Friday, August 8, 2008


We host many wasps in our pond in the back yard. They seem to enjoy going for the
occasional dip. Now I don't really mind if they come for a quick swim and a drink, but things got serious when they start stinging my kids and building condos in the toy chest.

The local hardware store carries some wasp killing chemicals. Enter ULTRA-KILL:

Interesting how Ultra-Kill is the brand, not the product name. What else do these guys make?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

I Love Rockets

I have been keeping an eye on the new NASA moon program. There is a lot going on there which isn't getting much publicity. They are working on new hardware the likes of which we havn't really seen since the 60's. Check out this test firing of the emergency escape motor for the Orion capsule:

It is very short, but packs a lot of power!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Fun in the Sun

It's been a while since I have posted. My wife and I were actually able to go out and have some fun over the weekend, so I thought I would share some cools stuff in Denver:

The Denver Botanic Gardens were pretty good. I wasn't expecting much, and was favorably impressed. Lots of native and Colorado tolerant plants. Many were labeled (but I was recently informed that they labels are often incorrect) There are a number of water features, and a fair Japanese style garden (especially considering the Denver climate). Admission was a bit steep ($10.50) but parking was free and convenient. There are numerous small paths around the gardens. Some of them are unpaved giving a more intimate feel. It is mostly stroller accessible. I didn't catch the membership fees, but if I lived closer it would probably be the way to go. I am sure the scenery changes throughout the seasons. There are fees for professional photographers (which are a bit steep if you ask me)
One down side was that they host many weddings there. The had signs up to close many of the attractions for ongoing ceremonies. We were fortunate to be there between most of the weddings and got full access.
One pleasant surprise was the abundance and variety of bees we saw. I imagine they were just about the happiest bees around with all the flowers available.

More later.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


XKCD is one of my all time favorite comics. It is at the very least amusing. Sometimes it clues me in to an internet meme which I missed out on (I probably have 10 years on Randal, so I am a little outside his demographic). There is frequently something of value to be learned. And once in a while it hits me as the funniest thing ever.
Today hits a little close to home.

Check out the archives. There are some great ones in there.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

And the spinner was detected

I had some time to run my sensor on the real meter last night and was able to read the spinning disk with some reliability. It was not in full sun, so that test remains. I didn't drag my oscilloscope outside with me, so I don't know how close I got to saturation, but I am now hopeful. There was some noise in the output when pointing the sensor on the edge of the disk (it has a surprising number of imperfections). I had better luck moving the sensor above the disk and pointing it down.
The next step is to optimize the design by removing any unnecessary components, and cleaning up the output to produce a clean digital output. I also have to figure out how to mount the thing nicely.

I will be connecting the sensor to a microcontroller and sending the resulting data out via a wireless link to my main computer. The plan is to put the data on the web.

I created a first pass schematic including the microcontroller, I was able to route it all on one metal layer, which simplifies things from a manufacturing standpoint. This is important because I manufacture the boards myself, and have no plated thru-holes! I'll post the final design when I am done.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The vomit maker goes on vacation

This is one of my infrared shots from a trip we took pre-children.

She was still pretty much a puppy here, but she did a nice job sitting still for this shot. I believe this was in Jackson, WY. I don't know the story behind all the antlers, but I believe they were collected from a nearby wildlife reserve.

West Nile

Guess what happened to me in 2004.

you can clearly see Colorado's northern front range in this map.

We have signal

After messing around for a while I am getting good results with my phototransistor design by using AC coupling and some opamp buffering and a gain stages. Next up is to see if my phototransistor gets saturated in full sunlight. To get around it, I might have to add some IR filtering. Shading the meter would be a good option, but I think the electric company might have issues with that...

Oh, if you are just tuning in, check out my power post to get some context. This is my device for optically reading the spinning disk on my electric power meter so that I can compute peak power demand and make an informed decision on changing my electricity rates.

