The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Archive for April, 2005

Dear lazyweb…please solve all my problems.

Posted by Deliverator on 16th April 2005

I have been incredibly busy this week. I have been busy trying to tie up all the loose ends in my life so that I can to go to Atlanta next week with the TRC (whose website is now back up after failing to pay their bills!) for the FIRST International Robotics Championship. The TRC is the defending champion for the Pacific Northwest two years running and is the only undefeated team in the WORLD at the moment! Still, we are trying to avoid it going to our heads too much. The Galileo division is absolutely stacked this year, with something like 20 of the teams having won at least a single regional tournament in the past. I have been working non-stop this week and have been able to bank a lot of dough. My taxes also weren’t as much as I was expecting, so I have a little money to spare. I have been contemplating a few purchases, but would like some advice on potential purchases and other matters. In short, I am depending on you, dear lazyweb to answer my problems…

  • My digital camera is getting quite dated (2 MP Kodak with no zoom). I am looking for something that is pocketable (in a jacket) with a metallic case, in the 4-5 MP range, takes CF or SD media, has at least a 3x optical zoom, has a big, clear LCD, good button layout and makes intelligent “point and shoot” decisions, but also provides easy access to exposure control and other “manual” features. Panoramic assist (stiches images together), automatic image rotation, movie mode and the ability to run on AA batteries would be nice features, but aren’t show stoppers. Does such a beast exist? Some of the cameras in the Canon Powershot line seem to fit the bill. Sony also has a camera that seems pretty nice, but Sony of course obtusely continues to insist on putting their terrible, proprietary memory stick format in all their products. So, does such a beast exist?
  • I picked up a color camera for the ROV and am looking for a clear glass vessel in which to “pot” it. The idea is to use silicone sealant to mount the camera flush against a clear glass plate and then fill up the rest of the space in the glass using casting acrylic. This should make the camera extremely resistant to the effects of pressure. I have been hunting for drinking glasses, jars, etc that would be suitable for this purpose, but am not having much luck. The camera I picked up is a cheap $45 CMOS based camera that can be powered with a 9v battery and outputs video and audio via an RCA cable. The CMOS sensor is not particularly sensitive at low light levels, but it was the only camera I could find that came with an optional wide angle (90 degree) lens (and an even wider Fish Eye lens is available). Frys had several CCD based “bullet” cams that switch between B&W and color modes based on the light levels and automatically turn on a ring of a dozen or so LEDs in extremely low light situations. Some of the CCDs advertise being able to get an image at as low as .1 lux luminosity, while the CMOS cameras never seem to claim better than about 3 lux. All the bullet cams were inappropriate for general use on an ROV, though, because none of them supported more than a 50 degree angle of view. I think the ROV may actually need two cameras, one for wide angle navigation and another for picking up detail on objects. There are cameras with zooms and adjustable focus, but they are expensive and would have to be mounted in a waterproof, pressure resistant chamber, which would complicate things greatly. So, can anyone provide me with some information on inexpensive, sensitive B&W CCD cameras with wide angle lenses and preferably something with a good mounting bracket?
  • I have been trying to acquire a copy of “Build your own underwater robot and other wet projects by Harry Bohm.” without any luck. Nobody locally seems to have a copy (UW bookstore *might*) and all the major online retailers seem to be on extreme backorder. I would really like to get a copy before heading to Atlanta, so that I have something to read while down there
  • I am trying to get a hold of some detailed charts of Lake Washington that have the locations of the many significant wrecks marked on them. I have attempted to contact various members of the local wreck diving community, but haven’t heard back from any of them.
  • We will be staying near the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, but will not have access to cars (or at least not many of them). What is there to see in Atlanta that can be reached by public transportation and is worth seeing in the late evening (as evenings are all we will have free)?

Posted in Books, General, Photography, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff, Titan Robotics Club | 4 Comments »

I went to Starbucks and I feel dirty…in more ways than one.

