Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Back on the Rails

Holidays seem to be my train time. I did a train show in April and a merit badge clinic in September and that is about it. I have gotten excited about the new Raspberry Pi Linux computer, and plan on using it to control my layout instead of the two Arduino microcontrollers I use now.  There were are a lot of things that I hacked together to get the layout working, and I've long wanted a chance to do it over, simpler and cleaner.

My first step is designing a new control board. This will basically have an Arduino brain (Atmega 328) and two L293D H-bridge controllers. That isn't much of a departure from how it currently works, except it collapses several separate modules on to one board and will be able to control the engine and turnouts itself, or interface with another computer (say a Raspberry Pi)!
Perhaps my biggest leap in simplicity is in the turnout control. In my prior amateur stumbling, I ended up using a transistor to control a relay to control Ken Stapleton's switching circuit (times two!). I burned up two Atlas under-table switches figuring out that Rube Golberg setup. I guess that happens when a 5 volt guy starts trying to control 12 volt systems.  I've determined you could do the same job with several two-dollar, high-power MOSFET transistors, or (drum-roll please) a L293D H-bridge. There are two of these on the Adafruit motor control shield I'm currently using, capable of powering two DC motors each, of which I'm currently using exactly one half of one. A single H-bridge, with some diodes, can control both turn outs! It works, and I've only burned up one resistor and two cheap transistors.
The prototyping and testing is done, and the board is laid out and sent off for manufacture. See if you can tell the difference between my board and Lady Ada's motor shield. That is Open Source Hardware for you. She provides all the design files and I just stripped it down and built if up the way I wanted, complete with a  Wii nunchuck adapter! I just have to wait six weeks for it to come back from China to see if it works as advertised. If it works, I'll post my designs on line for others to use as well. So it goes.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Recreational Statistics

At our Ward's Christmas party this year, they had a large jar of Hersey's candy kisses and we were asked to guess the total number. The closest guess to the actual number got to take them home. I remember reading a story about how in such situations, that the average of all the guesses would be closer to actual than the winning guess, a sort of accuracy through consensus thing. Here was my chance to test that out, so I volunteered to check the answers.

We had 72 guesses cast, and as we went through them, I could see the average would be low because some of the smaller kids had unrealistic guesses like 8 or 20. One kid wrote "there are 0 kisses in the jar, but some candy kisses". Funny, and true, but no chocolate for him. The winning guess was 454, which was about 8% higher than the 417 actual pieces. Robin had the next closest guess and was quite disappointed.

Days later, I plugged all the guesses into my magic bit box to see what the statistics said. The average, or mean, as I predicted was very low at 208. That indicated an abnormal distribution, which a histogram quickly confirmed. Somewhere in my reading, I came across a tidbit that said the median would be a better statistic to use for a skewed distribution. Sure enough, the median is 407, or about 3% off actual, and much closer than the winning guess. So I guess with a little quibbling about the use of mean or median, the story was right.

I tracked down the story, and it is from a book called "The Wisdom of Crowds", and involves guessing the weight of an ox at the county fair. I'd rather have chocolate.

Fun Facts: Hershey's Kisses were introduced in 1907, but the term "KISSES" wasn't trademarked until 2001. Hershey makes more than 60 million kisses a day. Candy kisses that is.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Dress for the Ages

Rachel made a dress for a ball she was going to with a friend. She picked out the pattern and the fabric and had it finished in about a week.
If you haven't heard of steampunk, think Jules Verne, or more modernly, Levianthan by Scott Westerfeld. It is Victorian techno sci-fi.
We talked her in to wearing it to church and she got a lot of compliments.
 Just amazing. Can't wait to see what she tries next!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Conference Talk Title Game

During Conference, after a speaker finished, I started asking the girls what they thought the title of the talk would be just to see if they were listening. They were. It helped me pay better attention as well.
Here is what we came up with for the Sunday a.m. session:

If there was a true winner to this game, I would have to say it was Sis. Burton for having the clearest message in her talk!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

New Flooring

With June and Smitty back in Florida, it is time for us to find some new tenants.

The big upkeep item is redoing the kitchen floor. Lots of work, but going quickly with good helpers.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

One day, four teeth?

How many teeth have you lost in one day (without a dentist visit)? The other day Annie kept coming up to me and telling me she had lost another tooth.

She quit after four. That has to be some kind of record. Hope the tooth fairy brought some extra cash.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Cascadia Cave Tour

We found another Oregon historical gem that ranks up there with Hull-Oakes and Thompson Mill. It is the Cascadia Caves near Sweet Home.
Unfortunately, the cave is on private land (for now), and requires a Forest Service approved tour. Fortunately, the tour included a very animated archaeologist/story-teller named Tony Farque.

Human use of the cave dates back 8000 years, and includes a myriad of cave art. The location is situated at the cross-roads of the North-South and East-West migration trails of the Indians and was an important Salmon harvesting location. Tony made the art come alive with stories and interpretations and spoke engagingly for an hour and a half while we ate lunch.

He showed us some replica artifacts that would have been used by the Kalapuya.
The Kalapua were egalitarian and had female shaman and leaders. I can't wait to see what these ladies aspire to.

