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Transient Spike

A non-technical blog by a tech blogger

Back from vacation

Barb and I just returned from a trip that started on October 16 with a flight to Toronto, Ontario and ended when we flew back to Denver on November 4. What happened in between was one of the more memorable trips. We started with a drive down to Niagara Falls (the Canadian side), then back to Toronto for a stay at the Trump International. The next day, we had a grueling drive to Montreal, but that’s where the real vacation started.

After two lovely days in Old Montreal, we walked to our ship (Oceania’s Regatta) for a cruise that would end in Miami. The ship is wonderful, carrying about 600+ passengers in “country club casual” luxury. We’ve been on this ship and a sister ship before, so we could have navigated the decks blindfolded.

I won’t give you the full rundown — instead, go to our trip blog and read the excellent posts Barb wrote over the past few weeks. She hits both the highlights and low points of what was ultimately a very positive trip.

Related: Two days after the trip ended, I started getting a cold. Bleahhhh.

Fall

Yesterday at 8 something-or-other PM MDT, Fall started. Or, in more proper terms, the Autumnal Equinox occurred.

It’s not that we can’t already see the changes here in Denver. There are a lot of trees that are starting to turn yellow and red, the sun is coming up a lot later and setting much earlier, temperatures are moderate, and the daylight sun is at an angle that tells you that we’ve tipped back up so that the sun’s rays are coming in at a more shallow aspect.

I’m not complaining about Fall. It’s actually one of my favorite seasons in this state where we really do have seasonal changes. Summer is just plain wonderful, all bright and hot with long days and the occasional noisy thunderstorm. Spring? Capricious — we can have 70 degree days with beautiful weather followed by freezing snowstorms that snap the budding trees. But Spring is still the sign of hope that summer is about to get here. Winter? Not my favorite season by a long shot. It can bring bitter cold, icy streets, and everything is an ugly brown by the end of the season.

Fall is just plain beautiful. Yes, we can get snow, but we can also have warm days like today where the sky is a deep blue and the yellow of the leaves is a shocking contrast.

This is the season where we get things ready for the Winter in Colorado. In about three weeks I’ll have the sprinklers drained and blown out. We’ve already made arrangements with a landscaping company for having snow removed from our driveways and walks. Soon I’ll cover our table on the back patio, dig up the flowers (which are still looking quite good, thank you), and get the planter pots protected for the next six months.

I always find it fun when the equinox coincides with my birthday, because it’s like having two celebrations at the same time. I’m getting a year older, and the Northern Hemisphere is about to go through the annual change.

It’s always a relief to get Winter over with and see new life spring forth all over, but I wouldn’t want to live in a place where we didn’t have the seasonal change. Fall may be a foreboding time as we head into the cold dark months, but the months of October through March just lead up to the hope of Spring and Summer so they can’t be all bad.

The Suburban Farmer: September 12, 2014 — All done for the season

Yesterday we were getting weather alerts that we might be getting … wait for it … a freeze or snow. Now before you go off on some climate change tangent, let’s just say that we’ve had snow much earlier (September 3) and much later (not until October). Anyway, the garden has been slowly winding down so I thought it was the perfect time to harvest the remaining crops and I’ll just call it quits for the year. Yes, we do have a short growing season here.

First on my agenda was picking the tomatoes, which have so far refused to ripen on the vine. I ended up picking 72 tomatoes, popping them into a big box, and tossing a ripening banana in there — they produce a lot of ethylene, which is required for ripening the tomatoes. 24 hours later, the three tomatoes that had a slight amount of color are starting to run a bit deeper color.

Next were the cucumbers, which really disappointed me. The plant was huge and I thought I was going to get a lot of cukes, but I ended up picking only about five all year. Three were on the vine yesterday, and they’re pretty good sized.

The rest of the crop remaining was herbal in nature: oregano and basil. Both smelled VERY good while I was picking them, and the leaves are now ready to dry.

All I have left to do with the garden is to pull the remaining plants and then cover the VegTrug for the winter. Next year I will definitely plant earlier — say April instead of May — and hopefully that will extend my growing season by a month.

