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Archive for the ‘Tools’ Category

Escape From Miami

Monday, February 20th, 2017

Choosing Houses Takes Horse Sense

I feel a little better now that the shock of driving to Miami from America is wearing off.

Today I’m working on various responsibilities and preparing for a visit to Marion County to see the area and visit some houses. The knowledge that getting out of Dade County will take months is weighing on me.

I went to a forum to ask people from the Ocala area some questions, and while I was there, I couldn’t resist looking at posts regarding Miami. People were considering moving there.

I had to say something. I was honest. I said the people were very rude and the traffic was horrible. I said Miami had no culture. I said black people got bad treatment here, which is very true. Cuba had a political revolution, but it never had a civil rights revolution.

Some character popped up and accused me of creating an account just to “bash” Miami. Yeah, okay. What about the people who said they agreed with me? I didn’t see a convenient explanation for their remarks.

To prove Miami had culture, this person posted a video of someone singing in a bar!

I don’t know why a person who lives in an unpleasant city would pimp it to unsuspecting visitors. Why bring people here with crazy expectations? I would be pretty upset if I moved here thinking this was a nice place to live. If people tell you the truth, at least you can prepare and adjust.

It’s tough to figure out which properties are best. It seems like people in Marion County don’t follow the universal rule of pricing houses 5-10% higher than what they really expect to receive. The prices seem completely random. The realtor is sending me places with asking prices more than 15% above my limit, and he says they’re “negotiable.” If your asking price is nearly 20% higher than what your house is worth, you’re not a negotiator. You’re a scam artist. You’re trying to fleece somebody.

If you don’t know what properties really cost, it’s hard to decide which ones to look at. If your baseball glove budget is $50, and the store prices the good ones at $75 and sells them for $50, you’re going to look at the cheap ones and end up paying $30.

I wonder what a baseball glove costs. The last time I bought one, my dad was not in a spending mood, so I got one from KMart for $5. I cut the label out so I wouldn’t have to hear about it from the other kids.

Wow. I just saw one for $99.

I don’t even have a KMart glove now. I think it was one of the many items that belonged to me that got discarded when my parents moved. I guess I can get by without one at my age.

I have to have a place for tools, and that doesn’t mean half a garage. It means serious room. Some places don’t have workshops. Some have barns with tooly-looking areas that have concrete floors. How hard is it to turn them into shops? Search me.

There are a number of great properties with really bad houses. Florida is known for ugly houses. If you want a geodesic dome made of pink fiberglass, this is the state where you should look for it. It’s sad that so many nice lots have houses that look like machine gun bunkers or log cabins.

Who, in his right mind, builds a 3500-square-foot log cabin? You will never be able to sell a log cabin house to any family that contains a heterosexual woman. Repairs and alterations will be nearly impossible. Every time you hang a picture, you’ll damage your ridiculous wooden walls in ways that can’t be fixed. Is it even possible to insulate these monstrosities? I don’t know. But they’re surprisingly popular.

One of the nicest properties has a house which is “stucco over frame.” Is that even a recognized construction medium? I can’t even tell what it is. I guess they put some kind of siding over wooden studs and then slop cement on it.

I don’t know anything about rural property, so I don’t know what pitfalls to look out for. I don’t want a place that floods whenever it rains. I don’t want drainage problems, swamps I’m not allowed to drain, or nuclear waste.

I’ll have to trust God and do my best.

It’s my own fault I’m in Miami. I chose it. I didn’t serve God, and I didn’t have his guidance. There was a period during and after law school when I was reasonably happy here; I deluded myself. If I had listened to God, I would have landed somewhere else a long time ago.

Don’t be like me. If you’re young, start listening now.

Drowning in Choices

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

As Problems Go, This is a Nice One

I’m writing because some websites are failing to load for me. I figure they’ll probably kick in just as I start getting interested in this blog post.

I’m trying to look at Marion County properties a realtor emailed me. Before I contacted a realtor, I went to Zillow and other sites and found a few properties worth saving. Now I have a bunch of new ones to look at. You would think an Internet search would turn up everything worth looking at, but the realtor found a lot of fantastic stuff that didn’t appear on Zillow.

It looks like the hard part will be narrowing the choices down. I’m overwhelmed. These places are so beautiful, I can’t believe I could end up living in one of them.

For some reason, the prices of properties don’t seem strongly related to the acreage. A place with 10 acres will not necessarily cost much less than one with 31 acres. Obviously, this means I’m excited about the big places. With 10 acres, shooting in my yard could conceivably annoy neighbors. If I get 31, as far as I’m concerned, they can put their complaints in a sock, because I will be way too far away for anyone to have a legitimate gripe.

Why do people live in Dade County (now named Miami-Dade because Spanish-speaking foreigners can’t figure out that “Dade” means “Miami”)? The lots are small. The traffic is starting to rival Hong Kong’s. The people are very, very rude. You have to repeat yourself over and over when you buy things, because half of the population can’t understand English. If everyone here were getting rich, I would understand the draw, but Miami is a poor city. I guess the allure is the knowledge that you can move here, refuse to learn English, and do okay.

There are a lot of variables to look at when I go through these properties. I want reasonably good soil so I can grow food when America finally collapses, so I am looking at the photos and trying to weed out the places that are all pine and no hardwood. I don’t want too much horse stuff. Supposedly, keeping one small barn on a property will bring some sort of tax advantage, but some of these places have tracks and 5000 square feet of stalls.

The north part of the county might be better for my dad, since he will need to be reasonably near good medical care (i.e. Gainesville).

The thought of having a workshop I can roller skate in is intoxicating. I watch other people’s Youtube videos, and some of their shops are nearly empty. It makes me want to jump through the screen and lie down on the cool, satisfying concrete. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have that kind of space. Some of the places in Marion County appear to have shops as large as 2000 square feet. I would never, ever leave. I would move the bed into the shop.

Now that I think about it, I’m not sure what I need a house for. Oh, yeah. Now I remember. My dad will want a place to sleep.

You know what’s really exciting? We could conceivably have a tractor. A man with a tractor is a man to be reckoned with. In addition to chores like bush-hogging (boring!), you can use a tractor to move machinery, do light earth-moving jobs, and generally wreak havoc. I don’t know if I would actually use one. I might just go out into the shop and hold it, like a Hillary voter holding a rented puppy.

I always say I have no ambition. Now that has changed. My ambition is to move to a rental property, screw around with my tools, have all sorts of prayer meetings, get old, and die. Judging from what I’ve learned so far, when I get up there, I may have a lot of competitors in these pursuits.

This morning I read something from 2 Peter:

For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but saved Noah, one of eight people, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood on the world of the ungodly; and turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemned them to destruction, making them an example to those who afterward would live ungodly; and delivered righteous Lot, who was oppressed by the filthy conduct of the wicked (for that righteous man, dwelling among them, tormented his righteous soul from day to day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds)— then the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations and to reserve the unjust under punishment for the day of judgment, and especially those who walk according to the flesh in the lust of uncleanness and despise authority.

Reading that made me very emotional. To think that God might get me out of here and put me among better people…that is true generosity.

Lot lived in Sodom, and God called him righteous. If you read about Lot, though, you will see that he wasn’t what we would call a saint. He wasn’t on the same level as Abraham. Lot’s deliverance shows that God will help people who fail a lot. That tells me he is willing to help me.

I can’t go back and rejoin the crazy, ungodly world. Life has gotten truly insane. If you’re any kind of a Christian, you now have a target on your back. People will do their best to take away your livelihood and blackball you so you can’t get hired or own a business anywhere. You can’t even have a bakery, because vicious people who don’t really want your cakes will come to you and order wedding spreads just to get you put out of business.

Our culture has gone nuts. This week a female performer named Beyonce (you probably know who she is) did a dance number for the Grammys in which she dressed up as a voodoo “goddess,” put a halo on her head, and had other dancers worship her. She threw in elements of the Hindu “god” Shiva. People lapped it up. If you criticize her on Facebook, her warped fans (the “Beehive”) will come after you and heap abuse on you.

A few years back, Madonna did a similar act in which dancers dressed as demons worshiped her.

Americans see nothing wrong with things like this now. Satan is officially mainstream. People think it’s cute. They don’t realize these “gods” represent real spirits that hate Yahweh.

We’re so filthy now, and so proud, most of us are beyond God’s reach. Persecution will now increase, and it won’t be that long before the state treats us the way Nazi Germany treated Jews. If you think it can’t happen here, wake up. The Germans and Austrians were more civilized and orderly than we are now, and they built the death camp ovens.

I can’t go back. I can’t give up what I have. I can never rejoin the devil’s system, so I will always be faced with bitter, cruel opposition. Unless God wants me to live in complete subjugation and misery, he will have to provide a way out, and I think that’s what he’s doing.

The sites loaded, and I went over the properties and made notes.

You can get more property for your money when you move away from Ocala and Gainesville, but then you have to think about the aggravation of driving half an hour to get to Lowe’s or the nearest hospital. Also, my dad likes to have lunch in restaurants. I just looked at a place called Williston, and it appears that the choices are basically fast food, two BBQ joints that get dubious reviews, and diners.

On the whole, a restaurant shortage in a wonderful place is a much better problem to have than being stuck in a rude, crowded city and having restaurants that are sort of okay.

I really want to go lie down on a concrete shop floor. Like, now.

If I ever manage to choose a place, you will read about it here.

Adios, Al Fin

Thursday, February 9th, 2017

Talk to my Taillights

This is a momentous day, or rather, yesterday was. I was working on the problem of leaving Miami, and I realized there was no point in limiting myself to South Florida. Things have worked out so that I will be able to go where I really want to go, farther up the state.

Four years ago, I decided to leave this area, and I went to Ocala and looked at houses. My father was extremely disturbed by this, and I agreed to linger here while he got his affairs in order, with the understanding that we would both leave eventually. Finally, things are more or less organized, and I have realized I can manage his properties just as well from Ocala as I can from places closer to Miami.

It’s funny, but when you’re used to certain problems and certain options, you may not be aware of it when your options change. You have to sit down and reassess things. Sometimes you will think you’re still trapped when the cage door is actually open.

I was looking at properties in Broward County, which is where Fort Lauderdale is. To the west of the city, there are semi-rural neighborhoods where you can cover your lawn with Trump signs without having your house egged. It’s a nice area; no doubt about it. Still, the good houses are already taken, and if you want two acres (the minimum amount of land required to maintain sanity), you will pay out the nose. Also, Broward is 28% Hispanic.

Am I saying I don’t want to live around Hispanics? Not exactly. I’m saying I don’t want to live in a foreign country, which is what Miami is. This county is about 65% Hispanic, and that doesn’t include illegals and tourists. When you go to a mall, you can expect the people around you, most of whom were born in America, to speak Spanish to each other and the clerks maybe 75% of the time. That gets old.

