as a 3 hour introduction to soldering techniques and best practices. The lab would provide all the tools needed (soldering iron, tools, solder, and other bits), as well as the parts to build a nice little LED clock. This isn’t a ‘here’s your parts, you figure it out’ event, it was a guided walkthrough of basic technique, pitfalls to watch out for, and detailed instructions on assembly. Sounded like a great way to learn how to solder, as well as something we could do together.

“Sure Dad, sounds great. Lets go!”

So I signed for the class, and on Saturday Zach and I headed up to the lab and settled in at our stations.

Each of us had our own kit, consisting of about 30 parts, a printed circuit board, red retro LED displays, and a powersupply. The workstations were well supplied with a very good soldering iron, solder, wire snips, flux, needlenose pliers, board holder, and other small tools. Zach and I, along with 6 or so other students, got started. I had some experience soldering, having done lots of drone builds that require a fair amount of soldering work, but nothing this detailed, and certainly not mounting components on a PCB. Zach had none at all.

Our instructor had prepared well, with a full presentation on what we were going to do, what tools we’d be working with, and basics of how to use the materials and follow the instructions. After a 15-20m introduction on the hazards we should be careful for (“Soldering irons are hot, mmkay? They make other things hot too. Be careful!”) we got started. The first couple components were dirt simple. Just jumper wires across the board. After that we moved on to more and more detailed things, culminating in mounting the socket for the CPU and installing the chip. Through it all, Bill, our instructor, was patient, detailed, and obviously an expert on the subject. He answered all questions professionally and patiently, and, along with lab assistant John, helped the students when problems came up, or simple inspected work to make sure it was going okay.

Finally, after 2 hours of assembly, we were ready to test the boards out. Bill used one of the lab bench power supplies, and one by one, each student brought their board up, and it got powered up. Zach’s worked on the first try, showing bright glowing red LED digits ticking away time perfectly. Mine, of course, didn’t, and we quickly discovered 3-4 bad solder points. I went back to my bench and fixed these, and my clock came to life as well.

The kits were from a standard hobbyist supplier, and were meant for student workshops like this. they didn’t come with mounting hardware, so before the class started, Bill and John thoughtfully used the labs laser cutter to make some acrylic display mounts. A couple screws, standoff posts, and acrylic plates later, and lo, we had a lovely, hand built, LED clock!

The class was a great experience for both Zach and I, and we both had something useful we took away together. Each of us has an identical clock that we made at the same time, together, on a cold day in December.

Thanks MakeIt for providing a great learning environment, thanks Bill for putting together a great class, and thanks Zach for spending a cool day geeking out with his old man.

Quiet Sunday Morning at Home

There’s something pleasant about a quiet morning like this.

It’s Sunday morning. It’s rainy and cold outside, but nice and cozy inside. I can hear the water dripping on the porch and the windows… it’s soothing and relaxing. Some quiet jazz is playing on the Echo in the living room while I’m parked on the couch doing geeky things on the laptop. A nice cup of coffee sits at hand…

Nessie relaxing
We’re dogsitting this weekend, which has been going just fine. Her name is Nessie, and she’s super-low key and enjoying hanging out with us.

These times are super-special to me, and the last few weeks haven’t allowed many of them. I’m grateful I have a peaceful, safe, comfortable place I can relax and recharge.

Living in the Future

Today, while hanging out at home, I realized I was out of coffee. Being part of the Keurig Nation, I happily order San Francisco Bay One Cups on a regular basis (these cups have far less plastic than the standard K-Cups, and the coffee is delicious).

As I was reaching for my laptop to order some more, I remembered that Alexa is supposed to be able to do online ordering. So….

“Alexa”
(bading)
“Order more coffee”
“According to your order history, I found two matching items. The first is San Francisco Bay One Cups, 60 count. it is $31. Would you like to buy it?”
“Yes”
“Okay, ordered. It will be delivered Sunday August 6th”

Aaaand done. I checked the order history later on, and sure enough, there it was.

