Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Future is Now, Explained

Over at – where else – xkcd:

23 Things to look for when you see SW VII again.

Of course this is spoiler packed and I'm mostly posting this as a reminder to myself, but here are some things to watch for over at io9.

Raining buckets outside.  Hmm.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Movie Review: The Big Short

This is a glorious mess of a movie, a fun-with-a-brain story of three groups of investment guys who all come to the same conclusion about the housing mortgage finance industry circa 2006, namely that this turkey's about to blow.  The script is full of snappy dialogue, like something Quentin Tarantino might have written twenty five years ago, and the all-star cast delivers it with aplomb.  Small asides delivered by guest commentators to help the audience keep up with the financial jargon are simultaneously jarring, humorous, and very welcome.

About the cast, Steve Carell's barely-in-control crusader carries the movie.  It's not an explicitly comedic role, but the way Carell plays it we can see the humor and goodness in the character, rather than just labeling him a jerk.  The rest of the cast does a fine job too, and while Christian Bale got top billing, Carell steals the show.

One expectation I had going in, maybe it was implied in the trailer, was that these three investment teams would somehow merge into one supergroup, and go in sort of an Oceans 11 direction.  Didn't happen.  The story jumps from one group to the other, and while they occasionally cross paths along the way, it is three separate tales showing the debacle from three different angles.  It's an effective technique, but just don't expect some grand unification of the cast.  Real life didn't happen that way, and neither does this movie.

Finally, there are some catchphrases taken from today's political situation thrown in, like soy sauce on top of waffles.  They're unwelcome, out of place, and mar an otherwise fine film.  In ten years the script writer will regret those lines, and in the here and now they knock a viewer out of the story, and knock a half star off the movie's overall rating.

Bottom line: 3 stars out of 4.  This is one of those films like Wag the Dog that looks behind the curtain and explains the what and how of a complex situation while simultaneously entertaining a smart audience.

Monday, December 28, 2015

FT-857D is All Together Now

Over the last few weeks I've posted a few things about a new radio: the purchase, initial setup, side rails, a go-bag, etc.  It's finally all coming together now, as you can see:
Yes, that is a cartoon ham on the bag.  Courtesy of the Darling Daughter.

There are a few more details, mainly revolving around the need for portable power before taking this thing hiking.  LiPO batteries are out there these days, and so are the prices.  Will have to do some more research analysis paralysis in the new year on these.  In the meantime, those side rails do a good job of protecting the faceplate and rear connectors from casual bumping around.  They're cheap insurance against broken controls, handy for handling the radio in a cramped truck, and are, well, pretty damn tacticool looking all around.  

Between the rails, the bag, and the mini-manual, this has all I need for the field.  Oh yeah, antenna and power source, but those are another couple of posts for another couple of days.

Anyway, everything got a full shake-down this past weekend for car camping by setting up and clamping to the truck's power system out in the yard.  Managed a half-dozen contacts from MD to AZ without any trouble at all.  Things are working out pretty well with this radio.

Star Wars VII Review: No Spoilers

Remember how you watched The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time back in 2001 with half-dread, hoping against all hope that it wouldn't stink on ice?  And remember how it didn't, and you could just sit down and enjoy the damn movie the second time through?  OK, this review is now telling you that Star Wars VII doesn't stink on ice, and is in fact pretty good.  So just relax and enjoy the show the first time through.

3.5 stars out of 4.

ps: Watching how things finally worked out lessens this film's meaning and impact.  Let's call it 2.5 stars.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

English is Not Normal

As seen over at Aeon, and reprinted in The Week.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas, All!

The Christmas Comet returns!

See y'all in a couple of days.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015's Greatest Hits

Yeah, there's still a little more than a week left in 2015 and this is a little early.  But the time just feels right to put out this year's wrap-up post.  There will be a few more posts, but I don't have anything significant on tap: some pirate radio notes, FT-857D hiking kit tuning up, maybe pictures from a bike ride.  The best is here already.  So without further ado, here is the best month-by-month, plus one special mention.
Reviewing the Hubble Telescope's Accomplishments - astonishing
When Hobbies Collide - a VHF antenna on the CX bike
Book Discussion: "The Heritage of Heinlein" - learned a lot
Tuxachanie Trail Conquered - with radio, of course
Happy 100th Dad! - he's the one on the right
Book Review: The Martian - the hard stuff
Sci-Fi Anthology Review: Carbide Tipped Pens - hard, baby, hard
Initial Notes on the 6BTV Vertical Antenna - it's OK
Restaurant Mention: Peche, New Orleans - best fish I've ever tasted
"Where's the Flux?" Paper & Articles - probably warrants a follow-up soon
Six Inconvenient Loose Ends in Physics - in loose ends, there is research
More on Experimental Confirmation and Philosophy - still pondering
and Special Mention from January, Book Discussion: Marie Laveau, Voudou Priestess

