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Hose Wars, Part 2: To Breathe, Perchance to Leak

This is a series. Start here if you haven’t already.


I’m not a good sleeper, and never have been. When my publishing company (now mostly forgotten) collapsed back in 2002, I developed severe insomnia. I was getting as little as three hours of sleep per night, often less, and sometimes none at all. After a couple of weeks of this, I started to hallucinate cute little cartoon devils doing calisthenics at the foot of my bed, along with other things I’m not sure I can describe. Sleep isn’t optional. I sometimes think we sleep in order to dream undisturbed, and that dreams are somehow where our humanity comes from. If we can’t sleep, eventually we start to dream while we’re awake.

My big fear in starting APAP therapy was that I couldn’t sleep with a mask on my face. Had I been a better sleeper, I’d probably have begun thereapy years earlier. I was given two masks: One covered my nose and mouth. This is called a “full-face” mask, even though it doesn’t cover your eyes. The other is harder to describe: It’s a little plastic thing on an elastic strap that inserts a couple of cushioned tubes into your nostrils. These are called “nasal pillow” masks, and they’re a great deal less intrusive than full-face masks.

The whole point of CPAP/APAP therapy is to push enough air into your nose to keep your airway open, and to open it if by some chance it closes. For this to work, you either need a full-face mask so that if your mouth opens it won’t matter, or with a nasal pillow mask you need some way to keep your mouth closed. There are chin straps of various sorts and other things lumped into a category called “headgear.” Yet more stuff to tie myself up in; no thanks. I did the obvious: I used that blue surgical tape you buy at Walgreen’s to tape my mouth shut.

It worked. It worked, at least, until the machine upped the pressure for some reason. The higher pressure blew the tape off one corner of my mouth, which became a massive air leak, one noisy enough to wake me up.

This is my problem in a nutshell: APAP is noisy and uncomfortable, and keeps me awake. The noise I’m getting used to, at least the fairly modest noise from the machine itself. Leaks are a separate issue. I sleep on my side, which means that both kinds of mask eventually contact my pillow. I can position myself carefully when going to sleep, and that generally works. But if I squirm around even a little while I’m asleep, my pillow nudges the mask to one side, making noise, or (with the full-face mask) spraying air into my eyes. That wakes me up in a hurry.

To keep me asleep despite masks and leaks and hoses flapping around, the doc gave me a prescrption for a sleeping pill called Belsomra (suvorexant.) It’s the first of a new class of insomnia treatments that target the orexin receptors in the brain, rather than the GABA receptors. Pills like Ambien (zolpidem) target GABA, and force you to sleep. If you take one and don’t hit the sack, you’ll start dreaming anyway, and say or do dumb things. The orexin receptors keep you awake. Interfere with their operation using an orexin antagonist like Belsomra, and the signals to stay awake go away. You drift off. I’ve taken Ambien, and it always felt like a whack to the back of my head. Boom! I’m out. Belsomra has a gentler touch, and from what I’ve read, it doesn’t affect sleep architecture (i.e., the different stages of sleep like REM) nearly as much as more preemptive pills like Ambien.

It’s expensive, but very fortunately, Medicare covers it. And so far, it’s done a pretty fair job keeping me asleep in spite of mask issues. As for mask issues, there’s a third sort of mask that I’m going to buy and try: A nose mask. This is like a smaller full-face mask that only covers your nose. It may not be any better than nasal pillows, but it’s cheap enough to do the experiment and be sure.

I’ve found that there’s a downside to blowing air up your nose. A couple downsides, actually, but there’s one big one, and that’s where I’ll start next time.

Hose Wars, Part 1: Overview

ResMed S10 AirSense 500 Wide.jpg

About a year or so ago, the bottom began to fall out of my supply of personal energy. At the time I assumed it was due to my age, or to all the effort I was pouring into our move down here from Colorado Springs, selling the Springs house, fixing up our Scottsdale house, and so on.

Now, virtually all of that stuff is done with…and my energy hasn’t come back.

I started a decent new novel at the end of 2016, and while I got off to a pretty brisk start, I’m now 42,000 words in and making little progress. I have other projects that I’ve done some work on, however, writing is the most difficult thing I do. It’s also the most important to me personally. If something starts getting in the way of my writing, I have to get to the bottom of it.

So it was that in February of this year I did a sleep study. I’d had one done at a Colorado Springs sleep clinic in 2010, but the wires and electrodes and everything kept me awake so much of the night that the pulmonologist declared the study inconclusive. To have a sleep study, well, it helps to be able to sleep.

