Archive for the ‘Tech’ Category

Things to Come

The horrific end to my first go at fluid mechanics has shifted my graduation back an entire year. At first this seemed to be a crippling blow, but more careful analysis reveals that it is probably the best thing that could have happened. Instead of killing myself with six engineering courses in a single term, I will finish school without having to take more than two classes a semester. My GPA could use the help a lighter load will provide. A lighter load will also let me tackle some personal projects I have in mind. What are those projects you might ask?

Project 1: Digital Hydrometer

An Arduino based project to determine the specific gravity of a fluid is first on my list of things to do. No longer do I have an ounce of faith in my analog hydrometer, and instead of doing things the easy way I intend to apply some of the years of science I have studied to build a better mousetrap. This will include a datasheet with my calculated uncertainty for specific gravity values, and a calibration mode to verify that my calculations are as relevant as possible. I may include some memory features to store previous S.G. values (and temperatures) in order to present the calculated percent alcohol by volume.

Project 2: Darkroom Rebuild

The powers that be have required the deconstruction of my darkroom to facilitate the renovation of the vanity area it had occupied. Redesigning, rebuilding, and upgrading the darkroom in a standalone structure is on my list of things to do. This will have to be a carefully planned build, as I do not intend to have to go back and reinvent the wheel again when I move to my own place. Modular construction will be key, though maintaining a well insulated and light tight modular structure will present some challenges. If I am going to build another darkroom it will include a much larger sink area, and one capable of serving as a thermal bath to maintain appropriate temperatures in my development chemistry. I anticipate the use of  an Arduino based control system inside the darkroom as well. As it stands the timer for my enlarger is an Arduino project I need to re-code, creating more control systems shouldn’t be difficult at all.

Project 3: Lagering Fridge

There is already an undesired freezer in the house, and it would do nicely to serve as a lagering or cold-conditioning closet for my beer. As a bonus, if it lives in the darkroom shed, it could also store my paper and film. Its refrigeration cycle could also be used to reduce temperature in the development thermal bath with some creative plumbing and of course another Arduino control circuit. In fact, running the temperature controls for both systems in a single device should not be rocket science at all. I may even be able to fit the AC requirements of the shed into the same Arduino sketch and have a one-stop shop for temperature control of three different systems.

Project 4: Automated Brewery

One day this will happen. It may end up a senior design project, or it may just be something I tackle on my own. My goal is to increase my extraction efficiency and maintain a system that allows for precise control of my mash temperatures whether I do a single step infusion mash or use protein rests and the like. Brewing is fun, but sometimes I just want to set and forget. As of this moment I am unsure exactly how much of the process I wish to automate, but there is a lot I certainly want to actively monitor and control. Arduino may be the way I go, but I could also see a Raspberry Pi or perhaps my old Soekris net4801 pulling the control systems lifting.

My intention is to have completed each of these projects before I can finally, after way too much education, claim to have completed a degree. Stay tuned.

It’s a keeper

A week of solid use has me convinced that the Kindle Fire was a worthwhile purchase. While it hasn’t displaced any of my textbooks yet, I was able to cut my laptop out of the mix for the week. The courses I’m taking right now are not computationally intensive on the scale where I need to write anything in MATLAB to solve equations. Wolfram Alpha has been sufficient for my needs thus far. I’m able to keep up with news, friends, and entertainment very easily.

Now, this device has cost me a good deal more than the $200 initial cost. The ease of integration with Amazon’s multitude of online stores makes purchasing things a little too easy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Between 2001, when I graduated high school, and the day before my Kindle fire arrived I probably bought somewhere on the order of 10 books of my own choosing (read: not textbooks). I’ve purchased eight books in the last week alone. My classical music collection was leaving a lot to be desired, and two classical collections were purchased to address that problem. Somehow, in all of my years of Apple use I never once purchased anything from iTunes. A week with the Kindle Fire, and I have to exercise restraint for the sake of my credit card.

