April 1, 2014

One of the best discussions I’ve heard about BitCoin:

Ralph Lemnah’s Alpha Stirling

April 1, 2014

Ralph Lemnah and I worked on some Gamma Stirling engines a while back.  They would run on my wood stove, on a gas kitchen stove, or on an alcohol burner.  We used a Coleman “globe” for the displacer chamber, so that one can watch the displacer motion.  I used foam core for the propeller blades, making them much safer than engines with metal blades.  This is what they looked like:

Gamma One From Angle

Gamma One From Left

We also built a few Ringboms:

Coleman One From Back

Coleman Two From Angle

Tuning the Ringboms for performance required attention to the spring that keeps the displacer piston hanging in a neutral position.

We put all of the design information onto a CD, which is available at a nominal cost for people who wish to expand on our designs.

My interests turned to other things (3D printing) but Ralph has now come up with an Alpha Stirling that works quite well:




Features include adjustable displacer and piston throws and an optional gravity fed water cooling system for the cold end.  Ralph hopes to display this at the Champlain Maker Fair in October of 2014

Is it Dell, or is it Windows 8?!?

March 23, 2014

I create projects that use Arduinos, and in order to burn some firmware into one of those Arduinos (actually a JeeNode), I purchased an FTDI serial interface device.  You plug the FTDI device into a USB port on your computer, and then plug the FTDI device into the JeeNode, and this enables you to download the firmware into the JeeNode.  The FTDI device looks like a serial port to the Windows computer.

I purchased a Dell laptop back in September.  I now have four computers running Windows 8; one of them is that laptop.

When I plug the FTDI device into the laptop, I get the following error:

USB Error

When I plug the FTDI device into any of the other computers, I get no such error.  That is, the FTDI device is not malfunctioning.

The normal reaction to the insertion of a USB device is that Windows recognizes the device and tries to find a driver for the device.  This happens on other other computers, but not on the laptop. It is as if the FTDI device cannot identify itself properly, but only on one of my computers.

In addition, if I plug other devices into the laptop, they sometimes show that error and sometimes do not.  At one point, after using a Wacom tablet with the laptop for 15 minutes, that error popped up, as if the tablet had suddenly malfunctioned.  When I moved the tablet to another USB device on the laptop, it was fine.

I researched the error on the web, and tried about half a dozen different “sure fixes”, none of which have worked.  This included powering down the laptop, removing the battery, and waiting for 30 minutes.  Numerous reboots.  Numerous removals of the offending device.  Numerous re-installation of the drivers.

Dell was nice enough to replace the mother board and one of the USB daughter boards, after which none of the symptoms changed.  Dell has now offered to let me return the laptop to the “Depot” so that they can “fix” it properly.

If I do send it in, they will almost certainly wipe my Win 8 installation.  I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing.  Perhaps the intermittent problem is in Win 8.  But reloading all of my software is a pain in the neck.

If I do send it in, and they test it with just about any other USB device, it probably will work.  So, I am concerned that the most likely scenario is that Dell “fixes” it, returns it, and nothing at all has changed (because they could not see the error, because they did not use the FTDI device).

And Dell does not want me to send the FTDI device into the Depot.

So.  Seems like this situation is a total loss.  Not sure what to do. Perhaps life has just become too complex for technology to succeed.

Luckily, I can use the other computers to run the FTDI device.  But the failure of the Wacom tablet makes me fear that this computer will remain unreliable as long as I own it.  Intermittent problems are a bitch.

The American Police State

March 11, 2014

Have I gone around the bend, or over the top?  I do not think so.

It is important that everyone listen to the following podcast:

The unrelenting and unrepentant abuses of power that are occurring both at and near our borders are scary and shocking.  Our tax dollars are being used to abuse people, and to cover up that abuse. Even members of congress are unable to acquire information about these abuses.  It seems that the Department of Homeland Security has become autonomous, and now has to answer to no one.  Did you know that Border Patrol personnel can stop you if you are within 100 miles of an international border, whether you have crossed, or intend to cross, that border, or not?  Did you know that you can be detained, taken to a hospital, have invasive procedures performed on you, and then be handed the bill to pay for that abuse?

Sound as if I have lost it?  Listen to the podcast.  Judge for yourself.

The only solution to this problem is for you to care enough to listen to the podcast and then contact your representatives in the Federal government. Spread the word.

Miracle Foot Cream

March 2, 2014

Well!  I imagine you never thought you would see me blogging about this!