I did make a note to my partner, who was listening to this interchange.

“So, that’s pretty cool. Um, so, please don’t ever do that when the nine year old is around.”
“Hm? Wh… oh.”
“Alexa, order a pony!”

Etc.

Internet Addiction is Killing Your Photography

There’s a wonderful post over on Petapixel (What? You’re not following them already? Get on that… seriously, they’re awesome, whether you’re a photographer or not)..Un petit coin de paradis...

Wait, what i was saying? Oh, right, the post. The post is about how internet addiction is destroying creativity. The author talks specifically about how it relates to photography, but the general case is true…

What I’m getting at in the headline is that the Internet is most likely the cause of your impotence when it comes to productivity. How many people pick up their smartphones and check something online or in an app in the morning, instead of picking up a camera and capturing a sunrise?

I bet 99% of us look at a smartphone before anything else in the morning. If only your first thought out of bed was “What photo will I capture today?” think about how much more you would achieve.

And he’s absolutely right.

Over the last couple weeks (and through being sick with a head cold the last 5 days), I’ve found myself almost breathlessly refreshing news.google.com and my Feedly page or whatever just to keep up the constant stream of input. And when I felt like doing something, it would have to compete with the information overload I was getting off the net. How can creativity thrive under this kind of mental onslaught?

I’m going to try and change things up. Move politics out of my “must check once an hour” need. Stop refreshing feedly to get the latest DailyWTF. I’m not a big social media wank, so Facebook, Twitter, etc are not my main distractions, so I can’t really put this under “i’m quitting social media for a while”. It’s more “I need to set priorities a little. This is not healthy for me.”

In the past I’ve done little life adjustments like this, and whether they stick long term or not, they do shift the balance a little, and nudging yourself out of a well worn groove isn’t a bad thing, even if it means things are a little shaky until a new smoother path is found.

Soylent’s New Flavors and My Weekend at a Con

This past weekend I made my yearly mecca to Arisia, the big SF / Fantasy convention in Boston. I’ve been going to Arisia for almost 25 years now, sometimes as a staff member, sometimes as a volunteer, but I haven’t missed an event since 1990, so it’s sort of ritual now.

Since making the decision to make Soylent a part of my diet, I’ve waxed and waned on how much I take in. Soylent regularly changes the ‘mix’ in it’s products, so that has impacted this as well.  The original version wasn’t particularly exciting, but did fill my belly.

A few weeks ago, Soylent announced 2 new flavors for their ‘2.0’ premixed drink. I’ve been enjoying the premix bottles for 6 months already, and the opportunity to have some new flavors for Arisia seemed like a great plan.  I’d tried the ‘coffiest’ flavor, but wasn’t impressed (I like my coffee super-sweet, and coffiest was bitterer than I like).

Soylent "ready to drink" food bottles, in all 4 flavors
Soylent “ready to drink” food bottles, in all 4 flavors

I ordered 2 case (one of Cacao and one of Nectar – 12 bottles each), and they arrived in time for the con. My plan was to cover half my food intake for the event just via Soylent.

Here’s my take on the new flavors. Note that nutritionally, these are no different than the stock 2.0 bottles. They’re just flavored.

  • Nectar – A subtle taste change. My partner thinks it tastes like rose water – a slightly sweet, flowery taste. Better than the stock 2.0 flavor (which is somewhat like a think vanilla shake), but not “MMMM, this is GREAT!”.
  • Cacao – This may turn into my new favorite drink. It has a rich chocolate taste – essentially a bottle of thick chocolate milk. I’m still trying to get past feeling guilty about chugging down a small chocolate milkshake, but this is one heck of a lot better for me than a Five Guys shake (and still only 400 calories).  The trick is thinking of these as ‘food’.  So not something I’m going to have WITH a burger, but INSTEAD of a burger.