The Suburban Farmer: September 4, 2014 — Harvest

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Wow, it’s been a couple of weeks since an update of any sort. Of course, in the interim I had the high school reunion (went well, I’ll have to post embarrassing photos), went to Vegas for four days, and did a lot of other stuff.

The garden went through some changes in the interim. I spent some time yesterday cleaning it up — the last of the lettuce had gone to seed, so I yanked it. I pulled all of the carrots and green onions as well, leaving just the two tomato plants, the basil and oregano, and the humongo cucumber plant.

After cleaning up the veggies, I took the photo you see above. Some of the carrots were good sized — thick, but not super long due to the shallowness of the VegTrug. I’d really like to take some of the carrots, cucumbers, and green onions and pickle them. That’s a good way to preserve them for a little bit longer, and I happen to like pickles anyway.

The tomatoes are starting to get a little bit of yellowish color, so I’m hoping that soon they’ll all turn red and ripen up so I can pick ‘em. Pretty soon I’ll have to clear out the rest of the garden, and make my plans for getting things ready to go for 2015.

Reunions and other silliness

Steve Sande circa 1974

Most of the friends and followers who read this site know that I am officially “older than dirt”, but they’d probably be shocked to know that I’ve been out of high school for a whopping 40 years. When I was attending William C. Hinkley High School in the early 1970s, Nixon was still president, we were still sending men to the moon and to Skylab, and personal computers were still a dream.

That photo over there is my 1974 senior picture, showing that yes, at one time I did actually have nice thick hair and was actually kind of skinny. I’m sure that the picture or something like it will surface at my reunion, which occurs this upcoming Friday and Saturday nights. The Friday night get-together is always … interesting, since it seems like more people attend since they don’t have to pay for a lousy meal, and everyone’s inhibitions are down. That latter statement means that people are likely to drink way too much. This year’s event, befitting the Class of ’74, is being held at some dive bar out on Arapahoe Road.

On Saturday, the more formal event is held. Hopefully by the time dinner rolls around, all of the people who participated in the previous evening’s revelries are sober or at least over the vomiting stage of their hangovers. Our event is going to be at a golf clubhouse on the south side of town, so the drive won’t be too ridiculous.

As with all High School reunions (this will be my fifth, having gone to the 5, 10, 20, and 30th reunions before), I’m attending with a mixture of anticipation and dread. The anticipation is for getting together with old friends who I only seem to see every ten years. So far, I also know that two people who have never attended a previous reunion will be at this one, so I get to see them for the first time in 40 years. One thing that’s quite different this time around is that I know what a lot of these people are up to, thanks to Facebook.

Now, the dread… No, I don’t care about the fact that I look a lot older — all of us do! But the same open world that Facebook has provided has also given me cause to dread seeing some of these people thanks to arguments that we’ve had online. Frankly, I am willing to forgive and forget for two nights, but if anyone brings up politics, religion, or something that we said to each other on Facebook in the heat of an argument, I’m walking away. Life is too short for that kind of crap.

The picture below is what my old high school kinda looked like back when I was there, although the “totem pole” and little shed building weren’t there. Now the school looks completely different after a massive renovation, part of which I got to see a few years ago.

Hinkley High School as it looked after I graduated

I enjoyed high school much more than I did my college experiences — the university life was too stressful, and most of my fellow college students scattered around the globe after graduation, so there was no reason to really even think about going to a reunion. High school is where I learned how to write, where I got my public speaking skills, where I learned to talk in front of a large group without fear. It’s also where I met my future wife, who went to the other high school in town. So yeah, I have a lot of fond memories of those years.

I can’t wait to see my buddies this weekend, and be sure to come back to the site next week to see if I have any pictures or stories to tell.

The Suburban Farmer: August 17, 2014 — The fruits (or Vegetables) of my labor

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The tomato plants have taken over most of the West end of the VegTrug, and the stems are full of small green tomatoes. I couldn’t wait, so today I wandered out and did some harvesting for a salad. That bounty included some carrots, green onions, a cucumber, and a handful of those little green tomatoes.

