Thursday, March 31, 2016

It Depends on How You Look at It

Or sniff at it.
Glenn McCoy, from Facebook.

The way I see it is that if the Big Government wasn't so big, it wouldn't matter what the big business was chasing.  The way Bernie Sanders sees it is that if the big business wasn't so big, big government would be a wonderful, kind servant.  Instead of a fearful master.

My justification is that no company has ever sent a SWAT team to raid anyone's house because they didn't buy something.  As much as Microsoft or Apple or any big business wants my money, they have to get it by persuasion and if I'm not persuaded, they're SOL.  In contrast, Uncle Sugar, or my state, my county, my city, or even some new taxing authority I didn't even know I was assigned to, could present me with a new tax bill, and as the story at the link describes, if I say 'no' there's a good chance someone in this house dies.

But the moment the government got so big that it was more profitable to go lobby congress than it was to spend that money to make their product better, this cartoon became inevitable.   When senators are cheaper than R&D and provide better ROI, senators will be what's being bought.

At least that's how I look at it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Back When the Federal Reserve Did Some Things Right

In my regular reading, I came across a story of three Federal Reserve Chairmen: William McChesney Martin, chair under Harry Truman; Paul Volker, chair under Ronald Reagan; and our current Dear Leader, Janet Yellen.

The chairmen before Mr. Martin, Marriner S. Eccles and then Thomas B. McCabe,  had to deal with the nation coming out of the Great Depression, entering and then coming out of World War II.  Under the circumstances, the Fed was very accomodative and kept interest rates low, but it was nothing like our last few Fed Chairmen (Allan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen).  Martin believed it was the role of the Fed to stay out of things and let a market driven system work.  He believed the role for the Fed should be to counter whatever the economy was doing; to moderate market forces by exerting a little countercyclical pressure.  If the economy was contracting, he thought the Fed should ease conditions to try to get it rolling again.  If it was growing too fast, he thought the Fed should be a resistance.  Perhaps his most famous metaphor was:
The job of the Fed, he said, was to “take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going.” In other words, raise interest rates just when the economy starts to enter an unsustainable boom.
In February of 1951, with the inflation rate running at 8%, President Truman called Martin and the entire Federal Open Market Committee into the oval office to pressure them to keep rates low (turns out "give 'em hell Harry" liked inflating economies as much as later politicians).  Martin refused Truman's "requests" and raised rates from just under 1% to almost 4% at the start of the 1960s.

Twenty years after that, the economy had suffered through the abandonment of the gold standard, transitioning to a fiat currency based on debt, the '70s OPEC oil embargoes, and inflation hitting over 20% at times.  Enter Paul Volker, who saw the need to bring that under control.  But inflation always has friends and cutting it is painful.  In 1980, Paul Volker spoke to the nation:
After decades of inflation, many of us, more or less comfortably, have adapted our business and personal lives to the prospect of more inflation.

We count on capital gains from inflating house and land values as a substitute for real savings. We assume our competitors will match our aggressive pricing policies, and will also accede to high wage demands. We take comfort in our purchases of precious metals, art, and more exotic "collectibles" – or envy those who did buy – and are tempted to project essentially speculative price movements into the great beyond.

But none of this sense of accommodation to inflation can be a valid excuse for not acting to deal with the disease.
To stretch Martin's original metaphor, getting inflation under control would mean taking away not only the punch bowl, but also taking the entire buffet and open bar of money and credit on which the markets feasted.  But Volcker did not back down.  In June 1981, he dosed the economy with a 19.1% federal funds rate; in a few months, the fever was broken. 

Of course, today's situation is unlike that faced by either William McChesney Martin or Paul Volker.  Instead of raging inflation, we have an economy that's in a slow-motion deflation.  Despite creating trillions of dollars in an effort to get growth, all the Fed has been able to do is create an overvalued stock market with inflated prices due to the vast quantities of money available to bid up prices.  The much vaunted Federal Reserve Bank has had about as much effect on the US and world economies as the Bank of Japan and their policies have had on reversing their problems since their stock market collapsed in 1989. 

Janet Yellen is more like Haruhiko Kuroda of the Bank of Japan than either of those previous Fed heads.  In truth, Yellen seems more like an elitist, even collectivist, who thinks she knows better than the billions of transactions that make up the markets.
Where Mr. Martin had insisted that dictating interest rates was “inconsistent with… a private enterprise system,” Ms. Yellen saw no inconsistency at all.

Where Mr. Martin saw the need in a great emergency – World War II – to depart from market-set interest rates, Ms. Yellen is ready to leave the market behind at the drop of the Dow.

And where Mr. Martin and Mr. Volcker both went resolutely about their work, Ms. Yellen seems unsure.

A year ago, she said she would normalize rates “only gradually”… and that, although she had the “macro-prudential regulatory and supervisory tools” to do the job, investors should not expect miracles.

Nor did they receive any. In the 12 months that have gone by since her speech, only 25 basis points (even sparrows refuse to bend to pick up such trivial morsels) is the total of her niggardly gift to savers.
To borrow an old joke, Mrs. Yellen has two chances to fix this: slim and none.  And slim done left the dance already.  Central bankers might be able to make tiny movements of economies, but they seem to be more capable of stopping inflation by shutting off lending than they are capable of starting growth.  If no one is able to buy because they're in too much debt and can't make the payments, it doesn't matter if the interest rate is low. 

The answer, of course, is that economies live and breath.  They expand and they contract like some sort of breathing.  Looked at that way, the central banks are trying to keep the patient inhaling so their lungs expand forever.  That just can't happen.  Cycles end and new cycles start.  At least at some point in history, we had Fed chairmen who realized that it wasn't possible to prevent those cycles and it wasn't even their job.
William McChesney Martin.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Techy Tuesday - Hands on With the CountyComm GP-5/SSB

I first encountered this interesting little brick of a radio in an article at Brushbeater, linked to by Western Rifle Shooters Association.  The article was on signals intelligence, and using various radios to monitor activities in your area.  I soon came to realize this radio was becoming a prepper's favorite radio; the one radio everyone talked about having for when it has truly hit the fan.  From my perspective, I was interested in it because I just hadn't seen a portable receiver with specifications like this.  The first unusual part is that it receives Single Sideband, and I just haven't seen SSB in a receiver this low in cost before.  The second unusual part is that it has an unusual, modern, design architecture that you just don't typically see in low end radios. 

Single sideband or SSB is a kind of modulation (which just means putting information onto a radio signal) that's used throughout radio. If you tune across an SSB station with an AM radio, the best you can do is get a “Donald Duck” kind of sound that's unintelligible. Virtually everyone in the shortwave spectrum uses SSB except the big broadcasters; that means local hams, marine radios, aviation and more are going to be in SSB.  Any military comms that are "in the open" will be in SSB.  There are two "flavors" of SSB, Upper and Lower sideband (USB/LSB); most of the commercial radios use USB but hams generally use LSB below 14 MHz.  Besides that, it tunes from 150 kHz (Very Low Frequency, VLF, which is more common in other parts of the world than North America) to 30.0 MHz, including the AM broadcast band (BCB) and adds the FM BCB.  
I did some reading on these radios and found that they were reportedly originally left over from a contract that CountyComm had with the US Government, and if you look them up, CountyComm says this is their Government Products Group, and lists their Federal Supplier Cage Code.  The manual says Government Products Group on the cover.  The story is that some agencies wanted SHTF radios for employees in other countries.  Someone in the agencies could program the memories for the users, and if they had to use the radios, everyone would have the same set of frequencies to listen to.  It appears that CountyComm had a special order with Tecsun, who produced a special version of one of their designs for this contract.  The radio uses an architecture called direct conversion with an image reject mixer, and is a low parts count wonder.  