Traditionally, keeping well fed at a convention is a challenge.  Hotel food tends to be expensive, and taking time out in the middle of an event to go get a meal can be frustrating.  It’s easy to fall back on cheetos and Dr Pepper, which does no one any good.  Having what amounts to the caloric equivalent of a Subway sandwich at hand, and requiring only the time it takes to chug down the bottle (I drink mine all at once) is pretty awesome.

I think the only thing we noticed is that you have to think of the Soylent bottles as food.  NOT drink.  Both of us found we needed lots of water or similar even though we had just downed 12oz of liquid.

Overall though, it was an excellent experience.  We stayed fed, it was tasty, and we didn’t need to spend major bucks on buying food, or making a mess mixing our own powders (like you do with Soylent 1.x). Highly recommended!

What I Did on my Winter Vacation.

My employer does a ‘shutdown’ twice a year; once over Christmas break, and once around July 4th. This year has been great schedule wise because of what days Christmas and New Years fall on, so there’s a lot of free time.

I decided that it was time to move forward on a project I’ve been thinking about for months. Building a workbench in my office. The goal is to be able to work on electronics, drones, and other stuff without crufting up the kitchen table.

I live in a relatively small 2br house. By US standards, it’s very small (about 900sq ft). Since I’m working from home full time, I’ve been using the second bedroom as an office – it had previously been set up as a guest / kid sleeping room with a loft bed that’s out of the way when I’m officing. I decided to use a similar design approach to building out the workbench. The room is only 11’x7′, so fitting in a spare bed, my standup desk, a workbench, bookshelves, and some storage required some creative thinking.

My office before I started work on the new desk.
Office before work started on the new desk.

The first step natch was clearing out my working desk and hardware so I had space to work. Fortunately I keep my bedroom pretty clutter free, so it was just a matter of moving things down the hall. Then construction began.

I used a similar design to the loft bed, just not quite as hefty. On the loft I used 2×6 boards, but for the desk, I just used 2×4’s. Using a magnetic stud locator, I found the wooden studs in the walls, cut the boards to length, and used 3.5″ deck screws to attach the supporting studs to the walls. I guess the best term for these are ledger boards, since they’ll be supporting the ends of the joists. Anyway, the idea is the desk it attached directly to the wall studs, so no legs needed. It’s custom fit to the room.

Halfway through the build
Halfway through the build

Once the ledger boards were screwed in place (14 screws went in, and I hit the studs on every try. Booyah), I used aluminum hangers to put the joists in. These attached directly to the ledger boards and gave good support to the 2×4’s under the surface of the desk. I had to be careful about spacing due to where the ledger boards were attached to the studs. I needed at least 2 2×4’s under each ‘slice’ of 18″ plywood to support it cleanly.

Once all the joists and ledger boards were done, I laid down 2 strips of sanded plywood, and screwed them down with normal 2″ drywall screws. These are not load bearing, so using the weaker screws was fine – it was just to keep the boards flat and not move around.

The finished project
The finished project

The last touch was adding a kickboard around the top of the desk so things weren’t banging against the painted walls. I also drilled 3 2″ holes in the back of the surface to allow power cords to come up for equipment.

Heightwise, it’s 29″, which matches the older wooden desk I have. I’ll be able to put a plate in to join the two surfaces (I left a 3″ lip under the front)

Some quick lessons learned…

  • Magnetic Stud Finder – I can’t recommend these things enough. They’re dirt simple, inexpensive, and work great for finding nails in walls. Just a big powerful magnet.
  • LED Worklight – I have a set of old halogen lights roughly the same size. I won’t be using them anymore, as these LED lights are very bright, use much less power, and aren’t nearly as hot / dangerous. Really useful to have around.
  • I still love my Ryobi One+ power tools. They’re aging to be sure, and I’ll be replacing my battery packs from NiCd to Li-Ion shortly. I’ve already upgraded the basic drill/driver from the old yellow tool to the new green one, but I’m still using the older jigsaw and circular saw, which were wonderful for this project.

