Monday, December 24, 2012

Best Floor Tile on the Market

Now I must learn far too much about things which go in homes. Today was tile. Being an engineer who would like to make things practically indestructible I decided to focus on a few aspects of tile:

First is its PEI rating. There does not seem to be much additional cost associated with using PEI 5 rated tile. This tile is good enough to put into a mall, so it should certainly be good enough to go in my bathroom. It does limit me to mostly porcelain tile though.

Second is that I want thru body porcelain. This is tile which is the same color in the center as on the top. This means that if it chips the bottom of the chip will be the same color as the tile around it. This used to be standard in porcelain tile, but slowly has gone out of style because it limits options.

Last is coefficient of friction. The higher the coefficient of friction, the less slippery the tile is. Anything less than 0.8 cannot be used in Los Angeles for sloped tile, so I should be able to find many options which exceed this value.

Unfortunately, normal people do not shop like me. Most sites made it very difficult to find all three pieces of information about each tile. I was able to find four tiles which stood out though. They had a minimum dry coefficient of friction of 0.87 while meeting the other two criteria. The first two actually look decent so I will likely go with one of those.

Tile #1
Tile #2
Tile #3
Tile #4

New House

Well, I finally got talked into buying a new house. Not just as in new for me, an actual new house.

I have been convinced for some time that we need to start increasing the density of Southern California. The primary thing that needs to happen is 10+ story residential and commercial buildings within a half mile of existing train stations. It is a whole lot easier to build interesting things near public transit than it is to expand public transit to meet up with already existing homes, entertainment and workspace.

Of secondary importance is building a whole lot more housing in Orange and Los Angeles counties. This can help stop more people from commuting from Riverside and San Bernardino counties. This should be done by tearing down existing buildings rather than destroying more of the already limited habitat for coastal creatures.

Buying this home, rather than an existing home, encourages this trend. Rather than bidding up the price on already over-priced assets I am assisting in modeling the future.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

We better get working on that space program

We don't have long to escape from the robot army.

A far more impressive drone is the following. If you can survive through the bad dialog it is quite impressive.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Credit Score Scam

I have long known that credit ratings were a scam. They are more a judge of how much of a sucker you are than how much of a risk of default you are. Those who pay tons of interest on time will always have the highest credit scores.

I did not realize just how bad they are until today though:

In the past four years I have paid off around $20,000 in student loans and credit card debt.

I have no debt at all.

I have nearly a decade straight of paying utility bills of one form or another including many years of paying rent to large apartment complexes.

I have a credit card which is at least six years old (but I stopped charging anything to in the past year or so since the interest rates are damn near criminal.

I have three and a half years at one job in one of the more stable industries there is.

So I figured when getting a home loan my credit would be sufficient. I am obviously someone who can be trusted to pay back a mortgage.  No luck. When the bank ran my credit score it came back as inactive because I haven't had any debt for more than six months. Not only would they not send the bank a score, they wouldn't even send them all the information about the credit history they do have. The 20,000 in debt I payed off in the past four years? All kept secret as punishment for my refusing to play their game.

Fortunately I will have in excess of a 20% down payment. There clearly are banks with intelligent people who will go through manual underwriting, or some other procedure to take what is obviously free money to them. Still, this really makes me want to find a way to push for reform in this industry.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Engineers in a vacuum

It has become pretty clear to me that engineers are just way too isolated. They never get the feedback from reality which is necessary to actually learn to be a great engineer. Engineering school seems to be a lot more theory than hands on work but it just gets worse when they graduate. Engineers are asked to design things which they have never actually built relying only on their knowledge of abstract theories.

If I do a design, and it is wrong. I will never hear about it. A construction person will grumble a little bit when looking at the drawing, and just do it right. It is just easier than going through the trouble to fix the drawing. I thought that this was peculiar to utilities since they have dedicated people who do all construction and maintenance work. Because it is so dangerous engineers almost never get hands on experience. This  article in the Atlantic makes me think that this is a more general problem with engineering in America though. The factories are thousands of miles away, so the engineers never hear the grumbling.

