Friday, December 21, 2012

Today's Great Idea!

Coal colored rawhide bones for people to put in 'bad dog' stockings for Christmas....

I'm a little confused...

If today is the last day on the Mayan calendar  and the world will end, then logically, that will not happen until tomorrow sometime, right? So, technically, we won't know that it's all BS until  12/23/12 gets here.... Me? I'm going to be just as careful about the future tomorrow as I was today - which is to say not at all... Cheers!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Lucky Update

I have noted here and here that my dog Lucky, a Great Pyrenees mix, had a chronic limp issue.  I guess since I don’t do facey-book anymore, this seems like the place to note his status. We have gone back and forth with the vet and an orthopedic surgeon, and they were unable to diagnose the issue, which got progressively worse. We tested for everything from bone & muscular cancer, to Lymes. Fortunately, nothing scary came back positive. We treated him for Lymes, but it really did not seem to help.
Finally, we took him to a dog orthopedic place (VOSM). The doctor there evaluated him and was able to diagnose CCL (or, if he were a human, ACL damage). Diagnosis is actually straightforward, as there are a couple of manipulations that they do assess if the noted ligaments are damaged. In Lucky’s case, it took a while for things to loosen up to the point where the manipulations gave the right indications indicating ligament damage. In fact, everyone involved noted that his diagnosis was unusually difficult. Anyway, this was actually good news, as now we knew what the problem was and the only question was what type of repair needed to be done and who would do the cutting. We settled on this guy to do the surgery, and went with his recommended TTA (described here) repair.
Lucky came through the surgery in good shape. He was good about not licking the wound, so he didn’t need a ‘cone’. After two weeks he went back and got the stitches out and there was no sign of infection. Since the surgery he has been pinned up in the living room to try to keep him as calm as possible so the leg will have a chance to heal. He will have to be confined there for two months. We have started doing short 5 minute walks and every day he is relying more and more on leg. We will expand the walks soon, going to longer and longer walks to build up the muscles that have atrophied.
In summary, I am deeply grateful to the doctors who have worked with us to bring him back, and I am overjoyed to see him healing so well. I think he is going to make a good recovery. Yes, it was not cheap, and I am glad I could afford to have it done, and the doctors have assured me they would have worked with me to set up a payment plan if I could not have afforded it. He is recovering well, and his prognosis is good. I will update this post & bump it with any new developments.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tales of a Cold Warrior - Meet the Sergeant

(To get the full story, you may want to go back and start from the beginning)

When I was growing up, the preacher in the church that I went to had various sermons which we all came to be familiar with, his most famous being his ‘Mustard Seed’ sermon, which I think I heard every year from about 6 until I left home at 18. That being said, there isn’t much that I can remember about that sermon, other than mustard seeds were really small, but make big trees. No, the one thing that I remember Dr. Hayes, a WWII veteran, talking about was his entry into basic training, and more specifically, something to this effect:

“You may forget the names of the kids you grew up with. You may forget the name of the preacher that baptized you. You may forget birthdays and anniversaries, but you will never, ever, forget the name of your drill sergeant”

My drill sergeant’s name was Sgt Martell. He was a large, imposing man with flaming red hair, and more than a touch of an Irish brawler. His assistant drill, whose name I actually don’t recall but will refer to as Sgt F, was the exact opposite: think of a Barney Fife and you will get the right impression. That is not to say that Sgt F was not a very important part of my basic training, it’s just that most of the direction, discipline, and guidance came from Sgt Martell.

In fact, upon arriving at the barracks of D-4-3, my training company, the sergeant to greet us was Sgt F. We arrived a couple of days early, so there was much time spent getting settled in and the environment was just a bit looser than it would be in just a couple of days. Sgt F got us settled in, and immediately begin working us on marching and drilling. Once he ascertained that I knew how to call a cadence and issue marching commands, I got stuck with drilling the rest of the recruits.

After a day or so, our company had grown to full strength, and Sgt Martell made his introductions. As I recall it was a fall out for morning exercises, and he showed up and introduced himself by talking us on a short run, which as I recall resulted in most of the platoon puking on the side of the road. From there, the first day was a haze of pushups, running, marching, yelling, resting, and eating. The first day ended with a particularly poignant speech by the company’s first sergeant.

It seems that in order to accommodate ‘integrated’ basic training, where women and men companies trained side by side, the Army had avoided building co-located barracks, and instead had merely split the existing barracks in half via a thin wall of sheetrock. Since this necessarily created a one exit floor in violation of accepted fire codes, the contractor had sidestepped the issue by painting that section of the wall with a prominent sign that noted, “IN CASE OF FIRE, BREAK THROUGH WALL”. This wall was the subject the first sergeant’s speech (made only to the male recruits), which went something like this:

“Gentleman, you may have noted that at the end of some of your barracks halls there is a firewall. Some of the more intelligent among you may have noted that on the other side of that wall are the female barracks. Now over time, some industrious individuals have managed to poke some holes through those walls. Now rumor has it those females will sit on the other side of that wall, and tell you all sorts of things to mess with your mind. But I tell you- the first recruit to go through that wall will spend the rest of their enlistment breaking large rocks into small ones. Do you understand?”
The next most memorable point in my basic training came in the following week when I was issued my M-16. I had been around guns all my life and had always been utilitarian objects. I hunted with them, I carried a rifle or shotgun on my grandfather’s farm while wondering the hills, both for protection from rattlesnakes and the opportunity for game, and I had spent many, many dark motionless hours on the range, honing my marksmanship skills. But until that point I had never held in my hands a rifle whose sole purpose was to kill.
It may have been that it was mostly made of plastic, but it had a very cold, deadly, and unreal feel to it. I should note here that I had never used a pistol, which in most cases, are only for death dealing. That experience was unique for me, and I only felt it again when I was issued a .45, and later when I went through the FBI’s weapon familiarization course at Quantico. An interesting tidbit about the M16’s of that era. Many of the ones issued had been in the inventory since Viet Nam. Thus, some of them were war manufactured by that well known defense and toy manufacturer Mattel. I can’t recall if mine was, but I do distinctly remember noting that several of my squad’s were proudly stamped “Made by Mattel” - but they were no toys...

Next: Hat Apology, Long Walks Down Dirt Roads and Grenades

Stange Goings on @ Redskins Park

What you see here is the Redskins practice bubble at Redskins Park that I can see from my window at work. Yeah - me, the Shannihans, and RGIII all work in the same neighborhood, and no I have never seen any of them in person, though there is a certian Starbucks nearby that I am sure is where the cheerleaders hang out.. but that's another story (and no I will not reveal where that is)...

Anywho, the arrow points to a crane that has been operating on the other side of the practice bubble all day. This is a little worrisome... do they know something they are not telling? Are they beginning renovations there early, assuming there will be no post season needs for the facilties? Or does it take a crane to move RGIII out and Cousins in? There is nothing about this on their website, so I assume they are keping it on the down low - so don't tell anyone ok? It may be they are just burying the giant spaceship that Dan Synder has been hiding in the practice bubble, now that he has finished extracting the aliens DNA to slip into the player's gatorade... (drug test that!)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Big Dumb Science - Or How I Spent the Summer of '91 (Part 3)

Ft Huachuca

If you didn’t catch the first part of this, you can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

When we arrived at Ft. Huachuca, it was like old home week. While I was in the Army, I had spent probably about a year there, in bits and pieces for training. There was of course no one left there from when I was in training (at least no one I would have known after all that time), but it was still fun to drive around and nostalgically see all the old buildings and places I remembered from 'back in the day'.

That being out of the way, we began the laborious task of installing our system in the trailer parked on the steel mesh that surrounded the wooden crane. My initial think on seeing this set up was a bit conflicted. We were going to attempt to coax a million volts of wild electricity away from the adjacent wooden tower, down our laser beam, and safely grounded out in the steel mesh upon which the trailer containing us and our equipment was resting? This is where ‘science’ comes into play. The trailer was insulated from the mesh by its rubber tires and, where necessary rubber mats. The fiber wire would optically isolate the laser from the lightning which in theory would follow the metal into the ground and not follow the laser back into our trailer for a spectacular explosion. Thus assured by ‘science’, I set about the work of powering my equipment and performing the initial system checks.

