Great Lakes MotorSports

LED lighting upgrade, the first light!

I’m really disappointed in LED lighting so far. The issue I have is availability still. Some of the best fixtures to convert (as far as being directional vs. omnidirectional) are the hardest to get bulbs for.

For example, my clip-on desk light that takes R14 bulbs (which are a very common bulb for such uses). Seems like a no-brainer LED conversion. Directional light. Low(ish) power (40w from the stock R14). Direct replacement LED bulbs available? Of course not! That’d be too easy! I’d even settle for a PAR14 (tighter beam) design LED bulb, that should be easier to make, for that fixture. The larger PAR bulbs are readily available in LED. Notably anything with the standard screw base… Just so happens that the common R14 uses the smaller “E17” screw base. So, we’ve got our major stumbling point identified.

What to do? Well, there’s plenty of LED bulbs in similar sizes to the R/PAR14, if you can accept the fact that they use some wonky 2 pin connector (technically the “GU10”). Not terribly helpful for me. I spent a good chunk of time trying to figure out a way to adapt a GUI10 to an E17. Rejoice as it is possible! Thanks to Bulborama (the ONLY place I’ve managed to find one), you can do that adaptation. There is the downside that completed assembly is taller. In my particular case, that’s acceptable though.

In the end, it took a tremendous amount of work (and way too much money) for what it is, but I finally have a working LED desk light!

Telecommuting AAR (After Action Report)

Here’s a few quick notes from some more recent experiences with some telecommuting. One case involves a remote location connected via a fast connection (50 or 100 Mib/s?). Not a lot to say about that as it worked really well as one would expect. The other is the opposite case, a DSL circuit of 1.2 Kib/s using a VPN back to multiple remote boxes.

On the High speed connection, some servers actually feel more responsive. Screen updates nearly as fast as sitting at my desktop. Videos are laggy, but usable.

Now, over to the low speed connection, screen refresh noticeable on full screen draws.
Typing/moving text has only the slightest hint of latency, which I got used to after about 15 minutes. Unable to test VNC connection as my Macbook Pro blew up and was a guest at the MacCafe that day. No Machine client works really well for Linux.

Wasn’t planning on doing home work that particular day (but ended up doing so due to impending snow storm), so had to make a space to work. Shoved all my soldering gear to the side of my secondary office desk so I had room for the computer. Moved to the couch for awhile later on. Ultimately ended up back at the desk.

If you build up a static charge and grab this Lenovo by the side (by the VGA connector), you’ll zap it and it’ll reboot.

A SIP softphone might be handy. Or, perhaps the professional version of Skype for group meetings over the web (free version is limited in that regard). Skype seemed to work real well even with this pretty limited bandwidth (about the slowest we’d see at any residence in the area).

Didn’t have to worry about weather conditions throughout the day while I was working. Was more focused.

Wunderlist is the one major performance exception as it’s horrible over RD.

Only having 1 screen makes some things harder, such as trying to configure a full screen server from a PDF document. However, it’s easier to avoid distraction with only 1 screen too…

I can see working from home being employed as a standard 20% operation, as well as a precaution on bad weather days. Overall productivity goes up, but availability to others is down (despite all our remote options… There’s something to be said for a physical presence, so you would not want to be offsite all the time).

Only major performance issues were Wunderlist (which is terribly slow as a desktop app and website) and certain websites which are slow to bring back via remote desktop. In the case of the websites, those can easily be done locally instead of via the RD session. Wunderlist can be done as a website locally as well instead of dragging it back over RD. All the applications that I wanted to avoid installing multiple places worked just fine over RD, so the basic “terminal” concept is good even with minimal bandwidth (however, zero bandwidth would be a deal breaker).