Posted by Deliverator on 12th April 2005

In some ways, I think part of the attraction of Starbucks has been their ability to create a very clean, yet warm and inviting atmosphere. The ability to do the first is made significantly more difficult in a place like Capitol Hill. To prevent non-customers from using their bathrooms, they have a code lock on the bathroom doors. Today’s code was “42,” perhaps in honor of Douglas Adams. I know Adams would be spinning in his grave over Hollywood’s adaptation of the guide, so he needs every small honor he can get at the moment. Anyways, the door combination does little to keep the bathroom clean, as the average paying customer on Capitol Hill is not much cleaner than the average vagrant (myself included!). Anyways, I was very ammused today upon entering the bathroom to see a newly put up sign that says something along the lines of “Employees MUST wash their hands before returning to work.” The sign then procedes in a combination of pictograms and plain english instruction to illustrate to the Employee the process of washing one’s hands. Step six instructs the Employee to use a paper towel to turn of the water, so as not to re-contaminate themselves by touching the dingy handle. Only problem is that there isn’t a paper towel dispenser in the bathroom, only one of those glorified hair-dryers! An obsessive-compulsive person would have a heart attack…..good thing I am not obsessive-compulsive ;)

Posted in General | No Comments »

Browser Wars…Browser Woes

Posted by Deliverator on 10th April 2005

The browser wars caused a great deal of chaos in the PC industry and set back the efforts for web standards by many years, IMO. In Microsoft’s hurry to bludgeon Netscape out of the market (largely to keep them from becoming another force in the industry capable of creating independent standards), many good programming habits got left by the wayside. The result of which was a web browser chock full of security holes. Because Outlook Express used much of the same rendering engine, it was equally insecure, if not more so than IE, as email serves as a much easier vector for viruses. IE still has a lot of problems, but Microsoft has made a lot of efforts in recent years to secure IE, although development of new features seems to have all but stopped. A friend of mine recently showed me an as yet undocumented cross-site-scripting bug that effects fully patched version of IE on XP SP2. IE has finally grown into a fairly stable, if feature poor browser. Mozilla Firefox, which I have been using since at least two name changes ago is a far more feature rich browser, is more standards compliant, secure and extensible. I have been using Mozilla as my web browser of choice, and pretty much only use IE when forced to access some Microsoft web page (where they have intentionally blocked non-Microsoft browsers). On such pages, a Mozilla extension which allows me to change the “user agent” (the browser type/identifying data that the browser sends to the server) usually allows me to use Mozilla anyways.

On my Jornada 720, I am not so fortunate in my choices. The Jornada runs the HPC 2000 OS, which is based around WIN CE 3.0. The browser included in with the Jornada is IE 4, which has a lot of problems rendering modern web pages. It properly displays maybe 1/2 of the more modern pages that I attempt to access. There is a registry hack to change the user agent that the browser reports, which at least partially enables the display of many pages that would not load at all, before. The IE 4 user interface is also rather spartan. ftxBrowser offers a vastly improved interface over IE 4, adding support for modern ammenities liked tabbed browsing, but because it uses the IE rendering engine, is just as limited in terms of the pages that it will properly display. Netfront 3.0 (but no later version) will run on the Jornada, but you have to hack the PPC version to get it to run by adding certain PPC dll files to the program’s directory. This hack results in several of the user interface elements being unusable. You can still get by, but it is a far from ideal browsing solution.

I was very interested to learn of two projects underway that may provide the Jornada with an updated browser. I will have to provide the links later, as I am writing this entry offline on my Jornada and will upload it once I get home or find an open AP. The first of these projects is Minimo, short for Mini-Mozilla. The project aims to provide a pared down version of Mozilla for use on mobile devices. They have put out a few test versions that, while extremely rough, do render pages. The project looks promising and I just hope they are able to acquire the developer talent to do it right. At the moment, the project is being built for PPC 2003, but from what I have heard, it shouldn’t be hard to build it against CE 3. Another project that shows a lot of promise implements the Mozilla rendering engine as an Active-X control that can be used to quickly whip up a browser using VB or even embed within a webpage…viewed in IE! I really hope that these projects mature in the coming months. I really like the Jornada’s form factor, but it is getting dated as a browsing platform. The wide screen allows for full width viewing (without side to side scrolling) of most websites, while the touch typeable keyboard allows me to do things like write extended blog entries and emails while out and about. It is a real pitty that most Win CE devices have gone over to the IPAQ form factor. I have used many palm pilot form factor devices over the years (I bought one of the original Pilot 5000 devices less than a month after they were introduced), but I have never found a device that comes close to my Jornada as a means of increading my productivity.