Sleep study tech has gotten way better in the last eight years. I went down to the sleep lab and picked up a gadget that was something like a stiff but adjustable plastic headband. The part that contacted my forehead had a tacky, silicone-y feel to it, and embedded in the silicone were several electrodes and an LED oximeter. There were no wires and no separate electrodes to get tangled up in, like I had in 2010. The electrodes provided some EEG functionality, and the oximeter continuously monitored my blood oxygen, which is an issue I’ve had for some years. (It was one reason we no longer live at 6700 feet.)

The headband gadget was remarkably comfortable, at least compared to the ratsnest they trussed me up in back in 2010. I was able to sleep on my side, which I’ve done now for probably forty years. (When I sleep on my back I tend to compress the ulnar nerves in my arms, which makes them go numb and then prickly when I wake up.) I took a new-model sleeping pill (I’ll come back to that) and managed to sleep for almost the entire night while the headband gathered data.

The good news ended there. I returned the headband device to the sleep lab, where they downloaded the data and sent the reports to my pulmonologist. I had an AHI of 36, which means I stopped breathing an average of 36 times an hour across the seven hours that I slept with the thing on my head. Basically, I stopped breathing every…two…minutes.

No wonder my blood oxygen was excursing down into the low 80s.

Breathing is good, and tech steps in where nature fails. I was given a prescription for a ResMed AirSense 10 Autoset APAP device (above) and was fitted with a couple of face masks. Laying hands on the actual machine involved a surreal struggle with insurance paperwork, but I finally got it, and about ten days ago I started using it. For the first week, my average AHI was…3.67. That’s literally an order of magnitude better than what the headband reported. Last night was my best night yet, with an AHI of only 2.44.

The AirSense 10 records data on a standard SD card. There’s a clever open-source reporting utility called Sleepyhead that you can install under Windows, Mac, or Linux. There’s a Linux binary for Ubuntu 14.04, or you can rebuild from source. Here’s the wiki for the software, with a link to the user guide. (The software is written in C++, alas, or I’d be tempted to tinker it.)

Sleepyhead aggregates your data by day, week, or month (or just “always”) and presents a number of graphs for the stats gathered by the machine. There’s also a feature to report oximetry data, but I don’t have a recording oximeter yet and haven’t tried that feature, which is described as “cranky.”

I’ve read a number of people report that starting in on CPAP made them feel like ten-year-olds again. This has never been a longing I’ve had (what, go through puberty twice? I think not!) and in truth the improvement I’ve felt so far has been, speaking charitably, incremental. The road has been rocky, and I’m going to have to divide the full story into several entries. Stay tuned.

Writing Magical Systems

The first argument I ever had with a girl I cared deeply about involved the nature of magic. As I described back when I first released my novel Ten Gentle Opportunities , Lee Anne thought of magic as moody, ethereal, and completely impossible to predict. I thought of it as a sort of immaterial engineering. This disagreement turned out to be the least of our problems; she was 13 and I was 14, with all that that implies.

Fifty years later, I released an entire novel about magic. It has roots in that argument. I did try it her way: In 1974 I wrote a story (“Whale Meat”) containing Lee Anne-style magic, and although I’m happy with how it turned out, it was murder to write and isn’t one of my favorites among the things I’ve done. Ten Gentle Opportunities explored (among other things) how magic might be similar to software. The key is that magic should (ideally) be an internally consistent system, and not just Harry Potter-style abracadabra in which you can pull any damned rabbit out of any damned hat. I thought long (50 years!) and hard about what a magical system might be and how to create one. If you’re a writer, a distillation of my notes might be useful. Perforce:

There are three Big Questions you need to ask yourself as you take on a task of designing a magical system:

  • What is the source of magical power? Where does it come from and how do you obtain it? In Larry Niven’s Warlock stories, magic is an inherent property of the created world, an essence present everywhere but which may be depleted by use over time, like a seam of coal. Aleister Crowley (a real guy, if an unutterable nutcase) created a system of sex magick, which was powered (as best I can figure) by orgasms. In Ten Gentle Opportunities, magical power emerges from a fully-developed pineal eye, which is present in a small fraction of humanity and must be perfected by practice and study. The magical force itself is drawn from primordial chaos, and is inexhaustible. In some systems, magical force emerges from sacred or cursed artifacts, and in others from alchemical concoctions. Can magic be stored somehow for later use, or use by ordinary people? Stypek stores ten nuggets of magical force in stasis inside a wand made of “wereglass,” which is dense and scary and serves a plot point more than the magical system. (Sometimes you have to do that.)
  • Who is able to manipulate magical power? Magic is sometimes the purview of explicitlty magical beings like elves, fairies, pixies, etc. Sometimes it’s a skill that may be learned by anybody. In my system, it depends on a genetic talent that mundanes don’t have and can’t obtain. Spellbenders like Stypek, in fact, are incomplete magicians, in that they can examine and change magical spells but can neither draw magic from chaos nor send it back when no longer needed. (Unwanted or abandoned magic can cause all sorts of problems, like animating corpses into zombies.) Can one magician do things, or does it take some sort of cooperative effort? (One flashes on Crowley’s sex magic.) Can multiple magicians do bigger or more difficult things working together? (This was the case in the classic Witches of Karres.) Are magicians specialists? (Larry Correia’s are; see below.)
  • What are the limits of magical power? This is the big one, kids. Magic that can do anything is…boring. Stories engage us by pitting characters against challenges and their own limitations. A magician who controls magic without limits can’t lose and so isn’t especially interesting. One of the best modern magical systems is what Larry Correia built into his Dark Magic / Spellbound / Warbound trilogy. Magical persons are specialists, sorted into numerous categories by the nature and limits of their power. Some teleport. Some command electricity. Some influence weather. Some heal. Some control gravity, and so on. All of these powers draw on personal energy, which the body creates from food and rest, and when that energy is used up, the powers fail for a time until the body can restore its energy levels. All magical/super powers must have limitations. Superman has Kryptonite. Green Lantern’s lantern doesn’t work on anything colored yellow. (At least this was the case when I was reading my friends’ comics in the first half of the 1960s.) Sometimes magic is tied to the Classical Elements, Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Aether. (Brian Niemeier’s magical system includes but is not limited to this.) You can be as clever as you like, but your magic must have quirks and limitations.

Answering these three questions in detail will get you well over halfway to a usable magical system. Create a notefile (what I call a mumblesheet, a marvelous term coined by the late and much missed George M. Ewing) and put your concept down in outline (or at least bullet list) form. If you have any kind of imagination at all, writing descriptions of your magicians and their skills will bring out further insights that will make the system interesting. In my system of magic, the difficulty of creating magical spells depends on the complexity of the spell–though perhaps not the way you would expect. Complicated spells are easy, but simple spells require enormous skill and are almost impossible to change. (Stypek is a spellbender, and changing spells–call it magic hacking–is his one big trick.) One of the novel’s conceits is that Stypek’s magic is literally object-oriented programming: Spells have properties and methods, which magicians and spellbenders can see and manipulate in the air in front of them. Others have drawn the parallel between magic and software before me, especially Rick Cook, in his Wiz series.

Your magicians should be quirky too. In my system, a fully developed pineal eye opens in the foreheads of magicians once they hit puberty. The eyes begin as red, and then with practice and study progress through the spectrum toward violet and then adamant (diamond-clear.) Expertise classes are named after gems that show the color of the class.The further toward adamant the eye is, the more powerful the magician. Adamant magicians are the baddest-assed; ruby-classers are poseurs, or dabblers of little power who can force mice to dance and that’s about it. In spellbenders, the pineal eye never erupts at all, and at best looks like a birthmark in the middle of the forehead.

Magical systems need quirks and limitations, but be careful not to make the system so complicated that readers have a hard time grasping it. I got a couple of emailed complaints about Stypek’s magic being hard to follow, but my beta readers had no trouble with it. (One did advise me to quit tinkering with it, and he was right: My first impulse is to throw new ideas into a story every time I go over it.) Some of your readers will just roll with it, especially if the plot and characters are compelling. Others will complain. That’s how writing fiction works. Roll with the criticism, and learn what you can from it.

It helps to ask yourself what sensory impressions accompany the generation and/or use of magic. Does magic make noise? Stink? Cause migraines? Shake the floor? Radiate colored light? Probably the best way to get a handle on this is to write a couple of scenes of your magic system in use. Not everything will work, but the stuff that does work, add to the description of the system. With some luck, the scenes may later find homes as short stories or scenes from a novel.

Finally, the three words that ought to be on every writer’s wall: Just write it. Trust your subconscious. If you’ve laid enough groundwork, you’ll get a story out of any reasonable system of magic. Be diligent and you’ll get several. Throw your back into it, and you’ll get as many as you want. Skills, challenges, discoveries, and interaction with other people are the building blocks of all fiction, especially genre fiction, and double-especially SFF. Magic embraces all of these.

Go for it.

How to Build a Bentonite Ground System

Back when Carol and I lived here in the ’90s and early oughts, I had a large lot and a 200-foot wire antenna for the low bands. The antenna didn’t work well…because what I didn’t have was a good ground. Now that we’re back in Arizona, I decided to begin with the ground system, and work up from there toward the antennas.