On making football work on TV

I’ve got 2 proposals to make American football less annoying for TV viewers. We need to solve the problems of games running over (resulting in missing end of games, start of next games, etc.). The current situation is completely unacceptable and needs to change. It’s not the 1920’s anymore…

First off, overtime needs to go. As in gone, completely. None of those weird rules that nobody understands anymore, just no more OT. If you have 2 teams that can play a full game without gaining an advantage, too bad, they both lose. No “half wins”, nothing. You’re done, you’re both losers, and you failed to secure a win, just like the real world. No exceptions for playoffs and championships. Tie a playoff, guess what, the next rung up somebody gets a free day as nobody moved up to play against them. Doesn’t count as a “win” for them as they didn’t have to play, but they move up anyways since they didn’t lose. If the championship ends up with only one team, well, they just won by default by making it to the top without losing. If the championship ends in a tie, well, they’re both losers, nobody gets the championship that year. Try again next year.

Secondly, it’s time to take a cue from some of the more forward thinking automotive racing series where events are hard time limited. It’s a 2 hour race, that’s all you get. Red flag for 1.5 hours, too bad. You still end at the same time. Make the football games 3 real time hours long. Replace “quarters” with 15 minute periods. Play as many as you can fit. Last period probably is NOT going to fit. Hit the hard total time limit, you’re done at the end of the play (if you’re in one, otherwise you’re done right then).

Let’s get this done, no excuses!

MPG – You’re doing it wrong…

I’m getting real tired of hearing people whining about the MPG ratings of cars.  I repeatedly hear that they’re unrealistic, supposedly nobody can get that good of gas mileage out of these vehicles.  Those ratings have been recently redone to be more realistic than they used to be (with realistic meaning “pessimistic” in this context).

Well, guess what whiny people, I *always* get better gas mileage than the sticker suggests.  Typically 25% better in normal city/commuting driving across all our cars, even on the oldest car in our fleet (now 22 years old, from back when the estimates were less in my favor), without doing any fancy hypermiling tricks!  This suggests to me that perhaps it’s not the cars that have the issue.  Observations of others while out and about as well as a few conversations seems to confirm those suspicions.

–          If it’s really cold out, yes it’s bad to just jump in the car and take off at full power immediately.  This does NOT mean that you need to use a remote starter and let it run for 15 minutes before getting in it.  Start your car, brush the snow off, and listen to the engine to make sure it’s not still at some obscenely high RPM, then put it in gear and start driving gently until it’s warmed up.  Keep the RPMs reasonable and the load low (as much as is practicable, do whatever’s necessary in the case of an emergency).  The engine will warm up just fine that way and you won’t be wasting tons of gas sitting still.

–          If you find yourself swerving in and out of traffic while alternately punching the gas and brakes, you’re doing it wrong…  Most likely you are trying to force a speed that traffic is not able to maintain.  You may make small gains in position, but at great costs in gas mileage (as well as frustration).  Often you’ll see that the vehicles that do NOT do all this extra effort end up catching you or even passing you by later on anyways.

–          If you’re using the brakes very much, you’re failing to plan ahead.  Brakes take all that energy that you paid for (in gas) to get going and turn it into waste heat (and the need for new brakes eventually).  Brakes are critical for emergencies and for making it to a stop without running a light/sign.  If you’re using them at times other than this, you’re likely to just be wasting energy.  In the case of obvious stops, most times you should be able to only use them lightly.  If you find yourself roaring up to stop lights and jamming on the brakes, you’re failing at both looking ahead and planning.  The penalty you will pay is in MPG and other mechanical costs.

–          Speed in excess of the speed limit costs you more as well.  Plan your trips with realistic enroute times.  The drive won’t take but a small percentage longer, yet it’ll be much calmer, fun, and less expensive (in MPG, general operating costs, and tickets).

–          Learn to use entrance/exit ramps and merge properly.  It’s supposed to be a smooth flowing operation where you join in with other traffic.  If brakes or heavy acceleration are involved, you’ve failed at planning ahead.  This is a busy time, definitely not the time to be chatting on a cellphone.  People that are way better drivers than you know to put the phone down, so you should too (no, you are NOT special in that regard, get over yourself).

At this point you should be catching on to a theme here…  Plan ahead and avoid unnecessary distractions to minimize wasting energy.  There’s certainly more little tricks available (you *are* properly maintaining your vehicle already, right?), but the bulk of the savings is right there in those 2 simple items.

