Category Archives: Technology

Cheshire Cat Robot

A few weeks ago, Abigail attended a science in the arts camp sponsored by the WV State Division of Culture and History. It sounds weird but the idea was to demonstrate the use of robots and animatronics in art. About 2 dozen or so kids were invited to the camp where counselors helped young mad scientists put together proximity sensors and motion detectors and wires and batteries to control servos and motors to animate whatever forms the kids wanted.

Cheshire cat robot Cheshire cat robot

Abigail chose to build Cheshire the cat! Cheshire looked very much like the cartoon version from the movie Alice in Wonderland which makes sense I guess. I didn’t know she had ever seen the movie but it seems obvious. Anyhow, Abigail’s cat detected when we tried to pet it. It purred and wagged its tail like a good kitty. When we talked to her cat, Cheshire meowed in response.

Cheshire cat robot

Mad scientist
Mad scientist

I haven’t seen the girl so on fire for technology…ever! Often girls are excluded or exclude themselves from science and technology so I am absolutely delighted that she participated in this week-long day-camp and that she says she wants to work as a robotics engineer! So, thanks WV Division of Culture and History! I think you have sparked a new interest in math and science for my daughter!

Now that’s a chain!

They say any lock or chain is really only designed to keep an honest man honest.  I definitely think that is true, but some men need a little more help than others.  As we work on our small cabin, we carry a generator to run power tools as we need them.  I don’t know about your neck of the woods, but generators are very tempting for people to snatch.

D-link security chain D-link security chain

I have cut chain with bolt cutters before.  I was surprised how easy it was to get through a typical chain with bolt cutters.  It’s all about the leverage.  That concerned me as I considered leaving the generator on my trailer, somewhere at my house or at the cabin.  I looked around at options and discovered square-link security chain.  For bolt cutters to truly work properly, they must bite on a typical round chain.  Security chain is shaped differently which makes it very difficult to cut with typical bolt cutters.

D-link security chain Padlock with square shackle

Of course, specialty chain is pretty expensive and any chain is only as strong as its weakest link so I bought a serious lock to go with it.  I am not sure if any thievery has been thwarted, but I still have both my chain and my generator!

My bumblebee

Isaac was mowing the yard at my office tonight which gave me a little time to take in the local wildlife…and a lot of pollen and chlorophyll. Mostly there were stink bugs and flying whatnots but there was one extremely huge bumblebee with which I made friends.

Weed whacking

Emily really hates dandelions but I think they are sort of nice. I mean, in the spring time, all of the colors are so bold and bright…and it doesn’t get much bolder or brighter than dandelions. My bumblebee obviously agreed as he was all over the flowers that Isaac was mercilessly slaying!

My bumblebee

It’s taken me awhile to fully appreciate the lowly bumblebee. When I was a kid, I spent every weekday at the local swimming hole. I mean 100% of days. There was a “beach” set up along one of the local creeks in Tionesta, PA where I grew up. They had a concession stand and..well, that’s about it. But still, it was the beach. Anyhow, there was a ton of clover and back then, honeybees were still common. Between the honeybees and the bumblebees, I got many stings and I hated that. Heck, I have been stung so many times since then, I guess I have made peace.

My bumblebee

Most small critters fascinate me but I think bees of all sorts are among the tops in my book! So, my bumblebee and I will check in each week as Isaac cuts the grass…as long as I can keep Emily from plowing under all of my dandelions!

Electrolysis to remove rust

So my cane mill is around 105 years old.  It has rust slightly younger than that, but that’s not saying much.  Pretty much all un-restored mills have old rust to some degree.  Some folks like the rust look and it technically will not harm you if it is otherwise clean.  I don’t like the look though and the mills weren’t rusty when they were new so it’s not like I am changing its original state.

Electrolysis to remove rust
Before electrolysis…the whole thing is pretty rusty
Electrolysis to remove rust
After electrolysis…hardly any rust left!

So, I was searching around for the best way to remove rust from old iron and there were tons of people using electrolysis.  I had heard of electrolysis for hair removal (which is becoming increasingly more interesting as I age and my ears have started to sprout).  Anyhow, it is a well known technique for rust removal too (Here is a great bit of info on it).  I put my rusty  iron into a plastic tub filled with water and laundry soda.  I hooked up my battery charger and hee-haw if it didn’t start bubbling!