I actually lived in a foreign country where I heard English spoken more often. I spent four months in Israel, and virtually everyone spoke English.

When you turn on the radio here, you may try five stations before you hear anything but Spanish.

If you think wanting to live in an English-speaking country makes me a bad person, wait till you read this: I am also tired of Hispanic culture.

Here in Miami, people talk really loud, all the time, and when they sit in groups, everyone talks at once. People are angry maybe 60% of the time, for no reason at all. People are very aggressive; I think that’s a Cuban thing, not a Hispanic thing. Other Hispanics are less confrontational. Anyway, people here are extremely emotional, and they have no respect for rules (even good ones). It had probably been forty years since Castro’s victory when Miami Cubans learned it was not okay to walk straight to the head of lines in stores and restaurants.

In Miami, one has the persistent sense of being threatened. Everyone wants to deny you the right of way in traffic. Everyone wants to get in front of you and get to whatever it is you want before you do. Everyone wants to get over on you in business. People tailgate and drive with their high beams on. People talk in front of you in Spanish so they can take advantage of you (pretty funny when they do it to Cubans who don’t look Cuban). It makes you feel like you’re Captain Kirk and you can never lower the deflector shields.

I know a Cuban lady who demanded a transfer out of Miami because she couldn’t stand the way people treated her American husband. She told me horror stories. They would be waiting in a restaurant, and the people who worked there would talk to Cuban customers, calling her husband dirty names and saying they would make him wait while the Cubans got tables. They didn’t know she understood.

It’s not like every American is treated badly all the time. Many, many Hispanics treat us very well. There are hundreds of thousands of wonderful Hispanic people here. But it doesn’t take many bad apples to ruin things, and it’s difficult for a person who has lived among nice people and knows how much better life is supposed to be.

People here hate it when you criticize Miami. They love it because they have never been anywhere else in America, and because most of them are in the top caste. If you’re Hispanic, life is good here. Everyone speaks your language, you have big advantages in business, and people will treat you better than they treat Americans (especially black Americans). If you’re Cuban and you grew up here, no wonder you think it’s paradise. You’re like a Brahmin in India. You don’t know what it’s like to be blackballed.

I have a black friend who moved to Orlando. He’s a hard-working man who is doing a terrific job supporting five great kids. He doesn’t speak Spanish. He applied for 27 jobs here and got no calls. He applied for three in Orlando and got three offers. His wife, who speaks only English and Creole, got a good job, too. Hello? Can anyone guess the reason?

My friend says he absolutely hates to visit Miami. It depresses him and makes him angry. He and his family are thrilled with Orlando, even after two years of getting used to it.

Broward County is 28% Hispanic (and that figure is increasing fast), but up around Ocala, the percentage is more like 8%. That means everyone has to learn English and make an effort to fit in with the existing culture. I’ll take that.

My dad has dementia, and it won’t be long before he will need a place to go every day to be with other people his age. In Miami, he would be surrounded by old people he couldn’t talk to. They would talk to each other all day in Spanish, and then once in a while they would talk to him in English. That’s no good. I always say no one wants to get old in Miami.

I looked at properties on the Internet, and I was dazzled. I got brave, and I removed the “2 acres+” filter from my searches. I changed it to 5 acres. Then 10. Then I went nuts and changed it to 20. I found a place with 56 acres. I found one with 107 acres.

I found houses that had magnificent outbuildings built to be workshops. You know why? Because people up there are like me! Oh, my God. It was too good to be true. One place had several welding stations, 200-amp service, and a lift. It even had a bunker with a steel door. It’s like I dreamed that place. All it needs is a machine gun nest.

That was a joke…or was it?

Yes, it was a joke. Calm down, DHS.

Of course, if it wasn’t a joke, I would definitely pretend it was a joke in order to fool people. Just saying.

I’ll finally be able to practice shooting in my own yard. I’ll be able to practice correctly. No slow fire. Think how good I’ll be. I will be positively dangerous.

My new mission in life is to get my dad’s house ready so he can rent it out after the move. I am doing that as quickly as I can. I would like to fix it up so he can charge a lot, but he is resisting moving out until it’s done, which makes the whole process much harder. My current strategy is to get it done, quick and dirty, and get the hell out. If he has to charge 30% less, well, life will go on.

I gave up on local contractors. I went to Home Depot and told them, essentially, “Give my dad a new kitchen right now.” They’re coming in the next few days. I’m going to have his rotten deck pulled out. I’m not going to worry about the terrible 1950’s windows or the 9000 other problems that will take too long to fix. Once we’re gone, maybe I can do more.

Why is all this happening so fast? I can answer that. A stronghold is being broken. I chose to live in this rotten city, and I chose to rebel and do my own thing, so God required me to have my nose rubbed in this place. I’ve turned back to him, and he has restored things in my life one by one, on his own schedule. I have started apologizing to him for choosing Miami. Now things are breaking loose.

One of the neat things about God is that he may be very quick to break a stronghold that looks like it will last forever. That’s important to know, especially for people like convicts who think they will never be free from the consequences of their actions. God gave birth to Israel in one day. He shook a prison and freed Paul and Silas. He still does things like that.

I can’t wait to leave this area. I won’t miss one thing about it. Not for one second. I will never come back without a compelling reason.

Won’t I miss the culture of a big city? Excuse me while I laugh. Miami has no culture at all, unless you count the new rap culture of Miami Beach, which is now the top vacation destination for ghetto thugs. There is no real orchestra here. There is no classical station. There is virtually no jazz. The museums are hilarious. There is no architecture, unless you count a few cheesy Art Deco hotels. No, I don’t think I’ll miss that.

I definitely won’t miss the gay scene. I wonder what life is like on South Beach now that it’s an uncomfortable mixture of gays and rap fans. I know everyone is complaining, and charges of racism are flying around.

It’s not about race. It’s about shootings, beatings, noise, property damage, intimidation, and theft. It’s about scared Europeans who spend more money, who go someplace else now.

Why am I writing about this? Not my problem.

If you want to be helpful, do me a favor and pray God will help me get all this done, and that he will guide us to a peaceful home. I would appreciate that.

Now I have to call a guy to rip out the deck.


I arranged for a demolition guy to remove my dad’s deck, so I feel pretty good about that. I felt like expounding on my remarks about Miami culture, so here I am

God has helped me to turn my back on my own culture. I used to be proud of my Eastern Kentucky heritage, for some reason I no longer recall. Now I realize Eastern Kentucky is full of racism, alcoholism, ignorance, violence, and God knows what else. It’s a white ghetto. It keeps getting worse because people who have a better mindset keep leaving.

Eastern Kentucky is not going to get better. Lyndon Johnson’s vote-buying money didn’t fix it, missionaries didn’t fix it, and if Trump takes a shot at it, he won’t fix it, either. People up there cause their problems, and every day, they choose to cling to ways that keep their problems in place. I am not stupid enough to worry about people who don’t care about themselves.

A side effect of my sudden willingness to criticize my own culture is a willingness to criticize other cultures. Miami is very messed up, and I am trying to be honest about it. I may sound harsh or even bigoted, but when something is messed up, and you speak the truth about it, you aren’t going to say positive things.

To show that I’m not always negative about other cultures, I will also say that I now think certain American cultures are superior to my own. On the whole, I think people in the middle of the country, in places like Iowa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, are the least dysfunctional. I think their culture is flat-out superior to Appalachian culture and Southern culture as a whole.

People in the heartland commit less crime, and they generally treat each other better. They may not be the most exciting people on earth, but on the other hand, they cause less trouble than the rest of us, and they haven’t completely lost their humanity, even in polarized 2017.

A bigot thinks his culture is the best in the world. That’s not me.

Southern culture, like the culture in Ocala, isn’t the absolute best, but it’s pretty good, and it’s a thousand percent better than what we have in South Florida.

A wise person doesn’t cling to backward ways out of pride. I would like to be wise eventually.

If I offended anyone, well, I don’t apologize. Wronging someone and offending them are two different things.

Lord of the Fleas

Sunday, February 5th, 2017

Plus Metrosexual Abuse

Sometimes I don’t know what to make of the Internet. It’s tempting to think of it as a reliable repository containing every type of knowledge you could hope to uncover, but the cruel truth is that it fails a lot.

Yesterday I visited the Florida Swap Shop to see if I could find a few cheap old wrenches to cut up and use for welding projects. I bought three, and I also bought two small adjustable (“crescent”) wrenches made by Williams. This company has made a lot of excellent stuff, and I was able to get a 6″ wrench and an 8″ wrench for eight bucks. They’re not in mint condition, but they work fine, and a new 6″ SK wrench costs about $22.

I cleaned the Williams wrenches up and did a minor repair on the bigger one. When I bought it, I didn’t notice that the jaws didn’t close all the way. At home, I took it apart (screw on the side of the wrench) and cleaned it up, but it still wouldn’t close. I finally realized the moving jaw could not slide out of the body all the way (necessary when it closes) because some ape had used the wrench to tap something. Hammer, wrench…what’s the difference?

The metal where the jaw slid out of the body was slightly deformed. I jabbed it with a file a few times, and now the wrench closes.

If you’ge Googling for information because you need help with ADJUSTABLE CRESCENT WRENCH THAT WON’T CLOSE, now you know what to do. Don’t lose the tiny spring that holds the knurled adjustment worm in place.

To get back to the issue that drove me to write today, the Williams wrenches had some kind of greasy black grit (or gritty black grease) on them. I’m sure you’ve seen this stuff. It magically appears on all old tools and in the bottoms of all old toolboxes. I had some success removing it with my amazing shower concoction (water, no-scrub cleaner, Dawn, and dishwasher rinse aid), but I couldn’t get all of it off.

That stuff works wonders on aluminum wheels. Ask my friend Mike, who used my last batch to clean the crud off the wheels of the Explorer I sold him. Without asking my permission.

I Googled today, and I saw a list of offerings. Which site was most likely to be right? People who write things on the Internet are usually ignorant; they just write for the purpose of filling websites. I wanted good information.

I chose Popular Mechanics, even though I knew better. There was a page about restoring rusty tools. The wrenches I’m working on aren’t rusty, but I figured black mystery crud might be covered as well.

Guess what Popular Mechanics says about removing rust? You soak your tools in vinegar and then scrape the rust off by hand. Are you kidding me?

I don’t like Popular Mechanics. I had a subscription, and I canceled. My take was that it was written by poser sissies who knew nothing about tools. It was full of useless articles about overly diverse-looking millennials who had tech startups (Wow! She’s a woman! And she’s Asian!). It also contained lots of material which appeared to be favorable press given in exchange for free tools. When a story features flattering photos of a new tool, plus gushing prose and a link to a website, hey…it’s an ad.

