Monday, May 23, 2016

Open Live Writer!

For Many years, the best blogging software around has been Microsoft’s Windows Live Writer.  Sadly Microsauce abandoned the software a few years ago.  They seem to have a habit of dropping the ball on things that are really good.  Like Live Mesh!

So, fast forward to 2016, I have installed Windows 10 on my machine and Windows Live Writer only barely installs.  Aaaaaand it cannot talk to Google’s Blogger platform anymore.  So it has become completely useless.



Yesterday I stumbled upon what looks to be a great solution!  Somebody has taken up developing Live Writer as an open source project.

Open Live Writer

Anyone who has any inclination to write a blog post should take a look.  It is working great so far!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Quadcopter.

      Some time ago, my job required the use of a “drone” to do some visual survey work.  Research for that project led us to the DJI Phantom FC40.   That project went off without a hitch, and the FC40 stayed with me as I gradually paid the company back for the purchase.  This thing was a great platform for aerial photo and video!

Here is is in its original configuration.  One photo is a stock pic from DJI’s website, and the other is from a night flight I did here at home.13H-DJI-Phantom-RTF-58G-With-FC40-2

original-fc40-night-flight_17238965534_oI ran the FC40 thru many recharges, picked up a second battery pack, and did some very cool flights into cloud cover.  When the FC40 disappeared from view, I had a reasonable certainty that its GPS system would be able to bring it back home.

From the beginning I viewed the FC40 as really fancy training wheels, knowing as soon as I flew it the first time that I was hooked.  More RC flight definitely lies in my future!


Here is a video tour of our yard from March 2015.  Pay no attention to the people in the driveway.


Notice tho, that I speak of the FC40 in the past tense….   That is not an accident.  In April of 2015, I had done some repair work on the FC40.  After some hard landings the legs were cracked, as was the body shell where the legs attached.  So I got new legs for it, a new body shell (which I painted red), and rebuilt it.     While I was at the rebuild, I also added a 2-axis gimbal so that my videos would stabilize and I would be able to tilt the camera down.


   This image was taken as I rebuilt it, just a few days before the final tragic crash.  Note the gimbal hanging under it, and the altimeter mounted out front on a carbon-fiber and balsa outrigger.  This pic shows the red casing still open, as there was still some wiring to do.


   On doomsday, as I took it out for its first test flight since the rebuild, I had a stock battery in the compartment and the camera mounted to the gimbal for testing.  It was not filming however.  I wish it had been, I might have more of an idea what happened.

The FC40 lifted off from the ground, and hovered at about head height for a few minutes as I carefully tested the controls in each direction and worked the camera gimbal up and down a few times.   Seeming to have everything under control, I eased it into forward flight.  This is where everything went wrong.

The quadcopter suddenly went into full climb and took of to the south.  As soon as I saw what was happening, I pulled the mode switch out of GPS mode and back into “ATTI” (attitude control with no GPS).  This done I was able to turn it and begin bringing it down.  However, once it was turned to face back toward home it kept on coming full speed.  When it hit the side of the house, it appeared to be up on its side, as if it was trying to accelerate for everything it had.  The noise was horrendous, and I will probably never forget the sad slide to the ground.  Given the behavior, I had either a terrible GPS malfunction or the ‘Center of Gravity’ was way wrong.  Either way, I only had control over climb, roll, and yaw, but not pitch.  And climb control was not responding either right at the end.

    The wreck sat on a shelf for a couple weeks, while I just looked at it and debated with myself how to rebuild it.  Fast forward a month……

Meet the Phoenix.  Rising from the ashes of the smashed FC40, using the motors, props, camera, and batteries of the FC40.  And all the lessons learned…..









   This new quadcopter has a much more advanced flight computer, a telemetry radio that talks back to my tablet,  and a Sonar module that gives it more accurate altitude readings than the onboard barometer.  The mast sticking up near the back is the GPS antenna and compass.

  The telemetry system is a USB module that can also plug into a computer, and it is with that that I do calibrations and programming of the flight controller.  When running on the tablet, it overlays the aircraft position on a google map, and displays a dashboard of flight data to the right.  The smaller screen (my phone) recieves the image from the FC40 camera, just as it did before.


   Still to come on this newly reborn quadcopter:   A 2-axis gimbal ( I still want stabilized video), and maybe a GoPro camera instead of the DJI unit.  