The problem with Arizona is that it’s dry. No surprise there; in Spanish, Arizona means “dry zone.” At our house on the far north end of the Phoenix metro area, I simply drove an 8′ ground rod into the soil next to my workshop/shack, and clamped a length of #8 solid copper wire to the rod. I figured it would work. It didn’t. The problem (surprise!) was the dry soil, which left the ground rod practically insulated. It was better than nothing, but it certainly couldn’t touch the grounds I’ve had out east, especially the ground I had in Rochester NY. The difference is that I had a swamp at the back of our lot in Rochester, and a climate that delivered rain probably a third of the year. My ground rod was set in soil so wet it was actually mud most of the time that it wasn’t frozen. Tricky to grow vegetables in (our strawberries did well) but man, my Hy-Gain 18 AVT took me around the world.

This time, I did some detailed reading on ground systems, and enlisted the help of Joe Flamini W4BXG, who is a EE and has been licensed longer than I have. I ran the plan past Joe, who approved. This past Saturday, I finished it.

So. The basic idea is to increase the conductive area of a ground rod, so that it connects to a greater area than the area of a 5/8″ diameter rod. From a height, you do this:

  • Dig a round hole.
  • Drive the ground rod down into the soil at the center of the bottom of the hole.
  • Put a length of PVC pipe in which you’ve drilled a large number of holes into the hole beside the ground rod.
  • Fill the hole with sodium bentonite clay, moistened with an ionic solution like Epsom salts.
  • Keep the bentonite and the soil around it a little damp. (This is what the hole-y pipe is for.)

Now let’s go through what I did in detail.

I had our landscape company bring out an earth auger. I expected something a little smaller, having looked around at tool rental firms. This one had a 12″ auger 48″ long. It took just 15 minutes, and I was glad I didn’t have to control the monster myself.

Drilling the Hole - 500 Wide.jpg

Earth augers are not tidy things. In fact, the hardest single part of the project was using an improvised scoop on a long handle to get the last of the loose dirt out of the bottom of the hole. Nor was the hole completely straight. Still, it was straight enough.

Next, I took the ground rod and used my bench grinder to sharpen its point:

Ground Rod - 500 Wide.jpg

I then used steel wool to brighten the copper the full length of the rod. This makes it more conductive, which is the whole idea. Having brought it to a nice bright polish, I took out my five-pound sledge and drove the rod into the center of the hole. I had previously bought a 4′ length of threaded 1/2″ schedule 80 PVC pipe, and drilled holes every inch down the full length of the pipe. Each drill pass cut two holes, giving me two rows of holes on opposite sides of the pipe. I put PVC caps on both ends, and positioned the pipe in the hole with an artfully bent coat hanger.

Moistener Pipe - 300 Wide.jpgI had done the math on the volume of the hole and the density of bentonite clay, and calculated that I would need four 50-pound bags of bentonite powder. I bought it from a drilling supplies firm on the west side, for $8 a bag. (Bentonite has many uses, and one common use is borehole mud.) Some people mix a bentonite slurry in a wheelbarrow and then tip the slurry into the hole, but I didn’t have a wheelbarrow. What I did is fill the hole by pouring in a layer (3″ or so) of bentonite powder, and then wetting it with water in which I had dissolved ten pounds of Epsom salts. I stirred the goop a little with a metal rod to make sure all the powder got wet.

I repeated this layering process until the hole was full. Miraculously, my 200 pounds of bentonite clay powder filled the hole to within 2″ of the rim. Enough, and none left over. (Math works!) Once I filled the hole and wet the top layer down, I forced water into the moistener pipe with a pressure nozzle, taking advantage of Phoenix’s relatively high water pressure. The idea is to make sure that all of the powder becomes mud.

A few notes on bentonite powder: It’s as fine as talcum powder, and blew around in Saturday’s unfortunate wind while I poured it. I wore a mask to keep from inhaling it. When wet, it becomes a slippery, slimy-feeling mess that clings to everything it touches. I was very glad I didn’t try to mix a slurry outside the hole. Bentonite gloms onto water, and over time, the clay in the hole will become uniformly damp. I’ll sprinkle the hole with the garden hose periodically, and pour some additional Epsom salts solution into the moistener pipe.

Pouring the Bentonite - 500 Wide.jpg

I’ve been soaking it each day, not only the bentonite but also the soil around it. Bentonite expands slightly when wet, and will force itself into all the tiny voids in the interface between the soil and the bentonite fill. In my neighborhood we have the advantage (for ground systems at least) of a septic system, which distributes a different sort of ion solution into the soil. I’m expecting far better soil conductivity here than we ever had in our ’90s house.