In the old days, Popular Mechanics was written by guys who still had the blood of dead Japanese soldiers behind their cauliflower ears. The target audience was actual men who had Vitalis in their short hair and surplus lathes in their garages. The magazine was full of useful stuff. Now, it’s useless. I mean, Glenn Reynolds writes for it. Come on.

Here’s how you take rust off of tools. You put them in a plastic bucket with a solution of water and baking soda or washing soda. You attach the negative clamps of battery chargers to them. You attach the positive clamps to submerged scrap iron. Then you wait. Every last particle of rust comes off, along with paint and everything else, if you wait long enough. You will end up with tools that are nothing but ferrous metal. It’s great. How can a magazine dedicated to tools recommend vinegar?

At least it wasn’t balsamic.

Another option: products made with phosphoric acid, such as Ospho or naval jelly. Apply. Wait. Rinse. Phosphoric acid loves rust and hates iron. It works.

I don’t know if pressure cleaners remove rust, but I’ll bet they do.

When you use abrasives to remove rust, as the magazine recommends, you take off sound metal. You’re not restoring. You’re altering. It’s much nicer when you can avoid removing steel.

I can just picture the Popular Mechanics writer, with his skinny jeans, Smith Brothers beard, creepy glasses, and punch-me cardigan, trying to use a Sonicare to remove rust from a pink-handled hammer without getting too dirty. They need to put him to work in a waxing salon.

If you want advice on tools, join a forum frequented by old machinists and woodworkers with missing fingers. They know what works.

Here’s the secret password: “Kroil.” If they don’t know what it is, you’re on the wrong forum.

Maybe instead of being disappointed, I should be glad I know more than Popular Mechanics.

I still don’t know the best way to get the black stuff off of tools. Maybe a good soak in gasoline, at least 20 feet from the house. I don’t have a parts washer.

Having visited flea markets exactly twice in the last 25 years, I am now an expert, so I will give you my take, which cannot be questioned. They work for three kinds of people.

1. People who know exactly what they want and what it’s worth.
2. People who like buying useless crap just to have a good time.
3. Poor people.

If you lack funds, a flea market can set you up with acceptable goods, cheap. If you’re a young man, and you need to put together a tool collection, flea markets are where you should be. Look at what I got. Two wrenches for eight dollars instead of fifty. You can also get well-made old furniture which is just beaten-up enough to look sort of chic in a college apartment. It will work better than Ikea crap, and you will be able to resell it for about what you paid.

Flea markets are also good for tool people who care more about how tools work than how they look. Me, I have a weakness for the shiny and clean, so I haven’t bought as many old tools as I should have, but I could have loaded up on quality wrenches and pliers for a hundred bucks.

If you can’t tell good stuff from bad, you will be skinned alive at a flea market, and you will come home with a lot of Chinese tools. Look for “USA” on everything you buy, and you should do okay. Use your phone to check prices.

I couldn’t get people to haggle at all. I got one dollar off the asking price for the three big wrenches. Maybe my clothes were too clean.

I’m happy. I tend to lose small adjustable wrenches, so next time it happens, I won’t lose much.

Maybe next week I’ll hit some garage sales.


Forgot to mention another reason the Internet is not as reliable as one would hope: queered ratings.

I bought a Ridgid Jobmax reciprocating saw attachment. You probably call this kind of saw a “Sawzall.” I had had great results with the drill, impact driver, and sanding attachments, so I figured the saw would be useful.

When I used the saw, I was very disappointed. It seemed to get bogged down very easily. I felt it was worthless. You could cut something like foam with it, but people buy this type of saw for wood and metal.

I gave it a one-star review on Home Depot’s site. One day a guy who worked for Ridgid emailed me, asking questions. I didn’t like being pestered about the review, but I responded. I said I wasn’t interested in being part of product development, because I figured that was what Ridgid wanted.

He said they weren’t trying to involve me in product development, and he said various things to defend the saw. He said it was only for light duty. Okay, but I still didn’t like it.

He thanked me for my input, and he said he would like to send me some Ridgid gear, so I gave him my address. Then he asked if it would be okay to take down my one-star rating.

No, it was not okay. It was disturbing and unethical.

I told him the Home Depot ad didn’t mention light duty. It said the saw “will tackle most any repair job.” I have never found the tool to be of any use at all. I don’t know why I didn’t return it. Maybe I thought some day I would have a job light enough for it to handle. I think my review was right on target.

He said it was intended for things like PVC. Coincidentally, I had to do a lot of PVC work last year, and I went out and got a corded DeWalt reciprocating saw. I was not about to try the Jobmax.

To be fair, today I put a 2 1/2″ PVC pipe in a vise and tried to cut it with the Jobmax. You would not believe how slow it was. I got about 3/16″ into the pipe and quit. It looked like I was going to be there a while. The DeWalt would have gone through it as if it were toast.

If you absolutely have to leave your sawzall at home, yes, take the Jobmax. It’s better than a steak knife. But don’t even let yourself fantasize about the possibility that it’s a real reciprocating saw.

I was not all that excited about the Ridgid gear. I like tool-related shirts, but Ridgid’s signature color is orange, so I felt it was unlikely that I would want to wear a Ridgid shirt. It turned out I was in no danger; after I refused to let them remove the review, he said they were out of shirts. I don’t know what they’re sending.

A cynical person might wonder if they always run out of shirts when someone refuses to change a review, but I assume he was telling the truth.

I agreed to let them send me stuff because there was some chance there might be something good included, and they offered before telling me they wanted to take the review down.

Now that I know they ask people to change their reviews, I wish I had turned down the offer.

The point of this story is to let people know that at least one company out there is asking people for permission to remove negative reviews. When I bought that awful saw, the reviews looked good, and I was shocked when I found out how useless it was. Now I wonder how many helpful negative reviews were abandoned by customers who like orange shirts.

I honestly believe the tool is bad, and I would never consider recommending it to anyone. As a customer, I want to protect people from this product, which disappointed me. It seems to me that Ridgid should put its energy into fixing the tool instead of the reviews.

If Ridgid is doing this, who else is doing it?

It’s a bummer, because I really like Ridgid tools. I have two Jobmaxes, a table saw, an oscillating sander, and two miter saws. Whenever I shop for a power tool, I look at Ridgid first, because I like their products and their warranty. Now I’m afraid to believe other people’s reviews.

Here’s what would really be bad: a review of a Ridgid tool, published by Popular Mechanics. “I give the Ridgid jigsaw two thumbs up, because it was great for cutting out the foamboard background for my bedroom shrine to Justin Bieber! It was so quick and easy, I didn’t even sweat up my man bun!”

I hope people are impressed that I didn’t whore myself out for a T-shirt. It will take more than that to buy me off. They should have offered me a free beer insulator.

If you like researching tools online before you buy, remember my sad tale of woe. You may only be seeing half of the reviews.

As long as I’m here, let me say I bought the Jobmax ratchet, and it slipped. If you buy one, make sure you test it thoroughly and apply for the lifetime warranty.

Avoiding Weld Schmerz

Friday, February 3rd, 2017

More Stuff I Don’t Actually Need to Do

Having had great success with my welded box wrench bottle opener, I am planning to do some more metalworking projects. It occurred to me that turning trash into useful objects would be an effective and inexpensive way to improve my abysmal welding skills. I’m thinking I may hit the flea markets this weekend and pick up some junk to work on.

I really need practice. I had some problems with the last two items I welded.

In 2016, I used stainless wire to weld the corner back onto a cast iron motor base. The weld worked, but it was very ugly, and there was a lot of spatter. I couldn’t see a thing when I welded it, so the weld wandered around a bit, and I also deposited too much wire. Experiences like this are the reason I’m so good at using the angle grinder.

When I welded the wrench/opener, I still couldn’t see, and I ended up with blobs that had to be ground off. The spatter was also bad.

Day before yesterday, I took out some scrap steel and ran some beads on it, and I discovered the cause of the poor visibility. The welder’s shade was set too dark. I guess that should have been obvious, but when I was welding the motor and opener, I had this dim memory of having tried adjusting the darkness setting, and I thought it wouldn’t work. Clearly I was wrong. D’OH.

As for the spatter, I learned that 75/25 is the wrong gas for stainless. People are telling me to use pure argon. Something about the CO2 reacting with stainless. They say it causes spatter and also makes joints rust. There is also something called “tri-mix,” which contains helium as well as argon and CO2. I am told it works really well, and that if you know what you’re doing, you can do just about any type of electric welding with only three tanks. Supposedly you can connect the tanks and create mixtures. Don’t ask me if that’s true.

I decided to get an argon tank. I learned a few things about buying gas and tanks, so I am here to pass it on. Don’t assume I’m right, especially if you live outside the US.

First of all, there are two types of tanks. Some tanks are company-owned rentals, and others are customer-owned.

Company tanks have the names of the companies stamped somewhere on the neck. If you buy one of these tanks from a private party, you may be receiving stolen goods, and if you take it to be refilled, two things can happen. You may be turned away, and the tank may be confiscated. This is bad.

Customer tanks have “slick” necks (people use that word to describe them). No stamps, except for regulatory stuff like test dates. If you have a tank like this, you can take it anywhere to be filled, and you won’t have a problem.

If you have a customer tank, and you want to swap it instead of getting it filled, you need to tell the gas people when you bring it in. If you don’t, they may do two things. First, they may give you a rental tank, and then you have to keep bringing it back to them forever, and they think they own it. Second, they may stamp their name on your tank, which is another way of saying they may steal it.

These things are also bad.

When I got my MIG, I bought a new tank. I thought this was a smart thing to do. I think it was around $140, empty. Imagine my surprise when Airgas swapped me an old one for it instead of filling it. I wanted to use my pretty new tank, but they gave me a crappy one that wasn’t shiny at all. Oh well.

Intelligent people do not buy new tanks. Well…they don’t do it twice. Although I do have two CO2 tanks I bought new, and I bought a beer gas tank new. Okay, they don’t do it five times. That’s my story.

You can buy used tanks and save a lot of loot. If you buy used, you need to make sure a) the tanks are customer tanks, and b) their test stamps are valid, or at least they are still in good enough shape to be tested. If you buy a tank that’s expired but still okay, you will have to pay a certification fee when you turn it in for a swap, but at least they won’t discard it. If the stamp is good when you refill it, you will have no problems at all.

Luckily for me, the Airgas I used did not give me a rental tank, so I still own whatever is currently attached to my welder, and I can get it filled anywhere. Also, they confirm that I can buy a used tank somewhere else and get it swapped at their shop. You need to look into things like this before you buy used tanks.

Final thing: small tanks are generally not rentals, so the stuff I wrote above may not apply to you.

I found a guy on Craigslist, and he sells full tanks cheap. He swears they’re up to date, and that they’re all customer tanks. I decided to give him a try. Today he’s bringing me 125 cubic feet of argon for $120. We will see if it’s a good deal or not. Hopefully it won’t turn out to be propane or mustard gas.