Posted in General, Tech Stuff, Titan Robotics Club | 1 Comment »

The day, today

Posted by Deliverator on 10th April 2005

I have gotten into the unfortunate habit of writing blog entries a couple of days after the actual events in question. While time does give the opportunity for reflection and allows one to discard some of the chaff, I find that given the rapidly degrading quality of my recollection, it is probably best to write about events that I deem important on the day they occur (or at least before sleep washes over me).

Since being ill recently, my sleeping schedule has gotten even more perturbed than usual. My usual difficulty is in getting to sleep. I find that my metabolism tends to steadily increase throughout a day, then dip for a few hours about six hours after waking. After that, I may get worn out *physically* as the day goes on, but mentally I become more alert and have great difficulty settling my mind enough to get to sleep. I usually have to read for several hours to get to sleep. The result tends to be that I go to bed later and later each day, and concordantly wake up progressively later. I am able to reset back to what most people consider “normal” waking and sleeping hours by exhausting myself to the point where I collapse at a relatively normal hour. Wash, rinse, repeat…

Well, since being ill I have started waking up 3-4 hours after initially falling asleep and being totally lucid. Anyone who knows me well knows that I am not worth having a conversation with for several hours after I wake. I am usually a total zombie for the first few hours after waking up, and my memory is highly unreliable. I have often had conversations with people after waking, and later not be able to recall the conversation (or more often, I remember vaguely speaking with them, but little or nothing of the content). Last night, I managed to get to sleep quite early, only to snap awake at 2 am. I ended up watching “Duck Soup” with The Marx Brothers and then reading quite a bit more of Roth’s American Pastoral before finally zonking out at around 6 am. I woke up around 10 am, not so lucid as before, but not in my usual torpor, either.

After making a number of calls to clients to try and solidify my schedule for next week, my dad and I headed to Safeco and got tickets to our first game of the season. I would have liked to see the series just completed (Mariners vs the Twins), as I grew up in MN in the golden days of Twins baseball and still have my original Homer Hankie, which I have broken out of the closet on occasion. For me a Twins vs Mariner game is a win-win situation, whichever team wins, I am happy!

Anyways, today the Mariners played the Rangers. The game was pretty low scoring at first, with both teams making strong defensive plays, and the crowd was quite sedate. Everyone seemed content to just sit back, watch the game and soak up the sun. The Rangers managed to get ahead of us for a while, until a 4 run inning drove us into the lead by a 6-3 margin. After a couple of solid innings of relief pitching from Hasegawa, everyone felt pretty good going into the ninth inning. For some reason, the M’s decided to bring in Gordodo, who promptly gave up 2 home runs. Boone made an incredibly basic fielding error, allowing a slow and smoothly rolling ground ball (that was hit directly to him) to roll right through his legs. This is the sort of basic fielding exercise they run over and over in little league. You would think after many years in the majors that such a play could be executed blindfolded. Anyways, it was at about this time that the clouds opened up and started raining on our parade. Simultaneously, the Seagulls started dive bombing the crowd. Nobody near us got hit, but I just hope that nobody on the second deck was looking up at the time. The roof started moving to cover the field. Strangely, after years of going to M’s games at Safeco, I had never been there before when the roof was activated. It was quite earie to fix my eyes in space and get this strange feeling that the building was about to pounce on me! The movement of the roof is slow enough that the building seems to be almost tensing for action. The Mariners made a valiant effort to correct the 1 run deficit, but ended up leaving Ichiro on 3rd and a runner (I don’t recall who) at first. With the exception of the last inning, the game was quite enjoyable and I equally enjoyed my father’s company.