But a problem soon became apparent. GE hadn’t made a water heater in the United States in decades. In all the recent years the company had been tucking water heaters into American garages and basements, it had lost track of how to actually make them.
The GeoSpring in particular, Nolan says, has “a lot of copper tubing in the top.” Assembly-line workers “have to route the tubes, and they have to braze them—weld them—to seal the joints. How that tubing is designed really affects how hard or easy it is to solder the joints. And how hard or easy it is to do the soldering affects the quality, of course. And the quality of those welds is literally the quality of the hot-water heater.” Although the GeoSpring had been conceived, designed, marketed, and managed from Louisville, it was made in China, and, Nolan says, “We really had zero communications into the assembly line there.”
To get ready to make the GeoSpring at Appliance Park, in January 2010 GE set up a space on the factory floor of Building 2 to design the new assembly line. No products had been manufactured in Building 2 since 1998. An old GE range assembly line still stood there; after a feud with union workers, that line had been shut down so abruptly that the GeoSpring team found finished oven doors still hanging from conveyors 30 feet overhead. The GeoSpring project had a more collegial tone. The “big room” had design engineers assigned to it, but also manufacturing engineers, line workers, staff from marketing and sales—no management-labor friction, just a group of people with different perspectives, tackling a crucial problem.
“We got the water heater into the room, and the first thing [the group] said to us was ‘This is just a mess,’ ” Nolan recalls. Not the product, but the design. “In terms of manufacturability, it was terrible.”
The GeoSpring suffered from an advanced-technology version of “IKEA Syndrome.” It was so hard to assemble that no one in the big room wanted to make it. Instead they redesigned it. The team eliminated 1 out of every 5 parts. It cut the cost of the materials by 25 percent. It eliminated the tangle of tubing that couldn’t be easily welded. By considering the workers who would have to put the water heater together—in fact, by having those workers right at the table, looking at the design as it was drawn—the team cut the work hours necessary to assemble the water heater from 10 hours in China to two hours in Louisville.
In the end, says Nolan, not one part was the same.
So a funny thing happened to the GeoSpring on the way from the cheap Chinese factory to the expensive Kentucky factory: The material cost went down. The labor required to make it went down. The quality went up. Even the energy efficiency went up.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Solar Cars

This is the only solar car I can almost believe in. Put solar cells on your roof than hook them up to a plug in hybrid car. The price of electricity from solar power is a couple times as high as the price of electricity from the grid. However the price of energy in the form of gasoline is about ten times the cost of electricity. So it is cheaper to put solar cells on your roof and run the first few miles of every trip on electricity than it is to run the car off gasoline for those miles.

Or it would be if the Volt and plug in Prius were not so much more expensive than any similar gasoline powered car. Still, this is cheap enough to actually be a reasonable thing for an upper middle class family of eccentric early adopters to actually do.

Lowest Birthrate Ever

Add this to the list of reasons to be skeptical about the housing market rise in California: The birth rate in California is the lowest it has ever been. This both encourages people to stay in smaller homes, and when combined with the amount of migration out of the state means that the long term prospects for housing are not particularly good.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Election Wish List

While I voted for Gary Johnson who I agree with more than just about any other politician, I really want Obama to win with Gary making up the difference in votes between the two so it is obvious to Republicans that they lost when they became the party of the police state. I have issues with the Democrats, but in the last 12 years the Republicans have gone off the deep end and need to be punished for it by losing to such a weak presidential candidate.

 Republicans win the house yet again. This might conflict with my support of Obama, but I don't trust either party with the presidency, house, and senate. With this sort of conflict it will be difficult for either party to pass some of their more wing-nut positions. 

Oregon, Colorado, and Washington state all have marijuana legalization propositions. At least one of these needs to pass. Preferably all three would pass, that would be enough to show Congress that they have a full scale rebellion on their hands and it would be best to back off.

Proposition 33 needs to lose. Will we really let corporations buy off laws so cheaply? There is rarely such a clear cut case of people trying to use money to influence politics in a way that is bad for most people.