I’ve already used it to work on some home automation equipment, and it’s the right height, setting, and size to make things totally comfortable and useful. I’m looking forward to ramping my projects up again!

Dashcam Catches Tire Blowout on Mass Pike

(“You won’t believe what happens next!”)

I’ve been interested in getting a dashcam for my car(s) for a while, and when Woot had a had an Armorall Dashcam up for $29, I decided to give it a try. The verdict? This thing is worth about as much as I paid for it. Yes, it records video and audio. Yes it datestamps it. Yes it turns on and off automatically when I start the car, and yes it loops data on the MicroSD card just fine. Other than that, I can’t find a lot to recommend it. The field of view is narrow, the interface is painfully obtuse, and the mirror mount is… weird. Works, but weird.

Anyway. What did happen though was while driving to work this morning, a trailer in front of me had a tire blowout. The sound was funny, a squeaky whoosh (as opposed to a bang), and I missed seeing it happen (it’s at 7:53:17 in the video). I only understood what was going on when I saw smoke and bits of tire flying off the trailer. I backed off and put my my 4-way flashers for folks behind me, and let the guy pull over to the side. The wheel was pretty wrecked, and the sparks and tire debris were pretty dramatic.

If this had actually damaged my car or something more serious had happened, having the recording to show my insurance company and/or police would have been a huge win. But that’s what dashcams are all about, right?

And getting really cool videos like this. 🙂

Jeep Build Log

As noted in my post “Finding the Balance in Toys and Escape“, I’ve acquired a lovely 2000 Jeep Wrangler TJ, which I’ve taken to calling “Ol Yeller”, for obvious reasons.  I’ve managed to connect with some wicked smaht folks over on the Wrangler TJ Forum, and they’ve been giving me great advice for fixing and upgrading this thing.

I’ve started a build log  where I’ll be posting pics, chatting about mechanicals, and probably going over all the points where I screw this up.  Feel free to browse along and be amused.

Lars Anderson Museum Best in Show
Lars Anderson Museum Best in Show

One last bit.  I took Ol Yeller to the Lars Anderson Museum for one of their lawn events (this one on American cars) and… I won Best Jeep in Show!  Go me!  Course, um, I was the only Jeep.  But hey, I’ll take it!

 

Finding the Balance in Toys and Escape

When I was a kid growing up in what most people would call ‘the countryside’ (yes it was New Jersey, but we had horses, cows, hayfields, cornfields, and dirt roads), I had the advantage of being able to hop on whatever toy machine I had that year (snowmobile, ATC, mini bike, whatever), and just… ride.  I could go through the woods, around the fields, over to my friends house, explore new streams… it was pretty much wide open.  My friends and I had made trails between all our houses, and I could be adventurous, finding new paths to local towns or abandoned locations.

Now as a grown adult, I miss those things.  A couple years ago, when my VW Passat was dying, I bought myself a 2012 Jeep Wrangler JK.  It was a beautiful truck, and I took it on fun adventures in the mud and the woods, but… in the end, it just didn’t make sense as my primary vehicle, and I sold it, replacing it with an electric car. I don’t regret this decision, as the Volt has been a wonderful commuter vehicle, and as many say, once you drive full time electric, it’s hard to consider a combustion engine as a primary means of transportation. It just didn’t make sense to drive a Jeep to work every day.

In the midst of this, I was also reconsidering my motorcycles. I had two, my venerable Suzuki GS850 (1976! A Classic!) which I’ve owned since I was 25, and the newer DL650, which I got 5 years ago for more adventurous riding, and perhaps finding an efficient way to get around. Alas, I haven’t ridden either of them in almost 2 years, so they were just taking up space in the garage.

And I missed the Jeep. I missed the woods rides, I missed the fun of having a vehicle to just bang around in, and I missed four wheel drive.

So, I changed things.