Those went into a nice salad along with some spring greens and store-bought cherry tomatoes, with grated Parmagiano Reggiano mixed in. Damn, was that good! The green onions are crisp, spicy and pungent, the carrots are sweet and tasty, the cucumber was … well, crisp and with a taste unlike any store-bought cuke I’ve had. Those little tomatoes were a bit on the hard side, but still quite tasty.

All of this went beautifully with a dry-aged grass fed rib eye steak grilled to perfection and served with Colorado-grown Olathe Sweet corn. The corn was also thrown on the grill, and served with a lime-pepper butter that was awesome on the steak as well.

Something I’ve learned for next year’s garden — get plants that are advertised as “compact”, as those tomato plants are huuuuge and taking over. I will definitely get a second VegTrug, and I’m also going to set up an automatic watering system.

Like I told Barb, all we need to do next is get a couple of chickens! ACC, where I teach community ed classes, has a guy doing a class on how to raise chickens as a backyard farmer and I am so tempted to take the class.

Sure, in the long run these vegetables are probably quite a bit more expensive than anything I could buy at the grocery store, but they are also much tastier, completely fresh, and fully organic. I just love the satisfaction of watching things that I planted and nurtured growing, and then being able to harvest them. It’s something that most of us ignore nowadays in favor of convenience, but I have found this garden to be a great lesson in what it takes to bring food to the table. It ain’t easy, and the farmers who do this for a living are to be commended.

Photo by Steven Sande

Radio Silence

Yaesu VX-8DR handheld transceiver

Yaesu VX-8DR transceiver, image from www.ka1mzy.com

On previous personal blogs, I’ve written about my love/hate relationship with amateur radio (AKA “ham” radio). I’ve had a FCC amateur radio license (KC0EZH) since the late 1990’s, and during that time I’ve done some fun things like contact the space shuttle. I used to talk to my Dad on my morning commute to downtown Denver back in those days, and that was a fun way to get comfortable with talking on the radio while keeping in touch with the folks. But now I find that I’m using ham radio less and less, and I’m not alone.

This morning I turned on my little handheld transceiver (a Yaesu VX-8DR) and guess what I heard? Absolutely nothing, except the required automated messages from the repeater every ten minutes or so. No conversations, nobody asking about traffic conditions, not even the local pundits talking politics.

Why do I bring this up? Back at the end of the 20th Century, I could turn on a ham radio on the 2m or 70cm bands and here chatter all day long. Most of it wasn’t worth listening to, but at least people were using their radios.

What’s killed the VHF/UHF radio bands? It’s easy — when you can buy an iPhone 5s for $199 that is basically a friggin’ supercomputer in your palm, with a user interface that’s simple to understand, a wealth of available apps, and the capability to do much more than a much more expensive VHF/UHF radio can do, why the hell does someone what to buy the more expensive, less capable device?

For example, back in the early 2000s I used a handheld transceiver and a GPS unit to enable APRS (Automatic Position Reporting System) and let my wife track my position on a computer while I was bike riding. Now? I do the same thing with Glympse on my iPhone, and it doesn’t take a computer for Barb to see where I am.

The user interfaces on most modern ham radios are awful. With the exception of some software-defined radios that unfortunately usually require running Windows, what you can expect is to push a bunch of tiny buttons and roll little scroll wheels to go through a list of almost indecipherable menu choices. And that’s usually on a tiny monochrome LCD display, at least for the handheld devices.

I have to admit that I haven’t gotten into the really cool part of ham radio — using the longer wavelength bands to communicate over long distances. There’s a very good reason for that: my neighborhood has restrictive covenants that prohibit large antenna arrays on houses. I suppose I could be stealthy about it — there are a number of websites that have specific articles about how to hide long and big antennas from sight — but I’ve just never had the desire to do that.