    The Sonar is still in test mode, and I am waiting on a software patch (for the flight computer) to come out before I do more than careful test flights in the driveway.  So far, it has flown once and had zero problems.  Once I get comfortable with it in this form, I may upgrade the motors and props to larger models that can lift more battery.  More battery = longer flights.  The frame I chose can take up to 12” blades, which should lift more than the current 9” set.


P.S.  Please don’t call them “Drones”!  That word scares people, and makes the media foam at the mouth.  Call these the more accurate term “Quadcopters”.   Anyone who is involved in the hobby could go on at length why the quadcopters are very different from the “drones” that the military uses. 


P.P.S.   For some entertaining reading on RC technology, check out the website for the flight controller I am using.

Friday, January 30, 2015

“The Committee of the Whole” or “Parallel Processing in My Head”

I heard an interesting statement the other day.  In a discussion about marketing, the internet, and the changes happening over the last few years the concept came up of what really makes ‘ME’ an individual.  Marketing companies think they know who we are, and how to sell us things.  And certainly they can predict, on average, how people will react to this message or that.  But can they really target an individual, predict his tastes, his reactions to a given subject or situation?
The commentator stated, and I agree, that they cannot.  That it is impossible for anyone not riding around in your head to know what is really going on.
He used the phrase “The committee of the whole” to describe his perception of his own individuality.  His concept of himself was a hundred different ‘people’ in his head, each one specializing in a certain set of experiences.  He describes his sanity as the ability of all those ‘people’ to reach a consensus.  I found that it really resonated with my own concept of ‘ME’.  In my head are hundred of variable components of myself, superimposed over one another in a sequence based on the circumstances of the moment.  The resulting cacophony is viewed by the outside world as ‘Jason’.  Our brains function as pattern recognition machines, and each pattern adds to the mix up. 
Consider the factors that might add to a situation:  1:How you feel today,  2:Your relationship with your mom, 3:The weather, 4:How you feel about some family event that is going on, 5:The room is noisy, 6: Some weird smell drifted past just now, 7:Your wife just gave you the raised eyebrows of doom, 8:The music from what you watched on TV last night.  All these factors add up to a really simplistic view of the current situation, but it is enough to make my point.
We might be able to make some broad, general predictions of our own or others behavior.  But there is no way we can read somebody’s mind or heart and really tell what they are thinking.  We, as sentient individuals, are so radically different from one another that it amazes me we are able to agree on what the color ‘red’ is.  Each one of us has constructed our thought patterns from scratch, with no frame of reference except the instinctive sequential pattern recognition system that our creator wired into our brains.  That’s it….   Every other part of our thought patterns are derived from the environment and teachings that surrounded us from the moment our brain became active.  Who teaches somebody to make comparisons?  Who teaches somebody to be creative?  So many things we take for granted.  And yet we have agreed on the set of protocols that we call language, social interaction, etc. and it works!  We can live and work together with relatively little confusion.  That is amazing!
Stop for a moment and consider what trains of thought are running in your head right now.  Not the primary “read this strange article on this dude’s blog” process, but all the lower priority processes running in the background.  For example, in my head at any given time are my personal internal soundtrack  (star wars music, or Orf’s Carmina Burana, DaftPunk, etc.); a working model of the customers Cisco router that I just had to work on; the installation process for the computer parts I will likely have to install on my next service call; some material discussed at a congregation meeting last night; a way to modify my quadcopter to make it fly better; the road I will have to take in a few minutes to meet my boss and pick up the part to install on that next service call; why my spellchecker cant handle the word ‘quadcopter’; the slight ringing in my left ear from an ear infection; a joke my wife told me this morning; and currently moved to the front is the pile of ideas that are becoming this blog post.  All this stuff seems to be simultaneously running in parallel.
Sometimes we joke about ‘'’the voices in our heads’, and yet with all this stuff going on its all in my own voice.  Or at least those parts of it that have words.  Lots of things I think about in the abstract are more like 3d models with lots of moving parts.  But each 3d model, voice, or point of view is always clearly my own.
Yesterday when I first began considering all this the mashup of thoughts was completely different, and I wondered “with all this stuff buzzing round in my head, how can I ever concentrate on anything, solve any problems?”  I don’t have a clue…  Does every person in the world have this circus going on in their heads?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Suspension Bridge!

