Shocking development…

Well, not really shocking but certainly annoying. Perhaps some indication of my cognitive decline?

Last night I noted that our TV and amplifier (which drives our sound system, and serves as output for the TV, our Roku, AirPlay, and Bluetooth, etc… was off. It usually sits is a “sleep” state as modern electronics do, but they each have an LED somewhere that tells you they are still “on”. Well they were off. I had a look at the power strip behind the furniture where they plug in and toggled the switch. No juice. Went out the garage to check the breakers and sure enough, one has tripped. It is labeled “lights bedroom” which is unhelpful, so I went back in after resetting the breaker and everything was “on” again. I popped my head into the back bedroom which is now my office and the room where the wine collection is housed. Everything seemed fine. I stepped out and thought I’d poke at Netflix and see if something I’d been wanting to watch is available. I find the thing and it is doing that annoying Netflix thing where it auto-plays under the display screen and “pop” the TV & Amp (and Roku, AppleTV, et al) turn off again. I poke my head in my office and sure enough the light switch just flips. No light. OK, so the label is half right. Clearly the bedroom in the NW corner is on this circuit, but so is the wall it shares with the bedroom. My laptop is still running on battery but all the external HDDs have been unmounted because the power is out, so I know my nightly backups are going to fail if I allow this situation to continue.

I slip into troubleshooting mode.

This setup has been running just fine for over a year. I haven’t added any additional load to this circuit. Perhaps some component has a fault and is causing the breaker to open? That’s my theory so I first find some extension cords and power strips to run from other parts of the house to the items on this circuit. I head out the the garage and grab a few (I also stumble upon the power cord for my time-lapse rig in a box out there! Happy dance! I love little coincidences like that. I’ve been wracking my brain to locate that item for over a year!) I reset the breaker, which I note is a 15 amp one, and head in to start unloading the circuit. I start with the TV/multimedia setup. I run a power strip to relocate all of its plugs. Shortly after I power them all up the circuit breaker opens again. I know this because the bedroom light goes off and I hear the wine cooler shut off. A metaphorical light bulb goes on above my head and I think “maybe the compressor of the wine cooler has gone bad?” Thankfully it is closing in on Winter and my office is wine cellar temp anyway, so I wander in with a flashlight and pull the wine cooler’s plug, head out to the garage to reset the breaker. Back in my office I’m already starting to unplug all my external hard drives to get them off the circuit when the lights go out again. I’m getting frustrated. It takes a few trips back and forth from my office to the garage (at opposite ends of the house) to get the whole of my desk and its devices onto an extension cord coming from the bathroom.

Several attempts continue to the point where I’m CERTAIN there is nothing on this circuit but the ceiling light fixture, and the breaker continues to open at random times. Now I’m angry. Well, perhaps exasperated is a more accurate term. I finally give up, leaving the wine cooler unplugged and head to bed, now a full two to three hours later than I usually head to sleep.

This morning, after sleeping on it I’m mulling over in my head what might be going on. There is a sharpie mark right next to the 15 amp breaker in the garage so I’m starting to suspect that this breaker has a history with the previous owners of the house. Two other breakers have similar marks, so it’s turning into an “oh crap, I’m going to be hiring a professional electrician to sort this out at some point aren’t I?” scenarios. Ugh.

As I’m wrestling with all the data, troubleshooting, and theory around in my brain I’m making myself my morning hot cocoa. Linda walks in and tells me “The water for the red mares* is all frozen over this morning. The tank heater you installed yesterday isn’t working.”

OF COURSE! I used an extension cord from the water feature off our back patio out to there pasture where *Linda has been fostering two horses for a local animal rescue operation. They have been quarantined away from our barn and her other animals, so we have rigged up a temporary enclosure for them. It has been impossible to keep their water from freezing so I went to a hardware store and ran a cord from our backyard to run a tank heater. The tank heater is a borrowed one and it strong enough to keep our pond from freezing. Overkill for a 200g tank for sure, but what we had available.