Electrolysis to remove rust
The electrolysis chamber. Those bars are all electrified! Be careful if you do this!

Cut the power on and wait a few hours and poof…science happens!  Search around for more details on your own because, of course, this could kill you if you do it wrong (Just look at my de-rusting tank…those bars are electrified when it’s running).  Abigail and I enjoyed our little experiment and I am here to report that it works pretty well.  I will still touch it up with a sand blaster (or maybe a soda blaster) but I think it is going to turn into a really nice piece!

My cane mill/sorghum stuff

Can you hear me now?

Isaac was born early and under very hard conditions.  You can read most of the details here.  We had to make many hard decisions and face many hard realities when he was born.  We were told that he would likely have a variety of issues that might present themselves as a result of his premature birth and the subsequent treatment to save his life.

Hearing aid box
His hearing aids came in a cool box!

As it turns out, Isaac does have one issue that resulted from some of his treatments.  During his time in the NICU when he was most critical, we had to sign several releases acknowledging that some of the meds they were giving Isaac may result in his being deaf.  In fact, he does have moderate hearing loss in both ears and it centers around higher frequencies…right where most voices tend to fall.  As you can imagine, that makes school and sports teams and even home life sort of interesting.

Hearing aids are not noticeable
You can barely see the wire into his ear

Now Isaac has never been a particularly organized kid.  He loses his shoes almost daily.  Sometimes he even misplaces his toothbrush if you can imagine.    We were hesitant to get him hearing aids when he was younger for that reason.  Now that he is in middle school though, he seems to be rounding the corner on keeping track of himself.  The school situation was becoming more of an issue as well.  The county had been making accommodations for him and provided in-school sound systems in his classrooms but it became hard to manage and he didn’t enjoy the extra attention that went along with it.

Hearing aid behind his ear
The only visible part and he may just grow his hair out some

So, we decided it was time to do something.  Last week, Isaac was fitted for new hearing aids for both ears.  They are very inconspicuous and work super well.  I think the best thing was when we first walked outside from the doctor’s office.  The office is near an interstate and Isaac stepped out and immediately looked around, sort of confused.  He asked me what the hum was.  He was truly shocked and neither of us realized how much he had been missing…I only wish his first “sound realization” had been something other than the traffic noise from the interstate.  Still, it sort of made me happy just to see that he was finally going to hear like me!

J-pole II

After I did some looking around and talking to a fellow ham, I made some significant changes to my j-pole antenna.   You may say to yourself, “self, what did Warren change on that antenna?  It looks the same.”  Well dear friends, I made it flexible.  You see, an antenna is not naturally born tuned. There are fancy tools to let a builder know when the antenna is running on all cylinders.  A big part of what makes my antenna work is related to measurements.  In particular, that little wire that goes across from the long pole to the short pole of the antenna.  Moving it up and down makes a difference when tuning in Taiwan as the kids say.

soldering the center wire to the SO-239 connector on the j-pole antenna
The SO-239 connector on the j-pole antenna
BNC cable attached to the j-pole antenna
I can move the connections up or down the poles

My original version was wrong on many levels but one of the biggest issues was that the little wire between the poles was fixed.  Now, I can move the wire up and down when I get one of the antenna tuning tools (an swr meter if you care).  I am not sure if I will be able to tune in Taiwan but I may get outside of Kanawha county!

Another view of the j-pole antenna
Another view of the antenna...'cause it's pretty
Another view of the j-pole antenna
Sorry about the dog butt

I still don’t know what I am doing really but I am able to follow the FCC regulations and have met a number of folks on the air who have been fun to talk with and have been willing to help me with information and encouragement.  Emily ad I sometimes sit on the couch and text each other.  I think the next step is to get her licensed so we can talk over radio on the couch.  What do you think?

Ham it up

I was in grad school in computer science a bunch of years ago and one of the professors was into amateur radio (AKA Ham radio).  I went into his office early one morning to talk with him about how to get started in the hobby.  We were doing a bunch of electronics projects and some pretty cool stuff in his class so amateur radio seemed like a pretty natural step.  He pretty much said I shouldn’t bother…get a cell phone and forget about it.