I managed to get the laser working in pretty short order. I didn’t actually fire it as Edwards would not arrive until later with the last minute ordered cheapest available optical couplings that would carry the laser outside the trailer to its mount. Additionally, we did not have clearance to fire the laser until the following day, as an aircraft warning the range had issues for planes flying around the area would not go into effect until then. It seems that a multi-watt non-visible laser pointed up in the air was viewed as some sort of flight hazard. That being done, our range escort noted a storm was coming and offered to show us what it looked like from up close at the range.

We piled into his pickup, and rolled into the main part of the field. We came to a stop several hundred feet from the tower, in a (metal) pickup truck, situated in the middle of a field coated with metal mesh, with a lightning storm fast approaching. Again, ‘science’ was on our side, and any nearby strike would not reach us through the rubber wheels of the pickup. In the unlikely event that the pickup was hit, our leather seats would insulate us from a smoking electric death. Our guide helpfully noted that a nearby strike would be preceded by ionization which would be detectable by hair reactions in our neither regions. He was a ‘good ole boy’ so I leave it to the reader’s imagination exactly how that was worded.

After we waited for an hour or so, the storm moved off and failed to approach our field, so we missed seeing any real fireworks. Returning to our trailer, I was inspired by talk of ionization, and decided to see how the charge buildup detection portion of the system was faring with an actual storm nearby. I looked at the measurements and became immediately horrified. What I was seeing was lightning effects, but not for a single cloud. Instead I was seeing a jostling of the stored charge as various charged clouds gained dominance, discharged with lightning, and then was replaced by other to be discharged clouds. Edwards cloud model was thus incomplete… a great description of a cloud with lightning, yet undetectable when masked by a storm front of hundreds such clouds. The code for the detector would need dramatic revision if this system were to work properly.

I spent the night and the next day in and around that trailer, revising the code to use the relative magnitude of the measured ground charge, along with frequency of polarity shifts as a secondary indicator. To say I was a little strung out after such an effort would be an understatement. On the other hand, I was much younger then and had a higher tolerance for such things. In the middle of this, Edwards arrived with the last pieces of the system. I continued to concentrate on my task as he and Olga worked on setting up the optics. I noticed there was something wrong between the two of them, but I did not pause in my task. Later that night, when I was taking a break I asked Olga what was wrong? She informed me that the cheaper, last minute optics that Edwards had brought were not the right specification and instead of ionizing a column of air a thousand feet in the air, at best we would be to ionize a column a couple of feet off the ground, and at worst, the optics would melt and explode. Thus the main event for the next day, the firing of the laser, would not occur.

Needless to say, when the government representative were told the next day that we had their laser protection, but would not be able to demonstrate it due to a last minute ‘mechanical failure’, they were bemused. I had been able to complete my part and stood ready to demonstrate it. Edwards began his presentation, which consisted of informing the government personnel how he had designed and coded the control system. Not his team, not at his direction, no himself had done it, and quite brilliantly. It was at that point I walked out of the room. Olga had a much calmer approach and noticed my exit. She followed me out and talked me into returning to perform my part of the demo, which mainly consisted of stimulating the system to just short of firing the laser, a task that Edwards had no idea how to perform.
It goes without saying the we did not get the follow on contract, and my resignation from that company and movement to another job almost preceded my arrival back home. I still occasionally hear Edwards on the local conservative talk station, as he is wont to call in and express his opinion of things. I really don’t have anything against him, as I have come to understand that his behavior is typical of PhDs. In retrospect, I believe he was doing his best, and deserves credit for the idea of the system, as well as the science associated with it. He did later visit me after I had left his company admit that his behavior was deplorable, and apologized.  I can see how, with the optics failure, he was looking for anything to make himself look better in front of his customer. That being said, I did learn a great deal that summer – much of it had nothing to do with science or programming.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

It Resumes

I am trying to resume posting. As you can see if you are reading this, I changed the name of the blog, based off of a favorite poem of mine that seems particularly appropriate. I have ditched the political comment for now, although I can't promise that it won't creep back in. The site will remain mainly an outlet for my writing and foolishness. I have comments turned off, mainly because I don't wish to deal with moderating them. If you have something that you gotta say to me, there is a 'contact me' link to the right. Otherwise, read & enjoy. If you like what you read, by all means, drop me a note & let me know...

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Drinking Muddy Water
When I was 12, I did a spectacularly foolish thing. Now at that age there is ‘the dumb thing’ like getting your pants caught in the chain of your bike because you forgot to roll them up, resulting in a grease mark on your pants that hardly anyone but your long suffering mother notices. Then there is the ‘really stupid thing’, like trying to sneak out of a class and getting caught by the vice principal, resulting in a couple of whacks from ‘the enforcer’. Next comes the ‘amazingly really stupid thing’, like the time I went to the church dinner after recovering from a stomach flu, and, having eaten very little the past few days, stuffed myself which resulted in blowing chunks there in front of God and everyone. Finally, there is the ‘spectacularly foolish thing’. This is the thing that either kills you, or gives you a really good story to tell. For me, this was one of those, because I drank muddy water. It wasn’t really the drinking of the muddy water that makes this fall into the spectacularly stupid category. No it’s how and the why that brought me there.

It was one of those wonderful summer weeks in Memphis. The weather was stifling hot, but we were too young to notice. Our days were spent riding our bikes, planning adventures, and mostly staying out of our parent’s hair so as not to make a mess and thus be tasked with a ‘make work’ summer task like weeding the garden or mowing the lawn. My then current best friend at that time was a kid that was one year younger than me and lived a few doors down the street in one the ‘new’ duplexes. I remember when they built those duplexes. Up until that time, the field where they were built was pretty much an overrun lot where we played baseball and flew our tethered model planes. We were really against the idea of the houses to the point where we would sneak out and pull up the surveyor stakes at night when no one was looking. This did not have too much an effect as we merely pulled them up but were not larcenous enough to actually steal or move them.

Anyway Scott was the older brother of the (in)famous McManus pair. They were the sons of a single mother, which meant that more often than not, they were casually supervised. This meant that they had the reputation for getting in trouble and fighting a great deal, both with themselves and with others. That summer Scott was my best friend and we did pretty much everything together, while striving to exclude his younger sibling (Nolan) from whatever we were about. We did all the usual kid stuff, but by the end of the summer, we were looking for more. Thus, the idea for our ‘grand adventure’ was born.

There is a state park just north of Memphis called Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park. It consists of about 30 square miles of marsh and heavily wooded land adjacent to the Mississippi river with a couple of lakes, and the rest of the park given over to hunting (at that time). I had spent some time there with my siblings and father, hunting or fishing. I was well acquainted with the route there, even though the trip from our house on the outskirts of Bartlett to the park was probably almost an hour by car at that time down various back roads.  On the other hand, Scott had not been to the park at all. By our thinking, it was a simple plan. Ride our bikes to the park, see the river, eat a packed lunch, and then ride back. What was missing in the equation? An objective measurement of the distances involved (25 miles one way), the temperature in Memphis on a hot summer day (90's with 90% humidity), and the colossally bad judgment of a pair of 11 & 12 year olds (incalculable).

Being the geniuses of planning that we were, we assumed that a couple of candy bars would be sufficient to power us through the short trip to the park. We completely discarded any need for water as I recalled there were ample water fountains in the park.  Thus, more than adequately fortified, we informed the responsible adults in our life (my mother and his sitter), that we were ‘going for a bike ride’ and set off. We passed our school and familiar haunts, and then we were in areas only glimpsed through the open windows of the car passing at high speeds. Before too long, we were at the rural airport where my father occasionally flew, then past the heavy industrial area with its odd rust burning and overripe wheat smells. Peddling away, we took a four lane road to nowhere, then, following my visual memory, various country roads until miraculously, we arrived at the park headquarters. That was where we started making bad decisions.