I decided that the $80 price tag wasn't too much, in the interest of science! you know, and got one.  It's an impressive little radio, but it can be hard to use.  I've never seen a radio that cried out for a numeric keypad as much as this one does, but when you first get it in your hands, it seems the only way to get where you want to tune to is by tuning the thumbwheel on the right side.  Potentially, for a long, long time.  Thankfully, they give you a few ways around this.  

The first way around it is what CountyComm calls Easy Tuning Mode, or ETM.  Let's say you turn it on and hit the MW button (for Medium Wave - the AM BCB).  Press ETM and hang on; the radio will scan the entire band and store the frequencies where it heard something.  Now you just turn through those memories with the tuning knob.  Do the same thing with the FM band, and you get a second bank of memories.  Every time you go back to MW or FM, those memories will be there.  Going on vacation?  Just re-scan when you get there and the new stations will be saved.  When you get home, re-scan and it will find your same stations. 
The same basic system works for the SW bands.  The control panel (above) has two buttons for the SW Bands, an up and down arrow.  This will take you through all the allocated SW bands.  You can choose a SW BCB by pressing one of the SW up or down arrows and then hit ETM.  This time you'll have to wait a while, but after a few minutes you'll hear audio again and the radio will be active.  Now you can tune through the ETM memories with the thumbwheel and every SW station it heard will be there.  Note that the ETM memories don't override each other and your SW stations won't replace the AM or FM stations.  There are separate banks for AM, FM and SW ETM, and there are separate banks for other user-entered memories for those three services.  100 for AM, 100 for FM and 250 for SW.  In addition, there's another 100 memories for SSB only stations.  When you press USB/LSB briefly, you turn on that mode, and the next time you hit the up or down arrows, you'll go through the ham bands that tune SSB, not the SW BCBs which are in AM. 

How do you find a specific station?  Someone just told you that Radio Australia is on 9580 kHz in the mornings and you've always wanted to hear them.  You could use the ETM, but you don't know if you can hear them at all.  You could always choose the SW band with the up/down arrows, then start tuning with the wheel.  It can still take a long time to find stations in those bands, though, so I've adopted a trick I learned about in a video about the radio.  I sat down one afternoon and started saving entry points roughly every 100 kHz into these SW bands.  Take the 31 meter shortwave band: the charts say that it starts at 9400 kHz and goes to 9900.  I tuned to 9400, pressed MEM, then tuned the wheel up to 9500, pressed MEM, and so on, stopping at 10,000 kHz instead of 9900 (because 10,000 kHz is the time standard station WWV).  Now if I want to listen to Australia on 9580 kHz, I just hit the VF/VM button to go into memory and tune the thumbwheel up to 9600.  Hit VF/VM to go back into manual tuning, and then tune down to 9580.  Of course, I could have gone to 9500 and tuned upwards, but that's much farther than going to the 9600 and tuning down.   This video is a good overview of all that I've talked about here.
All in all, it's an impressive little receiver.  The SSB performance is acceptable, but has some issues; the receiver AGC (automatic gain control) has some problems with SSB, which is pretty common.  Back in December, I proposed a simple test for how well designed the antenna matching circuits are in little receivers like this: while listening to weak SW signal, touch the antenna: if the signal gets louder, the receiver isn't optimized for its antenna.  You made the antenna bigger when you touched it and that helped it pick up more.  If the signal got weaker, the antenna was well-optimized.  This radio fails that test, but to be honest, it's far easier to do that with a radio that tunes a few discrete bands, like the Kaito WRX-911 I mentioned back in December.  CountyComm is aware that the antenna is usually the weak link in a broadband receiver and do two things for you.  First, they have a clip-on wire (about 20', I think) for the antenna.  A metal clip grabs the antenna, and you stretch out the wire as far and as high as you can.  Secondly, they include an AM and VLF antenna that plugs into a socket on top of the radio.  There is a built in AM antenna, but this one improves performance noticeably. 

As for weak points, while it's an impressive performer and I can mitigate not having a numeric keypad somewhat, it still uses that tuning wheel a LOT, and I suspect it as a part that might wear out first.  It desperately wants either a keypad or a computer control bus, but has neither.  It has a USB B connector on it that is used to charge the board batteries (I put NiMH batteries in it - it takes 3), so I plugged it into my PC hoping to hear the Windoze sound that it found new hardware, but no such luck. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

More Machine Shop Foolery

Or fooling around-ery.

Some years ago, I built a CNC lathe to go with my mill.  I went through trying to make it thread properly, had some success, but then never really used it much.  I had gotten used to using the manual lathe by just walking up to it, chucking up a piece of work and doing what I needed to do.  I told Mrs. Graybeard I'd leave both lathes on the bench for a while and whichever got used more would be the one we keep.  It was the manual lathe.  Some time in the last few garage re-organizations (even before moving into the new shop), a wire pulled out of a contact pin and it needed to be fixed.

Yesterday became a bit of a cleanup day in the shop, so it was a natural thing to try and get it running properly again.  First, though, there were some problems to go into.  The computer I've been using to control the mill has been having issues for a while now.  It wouldn't start up, especially on colder mornings.  (Mind you, this is a Florida cooler morning; maybe 68 or 70 in the shop.  That's Canadian skinny dipping weather.)  It would take up to five power-on attempts for everything to run and the system to boot all the way into Windows, but once it was going it stayed running fine.  I had an equivalent system and thought if it was running well, I'd swap them out.  I turned this backup system on and it worked flawlessly.  To keep from having to re-install all the software, I just swapped hard drives, so it was up and running pretty quickly.  I ran the mill long enough to send some motion commands on all axes, and verified it hadn't gotten messed up during the "brain transplant". 

Now it was on to the lathe.  In this picture, it's on the left, almost out of the frame.  To it's right, and just past the orange calculator, is the manual lathe.  The mill is off to the right, in a plywood box. 
Once I re-crimped the wire and got Mach3Turn running, both of the lathe's axes started moving.  There's a large toolpost on the cross slide that I put there to measure backlashes with.  I noticed that the long axis seems to drop steps, even under no load.  That could be something as simple as a noise pickup, but could be the driver board, too.  I'll need to look at that some more.  
All in all, it's a good option to have back, but I really can't think of many uses for it.  It's easier to cut tapers in a CNC lathe than by hand, but that's about it; it would also be good for making pens, with that power feed.  Threading is probably best accomplished on my big lathe, although I have their threading attachment for the manual Sherline lathe, too.  There are developments on the big CNC mill project, but that will be another story for another day. 

Podcast is Up

At the usual places for the Gun Blog Variety Podcast, episode 84, with part 3 of my overview of receivers, this time focusing on what you can hear with a shortwave and SSB receiver, like the popular CountyComm GP-5/SSB.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Happy Easter!