As one ages, one’s body changes, and not often in ways that make one smile.  For the last 10 years, the skin on my heels has become increasingly thick and cracked and dry, like a very poor grade of leather.  I took to using a specialized cheese grater to remove the growths, and muttered about the increased maintenance.  And reaching my feet has become increasingly difficult.  It is as if they are growing ever farther from the rest of my body.  I suppose a little yoga might bring them nearer, but I never seem to have the time.

Then I encountered, by chance, Burt’s Bees Coconut Foot Cream.  I now use it once a week, and I no longer have any of the above symptoms.

And, no, my account has not been hijacked.  It simply is a good product that works.

Arbitrary Physician Protocols

February 20, 2014

My mother broke her hip last week.  When she fell, she bumped her head, so the trauma team that collected her put a cervical collar around her neck, “just in case”.

The protocol at Yale New Haven Hospital is that a patient in this situation must be evaluated within 72 hours to determine whether ligament damage occurred.  Damaged ligaments, if not allowed to heal, or repaired, can lead to neck instability and the possibility of paralysis. The evaluation can be done either by asking the patient to move their head, and determining whether symptoms arise (pain, numbness, tingling), or an MRI can be performed.  If the evaluation is not done within 72 hours, I was told that my mother would  “have to” wear the collar for another six weeks.

My mother has dementia, and also was receiving pain medication, so the former style of evaluation was not successful.  She could neither obey orders/requests reliably, nor report her observed feelings reliably.  It took 24 hours to arrange for hip joint replacement surgery, and then another 24 hours for her to recover a bit.  And then she was in pain.  Moving her for the MRI seemed to be quite an imposition.  We were repeatedly told, in urgent terms, that we were running out of time.

This all seemed out of proportion to the evidence, since my mother seemed to be quite comfortable, hip and surgical pain aside.  I began to push back.  It seemed to me that one could remove the collar and simply observe my mother for 10 or 15 minutes.  Visitors could enter the room to cause her to turn her head in curiosity.  People could see whether she winced or seemed comfortable.

Then I was told that there was no evidence at all that any aspect of this protocol was correct or useful to the patient.  Useful to the Hospital?  Yes.  It might reduce the chance of a law suit.  But necessary, or even reasonable?  Fears, yes.  Concerns, yes.  But no evidence, no studies.

I also pointed out that while they could recommend that my mother wear the collar for six weeks, and explain the possible consequences of not doing that, they could not require that she do so.  Their use of the phrase “have to” was really inappropriate.

Lessons learned?  When a doctor tells you that something must be done, often they are over-stating the case, either to cover their ass, or their attorney’s asses.  And while they often use words like “must” they almost never mean what they say.  They should be offering information and making recommendations.

Ask questions.  Push back.  Do not let the creators of protocols push you thoughtlessly in an uncomfortable or expensive direction.

One Important Thing for You to do When a Loved One Dies

February 12, 2014

My father died back in October. Because my mother is demented, I immediately had to forward all mail so that I could handle their affairs.

Big Mistake.

I now receive perhaps 40 solicitations per week from charitable organizations, all redirected from mail that they were receiving.  I never told these organizations about the change of address: they were notified by the post office.  I did not see any way to avoid having those notifications  sent out.

I have probably sent out 50 letters asking that this stop.  My bet is that my address is now being sold to other charities and catalog companies.  I do not expect that this will be easy to remedy.

I should have forwarded the mail to a post office box.  That way, whenever I am sure that the necessary people have the new correct address, I can just drop the PO box and let all of the unwanted advertising disappear.

Take my advice.  The American marketing machine is nearly unstoppable horror.

The Insanity of NPR and Fresh Air’s Censorship

January 8, 2014

I admire Terry Gross’ abilities as an interviewer, but a recent interview made a mockery of the censorship that pervades NPR and treats everyone as if they were children.

The interview was with Andy Samberg.  In it, they discussed a routine about “<bleep> in a box”.  There was no way to figure out exactly what <bleep> was, so I figured it must have been “shit in a box”.  The rest of the interview did not make much sense, although everyone was laughing.

Fast forward to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast/interview with Andy Samberg.  That uncensored interview permitted the listener to understand that in fact the bit was called “dick in a box”. At least that interview made sense.

When the coyness becomes so oppressive that one cannot even understand the interview, the time has come for a change.  In an era when 12 year olds are getting pregnant, is it really important that people not hear the word “dick”?  They all know the word “penis”, and they have all spoken to friends called “Dick”.  I mean, what is the fucking purpose of this insanity?

Same thing with “shit”.  It is not offensive to discuss “feces” or “crap”, but somehow “shit” is offensive?  This is absurd on the face of it.