Friday, June 20, 2008

A box full of awsome

For my wedding anniversary I received a great geek gift. Theodore Gray is someone I would greatly enjoy hanging out with. He appears to have a rocking workshop, and a fantastic collection of almost all the elements in the periodic table. He also does some kick-ass photography of his items. Furthermore, he went ahead and put it into an attractive poster and sells it.

This poster can be seen in the background in many of the Mythbusters scenes. I got the 22"x44" size, which is a good healthy poster size. There is an even bigger one available, but that one would have a hard time fitting in my laboratory. (Note that these are an odd size, and custom framing is required if you decide to go that way)

Utilities - a history

Playing around with the very cool Google Docs today. I went ahead and populated a spreadsheet with my utility history. The charting features are somewhat lacking, so I couldn't do a very fancy graph, but here it is anyway:

It would be nice to annotate the graph with significant events, like the winter months during which the waste water rate gets computed, and the summer months when the AC is on. Also, it would be nice to have a dual Y axis range. In this graph, I had to multiply KWH/day by a factor of 10 to keep the ranges similar. Yucky.

I took the first steps to design an automatic reader for my electric meter and bought a IR phototransistor and an IR emitter. My fears were that a simple phototransistor would not be sensitive enough for this purpose. So far, my fears were justified. I am going to do some signal conditioning with some active filters and see where that takes us. If the phototransistor is a bust, then I will purchase a nice PIN photodiode with a built in amplifier. If THAT fails, I may have to resort to designing some sort of optics to reduce the noise level to something reasonable.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Kill A Watt

Well the P3 Kill-A-Watt showed up today. Pretty nifty gadget. I ran around and checked a couple of appliances today. As a result of this, I am putting my main computer into standby mode after an hour, this change alone may save me 5$/month. I checked the other computers, and they were already automatically going to standby mode after a period of time, so no real gains there. The Tivo and satellite receiver consume about 47 watts together - these pretty much need to be on all the time. I have 2 of these, for a total of almost 100 watts going 24/7/365. Thats about $4.75/month. The stereo was taking about 30 watts as well, and we don' t use that one very often. I'll just manually turn that sucker off when we are not using it.

I have updated my spreadsheet to reflect these readings, but there is much more to be done.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Big Spreadsheet

I did some math last night based off some guesses as to my power consumption. I modeled my power usage in a nice spreadsheet. The model is telling me that my savings are going to be much less than I initially thought. It is also telling me I am using more power than the utility company is metering. I decided to order a kill-a-watt meter so that I can get a more accurate power model.
This only solves part of my problem because my biggest power loads are 240v hard wired appliances. This includes an electric clothes dryer (maybe 5500 Watts) and the central air conditioning (about 3500 Watts). I need to know my peak power profile in order to have an accurate cost model. A good solution is an optical meter reader which just reads the spinning disk on the power companies meter. I have never used one or know anything about these. The theory is sound. The formula to compute instantaneous power consumption from Wikipedia is: Power=(3600*7.2)/t where t is the amount of time one revolution of the disk takes. I am thinking about making my own meter reader, but it might be a little tricky as my meter cover is not very clear. Would be fun tho.
I'll update again when I get the kill-a-watt and post my power numbers.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Electric Company

I consume a lot of electricity. I have recently been trying to come up with ways to save money on my utilities. My saltwater aquarium is partly to blame. My koi pond is also partly to blame. Turning off the pumps and lights and such would unfortunately kill the livestock. It turns out that Fort Collins probably has one of the best electrical rates in the country, so I shouldn't complain. Still, it turns out I have some good options.

The default electrical rates are a straightforward computation of dollars per kilowatt hours consumed plus a nominal connection fee. In Fort Collins this rate is a very reasonable 6.498 cents per KW. One neat option is to go to demand based rates. This cuts the price per KWh by more than half down to 3.085 cents. The catch is that they also track your PEAK energy consumption each month. The peak watts (on a 15 minute running average) gets multiplied by the demand rate of $4.293 per KW. So if you have a lot of relatively low power devices which run all the time (like, say, pond and aquarium pumps, computers, and wall warts) then you can save a significant amount of money. If you have a lot of high wattage devices which can potentially run all at the same time then you have to watch out. I happen to have a very high efficiency central air conditioner, a high efficiency washer/drier and a high efficiency dishwasher. I also have a gas range and a gas water heater. I figure I can cut at LEAST $20/month on my bill by going to demand rates. I am going to have my rates changed this week after I check my nighttime power and peak daytime power and do some math. There is a $20 fee associated with the change, and I can only do it once a year.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