If I want to talk to someone overseas, I can use my Mac, iPad or iPhone, pull up Skype, and make a free video call. I don’t have to use Morse Code (yes, a lot of hams still love this low-power way of communicating), nor do I have to put a big freakin’ antenna outside my house. I’ve made a number of friends overseas through the wonders of Skype and other free audio and video streaming systems.

By this point you’re probably wondering why anyone would even participate in the amateur radio hobby. There are people who love doing low-power distance work (called QRP) to see how far they can communicate with as little power as possible. There are others who find that they like to help out emergency services and weather spotters through ARES (the Amateur Radio Emergency Service), and still more hams who like to contact people through amateur satellite communications. For me, though, it’s a lack of time that keeps me from trying things like these — and that’s why the hobby seems to be so skewed towards retired people…

There is one little thing I’d like to try, though. It requires a ham license and a Raspberry Pi single-board computer, and consists of setting up a beacon that can be used by other hams to determine listening conditions on various bands. Called WSPR, this could be a fun way to use my Raspberry Pi and hopefully do some long-distance ham radio without having to actually go through a lot of work.

The weather station, bad design, and the brain of an engineer

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Hokay. That picture you see is that of my Rainwise Mark III weather station, which beams continuously updated information about the wind velocity and direction, temperature, humidity, and — until the rain gauge clogged up — precipitation.

I bring up the last point because we’ve had a surprising amount of rain here over the past week or so. It’s been a nice, wet summer — my Rachio internet-savvy sprinkler timer has actually skipped many a planned watering, saving me money — and relatively cool.

But a few weeks ago I noticed after a particularly monsoonish rainstorm that my Weather Underground Personal Weather Station page wasn’t showing that any rain had fallen. LIAR! I KNOW IT RAINED! So, doing the right thing I grabbed a stepladder and looked into that black cylinder that is the precipitation collector. Gasp! It was full to the brim with rainwater.

So, I sent a support email off to the guys at Rainwise, who were kind enough to quickly answer that a) it was probably clogged and b) I’d have to clean it out, and here are directions on how to do so. Well, I didn’t have any time to actually do that until today.

After yet another torrential downpour today, I grabbed the stepladder one more time and ventured out to the weather station with screwdriver in hand. As noted in the email response from Rainwise, loosening four screws made it possible to rotate and remove the big black cylinder, revealing the tipping-bucket measuring device!

Well, that got cleaned off, too — it had a bit of sludge on it — but sure enough I couldn’t see through the drain hole in the bottom of the cylinder that feeds the tipping bucket. Now, to remove the little grating over the drain, I had to reach under and remove a cotter pin. For those of you who are mechanically disinclined, a cotter pin is a little metal pin that has two arms that go through a hole and are then split to hold whatever in place… Check Wikipedia — I have issues describing hardware like this.

Anyway, I straightened the legs of the cotter pin with a pair of needle-nosed pliers (not to be confused with Needle-Nose Ned Ryerson … Bing!) and pulled of the drain cover. Sure enough, there was gunk aplenty in the little drain tube… most of which had built up because of the cotter pin that went through there to hold the drain cover in place.

Now, I have to admit that I love, I LOOOOVE and ADORE this weather station, but this is an example of someone being drunk while designing a key piece of a device. Put a cotter pin in the main drain leading to the tipping bucket counter so that it can accumulate all of the sludge that falls into the cylinder? WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?

A better design would have been to have designed a simple mechanical lock for the drain cover into the plastic cylinder. In other words, put a slot in the top of the drain cover that you turn with a screwdriver or a coin if you need to clean the drain tube. It would have been less expensive, since you’d eliminate one more piece — the cotter pin, which is going to break after a few cleanings and force me to go buy another one.

Now, in case you’re wondering why I’m going on like this… This is the type of thing that goes on in the head of an engineer. Even an engineer who hasn’t done any solid engineering work in about thirty years. We are trained to see failures like this and figure out why things don’t work, and also find better ways to do things. That’s why successive iterations of our mobile devices keep getting better — we the users figure out what is stupid about the designs, we complain, and then things get redesigned to fix the stupid.