That’s pretty much it. I have no antennas mounted yet, so I can’t test it for the time being. No problem; once I have my feed-throughs in place, I’ll run a length of wire up to one of the palm trees, and see how well my IC-736 loads. Jim Strickland suggested building a simple crystal radio using a germanium diode, of which I have many in the drawer. Crystal sets are very dependent on a good ground, as I discovered in my distant youth. If I can bring in local AM stations well, I’ll consider the ground a success. The ultimate goal is to get a ground-mounted trap vertical, like the 18-AVT or similar. In the meantime, I know how to get a lot out of 75′ of copper wire worked against a good ground.

And now, for the first time in a fair number of years, I have a good ground!

Odd Lots

The Domain Name Ambush

Yeah, I know: I been away a long time. Why is complex, but house issues, health, and a surprisingly difficult WIP (not to mention a Caribbean cruise) all conspired to eat March. I’ll have more to say about the health issues once there’s more to say about them. The house is coming along well, and although I’m not in truth feeling a whole lot better (hint: it’s an oxygen issue) some time is at least opening up, hence today’s big story.

I’m working quietly with a number of people on a joint project that I can’t talk about right now. However, I promised the group that I would contribute a domain for it. The project is not new, and my promise was made literally years ago. At the time, I looked at what we all considered the perfect domain–and someone else already owned it. No biggie; it happens all the time. The project itself has been on again and off again, but it seems to have gained a little momentum in recent weeks. Yesterday, almost three years later, I checked for that perfect domain…and it was available. So I grabbed it. I registered it precisely the same way I registered the last couple of domains I registered.

Now, apres domain, le deluge.

I’ve gotten at least thirty emails soliciting site design, logos, PHP programming, shopping carts, artwork, SEO, and other Web folderol. I’ve gotten nine calls to my mobile, same thing. And a text message.

This has never happened before, and I’ve been registering domains since 1995. I’m not sure what’s changed. However, I noticed after only a little inspection that most (and possibly all) of the solicitations are from India. (As with most spam, a lot of them are cagey about where they actually are.) Every single person who left voicemail sounded Indian, and several were quite honest about their locations.

So what’s going on here? Has the same thing happened to any of you? My first guess is that some sort of scraper service is offering lists of recent domain name registrants to Indian Web shops. Maybe the Indians have made Web dev a big priority in the three or four years since I last registered a domain. I don’t know. In truth, I don’t care that much, except perhaps for the calls to my mobile. That’s supposed to be illegal, but if they’re in India, it would be hard to sue them for breaking a US law.

As I said, the spam doesn’t bother me, and I don’t generally answer calls from numbers I don’t recognize. I suspect that after a few days, they’ll move on to more recent registrations and get out of my hair. We’ll see.

Now I have to get back to that Odd Lots I’ve owed you guys since February. Tomorrow fersure.

New Revision of FreePascal from Square One Is Now Up

I just uploaded a new, corrected and expanded PDF ebook edition of FreePascal from Square One to my website. It’s free, and (remarkably) it’s closing in on completion. It’s laid out for the A4 paper size, largely because there’s so much Pascal activity outside the US. You can read it on a screen, or else print it to paper to put in a binder. It’s currently at 294 pages, and when complete I hope to keep it under 325 pages, since that’s a whole lot of paper to print, punch, and bind.

Still to be covered are the standard string functions, locality and scope, and simple file/printer I/O. That’s not a lot of material, and some of it has already been rewritten and edited.

For those who haven’t heard of it before, let me describe the project: I’ve taken my 1993 book Borland Pascal 7 from Square One and heavily rewritten parts of it for FreePascal. Borland Pascal 7 from Square One was the fourth and last edition of my very first technical book, Complete Turbo Pascal, published in May, 1985. That title, by the way, was forced on me by the (now extinct) publisher. Its original manuscript title was Turbo Pascal from Square One. The four editions taken together were in print for almost ten years and sold about 125,000 copies back in the 80s and early 90s.

The book’s mission is to be what Assembly Language Step By Step is to assembly language: An absolute beginner’s tutorial on programming in Pascal. This includes people who have not yet learned what programming is and have never written a line of code in their lives. I start by explaining the ideas of programming, and move from there to Pascal. FreePascal is my compiler of choice, largely because it’s free, but even more because it comes with the Lazarus IDE, which contains a superb GUI builder very similar to the one present in Delphi. FreePascal from Square One doesn’t cover Lazarus beyond installing it and using the code editor. Specifically, it doesn’t cover the GUI builder or Windows programming generally. The example programs all run in the console window.