Looking for the Living One in a Cemetery

24 1-3 At the crack of dawn on Sunday, the women came to the tomb carrying the burial spices they had prepared. They found the entrance stone rolled back from the tomb, so they walked in. But once inside, they couldn’t find the body of the Master Jesus.
4-8 They were puzzled, wondering what to make of this. Then, out of nowhere it seemed, two men, light cascading over them, stood there. The women were awestruck and bowed down in worship. The men said, “Why are you looking for the Living One in a cemetery? He is not here, but raised up. Remember how he told you when you were still back in Galilee that he had to be handed over to sinners, be killed on a cross, and in three days rise up?” Then they remembered Jesus’ words.
9-11 They left the tomb and broke the news of all this to the Eleven and the rest. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them kept telling these things to the apostles, but the apostles didn’t believe a word of it, thought they were making it all up.
12 But Peter jumped to his feet and ran to the tomb. He stooped to look in and saw a few grave clothes, that’s all. He walked away puzzled, shaking his head.
Luke 24:1-12  Message Translation

If you haven't, I urge you to read "Five Confounding Facts About Jesus' Resurrection" at Sense of Events. 

Easter is the most important day in Christianity and far more important than Christmas because of the resurrection.  Everyone has a birthday, but only one man in history has been resurrected.  So since virtually everyone, including honest atheists, agrees Jesus was a real man in history and died on the cross, the question becomes whether or not it can be verified that Christ was seen after the resurrection by someone other than the closest circle of disciples.  An experienced legal/crime writer, Lee Strobel knew the essence of the question is the resurrection, and independent witnesses are the key.  The gospels talk of Jesus appearing several times, but what about other historians?  Sobel writes:
Did anyone see Jesus alive again? I have identified at least eight ancient sources, both inside and outside the New Testament, that in my view confirm the apostles’ conviction that they encountered the resurrected Christ. Repeatedly, these sources stood strong when I tried to discredit them.
Could these encounters have been hallucinations? No way, experts told me. Hallucinations occur in individual brains, like dreams, yet, according to the Bible, Jesus appeared to groups of people on three different occasions – including 500 at once!
In the end, after I had thoroughly investigated the matter, I reached an unexpected conclusion: it would actually take more faith to maintain my atheism than to become a follower of Jesus.
The other religions of the world are about ritual and ultimately about self, about you proving yourself worthy; Christianity is about grace.  Forget earning it yourself; you're not good enough on your best day.  You are saved by grace.  No other religion teaches grace.  Islam teaches that Allah is unknowable.  Christianity teaches that not only is God knowable, he wants us to know him.  Islam doesn't teach salvation, it teaches servitude to a fickle, arbitrary, distant Allah.  Christianity teaches forgiveness by Grace; that you're given a gift by a God who so wants a close personal relationship with us that he gives us a gift we could never possibly deserve.  I like the way the Message translation does this verse (Ephesians 2: 8) explaining the nature of grace: 
It's God's gift from start to finish! We don't play the major role. If we did, we'd probably go around bragging that we'd done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. 
Evolution vs. creation? I believe people pay way too much attention to this.  There's no mention of evolution in the bible, but there's no mention of the laws of thermodynamics, Avogadro's number, or relativity.  The bible isn't a science book.  Look at it this way: the creation story, how we got here, takes up a page.  The next thousand pages (or more, depending on font size, paper size, and so on) are concerned with how we treat each other while we're here.  Creation is clearly not the emphasis of the book, it just starts out that way.  And saying a fluctuation in the quantum vacuum foam exploded sounds remarkably like nothing springing into something.  If you were trying to explain the standard model of cosmology to people who hadn't developed Algebra, let alone the Calculus yet,  "Let there be light" sounds like as good a picture as I can think of.  Lets see you explain partial differential equations to kindergartners. 

As I always say, enjoy your day.  Enjoy your families.  Hold close the ones you love. 

A Good Metaphor for the Current Election Season

Glenn McCoy for March 3

Friday, March 25, 2016

Possible Project?

A couple of things since the start of the year have given me thoughts of making a CNC laser for light duty (pardon the pun).  First, Come and Make It posted about a 40W CO2 laser he was working with.  Then, about 10 days later, while wandering around the Orlando Hamcation, I stumbled across a small business that uses a small CNC laser to produce laser-engraved (burned) wood products as little gifts for hams.  As far as I know, that doesn't require a lot of power, but the prospects of a laser paying for itself (eventually) is appealing.

I've always been the kind of person that can put an idea on a mental back burner and not pay conscious attention to it, but ideas will simmer back there and pop forward into my brain without calling for them.  So this idea went onto a back burner.

Meanwhile, I'd notice things like a laser engraver made from the laser in a DVD writer on YouTube (there are several).  Then the step up in burning power to the blue lasers from a Blu Ray player.

This morning, I ran into this little project on Instructables, while bouncing around in Pinterest. 
MDF "plywood", an arduino controller, and powered by a 1.8 W blue LED.  (More info here) 1.8 W sure isn't going to do what 40W can, but as low-cost, entry drug, it just might do.

The back burner is starting to boil over.  I have an X/Y platform; it's called my CNC Sherline.  I don't have any immediate need to engrave a large plaque, so work area isn't an immediate concern.  But how hard would it be to replace the motor and headstock on my Sherline mill with something to hold one of these "couple of watt" blue laser diodes?  It would take a bit of learning to know how to turn the laser off and on, but learning is what we're here for, right?  A constant-current power supply?  That's home field; I can design those in my sleep (and I think I have).  How hard can it be?  (ooo Right up there with "what could go wrong" or "all you gotta do")  Hey!  I've got a junk DVD writer around here somewhere...

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Pic of the Day

From commenter Red Square at the People's Cube.
You need to mispronounce Che's name but it's good.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Je Suis Sick of It

Yet again, the civilized world has to bear the depraved antics of the Muslim murderers.  Yet again, we have to bear the pea-brained apologists telling us, "it's the religion of peace" or "it's just a small minority".  Yet again, we watch the world respond with hashtags, colored light tributes, and other meaningless, feel-good wastes of time.  Yet again, it looks like we're fast approaching the time when the choice of fight, convert or die will be at our doors.

President Community Organizer said there's no way the Islamists can defeat us.  That the most they can do is annoy us or frighten us.  Stuck thinking 1st or 2nd generation warfare, when what's happening is way beyond him.

If John Robb is right in these two posts, we're in for a period that will end in either the financial collapse of the entire west or an almost-complete elimination of any freedoms.  Or both.  The only thing arguing against his point in the first link is that the Islamists don't seem to do that sort of thing.  They seem to only want to kill, not do the things that might get the reaction he talks about. 

I wouldn't dismiss John's ideas, though.  Both of those pieces are worth reading, and are fairly short.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Techy Tuesday - Learning FPGA Design is Getting Easier

This is definitely advanced level hobbyist stuff.

But first, I note that Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel and one of the titans of the explosive growth years for semiconductors, passed away yesterday.  Andy was 79.  The cause of death has not been disclosed.  Andy was open about his prostate cancer in the mid-90s, and was known to have had Parkinson's disease.  I used to think Parkinson's wasn't that bad to go through anymore, since the advent of treatment with L-Dopa, but a friend is going through this and changed my mind.  It's hell.  

Back to FPGAs.  What's an FPGA?  It's a Field Programmable Gate Array, and if that's not helpful, I can refer you to my Digital Design Primer, part II from May '14.  An FPGA allows a designer to replace a lot of discrete parts with one that they can configure as they want.  It takes digital design from slinging lots of parts on a printed wiring board to designing a single piece of silicon that does the same thing.  This reduces parts cost, assembly cost, allows the products to get smaller, and other benefits that folks keep paying for in their electronics.  As I say in that post, the world is full of cheap consumer devices like your GPS or cycling computer or dive computer or heart rate monitor.  That monitor is sold with a transmitter you wear, together for just over $100.  How do they make them so cheaply that they can be manufactured, put in a package and shipped halfway around the world for that price?  No, it's not by going to China (at least, not exclusively).  Designing for low cost is done by the design group, not by taking any old design and finding cheap labor to build it.