The goal of the trip was to see the Mississippi river. Inexplicitly, I had no visual memory of how to get there from the park entrance, as my family had only had the occasion to go to that part of the park on a few rare occasions. Thus, we had to rely on the questionable ability of a couple of 12 year olds to read and conceptualize the map of the park clearly displayed at the park entrance. We studiously committed the map to memory and, after a few sips of water from the outside fountain, were ready to proceed to the river, which was a mere 5 miles away. Note, that it did not occur to either one of us at that time that we were about to add 10 more miles to our trek.

As we made our way around the edge of the park, we had to peddle up and down some steeper hills than we had encountered on our trip. This was due to the natural rise of the land leading up to the river. Once we reached the northern edge of the park, the land began to fall away, and the ride down the road to the river was all downhill. Once we reached the river, we were elated. Our goal was reached! We celebrated by eating our candy bars. It was at that point that we also realized we were getting just a bit tired. Looking across the parking lot, I spied an opening into the woods. The germ of an idea began to form. ‘Why not take this shortcut back to the park entrance?’

The previous fall I had accompanied my brother to this very spot on his very own ‘amazingly really stupid thing’. We were ostensibly there to hunt squirrels. Squirrels having the common sense to be sleeping in the middle of the cold day, we left the hunting area just south of the northernmost road of the park, and proceeded to the river and more interesting pursuits. The map indicated there was an ‘unimproved road’ that ran along side of the river that joined another ‘unimproved’ road to an adjacent hunting area. Thus, his 17 year old logic told him that this sandy, vine covered track would be no problem for our sturdy VW van. It only took several hours of first pushing and shoving the van out of one sandy hole to another, to convince himself that this was not going to work. With no place to turn around, we then proceeded to push, shove, and scrape the van backwards down the track back to return to the entrance. Of course the only thing my 11 year old brain retained from that experience was the wholly inaccurate idea that there was a shortcut from the river parking area to the park entrance.

So with the prospect of a quick way back to the park entrance, we set off down the (still) vine covered track. We almost immediately ran into the same problem the van had encountered. The sandy soil made it impossible for the bikes to gain traction forcing  us to walk. When a trail that looked less sandy branched off to the east, we decided to take that. Our decision making got worse and worse, as we were further forced to make turns to unknown directions. We weren’t necessarily lost as we knew the way back to the river, but it was a long way and getting longer. We made our one wise decision to stash our bikes, and walk back to the river and get a ride home from there. When we reached the river, we were really, really thirsty. There in front of us, in its rolling glory, was all the water in the world. So that’s how I came to drink muddy water, fresh from the Mississippi.

Our extraction from the situation from there was uneventful. We made it to the parking area, where we managed to get a ride from a stranger who, oddly enough did not try to kill us and gave us a ride home. After arriving home, my parents took us back to find the bikes, which were located less than a 100 feet from a road near the entrance to the park. We had apparently made every turn in that trail system except the ones that would have led to a successful exit. I did not hang out with Scott much after that. I suspect I was viewed as a bad influence, why I can’t say.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Tales of a Cold Warrior - Entering the Dragon

(To get the full story, you may want to go back and start from the beginning)

I can't say I remember much about getting on the bus in Memphis, nor the bus ride from there to St.  Louis. The bus ride from St. Louis to Ft. Leonard Wood was memorable only at the end. In fact, I don't remember getting on the bus to Ft. Leonard Wood. The Army's goal for that ride was simple, probably honed over many years of dealing with volunteer troops bound for their introduction to the Army family.

We must have been purposefully directed to the busses by gender, as I don't recall any females on the bus, even though my training company had a female platoon. In fact, I do not recall the drills even getting on the bus with us. However, they were there for the ride, talking and laughing, and purposefully being human. As we pulled into the reception area, the head drill on our bus told us that he and his fellow drills were human, and were about to be true assholes, that it was part of the process and not to take it personally. That this was the last time until after we graduated we would see the human part, but to remember that it was there. Or words to that effect...

Then the doors to the bus opened and everything changed. From what seemed like all directions we were assaulted by a barrage of angry yelling men. "Go here", "Move faster", "What the hell are you doing?", and the inevitable "drop and give me 10". We were herded into lines, a ragtag group of civilians adrift among a wolf pack of drill sergeants. There was a speech then by the head sergeant. He talked about what a privilege it was for us to be in the Army and how it was his job to prepare us. He also said that graduating basic was going to be the hardest thing we had ever done. He then directed our attention to the now empty buses idling behind us. He told us that if we wanted to drop out now was the time, we just had to tell one of the drills and they would put us back on the bus. What he didn't want was someone trying to sneak away, as all manner of bad things would befall you in that case. I do remember a few guys getting back on the bus.

From there we were herded into a chow hall for a very unmemorable meal, and then segmented into the reception barracks for a night sleep. At that time, the reception barracks at Ft. Leonard Wood were vintage WW2 barracks which consisted of a double row of cots in an open bay.  I don’t think I got a lot of sleep that first night. There was too much going on, both inside my head and around me. Somehow, we made it through that and got shuffled off to ‘processing’ where our hair got cut by a group of old Filipino men. We were issued our uniforms, boots, underwear, and web gear by a group of fairly bored looking quartermaster corporals, which we carried to a group of old Filipino women to sew the various patches, name tags, and for those of us who had our PFC stripes (due to ROTC participation) our rank. How all those Filipinos came to be in the middle of Missouri cutting hair, sewing, and as I was to find out later, cooking and dating drill sergeants is a mystery.

Eventually we were sent to our training company. Given that training, even basic training, must occur on a schedule, and the number of training companies in existence at any given time are dictated by personnel availability and ultimately budget, in the fall of 1980 there was probably a new training company starting every month. I assume that my training company was not too different from others and consisted of three male platoons and one female platoon. Each platoon consisted of four squads of 7 to 8 men (or women – but at that time never mixed gender). Squad leaders were assigned by rank. The only people that had rank upon entry into basic were kids that had ROTC in high school or prior service individuals re-entering the service after being out for a while. We really didn’t see the prior service guys after reception as they were regulated to staff support positions. This seems right to me as there really was no need to put them through the mental rigors of basic, but probably required a different acclimation process. In any case, it was probably easier for the drills to instill the proper attitude without someone who had been through it all already mucking it up.  Oddly enough, I think I was the only one in my platoon that had been in ROTC. I suspect that reflects that nature of the military then. Most of us were there not necessarily out of a sense of duty, though that was true on some level or we would not have signed up, but also we sort of just fell into the service without planning.

So I was made squad leader by virtue of my ROTC experience. At the time, I thought that it was due to my ability to walk in a straight line and knowing how to salute. I suspect it as a little more than that, as throughout basic other squad leaders were brought up and down, but I remained. I think I was just lucky in that regard as somehow my squad managed to avoid the screw-ups of the other squads.

Next: Meet The Sergeant

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Big Dumb Science - Or How I Spent the Summer of '91 (Part 2)

The System

You can find the other parts of this here : Part 1 and Part 3

So that’s how I came to be working out of a guy’s basement in Vienna, VA. The EE who designed the board for the system was as inexperienced as I was, but was also fearless. Olga was an enigma. A heavyset hispanic lady (we were all too young back then) who looked more like a cleaning lady than the excellent engineer she was. She did know her craft and the motherboard she designed was almost perfect.  She was cheerful, upbeat, and never let Edwards or the job get her down. I have no idea what happened to her after Edwards shut down his company.

I say almost as any board fabrication is sure to have some glitches. The problem on this board took some sleuthing to figure out. I was attempting to get the serial port to work without much success. The data lines from the processor to serial driver chip were correct, but no serial activity could be seen on the output pins. I checked each line and it appeared to be correct.  I then looked at connector on the board more carefully and discovered that Olga had flipped the mask for the driver chip, reversing all the pins. The solution was easy: bend all the pins on the chip in the opposite direction and plug it in backwards. Score!

