All posts by peter@diligent5.org

Uncle John

My uncle John giving me my first salute as a Second Lieutenant

One of the core principles everyone who has ever gone through basic training will understand is that being invisible has it’s advantages. When your bus drives through the installation gate for the first time on your way to training, you develop a pit in your stomach and start to wonder just what you have gotten yourself into. As you watch others get chewed on, you try to shrink into oblivion and do everything you can not to get noticed. At least, that was my experience. No sooner had we crossed the threshold of the base than the Military Training Instructors (MTIs or just TIs) who had met us at the airport and who had been at least moderately tolerant and helpful turned into demons, lashing out at anyone or anything that stood out. The happiest among us were the ones who weren’t worthy of notice. As I sat contemplating invisibility and thinking about the reality of being trapped in this jail-looking compound, I knew I could survive it but wondered if it was worth it. I was determined to stay off the radar. My hope for anonymity, however, didn’t last long.

As it turned out, just one year prior I had three uncles who were stationed there. All well known. All happy to make my life a little uncomfortable. And one of them was still stationed there and working at the confidence course. What I didn’t know, was that these fine family members had apparently let the cat out of the bag and told all their buddies that their nephew was inbound for training. I would soon find out that I was destined for a lot of special attention.

After a short drive through the base, the buses from the airport generally pull up to a training complex and trainees shuffle off under the very close supervision and barked instructions of half a dozen angry looking men wearing “smoky the bear” hats — the TIs. Commands like “ground your bags” universally result in at least one trainee not understanding what was meant, which immediately draws the attention of the pack of TI piranhas hovering just a few inches away waiting for an opportunity to chew on some fresh meat. The pack would circle and divvy up the likely victims based on how it would have the most effect.

As an example of the kind of effects they looked for, one of the TIs in charge of our group couldn’t have stood taller than about five foot five. He universally paid special attention to the tallest and largest trainees. He would find something they were doing wrong (which never took long), get right up against them, stare upwards into their face as he stabbed a pointed finger into their chest, and yell at them while almost foaming at the mouth. The moment they would look down at him, all hell would break loose with one-sided discussions about why it was wrong to look down on a superior like that.

A contrasting example was another of our TIs who was well over six foot six, was very muscle bound, and extremely dark-skinned. His tactic was to find the shortest, most timid little white girl and tower over her, whispering in a menacing tone. He almost never spoke loudly, but when he did, everyone for miles heard what it was you were doing wrong. He terrorized short people.

As for my bus, we entered the gates at Lackland Air Force Base in unremarkable form and proceeded to the training complex. However, instead of the typical routine of ejecting passengers and corralling them into a formation, a TI came on the bust shouting for Johnson. There were several, me among them, and we had the pleasure of being the first off the bus and a few minutes of special attention. As luck would have it, my uncle John had told some of his friends about his nephew, and they were on the look-out. Apparently they had done this on every bus that had come in that day, and in the process had made me a bunch of rather disgruntled friends that had the misfortune of sharing my last name. Instead of being invisible (as I had tried hard to be), I had an enormous target tattooed indelibly on both my front and back sides.

On the whole, the theatrics all looked to me like a comedy routine, and I had great difficulty not losing my composure. In fact, much of the special attention I got all was justified because I had been “smirking,” or something like that. Thankfully, after a few days people mostly forgot about my linkage to SSgt Johnson and I was able to at least blend in with the worst of the trouble makers. I never did manage a week where I didn’t have so many demerits that I would be policing cigarette butts or cleaning toilets on Sunday afternoon, but at least the most interesting of the attention faded away.

Towards the end of my training, we were shaken out of our bunks at roughly 2:30 and forced to go through a simulated deployment line. The remainder of the day we went through the process of out-processing for deployment, a simulated flight to Korea, and a full-day of “ground operations” on the Medina Annex before finishing up a very long day with an exhausted run through the confidence course.

Everyone was exhausted after weeks of little sleep and hard training, and the day’s activities added a rather acute insult to the underlying injuries. As I lined up to begin the course, I was put behind a very tired female who was almost in tears. She climbed up to start across the monkey bars that hung over a greenish pit of swamp water, but didn’t make it past the first rung before splashing down into the slime. Unsatisfied with her effort, the TI barked at her to do it again. I stepped aside to make room as she swung her now soaking body to the second rung before falling off again. Again, the TI wasn’t satisfied she had tried hard enough, so she circled back around and I watched her make it three rungs before falling off and finally being granted the mercy of moving to the next obstacle.