My Software Toolsets

There’s really 3 major software stack categories that I find myself working in these days (well, more like 2.1 really, as it’s special as you’ll see). Thought I’d do a quick rundown on them after a couple recent discussions on development software. I’ve also read a number of articles and many forum questions from people that can’t possibly imagine the need for more than one (which is, of course, their favorite).

I’m currently spending most of my days in Java. That’s to be expected when working at Java shops! It’s a good solid language, with great libraries, and great (well, other than Apple’s, which is finally getting better now) virtual machines for cross-platform compatibility. The cross-platform stuff really does work. It’s an exceptionally rare occasion when I do something that isn’t cross-platform compatible. Even then, the majority of the time I find a way to make it compatible eventually (as in “I finally find a library routine that does what I originally wrote myself to call to the OS”). Most of the development time is in the Swing arena, since it’s primarily desktop apps and I dislike adding third party utilities unless necessary. Web side it’s in JSF, for the same reason as Swing on the desktop side. It’s all solid, reliable stuff. Not flashy perhaps, but gets the job done without the drama of going to a full-blown JEE app. Being able to drag and drop libraries/code between desktop and web side is also great. No real ugly surprises anywhere. One place where I have stepped outside of the pure Sun/Oracle environment is to add Clojure to my standard bag of tricks. It’s a really well done language, and running on the JVM makes it very useful. I’m not one to rewrite all kinds of crazy stuff in it though, I keep it to things that really make sense. In this case, it’s some occasional experimentation with ideas via the REPL and doing some of my more complex mathematical code. Really good IDEs are available as well. Eclipse is a bit bloated these days, but is still a good choice. Overall I prefer Netbeans right now as it’s still pretty fast and supports nearly everything I’ve ever wanted. All in all, a very good stack for common business use, especially where the OS may not be standard across desktops.

My .Net usage has been fairly limited, mostly just some quick updates on web sites that others have done, plus a couple mobile apps back the bad old days of CE, and a handful of small desktop apps over the years (including some recently). I’ve run into some weird library issues over the years, but other than that it’s also a very solid platform. C# is my favorite generic language in the family, but I’ve worked with the VB side as well. F# is also handy (for the same reasons as Clojure on the JVM), but just doesn’t fit me quite as well. Desktop, CLI, and web apps are all well supported here. The Visual Studio IDE is certainly usable, but I find it a bit clunky compared to Netbeans. With the current rate of improvement though, it may well surpass Netbeans in a couple years. I’m expecting to be doing more work in this stack in the future.

– Other (ADW Modula-2, MASM32, project specific & domain specific (SQL, etc))
Then, of course is my “random stack”. Actually just a collection of other pieces of development software that I still find myself using occasionally. C++ (via gcc) falls into this category even though my usage is pretty rare these days. I really haven’t had any time to work on the C++ based open source project that I’m involved with. About all I get the time to do is update, compile, and test! MASM32 has come in handy a couple times now recently (again, I used MASM a lot back in the day). Great for knocking out some quick code where you really need to see how the hardware/software calls are going. Combine it with OllyDbg and you’ve got a great setup for that kind of thing. I also went back to another language from the past, Modula-2. Needed to knock out a couple of quick 64-bit (so MASM32 would’nt work) Windows apps and didn’t have money to spend. After searching around for awhile, I ran across the (recently released as freeware) ADW Modula-2 compiler. Hey, I know (and like) that language! So, that became part of my toolkit as well. Obviously there also domains specific languages which fall into here (and also support above stacks as well). SQL, javascript, etc don’t need their own whole discussion, you know where they fit.

So, that’s it, just a quick rundown on the major toolset divisions I look at when I’m working with a project. What’s yours?

Thoughts on Telecommuting

Having gained some experience with telecommuting over the last few years I thought I’d put a few of my observations out on the web for discussion. In addition to quite a bit of reading about other’s experiences, I’ve gradually transitioned from always being on-site to being mixed on-site/telecommuting at DoX Systems over the past 4+ years. I’ve reached the point of being primarily remote as far as number of times I “go to work”, but my actual hours spent “at work” tend to run about equal on-site vs. remote. Over at Service Spring Corporation, I’ve been almost completely on-site. However, with multiple locations now, we’ve been forced to build some of the telecommuting infrastructure. While not a true telecommuting situation I do get a lot of benefit from being able to go out to someplace other than my office. I can directly observe the work being done while still having full (well, not quite, but getting closer) access to the resources of the office.

