Nov 132014

For the past few weeks a pile has been growing near a railroad crossing I pass each day. The pile was made up of the large poles and signal lights used for signaling trains, as well as several small switching shacks where they would house the railway electronics. My son has asked if we could go grab some of the stuff out there. While secretly wishing I could pilfer the pile too, yet trying to be a good dad, I explained that you can’t just go in and take someone else’s stuff, even if it is sitting on the side of the road.

Last week, I saw a CSX truck sitting there. Having nothing to loose, I pulled over and talked to the guy. I told him of my conversation with my son, and asked how we might get a hold of a signal like this. He said “Come get it”. He went on to explain that this stuff was being collected for scrap and it was about to be hauled off. A side step for a second… I do get it, they just need the stuff removed, they have a job to do, but for me, there is so much cool history here, and this is stuff that would not have a hard time finding a home. Seems like a waste. He gave me his card and told us to call him in case anyone gave us a hard time. That was very cool, and something he did not have to do. I thanked him probably more times than I needed to, but this was going to be fun. I got home that night and told my son what we would be doing the following day. He freaked.

Sorry about the piss poor picture.

I loaded up a bag full of all the tools I thought we might need and we headed out to the tracks. The pile was a scary unruly bunch of metal. It looked like they had just dumped the stuff off the back of the truck. There was no order to it, so we needed to be quite cautious. Most of the signals were face down and under a lot of weight (more than I wanted to deal with). There was one that was suspended from a pole which was within reach. The pole was also not moving anywhere, so it was a good match. It was a puzzle as to how I was going to get the signal off the pole. The top was easy as it had cracked off during the move, but the bottom was well attached. The attached area looks to be made out of cast iron. It was covered in rust, years of elements, and layers and layers of paint. I hit the area lightly with a hammer. The paint cracked and fell off fairly easily. I then hit the whole area with a healthy spray of WD-40. I let this sit for a while. I came back to with a wrench which I tried to fit it on the bolt. My wrench (which I though would be big enough) was far too small. The whole thing was confifured around this massive bolt, so it needed to come out. I did not have the time to run and buy a wrench, nor did I want to put out a bunch of money for rare use situations.

I left it alone for a while and started to look at the rest of the items that were there. My son was having a blast looking at stuff. He found a whole set of wiring schematics for the whole area. There were copies of schematics from as early as 1974 in there. It looks like every time they made a change, they added newer and newer pages. I then started looking at some of the devices in the little switching buildings. There were banks and banks of massive relay units. These rooms were completely detached from the world, but it was still a little unnerving. There were metal contacts everywhere. One whole wall was filled with bus bars and connections that were totally uncovered. It seemed somewhat dangerous. I have now learned, and was somewhat surprised to find out that while yes, you could theoretically get a poke from these devices (if it were powered), this stuff is actually low voltage driven. I guess that the thick wires used everywhere was used to keep resistances lower. While I regret not loading up my car, I did not want to be a hog and take more than my share. So, I left with only a few of the devices. Knowing now that they took the buildings away and dumped the contents makes me a bit sad. People just do not make things like this any longer. The relay units are built out of rugged thick glass and heavy spools of copper. It is all held together with massive screws and nuts. It was designed for many lifetimes of use.

I went back to my main target. The signal. The WD-40 had had time to soak in. I decided that I would try to break the nuts free with my hammer. I started hitting the nut with a fairly severe angle. I wanted to glance off the thing, not bash it to a pulp. After a few hits, it started to move. I kept at it. Once it had turned a full rotation, I tried to twist it by hand (gloved hand to be clear). It was hard going but it turned. I got the second nut started the same way. I kept moving them along by hand until they would freeze up at which point I would remind them about the hammer. eventually both nuts were off. I went around to the front and gave the bolt a good whack. I watched the whole thing shift a little. Looking at the bolt closer, it was clearly disconnected, so I tried to give the signal a pull. It came willingly. It was at that moment that I learned exactly how heavy the thing was.

While yes, I had slayed the beast. But getting it into the car was another whole issue. When you see these signs up on their posts where they belong, they do not look to be very large. But they are very large. This thing is roughly 4 feet tall. I believe, given it’s weight, that the whole light housing to be made out of cast iron. It was too heavy for my son to help with so I sort of deadmanned it into the back end of the Prius. This is a sad point as I had to set it down at one point and it scratched the bleep out of the back of my car. Not the sort of thing you can hit undo and fix. We got everything home and when I pulled out the signal, it was at this point that I realized that the top shroud was missing.