I reached out to the first bar. It was completely soaked and very slippery. I made it to the second. Then, on the third and final wet one, my grip slipped and down into the green water I fell. The TI chuckled, knowing exactly why I had fallen. I got the distinct impression she had tormented the girl in front of me just to make sure I fell in. Since I had so obligingly complied, I was sent forward to the next obstacle without getting the bars any more wet for the people behind me.

Besides the discomfort of being soaking wet in humid 90+ degree weather, falling into the pit meant that the low-crawl under camouflage netting through sand was akin to turning every article of clothing I had on into 80-grit sandpaper. It chafed, rubbed, and generally tore skin away from anywhere that came into contact with. However, as uncomfortable as it was, I finished the course and stumbled my way towards the dinner that was waiting for us. The camp commander had promised us barbecue for our last night before graduation.

As I shuffled along in line, I was surprised to see my 15 year old sister dishing up food. It turns out that the camp commander had contracted my uncle (who did barbecue on the side) to feed us, and my uncle had co-opted my sister (who was in town visiting family) into helping. She didn’t look 15, and was dangerously pretty. All the guys were trying to flirt with her, and anyone who was brave enough to try immediately earned a set of supervised push-ups.

Unlike everyone else, I had no desire to flirt, but that didn’t change the fact that she came right to me and gave me a big hug right in front of everyone. Instantly, I was completely surrounded by TIs who were in the process of fully dressing me down for my breach of decorum (even though I had just stood there blankly when she came up to me). At that moment, I resigned myself to an hour or two of supervised pain, but that resolve was short-lived. John came jogging over to me and shooed away the other TIs.

“Hey,” he said, “what’ve I gotta do to get you off base to see grandma?”

Unlike regular basic trainees, they didn’t allow the officer candidates off base after graduation the next day. We were restricted to inside the fence until we got on the buses to go home. Just as John asked me this question, I noticed the camp commander walking about 20 yards away and told John that he’d have to ask “the old man,” pointing to the Colonel. I didn’t think John would do it, otherwise I would have never suggested it. I should have known better. John is every bit a Johnson, and he ran straight to the Colonel to ask him.

In the mean-time, the other TIs had been lurking just out of ear-shot waiting for their chance to reengage. As soon as they saw John talking to the Colonel, they closed in and went to work. But just about the time they had wound up to full-speed, John came back and scared them off again. He had succeeded in convincing the Colonel to let my grandmother take me off-base after graduation as long as I was back in the barracks by 11:30 that night. While my cohorts were wandering between the BX and bowling alley, I was enjoying all-you-can-eat Chinese and taking a nap in an air-conditioned room on a soft easy-chair. I got back to the barracks at 11:29, and had just enough time to back my bags before taking the first bus to the airport at 3:30 the next morning. It turned out, in the end, that knowing one of the TIs had its advantages.

A little under three years later, John had been reassigned to Hill AFB just south of Ogden UT; and I was ready to graduate from the University of Utah, commission, and start active duty. Now, there’s a tradition in the Air Force that newly commissioned officers give a silver dollar to the first enlisted member to salute them. I honestly don’t know where that tradition comes from, but I wasn’t about the give away a silver dollar to just anyone. Since John was close-by, he would get my dollar. In fact, I had to turn to him for help finding a real silver dollar. He rounded one up for me from a great uncle who had a collection of them, and was there and waiting when I commissioned to relieve me of it. I couldn’t have found a better recipient.

My work interactions with John didn’t end there though. Immediately after graduation, I was assigned to Hill, and moved into a house on-base just a few blocks from John and his family. He got no end of fun out of the fact that a Lieutenant was mowing the Staff Sergeant’s lawn while he was out of town, and I didn’t mind having a Staff Sergeant shovel the snow out of my driveway while I was gone. Having family on-base was a nice way to start my career.

About two years later, John was slated for reassignment and I was getting ready to go to graduate school. Before he left, John needed to reenlist one more time in order to get all the way to retirement, and he offered to let me officiate. I showed up at his shop for a commander’s call and helped him sell his soul for another six years. It was the first time I’d done a reenlistment. Six years later, he blamed me for the fact he was still here and let me officiate his retirement, another first for me. The extra attention I got in training was a small price to pay.