More than half of the original book explains things that no longer apply: DOS programming, overlays, the Borland Graphics Interface, tinkering the interrupt vector table, and so on. All of that is gone. I’ve made a decision to stop just before OOP, and will begin a Lazarus book with a thorough explanation of OOP and software components. I’m also leaving out pointers, since the topic is heavily intertwingled (to use a wonderful Ted Nelsonism) with OOP.

I intend to keep writing books of new material about Lazarus as time allows, and will sell them as PDF ebooks and spiral-bound POD paperbacks. No timetable; I’m trying to write SFF novels mostly, and will work on Lazarus projects as time allows. We’ve spent the last couple of years working on our Scottsdale house, but that’s largely finished, and I expect a lot more free time in the next few years. So stay tuned. I may do one more “unfinished” upload, but after that I expect to put the wraps on it.

Odd Lots

  • Twitter has gone absolutely off its rocker since Parkland, and now it’s just haters hating anyone who disagrees with them. (No, that’s not new; it’s just never been this bad.) I stumbled across a site called Kialo, which is a kind of digital debate club, in which issues are proposed and then discussed in a sane and (hurray!) non-emotional manner. I myself certainly don’t need another time-sink, but I wanted to bring it to the attention of anyone who enjoys (increasingly rare) reasoned debate.
  • Another interesting approach to political social media is Ricochet, a center-right bloggish system with paid membership required to comment. (You can read it without joining.) No Russian bots, or in fact bots of any kind, and a startling courtesy prevails in the comments. Its Editor in Chief is Jon Gabriel, who used to work for us at Coriolis twenty years ago. Not expensive, and the quality of the posts is remarkable.
  • FreePascal actually has an exponentiation operator: ** That was what FORTRAN (my first language) used, and I’ve never understood why Pascal didn’t have an operator for exponentiation. Better late than never.
  • This article doesn’t quite gel in some respects, but it’s as good an attempt as I’ve seen to explain why Xerox never really made much money on the startling computer concepts it originated back in the crazy years of the ’70s. I worked there at the time, and top-down management was responsible for a lot of it, as well as top management that wasn’t computer literate and thought of everything simply as products to be sold.
  • Japanese scientists found that treating the hair follicles of bald mice with dimethylpolysiloxane grew new hair. Dimethylpolysiloxane is used to keep McDonalds’ deep fryers from boiling over, and given that Mickey D’s fries are one of my favorite guilty pleasures, I suspect I’ve ingested a fair bit of the unprounceable stuff. No hair yet, though I keep looking in the mirror.
  • German scientists, lacking a reliable supply of bald mice, have discovered a species of bacteria that not only enjoys living in solutions of heavy metal compounds, but actually poops gold nuggets. How about one that poops ytterbium? I still don’t have any ytterbium.
  • Eat more protein and lift more weights if you’re a guy over 40. Carbs are no food for old men.
  • Evidence continues to accumulate connecting sugar consumption to Alzheimer’s. Keep that blood sugar down, gang. I want to be able to BS with you all well into my 90s. Try cheese as snacks. It’s as addictive as crack(ers.)
  • If in fact you like cheese on crack(ers), definitely look around for St. Agur double-cream blue cheese. 60% butterfat. Yum cubed. A little goes a long way, which is good, because it keeps you from eating too many crack(ers.)
  • And don’t fret the fat. The Lancet has published a study following 135,000 people, and the findings indicate that there is no connection between dietary fat and heart disease. Ancel Keys was a fraud. Ancel Keys was the worst fraud in the history of medical science. How many times do we have to say it?
  • 37,132 words down on Dreamhealer. It’s now my longest unfinished novel since college. (It just passed Old Catholics, which may or may not ever be finished.) Target for completion is 70,000 words by May 1. We’ll see.
  • On March 17th, it will be 60 years since Vanguard 1 made Earth orbit as our 2nd artificial satellite. Probably because it’s so small (a 6″ sphere, not counting antennae) it is now the satellite that’s been in orbit the longest, including those the Russians launched. The early Sputniks & Explorers have all burned up in the atmosphere.
  • I never knew that the parish church of my youth was Mid-Century Modern, but squinting a little I would say, Well, ok. Here’s a nice short visual tour of the church where I was an altar boy and confirmed and learned to sing “Holy God We Praise Thy Name.” It hasn’t aged as well as some churches (note the rusty sign) but some of the art remains startling. I met Carol in the basement of that church in 1969, and will always recall it fondly for that reason alone.
  • Ever hear of Transnistria? Neither had I. It’s a strip of Moldova that would like to be its own country, (and has been trying since 1924) but just can’t get the rest of the world to agree. It has its own currency, standing army, and half a million citizens. (I’ll bet it has its own postage stamps, though why I didn’t notice them when I was 11 is unclear.)
  • A guy spent most of a year gluing together a highly flammable model of a musk melon (or a green Death Star, if you will) from wooden matches, and then lit it off. He even drew a computer model, which needed more memory to render than his system had. Despite the bankrupt politics, we live in a wonderful era!