My employer is sending us to see Indiana Jones today.
I am not as excited about this one as I was for Iron Man. Every time I have seen Harrison Ford in the last 10 years, I tell myself that he should be retired or something. Still, the reviews are fairly positive. How bad could it be?

Oh, and the photo is from my cell phone. It has given me spectacularly poor images every time I have used it. The phone is a Nokia with what I think is a 1MP sensor. What a piece of junk. The camera on my wifes iPhone is a 2MP unit, and gives excellent results (for a cell phone anyway).

Friday, May 16, 2008

Dear Santa

I would like to get a Sleeping Beauty DVD for Christmas. And I want a Pricess scooter. And Jadan wants the Batman movie. I want a Dora Car That I can drive which is just my size that other red car is too small for me, I want a bigger one. Savannah wants a kitchen

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Oh brother

You don't mess with my brother. He messes with you.

Vomit producer

This is my dog. I have cleaned up her vomit way too many times. We call her Apollo, just like one of the dogs from Magnum, P.I.

3D Ultrasound

The first kid is always the most exciting. We were so excited we decided we couldn't wait for her to be born before we got a decent photo. My wife found an add somewhere for a place which performed 3D ultrasounds. The sample photos were cool, the price wasn't outrageous, so I said sure, why not? For some strange reason we had to get a doctors note before they would do it. It turns out that at our next doctors appointment we had our least favorite Dr. He pretty much laughed at us and told us not to bother and save the money for the kids college fund. He signed it anyway.

We had to drive down to Denver for the procedure. I was expecting something like a medical experience with doctors and nurses etc. What I remember was pulling into a place which more resembled a strip mall. The place appeared to be run by high school kids. It was somewhat alarming, but what harm could an ultrasound do? Still it was kind of fun. They turned on the big machine and started taking pictures.

They look just like her. Disturbing but cute, an interesting mix.

San Juan Mountains, June 2001

I got married in 2001 and went to the San Juan mountains in southwestern Colorado. It was June, and it snowed. Gorgeous. This shot was taken with our medium format camera. My wife probably shot this one. Our photos from this trip kick ass. I took a couple of others with my 4x5, but had a hard time getting the vantage point I wanted. I might post one of them later.
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I have lots of kids. They seem like good ones, but I am biased.
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Saturday, May 10, 2008

1991 Audi 200 Turbo Quattro and the Instrument Cluster

Once I owned such a beast. I really did love this car. It was a blast to drive. It did almost everything I asked of it. It really was very mechanically reliable. The electronics on the other hand were abhorrent.

I bought mine when it was probably about 9 years old. About a year later the instrument cluster back lighting was not working properly. I couldn't find much information on the intertubes about it at the time, but these dashboards were notorious for other issues. After buying my first digital camera, I took the opportunity to rip the dashboard out and trace the failure. I posted my results on my wifes web site in a corner not directly navigable. That old web page is long gone, but I still see people pointing to it from time to time. I decided to go ahead and re-post my results to anyone who may still have one of these cars running around.

Notice the narrow region near the upper right corner of the spedo cutout. This weak area flexes and can cause cracks in the solder joints. This joint supplies ground and power to the spedo. The high beam indicator and the blinker lights will glow when the ground is broken. You will also loose some dash board illumination. These symptoms can be intermittent.

I soldered a jumper wire from the ground pin from the main connector across to the next via on the ground wire. I also re-soldered the power junction to repair the crack which had formed. I did the same thing for the adjacent power pin. This repair was completely successful for the entire time I owned the car.

Here are some more shots of the PC board for those of you who are interested.

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Who has time to write these things

Who has time to write these things, much less come up with a good name which isn't already taken.