Proposition 36 should pass. The reason we have no money for our schools comes down mostly to two things. Health care and law enforcement. The law enforcement is just not worth the money we are spending. It costs a lot more to put someone in prison than in school so I support any reasonable idea to lower the number of people in jail.

Elizabeth Warren would be a good addition to the senate. It is justice. There is no better way to pay back Republicans for blocking her appointment to a job she would be a good at than to have her take a senate seat from them. I can't say I agree with her on everything, but better decisions would be made with her in office.

I would like measure W and X in Fullerton to pass. Measure W would mean that a bunch of homes get built here. We need to increase density of cities in Southern California more than we need to build on fresh land, but at the very least this would construct many homes in an area I would like to buy. Measure X would legalize fireworks, another thing I always liked.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

You call that a recovery?

There has been a lot of talk about how there is finally an up real estate market. I have heard a whole lot of people try to tell me this is the lowest I am likely to see so I need to buy now. So here are a whole bunch of graphs of home prices over the past decade in the cities I am likely to end up in.

In Corona home prices increased 2% in the past year.
Corona Zillow Home Value Index

Fullerton did slightly better. Prices increased by 2.9%.
Fullerton Zillow Home Value Index

[La Habra]( was similar with a 2.3% increase in the past year.
La Habra Zillow Home Value Index

Hacienda Heights was 1.5%.
Hacienda Heights Zillow Home Value Index

Diamond Bar did slightly better with a 3% rise.
Diamond Bar Zillow Home Value Index

 Rowland Heights was 2.6%
Rowland Heights Zillow Home Value Index

Brea was 4% making it the highest value I saw.
Brea Zillow Home Value Index

Placentia was 3.8%
Placentia Zillow Home Value Index

Yorba Linda was 3.5%
Yorba Linda Zillow Home Value Index

And finally Chino Hills came in with no change over the past year.
Chino Hills Zillow Home Value Index

It is obvious by looking at these graphs that this recovery is over-hyped in this area. The rise in prices is tiny compared to the normal fluctuations in price. We have seen bigger bumps since the original crash which have quickly undone themselves.

It is safe to say that no home owner in this area has made money off their property investment in the past year. To make money the investment has to make more money than it costs to hold the investment. It has to beat maintenance, taxes, insurance, inflation and any interest the owner is paying on a mortgage. First of all, it takes a 2% return to match inflation, so several of the cities actually saw a decline in real prices. Then there is the price of interest. If you are paying 3.5% on a mortgage and only had a 3.5% down payment you will certainly lose money unless the property increases by a fair bit more than 3.5%. Then there is taxes, another 1% or so.

Still though, that is true in almost every real estate market. Thinking of real estate as an investment is the real problem there, it has almost never made sense as one. A better question is are you losing less money by buying than renting. With rents rising so fast in this area that may soon be the case. As someone in a cheap apartment, I don't see that being true for me soon though.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Pigeon Spy

This seems to be the month of interesting winged rats. Another use for pigeons is that you can strap small cameras to them.

This is a use for which they would now be much better suited for than in 1908. The quality of camera a pigeon can hold would be quite impressive. They don't fly so high up, so you should be able to get good quality pictures of the ground.

Spying on a facility would be easy. Train a few dozen birds to return to a facility a few hundred miles away from what you want to spy on. Drive to a few dozen sites on the opposite side of the facility and release a couple birds with cameras taking a picture every couple seconds. Assuming you camouflaged the camera well enough and made sure it couldn't be traced to you there is little risk of detection. Who checks every bird which flies over a facility for cameras? 

The birds also seem to have a history of use for smuggling drugs and other small objects.  This is harder. The problem is that not only can a pigeon not carry much weight, they only return to one location. So in order to smuggle drugs across a border or into a prison, first you would need to smuggle pigeons  the other way across the border or out of the prison.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Another Three Phase Generator

After my previous attempt at building a three phase generator, it was clear that I could do a whole lot better. That was about the best I could do without using any real tools, but I have had a job long enough now that a shortage of tools shouldn't be stopping me from building more silly toys.

I also wanted to make a generator strong enough to run a motor. The first, and second simple generator I built and the previous three phase generator did not run motors well. So a few months back I started collecting parts for a new generator.