All of these improvements are things that Makers also want, though, and the barrier to hobbyists getting started working in FPGAs has always been that it's expensive and rather arcane knowledge.  FPGAs are designed by programming the logic in a computer language.  Once the code works in simulations on the computer, the piece of silicon can be programmed to do the functions that were desired, and it can be tested.  Say you have a Raspberry Pi or an Arduino and you have something you want to do that it can't do by itself.  Perhaps you just need a way to combine different outputs from the computer, or from a couple of computers, and treat them in special ways: "if this line goes high, and that one is low, I want it to do A, but if they're both high I want it to do B and if they're both low I want it to do C".  Maybe you can do that with a few combinational logic circuits.  Perhaps it's more involved.

As first reported in that May '14 piece, the FPGA makers are working to make the parts more accessible and easier to work with.  Design News reports this week on the trend of costs coming down and development getting easier.
“We’re seeing professional engineers -- graduates with master’s degrees and four or five years experience in industry,” Mark Jensen, corporate software strategy and marketing director for Xilinx, Inc., told Design News. “They call themselves Pro Makers. And they see that they can use FPGAs to build programmable robots and drones, then get crowd source funding, and create their own grassroots businesses out of it.”

The result is an odd convergence: a new class of makers, maybe not formally educated in FPGA programming, but smart enough to apply the new breed of simpler development kits in ways that no one has up to now. Some of the new makers are night owls, breathing life into their ideas when they return from their nine-to-five engineering jobs. Others are students – electrical and mechanical engineers alike – learning the technology while they complete a senior project or master’s thesis. They’re building an unusual assortment of mechanized devices – from self-balancing bicycles to robots that run like cheetahs – and they’re using FPGAs for intelligence.
Using FPGAs for intelligence?  Yes.  A microprocessor, after all, is a digital circuit.  The FPGA vendors include code libraries in their development kits, and a processor doesn't take up too much of a capable FPGA.  (There are big, expensive FPGAs and smaller ones, for smaller tasks).  The barriers to use have kept professionals from using FPGAs, too.  The parts had a reputation for being too "finicky".  The industry is moving to improve this (and sell more parts, duh!)
Now, however, that’s beginning to change, thanks to a proliferation of easier-to-use products that offer substantially lower costs. Krtkl, Inc., for example, now offers a crowdfunded FPGA-based board called snickerdoodle, which also features an ARM Cortex-A9 processor, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, starting at $55. Similarly, Enclustra GmbH markets its low-cost Qoobik, which features a Xilinx Zynq-7000 FPGA. Meanwhile, Trenz Electronic markets its ZynqBerry board that features a Zynq-7010 FPGA in a Raspberry Pi form factor. Other maker-type FPGA boards include MYIR Tech Ltd.’s Z-Turn , V3 Technology, Ltd.’s SNOWLeo and Diligent Inc.’s Arty Board. A growing number of those maker-targeted boards can be purchased for less than $100.

Such products represent a dramatic departure from the status quo. Traditionally FPGA-based system-on-module (so-called SOM) boards targeted at the industrial world were offered at prices ranging from $200 to $500 and up. Moreover, they were intended for a different class of user – one who may have had years of experience dealing with FPGAs.
You will recall that I mentioned FPGAs are configured for their use by writing software.  That means these development boards, at $100 or more, aren't even very good paperweights without the software (trust me, I've just spent 20 years designing entire radios that aren't good paperweights without the software).  They're giving away the development software.  For example, if you buy the Z-Turn board mentioned there, the software is linked just below the pictures. 
“The barrier for the maker community has been that a lot of FPGAs require specialized software, specialized hardware, specialized tooling and a knowledge of how to work with them,” Henrik Flodell, senior marketing manager for development tools at Atmel Corp., which markets a wide range of Arduino development boards for makers. “The reason they’re finally starting to proliferate in that market is that some of the barriers are now low enough for people to start playing with them.”

Atmel is meeting the needs of the community with ATF15XX-DK3-U , a development/programmer kit that supports the company’s ATF15XX family of complex logic devices (CPLDs), which are similar to FPGAs. The company also offers a free software tool called WINCUPL, aimed at helping designers get up to speed with its CPLDs.
(The Z-Turn board)

On the one hand, this is great for the hobbyist, and home projects.  It's great for the "midnight engineer" who gets home from work at Big Company and designs the Next Big Thing on the dinner table, then starts their own business.  On the other hand, it's just great business practice for the companies.  By getting products into the hands of the younger and less experienced engineers, they're getting them familiar with the products.  Like most people, when engineers are familiar with something that works, they're likely to buy one again when another project creates the need.  This is standard marketing for the most of the design software companies: they'll offer student versions of their software at very low prices, and push to get it used in the classrooms. When those students are working for a living, they'll tend to use or advocate for the software they're familiar with.  It's called a "trickle up" effect.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Laugh of the Day

According to the Mail (UK), we find that customers buying an "organic soap" bar for over $9/bar are finding it's a bit more natural and organic than they had in mind.  Or they didn't understand the meanings of those words.
These "Wiccy Magic Muscles Massage Bars", made by Lush Handmade Cosmetics, are studded with organic Aduki Beans, and made from ingredients including Shea butter, cinnamon leaf oil, peppermint oil and coconut oil.  Users are finding that the beans fall out of the bar after a little use and are starting to grow in their showers and other facilities.  And they're shocked.  Shocked!

A "PLANT GREW FROM IT"?  Blink... blink... Rachel, dear (May I call you Rachel? Thanks) SEEDS DO THAT.
In a hilarious thread posted on the Tumblr page S*** I See On Twitter, one amused social media user explained that they gained 'a little friend' to keep them company after they were given the massage bar as a present.

They said that once they had stopped using the product, the Aduki beans began falling out.

They then 'kept kicking' the leftover beans down the drain - only for a small plant to begin growing out the plughole days later.
Showing considerable decorum, Helen Ambrosen, Lush Co-Founder and Product Inventor, said, 'The results you get just go to show how fresh the ingredients really are.' Another spokesperson from the handmade cosmetics chain added: 'At Lush we love a refreshing shower and a healthy salad, but we agree that it's probably best to keep the two separate.'

The aduki bean seems more commonly known as adzuki, at least on this side of the Atlantic, and is widely used as a food in the orient and into Africa.  They're often eaten as sprouts, not quite as large as the plant in the second photo above.  The plants typically grow to two feet tall, although probably not in shower plugholes - as they say in the UK.

Podcast - Take 2

Episode 83 of the Gun Blog Variety Podcast is up. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Interest Rates Are Never Going to be Normal Again

Well, that may not be strictly true.  They're just not going to go back to being normal, market-driven rates until after the current system of rates set by fiat collapses.  The Federal Reserve will NEVER return interest rates back to normal on their own.

You may have heard a bit of buzz this week that the Market is now up for the year.  On Wednesday, the Fed said they were going to stay the course on the interest rate increases they ordered in December (while not raising them farther).  That was seen as positive sign to the markets and indices went up by the end of the week.