I went back the following morning to find that all the little buildings were gone. There was a Cat bulldozer there scooping up signal poles and everything else up onto a trailer to be hauled away. I found the guy in charge and tried to explain that I left my shroud. It was very loud and difficult to hear. He replied… “You want a signal? Well you can’t have them all because we want one too.” I tried again to explain what I was after pointing to the ground where the bulldozer was rolling over some rather flat versions of shrouds. He said again… “If yer wantin’ a signal, you gotta get it now because he’s almost done”. About midway through trying again to explain what I was after, it dawned on me that wait a minute… he said I could take another signal. The Cat driver had liberated a few more signals by removing several of the poles that were on top of them. I shook my head yes, I wanted one. I told the cat guy to put one over to the side. I had left the WD-40 at home, but the hammer was still in the car. I worked as fast as I could to get the nuts off.  I struggled the thing over to my car. The man must have put together what I was originally asking for as he later handed me a stack of shrouds.

Feeling quite good, I was about to leave. The bulldozer pulled on a pole on which were 2 single light signals. They split and fell to the ground. As he was putting the pole on the trailer, I asked if I could grab the lights. They said yes. I grabbed them and took them back to the car. It struck me again how heavy this stuff was. These were not large pieces. Probably smaller than a soccer ball. But they were amazingly heavy. One was pretty rusted and in fairly bad shape. The other still held it’s lens and while dirty, seemed to be okay. I am glad I asked when I did. It was a great find and a heck of a lot of fun exploring.

 Posted by at 9:24 pm
Nov 092014

It seems that the “_______ Challenge” is the meme of the moment. One that bubbled up on Facebook the other day (at least, the first I heard of it), was the black and white challenge. I thought that they were putting me on. But apparently it is going around like the flu. So, my mother in law volunteered me. I was told that I needed to put up a B&W photo every day for 5 days, and these can come from previously shot photos. I am not seeing the challenge here, but sure. I’m game. So here are my 5 pictures… Photo 1: This was taken in Ireland this past summer during a family reunion.

Photo 2: Taken at Epcot last year.

Photo 3: This is a memorial put in place near Cork to honor the people who fought for the independence of Ireland.

Photo 4: The Norfolk Southern steam train. This was taken a couple of years ago during a shoot.

Photo 5:  The Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel in Colorado

 Posted by at 1:29 pm
Jun 212014

I have been doing a lot of reading on cooking with solar. Having played with the dish a few years ago, I know and believe that there is massive untapped power in the sun. I know that I am not saying anything new. Anyone with a solar lamp on their sidewalk knows that we can make some form of altered energy from the sun. Sure you probably have seen roofs full of panels making electricity to power washing machines and air conditioners. But conversion of light to electricity is not by any means the most efficient use of solar. Heat is the natural conversion of choice here folks.

I have been reading about the idea, that with nothing more than a couple of cardboard boxes, some aluminum foil, and a plate of glass, one can cook whole meals. The theory is that with 2 cardboard boxes (one inside the other), with some sort of insulation placed in between, it can trap heat rather well. The insulation can be as simple as crunched up newspaper. The inside walls are painted black to absorb as much of the light as possible. The walls then acts as a heat radiator. Placing a piece of  glass over the top allows light in, the light hits the black surfaces and heats (sends infrared radiation) back out all directions. The aluminum foil and glass reflect the infrared radiation back into the box, so the effect is accumulative. In my investigation of this, I have seen stories of solar ovens reaching 360 degrees. That would make a fully capable solar oven. Clearly… This was something I had to try.

For some reason, I am prone to overkill. Using newspaper made sense, but I had some left over 2 inch thick fiberglass insulation from when I was making the sound panels for the studio. This stuff should do a wicked job in holding the heat. After measuring and cutting the fiberglass, I covered it with heavy duty aluminum foil. This was held in place with a liberal coating of 3M Spray 90. I placed the covered fiberglass pieces into the first box making a second box. I then placed a second cardboard box inside this and cut it to size. Clear as mud? Right then… The inside of the second cardboard box was then spray painted with rustoleum high heat black. I used strips of aluminum tape on the box flaps for reflectors.