Once again I used the same website as inspiration, an excellent description of how to construct a three phase hand crank generator. The largest conceptual changes I made from his design were using transformer steel discs instead of powdered iron in epoxy for the cores and backing iron, and a Y connection for the coils rather than a delta connection which allowed me to have a four wire system rather than a three wire. I also have yet to match his belt drive which is really quite excellent.

The first step in making the generator was to make some coils. I decided to make 12 coils out of 24 gauge magnet wire. I simply wrapped the wire 100 times around a few of the one inch disc magnets I purchased for this project.

Then I procured a few sheets of transformer steel and a disc cutter. This cutter could make 7/8th inch circles out of the transformer steel fairly quickly. Unfortunately the transformer steel I got was really really thin. It took a very long time to make the several hundred discs required.

These discs were used to make 12 larger cylinders by gluing the discs together with JB weld. I also tried the JB weld steelstik shown in this picture, but it just dried too fast to be easily used so I ultimately gave up on it.

Next I wanted a backing iron. Essentially the idea behind both the steel cores, and the backing iron is the same. You want a path for magnetic fields to go from a magnetic north pole, through your cores, and to a nearby magnetic south pole, while entirely in transformer steel. Any gaps of air, or any other non ferromagnetic material will lower the efficiency. The cores and backing iron must be sheets of transformer steel (or powdered steel/iron) because if you use a large steel block eddy currents will flow in the steel sapping efficiency.  So I cut out about 10 squares of transformer steel to use for the backing iron.

I decided to use an 8in x 8in x 2in wooden block to support my generator. First I bought two ball bearings for the rotor to rotate on. One was placed on the top of the block, one on the bottom. Wood glue was used to hold them in place.

Next I attached the backing iron to the wooden block. The first two layers were wood glue in the hopes I could rescue the backing iron should the project be a failure. The rest of the layers were held together by JB weld. That did not seem like it would be strong enough so I also used four bolts with a large washer to hold the backing iron to the wood.

Once all the backing iron layers (approximately 10 layers) were in place I used JB weld to attach the cores. Placement of the cores was critical. They needed to be exactly the same distance from the center and have exactly the same angles between them. They also needed to line up exactly with the magnets on my rotor. Fortunately the JB weld takes several hours to dry, so I was able to get pretty good positioning.

Next I placed the 12 coils I made on the cores.

Then I soldered the coils together to produce three phases and a neutral. Understanding the wiring for this is difficult, and I cannot beat this explanation so I will not even try. Still, I should show how I wired this up, so I included the following sketch. The 12 coils are connected together into 3 groups of 4 coils which are wired together. Then one end of each of the 3 groups is soldered together to produce the neutral. The other end of each of the three groups is the phase wire.

Finally the rotor needed to be constructed. I used a saw blade for the base. It can be solid steel since it is not moving relative to the magnets and therefore will not have eddy currents flowing within it. I used JB weld to attach a washer to one side of the blade, placed a 5/16th inch bolt through the washer, and held several more washers on the other side with two nuts. Then the 8 magnets were placed an equal distance apart. They were set up so each one had the opposite pole up, so if one magnet had North Pole up, the two next to it would be South pole face up.

I put masking tape around the bolt to lock the nuts in place and because there would be less wobble in the bearings when I did so.

This generator has 8 magnets and 12 coils. This number of magnets and coils will produce three phases with peak voltages 120 degrees apart. By changing the number of magnets or coils it would be possible to make any number of phases, but I stuck with this since it matches what utilities use.

Lastly I bought some rubber feet for the bottom of the block and placed the bolt through the two bearings so the magnets are just above the coils. Here are some pictures of the final product.


Here is a video I took on my iphone of the generator connected to a cd motor. CD motors are Brushless DC motors, which are really just small three phase motors which are typically run on a small inverter. They will run just fine on the three phase power that this motor produces.

The generator produces about 5 volts (phase to phase) open circuit and short circuited will produce a half ampere of current. This isn't a lot of power, but it is enough for many basic demonstrations about how electricity works.