The problem is that the entire world the central banks have created is fake.  Why should a handful of technocrats, whether Janet Yellen and the Fed or Mario Draghi and the ECB, know better than the billions of decisions of the free market what the rates should be?  Figuratively, the Zero Interest Rate Policy of the last 10 years has been to the economy like keeping delicate plants in a temperature controlled greenhouse, pumping the air full of CO2 and the soil full of fertilizer.  Yes they'll grow, but if you remove the prodigious amounts of Miracle-Gro and CO2, they'll die back because they've grown bigger than can be supported in a normal environment.  They may simply die.

By analogy the financial "plants" that grew up in that ZIRP environment are grotesque mutants that require huge doses of liquidity, not liquid fertilizer.  They won't be able to survive a change of financial seasons.

What those financial plants need is a correction, just like actual plants need to be pruned back.  Market corrections are necessary for real free markets to work properly.  Excess debt must be purged out of the system. That’s what credit cycles, bankruptcies, and depressions are for.  “Normal” includes market corrections, but the feds can’t let it happen.  They've staked their lives and livelihoods on pumping up growth.  In a way, they're like court alchemists whose lives are on the line because they convinced the kings they can turn lead into gold and there hasn't been any gold forthcoming. 

Bill Bonner puts it this way:
In a normal, healthy economy, people work, save, invest, and build real wealth one dollar at a time. But today’s dollar is different. And the economy is different, too. It runs on credit, not real savings, and builds debt – not wealth.

Instead of encouraging savings – which is what you need to make progress – it penalizes thrift. Over the past 10 years, U.S. savers have lost nearly $8 trillion, extracted from them by the Fed’s ZIRP.

While savers were punished, borrowers were rewarded.

Since 1980, the U.S. economy has added about $50 trillion in excess debt – above and beyond the real output that can comfortably sustain it.

This $50 trillion came not from honest work and saving. Instead, it was conjured up by banks – out of thin air.

And now, the productive Main Street economy must pay interest… and principle… on that debt – effectively extracting real wealth from the real economy and sending it to Wall Street and other favored industries.

The scam is so elegant that not one person in 1,000 understands how it works. We’ve been studying it for years, and we’re still in awe. But the result is obvious: Honest working people struggle to stay in the same place, as real wealth goes to the elite.
I've been singing this tune since I started this blog in 2010.  The central banks are actively attacking savers - and probably literally killing some people trying to live on savings.  Their policies can no more create real growth in an economy than you can create more pizza by cutting the same pie into 16 slices instead of 12.  
Central banks destroy the real economy with cheap money and extractive policies. Then, as the economy slumps, they need to bring their policies in line with the slumping economy. They need to swear off raising rates back to normal.

And since their policies can never produce real prosperity, they can never produce an economy that can support normal interest rates.
Bonner concludes with...
Eventually, normal will make a comeback. But not because the Fed wants it. Instead, the markets will normalize – brutally ­– over the Fed’s dead body…

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Most Terrifying Phrase in Engineering: All You Gotta Do

I think that's so old a joke that every engineer, technician, mechanic or other person who actually does things has heard it.  It's right up there with, "what could go wrong?"

Before the antenna project was completely wrapped up, there were just a couple of things that had to be done.  The system uses a 2x4 to clamp the tower to the house bracket.  The 2x4 has two 1 5/8" holes cut in it to go around the tower legs.  It's pressure treated pine, but even that goes bad eventually, so I had to make a replacement.  Over the 25/26 years this system had been in place, I've done this a handful of times, and I know the drill.  I take the old one off, trace the layout of the holes for the legs on a new piece of 2x4, cut the holes for the legs out with a hole saw, then duplicate the placement of the small holes.  One set of holes is for the bolts that hold the wood to the angle iron house bracket, the other is a smaller set that passes lag bolts that hold the clamp together. 

All you gotta do is make a new one and put it up.

I did that Thursday morning, so all that was left in the afternoon was putting that in place and cranking the tower up.  I waited until it was past the hottest part of the day (it was in the upper 80s this week) and then the comedy of errors happened.  First, I swapped it end for end when I put it up.  You should have seen the cloud of Looney-Tunes style question marks over my head when I first got the tower back vertical and the legs didn't line up with their cutouts.  OK, all I gotta do is crank it back down, and turn the piece end for end.  No big deal.  Only the two bolts I used to attach it to the house bracket were 18-8 stainless, as all of my project has been, and one of them galled.  More like self-welded.  It took a half hour and every tool in the house but by using a half inch drive ratchet on one side and a half inch drive breaker bar on the other, I was eventually able to shear the 5/16" bolt off.  Now I flipped the board end for end and replaced that bolt and nut (I bought spares of everything) and rebuilt it with Teflon grease, which is supposed to help with galling.  Cranked the tower back up; this time it fit.  Put it all back together and got everything done for the next few years. 

This is a somewhat sloppy drawing.  I suspect that a couple of dimensions and angles are bit off, but it looks something like this (from above and to the left).  The 2x4 is in brown.
All's swell that ends swell, but it sure was a three Advil night. 

Friday, while cleaning up some mess I made Thursday and getting the shop ready for the next project, it occurred to me that I should check the antennas electrically to make sure I didn't barf something up.  I have a piece of radio test equipment (an AIM4170) that allows me to measure the quality of the antenna match over wide frequency ranges.  While not exactly the same as previous plots, they were close enough for me to think it was just the different environment from the last time I tested; dry season vs. rainy season.  Then I tested the other antenna I have, one that I didn't touch and didn't even get close to, except for the buried coax that goes to it.  That one is way off.  Once the passing rains are over, a bit more antenna troubleshooting and repair is in the future. 

All I gotta do is make some measurements, and decide what went bad.  What could go wrong? 

Friday, March 18, 2016

I Think the Summer of '68 is Coming

The rent-a-mob protesters who disrupted a Donald Trump campaign event in Chicago last Friday, a mob organized by MoveOn, Black Lives Matter, union groups, and their fellow George Soros funded groups, are promising a new version of a "Summer of Rage".  For now, they're calling it Democracy Spring.   They're threatening “civil disobedience on a historic scale” and to bring chaos to the primary season.
“This spring, in the heart of the primary season, as the national election begins to take center stage, Americans of all ages, faiths, political perspectives, and walks of life will bring the popular cry for change to Washington in a way that’s impossible to ignore: with nonviolent civil disobedience on a historic scale,” the movement’s website states.

“We will demand that Congress listen to the People and take immediate action to save our democracy. And we won’t leave until they do — or until they send thousands of us to jail, along with the unmistakable message that our country needs a new Congress, one that that will end the legalized corruption of our democracy and ensure that every American has an equal voice in government.”

The group vows to use marches, sit-ins and other forms of non-violent protests to make “this election a referendum on whether our democracy should belong to the People as a whole or to the billionaire class alone.”
Bill Ayers "Rules For Radicals" in action, right?  It's not like he's distancing himself from the protests; he was photographed and interviewed on video at the protests. 

Monica Crowley has an explanatory piece in the Washington Times, called "The Left Gets the Band Back Together for 2016" which gets it pretty well.
The radical left will never tolerate a disruption to its revolution to “fundamentally transform the nation.” When leftists detect pushback that threatens its grand project, they attack. And now, following their successfully orchestrated assaults on the Tea Party movement, Mitt Romney’s 2012 candidacy and conservative principles more generally, they are putting the band back together for another national tour.
That feeling that all liberty-loving people have gotten over the last 8 years that the country is systematically being taken away comes from the fact that the country has systematically been taken away.  They've been doing the taking and they're not about to accept the possibility of their progress being reversed.
The leftists must kill the counterrevolution as symbolized by Mr. Trump. This means using any and all tactics, including the heckler’s veto: mobilize the mob, deploy it as a weapon, and then use the threat of future violence to shut down events and smother dissent (as they did successfully with Mr. Trump’s Chicago event). They then blamed Mr. Trump’s policies and rhetoric for creating a hostile environment in which clashes were inevitable.