My existing tank is 80 cubic feet. Because I started with a new tank, I went a little cheap. A bigger tank would have cost a lot more. I now think I made a mistake. A bigger tank will last a lot longer, it won’t be much heavier, and it will fit on the same cart. It probably makes more sense to have a 125 cu. ft. 75/25 tank and an 80 cu. ft. argon tank, since one doesn’t generally weld stainless, but I have what I have.

I sincerely hope the Craigslist guy isn’t a complete crook, but I will have plenty of time to call the cops on him later if he cheats me, and I feel like the deal is good enough to warrant some risk. Even if all I get is the tank, at $120, I’ll be doing okay.

I’m not totally sure of the best way to weld old wrenches to stainless. The steel in wrenches isn’t exactly stainless, but it’s not plain old mild steel, either. It looks like stainless when you saw it and grind it. My plan is to use bits of stainless in my projects using tools like wrenches, so I’m going to use pure argon and see what happens. My guess is that it’s better to use argon and stainless wire with stainless and wrench metal than it is to treat everything like carbon steel.

I think the idea of making stuff from scrap is a very good one. I don’t come up with legitimate welding projects very often, and welding is not something you can do once a year and expect good results. You really need to do it more than once a month in order to avoid horrible results.

I’m 65% sure the information I provided here is right, but in any event, it should be a good start for anyone who wants to weld stuff other than carbon steel. If you read this post, you will definitely be better off than I was a month ago.

I do hope the Craigslist guy doesn’t kill me and take all my stuff. That would spoil everything.


I decided to do what I should have done before writing this: I Googled wrench steel. I learned that the “chrome vanadium” stamps on wrenches aren’t just advertising hype.

Good wrenches are made from steel to which chromium and vanadium have been added. This makes them more corrosion-resistant than ordinary steel, and it also gives them all sorts of structural strength. You can actually make springs from it. This steel can be hardened to Rockwell 55, whereas you would generally expect a good knife to be around 58.

Stainless steel has to have something like 10% chromium, and chrome vanadium comes in at about 1%.

People on the web say it’s a good idea to preheat it when welding it.

Hope this is useful or at least interesting.

Even More

The gas guy (He should put that on his business card: “Call and I will give you gas.”) arrived with my tank. I’m awestruck. It’s a newish tank, complete with argon sticker and safety cap, full of argon. A new tank, all by itself, runs $350, so I feel like I got a crazy bargain.

Let’s hope there is real argon in it when I open it up.


Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

Out Top Gear-ing Top Gear

If I haven’t posted much lately, it’s because I am exhausted from recreation.

My oldest friend (not literally oldest, but the one I’ve known the longest) decided he wanted my dad’s 1995 Ford Explorer, which I was about to sell on Craigslist. It has at least 146,000 miles (for a while he couldn’t find a mechanic who could fix an odometer), it leans to the left, it smells really interesting, and my dad had the heat disconnected because it went bad and would have cost $800 to repair. I told my friend (Mike) it was “a real piece of crap,” but he wanted it to plow his driveway in New Hampshire, so we cut a deal for $500, and he flew down to get it.

My dad keeps saying Mike “stole” it. Guess I’ll be hearing that for quite some time.

It seemed to be okay before Mike came down, and then when he arrived, the overdrive wouldn’t work, and it lost something like a quart of oil every hundred miles. I have a recollection of adding oil to it recently, but I didn’t know it had a serious leak.

Some interesting facts that make the story richer: Mike’s birthday was yesterday, and he forgot to renew his driver’s license. When we tried to address this online, we found that New Hampshire’s online renewal system only works if you have the code they mail you before your birthday; the code Mike didn’t bring. Can you renew over the phone? Sure. The paperwork takes maybe a week to arrive by mail, and during that time, your license is not considered valid.

Also, Mike decided not to bring his winter clothes, because Florida is warm. Think about that.

He said, “When I left, it was forty degrees.” I pointed out that sometimes weather changes. I think that was helpful.

I had told Mike the car was only guaranteed until he got it out of my dad’s driveway, but he drove it to Delray Beach and back (funeral: a friend’s father had died), and it came back two quarts low, so I reluctantly decided his friendship was worth more than $500, and we spent several days doing a Top Gear-style restoration to get the car ready for the trip north.

During this time, Mike scored a number of free meals off of me via guilt trips, and I also gave him a treasured possession: the world’s best bottle opener.

Mike loves my tool collection. While I was showing it to him, I showed him the severed end of a 1 1/2″ box wrench. I had it on hand because I had bought a $9 Chinese wrench and modified it to use as a tool post wrench. I’ll post a photo. I had cut one end off to make the wrench shorter. You don’t want a really long tool post wrench, because if you have too much leverage, you may crack your compound slide when you tighten the nut.

Mike thought it was disgraceful that I hadn’t turned the wrench end into a project, and he suggested a bottle opener. That actually sounded good, so while he was at the funeral, I got to work. I had a piece of 304 stainless steel, and I cut a semicircle out of it, using a hacksaw and my belt grinders. I then welded it across the wrench opening. Because I am having all sorts of problems with my helmet, I couldn’t see what I was doing, so I left big globs of weld on the wrench, and I had to grind it down to make it pretty.

I was going to keep the opener, but then I thought of Mike’s frozen corpse sitting in a Ford Explorer with a seized engine, surrounded by puzzled state troopers, one of which was busy writing his dead body a ticket for driving without a license, and I decided to make it a birthday present, because that would completely make up for sending him to an untimely death.

Before turning the opener over to him, I put a lanyard hole in the end of it. Now Mike has the world’s heaviest keychain.

Mike thought a new ABS sensor might fix the overdrive problem, so we spent a day crawling around under the Explorer, and we got a new one installed. We put a quart of Lucas Engine Oil Stop Leak in the engine, and that seemed ( ! ) to reduce the leak’s flow to an acceptable rate.

Unfortunately, the transmission fluid level was low, and Mike added too much, so we spent the next day looking for someone to flush the transmission. Mike figured he might as well flush it instead of just having the level reduced. The weather had turned cold and rainy, so that was fun. I wore traditional Miami cold weather gear: a hooded fleece jacket with shorts. Maybe not the best choice.

Sears gave Mike a service appointment, but when we arrived, we learned that a Sears appointment is really an appointment to stand in line. It seems to serve no purpose at all. When we got to the front of the line, they refused to service the car because of the mileage. You would think they would have mentioned this on the phone, but Sears is dying, so I guess the people who work there are not knocking themselves out in order to get promoted.

I did offer to give the money back and put the car on Craigslist, but by now Mike was on a quest. He wasn’t about to surrender. Thank God.

The next day he got up early and bought an inverter from Harbor Freight. This is a device that turns DC into AC. He figured he would install it inside the car and connect a 1500-watt space heater to it. I am completely serious. My suggestion was to stop at Salvation Army stores during the trip and buy a used down jacket and gloves.

He collected me, and we decided to go to a Salvation Army store to see if they had anything he could use to keep himself alive. Miraculously, they had an unused electric blanket. I thought that was the answer. Put the blanket on, turn on the inverter, and drive. That has to be better than a heater, which blows hot air in random directions. It was like five bucks, so Mike decided to buy it. I also found an incredible deal: a #6 Wagner Ware skillet in perfect condition. Mike is my friend, so of course, my first impulse was to grab it before he got to it and buy it for myself, but I already have three #6 skillets, so I decided to let him have it. If he hadn’t bought it, I think I would have shot him. It’s the perfect size for cornbread. He got it for $3.75. Talk about “stole.”

We spent most of yesterday running cables through the car’s firewall and installing the inverter. He fired it up, and sure enough, it powered an electric drill. Now that he’s gone, I’m kind of wondering if it’s okay to use an inverter while the car is running, but I guess he’ll have to find out on his own. Maybe I should disconnect the phone.

He won’t be able to get a heater until he gets to Fort Lauderdale. In Miami, stores only order a few heaters every year, and on the first cool day, Cubans storm the aisles and buy every last one. The ones they can’t use, they sell for a massive profit. Probably. That’s what they do with generators during hurricanes. Anyway, there are no heaters here today.

I am still dealing with the virus I got a couple of weeks ago. I don’t have congestion or anything, but I have a crappy feeling that gets worse with exertion and lack of sleep. Last night I collapsed on my bed and started sweating, even though the mattress was cold. I thought for minute that I might be dying. I was cool with that. I still had Mike’s money, so I was dying a winner.

I slept about nine and a half hours, and then I got up to say goodbye to Mike. I still don’t feel rested, but I think a day of total loafing will put me right.

I shouldn’t worry about Mike. He’s a possibility thinker. Whatever happens, he will come up with a solution that will get him to New Hampshire. Anyone who would put a space heater in a $500 car can be trusted to look after himself.

I was hoping to talk to Mike about God while he was here, but he kept me so busy, I didn’t make as much progress as I had hoped. I managed to get him to sit still for a prayer session with my friend Travis and me. Mike loved it, and he talked about it before he left. He had been in a hurry to get to a car parts store, so he almost missed the session, but I got him to put it off long enough to pray. I told him you pray BEFORE you fix the problem, not afterward. That’s an extremely important thing to learn.

Considering all the barbecued ribs I bought Mike during the week, I’m not sure the car sale will show a profit, but at least it’s gone.

If you have a junk car, and you want a really interesting cheap project to improve it, I highly recommend an inverter. It will allow you to use power tools when the car breaks down. You can’t beat that.

I can’t wait for night so I can sleep some more. And I’m going to miss that bottle opener.

Who Says I Have no Filter?

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

Mysteries of the Y Capacitor, Revealed

I’m becoming more of a big electronics genius every day. Staying humble is not easy.

Yesterday I posted about the resurrection of my old HP 3300A function generator, and I mentioned the weird capacitors across the AC mains. Right where the three wires entered the box, there were two caps (in one package). One went from neutral to ground, and the other went from hot to ground.

One of these caps had shorted out, and that had killed the generator. I had to replace them. When a cap between hot and ground shorts out, you have a hot wire going straight to ground, and that is pretty worthless.

A commenter mentioned a different type of component which would look just like a dual capacitor. He said EMI (electromagnetic interference) filters resembled capacitors, and he said they had inductors inside them. I went back to my schematic to check, and I didn’t see any inductors, so I think all I had were caps.

I started reading up on this stuff. I could not figure out why anyone would need filters right before a big transformer and two big reservoir caps with diodes. The reservoir caps and diodes kill AC and turn it into DC, so I would think they would also kill any high frequencies in the line. My guesses are worth about what I charge for them, however.

After some Googling, I learned that what I have is a “type Y” setup. Caps like this are intended to keep interference from passing through the power connection. If it’s coming from outside, they keep it out. If it’s coming from inside your device, they keep it inside.