I noted a 20 amp breaker in the panel in the garage labeled “water fountain & Xmas” which I assumed was you know… for THE WATER FOUNTAIN! (and some outlets under the eaves clearly for Christmas lights) Obviously the labels on our panel are a series of lies and misinformation! I step outside and sure enough, the water feature is silent and mostly frozen. I never thought to check it last night, because I foolishly believed what the labels on the panel said. Sigh.

I walk out and unplug the tank heater from the outlet that runs the water feature’s pump, then go close the breaker and of course the everything comes on again. The most important bottles of the wine collection are now safely resting in their temperature-controlled little world again.

Today my to-do list includes finding a lower-power-draw tank/bucket heater for our temporary equine residents. We only need one that pulls a few amps, as opposed to the borrowed one that can warm a pond.

And of course undo all my troubleshooting extension cord mess.

What were they thinking?

Engineering Idiocy. I know I’m late to this particular party, but I had not encountered this until today. Several years ago, after picking us up at the Houston airport, Linda was riding in the rear seat of my father’s BMW 535i, and casually said “Charlie, I love your car. If you ever think about selling it, I’ll buy it from you.”

Long story short, we bought the car from my mom not long after he passed away last summer. We drove it home last autumn, where it spent most of the winter parked in my shop as it isn’t really an ideal winter car. For that we drive her old Subaru.

This 5-series is several years old, but has very low miles. We literally doubled the odometer driving it from Texas to Oregon. It is likely overdue for an oil change in time more than distance. I looked up the oil required and bought two large jugs of it yesterday. I had stocked up on filters from BavAuto (R.I.P.) soon after we bought it. I opened the hood in the shop to be presented with…


I recall lots of complaints in Roundel (the BMWCCA magazine) about this issue back when BMW started doing this, but I didn’t give it much thought.

So I was sort of stuck. The owners manual doesn’t list the engine oil capacity(!) and everything BMW presents you with basically says “bring it to the dealer for oil changes”… grrr.

I’ve been changing my own oil since I was a teenager. It was the first thing I learned about automotive maintenance. For me it is almost a therapeutic action. It is good for the car, it is good for me. I drive away with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. But now I’m just confused.

Thankfully I have the Internet. The Internet tells me I need 6.5 Liters of oil for this engine. Typical of how I’ve always done this I’ll fill it a bit short of what should be “full” and then top it off in small increments to avoid overfilling the engine.

However without a dipstick, there is no way to actually do this. To measure the engine oil you have to be in the car and use the onboard computer. Not only that, the car has to be on level ground, engine on, and UP TO OPERATING TEMPERATURE. ????

This is sort of stupid. I let the oil drain out overnight. The engine is cold. In fact it got below freezing last night, so the engine is about as cold as it will ever be. I feel stupid starting a cold engine with at least a half a liter short of the correct amount of oil… then letting it idle for long enough to warm it up.

The dipstick is a perfectly adequate tool for this task. It takes seconds to measure oil levels with a dipstick, and it poses ZERO risk to the engine to use it. While I’m not really scared of damaging this car, doing this for the first time ever does make me feel… mild trepidation mixed with annoyance for some engineers in Munich.

So here I KNOW I shorted the amount by 500ml, so I expect the car to tell me to add that after I perform the check…


Now I’m REALLY annoyed. How can I trust this thing? It’s like those temperature gauges they program to stay right in the middle unless something really bad is happening. I know I’m 500ml short, but the car tells me “I’m at 100%” (note the lack of actual measuring units).

I guess I’m going to have to check often to see if it changes.

So happy that all the other engines I care for have dipsticks.

Imagine what we can do!

Perhaps the finest achievement of mankind, other than the chairlift of course, is the silicon transistor & integrated circuit. When you process it at a base layer we have taught rocks how to think.


Place that now smarter rock into a powered device, with input/output systems, storage, memory, and a connection to all the other thinking rocks we’ve created and the potential is truly unlimited. I get very excited when I think about all we have created and my very small role in making it all happen.

Imagine what we can do!