An alternative approach to printing my poetry – Kickstarter

For almost a year, I’ve been trying to get spare change together to have a collection of poetry I’ve written printed.   However, I have teenagers, and the unfortunate thing about teenagers is that they are expensive.  In spite of my best efforts to sock away a few dollars here and there, every time I had almost enough cash set aside something would come up, and I’d have to start over.

In the mean-time, though, I’ve gotten occasional feedback from the few people who were actively waiting for the final result.  It seems they are getting impatient.  As a result of my inability to follow-through with the final step in the process, I was contemplating the budget and trying to come up with a realistic time-line so I could manage expectations.  It wasn’t looking promising.   Then, a few weeks ago, I had a flash of either desperation or inspiration and looked into Kickstarter.  They sell themselves as a platform for crowd-funding creative projects, and it seemed that my little book would fit their criteria pretty well.

So, without further adieu, say hello to my Kickstarter project:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1686408825/doc-johnsons-magic-mix-poetry-photos-and-artwork

Should you be interested in a copy, become a backer through Kickstarter.

An Expensive Toaster

A few years ago, I got tired of a toaster that didn’t bother popping up before the toast was charcoal, so I got on-line and ordered a commercial-grade toaster from some restaurant supply store.  Based on the presumption that restaurants couldn’t afford to have a toaster that didn’t work right, I hoped to have a reliable appliance well into the future.  Unfortunately, that hope was unfounded.  Within two years, the toaster quit working.  You could hold the handle down and the heating elements would do their thing, but it wouldn’t stay down.

Isaac, being one of the bigger fans of toast in this house, rigged up an elastic band that would hold the handle down, but it wasn’t long until this arrangement produced it’s share of carbonized bread.  Unfortunately for Isaac, I don’t eat a lot of toast anymore, so I didn’t really have much of a motivation to replace it.  However, a few weeks ago I got a bug in my ear, went out to the garage for some tools, and tore down the toaster to see if I could figure out what was wrong.

The toasters I’d taken apart in the past (yes, I’ve disassembled one of almost everything at this point in my life) all used a bi-metalic strip in a mechanical assembly to hold the toast down until it heated up enough and bent far enough to release the mechanism.  All in all, it’s a pretty simple setup, if a little unpredictable when trying to set the toaster for the perfect toast. I figured something had been bent or broken in this kind of an arrangement, and that I could probably adjust or repair it.  If not, what difference did it make?  The worst I could do was to ruin an already broken toaster.  However, when I got it apart I realized my original assumptions were wrong.

This high-falutin’ hoity-toity commercial toaster used a digital timer circuit to control how long to leave the toaster on.  This, as luck would have it, was a good thing.  I’m reasonably good with mechanical stuff, but my bread-and-butter has for years been electronics.  I pulled out my well-worn but still functioning test equipment from the days when I actually got paid for fixing things and went to work.  Within a few minutes I’d reverse-engineered the simple circuit and identified the bad part.  Easy, I thought to myself, I’ll just add this part to my next Digikey order for one of my other geek projects.

As it turned out, Digikey doesn’t carry the integrated circuit I needed.  Neither do Mouser or any of the other parts-houses I’ve used before. The defective part was made by a Chinese semiconductor company and only available from China.  In fact, the only place I could find to order it from without having to read Mandarin (or whatever language it was) was aliexpress.com, and it would take 2-10 weeks to arrive.  The good part was that it would only cost me about $5.00 for 5 of the things including shipping it over on the slow-boat.  I placed my order and sat back to anticipate the part’s arrival.  What I’ll do with 4 extra “toaster timer” IC’s I’m not sure.

The parts arrived yesterday.  Compared with Amazon, the shipping times leave a little to be desired,  but I had the part in-hand so I went out to the garage and went to work without grumbling too much.  I soldered in the new component, tested the toaster, and put it all back together pleased with a job well done.  However,  no sooner had I assembled it than I realized it wasn’t working.  While it had been working on the bench while disassembled, it seemed to have a different opinion about proper behavior when fully assembled and on the kitchen counter.

I spent the next three hours disassembling, testing, tweaking, reassembling, testing disassembling, etc…  Any time I put it all back together it wouldn’t latch the handle down.  As it turned out, somewhere along the line, someone pushed a little too hard on the handle, and it bent the assembly, almost imperceptibly, but significantly.  Any time the whole toaster was assembled, the case would interfere with the handle and prevent it from fully engaging the locking mechanism.  It took forever to get everything straightened out and working reliably.