A day with the Kindle Fire

After a few reviews were out in the wild, I decided it wasn’t too much of a risk to pull the trigger on my own Kindle Fire. This should be prefaced with the fact that I see no point in tablets. I have computing ADD – if I’m using something that purports to be a computer it’d better be able to multitask its face off. Fortunately, the Kindle Fire seems to be marketed more as an eReader with some mobile entertainment features and not as a laptop replacing tablet. My intentions with this device are simple: reduce the weight of my backpack by purchasing engineering textbooks digitally. As an Amazon Prime member, the free content offerings from Amazon are a nice benefit. The question is, will this device do what I want it to do well enough that I feel like I didn’t blow $200 on something I won’t use?

A solid day of use may have provided some insight into my last question. Books that are published as print reproductions, which as far as I can tell is marketing speak for low-resolution image exports of page layouts, may not be of any use at all on the Kindle Fire. Magazines published this way are certainly not worth a second glance – full zoom fails to yield text that is in any way a joy to read. Viewing PDFs of lecture slides is not a problem, and for the last several semesters that’s how most of my required material has been delivered, so at least there’s that. Publications that actually take the time to format their content for mobile devices are excellent. While I’ve never used an original Kindle, and can’t comment on the differences, I will say that using Kindle-specific content is very enjoyable. Two such publications are Science News, and The New Yorker. The latter is delivered through a standalone application, rather than the Newsstand, but offers several features that make content consumption more dynamic for the user – namely the inclusion of links to multimedia content which the Kindle Fire happily plays. The former populates the Newsstand, and reads much like a Kindle eBook.

Kindle Fire

As far as the other features are concerned, the Kindle Fire seems plenty capable of handling most light tasks pretty well. Silk, the browser Amazon spent so much time talking about, is kind of a dud in my opinion. It’s certainly not the fastest browser I’ve ever experienced. It loads pages though, and renders most things pretty well. The browser does seem to report as computer rather than a mobile device, leading to some pages coming up in a less-than-ideal format. The Amazon Appstore leaves a lot to be desired, for instance Dropbox is not available. Fortunately, you can get the apk directly from Dropox and it functions just fine. Anyway, it’s not going to replace my desktop by any means. My laptop will still be coming with me in the event I need MATLAB or any of the other major software suites I have installed on it. For light browsing, chatting, video, audio (through headphones, the speakers aren’t that great), and the obvious Kindle features I think this device will work just fine for me. Your mileage may vary.

Maybe I wired it backwards?

Update: No maybe about it, the diode was backwards. Resoldered that part of the circuit and all is well.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have little to no idea what I’m doing when electrons are involved. I’m a mechanical engineering major for a reason. Forces, heat, work, and power? That all makes sense. EMF, circuits, and all of that jazz? Voodoo magic.

That said, I’ve embarked on a project to build a digital timer. It’s definitely not my design, as I wouldn’t have even known where to start, but I found it here. I’ve made a few small changes to where I’m running the power, but nothing has changed (intentionally) with the circuits on the PCB. Sparkfun shipped me the wrong LCD, so I really don’t even know if there’s anything going on at all. I suspect something isn’t wired properly though, as no combination of button pressing will close the relay. If I power up the microcontroller, and then touch the wire connected to the base of the transistor to the end of the diode with the stripe on it the relay closes. If I touch the opposite end of the diode I get nothing. So that makes sense, I’ve scribbled on some photos to identify what’s going on.



CM7RC2 = New life into the Aria

To be completely honest, I hated Cyanogen Mod 6 in its latest releases. The battery life on my HTC Aria got progressively worse with each upgrade. Before flashing CM7, I was lucky to make it 9 hours on a full charge. Yes, I wiped my cache and did everything else to eliminate the typical issues. No, none of it worked. Enter CM7RC2, and life is good. Sure, they added more shiny in Android 2.3. How could they not? Modern development seems to focus mostly on the shiny elements of computing rather than the functional ones. Google certainly isn’t immune to that, nor are the devs hacking away at custom ROMs. At least this one works, and works well (for now).

MMS woes, and a solution.

Chances are if you’re on AT&T and you’ve ever had someone on Verizon try to send you a photo via MMS, you’ve experienced failure. Maybe you’re a Verizon customer and you thought you’d send a photo to someone on AT&T only to find yourself wondering why you never got a response. I could see how, if the ducky-face, a mirror, and your cutest new purchase from Victoria’s Secret was involved, this might cause some self-esteem problems. Worry no more, dear children of the cellpic generation, it isn’t you – it’s your carrier.