I can't recommend this tour enough. It left me with a deep respect for a people who had an obviously deep connection with nature. Unfortunately, the next tour won't be till next June! The Forest Service only has two tours a year.  Find out more at

I've put  more photo on Picasa.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Web Comic the Size of a House?

One of my favorite web comics is XKCD. It is usually over my head, and sometime vulgar, but occasionally it is just plain brilliant. This weeks comic had a bottom panel that you could click and drag to move around. It contained some hidden cultural gems sprinkled here and there. Try it out here before I tell you more about it.
I was a bit late to work as I was clicking and dragging. It became clear the underlying image was far larger than could be explored in a short sitting.

Not wanting to miss any gems, I dug in to the html, found the javscript serving the images, and wrote a Python script to probe the server for the needed image files. What emerged, if printed at 300 dpi, was the equivalent of 16 feet by 40 feet, or enough to cover the side of a house!
This is just a thumbnail of about a third of it. The Apollo rocket is top center. At the very far right was an interesting homage to his very first comic!

The other thing that struck me was how similar the layout was to the illustrations of a book I had read recently about a two dimensional world called Planiverse by A.K. Dewdney. Here is the main character's home:
The novel had a similar concept as Flatland by Edwin Abbot. Both deal with what life would be like living in two dimensions. Just what you need for being prepared to be trapped in an XKCD cartoon for a day!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How far can you get in a car without oil?

Some one mysteriously deposited about five quarts of oil and some metal and body pieces on our front yard sometime in the very early morning. It appears they didn't see that the road came to a "tee" and ran about a car length over the curb.

Among the pieces was one with a part number. A quick look on the web told us we were looking for a late model Jetta VW.

Amazing, they had decided to back out and drive off. It was easy to follow the diminishing oil trail to see that they were determined to make it back to Corvallis, heading south on 99W.

Given the complete loss of oil, it was easy to figure they didn't make it far. With only three tow companies in Corvallis, it only took two phone calls to find out who had towed what where. The offending vehicle was parked in front of a auto shop in South Corvallis,

I drove down to the shop to verify the missing  body pieces matched. The missing grill pieces were a dead give-away.  Underneath, not only was a majority of the oil pan gone, a large portion of an engine mount was dragging on the ground. That must have made enough racket to drown out the dying screeches of an oil-starved engine.
The tow operator told me he picked up the mess near Arboretum Road, just about a mile from our house. That, is apparently has far as you can go without oil.

The only questions remaining? Was the person drunk, and if so, will a $4k repair bill sober them up? Fortunately, this time the only injuries were to some German engineering, but I fear this driver is in for further bumpy roads.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Alpine for Labor Day

With both vans road-worthy after extensive mechanical repairs, it was time for a little fun, so we took the Westy down to Alpine for a night.

Unfortunately, being Labor Day weekend, we did not have the place to ourselves. There were two ward campouts and a family reunion going on.  We ended up sharing a campsite with another family with two noisy young boys. Not quite our typical outing, but fun none the less.

We stopped at Alsea Falls on the way home. We also hit the third annual Blackberry Festival in Alsea which was more like a small farmers market, buy hey, we like blackberries!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Cheating with Friends

I've been tempted for a while to write a program to help with Words With Friends. Turns out somebody already has, so I challenged a friend to a "cheat on cheat" game. Carl and I ended up with a 900+ point game!

I averaged 34 points per word. Even with computer brains crunching the combinations, over a third of the words (10 / 29) were just three letters! I think where the computer excelled was finding the multiple word combinations, something I never spend much time attempting. You can see the dense pattern running up the upper left-hand corner.

While it was exciting to see the big points coming in (i.e. VOMICAE = 75 pts!), there weren't any of those epiphany moments when you know you found the killer word, by your self. And the game went too quick. I think we clicked it off in under an hour.

Now I just have to look up what "vomicae" means. Wait. Oh gross. Nevermind.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Camping, Goodwin Style

After our stint in Brownsville with the cubscouts, Annie and I headed over to the Cascades to join Stephanie and the Goodwins on their annual week-long campout.

I had never been to the Newberry Caldera, which is south of Bend. The Goodwins were camped at Paulina Lake.

We took a ranger-led tour of an obsidian flow. It is amazing that a technology like flint-napping is still used for specialized surgical blades.

We visited Paulina Falls which marks the edge of the caldera.

Can't have fun without being dirty!

Dave showed Annie how to fish. We could see some 6-inchers near the dock, but they would do more than nibble at the bait.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Brownsville Cubscout Campout

Our cubscouts have an annual family campout in the Brownsville Pioneer Park. It is a rather informal campground near the Calapoolia River with port-a-potties and no water.

Despite the limited facilities, it was a fun event. Reed Lacy set up a zip line, which was a hit. We did skits around the fire. I told the Scoop Shuvel story. After dark, I set up my telescope and talked astronomy until there was no one left. We saw Saturn and it's moon Titan, as well as Mars and the Moon.

Breakfast was the eggs in a bag affair, which turned out well. Annie and I and one other family stayed to visit the small farmer's market and visit the Linn County Historical Museum.