The code itself was all written in ‘C’, which was compiled using the TI toolset. It consisted of a few standard control features required by the chip and a ‘big loop’ style main loop. There was no real need for interrupt handling as there were no real time requirements. The sample phase would call the weather service, download the current indicators and place them in a table. It then would trigger and collect the value of the electrical charge for the ground sensor and place that in a table. The weather factors and the ground values would then be weighed and a ‘threat value’ would be obtained. The threat value drove the priming of the laser, which had various stages that had to be initiated before firing – such as starting the water cooling, turning on various stages, then culminating with firing.

The ground sensor was the one part of the system I couldn’t really test. In Virginia, electrical storms were relatively rare. Edwards house location was in a spot where the ground sensor could not be buried in such a way that good reading could be obtained. Thus, I was stuck with coding for an event that I would never see until we integrated the system at Ft. Huachuca.

As for the other parts of the system, those we were able to test. Firing the laser was done at office in Sterling that Edwards did a short term lease in. This was required as the three phase power required was not available in Edwards residential setting.  Per OSHA rules back then, there were administrative hurdles to firing the laser also. Each of us had to get an eye exam so that after the project finished, they could compare our eyes to assess if they had been damaged. Due to the events that unfolded, I never got that exam, but except for one case, I was never on any danger of an eye strike.

In that one event, I was debugging the startup sequencing and Edwards was testing the one part of the system that he alone designed – the fiber connection that would carry the laser out to a pit that would be constructed to receive the lightning blast. I had activated the laser and was reaching to put my protective glasses in place when Edwards turned around, fiber in hand, the beam bouncing off of every reflective surface in the room. Olga and I did some rather comical dodging and diving to avoid the very real chance of being burned or blinded by the beam. After all the dramatic representation of lasers in Star Wars and the movie ‘Weird Science’ I was amazed that the diameter of the focused beam was so small, yet also so potentially destructive.

So, system build ready, we packed it up flew with it to Arizona. I say we, when actually it was just Olga and I, as Edwards was still waiting on parts for his optical coupling design.

Next: Ft Huachuca

Monday, November 12, 2012

Yard Sailing

I woke up early Saturday morning. Much more so than what I was used to for a weekend. I am not sure if it was the lifting of the stress of the week, the crisp cool air of the season, or the dog greeting the deer in the yard by barking out a hearty chorus of 'Get the Hell Out of My Yard'. Whatever the reason, I was awake and began looking for a task worthy of such a nice day. 

There were of course the leaves occupying the front yard. They had been laying there since Sandy blew through, mocking me. I know I will eventually get to them, but I am trying to not be too compulsive about it. Then there is the roof on the shed which has gaping holes in it. It only leaks a little, (i.e. only all the water that falls on the shed roof) but the effect of the leak is starting to take its toll and it has to be fixed soon.

With all these woes, there was really only one option – road trip: but where? My sister had invited us to visit her place out in the mountains. As tempting an offer that was, what with all the firearm shooting, ATV riding, and bonfire marshmallow roasting, it would be a blatant abandonment of my leaf / roof responsibilities. While such obligations can be dodged during the week, what with all the working, commuting, and cursing, dodging these obligations on the weekend takes just a little more finesse. I then hit on an excellent solution – yard sailing.

Yard sailing, like other forms of sailing, takes careful planning, navigation, adapting to changing conditions, and, probably most importantly, knowing when to bring the vessel back into safe harbor. Saturday was no exception. The first step was planning. A quick assessment of the yard sales in my area listed on Craigslist revealed twelve possibilities. I plotted their locations in Google Maps to determine if a route to hit them all could exist without violating space time continuum constraints. After analyzing this route, I threw out the outliers which would cause reality warping time discontinuities, then combed ad contents to throw out sales which were oriented toward ‘baby clothes’. The resulting route was 1.5 hours long with six destinations. Taking into account actual traffic, Saturday drivers, and stoppage time, this translated into the perfect morning’s entertainment.

I should mention here that there are several rules to yard sailing which should be taken into account. These are common sense rules which sound simple, but are increasingly hard to follow once in the field. The first rule is to never buy something that you already have. That seems simple right? Well, depending on the depths of your hoarding stupor, this can be quite difficult. To ensure this rule is not broken, I find it advisable to take a quick tour of the various storage facilities secreted throughout the house to get a reminder of the ‘stuff I have’.  This of course brings up the next rule of yard sailing which is obviously universally ignored – don’t buy stuff you don’t need. The evidence of this rule’s universal violation is yard sales which, in their purest form, owe their very existence on the need of people to divest themselves of items which were impulse purchased by themselves (or by well meaning friends and relatives as gifts) to fulfill a need that does not exist. The items that are therefore found at yard sales are by definition unneeded surplus but not quite wretched refuse.

This leads to the third rule of yard sailing which is all prices are not final and must always be negotiated. Haggling over a prices is not in the comfort zone of most modern suburbanites. In most of our day to day purchases prices are fixed and we like it that way. The supply chain is such that the goods are obtained at a given price from the supplier and delivered to the end user in an amazingly efficient manner. Negotiation is by and large not needed as the system makes such efforts unnecessary. Yard sales have no such supply chain and therefore the efficiency of the system does not play a role. There is only the seller, who had gone to no small effort to try to divest themselves of their junk, and the buyer who is attempting to obtain junk which paradoxically they will end up selling to make room for the junk they are buying. Yes – it does all seem a bit silly, but less so than other noxious hobbies like raising alpacas, stamp collecting, or dentistry.

The first stop was disappointing. In early November yard sales are rare. Due to this, the fake yard sales are inevitable. A fake yard sale is a retailer who sets up shop in their garage, then pretends to be an impromptu yard sale. While I respect these retailers right to make money, and they usually have an intriguing theme of goods, they are, after all is said and done, retailers. They therefore usually violate the third rule being ill disposed to negotiation. Such was the case with my first stop. This guy had an amazing NASCAR collection that he was selling. He even noted incongruously that he had his liver removed the day that Dale Earnhardt bought it. His true ‘yard sale’ items were out front. I noted a fetching crosscut saw and asked him how much he wanted for it. He said $10. I countered with $5, and, true to form, would not move from the initial $10. Sadly we left without buying anything – though I now know where to get some good quality NASCAR memorabilia.

The second stop is really not worth mentioning, as the guy there had not started setting up his sale. He sheepishly noted that his wife had said that she would put the noted start time at 9AM rather than the 8AM that was actually in the listing. I think he was lying and had slept in (sloth!). We told him we would be back in a bit after he had a chance to set up. Of course we were lying too – there is no way I was going to violate God’s laws of space and time to return to a yard sale where the guy was too lazy to get up in time to set up!

The third stop was a rather disappointing ‘multi-family’ yard sale which consisted of a yard full of baby and toddler toys and clothes, followed by a lady with two tables set up with knick knacks, followed by a lady with five small cardboard boxes of clothes. Since we were there, we perused the kid stuff yard. Not only was there nothing interesting there, but there was a child seated in an overpriced chair that creepily kept repeating ‘welcome to our yard sale’. I was kinda glad he wasn't saying ‘redrum’. The little old ladies tables and boxes were a similar disappointment. I almost got the feeling they were just being nice to the first neighbor by setting up so they could list it as a multi-family sale. Perhaps they were under the impression the first family was selling the creepy child? Or, most probable, the sale was a neighborhood tradition that was no longer appropriate as most of the families that used to participate had moved away, and those that stayed had long since divested of their junk. Yes, it was a little sad, but that is the kind of thing you have to be ready to face when you go yard sailing.

The fourth stop was a true yard sale. Initially my vision was impared by the sheer volume of outdated clothes. I then poked through the brick-a-brac and items that were well past their re-gifting expiration dates. As I was turning to go I saw an odd shaped orange box poking out from underneath a table. Opening it I found a Stihl chainsaw. At last – I had found an item that I could purchase! Pulling the starter cord experimentally, I assessed that it was not frozen up and appeared to have compression.  Now to negotiate.

Me: “How much do you want for this”
Her: “I don’t know. It’s been sitting for a few years. I just want it out of here, make me an offer”
<examining it some more>
Me: “I just don’t know – give me a ballpark on what you are expecting”
Her: “$20 – and they go for $300 new”
Me: “I can’t really go more than $15 with it not starting”
Her: “I’ll take that”

That my friends, is how negotiation is done! Thrill of the hunt!