The Flying Plank RR is operational!
Most of the track is down, and in its final positions.  I still have some wiring do to, and some fine tuning on the track.  However, I can run a long train thru the whole layout without any drailments or odd behavior.
And (insert drum roll here) the suspension bridge is open for traffic!  It is made from roughly 600 Lego bricks, two blinking red leds, and several yards of 80 pound braided fishing line.  The cables (fishing line) actually support the weight of passing trains.  Before I tensioned the cables, a train would cause enough sag in the bridge deck to loosen the electrical contact with the track at one end.  Now, there is no movement on the deck at all.  The cables run underneath the layout, and are tied together below.  That way I can adjust the tension later on, or as the cables stretch out over time.  The cables on one end of the bridge go into the ground far too close to the tower, so I will be moving that back soon.  The blinking LED tower lights are powered by the track power circuit, so anytime the track is on, so are those lights.  As I wire up the lights in buildings, I will be adding a second circuit on a switch so that interior lights can be turned on and off.
Now I move on to touch up paint, then trees and turf and some silly things I have in mind.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Flying Plank Updates:

Not much to say on this railroad update.  Lots of painting, carving foam, and making a gigantic mess in the garage!  However, the end result is looking pretty good.  Once I do some touch up, I can finally lay track for the last time, and run trains on it again.  Also the lego bridge is built and load tested!  With every locomotive I currently own sitting on it, it did not sag at all.  Once I released the tension on the cables, the bridge span sags a bit under its own weight, but it is stable enough until it gets permanently mounted and tensioned.  The marker lights on top of the bridge towers are installed as well, although not visible without their clear lego covers.
On with the pictures!


Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Flying Plank RR gains a bit of color

    After much toil, sweat, and backing up to fix mistakes, the new layout is beginning to show progress.
This weekend I painted 1/4 of the area, including Mt Boulder.  The mountain is designed to lift off the layout easily in case of a derailment in the tunnels.  This seemed the most straightforward approach, and was kinda fun to build up.  The basic structure of everything is pink Foamular board from Home Depot, and cans of ‘Great Stuff’ expanding foam.  The spray foam was applied very carefully, and sometimes I used plastic sheets to cover everything I didn’t want to get foam on…
The middle layer is simply lightweight spackle compound you buy by the tub at any hardware store.  After that I used a coat of white latex primer and the spray cans of grey primer, rust primer, black primer, and a couple of different browns from a camouflage line of paints

Obviously, there is touchup remaining on this section, and some adjusting of track positions, but its good to see some progress after much tinkering.  I will have to restrain myself from applying grass, shrubs, and trees until the whole layout has been painted. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Sennheiser HD 380 Pro–The Best Headphones I Have Ever Used.



   A few months ago, I was given an opportunity to rescue some headphones that had been used as part of an audio display at a big box electronics store.  I was surprised to find a pair of Sennheiser’s in the box.  They were a bit dusty, and the cord was a tangled mess, but I knew they at least deserved a chance.   The offer on the table was to pick one of the sets of headphones in the box, and let the others go on so somebody else could have a pair as well.  I immediately untangled the Sennheiser HD 380 Pro and gave them a shot.

    To be fair, I have never owned a pair of headphones in this performance class.  So I had no idea what to expect.  Simply put, I was blown away.  The sound is crisp and detailed, while still having plenty of bass.    The sound isolation from the environment is near complete.  These are not noise cancelling, yet they insulate to the sides of your head to an extent that you may not need noise cancelling technology anyway.

     They do require more power than the el-cheapo cans I have used before, and anyone looking at going to this type of headphones should also consider grabbing a small headphone amp to go with it.  I am currently watching the market to find such an amplifier that I can afford.  A point of caution about this,  closed in earphones are more likely to cause hearing damage when cranked way up because all the energy from the driver is pointed right down your ear.  If you power something like this with too much juice, or crank the volume all the time, then expect to invest in hearing aids in the near future.  Instead, you should view the isolation from outside sound as an opportunity to enjoy the fine detail in your music without the need for eardrum shattering volume.  Adding more power should not be done simply to get the noise levels up, but should be done to improve the quality of the signal being rendered.

  The earcups are slightly angled and frankly, gigantic.  That is one of the best parts of the design.  They completely surround my ears, and hold in the sound quite well.  I can listen to whatever I want, and my wife seated at her computer next to mine cannot hear a thing.  They are circumaural, closed back headphones, and the cord (attached to the left ear) measures at 56” lying on my table.  The 380’s are not heavy, and only slightly bulky when wearing them.  Sitting at the computer, riding my bicycle, or outside working in the garage, I have not yet found an environment unsuited for these headphones.  I have been told I look silly, with big cans on my head.  I don’t care!  The sound quality is plenty to make up for any perception of silliness……

                          hd380 hingehd380 folded

These headphones also fold down fairly small, and Sennheiser sells a nice little flat zipper case you could store them in.  I have found that simply folding the earcups up against the headband allows them to sit in the corner of my desk and be totally out of the way.