What exactly it is about the carrier I’ve not figured out. Chances are I won’t bother figuring it out either. The solution, it seems, is to make sure if you’re on VZW and you’re trying to MMS someone on AT&T that your message includes a subject and some caption text in addition to the picture. My fifty-something message trial today was met with a 100% failure rate on MMS sent from VZW users. When I asked the senders to try again with a subject and text the messages came through as expected.

Don’t you just love easy fixes?

Now, if you’re using an iPhone 4 and your MMS messages are being eaten by the evil data monsters – try resizing the pictures to fit under the 600k limit. Every other phone on the planet it does that automatically, but yours doesn’t.

First Impressions – HTC Aria

More than two years ago, I stepped off an airplane at Lawson Army Airfield after 14 months in Iraq. My first destination off post? Anywhere I could find an iPhone. Since I’d just returned from a lengthy deployment, money was no object. Full retail? Not. A. Problem. Two months later the problems started. Regret took a back seat to my out-processing from the Army and my return to civilian life. When that primary objective was complete, I tried to get the iPhone replaced. Luck was not on my side, and neither was Apple. That bad experience came to an end yesterday when I picked up my new phone. Enter the HTC Aria.

HTC Aria and iPhone 2G

HTC Aria and iPhone 2G

The first thing I noticed about this particular phone was the tiny size. In the smartphone arena it certainly won’t be compared to Goliath. It comes in physically smaller, as illustrated above, than the iPhone 2G by around half an inch (on its longest side). If you pop the backing off, which is a little difficult the first time, you gain access to the SIM card, microSD card, and battery of the device. Screen size and resolution are not going to win any contests either, but they’re well balanced and certainly allow for an enjoyable experience with both text and multimedia content. In the upper right side there is a power button, and on the left a volume rocker. The small circle at the bottom of the phone’s face is an optical trackpoint. Touch sensitive regions along the bottom of the screen are present for the home screen, menu, back, and search functions.

Using the phone is quite simple. Anyone who has ever used an iPhone should be able to pickup the use of this Android phone very easily. I spent most of yesterday trying out different apps and reconfiguring my theme. At no point was it ever confusing. Unsurprisingly, the applications from Google work flawlessly on the Android OS. Navigation is awesome. The integration with Google Voice, Gmail, and GTalk is equally excellent. While the Android Marketplace lacks the sheer volume of applications found in Apple’s AppStore, I was able to quickly find applications do to exactly what I wanted to do. Not a single one of them cost me a dime either. To Apple’s credit, I never paid for an iPhone app either.

Battery life is the one negative comment I’ve read. The Aria certainly does not have the largest capacity battery on the market. It does well with the battery it does have though. As of this writing my phone has been on, and active, for more than six hours. It still has more than 70% charge remaining. Now, I’m not one to sit around and use my phone all day to do things for which an actual computer is better suited so perhaps I’m not as picky as others. That said, if I can make it through my time away from home in a any given day while maintaining the means to communicate with others I’m happy. This phone fits the bill.

Flickr Slideshow

Youtube Video

Apple != Quality

If you’ve somehow convinced yourself that Apple is some paragon of quality in the computer world you should stop reading now. Back in 2006, I converted to the Apple camp by purchasing a 15″ Core2Duo Macbook Pro. Shortly thereafter, I took that same laptop with me to Iraq. In the event one or more of my soldiers found themselves needing a laptop to borrow, I also brought my trusty old Fujitsu Lifebook P5020D.

Somewhere around two months into that tour, I started noticing hardware problems with the MacBook Pro. The screen was incredibly dark in the middle. This was especially true at startup. My FW800 drive would randomly disconnect. More often than not, the SuperDrive proved it was not so super after all. It lived a sheltered life, given the conditions. My P5020D was subjected to very harsh treatment, just as it had in many training exercises and even my first tour. The MacBook Pro got worse, the Fujitsu kept on ticking.

Apple was kind enough, when I got home, to replace the logic board, the super drive, and the screen. A few months later they got to do it all again. A few months after that I spilled a beer in the machine and finally killed it for good. Truth be told, I was more upset about losing a third-pint of a very excellent Texas-brewed springtime seasonal ale than I was the problem MacBook Pro.