The biggest failure of this generator is that the air gap between the coils and the magnet is just too large. The problem is that there are 8 magnets each with a pull strength of about 12lbs. When they get close to the cores, the downward force on the rotor is about 100 lbs. More importantly, the upward force on my coils and backing iron is about 100lbs. Whenever I get much closer the cores seemed to break. That wasn't so bad since I could fix a few of them as they break, but some layers in my backing iron started to break which is hard to fix. Most likely this is the two layers I connected together with wood glue. Since the generator seemed to be working about as well as I wanted I decided to stop fiddling with closing that air gap, but I may take on that challenge in the future.

The other issue is that you just cannot spin the rotor very fast by hand. With a proper belt setup I could probably get the rotor to spin up at a thousand rpm or so. That would likely be capable of producing as much electricity as someone can make with a hand crank or perhaps be used on a small wind generator.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Avian Data Transfer

This quote from a wikipedia page amuses me:

In September 2009, a South African IT company, based in Durban, pitted an 11-month-old bird armed with a data packed 4GB memory stick against the ADSL service from the country's biggest internet service provider,Telkom. The pigeon named Winston took an hour and eight minutes to carry the data 80 km (50 mi). Including downloading, it took two hours, six minutes, and 57 seconds for the data to arrive, the same amount of time it took to transfer 4% of the data over the ADSL
Since data storage has increased so much in capacity, pigeons have become a much more practical tool for transferring data. It used to be that you could transfer a message a few hundred miles with one, but it wouldn't be more than you could fit on a page. Now, you could transfer all the data required to produce a stealth fighter on one bird. Given the huge population of feral birds this just might be the least likely message to be intercepted as well. I doubt a drone could track a bird even if it knew it had a message. The bird might get shot down, but only with a very determined effort.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Ginger Beer Plant

I tried making beer a few times. I eventually just gave away everything and stopped bothering. While there were a few reasons for this, one of the primary ones was that it just did not make economic sense. I ended up spending about a dollar a beer in ingredients and putting in hours of work. It just made more sense to buy beer.

I was just given a "ginger beer plant" though which would have been a much better choice for a broke college student. The ingredients are pretty much just sugar, ginger, and ginger beer plant. This is astronomically cheap. Sugar at Target was 55 cents a pound. In bulk you can probably find a way to buy it for half that price. Assuming this uses the same amount of sugar as regular beer, I would guess that a 5 gallon batch would use about 8 pounds of sugar. Or about $4 for the batch. This works out to about 10 cents a beer!

Why this isn't in every dorm building in the country is beyond me.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Biomedical Bias

I have grown quite skeptical of modern biomedical science and medicine. It is not that it hasn't produced some amazing things such as antibiotics and vaccines, it is that so much of it is based on poor science and the differences are hard to tell.

We need a lot more people entirely devoted to replicating experiments and more journal space devoted to failed replication.

Here is yet more reason to be skeptical:

Monday, September 24, 2012

Same Day Registration

As someone who has moved a lot, I am really happy to see that in four years California will finally have same day voter registration!

I recently could not vote because I forgot to send my packet in by the deadline. That was pretty annoying, there really is no reason that we cannot let people register at the poll booth. This is particularly true for someone like me who could easily cough up a passport, birth certificate, drivers license, and social security card.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Obama on Energy

It is surprising to me just how little Obama has bragged about his accomplishments on Energy. His administration has been almost without qualification a success on energy policy.

Let us start with the Drill Baby Drill crowd. This is the crowd which should be the most happy with Obama. He has stunningly stopped a several decade long decline in oil production. From 1985 on domestic oil production dropped just about every single year. This includes dropping every single year of the Bush administration. Oil production under Bush dropped from 2,130,707 thousand barrels in 2000 to 1,830,136 thousand barrels in 2008. Then, much to my shock, domestic oil production increased in 2009, then in 2010, then in 2011, and it looks to be on track to do so again in 2012. By 2011 production was up to 2,065,172 barrels, undoing two thirds of the drop which occurred over the Bush administration.