Hmm.  I see some themes here: hard hard science fiction, radio of various sorts, the intersection of science and philosophy, some biking and outdoors activities, and... random life.  What will 2016 bring?  Maybe some adventure racing, maybe some Theremin playing, definitely more music.  Ah well, time to pack it up, see what tomorrow brings.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

40 Watts from Nowhere: A Pirate Radio Memoir

Just finished 40 Watts from Nowhere yesterday, a decade old memoir revolving around setting up and running two pirate FM radio stations in California in the mid-'90s.  It goes about the way you'd expect: a big idea is born, setup pains, weird shit happens, shit gets weirder, FCC steps in and shuts things down.  It's an interesting story, but ultimately it is a story from another time and another place.  It's 20 years in the past, and internet streaming sites and LPFM have rendered all of this UHF-beams-in-the-night drama obsolete.

Still, there are some jewels to be found along the way to the final bust.  Specifically,
  • If you're going to do marginal stuff, keep your co-conspiritors to a minimum.  A radio station needs DJs, but the member roll sort of got out of hand.  Be picky about who you trust.
  • The happenstances that keep the FCC off these two stations' backs seem improbable, even farcical, but they're just the normal SNAFUs that occur frequently at the intersection of regulation and technology.
  • If you're doing marginal stuff, don't be surprised if you get zapped for somebody else's marginal stuff.  And vice-versa.
  • If you leave your apartment key under the dog dish on the porch and let a bunch of unpaid DJs know where it is so that they can come and go as they please, don't be too surprised when most of your worldly possessions go missing.
  • Dating a heroin junkie is never a good idea.  Never.
  • Letting a mainstream TV crew into your pirate radio station may be an even worse idea than dating a heroin junkie.  You won't have any say in the story they make of the footage, and they'll just make up some lurid narrative to draw gawking eyeballs.  It's what they do for a living, like a cat that catches and kills songbirds.  You can't even be mad at the cat, only at yourself for opening the door to this abuse.
  • If you can see your remote gear getting raided, going up and confronting the raiding party isn't going to do any good.  Instead, it's called "getting arrested."  Remote gear is expendable and deniable – that's why you made it remote to begin with, right?
  • Despite all of the above, you should absolutely go do off the wall stuff like this, especially if you can dragoon a few friends along.
It was a fun, quick read but, as I said, it's a tale from another time and place.  Currently, it's out of print, but still reasonably priced online.  Tune in later in the week for a grab-bag of pirate radio and its present descendant forms.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Like it was custom made to fit.

That little Yaesu FT-450D radio I'd picked up last week is so portable that it warrants its own carry bag.  So I measured it and started casually looking around for something suitable.  BTW and for reference, including all knobs, heat sinks, etc. its outer dimensions are 6 1/4" wide, 1 3/4" thick, and 11 long.  Didn't take long to find what I was after down at the Army-Navy store:
Here's a link to the exact model.  Quoted dimensions are 7 1/2" wide, 1 3/4" thick, and 11 1/2" long, but it's actually a bit thicker, maybe a little over 2".  The point is, the radio fits, and it'll almost certainly still fit with these side rails (not the one with the battery box, scroll down; black, please) attached to keep from dinging vital parts.  And that little front pocket with the pad and pen in the picture?  Perfect to keep the microphone under control.  Comes in your choice of colors, as long as it's something drab.  I went with the almost-white khaki, mainly to keep the contents cooler if left in the sun.

No, you can't operate with the radio still in the bag.  Don't be a dumbass, it would block airflow and cook the thing, you couldn't get to the coax connectors on back, and the speaker would be covered and mghlphffed.  This bag is just to carry things, and to keep them from getting dirty and scratched while you're out roughing it.  Also to note, very little else will fit in the bag.  Conveniently the MFJ-939Y and LDG YT100 tuners look like they'll fit into another copy of this bag too.

Anyway, it's a near-custom fit for comfortably under $20.  This is a good world.

Some Interesting Maps

I like maps, how about you?  Something about them, it is as if just looking at a map is a first step to visiting a new place.  Anyway, over at CNN there's a collection of unusual maps.  Some are propaganda, some are raw information retina-to-brain displays, some are shocking, all are interesting.  Here's one, but you should look at the rest:
Human Movement and Ebola Spread, 2014

Friday, December 18, 2015

Thursday, December 17, 2015

More on Shortwave Blues

WWCR's just published their latest schedule, here are the Last Radio Playing blues show times (CST) & freqs:
  • 1:00 am Saturday, 3.215 MHz
  • 2:00 pm Saturday, 12.160
  • 3:00 pm Monday, 9.350 (but sometimes something else plays...)
  • 6:00 pm Tuesday, 5.890
  • 6:00 pm Friday, 5.890 (yes!  Friday's back!)
  • 7:00 pm 1st Friday, 4.840
Yeah, I know, "that ol' devil music" playing on WWCR.  Enjoy the incongruity of the situation.  Or just enjoy the music already.  Allan Gray plays the good stuff.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

More on Experimental Confirmation and Philosophy

I keep trying to get to these articles and blog posts, but I still haven't finished everything.  So before it all becomes too stale, here they are, presented without comment.