In my reading someone made a really good point. You probably do not want to be eating food that has been sitting in spray paint gassed air. As the oven is heated, the paint will gas off. This is also true of the spray 90 as well as all the other ‘man made’ materials (fiberglass and cardboard). So the suggestion was to ‘run’ the oven, without food, to get as much of the bad stuff out as possible. I decided to do a test run. I used only 1 reflector for the test. I put quart of water in a Dutch oven and placed it in the solar oven at 11:40 am. Using my wireless oven thermometer, the water was 76 degrees. The water temperature went up 42 degrees (118 measured) by 12:40 pm. It then got quite cloudy, but even with the clouds it went up another 19 degrees (137 measured) by 1:40 pm. It then got much more overcast. I decided to let it go through the afternoon, but was going to pull it if it started to rain as cardboard and water don’t coexist so well. At 2:40 it was up another 10 degrees for 147 degrees. At 3:10 I pulled it inside because it started to rain. It was 155 degrees at this point for a total accumulation of 79 degrees.

For reference, water is pasteurized 160 degrees, and can start cooking food once it gets above 145 degrees and real baking starting around 180. While I did not reach this on the previous run, it was a great proof of concept. The following weekend, I decided to try to actually cook something. I wanted to try something really dense, so I chose a sweet potato. I sliced it into 4  quarters. I lightly coated it with olive oil and sprinkled it with some sea salt. This time I put a standard oven thermometer in the oven area and the wireless in with the food again. This way I could see the relation between the oven and the food temps. I used all 3 reflectors for this run. I read one thread that made the suggestion to ‘preheat’ the oven. So I put it out at 11:10am. It was 76 degrees outside.

Time  – Oven – Int – Accumulation
11:40 –  148  – 75   – N/A
12:50 – 200 –  156  – 81
2:00  – 225  –  202  – 127

This was roughly where it stayed for the rest of the afternoon. The internal reached a high of 210 at 2:50. Probably being way too cautious, I waited until 5pm to pull the food. I generally feel like a pretty intelligent person. But I will admit, I have the occasional lapse of seeing the reality of the situation. There is a reason why an oven is called an oven. Just because it is solar does not make it not believable nor powerful. Even though I saw the temperature, I assumed that it would not be that hot. Well, it was. I lifted the glass and was met with a wave of wicked hot air (clue number 1 numb nuts!).  I reached in and grabbed the lid of the Dutch oven. Mmmmyeahhh. Lets just say that the lid was put back rather quickly. This was so impressive and so much more confirmation of just how powerful solar can be. I ran in the house, grabbed my cell phone, and recorded one of those  videos I swore I would never do. You know the one… the shaky, point of view horror shows called “I just gotta show you this thing I’m doing”. But hey, I was excited. After this, I felt I was ready for an official meal with the thing.

The following weekend I decided to make a meatloaf. While I have gained a full respect of the oven, I am still not ready to try chicken yet, but I figured that meatloaf was pretty safe. I wanted to push the idea, so I made a 2+ pound load, plus 3 sweet potatoes. I also wanted to make some roasted garlic, but I did not want it interfering with the meatloaf, so made a separate cooking vessel. I painted a spaghetti sauce jar black (the outside). I lightly coated the garlic with olive oil, and put them into the jar. I did puncture the top of the jar so it would not blow up. I also added a few pieces of string so the reflective flaps would stay put. They flopped around a bit in the wind on the previous test. Once again the oven temperature took off like crazy and stayed nice and hot all day. My wife was sleeping through the day as she needed to work that night. One of the things I have been reading is that the food will not burn, and will stay quite moist regardless of how long it sat. I put the food in the oven about 12pm. While I was watching both temps, for food safety, my primary concern was the temperature of the meat, so the wireless oven probe was placed inside the meatloaf. I was shocked, at 2:40 pm the meatloaf was completely done. It was sitting at a comfortable 170+ degrees. I let it cook until my wife was up and ready for some food.

Being smarter about my food removal, I used some hot pan holders this time… heh heh. When I walked outside I could smell the roasted garlic. It was really intense. I lifted off the top glass and again was hit with a wave of hot air, but this time it was a wave of hot really really GOOD smelling air. I took everything inside and cut into the loaf. It sliced like butter. I am not sure that meat should slice like butter, but it was tender for sure. The only thing I want to sort out is how to brown the food. The flavor was amazing. I have a theory about why too. See… The Dutch oven is a small tight space, so the flavors have no where to go. Being somewhat bored, the flavors seek out the meat and attack it. Several hours later, they are so dizzy drunk with meaty goodness, they have no desire to leave. It is at this point that we want to eat it, and there is no time for escape… yeah… well. perhaps not.