This is not about Mr. Trump or what he says or does. It’s not about the GOP. This is straight out of the Alinsky playbook: create chaos, blame the victim, stop free speech and advance progressivism. It was particularly pathetic to see some of Mr. Trump’s rivals and other conservatives blame him as well.
These groups are promising protests until they either get their way or they're all locked away (which, frankly, ain't gonna happen).  I hope the contradiction that a group calling itself "Democracy Spring" intends to get their way by shutting down the democratic process isn't being missed.  You may have seen the photo that Miguel posted at Gun Free Zone of one of the useful idiots with a Tee Shirt message, which I'll grab:
I'd like to ask the little useful idiot just exactly how she'll know who anyone votes for?  Since she can't know, the threat translates as, "if I think you look like someone who would vote Trump, we'll beat you". Someone who might vote for Trump?  Why, an angry white person!  Any one will do.  There have been several places where people have threatened that if Trump gets elected they'll start attacking whites everywhere.  Miguel has one from Twitter in his post.  I've seen them in several places. 

I recall the protests of '68 to some degree (it was almost 50 years ago after all), and I think these groups aspire to that sort of destruction.  Baltimore, Ferguson and other riots in the last year are rather reminiscent of the riots of '68.  The big question is whether they'll riot at the Democratic National Convention like in '68.  Actually, the only thing hasn't happened in this old-hippie-led rehash of the 60s is the assassinations.  That could happen at any time, and I frankly expect it.  Many of you have said the same. 
(From Dr. Crowley)

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Some Economic Fun Facts

Everybody is aware governments fund their spending orgies by selling bonds. 

According to The Economist Government Debt Clock, the total government debt issued by the world is $55.6 Trillion.  Those bonds are issued for different periods and in any given year, some reach maturity and go off the books, and new debt is issued.  In the last year, approximately $20 Trillion in new debt was issued.  Of that $20 Trillion, $7 Trillion is at negative interest rates.  That is, for around one third of all government debt issued last year, the buyers will pay for the privilege of loaning money to the issuing government.

Last October, I warned of a "coming crisis in subprime car loans". This week Newsmax reported delinquencies on subprime auto debt packaged into securities reached a high not seen since October 1996, as late payments continued to worsen in February, according to Fitch Ratings.

The number of car borrowers who were more than 60 days late on their bills in February rose 11.6% from the same period a year ago, bringing the delinquency rate to 5.16%, Fitch wrote Monday in a report. During the financial crisis delinquencies peaked at 5.04%, Fitch wrote.  Worse than the crash of 08/'09?  That's ... peachy.

Just a couple of interesting facts I ran across.  They're kind of grim.  You can decide how this factor will affect them.  
 Glenn McCoy, 3/9/16

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


Yesterday, I completed the antenna tower project I've been working on since December.  Around noon, I cranked the tower over to start doing the other odd jobs it needs, and those will take much less effort than everything up to this point.  Antenna maintenance is a regular, annual task.
This morning, I checked the antenna connections and the Coax Seal compound I had used (known in the biz as "monkey poop").  Everything was acceptable, but the seal was getting a bit oxidized and ratty looking.  I'm pretty sure that there would have been problems if they were up for another monsoon season and I was doing this next December.  

The house bracket (the dark horizontal line above the base of the tower) was partially inaccessible until the tower was down, so I didn't know if it would need work or not.  Thankfully, it didn't.  There was a little rust on the parts of the bracket I could see and knew about already, and all of that cleaned up pretty easily with a wire brush.  After wire brushing the entire bracket with a rotary brush in my cordless drill I sprayed the whole thing with a rust converter.  This needs 24 hours to cure (although I suspect our 87 degree afternoon will reduce that a bit).  Then I'll paint it white to match the house trim.  Meanwhile, I'll build a replacement for the two by four that clamps the tower to the house bracket.  By the time the white paint has cured, all the other antenna and ground wire maintenance will be done so I'll put the house bracket clamp on, crank up the tower and we'll be ready to rock and/or roll! 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Techy Tuesday - You Car Will Soon Be Watching You

As self-driving cars approach, one of the hurdles that must be crossed is that under some versions of the concept, the car will hand control back over to the driver.  Sort of a robotic version of, "I don't know.  You take it".

So what if the driver is catching some Zs, or reading a book, or engaged in something else that's distracting?  EE Times reports on one approach: optical recognition of the driver and detecting these things by watching the driver and passengers. 
The U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines vehicle automation in five different levels. Level 3 implies “Limited Self-Driving Automation.”

Under Level 3, (Roger) Lanctot said, “there is an implied need to monitor the driver to ensure he or she is available to/capable of taking control of the car as it transitions from automated driving back to being driven.”
So here's a functional reason to monitor the driver's alertness.  But you gotta know it won't stop there.
But beyond safety, and insurance companies with a vested interest in knowing how drivers drive, what can carmakers gain from monitoring drivers?

FotoNation’s Benmokhtar rattled off a few factors motivating carmakers to install a driver monitoring system. They want, for example, to build a car that knows the personal preferences of driver and passengers, so that the car can tailor comfort issues such as seat positions and entertainment content. Auto companies are also eager to design a car for ride-sharing or as a service. In either case, a car, for security reasons, should be able to identify the driver and authorize him or her to drive, while allowing the driver to pre-load choices in navigation and entertainment.
In the last few weeks, I've heard the idea floated around that at some point in the near future, we'll stop buying cars and instead arrange for a car to pick us up by appointment.  Kind of a driverless Uber; you schedule a car and it drives itself to the pickup point.  While I find that hard to imagine, it seems this is the intended market for those features.  After all, if you own the car, the ability to "tailor comfort issues such as seat positions and entertainment content" just doesn't seem that important; the seat will be where you left it.  It doesn't seem that important for a couple that shares a car, but in the "driverless Uber" concept, I can see it being important.  It sounds like the kind of idea they'd push for millennials, who are famous for wanting and having every detail of their lives personalized.  I recall stories that millennials were not buying cars in the numbers their parents and grandparents did, but I also see that's no longer the case. So that's increasingly not the market for this sort of system, either.

A major player in the optical recognition systems market is FotoNation.
But FotoNation believes eye-tracking/eye-gazing technologies come with limitations -- especially related to cost and implementation issues for OEMs and Tier Ones.

FotoNation claims a technology that can do away with high-cost cameras. “We can use a VGA camera – instead of a mega-pixel sensor – to track a driver’s head position/orientation,” which in turn helps determine eye location, said Benmokhtar.

Technically speaking, FotoNation’s system isn’t an eye-tracking system. Rather, it tracks heads. The technology tracks 50 points on the driver’s face, enabling the monitoring system to extrapolate eyebrows and even measure accurately how open or closed an eye is, according to the company.

Combined with other data points such as mouth opening (that indicates a driver is yawning) and head orientation (whether it’s nodding), the system can determine driver drowsiness, for example.
Beyond the simple monitoring of the driver, there's interest in 360 degree vision around the car, for collision avoidance and other situational awareness.  That's harder to disagree with than the car monitoring the driver. 