After 45 minutes at home, I headed up to Crossroads Cinema. The management kindly allowed us to set up a fundraising demonstration for the TRC. We managed to scrape together a few hundred dollars in donations, which will be matched dollar for dollar thanks to Nasa’s matching grant. We should have enough to fund our teams entry at the national tournament in Atlanta, but we have yet to secure any funding for next year, or projects like the ROV for this year. I will probably write about this fundraising event more tomorrow, but this entry has gone on for rather long enough already…

Goodnight all and may you sleep better than I!

Posted in General, Titan Robotics Club | No Comments »

Progress on ROV

Posted by Deliverator on 7th April 2005

Although I haven’t made any extensive posts on it, the ROV project is coming along. I have two basic designs worked out.

The first uses relays for motor control (no onboard logic) and is powered from the surface. This design has a thicker cable and because of the surface supplied power, has a practical operating depth limit of probably about 60 feet. The second design is far more robust, has onboard power and the motors are microprocessor controlled. Because of the onboard power and microprocessor based control, a much thinner cable can be used as a tether. I am thinking that for the later design, cat 3e will probably sufficient. This second design should be capable of an operational depth of 250-300 feet, although time spent at that depth will have to be relatively short because everything will be running off batteries and the motors will draw significantly more current at that depth.

For thrusters, both designs utilize bilge pump motors, probably ones rated in the 1000 gallon per hour range. Several people who have constructed rovs based on the popular “seafox” design have commented that the 500 gph bilge motors utilized in that design are really too weak for manuevering in any sort of current. I went back to West Marine today and spoke with a grey haired old salt who was kind enough to let me take apart a number of bilge pumps. I ended up selecting a $28, 800 GPH, West Marine branded centrifugal pump that has a redirectable outflow. It was relatively simple to remove the housing, filter and impeller assemblies and get access to just the motor and the shaft. This should make it relatively simple to convert these motors to a prop design. A prop design could be nice, as it would be enable us to simplify the design of the ROV somewhat and only use 3 motors instead of 5 for a water jet driven design. A prop design would be more difficult to control with relays, though, so we would probably only use it if we built the more robust microprocessor controlled ROV.

Both designs call for two cameras. One will be a wild angle, fixed focus camera that will be facing forward. It will have adjustable pan and tilt controls. The second camera will be fixed in a downtilted position and will be primarily used to read a depth gauge and compass. Navigation at depth is quite tricky, as you don’t have binocular vision to give you perspective, lighting is usually bad and silt can significantly reduce visibility. The robot will probably provide its own light through two 25watt halogen bulbs and two laser pointers with beams configured to cross at 6 feet in front of the ROV should provide some clues as to distance and ROVorientation. If we go with the microprocessor design, it may be possible to incorporate gyroscopes and a digital compass to provide more information. Anyways, I am headed down to Fry’s tonight to try and find some suitable cameras, but have already begun work on the pan/tilt system and have acquired some clear acrylic resin to permanently “pot” the cameras in place when ready.

Posted in General | 1 Comment »

A recommendation, for a change

Posted by Deliverator on 6th April 2005

Unlike the books mentioned in my previous post, I can wholeheartedly recommend One Man’s Wilderness. The book is primarily a collection of journal entries and pictures that document a year in the life of Richard Proenneke, who at the age of 50 set out to build a cabin (using only hand tools!) deep in the Alaskan wilderness, 40+ miles by plane from the nearest human inhabitation. In simple words Proenneke describes the process of building his cabin, exploring the countryside and the personalities of its animal inhabitants. Throughout, you get a intimate sense of the man’s steady, patient personality, good hearted humor in the face of harsh circumstances, incredible ingenuity and a personal philosophy that rejects much of the unhealthy consumerism that has all but consumed the western individual. Above all, one comes away from the book with a deep appreciation for the ability of man to adapt and carve out a place for himself in the world and live by his own rules, while deeply respecting the world around him. Dick Proenneke died recently, after spending most of the last 35 years serving as self appointed steward to the Twin Lakes area and living in the cabin he built with his own two hands. His home was recently made a historic site and is maintained by the park service of what is now Lake Clark National Park. This book will inspire and leave a glow in your heart, long after you finish it!