The Final word is simply “Excellent”.  These headphones are a bit pricey, listed on Amazon for $135.00 as I write this review.  However, the next time I am looking to buy headphones, this is my starting point.  I never would have expected to own headphones worth more than $50 or $60, but now I understand.  I still do not believe that I would ever agree that headphones could be worth thousands, but with the HD 380 Pro at it’s price range, Sennheiser has made a believer.  And if the pair I got sound so good, and came to me as a used display model, how much better is a new set?

     That box of headphones rescued from the store display had two pair of Sony and one set of “Beats by Dr. Dre” cans.  I did give each of them a brief listen, but there was no contest.  If you are looking for headphones, these should be on your short list.  Near the top of that list.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Flying Plank RR Rises from the Ashes……

  Some time ago, I noticed that the wooden structure under my hanging train set was beginning to buckle under the load.  Once it became apparent that the condition was getting worse, then it was time to plan its replacement.  The previous design used 3/8 plywood on 2 2x4 studs.  The landscaping was made of a collection of whatever materials I had on hand, mostly blocks of wood and wadded up newspaper.  Add in some chickenwire, and a thick layer of plaster cloth and you get a lot of weight very quickly.  This heavy, patchwork construction was more than those 2 2x4’s could handle, and I was very nervous about walking under when it was retracted to the ceiling.  And the thought of parking under it to work on the car made me have bad dreams!  Looking around at thelayout from below materials available to me, and reading the blog posts and experiences of many other modelers, I quickly came to the conclusion that it would be best to use steel studs and foam boards.  Design took a little while, eventually leading me to use Google’s SketchUp tool to make a rough mockup.  The 3D models here turned out to be fairly close to what got built.  Its dimensions are 5’ x 8’, a little larger than the wooden layout from before.  This one will also eventually have side panels to provide a nice even trim/border.  That should look very nice when complete.

    The differences from the final product are mainly the diagonal cross brace which was not needed, and the cable lift points that were moved outside the frame body on a couple long of pieces of angle metal.  I did find that putting forth the effort to make this model in the SketchUp tool really made me think about structure and load bearing and such.  I am not an engineer by any means, but I think this system will work out pretty good.  Once the basic steel structure was built, and the two layers of 1” foam board were glued onto it, I could still easily pick the whole structure up and hold it with one hand while moving my sawhorses around with the other.
    In the following pictures, you will note two types of foam in use.  The white foam ramps are Woodland Scenics 4% grade kits.  And the pink foam boards are 1” Foamular brand insulation from Home Depot.  So far the Foamular material is pretty easy to work with.  I have been shaping it with a small keyhole saw, and a “cheese grater” rasp of the type that is used by sheetrock finishers.  It should accept paint easily, and being able to carve and work the textures with simple hand tools makes this an art project as much as it is an engineering project.
rr reborn-6rr reborn-1rr reborn-2
rr reborn-4rr reborn-3rr reborn-5

The track plan is pretty simple, 4 loops in a gigantic oval.  Most of the interesting bits of the track plan on this layout involve elevation changes.  The climb up the hills to the small town near the red trestle bridge, and (not visible yet) the elevated train station on the opposite side of the layout from the existing overhead station.   The other feature that will not be visible until well into the project is a suspension bridge!  Actually a “cable stayed bridge”, it will span 2.5 to 3 feet from the end of the ascent across the valley to the hilltop town.  Under that long span at ground level will be a small industrial yard and some container freight handling equipment.  The current plan is to build the bridge from a single piece of flextrack, and use balsa to build the bridge deck around it.  The weight of the bridge, as well as the weight of engines and rolling stock crossing it will actually be held by the cables, just like the real thing!  Very cool if it works, and still fairly nifty if it fails and I have to go back to the drawing board….

More pics later, as progress is made.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Gigantic Lens

      This past weekend I received an unexpected and awesome gift.
Tamron SP AF 70-200mm F/2.8 Di LD [IF] MACRO
The Tamron 70-200 f2.8 Di
This is the lens I have been lusting after for a few years now, and it was completely unexpected for one to suddenly land on my table.  So, of course it is time to take some more pictures!