Then I go out into the world and look around, only to see my fellow humans using these amazing devices…

…to play solitaire.


Welcome to Hell, please take a number…

We flew from central Oregon to Colorado to visit my parents for the holidays. We (reluctantly) flew United, as our preferred carrier (Alaska) had no available flights for the trip. United has never failed to fail me every time I’ve flown them. This time was no exception: Sue had all her prescription medicines stolen from our baggage. I have no idea if it was UAL or TSA at fault here, but I’m now in the complaint process with both. It is sure to be a Kafkaesque journey.

Twitter as a Marketing tool: Failure

Twitter Marketing Failure

Twitter is an amazing communications channel. It serves to maintain several types of communications. Here’s how I use it:

  • Keep a sort of running conversation going with my friends, many of whom are literally scattered around the globe.
  • Follow news, as it is shared and interpreted by friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.
  • Gain insight into things I’m interested in, such as Datacenters, the Network Operations side of the Internet, Web Hosting, Cloud Computing, Technology news, Apple, the Automotive Industry, Collector Cars, Photography, and the Pacific Northwest.

At work we use Twitter as an out-of-band comms channel with our customers. We post notifications of scheduled maintenance, new support blog posts, and real-time updates when there is any sort of an issue going on within our facility, such as UPS maintenance.

Twitter is great for items that are “important now” like that. Where I have seen Twitter consistently fail, is marketing to new customers via responses. Usually this is a Twitter API driven “bot” (automated software) that responds with a pat bit of sales-speak to any Tweet that makes mention of them, their product/service, or posts a URL that links to them in any way.

The image above is an example of one such miserable, fail-prone auto-replies. I posted a URL pointing to an article on TechFlash, which is a local news blog, covering the Seattle-area technology & business beat. The article in question pointed out the irony of a local Tech Exec, being swept up in a long-term criminal investigation concerning suspected organized crime involved in a Seattle strip club. The exec in question committed perjury with regard to having “Clintonian” relations with a stripper at said club. The irony of course was the same exec’s on-stage demo of their software which allows people to perform background checks of people they meet, on the fly using their mobile phone. The criminal history feature of this software is called “Sleaze Detector.” The layers of irony here are too good to pass up, so I sent the tweet.

The employer (which by the way has a history and reputation in Seattle of seemingly sleazy executives) of this seemingly sleazy executive responded to my tweet with a discount on their software!

This is why human beings are unlikely to lose their jobs to software over the long run. Software lacks judgement, and can not detect sarcasm or irony.

Wall Street Sheep bleat to Steve Jobs’ tune.

I don’t have anything to say about Apple’s new “iPad” device. Unlike technology pundits, I would prefer to get my hands on one before I start spouting opinions about it.

What I would like to point out however is Wall Street’s view of today’s product announcement. I noted that when the name was announced AAPL stock nosedived a bit, then slowly climbed as features were explained. Later when the price was announced (at a bit more than half where the pre-announcement speculation put the price tag) the stock marched right back up again. In my twitter stream it seemed only myself and Kevin van Haaren were commenting on the stock market’s reaction.

There are at least two months to go before the (real, not stock) market can begin to asses what this product can and will do. It will be interesting to observe the stock along the way. I generally have a very dim view of what Wall Street analysts think, as I see them of incapable of real analysis, completely out of touch with the real world, and far more prone to herd mentality than they’re willing to admit. Meanwhile, I wish Apple luck here though, as a customer and shareholder.

Crisis? What Crisis!?