The remainder of our day was uneventful. We saw a house where a guy was selling off the possessions of his mother-in-law who had to go into a home due to Alzheimer’s. She had a great deal of interesting stuff, to include fencing foils, cans of R-12, a paper from when JFK died, and a complete WW2 Army Air Corp uniform. The estate sale had been going on for a while, so it was really a ‘retail’ operation where the item prices were relatively set and more than what I could spend. We only managed to walk out of there with a four rolls of new Christmas wrapping paper (for $2 - Score!). Again, a sad situation, but I liked seeing the old stuff and am honored I got a chance. I think the lady who used to live there would approve – I know I would.

We finished off our yard sailing with some sandwiches at Potbelly. After arriving home, I felt sufficiently sated that, with the help of one of my #1 son, I got about of third of the remaining leaves raked and hauled. We also got a semi-repair done on the shed roof which should be water tight. If not, I can schedule a yard sale in the spring. There's a a lot of junk in there!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Tales of a Cold Warrior – Lifting My Hand and Swearing

(To get the full story, you may want to go back and start from the beginning)

For those that don’t know, there is a line when you join the Army that demarks a point of no return. That is the point where you sign your enlistment papers, then lift your hand and take the oath. The oath itself is the same as everyone who serves, from the lowest private to the commander in chief (in a similar form). Even after all these years, I remember the first bit, though I did have to Google to get the second half:

I, _____, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.
I don’t remember much about the ceremony. I remember a crowded room with a bunch of guys in it. While some people had their parents with them, I was alone except for the recruiter as I was already 18 and did not need parental approval. I do remember that the signing and swearing were all done at the same time. After the ceremony, I returned home. A few days later I got my orders and bus ticket to Ft. Leonard Wood, MO for my basic training.

That summer between swearing in, graduation from high school, and leaving for basic training was uneventful. I did carry quite a bit of anxiety for how I would fare in basic training. I had after all led a fairly protected life. I was about to go away from home in the most dramatic way possible, probably never to return in any permanent way. While I wasn’t in bad shape, I also had concerns about how I would fare physically in basic.

As a partial compensation for these feeling, I decided that then was a good time to take some karate classes. At that time, there weren’t really any dojos near where I lived in the outskirts of Memphis. I didn’t really know anyone who could advise me for a good dojo, and, I hadn’t really researched martial arts beyond knowing that the difference between judo and karate. I did have a friend that I grew up who lived down the street that had taken judo lessons. He related how he had spent most of the three months he took lessons learning how to fall down. This didn’t really seem like what I was looking for, so I had ruled out Judo.

The dojo I ended up picking out of the phone book was a little place off of Summer Ave. run by Master Kang Rhee. Master Rhee was a little guy, but one tough little Korean. Technically, what he taught was not karate, but a blend of karate, Kung Fu, and TaeKwonDo called PaSaRyu (Way of Honor). I was blissfully unaware his association with Elvis until I earned my yellow belt and he wrote 'TCB' on my sparring gear and belt, and the symbol for a Lion. For those not versed in Elvis lore, 'TCB' means 'Taking Care of Business'. It is amusing to see Elvis do karate moves in his concert videos and recognize pieces of the katas I was learning. I did a search to see if the dojo was still in business, and amazingly, it is - though not in the same location. Master Rhee must be in his 80s, but is still listed as an instructor. I do remember his second, Ernest Caruthers (who is probably over 60 now) as a great weapons instructor, something I didn't really get into much as that instruction cost extra.

I attended classes daily, sometimes twice a day. At the time I didn’t have any transportation, so I either rode my bike or the bus to the classes. In retrospect, it was not so much about the karate as it was about self confidence. I built up my strength and stamina, as well as improved my push up skills (something that would be extremely valuable once I entered Basic). By the end of the summer, I was ready to take my green belt test and more importantly, ready to take whatever the world could throw at me. To this day I can still remember almost all of the first kata - something dramatically called 'the 17 deadly moves'.

It’s funny how odd moments mark the transition points in your life. For me it wasn’t signing the paper or getting on the bus but a more subtle moment. Toward the end of the summer, I had gone to a park in Bartlett to jog and work on my kata, alternating jogging and form work. I noticed a couple watching me. When I jogged near them, I recognized them as a couple of people I had gone to high school with. They asked what I was doing, and I explained that I was practicing a kata. They gave me that ‘poor guy, he’s gone off the deep end’ look. As they walked away, I realized that they were to go to Memphis State and probably get married, like most of my other friends, and I was really going into the Army. Right there, I realized I was following a very different path than my peers. I didn't feel bad about, it was just different.

Next – Enter the Dragon

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Big Dumb Science - Or How I Spent The Summer of '91 (Part 1)

You can find the other parts of this here : Part 1 and Part 3.
After the 'real' job I was working at the beginning of 1991 went away when the company I was working for failed rather spectacularly, I was desperate and out of work for a whole two weeks. I will probably write about that company in a future post, but there are aspects to that particular job that I should probably give some thought to before putting it down in the blog. In any case, I called the people I had worked with before and set up interviews, as well as sending my resume to the company’s advertised in the Sunday want ad supplement.

Job hunting back then was a very different thing then it is now. When looking for work I would scan the weekly want ads. For tech jobs, I basically had to wait until Sunday when the Washington Post would do it's technical want ad supplement.  While there were probably as many 'head hunter' outfits back then as now, most companies preferred to list their jobs in the Sunday supplement. I would mail or fax my resume to the company and hope for the best. Since there really wasn't an internet or e-mail, that was the way things were done. Yes - it does seem awkward. Ironically many of the engineers hired in that era invented the infrastructure that created the internet.

Being especially anxious, I resorted to looking for engineering companies in the phone book, and cold calling them to check for openings. At that point in my career, I had committed to being an embedded systems programmer, so I had little or no interest in the plethora of COBOL and DBASE jobs that were the primary programming hires at the that time in the Washington area. There were a great many government 'toy shops' in the area that did specialized devices, many of which were developed in custom hardware and required someone familiar with embedded or device level programming. On one of these calls, the gentleman told me he did indeed need a programmer and would I stop by his business for an interview.

When I arrived at the address he had given me I was immediately confused. This was a residential address. I knocked at the door and was greeted by a Indian man in his early 40s and cloying waft of curry. He invited me in and we did the usual interview thing there on his living room couch. He explained that he was a PhD that had been awarded a SBIR contract to construct a lightning detection, quick disconnect, and deflection device. The work would be performed in his basement and I would be working with a tech and an electrical engineer. He offered me a lower initial salary than I wanted, with the understanding that he would automatically increase my pay on a weekly basis up to a higher than expected salary. Being in need of a paying job, I took his offer.

I was familiar with the SBIR contracting process as I had been exposed to it at my previous job where one of the engineers I worked with had secured for the company a lucrative SBIR contract for a innovative spacecraft power supply. This gentleman's idea was a unique solution to solve a problem for the US Army at Fort Huachuca, AZ. It seems that they had a wooden tower there that they used to suspend tanks and other military hardware so they could do radar studies. The tower itself could not contain any metal, so it was an expensive asset to construct and maintain. Ft. Huachuca was unfortunately subject to violent storms which produced some amazing lightning. A lightning strike on the tower or the adjacent radar equipment could cost significant money for repair. 

Edwards solution was threefold. First, the system would sample the environment via ground sensors and automated weather reporting to determine a threat level. The increasing threat level would activate the other parts of the system. One part of the system would arm a quick disconnect relay that would detect a beginning of a surge and isolate equipment before the surge could travel to key equipment. Yes, this is equivalent to surge suppressors found in every power strip today. The other element of the system was more interesting. If an immediate threat was detected, the system would activate a water cooled laser to fire, ionizing a column of air much taller than the tower, and leading the impending lightning strike safely away from the tower. There were two critical elements to the laser. First it had to be at the proper wave length to ionize air. Secondly, it had to be of sufficient strength. In this case, that called for a water cooled 10 watt monster with a collimated beam not visible to the human eye.