I’ve sold both Suzuki bikes. Both went to neighbors – the GS850 has been serviced back into useability and I take great joy in seeing it rumble by. The 650 is going to a close friend as his first bike, and I’m looking forward to it getting a new lease on life.

And I bought another Jeep.

My yeller Jeep
My yeller Jeep
Now, lets be clear here. This is not a ‘new’ Jeep. The JK I mentioned above cost somewhere around $34,000 and was enormous. It was my primary vehicle, and was expensive as heck to drive on a daily basis. I still have my Volt, and that gets me to and from work all on electric. But now I have a lovely 2000 Jeep Wrangler TJ I paid $7k for that has almost no rust, and runs beautifully. The previous owner has done a bunch of work on it, adding things I would have added myself, and setting it up for the next steps.

Night before last, I was home and feeling a little quiet and sad… so I hopped in the Jeep and went driving in the night. The doors and top are off it, so it’s wide open. It was the 4th of July, and I drove past fireworks and breezy weather… stopping at the top of a hill and turning off the engine just to listen to the night and distant fireworks. I thought back to the times I did this when I was a kid – I’d take my snowmobile or my ATC out into the woods or fields and just stop… or drive quietly around in the night.

Over the weekend I spent a couple hours with Zach working on it. We fixed a few problems, determined a few other problems, but had some great 1:1 time. Tonight we’re taking the Jeep up to MakeIt to put it up on the lift and do some wheel work. I would never do this with my ‘primary’ ride, but the Jeep is like a big tinkertoy. It’s fun to work on.

Am I reliving my childhood? Sure. Nothing wrong with that. I’m filling a need that my previous Jeep awakened – the want to be out playing in the dirt and woods and having fun. I get some of that hiking, but boy I missed the trailrides and the driving.

I went Sailing Again.

Sailing on Boston Harbor
Sailing on Boston Harbor
This afternoon Zach and I took advantage of a Meetup group in Boston to go sailing on the ‘C’est si bon’, a 46ft Formosa out of Marina Bay, south of Boston. I’d sailed with Ralph before, but this was the first time I was able to go with my son Zach. It ended up being awfully hot, and not much wind, but as many have said before me, a bad day out sailing is better than a good day in the office. We had enough wind to take us from Marina Bay all the way to Deer Island and back again over around 5 hours.

We had a great time, and Ralph was as always a wonderful skipper. We had a crew of 6 total, which was just the right number of people, with skills ranging from newbie on up.

I ended up being completely wiped out by the trip, and once I got home, fell into a zombie-like sleep. I’m still sore and worn from 5+ hours on the water, but it was a great day out.

Vainglory

I’ve been on the lookout for a new game to put my new Moto X Pure Android through, a device that’s extremely high powered and seems perfect for games. Ever since I saw the tablet revolution taking over gaming, I’ve been hoping for a decent, realtime, immersive game that I could get behind. (Why WoW and Eve aren’t on tablets yet is beyond me).

My son Zach was a huge booster of MOBA games before they were cool. DOTA2, and later League of Legends were daily activities. I tried them off and on, but found the complexities and knowledge curve too much for casual gaming.

Enter Vainglory.

Many companies have claimed to make the MOBA experience enjoyable on a mobile device, but this is the first one that’s gotten me completely hooked. I’m still in casual play mode, but I’m finding it intensely enjoyable. The graphics are magnificent, the characters interesting and varied, and the gameplay is perfect. It’s a dead-on implementation of the MOBA ideals (and yes, it has last hits :).

I’ve put in a couple hours so far, getting a feel for 3 of the heroes. There’s so much more to learn – if you watch the videos on the Vainglory channel on Youtube, watch the detailed rundowns of how to play each hero. The technicalities are vast and deep, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever get to that point with more than 1-2 favorites, but I’m ecstatic that the company behind the game (awesomely named ‘SUPER EVIL MEGACORP‘), spared no expense in making the game easy to get into, but also having huge depth to it.

Anyone want to team?