I can’t call the dead HP engineers who designed the machine, so I can’t ask what the big concern was. I was thinking maybe the AC wires, if not filtered at the entrance to the box, could act as antennas and shoot RF into other internal components, distorting the signal the machine provides. I don’t really know.

Here’s an important fact: it is well known that when capacitors in this configuration die, they can short, and then you can get shocked. This is bad, unless you view death as a postive outcome. You need special capacitors designated X or Y. These capacitors will resist things like power surges. Do they eventually die from old age and short anyway? Search me.

I know nothing about X capacitors, but the Y type come in two varieties: Y1 and Y2. Y1 capacitors are expensive industrial components, so people use Y2. You can find them on Ebay. I guess I’ll have to order some and replace the brand-new capacitors I just installed.

I am wondering if there is any point in putting caps like this on my guitar amps. I think the odds that the sound will improve are infinitesimal, and the chance of electric shock is appreciable, but it would still be a cool feature to brag about.

I have always assumed it was impossible to get a shock from a grounded metal box, but I am used to being proven wrong, so I may as well get the caps.

There are components made to divert power surges. I forget what they’re called. There is a list of “immortal mods” for guitar amplifiers, and it lists things you can do to an amp to make it resistant to failure. The power surge shunt things are on the list. You can look it up. I don’t know if they would work on Y caps. Haven’t checked.

I know this information is fascinating to everyone. Try not to get so engrossed you forget to look away from my blog and do whatever it is you’re being paid to do.

Waves of Joy

Monday, January 16th, 2017

Victory is Mine

People are probably dying to find out whether I succeeded in getting my old HP 3300A function generator working, so here I am to help. It is now running.

What is a function generator? It’s sort of the opposite of an oscilloscope. A scope displays electrical waveforms. A function generator creates them. I don’t know all the reasons why this is useful, but I can list one. If you have something like an amplifier, and you want to see whether a signal is finding its way through it, you can hook a function generator up to the input. This keeps a varying voltage going into the amp while you check the circuit at various points. For me, as a guitar amp builder, the alternative is to hook up a guitar and pick a string over and over. That’s work, and as I have often said, work is against policy.

I suppose you could also check an amp’s frequency response by sending different frequencies through it.

For some reason I no longer recall (probably the guitar amp thing), I bought a used Hewlett-Packard function generator a few years back. I don’t know when it was made, but I know they were selling them in 1965. It’s the size of a big briefcase, and it weighs maybe 25 pounds. It will produce several types of waves (sinusoidal, square, etc.) at frequencies up to 100 kHz. I’ll bet it was really expensive when it was new, because it contains approximately 4 million components which were installed by hand.

A few weeks back, I pulled it off the shelf to see if it worked, and I was disturbed to find that I had no cord for it. Did I ever have a cord for it? Search me. I could not find it.

The cords we have on computers now are called C14/C15 cords. C15 is the female end. I leave it to you go guess what the male end is. As you know, these cords have three conductors, and the connectors at the ends are in a line, with the ground conductor above the others (or below them, if you hold it that way). The function generator had a male receptacle for a cord, but it was a bizarre old setup known as the PH-163. I have written about it before, presumably to everyone’s delight. It’s sort of like a C14/C15, but it has oval pins.

You would think there would be ten billion PH-163 cords for sale on Ebay, but there aren’t. The best deal I found was about $25, for a cord for a machine which, for all I knew, would never work. My solution? I took one of the thousands of spare cords I’ve accumulated, and I bought a receptacle for it. I opened up the receptacle hole in the generator cabinet and installed the new receptacle, and that allowed me to use a new cord.

I was really proud of that job, because I had to use a whole lot of tools, and the stuff I was working on was very small. I had to use a Dremel, two files, a drill, a soldering iron, a solder sucker, a power screwdriver and some other stuff I forget.

Because I know you’re excited about this, I will post a photo, looking down at the receptacle.

The two red things are new capacitors I put in. I will tell you about that shortly.

I got it wired up, and I plugged it in. POOF. It failed to work, and the lights in the garage flickered. Seemed like there was a short.

I looked it over and asked questions on forums, and I learned something interesting. Sometimes old capacitors short out for no apparent reason. One day, you have a capacitor which blocks DC and many AC frequencies, and the next day, you have what might as well be a straight copper wire with zero resistance. The transformer on the generator had a dual capacitor across the main power wires, presumably to filter out crap, and when I checked the cap, I got 4 ohms of resistance (a short) on one side.

A dual capacitor (that name may be wrong) is a capacitor that looks like a single capacitor yet which contains two capacitors that share one lead. It will have one lead in the middle that goes to both caps, and it will have two leads on the sides, each of which goes to one cap. I do not know why HP chose to use a dual capacitor, but it seems like a bad idea, because when one side crapped out, I had to replace both sides.

I guess that’s not really true, but I felt like it was stupid to keep an old capacitor when its twin had just kicked the bucket.

Meanwhile, the generator’s fuse had melted. After I tried running it in the garage, I took it in my office and plugged it in, and the breaker that powers the outlet popped. I assume this is what killed the fuse. I should have used a current limiter, but I didn’t.

Here’s something that may be useful to doofuses like me who can’t read fuses. The fuse in the generator said “6/10A” on it. I couldn’t figure that out. Six amps? Ten amps? Six amps on even-numbered days and ten on odd-numbered days? It turns out it means 0.6 amps, which is something the manufacturer could have stamped on it instead of “6/10A”. I had to go on Ebay and order new 6/10A fuses.

I also had to order the caps. I have maybe 2000 caps on hand at a given time, and when the generator needed one, I didn’t have a single 0.01uF.

When everything arrived, I put the correct fuse in the machine and solder the caps in place. You can see them in the photo. I even saved the funky old insulation from the old cap and put it on the new cap leads.

The solder sucker I used is wonderful. If you to to an electronics store at random and ask for a solder remover, they will give you a clumsy foot-long plastic thing which is hard to use accurately. I found a little metal Japanese solder sucker about four inches long, and it’s much more precise. Solder tends to get stuck in the nozzle, so you you have to stop and get it out, but it’s worth it because it’s so easy to use.

I got everything put together and plugged the machine in. No joy. After going through all this, I found that the on switch was dead. No problem, right? Buy another one for three dollars on Ebay. Sadly, that option was not open to me. This thing had an expensive “Marco Oak Press-Lite” switch, which is apparently an aircraft-grade switch. It lights up when it’s on. New ones are selling for sums well into two figures. No way was I paying that.

I figured out which pins on the switch needed to be shorted to turn the machine on, and I soldered a wire between them. Now the machine turns on when you plug it in. I ordered a small toggle switch, and when it arrives, I’ll cut it into the wire I installed. I’ll put it in the front panel of the machine, and I won’t have to deal with the aircraft switch.

I got all this junk done, turned the machine on, put an oscilloscope probe on it, and got a signal! I was thrilled to the marrow. I got square waves, triangular waves, and sinusoidals. I got big ones, small ones, fast ones, and slow ones. The bizarre “sweep plugin” module that came with the generator worked, too. I don’t know what it is, but it changed the waveform. I still have one knob which is frozen, but at my age, that’s to be expected.

So now I have a huge signal generator which can probably be replaced with twenty dollars’ worth of modern parts that take up ten square inches. I don’t care. It was fun to get it running.

If you’re still reading, here is the payoff.

1. If you repair electronics, use a current limiter when you turn them on. Don’t be stupid like me. I have a variac and a light bulb limiter, and I still decided the best option was to hit the switch and pray.
2. You need a metal Japanese solder sucker. Don’t bother with the big plastic ones. It’s an “Engineer SS-02.”
3. A 6/10A fuse is really a 600 mA fuse.

I still have to fix my old Hitachi oscilloscope. I don’t really have to; I could throw it out. But I should fix it. It could come in useful some day.

My definition of “useful” is unusually broad.

I realize my life is full of excitement and adventure. Try not to envy me.

Geppetto’s Folly

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

In the Future, not all Robots Will be Helpful

My Arduino studies are still progressing.

As I wrote in earlier posts, I got myself an Arduino UNO, and I started learning to program it. I went to a website belonging to a person known as Ladyada, and I began working my way through her tutorials. I’ve run into a few snags, so while I haven’t stopped, I’m not moving as fast as I would like.

To program an Arduino, you have to write in a language which is either C or C++. If you’re wondering which it is, so am I. The Arduino website says, “the Arduino language is merely a set of C/C++ functions that can be called from your code.” They don’t know, either.

I guess they do know, but I don’t. I have no idea what the difference is, except that C++ came later.

Arduino comes with its own programming editor or “IDE” (Integrated Development Environment), which is a program like a word processor. You write the programs in it, and it can compile them (turning them into software that actually works) and help you debug them. It also helps you lay your programs out in a way that makes them easier to understand. Supposedly.

I say “supposedly” because it doesn’t really do that. At least it doesn’t seem like it. When you write computer programs, you make long lists of procedures and statements, and they tell the computer what to do. You’ll say things like, “If this, then that, but if this, if this, if this, then that, or else this.” You have to keep track of which “if” goes with which statements and so on. It’s very helpful if the program turns things different colors and indents them so things are clearly identified and so blobs of text that go together are clumped together visually. Arduino doesn’t seem to do this very well.

While I was using it (and getting confused), I remembered my ten minutes of college programming experience. I programmed in a language called Pascal (so named because computer science students are always under pressure – I kid), and I used a program called Borland Turbo Pascal. My dim and unreliable recollection is that Turbo Pascal did a very good job of coloring and clumping. I figured there had to be something similar out there (free) for C/C++, because the human mind’s ability to keep lines of code straight hasn’t improved since I took that course.

I found Turbo C++, which is apparently Borland’s C++ equivalent of Turbo Pascal. Sadly, when you run it, it takes up the entire screen, so you can’t move stuff to Arduino and upload it to your board.

I started looking for other stuff. I already have something called Dev C++, but it didn’t make me happy. I found Visual Studio, which is a free Microsoft program (free for hobbyists), and I decided to try that.

Visual Studio takes about a month to install. I believe that’s because it’s a huge program you can use to create your own version of AutoCAD or just about anything else. I was planning to use it to make three LED’s flash on an Arduino board, so maybe it was overkill. It took quite a while to figure out how to make it run, and when I did, it didn’t look too promising. People swear by it, though, so I plan to keep trying a while longer.

The tutorials themselves turned out to have a major flaw. The instructor asked students to write a program, and then way down the page, after it was all over with, she said the program wouldn’t work.

I learned this after trying to make it work. For several hours.

This is not the best way to present a course. When a problem has no solution, you really want to tell people up front.

It’s not surprising that a STEM instructor would do this. When I was in school, they did it all the time. They would give us integrals that diverged or problems the professors couldn’t solve, and they wouldn’t tell us until we had pulled all-nighters failing to find the answers.