Well I showed him!  Last weekend I went to a cram course for the technician class ham radio license and I passed!  I am now a licensed ham operator!  I do have a cell phone so it may seem pretty weird why I bothered getting into amateur radio too.  I think the best answer is because I can.  I also like the idea of being able to communicate with people all over apart from the cellular network.  I also still like the challenge of building electronic circuits and learning new stuff like I did in Professor CellPhone’s class.

My father-in-law also wanted to become a licensed ham operator since he was a kid and he is also licensed now too!  I figure we will probably talk to each other a lot at first as we try to learn how this whole process works.  There really is a lot to amateur radio and apparently the FCC takes a lot of it very seriously…I’ll have to be careful not to have an audio Janet-Jackson-in-the-Super-Bowl moment on air!

There is a lot to learn so I am in search of an Elmer – a ham willing to help a newbie learn the ropes.  Much like beekeeping, it seems that the number of people entering the hobbies are declining.  I do not fully understand why but I hope to do my part to keep both hobbies middle-age friendly!

Apple of my eye

I got a camera quite awhile ago (the beginning of December) and have tinkered some with it but never bothered to read the manual.  Having a full male chromosome set, that should surprise no one I suppose.  I had a thing I had to do for work that required a few pictures which were turning out terribly and I was sure it was because of the settings I was using.  The camera is supposedly decent (and it had better be for the price I paid) so I knew it was capable of taking ok pictures.

Macro picture of an apple Macro picture of Emily's eye

After I found the manual holding up the table leg in the basement craft area, I discovered that I was in fact using improper settings.  I also discovered that I could take macro pictures.  I also learned that many cameras have a macro setting (it’s the picture of the flower on the settings dial) that really takes nice close-up pictures.  It may not be as nice as a true macro lens on a fancy camera but I was pretty happy with the discovery nonetheless!

These views don’t really do the pics justice…click on each of them for the larger view…I was sort of blown away!

Why we built a post and pier foundation

A few folks have asked recently why we built our deluxe shed up in the air on piers.  You see houses on piers near the ocean often enough but West-by-God-Virginia is not terribly near the ocean (really, check a map….)  Near an ocean, it makes sense to raise your house in the air for when hurricanes blow through or when gators need to mate (more for my bayou friends than my ocean friends).

Isaac laying in a sonotube for the pier
Isaac laying in a sonotube for the pier

The first problem we had in building this house is that we had absolutely no facilities to make building a house in the least bit easy.  We had no water, no power and no flat land.  I studied A LOT before charging head-long into house building and among foundations, it seemed that the post and pier foundation required the least amount of concrete to be mixed and would be the most straightforward for a building neophyte to pull together.  All of the concrete for this place had to be hand mixed as there is no driveway or road for a mix truck to deliver concrete.

Really helpful advice on working with concrete
Really helpful advice on working with concrete
Mixing concrete by hand for the post and pier foundation
Mixing concrete by hand for the post and pier foundation

I figured that pouring one pier at a time would be slow enough to do (unlike dealing with an entire load of concrete on a truck) that I could take the time to make sure that stuff was plumb and level and fixable if I screwed up.  It turns out that it is a slow process but definitely not simple.  I learned how to tie rebar and how to mix concrete that was not too wet and not too dry and I learned how to keep a sonotube (cylindrical concrete  form) plumb even when pouring shovels full of concrete into them.

Pouring concrete in the tubes by hand
Pouring concrete in the tubes by hand
Concrete form tubes for our post and pier foundation
Concrete form tubes for our post and pier foundation

Our soil is red sticky clay with very little rock.  I read a lot about soil types and found that if there isn’t a sufficient base under a pier, the cylinder that is the pier will push down into the soft clay like a pin through butter when the weight of the house is added.  Most recommendations suggest that a larger footprint cylinder will prevent the sinking.  They make a flared base that expands the footprint of a typical 8 inch sonotube to prevent sinking but I didn’t have those handy.  The other option is to use a bigger tube.  Twelve inch piers seemed to be the consensus for size and they were readily for sale.  Let me tell you, for simple cardboard tubes, the folks that make the forms are pretty proud of their product.  Anyhow, in addition to the size of the base, the depth is important.  In addition to needing to dig the piers deeper than the frost line, deeper piers provide more contact between concrete and soil.  That friction also prevents sinking as well.