So, this gets down to my problem… I was seriously considering tearing out the electronics and programing one of my Arduinos to control the toaster.  What kind of an idiot would do that?  The alternative wasn’t much better.  Instead of re-engineering a solution, I spent an inordinate amount of time fixing something that, in the end, is worth no more than half an hour of my time if I were to bill out at an hourly rate.  I should have stopped before I even took it apart the first time, little lone the time and energy spent actually fixing it.  The fact that I was actually cogitating re-engineering the thing to work with a custom-programmed micro-controller speaks volumes.  Normal people would have just thrown the dumb thing in the trash and gone to WalMart for a new one.

Homebrew Antenna Analyzer (part 1)

In the ham radio community, homebrewing is a term used to describe making your own radio gear.  For most hams, this doesn’t go much beyond building and tuning an antenna out of copper pipe or wire, but I’m not really your average ham.  For one, I am almost never on the air.  That said, as I’ve spent more time recently reconnecting with my roots as an Electrical Engineer, I’ve opted to use my license as an excuse to play around with ideas.

In the process of building my last project (the sunrise light http://www.diligent5.org/?p=1849) I bought an Arduino Uno to mess around with and compare with the capabilities of the Raspberry Pi I already had.  In looking at the availability of A/D inputs and various forms of serial I/O on the Uno, I had a flash of genious (or insanity) where I thought it might make a decent controller for an antenna analyzer driven by an AD9851 direct digital synthesizer (DDS).  So, what, you might ask (especially given the nature of the few people who actually read any of this blog), is an antenna analyzer?

Antennas are “resonant structures” which roughly means they are the electrical equivalent of an organ pipe or guitar string.  Based on their construction, they will resonate at specific frequencies.  The frequencies where they resonate are the frequencies where they work well.  Trying to use an antenna that isn’t tuned to the frequency you are trying to transmit on will result in most of the energy going the wrong place (back into the transmitter instead of going out over the air for someone else to listen to), and can actually destroy your equipment.  If you are going to build an antenna, you need to be able to tune it the same way you tune an organ pipe or guitar string, and in order to tune it you need a device to send tones into the antenna and measure how the antenna reacts to them.  That is what an antenna analyzer does.

Analyzers are commercially available for both ham and commercial radio bands, and range from a few hundred dollars to a whole lot more.  I’ve been eyeballing them for a long time so I can start building antennas, but I’ve never been able to talk myself into spending the money on one.  But… if it’s a project, I build it a few dollars at a time and get the benefit of feeding my inner geek.  Never mind how much it actually costs (especially if you factor in time).

Analyzers are fundamentally pretty simple.  First, you generate a signal at the frequency you want to test, then use it to drive a bridge circuit.  The rest of the analyzer is all about digitally measuring voltages across the bridge and converting those measurements into the parameters I’m interested in.   As luck would have it, I’d been scanning various products advertised for the “maker” community (people who build stuff using Arduinos and such) and had seen an ad for modules based on Analog Devices AD9851.  This chip uses a fast digital-to-analog (D/A) converter to generate a high-quality signal output that is digitally controllable from zero up through roughly 75 MHz (million cycles per second).  This chip, combined with some filtering and amplification would make a perfect source to build my analyzer on.

Rather than buy an already complete module and have to figure out how to mount it, I opted to start from scratch and build a board that integrated the AD9851, would plug directly into an Arduino Uno, and contained everything needed to take the measurements (except for the user interface).  I’d use the arduino to program the AD9851, digitize the measurements, do the calculations, manage communications via USB port to a host computer, and run a display and buttons.   I grabbed a bunch of datasheets, opened eagle cad, and laid out my schematic and board.

Like most projects, it wasn’t nearly as straight forward as it seemed.  I ran into a host of hiccups along the way, but over the next few posts, I’ll try to explain how it works and the gotchas I ran into.

Geeking out part two

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a project I’ve been working on that uses a raspberry pi to mimic a sunrise as a sort of alternative to an alarm clock (https://www.diligent5.org/?p=1849) .  It’s generated a rather long list of learning experiences including things like the timing issues I wrote about previously.  After thinking about it, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to document a few of them.