I have no respect for NPR nor Terry Gross when it comes to their perpetuating these ridiculous rules, especially when it means that the content of their interviews becomes obscured.

Perhaps Terry and NPR would do well to stop discussing any issues that might offend at all, and leave that kind of reporting to the likes of Marc Maron.   He is heart-felt, honest, and transparent.  Too bad NPR and Terry cannot live up to Marc’s lofty standards.

Marc Maron’s WTF podcast is great, but his Libsyn app really sucks

December 15, 2013

I am quite a fan of Marc Maron’s podcasts.  I listen to every new one, and am slowly plowing my way through his first 400.  I recommend him.   He is a real human being who is unafraid to reveal himself, and his interviews glisten with that humanity.

Unfortunately, in order to access any podcasts older than 6 months, you need to use his “app”, and his app is the most buggy software I can ever recall using.

I downloaded the app and purchased a year’s worth of access back in August.  I corresponded with Rob Walch of Libsyn, the authors of the app, explaining all of the anomalous behavior that I was seeing.  I expected an update in a few weeks, or a month.  Here we are four months later, and no updates.  So, my problem with Libsyn is not only that they write crappy software, but that they seem to not care in the slightest that they have bugs.  I guess they are focusing on taking money from customers, rather than on delivering software that actually works.

What bugs have I found?

1) I listen to Marc with my iPhone 4S in my pocket, using ear buds.  If I need to pause the podcast, I press the button on the ear buds.  The good news is that the audio does stop.  The bad news is that if you then press the button a second time, the audio resumes from the start of the broadcast.  Even stranger, if you look at the iPhone display, the display shows the triangle that indicates that the app is not playing audio at all (even though it is).  The indicated position of replay is correct (middle of the podcast) even though the audio is from the start of the podcast. And, stranger still, if you press on that triangle, the playback jumps to the correct location.  So, they are somehow handling the signals from the ear buds differently than from the iPhone display.

2) If you try to pause the audio for a longer period of time, the playback starts from the beginning of the podcast, and there is no way to resume the podcast where you left off.  You have to poke around with the scroll bar, trying to remember where you left off.

3) if you pause even longer, the app simply unloads itself.   I have no idea why this is considered to be a feature: none of the Apple podcast apps do this.  It does not seem necessary, and it is annoying to have to re-launch the app.

4) when you start the Apple podcast app, it starts in perhaps a second.  The Libsyn app takes perhaps 10 seconds, long enough to be annoying.  I have no idea how they managed to write something that takes 10 seconds to load.  This is quite an achievement.

5) the app has the concept of “starred” items, the podcasts that you have downloaded to list to later on.  If you are playing a starred podcast and pause long enough that the app unloads, then when you restart the app, it has forgotten that you were listening to starred playback.  So, you are no longer listening to the same set of podcasts as you were originally.  If you do not have a data source, the app tries to stream, and fails.

6) the app seems to react differently depending on whether you have access to WiFi, to a mobile data stream, neither, or both.  Sometimes you have to enable Airplane mode just to get the thing to work properly.  Ridiculous.

7) sometimes when I resume, the location in the podcast is off by as much as 30 minutes!

8) if you want to report a problem with the app, you must do this via email.  Think about this.  The app acquires data from the web, and yet there is no way to just click a button and have the necessary debug information transmitted to the Libsyn web site.  Not everyone uses their iPods with email enabled.

I complained so loudly that they blocked me, so they no longer will listen to my complaints.  If you have the ear of either Marc or Libsyn, please ask them to fix their software.  The podcasts are so good!  The app is execrable.

IOS 7 is horrible

December 6, 2013

Up until a week ago, I was an Apple booster, but the arrival of IOS 7 has changed that.  Screens that were easy to read are almost impossible to read now.

Take the Podcast application.  Used to be, you could clearly see how many podcasts remained unread for each source: it was a clearly legible number.  Now, there is a small light gray on white number, something so difficult to spot that I had to show a friend where it was while I was ranting.  He could not see it at all.

Or the Clock application.  When you try to set a timer, what  you now see is almost impossible to read.  It was really easy to see before.

I have no idea why Apple decided to “fix” stuff that was working very well, and make it hardly work at all.  Are they so bored there that they change things that are not broken?

Maybe there is some way to throw a new skin on the stuff that I can no longer read. I have no idea.  And I’m not that enthusiastic about spending my time to fix Apple’s screw-up.

I’m researching Samsung Galaxy Android devices now.

Apple: you are not so far head of the others that you cannot fail.  What you just did is real crap.