In the case of this weather station — which probably isn’t produced in quantities large enough to really justify a redesign of a component — I’ll probably just have to go buy a box of cotter pins and clean the damned thing every few months. Sigh.

The Suburban Farmer: August 1, 2014 — Attack of the Tomatoes

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The last time I talked about THE GARDEN things were doing well thanks to the heat we were getting. Over the past week, however, Colorado has been blessed with cooler weather and for some reason the tomato plants have gone crazy. See that image above? Yeah – they’re taking over.

We still haven’t seen a damned tomato, but with the number of little flowers I’ve seen I think we’re going to be inundated with the bastards. We did some lamb burgers tonight with feta cheese, kalamata olives, and fresh oregano, and the oregano was out of the garden. We’ve now used two types of lettuce, basil, oregano, green onions, carrots and peas from the garden. Can’t wait for the tomatoes and cucumbers. Speaking of the cukes:

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Yep, lots of flowers in there, too. And what’s nice is that I honestly don’t feel like I’ve been spending too much time tending to the garden — literally minutes a day are all it has taken. If we do end up getting a good crop of cucumbers and tomatoes, I’ll probably expand the garden next year.

Ennui

A cat looking bored.

Yep. I feel like this.

Ennui (noun) : a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement

Yep. I’ve got it.

I have felt bored, bored, bored with things lately. Sure, the kittens are fun to watch, and I’m enjoying the gardening, but overall I just feel bored to death.

It’s not as if I don’t have a lot of things to keep me busy. My job is fun, but familiar. But I don’t have anything that’s really exciting me right now. It seems like everything I would like to do is either forbidden by some local rule or turns into a total pain in the ass to do.

AR.Drone 2.0

AR.Drone 2.0, courtesy of Parrot

Example: I have an AR.Drone that I’d love to learn how to fly, but I’m loath to do that for several reasons; the growing fear of the public of drones and the inability to fly it in most of the public areas of my neighborhood thanks to bans on flying “model airplanes.” Sigh.

RANS V-Rex Recumbent Bike like I own... and no longer ride

RANS V-Rex Recumbent Bike like I own… and no longer ride

I used to do a lot of bike riding, and would almost like to start doing that again, but we live in a very hilly neighborhood. So what I used to do is pop my bike into a van that we used to own, drive down to the local big bike path, and take off on long rides from there. What’s stopping me now? Let’s see: my bike is no longer in rideable condition and I’d have to fix it first, we no longer own the van (although I could probably fit the bike in the back of my car), and I would have to ride late in the day after dinner … at which point I’d probably have no desire to go riding.

Ham radio is another thing that I’d love to get more into. My dad has been a radio amateur since the 1950s, I got my license back in the late 1990s and I now have a General license (KCØEZH). But I’ve been stuck on just using low power handheld transceivers thanks to restrictive covenants in my neighborhood that ban antennas. And practically nobody is on the local repeaters now thanks to the expansion of cellphone use. At one point I owned a low-power transceiver capable of working some of the longer bands, but I hated the UI of the device and couldn’t figure out what to do antenna-wise, so I sold it. Sigh again.

I have to admit that there are some things that also keep me from doing a lot after work hours. For one, I love good wines and my wife and I often split a bottle during dinner. Talk about something that ruins your ability to get things done! After a couple of glasses, it’s common for me to fall into the trap of just plopping my ass into the recliner in front of the TV (which bores me) with my iPad in hand.

What do I do to break the ennui? I think one of the best things might be to just stop drinking wine with dinner and wait until later in the evening to have a glass. That would give me the energy to actually try doing something “productive” in the evenings, like take a walk or bike ride, see if I could figure out a way to build a “stealth antenna” for ham radio work and actually talk to others around the world, etc…

Maybe I learn a new tool, like Photoshop or Lightroom, and start getting up to speed on improving my photography skills. Or each day, figure out something to do after work that does not involve sitting on my ass in front of the TV. Set a goal and do it.

Whatever. I just need to get rid of this ennui. It’s SO boring.

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