First, debouncing switches can be easy or hard…  If you’re as dumb as me and want to set the system up to discriminate between long button presses, short button presses, and spurious noise it’s hard.  I think my completed debounce and conditional sleep code (they’re tired together) are almost a third of the overall code.  If all I wanted was to handle single button presses with the code waiting until it got one, it would have been pretty easy.  If I wasn’t interested in keeping the processor duty cycle and power consumption down, it would have been easy.  If I didn’t want to be able to have multiple functions depending on how the button was pressed, it would have been pretty easy.  If I had a better understanding of python’s order of operations and language syntax, it would have been much easier.  Unfortunately, I wanted to do all these things.  When I first got the prototype up and running, I thought I had a reasonable approach they seemed to mostly work.

When I sat down to write the code to run the new board design that included the hardware PWM controller, however, I made the mistake (or not) of scrubbing all the code.  I had seen some anomalous behavior trying to use the menu, and decided to look closer.  What I found led me on a rather long detour.  I ended up spending probably twenty hours working through the debouncing routines — roughly what I thought it would take to update it for the new controller.  Fortunately, it was pretty simple to swap out the old controller logic, so my overall time at the keyboard wasn’t all that different than I expected.  I just spent it doing different things than I had planned.

It all came together, but the most disheartening thing of all came when I turned the light on at the lowest brightness level.  It still flickers.  I can’t explain why.  The PWM controller is on a hardware clock that isn’t subject to processor load issues or interrupts.  In fact, the only time it should flicker or change brightness at all is when it’s begin commanded to change brightness.  However, it’s only noticeable at very low intensities, so I’ve decided to stop there in my quest.  It’ll have to be enough the way it is.  At this point, I’ve been using it regularly for a few months, and it’s been stable and run as expected with one exception:  the real-time-clock module I purchased off of ebay doesn’t seem to be working.  Without an internet connection, the time doesn’t update after losing power.   I’ll have to look into that later, but for now I’m just enjoying a little taste of success.

Quiet compassion

This fourth of July we were invited for a second year in a row to go with friends to their family reunion at the family’s farm/ranch outside Grants, New Mexico.  I have to say that this family represents the kind of accepting and down right Christian people I think the world needs more of.  Let me explain.

Many years ago, when the patriarch and matriarch were young veterinarians just out of school, they landed in this small town west of Albuquerque and set up shop – the husband dealing with large animals, and the wife handling the small ones.  As life progressed, kids joined the scene as they often tend to do.  If life weren’t already interesting enough for this small-town family, two of the brothers destined to join this family decided they couldn’t handle being separated, so they arrived together as twins.  Unfortunately, when he was very young, one of the brothers contracted a severe case of influenza that crossed the blood-brain barrier and caused severe encephalitis.  It was by no means certain that the twins would grow up together in this life, and the sick son’s future was precarious for quite some time.  After a long time in a coma, he recovered; but the sickness had destroyed the area in his brain that processes signals from the ears.  He was deaf.  Profoundly deaf.

For the next several years, the matriarch would pack the kids in the car every day and drive over an hour away to take her son to the deaf school in Albuquerque while the other kids played at parks or learned sign language along with their brother.  Our friend still remembers these almost daily trips and heroic efforts her Mom made.  It was a great sacrifice for all involved, but it was one they all made.

Over the course of the next several years, the son began attending in-residence school and only came home on the weekends.  It was a necessary evil as far as the family were concerned, but one that had to be endured none the less.  One side effect of this transition was that while he was at school, the deaf son made friends with several other students who’s families had effectively, if not explicitly, abandoned them.  Rather than leave them alone at the school, they were invited to join the family, and several began coming out to Grands on weekends rather than sit lonely at school.

I met several of these fine people last year when we first attended one of these family reunions.  They were all described to me as being “my son” by a rather proud adoptive father.  The family had opened their hearts and home to entire families who were otherwise marginalized or excluded from their rightful place in society.  What a neat bunch of people, and what a great experience at a time when I was struggling to see the good in the world.

As I talked with the family over this last trip, I was shocked to learn that many hearing families of deaf children refuse to learn sign language.  Even worse, they often completely abandon their deaf family members to social workers and deaf schools.  This family was a shining exception to this awful reality.  Everyone learned sign, and everyone (hearing and deaf) were made to feel important and a part of whatever was going on.  In fact, I was among the few outsiders there who needed an interpreter (they were happy to interpret for me when needed).  All around me there were animated silent conversations between friends and family.

I am impressed by the kindness and genuine love this family has for those who the rest of society have basically written off.  At a time when the world seems very self centered, unkind, and intolerant; I find hope in the quiet goodness of people like my friends and their family.  I hope they see in me a portion of what I see in them.