The lesson I learned from this is to read the whole page before starting to write anything.

I’m starting to realize I need to think a lot about C (or C++) itself as I learn this. It’s not enough to take the little bits Ladyada provides and extrapolate. You have to know more than that. What’s the correct punctuation (or whatever) for an if statement? Can you read the state of a pin powering an LED to tell whether the LED is on? Things like that. If you start guessing, you end up with problems.

Arduino uses integers to label pins on the board. I don’t get that at all. If “int SwitchPin = 2” means the second pin is named “SwitchPin,” then doesn’t any integer you set equal to 2 become tied to that pin? I have no clue. Very confusing.

I’m going to have to go back and forth from C++ to Arduino to figure everything out, and I guess I should join the Arduino forum. I really hope it’s not full of snotty nerds.

I’m trying to come up with a strategy for writing programs. I think it’s best to start by writing a plain-language version of every program first. “This program turns an LED on if it’s off and off if it’s on.” Stuff like that. Then I can break it down into necessary steps, and then I can think up ways to say it in C++. Maybe that will be helpful.

Every mission needs a statement.

I still want to build a self-balancing robot, because they’re cool. I started looking into ways to build a robot that balances on one wheel or ball, and that got me to gyroscopes. Thanks to Arduino, I now know how gyroscopes are used to make rockets fly straight. You can go to Youtube and see the actual gyroscopes that made V2 rockets fly straight on the way to England.

I’m kind of hung up now, because I can’t decide between a kit and buiding a robot from scratch. A kit would get me past the relatively boring tasks of choosing parts and making components by hand, but it might push me into an area where I mainly turn the robot on and off instead of learning how it works.

It would be neat to make a robot that goes from one room to another and bothers people. You record a message into it, and then you send it across the house to your wife to say, “Bring your man a beer, pronto!” I’d need a really brave volunteer to try it out, though.

On a more serious note, though, I am disturbed when I think about the power machines will have in the very near future. As I check out the things very ordinary people with little training are doing with Arduino, as well as the crazy things well-financed organizations are doing with sophisticated electronics, I realize we are on the cusp between two ages: the age in which men were more capable than machines, and the age when machines will be more capable than men.

Some people worry that machines will become self-aware and then try to exterminate us. That’s silly. There is no reason to think electronics will ever be self-aware. The fact that something reacts to external stimuli doesn’t mean its aware, unless a TV is aware when you push a button on your remote. Machines won’t be aware. But they will act as though they were, so the future still looks pretty scary.

Right now, I get calls from robots that argue with me. If this hasn’t happened to you yet, get ready, because it will. They call and ask you something which is obviously intended to smoke you out as a sales prospect, and something tells you you’re not dealing with a human being. You ask, “Are you a human being?” The robot pauses, laughs, and says, “I’m a real human being.” It has been programmed to say that. Then you say, “Can you say ‘God Bless America’ for me?” Then the robot is stumped. They don’t program them to do things like that.

I offended a legitimate caller the other day. She happened to have a voice that sounded too perfect, and I thought she was trying to sell me something. I started telling her I didn’t talk to robots. She argued with me, so I asked her to say ‘Gerald Ford.'” I like tormenting robots. To my amazement, she said it. Then I had to apologize. Unfortunately, she had never received a call from a robot, so she assumed I was crazy when I told her what was going on.

A good sales robot can get through several sentences without giving you conclusive proof it’s a machine. That’s remarkable. If they can do that in 2017, think what they’ll be able to do in 2025. It won’t be too long before it will be impossible to tell a robot from a person, without considerable effort. Eventually, it won’t be possible at all. Then we’ll end up in a Blade Runner scenario, where an average person will never be sure what he’s dealing with.

Robots already have superhuman processing speed, and in the future, we will be able to give them superhuman physical speed and agility. They’ll be able to move around. They’ll be stronger and faster than we are. They’ll be able to predict what we do. They’ll do our jobs–even complex ones–better than we do. They won’t hate us, because they won’t really have awareness, but they can certainly be programmed to react as though they hate us. From outside, a being that mimics awareness perfectly might as well be aware. We could find ourselves dominated and abused by machines we don’t have the brains or strength to fight.

In the movies, we get around this with ridiculous bits of code saying things like, “Never harm a human being.” That’s beyond stupid. If we have to rely on code–and we do–we’re in trouble. Look how much malicious code there is right now. Do you think things will be different when machines become autonomous? Why would they?

If the human race lasts long enough, we will eventually see people sentenced for programming robots to hurt or kill their owners. It’s inevitable.

There are a lot of malicious people in the tech arena. Right now, they program machines to do evil. In the future, they’ll be able to program machines to program machines to do evil. When that happens, we will be removed from the loop and the problem will be self-sustaining and self-augmenting.

Nikola Tesla predicted that wars would one day be fought by unmanned machines. He was right, just as he was right about so many other things. But it’s going to be worse than that. It won’t be just war, which takes place between nations. It will be intramural conflict, within cities and nations, between human beings and nationless machines. Won’t that be something?

We will have to delay things by putting restrictions on machines. We always say guns don’t kill people, and that’s true. Computerized machines, however, will kill people. Unlike guns, they’ll do violence without our input. They’ll be like super-powerful pit bulls that have to be penned and detuned. Wait and see. It will happen. But we can’t stay in control forever.

Autonomous machines will be able to shoot people extremely accurately and quickly. They’ll be able to dispense deadly chemicals. They’ll be able to blind us with lasers. They’ll act so fast the cops won’t be able to react. They’ll be like the big nasty drones in the Robocop movies, only much faster. They’ll be able to use weapons that exist today, with skill and speed we can’t match, and they won’t feel pain or have fear. They won’t feel regret or mercy. They won’t be concerned about jail.

I wonder if anyone is even thinking about defensive measures yet. I suppose they are. I guess they’ll be a lot like the machines they’ll have to battle. I would imagine you would need a robot to fight a robot.

I won’t worry about this stuff. I don’t know if the world will last long enough for rebellious machines to become problematic. I’m a Christian, so I expect this age to end pretty soon. In any case, making a primitive Arduino robot that wanders around the house won’t speed up our doom.

Arthur Koestler compared the development of the thinking parts of the human brain, in our species, to the development of a tumor in an individual human being. We have greater reasoning abilities than animals, but our emotions are just like theirs, and our ability to control them is also undeveloped. We develop technology, and then we invariably misuse it because we lack love and mercy. We should not have been surprised when we read about drones shooting video through bathroom windows, and we should not be surprised the first time a robot kills a person.

I never expected life to get this weird. But predicting the future should not be hard for those who can see the obvious.

Here’s to a Cherished American Pastime

Saturday, January 7th, 2017


Today I spent a little while reading about Chinese TIG welders. A commenter suggested getting a used Miller instead of looking at Chinese, and out of boredom, I went to see what other people thought. Man, it’s disappointing to see unprincipled old geezers bashing China on the forums. What a waste of bandwidth. Talk about “fake news.”

You can’t trust anything these guys say. They lost their cushy union jobs because American workers refused to accept a competitive wage. With the help of bad management, they killed the companies they worked for. Now they sit around lying about Chinese products on the Internet, like that’s going to bring Packard and AMC back. It will never happen. Not even Donald Trump can make us THAT great again.

I have lots of Chinese stuff. Some of it is real junk. No doubt about that. But all of it works, and a lot of it is excellent. The prices are fantastic.

Ridgid tools are very good. They come from China. Dewalt manufactures in Asia. I have no idea where Bosch makes its tools, but I guarantee you, it’s not in Europe or the US. I just got an Chinese oscilloscope which is built extremely well. My lathe is a very nice Taiwan job, and my mill, which works great, was made in Taiwan and assembled in China. My vertical band saw is Taiwanese. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it.

The other day I bought a Shars indexable end mill. I paid about $30. Shars sells mostly Chinese stuff. The end mill is magnificent. An American equivalent costs three or more times as much. Am I going to buy that? Are you nuts? Just so some guy in the Rust Belt can be overpaid? That’s charity.

I tried to find some honest comments on the AHP AlphaTIG 200X welder. It was not easy. Creaky retirees who hate China said a lot of nasty things about it. Had they ever used one? Of course not.

I get it. Old American tool companies make better stuff. SOME old American tool companes. But often they’re no better than Asian, and look what they charge. The welder I mentioned can be had for under $850, with a three-year warranty. If it blows up, the seller pays for return shipping, and then they ship you a new one. A comparable Lincoln or Miller will run you over three times as much. It will do exactly the same thing, no better. It will probably last a lifetime. That’s a plus. No one seems to know how long an AlphaTIG will last. But with the Chinese welder, you save two thousand dollars, and you get into TIG several years earlier because of the price.

At worst, you pay about $280 per year for the fun of three years of top-notch TIG and stick welding. That’s assuming the machine craps out in three years.

People always say, “Wait for a deal.” That’s a great idea. When you’re 25. When you get older, waiting five years for something may mean never getting it. You may die first. Or you may lose years of use you can never get back. If you’re 50, you probably have 35 years left (tops) to use your tools. If you lose five years sitting around waiting for a gift from Craigslist, you’ve lost a seventh of them time you could have spent enjoying yourself. If you’re sixty, it’s a fifth of the time. If you’re retired, you may be losing considerably more.

Here’s how it looks:

1. AlphaTIG 200X: $838, delivered.
2. Miller Synchrowave 215: $2735, delivered.
3. Miller Synchrowave 215, used, from a dubious no-name seller, with no warranty: maybe $1600.

Lincoln prices are right up there with Miller.

If I had to rely on a welder to make a living, I would buy American. No doubt about it. I wouldn’t want to worry about having two months of down time while an importer waits for a part or a welder for me. That could kill a business. But to goof around in my garage, Chinese is fine.

If I had to rely on machine tools or ordinary power tools to make a living, would I buy American? No way. Absolutely no way. American mills and lathes are no better than Asian. I’m not sure American power tools even exist. Where would I find them? I know we still make a few big things, like table saws. I think you can still buy American air tools. I don’t know about drills and grinders and so on.

It would be neat to have a shop full of beautiful American tools from the golden age, but people like me never, in the history of the country, had the opportunity to buy those items new.

I remember looking up the Clausing lathe I bought used, to find out what it had cost new. It was tens of thousands of dollars. No normal American had one of those in his garage in 1965. It cost several times what an average worker made in a year. If I spent that much for a lathe, I would have nothing else.

Aside from that, the Clausing was not that great.

Look at the American tools hobbyists were able to afford back when the big American companies were still manufacturing. Atlas and Craftsman lathes. Flimsy garbage, with tiny capacities. Nobody had a new 15″ LeBlond in his home shop. The closest you could get was WWII surplus.