Sadly, my first few attempts to use the new lens were less than spectacular.  Birds are hard to keep up with, and I have not had time to visit any interesting places for photography.  But tonight the moon is full, and the clouds are interesting.  This moon picture is un-edited, taken from RAW into Lightroom, and right back out as a JPG for the blog.  With the exception of the green lens flare (which might be the UV filter), this is really awesome!
the moon-1
     I will not be writing a long drawn-out review of this lens, there are plenty of them online already.  Suffice it to say that I look forward to spending as much time learning this lens as I can.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Battle of File Sharing. Or, “How I came to loathe size limits”.

       In the past few years, I have been searching for a way to keep a few specific folders synchronized between my desktop machine and my laptop, and more recently adding my smartphone into the mix.  Also I wanted to use a similar system to back up data for my dad’s computer and laptop.    My big “eureka!” moment was the discovery of Windows Live Mesh, a wonderful tool that gave me a decent amount of online storage, but more importantly allowed me to define folders as pc to pc, that is not stored online at all.  This is important, not just for capacity issues but also for privacy reasons.  Some things just don’t need to be stored out on a server somewhere.   Sadly, Microsoft in their usual amazingly perceptive behavior picked out the most useful tool they had on offer, and then killed it.  In December of 2012 they announced that Mesh had a few months left and then they would shut it down.  Those jerks……
   This led me to start searching for a replacement.  I tried the usual suspects first; Dropbox, SugarSync,  and most recently Cubby.  All are reasonably good systems, but none of them support the one feature that means the most to me.  That is direct sync between my machines and not in the cloud.  I will detail the pro’s and cons of each contestant that I really put some time in with.  There are others, but I thought these are the best candidates.
Dropbox:   Pro – Ubiquitous, every platform has pretty good support.  Plus this is the one my employer uses for company documents.  Also Dropbox has developed quite a reputation for reliability.                Con – 5GB of space gets eaten up quick, and no consideration at all for direct sync.
SugarSync:   Pro – More space than Dropbox, 7GB.          Con – Mobile app support is not really there yet, and no direct sync.   
Cubby:      Pro – Direct Sync!  But only for a paid subscriber        Con – the mobile apps are really not very good, particularly the android app which will not allow you to store the data on the SD-card, but instead eats part of your main system memory.  The iPad app was better, but still not as smooth as Dropbox.
   Later on I tried to roll my own solution with an FTP server running on my Windows Home Server box.  I used Syncback’s free version which allows you to schedule syncing between folders, mapped network drives, online file storage, and also ftp servers.  This system actually had some promise and may lead me to implement it as a backup solution for some of my customers.  But nightly backups wasn’t really what I was after, and it’s a rather clunky solution.
   Enter AeroFS!  My hero!  I had read about Aero during my search for things to try, but it was a private beta at the time and I couldn’t get in.  About the same time that I was seriously experimenting with Syncback and ftp, I found an article on a blog about this one guy’s experience with AeroFS and noted that they had given him some invitations to spread around.  I immediately hit him up for one, and next morning Viola! I was in!  His website is .  I doubt he has anymore invites, but his content is interesting.
    On the surface, AeroFS works just like Dropbox.  But there is one key feature that makes it a whole different animal, no cloud storage.  That’s right, zero, zilch, no storage space in the cloud for your stuff.  “But wait, that’s a bad thing?” you may ask.  No, its perfect.  Zero cloud space means that the only limit to your storage is the space on your hard drive.  Most of us nowadays leave our home computers on all the time anyway, so why not let it be the repository of your data?    In my case, I have installed Aero on my desktop, my laptop, and my server.  The server holds copies of every folder, including the ones I have shared with dad’s computer.  The desktop and laptop have both been set with the “selective sync” feature in the AeroFS settings menu to only hold copies of the data I may need for that machine.  They also offer the ability to share selected folders with others.  Simply create a folder and then right-click and share by entering an email address.
   AeroFS entered the scene just as I was about to commit to Cubby and pay the annual fee.  But I kept hem-hawing because I wasn’t convinced that I needed too, and because Cubby was less than perfect.  I don’t want to pay for a solution unless it is  the perfect fit goldilocks-awesome.  Aero looks as though the direct sync feature will be the basic free system, with a collection of workplace team sharing and highly supported features for paying customers. 

If you need direct file sync, you need AeroFS.