March 2009

Last night I started thinking it might be a good idea if I were to try to fix my roof rack. I nearly wrecked them a while back by using a standard hex wrench on it (there’s an adjustment I have to make when I flip it between my car and Va’s car). Unfortunately, it requires a metric hex wrench instead.

A couple of months ago I happened to spot a set of metric hex keys at Lowes, so I picked them up and tossed them in the trunk. So last night I went digging for them in there. But there was just way too much junk in the trunk to find anything, so I started a big clean-out project. I threw away the two fans I had ripped out of the school’s server (I replaced them with oh-so-quite ones instead). I threw away blocks of wood, empty plastic bags, rocks (yes, rocks), a ring I had cut from a milk jug, and countless other things. I also returned the spare, jack, and tire tool to their rightful place under the trunk’s floor. I had almost forgotten what I had been looking for when I found the hex keys. Cool.

Then I dragged the roof rack into the house and was able to make the adjustment. I fitted the rack onto the car, and in the morning after I dropped Beth off at school, I grabbed my canoe from the church basement and loaded on top of the car so I could bring it on home.

With canoe on the brain, and thinking of how I really needed to fix it (the fiberglass on the bottom is cracked, and in one place has a hole in it all the way down to the wood), I decided I ought to buy a sheet of fiberglass cloth. So I order 5 yards of that. I’ll work on the canoe when that comes in. I really need to do something before I take the boat out again anyhow.

When I got home from work, I parked outside the garage. I was thinking I’d go down to the basement and clear out a place to set the canoe so I’ll be able to work on it indoors when the time comes. Va wasn’t home yet. When I got out of the car, I noticed that a whole winter’s worth of sand and dirt was sitting there in the garage. With no cars in there, it was the perfect opportunity to clear that out too. So I got a flat shovel and started scraping out the sand.

Sand gets in there because they sand the roads here all winter long. The sand gets stuck in the tire treads and deposited on our garage floor. I guess I shoveled five gallons of sand outta there tonight. Then I swept it. Penny helpfully brought me sticks to throw.

I have still not made room in the basement for the canoe, nor have I taken it off the car. Maybe I should think about doing that before I go to bed.

I just realized that I could upload a picture of the cardboard canoe since I took several shots this morning. Here it is:
"The" Cardboard Canoe, next to my cedar strip canoe
The white part is where we glued drywall tape to it. We still need to cover the rest of it with tape too, and we’ll tackle that next week. You can also see the paddle shafts we started – they’re lying on the floor in front of the boat. The cardboard canoe was formed over the wooden one in the background.

Today after work I headed straight to Kensington to pick up the paint. It took me an hour to get there, and then the nice people tried to give me a few other things as well. I did accept a box filled with various types of glue, from Modge Podge to Elmers. No wood glue though, which is something we really could have used on the canoe. However, we do use these other type of glue for other crafts, so I gladly accepted the box.

I showed them photos of the canoe. I had taken several this morning after I dropped Beth off at school. I figured I ought to move the canoes out of the middle of the room, take up the tarps and vacuum up the bits of cardboard detritus that we had left lying about. That took about 20 minutes all told.

The trip home took another hour and a half. I stopped and got some gas and a quick bite to eat. I finally made it home at around 7:00.

Tonight when I went to Home Depot to get some more glue for the canoe, I spoke with a manager about getting some free paint for our project. He said I’d have to send them a letter on our organization’s letterhead, include our tax id number, and include a list of what we needed and what we would use it for. Then they would evaluate the merit of our request and put it in their queue.

Um… no thanks. We need this kind of right away.

When I got home I checked Craigslist and found that someone in Kensington is giving away something like seven gallons of free paint (various colors). I sent her this email:

I’d very much like your free paint, and I think I could possibly convince you that I could put it to the most interesting use.

I am the director of a Pathfinder Club, which is a scouting organization for kids aged 10 and up. We are in the process of building a cardboard boat which we will race (with kids paddling it) in Maine on the first weekend in May.

If you let us have the paint, I can promise to send you pictures of the boat in the competition.