This monitoring raises lots of troubling questions.  Is there any expectation of privacy?  If you're in your personal car, I would think so, but what about in a driverless car you rent for a commute or trip home from the bars?  If there are other people in the car, do they get monitored as well?  What about the other people in the car's rights to privacy?  Is the data saved?  Is it uploaded to an insecure "cloud" server somewhere?  If it's your personal car, who owns the data?  The car maker, the driver, or someone else?  Does it become admissible in court?  

As I said the other day, it's a brave, new world, isn't it.

Monday, March 14, 2016

And Now For Something Completely Different

Well, maybe not completely different, but pretty darned different.

This week, and for the next three, I'll be guesting on Sean Sorrentino's Gun Blog Variety Podcast.  I'll be guest hosting the Tech Tips segment, about 10 minutes worth of talk.  I had never listened to this podcast before, but have now and it's aptly named.  It's a variety show.  It gets put up Sunday nights, so I should have actually posted this yesterday, but... I forgot!

The Barron, the usual tech tips host, needs some time off and we're expecting it to be four weeks.  It could possibly stretch out longer.  Sean needed someone to pinch hit and went to Borepatch who suggested me due to his being wrapped around the axle with his recent move, new job and all. 

I'll be talking about radio receivers, so the new part is that it's going to be on a podcast, not just writing here.  If you're interested, drop on by Sean's place and have a listen!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Wearable Electronics, the Internet of Things and Their Threat to You

A few days ago, Dark Reading, an industry Newsletter targeting IT & Security, had an interesting little piece, A Warning for Wearables: Think Before You Emote.  It's a little speculative, but not very far fetched.  The question: what happens when your Fitbit or other wearable electronics starts spewing information to the Internet that could be used against you?  Author John C. Havens notes a similarity that resonates with me:
Wearable data devices are the modern equivalent of blogs broadcasting directly to the Internet of Things. ... While [users] may not realize their data could be interpreted as inappropriate or breaking corporate confidences, unless they’ve updated their settings accordingly, that choice is not theirs to make.
Instead of blogs, they're more like Facebook or Twitter, or one of those places people post about what they're eating.  The thing is, they're broadcasting very personal biometric data or are capable of doing so.  He presents a possible scenario in which a person's Fitbit gets them fired.
Recently appointed EVP of Social Media for his top-ten PR firm – let’s call him Tom Delancey – assumed he'd been called to see his CEO for a holiday bonus. Having secured a choice article in Fast Company describing the company's forward-thinking approach to wearable devices and innovation, Tom assumed CEO Cheryl would be praising him for positioning the firm as a market leader to their clients. But upon closing the door to her swanky 30th floor corner office, Tom was in for quite a shock:

“You’re fired, Tom. In your Fast Company article you mentioned your innovation meetings with our biggest client happen every week on Thursdays during lunch. One of our competitors went on LinkedIn, identified everyone on your marketing team and their Twitter handles, and followed every tweet generated by their wearable devices. Using a pretty simple algorithm, they were able to correlate what the increase of people's heart rates and other data meant in terms of their mood. Apparently during last week's session something pretty bad happened near the end of the meeting, because everyone's data registered a spike in negative emotion.”

Tom's jaw dropped as his stress-sensing watch registered a massive increase in tension. He gasped as Cheryl turned her laptop on her desk so he could read an Ad Age article headline written in large type: “Delancey Debunked: Our New Client Finds the Off Switch for Quantified Employees.”

“Our new client?” asked Tom. “You mean...”

“Correct,"” Cheryl interrupted. “Our biggest client just fired our agency because you unintentionally broadcast the emotional and quantified data of your team. They didn’t have to say a word. Their data essentially said our client's new product sucks.”
Sound feasible?  It does to me.  Perhaps someone gets a wearable of some kind and neglects to set the privacy options properly.  Perhaps the device isn't secure enough, or not secure at all.  With just a little bit of competitive intelligence, I can imagine this happening. 

It seems to me that an even more likely prospect is the data from your wearables being demanded by the company and used by them against you.  Does your employer have a wellness program?  My last employer had one (I write about wellness more than I thought).  It started out asking for you to visit your doctor once a year and get screened for the things they deemed risk factors.  This was mainly the usual: blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, but also included points for seeing your dentist regularly.  Then they introduced numerical goals for all these tests.  Then they started punishing employees for not reaching those goals.  The same company made the facility non-smoking, so that smokers had to go outside, but didn't enforce break time rules as long as the smokers got their work done.  Then they made the entire campus non-smoking, requiring workers to go past the parking lot to the city sidewalks to smoke, and watching time and attendance more carefully.  They specifically said that smoking in your own car violated the company rules, which seemed like an awfully gray area.  Your car is your property. 

How big a step is it to think that a company like this might issue some sort of activity tracker to employees and punish them if they aren't doing the required amount of exercise while not at work?   

Havens notes:
It’s also important to start slow when building employee wellness or other programs utilizing quantified self tools, as Ken Favaro and Ramesh Nair point out in their excellent article, The Quantified Self Goes Corporate. Rather than focus on quick hits or flashy results like my fictional Tom Delancey, the authors provide a great description of what they call, the “quantified core; it is the enterprise equivalent of the ‘quantified self’ movement, the tracking of individuals’ health and daily life patterns for the sake of improving both.” This process demands buy-in from the C-suite with a broad understanding of what it means to improve employee well-being, including physical, emotional, and cultural sensitivities at any program’s core.
I'm aware of the quantified self/biohacking movement and consider myself a biohacker to some degree (I stop short of implanting or injecting things in myself).  To really tell if you're making improvements, you need data, which puts you into the quantified self camp.  Frankly, the idea of an employer monitoring me, deciding I'm not improving my health enough and even just financially fining me (which is what my last employer did), not to mention firing me, is awfully Orwellian.  

It's a brave, new world, isn't it.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

For Those Curious About How the Fix Came Out - Pic Heavy

Reference to the post showing my goof of a circular counterbore in a spacer (and the link is there for people who find this post some time in the future and don't know about it).

First, a little background.  The part is a spacer on the Y-axis of the milling machine that holds 24mm diameter ball bearings on both ends.  The two bearings are built from what looks from the outside like a washer on either end and a set of ball bearings in a frame (they can't fall out) between the washers.  The washers have a groove on them that the balls roll in.  Also, the bearing sets are not exactly the same size: the inner bearings have a slightly larger inner diameter hole than the outer bearings.  I screen-captured the block with the front bearings in place and the back parts of that bearing set in place on the shaft from the video provided on the CNC conversion DVD I'm using as my source.  Just to emphasize, what I'm machining is the red block.  It goes on the leadscrew shaft below it.

The reason for the .360" deep, .945" diameter counterbore is to hold these bearings.  It seems like the most important dimensions here are the depth of the counterbore and that the bore is in centered properly.  The slop in the outer ring seems more cosmetic than anything, since the races can't shift around and the ball bearings are also captive.  At one point in the video, Hoss says to make sure there's enough room for the washers to rotate in the bore to ensure they can rotate around the shaft.  I'm not sure how much slop there should be, but the bearings are said to be "24mm", which is 0.9449 inch and 0.945 is only 1 tenth (of a thousandth) bigger than that.  I'd imagine it could comfortably handle a few thousandths. 