The processor chosen for the system was an odd TI part. Specifically it was a TMS370, normally used in automotive applications. However, it had all the elements that we needed. It had A/D pins which we could use for the ground sensors, and a serial port that could be used to dial up a weather reporting service. Again, there was no internet there, so and Ethernet connection was not a real high priority. There was no operating system as the microprocessor was a simple design and code space was limited. Being a TI part, there was sufficient (free – important as cost containment was too important to my boss, as I will illustrate later) tools and sample code for the serial and A/D functions. The ground sensor was basically a long rod pounded into the ground, with an exposed wire at the top and bottom of the rod, opto-isolated from the system (in case of the inevitable lightening strike). The concept was that before a lightning strike, there is a buildup of electrical charge in the ground. Once the lightning releases, the charge dissipates. This charge / discharge pattern can be measured from some distance away. Or at least was the theory that I was presented with.

What followed that summer was probably some of the most challenging technical work I had done up to that point in my career, and ending in perhaps the most disappointing way.

Next: The System

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Tales of a Cold Warrior - Beginning of Beginning

If you've read my Who Is This Guy? entry, then you know that I was active duty army from 1980-1984. After that enlistment, I was in the reserves (active and inactive) until 1986. This series is a description of what happened during that period as best as I can remember. It was a fun / scary / cool part of my life, and definitely left a mark on me. 

I joined the Army before I graduated from high school. There were several reasons for this. Mostly, I really was not ready for college. I had not scored outstanding on the standardized test and did not have notable grades, therefore I was not in line for scholarships. I had not settled on a ‘life direction’ at that point either. Conversely, I had become very active in Army JROTC in high school. Not really for the military aspect, though I was competent enough in those areas (marching, orders, etc.), but I had joined the rifle team and really enjoyed competitive shooting. I was not a natural talent for shooting. Instead, I became competitive by spending many an afternoon, (mostly) motionless, peering down a rifle barrel in the range in the school basement.

It is hard to imagine in today’s environment that our school had a rifle range. A report of a bunch of kids with guns at the school, shooting for hours, now invokes thoughts of an encounter like Columbine. The way rifle teams worked back then (as now) was that they are sponsored by the JROTC units at each school. While all schools had a ROTC element, not all had a range, but those that did had a rifle team. Much like the football team, there was a rotating schedule where we would pack up our guns and gear, and travel to other schools to compete. Our rifles were .22s, made specifically for competitive shooting, with heavy large barrels to negate the minute aiming point changes caused by the heat friction of a fired round. They also had thicker stocks, as well as rails for the attachment of various support accessories allowed by the rules. We were the top team in our area. I wish I could say that it was due to my superior skill, but that was not the case. We did have a ‘natural’ on our team, Scott Manus, who (when he showed up), on more than one occasion shot a perfect match.

There were two ROTC instructors. They were Maj. Rahm and a crusty old master sergeant whose name I do not recall. Maj Rahm, whom I ashamed to say I just discovered  passed on last year, by and large handled the rifle team, while the sergeant handled the drill team. Maj. Rahm shot on one of the Army’s pistol teams, so as an instructor he was invaluable. Oddly enough, he was not really that big an influence on my decision to go into the Army. What ROTC gave me was comfortableness with the military, such that the decision to commit to the next 4 to 6 years was logical and natural.

At that time, the Army was the best branch for someone that wanted a guaranteed career path at the time the enlistment contract was signed. The other services promised they would try to give you the training you indicated you were interested in, but the Army was the only on to guarantee it. So considered my options. I knew I didn't want to go into the combat arms, as I did not have confidence that I had the physical conditioning necessary. A failure at any point there (airborne training, ranger, SF) meant being thrown to to 'leg' troops, which even then, years after the end of Vietnam, had the reputation for societal dregs. Similarly, I was not interested in the more mundane administrative jobs (cook, mechanic), as those did not seem particularly challenging or interesting. During my initial evaluation the Army gave us an intelligence test. Since I scored relatively high on that, my recruiter told me about a new program the Army had established for a direct career path for Counter-Intelligence (CI) Agents.

Prior to then the career path for CI was an unsure thing. If you wanted to go into CI, you had to perform duties in a related field, then apply and compete with others for a training slot. The new path was to give ‘uncredentialed’ agents enough training so they could function as support personnel for full agents. Once the initial training was completed, the CI specialist would be assigned to tactical units where they could do little harm. After that assignment, they would, upon recommendation of their commander, be returned to training and awarded their credentials.

This was all of course all bullshit, but to my younger self brain, being a CI agent with a badge was about the coolest job ever.  It was true that credentialed agents at that time in non-tactical assignments did not wear a uniform, so after getting your badge, your days of wearing green were done.  Beyond the dress code though, the nuts and bolts of the job were decidedly unexciting, though occasionally entertaining, and the same in either environment. I will expand on this thought later. The germane point here is that the thought of being a badge toting spy catcher in the Army was a cool enough draw to pull me in.

Next: Lifting My Hand and Swearing

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How To See It All - Taking The Wide View

Back in the day when I used real film and paper pictures, I used to make panorama pictures by a laborious processing of cutting the pictures and taping them together to (almost) make a panorama picture. I have seen that there are iPhone apps that will take a continuous photo that allows you just pan your phone and capture a single panorama picture. However, the iPhone is still limited to a 5MP camera. If you really want to get a deep depth picture, you have to go to larger capacity camera. Just for fun, I recently picked up a 14MP Vivitar camera on Craigslist for $35. On my first foray using the camera, at various locations I took multiple pictures meaning to manually stitch these together to make a  single panorama. This would allow me to capture the scenes as I saw them, rather than resorting to manual wide angle pictures that would distort the scene.

Not relishing the difficulty of manually doing the stitching, I looked for a tool that was free and would automatically stitch the pictures together. What I found was a tool called Hugin. It is a little terse, but with practice, I was able to stitch panoramas with ease.

A note of caution here. While the tool can work wonders, it does has it's limits for common point recognition. When taking a series of pictures for a panorama, it is important to have a great deal of overlap from one picture to another. If the tool can't find the points, it will prompt you to find common points. This is an awkward process, but sometimes it works out fine. I'll leave those advanced topics for you to explore on your own.

When hugin starts, you see this:
hugin start display

It really is as simple as 1-2-3. First you select your pictures by pressing the 1. Load Images button. This opens a file selection box where you select all the pictures you want to make the panorama from. Once that is done, you will be prompted to enter the the data for your camera.

I did not fool with looking up the specs for the lens of my point and shoot. Instead, I opted to enter in the HFOV and let it calculate the other data. Assuming a normal point & shoot digital camera, with no setting modifications, this value is normally 50 degrees. Once you hit OK there, you press 2. Align on the main page, and the program does it stuff. If all goes well, the processing completes and you are presented with the preview screen.

From this window, you can choose the Projection screen to select equi-rectangular to flatten out the picture if desired, and select crop to remove unwanted edge effects. Once those edits are done, close this window, and select 3 Create Panorama, you will be prompted for a few more file names, and tada! you have a panoramic picture in a TIFF format.

It is worth noting that these TIFF files can get enormous, especially if you are merging 14MP images. Once the TIFF is created, the file can be shrunk by using a conversion program like JPEGView to convert it to a JPEG, which will typically shrink the file to less that a few megs. It is worth noting that in panorama stitching of large files with few alignment points, the tool will occasionally exhaust system resources and hang. The work around is to align fewer files, then align those composites in a separate step.

Once you use the tool a few times, the process becomes amazingly fast. For example, I noted the pictures in this example on a friend's album, downloaded them, ran them through the tool, shrunk the results, and had the resulting panorama in an e-mail in a couple of minutes. I invite you to look at the trail guides for some examples of what these tools can do. It is worth noting that the banner panorama at the top of the blog was done manually several years ago from scans of film pictures taken with a 35mm SLR. We've come a long way baby!

Monday, October 29, 2012

There's a Snake In My Boot!