Our approach to building our boat has been to cover a real canoe with several layers of cardboard, which we have glued together. This evening we took it off the real canoe, and it is holding its shape beautifully. We are now in the process of glueing drywall tape to the outside, covering the entire boat with it. Once that dries, we will be ready for paint.

This canoe is about 15 feet long and 30″ wide. I’d be happy to make a trip to Kensington to get the paint.

She got back to me right away:

Hello Mr. Thomas, I am all about supporting kids, charity’s ,fund raisers, and just plain hands on fun for kids. You are the lucky owner of all this paint :):) I had 15 e-mails in a half hour for this paint :):) If you wish to call, my number is 603-xxx-abcd I think you know that most of it is water based. Terrie

So… score! I called her up and made arrangements to drive to Kensington tomorrow after work to pick it up.

This morning after breakfast I hustled over to Lowes to return those porch lights I bought last week. I’m going to try to stop by an electrical supply house sometime this week to maybe pick up some lights that are not outright junk. A friend at work told me a good place, so I’ll try there first.

When I got home I went out and collected the sap bucket. I had about as much sap as I did the first time, meaning I’d be able to make another half cup or so of syrup. I brought it in, filtered it, and boiled it down starting at about 10:30 am. It was done by 12:45. I also took the bucket down, as we are now pretty much at the end of the sap season. I prolly could have collected a little more, but once I boiled that down, I’d have what? another tablespoon or so of syrup? I might be crazy, but there are limits to my insanity!

Once that was done, Va and I headed into Tilton and had lunch together at Applebees. Then we swung by the grocery store, and then headed home. Then in the afternoon, I loaded all the kids in the car and we went to the church to work on the cardboard canoe.

The first thing we did was take my regular canoe out of the cardboard one. The cardboard copy held its shape beautifully. Then we put it back on the saw horses and started gluing drywall tape to it. Not just over the joints, but over the whole thing. No cardboard will show when we’re finished. Jonathan and Warran took the lead on that. There were several more kids there, so I set them to work laminating up the bulkhead which we will place right in the middle of the boat. That will keep the sides from collapsing in on themselves. I had another group of kids start making paddles. But they soon got bored with that, so I used the nuclear option: make helmets. Yes. Viking helmets. They were all pretty stoked about that, and pretty soon they were also making short swords and battle axes. I’m not sure that’s the spirit the conference was trying to foster, but they do all seem pretty excited.

I also figured out how I’m going to decide who gets to paddle the canoe. First, it will be open to the kids who were interested enough to show up on these past two “extra credit” Sundays. That gives me nine or ten kids. At most we could squeeze six in there, and that’s pushing it. Four might be a better choice. I will further winnow them down by merit points. If the boat survives its maiden voyage, and at this point, I’m quite confident that it will, we will field a second crew. And possibly a third.

They should look splendid in their helmets.

Penny is crazy. This afternoon, I suggested that we go for a walk down to Sandogardy Pond. All three of my kids took me up on this, which is rather unusual. We took Penny with us.

The snow has been receding at a breakneck pace, but there are still plenty of patches of it, and it’s still a foot deep here and there. But I think there is more bare ground now than snow-covered. We got to the pond, and saw that it was still frozen over, though it’s melted at the edges. No way would I venture out there now.

I went to the edge of the pond to see if I could find anything in bloom, but I found nothing. So far, the only blossoms are still those crocuses in Concord. While I was crouched down looking into the water, Penny came splashing in. She flopped right in the water and started drinking. Need I remind you of the snow? Or mention that this is ice water? Didn’t seem to bother her in the least.

Penny taking an ice bath

Penny taking an ice bath

Then she picked up the stick she had brought with her and ambled on out. She shook herself dry, and was ready to chase that stick some more.

We walked through the forest-cum-field on the way there and on the way back. It really looks like a scene of total devastation with shattered tree trunks and branches scattered everywhere. I guess the branches are 6 inches deep over most of the area. It makes for a challenging hike.