- Why Trust a Theory?  Announcement for a joint physics/philosophy conference.
- Related, accessible article at Forbes.
- Blogged preliminary proceedings summary in parts: 1, 2, 3.

Well, not much to say yet, beyond what I've already said last January.  Perhaps more commentary later.  Stay tuned.

A Shocking Lack of Graphics

It has come to my attention that in Saturday's and Sunday's posts relating to this new radio I have neglected to post a picture of the little puzzlebox.  So here you go.  The main body is actually about twice as deep as the perspective in this photograph makes it seem.  Still, that's not very big at all.
Everything checks out fine.  That's always a concern with used gear, but in this case the seller was right on the money: it's a good, fairly new, clean rig, all in working order as advertised.  And it wasn't that hard to program in the local 2m repeater channels, plus another one over Apalachicola way for use while on trips.  Not bad, not bad at all.  Perfect for camping trips.

Imagine What This Could Do for Bike Frames

Flash Bainite: Revolutionary steel treatment pave the way for radically lighter, stronger, cheaper cars.  !!  At gizmag.

I don't know what to say after that.  Maybe "Shut up and take my money!"  Except that radio last weekend took a chunk of it.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Weird, Frustrating, Fruitful Day

Poked at the new radio some, figured out quite a bit.  Might be 80% of the way there.  Youtube is yourfriend, because that Yaesu manual sure as hell isn't.  It's like it was written by and for cats or some other non-humanoid beings.  Fortunately Nifty publishes a set of re-written manuals, and they seem to at least understand the rudiments of human information processing.  The Big Brown Truck of Happiness should be arriving mid-week with one.

Main thing: in initial check-outs, this bargain used radio seems to be 100% functional.  Made a handful of regional contacts, and talked to some friends in Biloxi via 2m (preferred) and 40 & 80 meter NVIS (sorta out there).

Then I rode the CX along the seawall.  A bald eagle swooped overhead on the west end of Waveland beach, latched onto a fish in the shallows, and lit about 100 yards ahead of me.  I tried to get a picture but he spooked and headed for a distant piling.  Too bad, no picture for you, but it was still spectacular.

The new radio doesn't have an internal tuner.  Rather, it expects you to have your own damn antennas set up right.  So I spent an hour before dark punching a calculator and tweaking the  80/40 NVIS ("HAARP Jr.") out back to get the SWRs right on the money for the 80m General voice band and for the extension tips for PSK31.  Time well spent.

After that, Sunday evening phone with family and friends.  Two more must-calls tomorrow evening, but that's tomorrow.

So all in all not a bad day, just kind of weird and frustrating.  Time to get my gear ready to head out tomorrow and do battle with poorly crafted Fortran again.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Meanwhile, up at the hamfest...

There was a hamfest in Poplarville today.  Side definition: hamfest (n), a ham radio swap meet and small-time vendor show.  No actual pork products are involved.  The usual stuff was out in force: tons of old "boat anchor" radios and power supplies, tables of spare parts that would put a well-equipped Radio Shack (should such a thing even exist anymore) to shame, booths selling callsign-engraved knick-knacks, and several lame jokes about arriving and leaving early could be overheard.  In short, all the usual stuff.

It was however a smallish affair, maybe half the sheer volume of stuff packed into the Poplarville National Guard armory at the same event three years ago.  I don't think the event's so much in decline however, it's just no longer over-stuffed.  For all the right-sizing going on, I still found what I was looking for, a good clean used Yaesu FT-857D.  I need a second radio that's small enough to take camping or even on a hike, and this one fills the bill.  To be sure, it is a deep menus puzzlebox, but most of the settings fall into the set-it-and-forget-it realm.  Anyway, it was good to find it used, because that saved me a couple hundred bucks.  I anticipate that it'll take me a few weeks to get it all sorted out to the point that I'm ready to take it camping, but so far I've made a few contacts on HF with it and they were no trouble at all.  Need to sort out programming in the local VHF repeater frequencies next.

Needed to pick up a handful of wire insulators, was even looking at them on a table just as I was leaving, but with a new radio in my arms my brain was overloaded so I passed.  Got to put in a small parts order soon anyway.

So, successful day.  Just... lots of manual to read, and a puzzlebox to sort out in the upcoming rainy days.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Art Bell Hangs It Up

Well it was a fun five months, but the weirdos creeping around Art's house and the death threats against him and his family were too much.  You can read his closing statement here.