Yesterday, I decided to see how the hole would work out with my corrected G-code, which should center the hole better, but leave the gap (Wednesday's goof), on the left side.  Everything was still in the same fixture from Wednesday, so I ran the corrected G-code.  (I spent Thursday watching all the videos on how this works - again).  That's when I realized I didn't have any way to measure that now oblong, weird hole, to make sure it was the right diameter.  I put that on hold and turned a piece of 1 1/2" aluminum bar down to 0.945, about half an inch long, as a homemade gage plug.  It didn't fit.  I noticed that while the circle was being cut, it would hesitate at the cardinal points.  If the 0 degree point was on the positive X-axis, it would pause - briefly but perceptibly - at 90, 180 and 270 degrees.  The 90 and 270 degree points were too tight and I could see the edge was actually too far in at those points - it wasn't a smooth circle.  I started trying to round them to shape with a half round file, and then realized I could put the end mill in position to smooth out those points and did that manually.  The plug then fit in place.  Right side:
and the boogered left side:
You will notice the right side isn't smooth and symmetrical either, and I'm not sure I know where that came from.  It must have come from one of my misguided attempts to fix things. 

Finally, I turned the block over to do the other side (it's dimensioned exactly the same), re-verified my 0,0,0 point, and ran the corrected code.  The plug didn't fit!  I was able to quickly determine that the milled circle was too small by around 10 thousandths radius - which is a pretty big error.  I then spent a little while closing in on this size by bumping the starting point to the right and extending the radius of the cut in the circle cutting command, enlarging the circle.

In the "lessons learned" department, I noticed several things about my existing CNC system while doing this that I need to investigate.  Even though it was in aluminum, a relatively soft metal, cutting this circle at 5 IPM (inches per minute) resulted in a rougher circle than feeding at 2.5 IPM.  The top side was initially cut at 10.  By the sound of the motors, nothing is getting bogged down at 10.  Yes, it sounds like it's under heavier load at 10 than 5, but I didn't think it was enough load to make a difference.  I think one explanation for the irregularity of the circle could be backlash, and it might be good to re-check and re-verify all the settings I have previously entered into Mach3, my machine controller.  Another explanation is that the Sherline is a light duty machine, much lighter duty than the one I'm building will be.  It might be that during some cuts, there was enough flex in the machine that the cutter wasn't where it should have been.  In that "Left side" picture in the middle up above, there's a big, obvious, circle that's obviously deeper and possibly even wider than the track it was cutting.  This is where I stopped the path, seeing it was very wrong, and the different depth there is from the cutter simply sitting there and spinning before I commanded the motor to go up and get the cutter out of there. That sounds to me like perhaps the Z-axis is settling down, letting it's compression out like taking the load off a spring, while everything  else sat there.

The biggest lesson learned of all is that I probably should have put this in the four-jaw chuck and cut the center hole and counterbores on the lathe.  I didn't do that because going between machines means losing the alignment, and I wasn't sure how to index from the middle of the hole.  Right now it doesn't seem like a big deal.  I'd just put it on the mill and set it up the way I did this time. 

Hope this is useful to someone!

Friday, March 11, 2016

Tales From the Over Regulated State # 20 - Concierge Bureaucracy Managment

Thanks to Chris Muir at Day By Day Cartoon, I find a link to a topic I've been talking about for quite a while in a deep article by Skipsul at Ricochet: Cartels and Concierge Bureaucracy Management.  The author begins by recounting a story heard on NPR's Planet Money about a Concierge Bribery business in India and goes on to link it to things going on here.

My opinion, and I know I've expressed it here many times (sample), is that the continuing mandates from government agencies are destroying full time employment as we've always known it.  It's not just the Federal government, but states, counties, local - all of them - that are increasingly adding regulatory burdens.  The load being put on companies is getting so odious that the companies respond by not hiring full time employees any more, simply hiring self-employed contract workers.  Skipsul points out that these regulations have resulted in the development of companies who exist to help employers handle the regulatory overload.  Skipsul starts by talking about how Obamacare is ravaging the medical profession and industry and forcing one man practices to fold and join into the creation of big practices, which he calls medical cartels.  I assume the description means that these regional cartels control most of the medical practice (including pricing!) in an area.   He then enlarges the view.
The complexities of complying with the myriad kludges of federal, state, and local income taxes, payroll taxes, workers’ comp systems, and unemployment taxes have already driven most employers to contract with specialized firms for handling payroll. Only larger corporations have the budget to acquire and maintain the complicated accounting packages for running payrolls internally, so most smaller companies have, for years, offloaded this work on companies such as ADP or Paychex. With every added employee comes a new set of filings, and more potential for error. Just within my own company, we have have employees from two states and seven different local taxing jurisdictions, each of which has its own income tax, to be submitted on its own form, and by its own arbitrary deadlines. Say what you will about the virtues of federalism, each of those various towns, cities, and counties is a petty fiefdom unto itself, and all must be paid whether I actually do business there or not.
In short, businesses in America run a gamut of risks to their well-being, and the laws and regulations today put them, almost by default, on the hook for actions that in another time would have fallen on individual actors. And just as Obamacare has driven the medical industry into cartels to cope with the bureaucracy, so now general employers now are consolidating their employee pools for protection. The payroll firms of old are now changing into something new: The Professional Employment Organization, or PEO.

The PEO is the logical extension to outsourcing payroll processing. The way a PEO works is simple: A business shifts its employees from direct employment to the PEO. The business then no longer directly employs anyone, but contracts its employees back from the PEO — for a fee, of course. In return, the PEO not only assumes the administration of payroll, but handling of benefits, the creation of HR policy, and all of the overhead thus entailed. The PEO, being effectively a national employer, can offer health and retirement benefits that my own little company cannot possibly offer, and liability concerns shift as well. The PEO is the ultimate concierge service in employment. However, PEOs are by their nature employment cartels, consolidating the employment pool into just a few firms.
The concept of the PEO isn't new: think of old companies like Manpower or Kelly Services, agencies where an employer can hire temporary workers for specialized positions.  The field has existed for decades, but Skipsul puts it this way:
I was informed by one PEO that PEOs in general have seen their employee pool grow nationwide by 15-20 percent per year since Obamacare was shoved down our throats (prior to that, their main markets were in the usual lefty bastions of California, New York, and Illinois). This is an alarming trend, not because the PEO concept is somehow wrong in itself, but because it is a sign that even small businesses are now economically unable to keep up with the burden of our government. ... Just as small medical practitioners have found themselves driven into large regional medical cartels, so now American businesses are finding themselves drawn to employment cartels.
I recommend you read the whole thing.  It's not much longer than this.  This is the Law of Unintended Consequences writ large, as it pertains to the ever growing government Hydra (cut off one head, two more grow back); the over regulated state.  Create a law to protect company retirement plans from being raided and fewer companies offer them.  Create a host of laws to protect workers from firing, and companies respond by hiring contractors for entry level jobs; contractors that can be dropped at will; as one engineering director once colorfully described it to me, "contract engineers are like toilet paper... use 'em and throw 'em out".  Create laws saying health care insurance must cover everything imaginable, from preventive exams and flu shots to sex change and treatment for substance abuse, and then recoil in horror at the increased premiums and outrageous deductibles. 

The world of full-time work for a corporate employer is ending - it has already ended for many.  I can imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when there will be a handful of large corporations with full time employees, and everyone else will either work for a small PEO, or will be self-employed by contract to small and mid-sized corporations.