Next up on my list is American Pastoral by Philip Roth. This book won a Pulitzer a few years back and Roth has been a name that repeatedly has come up in conversations with other bibliophiles, so I am looking forward to starting in on this one…

Posted in Books, General | No Comments »

Lucy and her football

Posted by Deliverator on 5th April 2005

Last minute cancelations have been causing my life to lurch along in all sorts of strange ways of late. Tonight’s hacknight has been canceled, but I am really not in the mood to stay on the eastside tonight. After all these weeks of being sick, I have come down with a definite case of cabin fever. I think I will go find a coffee shop on Capitol Hill and work on design documents for the ROV. Tomorrow, I am going to try and get out of the house and see the Mariners game. They are playing the Twinkies, so I will be pleased regardless of who wins. One of these days, I am going to have to figure out my taxes…

Posted in General | 1 Comment »

Website update

Posted by Deliverator on 5th April 2005

Turns out that the TRC website is down because we haven’t been paying our bills. The web team planned on switching to a new host that provides some additional functionality that will be used in the next version of the site. It sounds like they just dropped the ball about getting the new hosting arrangements made before the contract with the old host expired.

Posted in General, Titan Robotics Club | No Comments »

Has TRC been bad?

Posted by Deliverator on 5th April 2005

I tried to visit the TRC site today and the front page has been replaced with the message:

This web site has been suspended.

If you are the owner of this account, please contact your web hosting provider for additional information.

If you are a visitor, please visit this web site later.

Posted in General, Titan Robotics Club | No Comments »

Partially Digested Mental Vomitus

Posted by Deliverator on 3rd April 2005

Random ejecta:

-Went to West Marine Supply and spoke to someone about motors for the ROV project. It looks like they sell a few bilge pump motors that might suit as thrusters. Bilge motors seem the most appropriate of the motors that I have found thus far, as they are well sealed/watertight, because they often have to operate in corrosive salt water. Some of the higher flow rate motors are pretty expensive, though ($100+), and we will need at least 3 for the ROV. We might be able to get by with two, but we would have to go to an active balast control system, which would add considerable mechanical complexity to the design.

-Finished two books while I have been recuperating. The first is Market Forces by Richard K Morgan. I really liked his first book, Altered Carbon, which won the Philip K. Dick award a few years ago. His second book, Broken Angels, set in the same book-verse as the first was also quite good, although not as sharp as the first. I just couldn’t suspend disbelief for this one. The world he paints, of “neo-brutalist” corporatism gone amuck, just doesn’t ring true in too many places. Too much of Morgan’s cynicism seeps on to the pages without really being articulated in a plausible way. The other book I finished was Neil Gaiman’s “short story collection”Smoke and Mirrors. My feeling about this book is that Gaiman’s publisher was trying to capitalise on Gaiman’s recent fame by raiding his notebooks for every aborted zygote of a story, poem or dirty bar room limerick and shove it into the outstretched hands of a slathering public. Both of these authors are capable of producing real gems, but neither of these works are representative of their talent. Guys, it is time to slow down, dig deep and fill the trash with some crumpled up paper…

-Went and saw Sin City with Alex. I didn’t really like it, but it interested me deeply on a technical level. I am always interested in seeing what Rodriguez produces, because he breaks all the rules and gets away with it. Rodriquez has become the figurehead for a new era of ultra low budget film production. His first commercial success, El Mariachi was made for around $5k. Hollywood really hates him, but his ability to consistently deliver box office profits, if not critical aclaim (Desperado, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Spy Kids, etc.)
has made everyone take notice…

Posted in Books, General, Movies, Titan Robotics Club | 1 Comment »