Some of the “pros” of telecommuting that I’ve observed are:

– Company cost savings from space, heat, and power usage reductions. Space savings can come through hoteling or shared workspaces, but this is a difficult concept to implement without just re-enacting the tradgedy of the commons. Group work areas are a way to ease into this. If you’ve got the right set of people, it can be made to work. I’m not entirely convinced that full-blown hoteling can ever work though. Making distinctly individual work areas, but not allowing customization just goes against how people function. If the area is designed as a purely group area it’s more natural and doesn’t bring up all the same territorial issues.

– Despite the “home office” costs, there can be a personal cost savings as well. Consider the fact that a simple office building move that I’m involved with now will cut my drive in half and save me 6,000 miles a year (or $3,000 a year at $0.50 a mile). Add in all the extra hours of commuting time that you save and there’s a lot of time/opportunity gains to be had personally as well (6 full DAYS worth of time for me!). Telecommuting 100% of the time would double my savings.

– So far the couple of studies I’ve read claim measurable productivity enhancements. Interesting as most other supposed productivity enhancing plans actually show a decrease for office/knowledge workers (examples: overtime, 4 – 10’s, “Summer hours”). Conventional wisdom for telecommuting increasing productivity is that it’s due to being able to set up the work environment exactly as needed, rather than as corporate policy (and budget) dictates. I suspect it’s mostly due to the ability to self-structure time into blocks. Our tasks are not in the same discrete bock size as piece/part operators. I may need 2 hours solid to code something. During that time, any interruption is a severe setback and at the end I may need a break. Or, it could be a 45 minute block that’s needed. Either way, the random interruption of the office setting not only disturbs the process in motion but it discourages one from even starting longer blocks. Also, being able to walk away when “brainfried” and do something else is a big benefit. You can come back in an hour or two ready to go again instead of sitting there struggling (which just makes things worse) and wasting the rest of the day.

– Attracting new talent becomes easier. While a full-blown telecommuting arrangement is not required, both the hot experienced talent out there and the fresh talent coming out of school expect it. There’s an expectation among the best of the workforce that not just are the hours flexible, but that the location must be as well. If you want to capture and/or retain talent, that’s the path that must be taken. It also opens up the talent pool much wider as you no longer have to recruit locally or try to convince a distant recruit to pack up and move close (often with the company shouldering the burder of the move costs). Furthermore it avoids the possibility of paying for the recruit’s move, only to have them become discontent. If discontent, they may quit costing you all the hiring expenses. If locked into a contract, they’ll just continue working unhappily. Unhappy employees are not typically among the best performers…

– It’s easy to do quick pop-in and fix jobs. Instead of work piling up into large piles that are harder to tackle, all while the customers are kept waiting, it can be handled in small chunks from whereever, whenever. This makes the worker feel better at the same time as providing better service to the customer. The company looks better as well making it a win-win-win.

On the other hand, there are some negatives to the telecommuting arrangement that need to addressed:

– Lack of face time with co-workers can impede collaboration. Sometimes works is just best done face to face. There’s also a risk of being forgotten. Mostly just an issue if you’re the only one that’s telecommuting. If it’s part of the culture and everyone does it, it’s less of a problem.

– Managing by tracking results rather than purely time in seat is a hard problem. Time in seat is not a good metric to begin with for knowledge workers, but at least it’s easily measured at the office. There are applications being put forth to do the same thing remotely, typically by keeping track of open applications or web sites surfed. It certainly will weed out a few, but doesn’t solve the root cause. Ultimately better metrics and decision making processes must be integrated into the business, and that’s both tricky and time consuming.

– Controlling equipment is another challenging problem. There’s always a tug of war between accessibility and security. Even in the office “Bring Your Own Device” is running up against corporate policies. Moving outside the corporate walls also brings up problems of who owns the equipment, who verifies it’s secure, what happens when damage occurs/who carries the insurance, how is access restricted/equipment recovered in the event of a separation of employment that goes bad. How’s the personal/corporate data split handled? Corporate data on home PCs is risky. Separate machines for home/business are inconvenient. Personal data on corporate PCs has problems as well. It may just require a better HR screening process than the standard office environment needs.