There are a lot of people who buy old US junk and “restore” it. They’re proud of what they’ve done, and they put pictures and videos on the web. About 95% of the time, when it comes to machine tools, they’ve just repainted tools without returning them to new condition. For example a guy will buy a lathe with worn ways, and he’ll strip it, paint it, and make the feeds work. That’s not a restoration. It’s still junk.

Some kinds of machines can be restored without spending too much. Woodworking tools aren’t very precise, so they don’t have to be scraped and ground when they get old. I have a beaten-up table saw which works as well as it did when it was new in the 1990’s. But lathes and mills lose accuracy with time, and you can’t get it back with a can of spray paint.

I considered buying a “restored” mill from an outfit that scrapes them. I found out it was a bad deal. They scraped a few things, yes, but they kept the old screws, the motor, the bearings…everything you would want to have replaced. The paint looked nice, though. That’s important. You could do it yourself for $15, but never mind.

Human beings love to blame others for their problems. China-bashing is just another manifestation of the inclination. What if American union workers hadn’t demanded unrealistic wages and hadn’t refused to work full days? What if the people who ran companies had been more responsible? Maybe we’d still be selling tools instead of buying them.

The most revered American lathe company is Monarch. They still sell their coveted 10EE lathe. This is a small machine that does extremely precise work. Guess what it costs? Over $100,000. And it’s not even new. They sell refurbs. They buy used Monarchs and put new parts in them. Even the manufacturers can’t afford new American products.

I’m surrounded by China, and so are the old guys who lie on the forums. They use Chinese phones and computers to bash China. Chinese goods are all around us. Why should we delude ourselves and pretend these things aren’t there? If your shoes, your computer, your desk, your TV, your flooring, your wallpaper, your appliances, and half of your American car are from China, why not buy Chinese tools, too? Come on.

Here’s something really funny: Harley riders bash the Asians from dawn till dusk, but Harleys are full of Asian parts. Americans don’t make motorcycle forks! We definitely don’t make the electronics in the bikes.

I may get a welder this year. I don’t know. I do know the China-bashers will make it harder to get solid information.

Wanted: Hunchbacked Lab Assistant

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

Free Swill; Must have Green Card

I feel like I’m reaching a turning point in my evolution from white collar sissy to metalworking technonerd. I’m finally starting to feel like I have almost enough crap.

Back in around 2007, when I started buying tools, I would go out in the garage, hoping to do something, and I would see a big void. No table saw. No welder. No band saw. No nothing! Then I started accumulating stuff, bit by bit. This week, I knew I had made progress, because the 2017 Grizzly catalog arrived, and I didn’t even open it. There is nothing I absolutely have to have, right now, in order to keep from going crazy.

Mmm…Chinese TIG welders…mmm…credit card points…


Today I was working on Ladyada’s Arduino tutorials again, and I opened a new page. It listed a bunch of junk I had to have in order to do the next tutorial. Listed: a tiny push-button switch which can be inserted in a solderless breadboard.

I groaned. My local Radio Shack went Tango Uniform a while back, so if I want electronic parts, I have to drive across town to the electronics supermarket (where I will definitely spend over $75 regardless of what I “need”), or I have to wait for Ebay. Or I guess I could drive to the nearest Radio Shack, but dang, I love that electronics supermarket.

Anyway, I decided to check my stuff just to be sure I didn’t have what I needed. I went to the garage, and in the little drawer cabinet on the wall, I saw a drawer labeled “SWITCHES.”

Yes, I already have maybe thirty switches, not counting the ones I have left over from making guitar amps.

I’m living the high life. I should be in a beer commercial.


Monday, January 2nd, 2017

Bot of Course

I’m glad I got started with Arduino, because it helped me get back to learning C. It’s moderately enjoyable to learn C without any external apparatus, but somehow it’s more fulfilling when you add a second device (after your PC) at the end of a USB cable.

I’m still going through Ladyada’s tutorials. She can really teach. They say those who can’t, teach, so if you turn that logic around and twist it, maybe it makes sense that she’s an exceptional teacher, because she’s not one of those who can’t. She’s the owner of Adafruit Industries, which is a well-known supply house for tech hobbyists. Her PR blurb descibes her as an “MIT hacker and engineer.” I suppose she is overqualified to teach.

I have learned how to make the Uno print things out and do simple math. Naturally, I find it almost impossible to use the code she provides. I can’t take that kind of boredom. I have to make changes. I suppose that’s a good thing, because if you just copy and paste, all you learn is copying and pasting.

I’m thinking it may be time to build a robot. I guess that seems like a surprising jump, given that I can’t do much of anything with the Uno. But it turns out building and programming a robot is really easy, mostly because thousands of other people have already done the work and published the important parts online. Programming robots is one of the main ways people get good at Arduino.

I started looking at robots, and most of them were horrible. There is an Arduino-brand robot, and it looks like motorized ashtray. It’s a circular PCB with two wheels. I’m sorry; I don’t care how great it is as a teaching tool. I’m not going to be happy teaching an ashtray how to navigate the floor of my office, especially now that I don’t smoke cigars.

I still can’t believe I put dozens of Cubans by the side of the road for the garbage people. Those were some fine smokes. I just looked up the statute of limitations, and I’m safe, so yeah, I bought a lot of Cuban cigars. Take that, coppers. Not that the government cares. I’ll bet no one has ever been so much as fined.

There’s a robot called the “BOE bot,” and “BOE” stands for “Board of Education.” I guess that means it’s overpaid, can’t be fired for incompetence, and teaches kids they should consider being gay. The bot looks pretty boring. It’s sort of a little cart that putts around dodging things and following lines painted on the floor.

Here’s what caught my interest: self-balancing robots. These are robots that exist in unstable equilibria. They balance on two wheels or some other inadequate type of support. Cut the power, and they fall over. They’re much neater than four-wheeled robots because every time you turn them on, they demonstrate the possibilities of modern hobby electronics. Simply balancing and moving around are impressive tasks for unstable robots.

I looked at a bunch of these robots on Youtube. Most involve three flat platforms arranged like a two-story building. Wheels and motors go under the lowest platform. Batteries go on top. Each wheel has its own motor. To do it right, you should use steppers, but people use crappy Chinese hobby motors too.

Determining what kind of robot was best was not easy, because people have posted videos of bad robots during the last year, while others posted videos of superior robots as long as six years ago. My natural tendency was to look at robots which had been built recently, but then I would dig up older videos and learn that better designs had been around for quite some time.

I don’t know why people continue making bad robots. Everyone has Google.

Some of the robots are really awful. They fall down, or they can’t maneuver. Some have wires attaching them to computers. Come on! That’s insane. Who wants a robot that can only walk three feet?

One of the neatest robots is a kit job, and it’s called the “B-robot.” The name alone justifies the purchase. Many self-balancing robots wobble and don’t maneuver well, but the B-robot is nimble and sure of itself. It has an arm, too, so if it falls, it can use the arm to boost itself while it rights itself. Unfortunately, it costs $125, which is like $121 more than I want to spend.

I guess the next version will be the Dude-b-robot.

Why get a kit? Because every robot you didn’t design yourself is really a kit. Even if you make the parts, you’re using someone else’s design, so buying a kit is not cheating in any important way.

When I first learned it was possible to build two-wheeled balancing robots, I was surprised. After I got used to the idea, I started to wonder why I couldn’t built a one-wheeled robot. It could change direction faster. If you can balance with regard to one axis, you should be able to balance with regard to another at the same time. That’s what I thought. Then I checked. Sure enough, it has been done.

In my uneducated opinion, the best type of “one-wheeled” robot doesn’t have wheels. It uses a ball instead. It’s unclear who invented it. Various people seem to be trying to take credit. You put three or four steppers in the base of a robot, and you arrange them so they turn a ball trapped under them. The robot balances on the ball, and it can move in any direction by turning it.

A nut genius in England spent an incredible amount of time designing his own copy of BB-8, the small robot in the new Star Wars movies. A ball bot may have a ball which is mostly contained in the robot’s body, but you can also make a small robot which rests high on the upper hemisphere of a ball.

I guess I should be satisfied with a two-wheeled robot to start, because it has been done a million times, and there is an appreciable chance that I’ll be able to make it work. Ball bots are intimidating.

Once you get your robot on its feet, so to speak, you can start doing mods. You can put sensors on a little “head” at the top so it tracks objects. You can put a laser on top of it and shoot at things. You can put a camera on it. You can add a cup holder. You can add various types of displays. You could send the robot to your wife with a display reading, “Help. Out of toilet paper.”

Is it useful? Not in the slightest. At least I don’t think so. But it would teach me a lot without boring me too much.

I hesitate to put this in print, because some idiot may think it’s a great idea, but I believe you could use something like this for home defense. It’s possible to blind people with lasers. It works so well, it’s considered a war crime. You could send a robot out into your yard to shoot lasers at the faces of violent intruders.

I’m not suggesting you do that, because it’s vicious idea, but I suppose it would work. I don’t know how easy it is to get a laser strong enough, or whether it could be carried on a robot a person could reasonably be expected to build at home.

On the whole, I still prefer sharks. Call me a throwback.

It would be neat to make a robot that tracks balloons and shoots them with a laser. That’s actually possible.

I don’t know. There must be some use for these things.

Perhaps for now I would be smart to learn simpler things. I’m having delusions of grandeur.

I may have to trim my expectations, but there is no reason why I can’t build some sort of reasonably interesting robot. If I succeed, you will know all about it.

Wile E. Coyote had Nothing on Me

Friday, December 30th, 2016

Latest Arrival From Acme

The new oscilloscope arrived, and I have had several major triumphs.

1. I managed to turn it on and make it work.

2. I figured out how to get a bunch of downloaded Arduino sketches into the Arduino program.

3. I managed to edit the downloaded files to work with the version of Arduino I have.

4. I succeeded in building a breadboarded adaptor that allows me to put the Arduino’s output on my scope screen.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Tektronix distributes a set of Arduino files that turn an Uno into a signal generator. I found the files and downloaded them, and I figured out how to get them into the machine. Problem: the first one I chose would not compile.

I got an error complaining about a C type called “prog_uchar.” I got “prog_uchar’ does not name a type.”

I thought I was missing a library, but after Googling around, I learned that prog_uchar comes from an earlier version of Arduino, and it doesn’t work in later versions. I had to replace it with “const char.” Okay, fine. It worked. I’m pretty impressed with myself, since I don’t really know C.

I love the scope. I thought it would look cheap, but it’s very nice. Solid and businesslike. The screen is gorgeous. I love the way it just tells me frequencies and voltages instead of making me do math. The fan is a little loud, but as you would expect, there are online guides to installing better fans.

I have felt conflicted about hacking it. When I ordered the scope, I didn’t realize the hack would essential turn the scope into a more expensive model. I have been thinking it over. On the one hand, it seems a little shady. On the other, they sold me this thing, and I feel like I should be able to extract whatever potential it has. People hack car computers all the time to make them run better.