So a month ago I was meditating on my place in the universe, bacon sandwiches  and the purpose of poodles, when my wife informs me that she is concerned that there might be a gap in at the bottom of the garage door that would permit various small varmints to gain admittance to our house. The concern is that if rodents could gain entry, they would be immediately followed by the next link in the food chain, snakes. Those would of course be followed by cats, and who want's a garage of snake eating cats? I ambled down to take a look at the situation and decided that cooking enough bacon to make a sandwich would be really messy.

To say I didn't give it much more thought would probably be an understatement. I just don't see the garage as much an attraction to varmints, and by extension snakes. Our house is a split level, with the lowest level on one side being the garage. Thus the garage acts as a cold sink for the rest of the house. In summer, this makes it rather pleasant as the A/C intended for the rest of the house will end up in the garage. This unique characteristic is counterbalanced in winter as we use the garage to stage firewood for our wood stove, necessitating constant opening and closing the door between the garage and the warmest room in the house. This allows the completely unnecessary winter heating to efficiently dissipate into frigid night.

Like most suburbanites, we don't really use our garage for cars. In fact, I would venture a guess that people that put their cars in their garage are

  • gazillionaires and have a house that is a garage - like say Jay Leno
  • childless, cash poor, and don't have stuff, deserving our pity, but also having no business owning a house
  • Use the garage as a convenient hobo dismemberment zone when cars are not parked there
  • really, really, snake lovers

Shortly after moving in, I had the brilliant and unique idea to build shelves in the garage to place our stuff on. I know - wacky idea huh? My wife, as she is wont to do, took it to the next level by organizing our stuff into plastic storage bins and placing them on the shelves. Thus our valuable, castoff stuff is secured against the coming Global Apocalypse and the bric-a-brac is preserved in a style that would make the pharaohs green with envy. Seriously, have you ever seen an unwrapped mummy that didn't make you think 'ugh - is that thing green?'

So with no place to find comfort, I don't really worry too much about vermin (or snakes) in the garage. I do have to note that for some reason (perhaps the rise of the devil and his minions), there has been an unusual number of snake sightings in our neighborhood. I suspect that other than the 'rise of evil', the snakes are enjoying the late departing summer weather rather than curling up in their holes away from decent folks like they are supposed to do.

Keeping all that in mind, a few days ago I was stuck by how nice it was and decided to get the kayak out of the garage for one more paddle before putting it up for the winter. I was basing this on the certainty that once again my family will fail to get me a wet suit for my birthday or Christmas. (Are you reading this family?) I go through the usual ritual of loading the kayak in the jeep.

This consist of opening the tailgate, closing the tailgate and opening the passenger door, folding down the passenger seat, putting it back up so I can slide it forward, folding it down again, opening the tailgate, opening the back window, grunting and cursing and lifting the kayak into the jeep, slamming the tailgate, realizing the tie downs are in the trunk, opening the tailgate, getting the tie downs, closing the tailgate, strapping down the kayak, realize that I need to put my wallet & extra keys in the trunk, undoing the tie downs, opening the tailgate, putting the stuff in the trunk, closing the tailgate, tying down the kayak again, etc, etc..

Finally with everything loaded and ready to go, I get in jeep with the bow of the kayak next to me in the passenger seat, and back out of the driveway. As I make the turn at the end of the driveway, I hear an odd scraping noise coming from an indistinct location in the jeep. With a vague feeling of unease, I speed down my road, braking hard as I get to the turn for the main road. This time there is a definite slithering noise, like a scaly creature attempting to gain purchase on some slick surface like, I don't know, a kayak.

Thinking fast, I make an emergency U-turn, briefly pausing as the skittering fall leaves obscure my vision. This maneuver will disorient the serpent, as reptiles swung in a circle quickly become disoriented. I know because I conducted an experiment to prove that theory. I grabbed a deadly viper by the tail, swung it in a circle, and slammed it to the ground. You should have seen how crooked a path it took as it crawled away. Ok - truth: I watched a garden snake crawl away from me once. It's the same principle.

I then accelerated, the G-forces pinning the hell spawn in it's current position by the powerful force of my 4 cylinder engine, preventing it from crawling from the kayak cockpit and biting me in the neck. I skidded hard into my driveway with the idea of slamming the viper into the front of the kayak and further disorienting it. Leaving the engine idling to continue to confuse the reptile, I engaged the emergency brake, and leaped from the jeep. Quickly undoing the tie downs, I pulled the kayak from the jeep, being careful to not place my fingers inside hatch where fangs could reach them.

I then spent the next 10 minutes banging, turning and peering into the kayak. Humm.. No snake. Did it sneak from the kayak while I was diving or distracted? Could it be lurking somewhere in the jeep's interior? A through search of the interior revealed nothing. I then began a more thoughtful analysis of what I had heard. It is just possible that with the back window up what I had heard was sound of leaves bouncing down the street. I suppose it is a mystery that I will never solve.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

War of the Leaves - Opening Gambit (Part 2)

The real first tree offensive started about the first week of October. The trees were obviously watching my mowing patterns, and as soon as I waited just a little too long to mow the grass, they released their opening salvo. Thus the mix of lawn clippings and leaves are hopelessly intermixed and extraction of the leaves from the field of battle is that much more difficult.

Another key strategy of the trees is to place as many leaves as possible in the gutters and roof of the house. This is truly diabolical. If I am foolish enough to get on the roof to clean the gutters, then I will face serious injury by sliding off the roof slick with wet leaves. I am of course not so foolish. That's why I usually draft my son to climb up on the roof as younger bodies tend to bounce better when falling more than 10 feet.

The trees have commented a strategic blunder this year. It appears that they have attempted a first drop while the weather remains balmy and the air calm. Thus I have managed to sweep up most of their foolish forays in a single afternoon. If I am not lured too much by the clarion call of easy kayak fishing, the field of battle will be mine as soon as the rest of the detritus is removed. It remains to be seen how they will follow up. I do see that there is a major storm forecast to hit the east coast, so I expect that if we are the recipient of that blow, the cowardly trees will take advantage of the opening to heap misery upon us.

Reporting from the forward battle lines of the leaf war, your humble reporter, driver, master and commander: Mike C

War of the Leaves – Opening Gambit (Part 1)

As sure as the coming of the Fall, the beginning of the war of the leaves has been joined in my part of Northern Virginia. Every year, I think, “this cannot happen again”, and every year I am lulled into a false sense of security. I tool around my yard once every week, maintaining an acceptable cut of the grass with less than a couple of hours of work a week. Bliss it is. No worries and the endless summer. Just as I get comfortable with this pattern, it starts.
The tree’s opening salvo actually starts in mid-September. The most ‘hatin’ trees in the yard, the mighty oaks, pelt us with its tiny missiles. For what they lack in accuracy, they more than make up in volume. The attack acorns pose a dual threat. The first threat is the obvious bruises, contusions, and welts from the oaks' subsonic high altitude ballistic power projections. They also attempt (mostly unsuccessfully) to take out our cars, which being the best up-armored vehicles commercially available made from 1990-2003, are able to slough off this aggression with ease. Once on the ground, the missiles revert to their passive threat role. They appear to just lie there, but what they are actually doing is coordinating their stealthy movements to gather in key locations such as steps dark locations. Upon detecting the pressure of a human foot, they employ the ‘death roll’, flinging an unsuspecting human to the certain death of a hard cement fall.
 You would think that would be enough, but no, once they have spent themselves on that move, they shatter into thousands of sharp razor like shards to ensnare the unwary bare foot. To add insult to injury, the tree’s allies, the tree rats, gather up the missile remains, take them back to the treetops, and eat them, spitting the unwanted parts out of their diseased mouths onto the heads of passing unsuspecting children.
Due to too nice a day, extended fishing hours, and a late plumber, I will continue this tomorrow..

Monday, October 22, 2012

Vehicular Homicide - Or my Jeep Tries (unsuccessfully) To Kill Me – Part 2

Less than a week after it's first attempt on my life, the jeep tries again. I am documenting it's actions so, in the event it continues on that course and is ultimately successful, there will be some record of what happened.