LED Strips for Workshop Lighting

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We replaced nearly all of the incadescent bulbs in the house with LED bulbs shortly after we bought it in late summer 2015. That came to 27 60W bulbs and ten or twelve 75W floods for ceiling can lights. You can’t get incandescent bulbs in the commoner sizes anymore, and the power savings is considerable. LED bulbs have come a long way in the last few years, and the “softer” light quality levels (3000K and below, most of which were 2700K for us) approximate incandescent light close enough for what we do.

There are a couple of issues with LED bulbs. We bought Feit bulbs in bulk when we re-bulbed all the ceiling fan lights. Two years on, and the Feit bulbs are dropping like flies. I have nine dead but intact Feit 60-watters on my workbench, and two more that I dismantled to see what’s in them. What’s in them isn’t much: A voltage doubler/rectifier board that converts 117VAC to 236 VDC. There’s a disk holding nine LEDs, with two wires down to the power supply. The photo above shows what it looks like when you hacksaw the plastic globe off a Feit 60W equivalent LED bulb. It’s unclear to me whether the nine LEDs are single diodes or blocks of several fabricated together. It seems like a stretch to put 26 volts on a single LED and not see it emit plastic instead of light.

I’ve been taking bulbs apart to try and see why the Feit bulbs die so young. I’ve pulled two apart: One had a bad power supply. The other had a bad wafer. The wafer, however, was intermittent: Tap it with a screwdriver and it flickers, and sometimes comes up to full brightness. The dead power supply was just dead, without any indication of why. It stayed dead when tapped, unlike the intermittent wafer. Cheap crappy manufacturing, I’d guess. This is one Feit I will gladly walk away from.

LED lighting is problematic in ham radio work because of the broadband noise generated by the bulb power supplies. Fluorescent tubes have the same general problem. My notion is to create a separate lighting system in my workshop/ham station using LED lamps run straight-on at 12VDC. I had hoped that the wafers ran at 12VDC or 24VDC, so that I could harvest them from bulbs with failed power supplies. Not an option.

So I started sniffing around to see what sort of lamps are available for 12VDC. I bought a couple at a hamfest to play around with, and talked to the techs at a lighting store up in Kierland. They had an interesting display: Assemble-it-yourself LED strip lights. These consist of an anodized aluminum U-channel, with a self-adhesive strip of LEDs stuck to the bottom of the channel, with a linear plastic lens that snaps into the U-channel. The LED strips take 12VDC, and use 2.88W per foot.

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The LED tape strips come on a reel, with 16.4 feet on the reel and 3 LEDs per inch. The reel isn’t cheap; I paid $235 for it, and that’s about what they go for on Amazon. What I did was buy an 8′ section of channel/lens and put down just under 8′ of LED strip. The strips have clearly marked points every inch where you can cut them with an ordinary scissors, leaving solder pads on each side of the cut.

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The strip comes with a .215″ female barrel connector on the end of 6′ of 2-conductor cord. But again, there are solder pads every inch, so you can wire them to a power source any way you want to. What I did (at least for testing) is dig around in my Big Box o’ Wall Warts and found a Dell APAC-1 power supply, which came with a Dell matrix printer someone gave me ten or twelve years ago. It’s labeled for 12VDC @ 2A, and the strip draws 1.92A, so the supply is working pretty hard. (It squeals, way up there where Carol can hear it and I can’t.)

What I did with the strip is mount the four clips that came with the U-channel under the front edge of the first shelf above my workbench, and then clipped the U-channel to the shelf. The lower surface of the shelf is 11″ above the bench, so I’d have to do some bending and stooping to actually see the LEDs. And the intensity of the light is marvelous, shining down right where I do the sort of close work that electronics requires, which these days is real damned close.

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Because the light comes from a strip of 288 LEDs, there are basically no shadows anywhere under the strip, unless you completely block the light. This means that you can work in good light without worrying as much about your hands casting shadows on what you’re doing. It’s almost like the project photos in old QSTs, where all parts of a complicated hand-wired chassis are completely illuminated. The photo below is of a high-voltage power supply placed on the bench beneath the LED strip, and is literally what you’d see were you sitting at the bench poking at the supply.