Beth expressed concern that we were going to get lost in the vastness of the place, but I scoffed, telling her that I thought I was more than capable of leading us through a field without getting lost. We could, after all, see the roads on all three sides.

Beth and Jonathan making their way through the bush

Beth and Jonathan making their way through the bush

That said, the place is totally unrecognizable, and in spite of my navigational prowess, I misjudged the distance we had walked. We went a bit too far and had to turn around to hit where the trail used to be, leading to the road. I guess we could have just cut west and made our way to the road, but that would have led us through people’s backyards. I didn’t want to do that, so we did double back. I can’t believe I got us “lost” in a field. Maybe that will teach me to boast!

I finally managed to mail my old camera to my Uncle Jim. He has agreed to take a look at it and see if he can fix it, and for that, I am very grateful. I tried to fix it a couple of times, but it is apparently beyond my skill level. He, on the other hand, it like a level 92 mage when it comes to that sort of thing. He has never tried to fix a camera, but I think the odds are pretty decent that he will succeed where I have failed.

A little before noon today I called Va to see where she and Beth were eating. They get out of school at noon on Fridays, and then they go someplace to eat. Since I had to swing by the post office to mail that camera, I decided I would join them. We met at Pizza Hut, and had what Uncle Jim has the habit of calling “a fine meal.”

When I got home I poked around in the backyard looking for things to photograph. I found a mosquito. Still no frogs or salamanders, but I’m almost certain I heard a frog. Then Penny came running up and the frog sounds stopped abruptly. I couldn’t find him if he was there, but it was not from a lack of looking.

The only flowers I know of that are in bloom is that little gang of crocuses I photographed Wednesday. I found some dandelion plants, but they haven’t bloomed yet. As soon as they do though, I will log them on the Bloom Clock.

Yesterday the electric piano we had ordered for Beth came in. She’s been taking lessons since sometime last fall, and she’s still very much into it. Up until yesterday, she had been practicing on a toy piano. Problem with that is that the keys are smaller than the ones on a real piano, it only had 3 octaves, and the volume of each note was the same no matter how hard you pressed the key. Also, it did not have a sustain pedal.

Since she has been sticking with it, and she has been making some really good progress, we decided it was time to spring for something that will hopefully suit her needs for years to come. I could have had an acoustic piano for free if I had been willing to talk a friend or two into helping me move one. Free pianos come up on craigslist all the time. The caveat is that you always have to move it yourself. But even then, we just don’t have a place in our house to put an acoustic piano. Acoustic pianos are big!

The one we got is very nice, IMO. It sounds like a piano. Plus it has 482 voices to entertain a geeky dad like me, including helicopters, machine guns, footsteps, barking dogs, galloping horses, gurgling brooks, laser guns, starships, etc.

I was playing around with it last night after everyone went to bed. Penny was in the same room, but she was pretty much just ignoring me until I selected the “scream” voice. “EEEEEEK!” sang the piano, and Penny about leapt out of her skin. She quickly came over and sniffed at the piano. I played a few more screams. She cocked her head. Then she pawed at the keyboard and played one herself.

Now that’s entertainment!

In other news…
This morning Beth told me that they had been having a bit of trouble with the computers at school, and Mrs Brace wanted me to look into it. So I did. One of the kids did something to her account so that the keyboard no longer worked. I knew the keyboard itself was working, because we were able to log in to her account. And her account was the only doing that – at first. Mrs Brace logged her into a different kid’s account so she could get her work done (most sysadmins would freak about that. I don’t like it either, but I do understand the necessity). In short order, she managed to magically disable the keyboard in that account too. That’s how I found it when I got there.

I poked around, but I really didn’t see anything obvious. Not being of much use, I decided to head on to the office and kick off a few Internet searches while I did my work. Also, I wanted to consult with another Linux geek (Dennis). Dennis was as puzzled as I was. But then I hit paydirt on the Innerwebs. Here’s what was going on.