Here's how it's last attempt went. It all started Thursday morning. In an unusual burst of planning, guile, and luck I had managed to wake particularly early that day. On an ideal weekday I get up at 4:30, get on the road by 5, and at work by 6, thus allowing me to exit the office by 2 and avoid most of the afternoon rush hour traffic.

On this day, I wake at my target time. I exit the house on schedule and stumble out to the jeep. I greet it cautiously as (duh!) we have not exactly been on good terms. “Good morning jeep. Your tires are looking well aired, and, ah good, there are no strange fluids leaking from your underneath. There doesn't seem to be any rain today or last night, so I won't be straining your electrical system by running those annoying wipers. And here's a bonus – I have a good audio book I am listening to on my MP3 player and headphones, so I won't even need to turn on your radio. Unfortunately I will have to use your headlights though as it is still darker the sin out here”.

You see, normally the jeep only begrudgingly allows the use of it's spare electrical power. On those rare days when I have to use the headlights, wipers, radio, and charge my cell phone, it demonstrates it's displeasure with dips of it's power indicator to the discharging side. When I first got the jeep it evinced this proclivity. I had driven it to the park to take a walk. Upon returning from my walk I went to start it and nothing happened. Lights and radio would not come on – the jeep was feigning electrical death as surely as it had been hit by an EMP from outer space. Rather than assuming the slow death of civilization, I decided to show the jeep my displeasure by rapping it's battery connectors sharply with my crescent wrench. It got the message and started right up. I later rewarded it's responsiveness by cleaning it's battery post.

Moving on, I start jeep and did the post start checks. Fuel – ok. Water temp low, but slowly starting to creep up – good. Oil pressure – high, which I’m assured by my mechanic and the internet is normal and have learned to not worry too much about. It will easy back a bit after I get going. I am thinking it's the jeeps way of expressing it's irritation at the rudeness of being asked to start on a cold morning. Electrical, discharging a bit, but that is normal. At this point I realize that I am cold. With Fall fast upon us, the mornings have got progressively colder, and even though I have a sweater on it still is a little uncomfortable. I decide to leave the windows up for now and turn on the heater. I guess it's something about being elemental that attracts people to jeeps, so as a rule jeep drivers will always have at least the driver's window down, regardless of the weather. The stouter ones will take the doors, top, and tailgate off too, staying in that state even when faced with several feet of snow. Conversely, jeep owners who drive around with their windows up are viewed with suspicion. “Are they confused Hummer owners?” we wonder. We wave at them too, but cautiously...

So I rationalize that it is acceptable to leave the windows up until the cab gets heated, as I am unlikely to see any other jeeps this dark morning. I pull out of the driveway, and wind my way through Manassas toward Centreville, happily munching on my egg sandwich and listening to my book, which at that point wasn't too boring or exciting. It is just right for the morning commute. When I got to Centreville, though, the first tickling of nausea hits me. Calling it nausea at that point might be too strong. More of a twinge of distress that I attributed to the too quick consumption of my breakfast sandwich. By the time I hit Chantilly my stomach was rolling, and beads of sweat were forming on my forehead, prompting me to finally roll down the window.

By the time I hit the office parking, my head was woozy. I hadn't lost my lunch, but was close. I managed to stumble to my office, still in denial of the sudden onset flu symptoms. I could only manage to stare blankly at my computer screen, barely able to think. I rationalized that if I could hold on until after rush hour, I would head back home. Then I began to feel better, and after an hour, all of my symptoms had disappeared. With my head clear, I began to analyze what had happened. How was it possible that these flu symptoms could just appear, then fade away so quickly?

I then remembered something my mechanic had mentioned on my last visit. As I was leaving he said, “Hey Mike, you might have an exhaust leak”. At the time I had nodded and noted that I wouldn't worry about it until I had to get it fixed for the next (completely unnecessary government mandated) safety inspection. Googling “exhaust leak nausea” confirmed my suspicions. The jeep had tried to kill me with carbon monoxide poisoning, like some guy in a closed garage with a running car! It was diabolical in it's execution. 

For the drive back to Manassas, I had all the windows down, and for good measure, stuck my head out and took deep breaths whenever the opportunity presented itself. In retrospect, I see my actions were akin to when you are in a car and a noxious emission by one of your fellow travelers causes a stampede for every available window. I can only imagine what my fellow commuters though of me that day. I suppose it appeared that I was in such extreme gastric distress that I, ahem, couldn't stand my own company.

When I got the jeep to the mechanic that evening, he confirmed it. The gasket had degraded and bolts from the catalytic converter had loosened. With the skid plate in place, the leaked exhaust was filtered directly up into the cab. As long as I had the windows down I would feel only a mild discomfort. It therefore was only the act of rolling down my windows that saved me from the jeep's fiendish plot. The issue was easily and quickly resolved with a new gasket, bolts and a token shop fee.

I had a long talk with it the next day after picking it up from the mechanic and I believe that we are back on good terms. It seems to be behaving itself. I will go forward with caution.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Vehicular Homicide - Or my Jeep Tries (unsuccessfully) To Kill Me - Part 1

Twice in a couple of weeks!

Last week I am happily on my way home, doing the usual gas, clutch, brake, shake head; gas, clutch, brake shake fist; gas, clutch, brake, middle finger pattern that I seem to fall into whenever I get stuck in rush hour traffic, when I notice an odd thing about the brake pedal. Each time I depress it, it goes a little further down before the friction kicks in and the jeep begins to slow. I am no Michael Schumacher in my driving habits, with all those skillful alternating braking and and accelerating moves. In an aging (no 'Classic') Jeep I don't need to be. A slight brush of the brake is usually sufficient to give it an idea about what needs to be done, and eventually it will get around to doing it. The only slamming of the accelerator I do is usually to get away from obnoxious low-riders with some stupid rap blaring out. The only slamming of my brakes is to avoid hitting text addled teenagers and mid-thirties hipsters obliviously chatting away as they wonder from lane to lane. So this behavior of my brake mechanism was particularly troubling. As I neared the center of Manassas, I slowed so if I lost control, I would only do minor damage and began to look for a Hummer to run into. Fortunately, my mechanic's location is right there, (Logan's Auto Emporium), so I didn't have to find a Hummer.

Logan is something of a character. He runs a great shop, hires honest mechanics, and is really a nice guy. My wife has nick-named him 'Yoda', which I think he knows about, but probably doesn't like. If you ever meet him, you'll get the reference. So here's how the drop-off went (in my head).

Me: “the space time continuum is no longer connected for this vessel”
Logan: <checking the brake>”The force is truly weak in this one”
Bob:”Don't get cocky kid – you'll be able to jump into hyperdrive in no time”
Weird Guy that used to work in the office: “You know I used to castrate horses for a living?”

Actual conversation:
Me: “The damn thing nearly killed me! The brakes barely work”
Logan:”no problem – Bob will take a look at it and figure it out”
Bob:”Seals are bad in the master cylinder, gotta replace it."
Logan: "Parts will be here in the morning”
Weird Guy that used to work in the office: “You know I used to castrate horses for a living?”

(Actually I haven't seen weird guy for a long time – I think Logan kicked him out when his daughter began working there in the office)

So actually, it was just a failure of an original part that really couldn't be helped. When I bought the Jeep last year, it had 65,000 miles on it. For a vehicle made in 1992, that was fantastic. Unfortunately, there's part that fail due to the wear and tear of miles, and parts that fail due to old age. The master cylinder was the latter. Something of a metaphor for life I guess. I probably should encourage it with words from the Buddha:

All compounded things are subject to decay. Strive with diligence!

P.S – I will write about it's second attempt another time. All is well and I and the jeep were not injured (not that it wasn't trying – i'm thinking I will retaliate by personalizing it's license plate to read “R-SHIRT” and paint a star trek chevron on it's hood)

Have a great weekend! Again, if I go anywhere of note, I will post a trail review. I think my review from last weekend of Bull Run Mountain was pretty good if I do say so myself. I think they are doing their 'haunted mountain' thing there tomorrow night if your interested.