Some of the ideas I’ve been working with in regards to handling the challenges of the modern work environment include:

– Still maintain some office hours. This gives people a predictable time and location to find you for when they just really have to see you. This doesn’t mean the hours can’t be flexible. Publish a calendar with blocks of time and locations if you can’t commit to a regular schedule.

– Out of office meetups, in locations you’d normally have/want to go anyways. Meet up places for lunch/work sessions to keep some face time. Keep it local most of the time/small groups of people that live in the same general area. Occasionally go out of the nearby area so as not to lose track of those further away. Mix it in with errands that take you across town anyways.

– Video conferencing instead of phone calls to maintain contact. Video calls are much more personal than audio only. The phone is a very cold, distant device. A cheap webcam on the computer can enable much richer communication. Online whiteboarding/screen sharing is even better, but just adding video is the biggest gain.

Hopefully I’ve given you something to chew on as the world continues to move towards a better way to work for all!

Bad decisions.

I’ve been reflecting on decision making recently.  To be more specific, the chain of events involved in decisions that turn out bad.  While much of failed vs. good decisions appears to be just plain ol’ dumb luck, there appears to be one indicator in particular that has an impact on the chance of a successful decision.

Simply following the decision through to it’s logical conclusion is that factor.  Often performing that exercise leads to results that seem absurd or nonsensical to our puny little brains.  However, that supposedly absurd event is too often exactly what will happen in the end.  Failures in our risk management cause us to disregard results that we don’t find attractive.  Probably a good thing, or we’d never take a chance.  However, don’t let that sway you into automatically disregarding what seems like an absurd outcome.  Take that result into consideration in the final decision making in order to improve decision-making success rate!

Full house…

Really, our house isn’t as full as others, but a few recent conversations have me thinking about it again. I’ve grown to appreciate a nice empty room, just ready and waiting for a project! While having the perfect decorations (including large pieces of furniture and expensive electronics) all throughout the house does make it look nice, it really decreases the liveability.

Why am I spending all this money on objects that clutter everything up and decrease the amount of enjoyment I get out of life? Why add things that make it harder to reach all of my goals due to their consumption of money and time?

Some items I tell myself are investments or collectibles. That just means I spend a lot of resources to acquire them, only to find them worthless when I find that they don’t satisfy a real need. Should have just done without. If the “stuff” isn’t directly supporting some type of project or adventure, then it’s not filling a true need. This random stuff is merely means to an end and becomes a negative when it’s treated as an end itself.

Don’t just collect stuff. Acquire items that contribute to life’s next adventure!

Continuing annoyances after the OTA digital TV conversion.

While initially excited about the analog to digital conversion that we all went through a few years back, there are still some unresolved issues.  Sure, digital has a lot of advantages (including reduced bandwidth and extra channels), but there are still a couple ways that analog was better.

It used to be that analog portable TVs (we’re talking the little 5″ portables, down to the 2″ handhelds) were widely available and quite inexpensive.  Trying to find one immediately after the conversion was impossible.  Nowadays those with smartphones can stream content over the Internet when it’s available, but there’s still no solid solution for portable OTA digital TV to replace what we lost when analog went away.  Internet streaming is nice, but is not a complete replacement as it lacks some of the content and can run you into a bandwidth cap pretty quick.

Available signal is another issue, and is my chief complaint.  Back in the analog days, simple rabbit ears were enough to get a usable signal.  Might have a little noise/static to it, but it was usable.  The digital signals are completely unusable with rabbit ears and even with an antenna on a tower the signal occasionally fade enough for the image to break up.  And break up it does.  Instead of just having a little static/snow, the image and sound completely stop, jumble up, then come back.  So, not only is harder to get a good signal, but if the signal fades the result is far worse.

So, while I mostly enjoy the switch to digital, there’s still those couple of things that were better in the analog days.  There may not be a good portable solution, but at least the signal strength can be overcome by buying the biggest possible antenna you can fit.  Going by the sizing guides could leave you disappointed.