Unfortunately, I had recently photographed a wedding and still needed to process those photos. Given the circumstances, I needed a new machine immediately. Since my Creative Suite 4 license was for Mac, and I had backed my MacBook Pro up a few hours before I killed it, another Mac was the clear choice. A few short days later I took delivery of a shiny new 24″ Core2Duo iMac. I was very impressed with its speed, and the screen.

My love affair with the screen ended after maybe six months. It took several more months for the burn-in problem to get to the point I could no longer tolerate it at any level. Even doing homework was becoming a chore when anything left on the screen longer than two minutes would stay around as an outline even after the window was closed. Thank goodness for AppleCare.

The kind people at the Genius Bar were skeptical of my claim of an LCD with image burn-in. That’s just not supposed to happen. My demonstration took about five minutes, and they agreed I needed a new screen. Fast forward a few days. My screen problems have been replaced with a new problem. Something did not get put back together correctly, as it now sounds like my computer is trying to take flight off my desk. It’s louder now than it was before with all fans at top speed because of heavy use. The noise is there immediately. I am not amused.

Before anyone jumps in with “well PCs fail more often” I’ll remind you of a few things: #1 Macs are PCs. #2 I worked for an AASP, and we had just as many Mac machines dropped off for repairs (hardware) or reconfiguration (software) as we did anything else.

Update: I had the “about to take flight” noises fixed. The Geniuses determined a sensor had broken during the screen replacement. That happened maybe three weeks ago. Burn-in is back in town now. That was a short life for this screen. What’s most annoying about these problems is that I need the screen real-estate for both my studies and my photography. Having downtime is not only killing my ability to effectively get my schoolwork done, it cuts into my ability to process any photoshoots (which happen to be my only source of non-VA income).

Click the above to load the Flickr page, see the notes describing the burn-in patterns – and get a link to the full resolution file. There’s one spot of dust on the sensor for my 5D and the screen’s surface is spotless. Those lines/marks are all inside the panel.

All-Grain Brewing Station

This is getting way ahead of myself, since my first brew is only 46hrs into primary fermentation, but that has never stopped me before. Anyhow, I ultimately want to be able to do all-grain brews. There’s nothing that would keep me from doing extract brews in an all-grain setup, I’d just use less of the equipment on the bench. Sounds like a deal to me.

After reading countless threads over at, I came up with an idea or three for my own setup. Gravity is cheapest to construct, since no pumps are involved. Probably easier to sanitize too. The problem I see is vertical height. I’d like to be able to do everything without a ladder, or having several gallons of very hot water above my head. A single tier system looks awesome, but requires a few pumps and valves. These are not cheap, and present some hurdles in the sanitizing realm. I’m sure sanitizing is not all that difficult, since a ton of people brew a ton of beer in their very own single tier systems, so I am not too concerned about introducing a pump, or valves, to my setup. Money is the big issue here.

What I’ve come up with is a two tier system, with the HLT (hot liquor tank) and MLT (Mash/Lauter Tun) on the upper tier, and the brew kettle on the lower tier. I plan to use one pump, with a manifold on the intake and output to let me switch between input/output destinations. One input will pump from the HLT and output to the MLT. I’ll valve the HLT input shut, and open the MLT input to circulate until sparging time. Gravity will feed the post-sparge sweet wort into the brew kettle, which will input into the pump again for a trip through a crossflow cooler and into a carboy for the yeast pitch and primary fermentation.

I’ve not yet made enough progress in Google Sketchup, a few of its features are driving me batty, to show all the components just yet. What I do have, is below.

Sketchup rough draft

Rough Draft

Sketchup rough draft

Rough Draft

Any feedback from folks that have done this before is definitely welcome.

Kawasaki Ninja EX250 – “Death Rattle”

My friend Colby bought a barely-running EX250 to tinker with, and ultimately turn into a bike for care-free track days. Since I have absolutely nothing else to do right now, I invited him over to spin some wrenches. Spin them we did. For many hours. In vain.

Long story short, something screwy was going on with the spark plugs. They’d been changed already, but apparently they needed to be changed again. A new set I picked up today, fired the bike right up. The noises coming out of the engine are not supposed to come out of an engine, unless you just put a round of .50BMG through it.

Looks to me like Bumblebee needs a new engine.

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