There is a feature built into the desktop environment (KDE in our case) that was designed for handicapped people. This feature is called “Slow Keys”, and when enabled, the keys don’t “take” until they’re held in for half a second or so. This feature is for amputees (et al) who may accidentally, and momentarily strike several keys with a stub before settling on the one they really want. It’s also useful for quadreplegics how type with a stick held in the mouth. Or at least I think that’s what this feature is good for. Anyhow, this feature is activated when the shift key is held in for 8 seconds. A screen popped up, and she just clicked “Continue” either without reading it, or without understanding it. Thus, it appeared that the keyboard was disabled, when really it was in an “accessibility” mode.

I went back to the school after work and fixed her right up. Sure enough, that’s what it was. Mrs., Brace also complained that the Internet had really slowed down this week (which coincides with all the work I did switching us to a new firewall and bringing the new ltsp online). I verified that indeed, the speeds were horrible, but also found that it was only the DNS lookups that were taking forever (where forever equals one minute). THAT will certainly slow things down! I haven’t figured out why it’s doing that yet, but knowing what it’s doing is more than half the battle.

Today I was having a really hard time staying awake at my desk. It was a little after 3:00, and I decided the best remedy would be to go outside and walk around the block.

It was very nice outside – about 50°F. As I was rounding the corner by the Mexican restaurant next door to our office, I spotted these:

A batch of crocus flowers

A batch of crocus flowers

These are the first blooms I’ve seen this year – outside anyhow. To me, those are the only ones that count.

When I got home I went out to check the sap bucket. We’ve been having cold nights and warm days, but there’s not as much sap in the bucket as I wanted to find there. Oh well. While I was out tooling around, I heard a flock of geese honking overhead and flying south. They flew right over the house, maybe 20 of them. Then some of them (or a different flock) circled around and flew over the house again, this time heading west (but still honking away). I didn’t know how long they would circle, so I went in after my camera. Of course they were gone when I got back out. I continued tramping about.

I heard some birds. I could see one high up in a tree, but I couldn’t tell what kind it was. Bird id from tiny silhouettes is not my forte. Maybe one of these day’s I’ll be able to recognize them by their songs, but that day is not today. I aimed my camera and zoomed in, converting the silhouette to something a bit more tangible (to me). It was an American Robin (Turdus migratorus). That would be harbinger number three.

I went back into the woods then, searching for salamanders in the numerous vernal pools we have. I’ve read that that’s where they breed at this time of the year, but I have yet to witness that. I took several pictures of moss and lichen. And a stump covered with both, peeking out from the snow.

Not exactly a harbinger, but it was still pretty.

In spite of my general opposition to the practice of body piercing, I managed to pierce my own today.

Dennis was having trouble with a cell-phone charger (it plugs into a car’s accessory outlet) and he brought it in for us to take a look at. We hooked it up to a PC’s power supply in my office. I have a junk PC in there that I use for testing boards. The first problem was figuring out how to connect the charger to the power supply. I happened to see a thumb tack on the desk right next to the PC, so I had the idea of pushing it through the insulation of one of the power cables and just clipping onto it with an alligator clip. That worked just fine (and is not that different from how normal insulation displacement connectors work).

That reminded me of a story my Dad told me once, how he and/or a friend of his ran a safety pin through a couple of wires on another guy’s pickup truck, connecting his brake lights to his horn. So every time the guy hit the brakes, the horn would sound. Ha ha! I love it!

Back to my own story. We still needed a second lead. We had connected 12V to the charger, but we also needed a ground. Scanning my office turned up a dental pick. These are exceedingly useful in the electronics trade, so I happened to have one on my desk. I picked it up and began pushing it through the other wire, and stopped as soon as it went through that, kept right on going and pierced the fingernail on my left hand.


It bled.

Dennis’ charger was supplying a hefty 5V on the regulator end. We didn’t have anything to probe the other end of the cable, but I’m guessing that’s where the problem is.

With a potential diagnosis made, I wanted to cover the tiny little hole in my fingernail so I wouldn’t get germs in there. But I also didn’t want to wear a bandaid on my fingernail. So I went downstairs to the manufacturing lab and got some super glue. One dot of that on the hole, and I was good to go.

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