 Posted by at 10:03 pm
May 082014

Yes folks… Nixon just hit Hitler in the face with a snowball. Yes friends… it is snowing in hell. This is something I swore I would never do, but here we are. Today, I bought a Mac (more specifically Macbook Pro). With the oddities introduced in Windows 8, and the ‘joy’ in maintaining my wife’s computer, I wanted nothing to do with it. I am also somewhat disappointed in Dell. While I had a full warranty, 6 months after I purchased it, they stopped supporting the sound card. I was having some issues and needed the drivers for it. They had some sort of custom concoction built into the mother board, made by some unknown entity. It took several techs to finally find someone who could direct me to a somewhat defunct site which had the drivers. Then the trackpad had issues, and the story was much the same. On and on it went. For the most part, it has been a good laptop, just lousy support. This is sad as they were once really amazing. I also tried Ubuntu and found it to be somewhat fun, but there is not enough support for higher end editing and graphics animation.

So… I am jumping the fence to Apple. Actually I use several Macs at work every day, and they have been really solid machines and the service has been fantastic. I still have some strong feelings about some of their practices, but I feel like I am getting the best machine out there (or darned near close to it). We’ll see.

 Posted by at 12:28 am
Apr 042014

The 3D printing world and in my case, anti printing world has really ignited my brain. I have always built things. But I am not a craftsman where wood is concerned. I am always in awe when I see the beautiful things some people can craft from wood. The reality is that I have a LOT of interests. This means that in reality, and in my the hobbies, I don’t have the time to become a master of wood. This, for me is where the CNC comes into play. I can now make precision things that for me would have previously been impossible. In the past I had to keep to very simple shapes never really got to think outside of the proverbial box. More it’s sort of a ‘If you can dream it’ sort of thing. This is a heady concoction when dealing with a maker. Make something for yourself, and put into it all the features you little heart could desire.

While this project is not a too difficult, I am stretching an ‘all squares’ mentality. Taking the idea from the dB meter stand, I started playing with more with the idea of a phone stand. I did not want to outright copy it, and wanted to push my CAD skills a little further. One major concept that hit me in the face during dB meter is that I no longer have to see my construction of wooden things at 90 degrees angles. Usually people use square corners to make building easier. Being that the base will need a piece that will connect between the base and phone plate, I decided that the stand would be anything but straight. After sketching up a few ideas, came up with a look that swept smoothly out of the base and then curved back to the phone plate. rather than using only one leg like on the mater stand, I wanted 2 legs for more support. I wanted the phone to be able to be charged while on the stand and also have a 1/8th inch jack plug in for audio out.

While I am gaining a lot of understanding about these things, I keep finding little holes to fall into.  See… you have to measure EVERYTHING. If you want to design something, using a certain material, you have to design everything around the thickness of that material. So… just because something was one thickness the last time does not necessarily mean it will be the same next time. So… learning point? Myessss MEASURE! Designing with what you imagine your material thickness is will cost you a couple of hours later fixing things. Annnnd… I will leave the story there.

 Posted by at 2:18 am
Mar 212014

I am one of the sound people at the church I attend. Something that has always been an annoyance, though not really realizing that it was really bothering me, was that the dB meter we have is made of a very slick plastic. It is not so much the plastic that I disliked, it was that slick plastic is slippery. I would usually make some horrible looking thing… a stack of CD covers, batteries, board tape… to try to prop the thing up. But usually it would eventually slip and fall off the ledge above the sound board. Last Sunday, whilst fighting the battle of the slippage, it occurred to me, well… I could just make something to hold the thing. That’s exactly what I did. Everything I have made to cut out on the Shapeoko has been  2D objects. They are 3D in the sense that they are not flat and you can pick them up, but they are essentially extruded 2D objects. While the stand was to be more 3D, is would be made with 2D shapes.  I knew that I wanted the meter to sit at an angle for better visibility. I had the main idea laid out in Draftsight within a couple of hours (still learning the CAD thing, so it took a little longer than expected).

While this may seem completely obvious, I totally spaced on the idea that things which intersect in a pocket, at an angle, will be longer than things which intersect at a 90 degree angle. I get it (now). I had everything cut out and I started to dry assemble it when I realized my oversight. In order to make this work, I would have to get the piece spot on aligned on the Spapeoko, then extend the slot on the back, or, recut the whole top plate. I decided to try to get it aligned. While it was not a perfect alignment, it was pretty dang close for human accuracy. I am really happy with this as a first piece that had nothing to do with the building of, or accessory to the machine.

After seeing how this came together, I decided to make another one (though a little wider) for my phone with a few alterations to allow for audio plug and power USB.

 Posted by at 11:01 pm