Anyway, for now it’s great. It’s nice to get one toe into the 21st century.

After using my balky old Hitachi, which weighs maybe 25 pounds, it’s a real luxury to us a 10-pound scope which does what you tell it to. The probes are easy to attach. They’re already adjusted. It’s like going from a Heathkit computer to a Fat Mac.

I got to use my super-cheap bulk resistors and capacitors on the breadboard between the Arduino and the scope, and that was nice. I found out the skinny leads on the cheap resistors work for breadboarding. That was a relief. They’re not ideal, but they serve their intended purpose, which is to allow me to do things requiring resistors when I don’t have top-quality versions of the values I need.

I will try to get through the exercises now. It will be neat to know what a few of my new buttons do.

Is This How Dr. Nefario Got his Start?

Thursday, December 29th, 2016

Molto Bene

My world of perpetually entry-level technology and engineering gets more interesting all the time.

I bought a digital storage oscilloscope. I will need to learn how to use it. I found out Tektronix (a top-level oscilloscope maker) has published a series of exercises designed to teach people how to use DSO’s. The exercises require an Arduino board. I bought one today.

I sort of glanced at Arduino a year or two ago, but I never got into it. It sounded like cheating. I wanted to learn how to design circuits from the ground up, and that’s not how Arduino works. They supply you with a prefab board you can program. I was offended! I thought I should learn electronics so well I could build whatever I wanted out of the drawers at Radio Shack.

I now think I was stupid. Designing circuits from individual components is not simple. It’s probably best left to real engineers. And aside from that, real engineers don’t build everything from resistors and capacitors. They use integrated chips which contain a whole lot of ready-to-wear circuitry. I think getting into Arduino would be a good idea, unless I want to create my first complex circuit when I’m 80.

What is Arduino? Glad you asked.

I don’t know a whole lot about it, but the idea is that a company in Italy sells you a board with a microcontroller and a USB port on it, and they tell you absolutely everything about its design and how to use it. In other words, it’s “open source.” Then you use C to write programs for the microcontroller, and you use the board for projects. There are additional boards called “shields” that snap into the main board, and you can build circuits that are more complex.

You can download a free program that allows you to write code for your boards. You connect them to your PC using USB.

It’s pretty cool, and I am hoping it will also be a gateway to bigger things that don’t require me to be dependent on Arduino.

“Arduino” is a hard word to type. The letters don’t seem to follow each other naturally.

I learned some stuff which may be even cooler than the Arduino stuff. If you use Arduino boards, you will shell out at least five bucks per board, even for Chinese clones, and they take up a fair amount of space. There’s an alternative. There is a family of integrated circuits called “ATTINY,” and they’re the size of op amps. If your project is simple enough, you can program an ATTINY and move your project to it. You can start on an Arduino board and move to an ATTINY.

This is remarkable. I’m talking about a chip the size of a Tic Tac.

Here is the bad news: it’s hard to get an Arduino board without resorting to mail order. Radio Shack sells them; good luck finding a Radio Shack within 20 miles in 2016. If you live in a city full of educated, cultured people (i.e. not Miami), you may be able to find other sellers, but in my area, you are better off shopping for churros, women’s stretch pants that display every possible crease and contour of the pelvic region in minute detail, or really fancy tire rims.

I shelled out $25 for an Arduino Uno board today, and that’s a lot of money for what you get. When you buy the original Arduino stuff, you’re actually making a donation to the Arduino movement, so it’s overpriced. I didn’t feel cheated, though, because it seems like a worthy cause to me. If you buy clones, you’re not hurting anyone, because there are no patents, so if I ever need more boards, China, here I come.

I ordered a few ATTINY’s because they’re so cheap. I plan to play with them eventually. I would love to create a digital tachometer for my drill press. I would be the boss nerd of my whole block.

I don’t promise all of what I wrote is correct. But it could happen.

My studies with the Radio Shack Electronics Learning Lab are zooming along quite well. Now that I’ve given up on the idea of writing reports, I’m flying through several projects per day. It was a good move, because it would have taken me a year to do it the other way. Whatever I lose in depth of study, I more than gain in progress from concept to concept.

Today I get started on doing something or other with the lab’s digital display. That’s pretty cool. In my mind, electronics can be separated into two categories: stuff that has alphanumeric displays and digital components, and all the other stuff. That’s probably not quite right, but it’s how I see things. To me, making the leap from stupid circuits that turn LED’s on and off to circuits that put numbers on an LCD screen is a very big deal. It’s a jump from 1920 to 1975. It’s a jump to a realm which includes nearly every interesting electronic device a normal person owns.

You would think a Radio Shack product with the phrase “Learning Lab” in the name would be a kid’s toy, but it’s not. It’s very useful. If it included an oscilloscope, it would be considerably more advanced than the equipment I used in my first college electronics class.

One of the great things about it is that all the things you need for a whole series of projects are included. You can teach yourself electronics using a powered breadboard and your own components, but amassing the materials will be a giant pain in the butt. The cost of the Learning Lab is way more than offset by the grief it will save you.

Unfortunately, you can’t have one. They don’t sell them any more. But there are similar products out there. And you can find them used on Ebay.

The only problem with the lab is the analog meter on the board. I don’t use it. I use a Fluke meter which works better and is harder to blow up.

I guess I’ll fire up the Arduino and try to figure out how to use it. If all goes well, I should have a working minion by Tuesday.

There’s no Need to Talk About It

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

I’m Old Enough to Scope it Out and Keep it Loose

Sorry for the really obscure Amazing Rhythm Aces reference.

I have done the unthinkable. I have replaced my Bronze Age Hitachi oscilloscope.

To be more rigorous, I have SUPPLEMENTED my Bronze Age Hitachi oscilloscope. I don’t plan to throw it out, but I got a new scope which will probably see more use.

I got the Hitachi because I was nostalgic for the days when I used to be intelligent, i.e., the days when I was studying physics. I took two electronics courses in college, using Tektronix scopes, and when I decided to revive my interest, I found a creaky Hitachi offered for fifty bucks (maybe it was seventy-five).

My college electronics courses were truly, truly useless. I’m not sure why they bothered. They took the physicist approach, and physicists can’t do anything. If you want to know where an electron in a certain type of potential is likely to be at a certain time, a physicist can help you, but if you want to design a simple headphone amplifier, you might as well hire a bartender. Physicists learn nothing which is of practical use.

My first course was full of calculus, and it centered on the theory behind simple electronic components. We built ridiculous things like differentiators and integrators. When was the last time you went to Best Buy to look at a new 55″-screen integrator? Never! People don’t use integrators. They use stereos, computers, and smartphones. I didn’t learn how to make one useful thing.

My second course was called “advanced,” but it was about things like shining a UV light on a piece of metal and counting the electrons that left its surface. I’m sure Samsung pays top dollar to designers who can count electrons.

Say what you will about engineers. They may be creepy and scary, but they can actually do things.

The Hitachi was useful when I built guitar amps. I used it for monkey jobs, such as finding out how far a signal went in a circuit before being cut off by one of my wiring mistakes. You can’t do that very well with a multimeter. You need a picture, because AC signals on multimeters don’t tell you much.

Unfortunately, the Hitachi is an analog scope, so it doesn’t tell you anything. It just gives you a picture of the signal. If you want to know the voltage or frequency, you have to work it out with a calculator or multiply in your head. Up-to-date nerds use digital scopes. They have little readouts on the screen, and they tell you stuff about what you’re seeing. They also store information so you can look at signals later.

I don’t recall whether the Tektronix scopes I learned on were digital or analog, but given the era, I would guess that they were analog.

You can go on Ebay and get old digital scopes from American companies for not too much money, but they have certain parts that tend to blow, and you may or may not be able to fix them. Also, the cheap new Chinese scopes have more features. I decided to go Chinese.

The Chinese oscilloscope game is quite interesting. There are a number of companies that make scopes that look pretty much alike, and it seems like every budget scope costs exactly the same amount: $400. But it gets complicated. Some scopes are built well, and others aren’t. Some scopes can be hacked, and others can’t. You have to shop carefully.

The scope I got is rated for 50MHz, but here’s something interesting: the frequency is limited by software, not hardware. In other words, the manufacturer makes a scope that will work fine at 100MHz, and they program it so it only goes up to 50 so they can charge less for it. Weird. Naturally, nerds have found the hack that restores its full capability, so once I hack my scope, 100 MHz will be well within range.

There are other hacks for oscilloscopes. I don’t know what they are. I do know that the big drawback to low-end Chinese scopes is crummy software. They tend to have bugs that pop up, and people complain, and the manufacturers have to come up with solutions. It’s my understanding that American scopes are less buggy, which is one reason they cost four times as much.

It will be a little weird, turning on a new scope that does what it’s supposed to do, without requiring a nurse or a shaman to make it function. I haven’t had that experience in well over 20 years.

I found a neat resource: the forum at Eevblog.com. This is a website started by an Australian geek named Dave. I tried another forum, but the people were just a little too obnoxious. I don’t know why electronics turns some people into the fat kid from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, but it does.

Dave’s videos are neat, too. He’s a real engineer (someone who gets paid to do electronics), so he knows a few things, and he spills his guts regularly on Youtube. He takes scopes apart, which is nice. I decided to get a Rigol DS1054Z largely based on his dismantling video. The scope looks a little “Hello Kitty” on the outside, but on the inside, the build quality is very impressive.

Will I ever need even 10% of the scope’s capabilities. Not this year. Well, that means not in the next three days. Okay, not in 2017. I think. But who knows what I’ll be doing in 2018? Can’t hurt to plan for the future. I would really love to learn a little about digital circuits, and you need a digital scope for that.

The Hitachi’s problems appear to be fixable, and I feel obligated to try a repair. On the one hand, it’s practically worthless even when running normally. On the other hand, it’s a sophisticated, top-quality instrument that must surely have cost over a grand new, so it seems a shame to turn it into a parts cadaver.

Why didn’t I fix it before buying a new scope? First, I am lazy, and I like to buy new stuff. Second, I was really dreading fixing it. Third, when you need to fix a scope, one of the things you should have on hand is…a scope. That works. I should find the Rigol useful while operating on the Hitachi.

I can’t figure out what “Eevblog” means. I believe “vblog” is Australian for “vlog,” but what’s “Eev”? I saw something indicating it means “electron volt,” but if that’s true, what does “eV” mean? Short answer: it means “electron volt.” “EE” means “electrical engineer.” That still leaves “v” to be dealt with.

Well, my brain must have been short-circuited. The “V” is from the “vblog” part, not the “EE” part. Okay, so it’s “EE Vblog.”

Australians. Whatever.

I remember Dice Clay wondering aloud whether we do nuclear testing there.

I think we do.

If I get the Hitachi to function, I will almost certainly write about it here. You have been warned.