It's terrible.  Terrible that the person or persons making the threats and doing the creeping did so, and terrible that they didn't get caught, or worse.  Terrible that they've won in the end.  Terrible that the world is now a little more bland place.

I wish Art and his family all the best, and here's hoping that this brings the harassment to an end.

ps Saturday: The End?  Perhaps not.  The show continued last night with a new host.  We shall see.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Supper at Mimi's

It's all I've heard that it is: good food, drink, interesting off-the-tourist-path part of New Orleans.  Here's the main web site and here's the menu.  We had the coffee Kahlua glazed salmon, grilled pork tenderloin, fried brussel sprouts, and Marignated olives.  All good, all about what you'd expect.  Though I did subsequently have to look up pinxo and I'm not sure what to say about the Trust Me.  Anyway, pretty good place.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Two New Music Recommendations

(1) Morgan James | Wikipedia link | recommended youtube sample.  She's the real deal, with a natural talent brought to high polish through formal training.

(2) Public Service Broadcasting| Wikipedia link | recommended youtube sample.  If that tune and video don't have you yearning for adventure, see a cardiologist ASAP.

Both are A+ performers, each of very different sorts.  If either video interests you, dig around, there's plenty more on the web that I need not re-type.  I enjoy each immensely, and highly recommend both of them.

Been meaning to blog on each of these for a while, but had the words jam up.  Happens sometimes.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Silca Bike Pumps - the news is mixed

After a long weekend of errand-running and off-road cycling, it is time to resume blogging.  So, Saturday I had a small bike gear maintenance task before me: While inflating road bike tires, the handle on my 13 year old Silca floor pump would ride back up if I didn't keep pressure on things.  It was easy to guess that it was the check valve, and it was simple to diagnose and repair.  There's an obvious bolt screwed into the bottom brass body of the pump, and as things should go with any quality tool, the bolt came out easily enough and there on the end of the check valve
, right on top of the o-ring, was a fleck of brass left over from when the pump was manufactured.  It is a rare thing when fixing an older piece of equipment that the problem is so up front and obvious.  After removing the fleck, adding a light coat of synthetic grease on the o-ring, and bolting things back together, the pump's as good as new.  All's good, right?  Maybe.

Out of curiosity I looked on line for Silca's current status.  They're still around, and what's more they've moved to America!  So, let's look at the line-up... hmm, some "trophy" pumps for $450, some artist's signature pumps for $800, hmm, where is the main line-up?  None.  Bottom line is that there isn't a line of reasonably priced pumps anymore.  Silca's gone all artisanal on the cycling world.

Now, on one hand I do appreciate finely crafted tools.  A good pump that will last decades but initially cost 2-4x as much as a cheap-but-functional plastic pump is a bargain, and a joy to use. But... we're talking $100, maybe $150 maximum here.  $450 is way out of line.  A $450 pump simply does not rattle around in the toolbox.  You don't loan it to a buddy a the trailhead and say "toss it in the back of the truck when you're done, nobody's gonna mess with it."  Your kids don't take it down the street to fix a friend's flat.  It's no longer a pump, it's ... a status symbol?  Art?  Whatever it is, it's not something that a grad student skimps for a month to buy.  It's not something that your favorite bike shop leaves by the front door for customers' use. It's not something that a young up-and-coming racer can afford.  Effectively, the affordable quality tool that was a Silca pump has been removed new production.  What a shame.

Now, there are two silver linings in this dark cloud.  First, reasonably priced repair parts are still available from this new Silca company.  Secondly, vintage Silca pumps are available on eBay in the $40-$80 range.  They may be a little scratched up, but they do last decades.  The older of my two pumps is fast approaching the 30 year mark.  And as just pointed out, any required parts are available.

Here's a list of relevant links:
the new Silca site
eBay Silca pumps
NPR asks What makes a bike pump worth $450?
Wired takes on the $450 pump too
finally, leave it to Popular Mechanics to give this a proper blue-collar sendup.

Look, I don't begrudge an over-the-top ultralux gizmo for a high-end professional's 50th birthday gift.  It is kind of cool.  But really, the world needs good quality workman's tools.  A pump that you can use, without having to rush in with furniture wax and touch-up paint afterward.

Final thought, it is sad to think that I have probably bought my last new Silca pump, ever.  While I do have two and will probably never use up either one, if some tragedy strikes, a lesser pump – or maybe one of those eBay beauties – will take its place.  I won't be giving a $450 pump as a gift.  Who wants a white elephant to feed and guard?  Again, the only remaining silver lining is that repair parts are available, and these things were built for hard use and easy repairs.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Hey, wanna win some tires?

Bicycle Times is running a drawing.  Enter here.  Free!

ps: "Gun with Dog" deer season is out this weekend, "Primitive Weapon" season is in.  Good enough for me, see you on the trails.