A MotorSports journey…

I really haven’t been playing with cars for that long compared to many people I know, but I’ve had an interesting journey already. A bit atypical as I’m really not terribly interested in beating other people. Yes, it’s cool to win and all, but I really just enjoy driving the car and beating my own times. Competition with others is a distant third. Here’s a few tidbits from my journey.

I started out just liking cool cars, so I picked up a Toyota MR2. Relatively inexpensive used car, fun, cool, and not very fast (oddly, by choice as I was afraid I’d kill myself in something fast). Fun to drive back and forth to school, good MPG, just all around fun. Good times at car shows too!

Shortly after I got into the real world of work, I was introduced to the SCCA and the (then) Solo2 events (aka autocross). MR2 was ideally suited for it at the time, being very favorably classed. I quickly invested in my own helmet and race tires and was spending every weekend available at any event within about a 3 hour driving range! Many good times were had, many new friends made. However, I was never a real good fit with the community as I just don’t have that same competitive drive to be number one. I’m not willing to trade the effort to do some of the mods to the car, and there’s also a bit of a personality clash issue. Not too many problems with the more laid-back regional only drivers, but I just never got along well with many of the National drivers. I also noted that prices had zoomed upwards a lot faster than inflation, while seat time was dropping due to the sites in use and the increasing number of cars entered. Basically I kept paying more and more while having less and less fun and having to deal with more and more people that I just don’t get along well with. I’ve now reached the point of not having done a Solo2 event in a couple years and really don’t even miss it.

Probably just a year into the Solo2 portion of my journey, I entered my first Road Rally. This felt a lot more like home to me. Cost more than Solo2 at the beginning (but is now actually cheaper), but for that money one gets a LOT of seat time and lots of competition against oneself (with a trusted navigator). Sure, there are final results ranking everyone, but simply finishing with the car unbroken and not getting lost is a major accomplishment! At first I only did a couple a year as not to interfere with Solo2, but eventually it displaced most of my Solo2 schedule. I have a lot more in common with that community. It’s a bit of a rougher crowd to be sure, but they’re friendlier overall. These last few years I’ve not made it to many events, but I always have an absolutely great time when I’m there. I just hope that the format survives as it’s currently the only thing I make any attempts to do.

With the Road Rally fun, I decided to go check out SCCA ProRally. Worked Sno*Drift and decided that would be great (albeit expensive) fun! I had no clue how tough getting started would be. I did pickup a car to prep, but was rapidly blindsided by SCCA rule changes as they were attempting to salvage the program. Eventually RallyAmerica took over and the rule changes continued. Rules were changing far faster than I could even plan to prep the car, so I walked away from any plans to do stage rally. I’ve worked a couple more events and hope to do more course marshaling in the future, but there will be no competition for me.

Since I had “new” car already largely prepped with safety equipment, I embarked on going to track days. Many a day was spent lapping Nelson Ledges and getting familiar with which parts on the car liked to break first. Also did a stint with TrackTime, going out to VIR and Putnam Park with them as a general assistant. At that time I considered going either SCCA or NASA road racing, but rejected it due to similar issues as with the old Pro Rally attempt.

At some point in the middle of all this, I started doing rallycross. At that time it was kind of the wild west of rallycross. Rules were minimal, courses were brutal, and oftentimes beater cars were supplied so people wouldn’t trash their daily rides at the events! MUCH fun was had doing that initially, but in the end it suffers from one of the major Solo issues, limited seat time for price. I still pop out for one occasionally, but it’s rare indeed. Just keeping up with local (3 hour drive to start) Road Rally events supplies me with plenty to do most Summers.

I was tempted (and ready) to jump into a new car/race team with a couple others this very Summer. I’m fully aware that I don’t have the time to do it by myself. However, with a multiple drivers, we could make it go. Initial thoughts were ChumpCar, LeMons, and some open track days with the car. Perhaps some future SCCA or NASA events if all went well. We put forth our best effort, but were unable to get everything to work out for everyone involved. Perhaps at some later point, perhaps other people, perhaps a different car. I’m still quite open to new MotorSports adventures!

So, that’s my story, what’s yours?