For the big picture, here is oil production throughout most of our history(click on it for a full size image). The rise in the last few years is small, but it is the first significant rise in my lifetime:
Natural gas may be an even bigger success of the Obama administration. Natural gas production has risen quite a bit since Obama entered office. Unlike oil though, natural gas does not trade on a world market. So the savings get passed on to consumers. Here is a graph of natural gas prices. Prices reached their peak in the last year of the Bush administration and have been steady at about half that price for all of the Obama administration:

With the failure of Yucca mountain and all of the drama relating to Fukushima the picture on nuclear power is more mixed. Still, the most important thing for nuclear is to build new reactors. As long as 1970s era nuclear reactors are forced to compete with newer power plants it is hard to see a future for nuclear. If we can just continue to build a few reactors a decade than if natural gas prices ever peak again or renewables fail to live up to expectations a real nuclear renaissance can occur. On this front, it finally looks like we will get some new reactors. The Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Georgia is actually being built!

One thing I never liked about the Bush administration was its focus on Hydrogen powered cars. There was never a good idea about where all the hydrogen would come from, and the technology has unsurprisingly languished. However electric cars do hold some real promise. Sure, the leaf would only suffice as a sole vehicle for someone who almost never drives, but the Volt is actually a real practical car as is the plug in Prius. If over the next decade the price of gasoline slowly rises to twenty or thirty dollars a gallon, we finally have an option which keeps civilization going. Since Obama saved GM he can reasonably take credit for the Volt, although I doubt he will until the bugs get worked out of this new technology.

On the renewables front, wind power is actually starting to produce useful amounts of power. Here is the graph of wind production, throughout the Obama administration it has been being installed like crazy:

Solar production follows much the same trajectory but unlike Wind is still producing negligable amounts of electricity.

Another Bush boondoggle was Ethanol. It just was a clever farm subsidy. Unfortunately Obama has not managed to kill it. Fortunately he did manage to stop growth in the industry with 2011 having the smallest increase in production in a decade or so

A clever Republican might, quite rightly, point out that a few of these things were just the completion of ground work completed during the Bush administration. They would be right. However if Obama gets crap for economic failures which started in the Bush administration he certainly should get credit for the things that went right.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Almost Gone.

Somehow I got on the tangent of reading about random endangered species. Here are some of my favorite species which are almost gone:

Javan Rhinoceros:


Asiatic Cheetah:
 Hispaniolan Solenodon:
Red Slender Loris:
 Purple Frog:
Rainbow Burrowing Frog:
Orinoco Crocodile:


I ran into a picture of this helicopter at the back of an article in The Economist.

After watching this video I feel like I may need a garage.

On second thought a garage might get me killed.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

More Crazy Machines

Some crazy machines which caught my attention. First, a four legged robot which is an attempt at making a robot which can follow a person around and take verbal commands:

Second a computer which is really good at fantasy soccer.

There really is a risk of knowledge workers getting displaced in the next decade or two. I am mostly paid because of my knowledge of the standards, work practices, and physics of some obscure aspects of the power industry. Pretty soon a good computer will be able to read the relevant textbooks and international standards then give a better recommendation than I am likely to be able to. At that point I sure hope I am the only one who understands how to use this computer.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Lunar Space Lift

One of my favorite ideas has always been building an elevator from the moon to space. Send a few dozen CNC machines, mining robots, a smelting facility, and a factory to build solar cells and we will suddenly have a way to construct much larger space ships than we ever could construct from earth.

It is good to see this idea finally is getting some serious attention. I rather question their 800 million dollar price estimate, but if it could be done for ten times that it would be worthwhile.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Pictures of Mars

I ran into this image the other day. It was taken by the new Mars rover, Curiosity(click to enlarge, for an even larger one see wikipedia):

Somehow I stumbled onto some of the images from Opportunity and Spirit though. They are much more impressive:

I imagine that once it has spent a little more time on the planet, Curiosity will put the previous smaller rovers to shame. The other rovers really did do a good job of making Mars seem like a real place rather than some fictitious world though. I am still of the opinion that open space is a much better place for colonization because Mars has just enough gravity to be annoying, but not enough to be useful. Still, I can totally see why people would want to try and make that planet home.