The stuttering of the furnace, well pump, and digital clock woke me up around 5 am this morning. Power flickered a few more times, then ceased into a near-total darkness. The sudden stillness within our house brought the outside sounds to the fore. Wind. I could not hear the wind so much as the straining and rustle of the fir and cedar trees outside. I climbed out of bed and grabbed the one of the flashlights we keep handy for just such an occasion. The dogs eyed me with optimism initially, but sank their heads back down to the floor as I passed by heading towards the front door. I stepped outside into the chill wind and light rain to survey the area; looking to see how wide this outage might be. The entire area was dark; no street or houselights on between us and the mountains to the east. Looking back over the house to the west showed a comforting glow of the town of Arlington four miles away, reflecting off the low heavy clouds. Even brighter glows emanated to the south and southwest (Marysville & Everett respectively.) From this data my evolved mammalian brain ascertained the outage was very local, and confined to between Arlington and the mountains of the Boulder River Wilderness. This meant that it was likely to be very brief, unlike previous extended outages that covered the region. Such is life living in the Cascade Foothills. I climbed back in bed and told Sue that power was out. In our home this means no showers, so we just stayed in bed past our usual waking time. Nick, without his alarm stayed asleep in his room.

After a bit I wandered out to the kitchen, and Sue fed the dogs. I stood at the window and admired the darkness. At this latitude the sun rises late (around 8 AM) and low this time of year, and never flies very high above the southern horizon. Clouds obscure it most of the time anyway. The only light visible at all was that glowing reflection of other towns on the underside of the overcast. That odd light and swaying conifers gave the atmosphere a very odd look. Very dark. Very mysterious. My mind wandered back to time without electricity when the world was lit only by fire, and how, absent that far away glow, absolutely DARK it would be right here, right now.

Every little thing I wanted to do, take a shower, make breakfast, read the newspaper the normal routine of a normal morning… all dependent upon electricity. Instead I grabbed a handful of nuts and a glass of water from a pitcher, and stared out the window in thought.

I thought about perspective and how we, as highly evolved humans, fail to recognize reality. Despite our opposable thumbs and big brains, we tend to overreact like frightened chimps to things which are quite harmless. Among the headlines I could make out of the murky twilight cast on the kitchen table was yet another mention of the “Economic Crisis” we supposedly find ourselves in. “Bullshit” I thought. This is anything but a true crisis. In a crisis we’d be eating the dogs and burning our furniture to keep warm. Things we take for granted, such as electricity and the availability of the pistachios I’m eating right now would be unimaginable and exotic luxuries. Our society has grown so damn secure and comfortable that we now have to manufacture problems.
We create artificial controversies (which are in reality side-shows) for television pundits to endlessly rehash.
We imagine catastrophes (which are in reality minor stumbles) for political parties to use to point fingers of blame at one another.
We conjure up legions of plotting enemies (when they are in reality numbered in the dozens) that frighten us into discarding our most cherished values.

This is NOT an “economic crisis” at all. Nor is it the failure, and especially not the “end” of Capitalism. What we find ourselves in right now is the inevitable mild down cycle, which naturally occurs as part of a healthy market. Market cycles go up, and they go down, performing corrections when things in any particular sector get out of… the invisible hand, as it were. Down cycles always cause human beings to panic, thinking that things are somehow really bad. Well, I’ve got news for you folks, this kind of thing happens all the time, over and over again throughout history, though the history books only focus on one of them. In reality we’ve been in this down cycle for almost ten years. Corrections have jumped from sector to sector, and recovery very slow, but overall if you look back at 2000—2009 the economy has been flat as Kansas compared to the crazy days of 1990—1999. So can we drop the hyperbole and focus on reality: Things right now are not that bad, and in fact they are pretty damn good. I’d wager that it the larger scheme of things, it is the best time ever to be alive. Sure, I’d love it if my stock portfolio were partying like it was 1999, but on the upside we’re not burning useless banknotes for warmth or eating our pets. In the latter cases you can be forgiven for calling it a crisis, but the word is not justifiable to use for today’s situation. Other terms off the table: “meltdown”, “free-fall” and “disaster.” Why? Because none of them are actually happening. Unless you live in Haiti of course.

If anything console yourself with this oddly comforting fact: We live at the only time in all of human history where things are so good, and living is so easy, that even poor people are fat.

So next time somebody on TV or radio utters the “C” word, turn it off.
Next time the phrase “Economic Crisis” comes up in conversation, reply with the question “Have you eaten your pets?”
Next time you think things are really tough, flip your home’s main breaker and sit in the dark for a while.

Sense of perspective will return.