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This was only a first step. The strip won’t be powered by the APAC-1 long-term. I have a 30A 12VDC supply that I built out of an old minicomputer power supply somebody gave me. That will be the power source for all the lighting in my workshop/shack once the whole system is complete. I’m looking into overhead lighting now, and may simply use the remaining 8′ of LED strip on the reel with a white diffuser lens, clipped to the drywall ceiling.

Ultimately I want to work up a solar panel system on the roof of the garage, charging a 12V battery of some sort to supply lights and radios. The landscapers are going to auger a hole next to the shack for an engineered ground system tomorrow morning, so I have other work to do before I get on the air. It was a fun project, and will make working on projects a great deal easier. Good light is not optional!

A Tall Tree in a Tight Spot

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We had the big sumac tree by the front door cut down this morning. “Big” is no exaggeration, either: It was forty feet high, and two feet thick at the ground. (Look carefully and see Carol standing behind it.) It was a bad place for a tree that size, for several reasons. It was messy, and dropped seeds and leaves almost continuously between April and August. That was annoying, but what worried me was triggered by what happened to the guy right next door to the east of us: He had a biggish (but not even that big) mesquite tree snap in half in a windstorm and destroy the pergola over his back patio. I looked at the sumac and calculated what would happen if it lost structural integrity in any direction. If it fell to the west (toward me in the photo) well, ok. Any other direction, and it would take out one or both of two gates, part of our block wall, some or most of the guest room, and some or most of the front entrance, including our stained-glass encrusted front door.

That was a thick tree, probably as old as the original house, which is now 52 years. Some parts of the two main trunks were well over a foot thick, up higher than our roof line. I agonized over the decision, because it was a healthy tree that looked solid as a rock. But it was too close to the house, and even closer to the front gate. So we had a landscape company we knew and trusted come out and take it down. We also had them take down a much smaller mulberry tree that was not healthy. “Not healthy” is putting it mildly. See the photo of the mulberry’s main trunk, below.

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Well, that had certainly been the right call.

The mulberry was quick; they had it down in twenty minutes. The sumac took the rest of the morning. The crew knew very well what was at stake, so it probably took more time than it might have, had it been growing in the middle of the back yard. It came down a chunk at a time, with each chunk tied on a stout rope and steered expertly down to terra firma. Some of the chunks were impressive.

Down, down, down. Then: Six or seven feet above the base of the trunk, the cross-section started to change. Take a look:

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Egad. The damned thing was hollower than the sickly mulberry. After I took this shot, I dug into the chocolate-colored stuff surrounding the void and tore huge chunks out with my fingernails. There were probably three inches of actual wood–sometimes less–forming a 15″ trunk. I wanted to yell into the hole: “Hey, any elves in there? The chipper’s at the curb. Last chance to come out, guys. Bring cookies.”

Any regrets we had taking down the tree vanished the instant we saw this. Sure, there was solid wood all the way around. But consider the lever-arm torque on the tree trunk if a really bad west wind hit the tree’s canopy. Crunch! We could have been out our front entranceway.

There’s a downside to losing that tree: It provided considerable shade to the house in the worst of the summer. My electric bills are probably going to go up.

The major lesson in all this is that we assume trees are immortal, but they’re not. Trees live for some period of time, and then they die. The typical lifespan of a sumac like ours is 30-50 years. We were already past that. The rot at its core was nothing worse than old age. I remember when I was a kid, and the cottonwood trees in the parkway on Clarence Avenue all started to die at once. The city had planted them, six to a block on both sides of the streets, when they platted the neighborhood in 1929. But once the market crashed, nobody wanted to build homes there until the last of the 1940s, when the trees were already twenty years old. By 1960, the cottonwoods were over thirty years old, which is pretty much end-of-life for that species of tree. Just about every one was hollow enough to hold a whole bakery’s worth of elves, including a few really fat ones. My sister remembers that one of them on another street fell on a house and did some serious damage, and since the parkways belonged to the city, wham! Hundreds of cottonwoods vanished in a couple of years.

A postscript: Our cottonwood was the last one on the street to go. When we saw the logs stacked up, we realized that it was solid to the core. So trees have bell curves too. Bummer.

Anyway. We have plenty of other trees, none of them (thankfully) quite that close to the house. We have a gorgeous Aleppo pine in the front yard, outside the wall, that may exceed fifty feet high. Google tells me Aleppo pines typically live for 150 years. If I ever feel the need to hug a tree, well, I’m going with that one.