Setting the first of the posts for our post and pier foundation Making sure the posts are plumb for our post and pier foundation

Anyone still with me?  Yeah Mom, you don’t really count here.  Anyone else?  Ok, well just in case…we connected 6x6s to the pier with a metal post base which was bolted to a J-bolt embedded in the concrete.  In some ways, I would have preferred to pour taller concrete piers rather than add a wooden post but my back wouldn’t take it.  I also did not know if I could lift that much concrete over my head to pour it into the forms.  Anyhow, the only reason it matters is that the joint between the concrete and wood is a hinge point…a point of weakness.  Solid concrete to the base of the house would have eliminated that hinge point.

The bolt embedded in the concrete pier
The bolt embedded in the concrete pier
A 6x6 post base that attaches the post to the pier
A 6x6 post base that attaches the post to the pier

My goal is to minimize hinging by making good connections, by making things plumb/level/square and by using geometry.  I connected 2×6 boards from the top of one pier to the bottom of adjacent piers.  By making triangles with the boards, the weaker tops of the 6x6s are connected to the more stable lower portions preventing movement.

Cross-bracing the posts using geometry!
Cross-bracing the posts using geometry!

So, once all of that is done, I have a pretty stable base on which to build everything else.  I am not sure that I made a compelling case for building a post and pier foundation but I have no regrets  and it definitely raises eyebrows.  Initially, I had hoped to be able to ignore the space underneath but I will definitely have to do something to protect the area beneath our deluxe shed.  The wind really howls up there and I have no interest in a Dorothy/Kansas/Toto deal where my house gets carried away by the wind!


See all of the progress on the cabin

Wrapping it up

It’s been hectic.  I mean it is always hectic at Christmas time but it seems like my work and the kids’ activities are much more wild than normal.  We have been fortunate with our weather though and that means we have been working on the cabin the last two weekends.  So, in the last episode, we left our heroes working on the cabin, hoping to get the gable ends framed in and covered with sheathing.

Window view from our small cabin in WV
The window view...not framed in yet
The open gable in our small cabin in WV
Our cabin is pretty high in the air
That's a long ways down!

The dastardly weatherman called for snow and rain to thwart the attempts of our heroes to get the place weathered in before the snow  ruined all of the hard work and industrial glue used to hold together the over-priced plywood and OSB used throughout.  Ok, I can’t stand the wait…no cliff-hanger here.  We got the sheathing up and put  house wrap up on about half of the place the last two weekends!

One gable end framed in on our small cabin in WV
One gable end framed in!
Sheathing on our small cabin in WV
The high parts are done!
Red Riding Hood
Red Riding Hood

House wrap, it turns out, is some weird stuff.  It blocks water from the outside.  Water vapor can freely escape the other direction though so moisture from inside the house can get out.  The problem is that if larger water particles get behind the wrap, they are held in place…only water vapor can escape.  Sometimes that makes things rot as water usually does.  I read a bunch of stuff on the internets about whether house wrap was a good idea or whether old fashioned tar paper was better.  It seemed like I found a pretty mixed story about it.  Most people said tar paper was really good and that it lasted forever and has been used successfully for a long time.  House wrap is only popular because it goes up fast which is important to home builder.   That fact is also popular with my wife so we (she) finally decided to use house wrap.

House wrap going up on our small cabin in WV
The first of the house wrap
About half of the house wrap up on our small cabin in WV
About half of the house wrap is up!

We have about 4 months to get the house wrap covered with siding before UV rays from the sun start to ruin it.  If anyone remembers my other remodeling experiences, you will recall that a 4 month deadline is pretty tight for me!  The kids have really enjoyed hanging out with their great-grandparents as we do this final push to get things done though.  Another few months would suit them just fine I think.  Great-grandparents, it turns out, really like to spoil great-grandkids.  Apparently it is in the Constitution or something.  Anyhow, as this year (and probably the nice weather) wraps up, I really owe a lot to all of the family and friends who have helped in various ways to get this place under cover!  I am so tired of wrapping so your Christmas presents are in the mail!


See all of the progress on the cabin