Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Gasoline Insanity

It is true that the price of gas these days is a bit insane. Thankfully, due to our lifestyle, Hilary and I are somewhat insulated from it. We don't drive all that much; we have reasonably efficient vehicles. In that, we consider ourselves lucky. That is not to say that a $40 tankup doesn't go unnoticed - it hurts. I can't imagine the pain of the 100-mile/day commuter driving an SUV. It is small consolation that the price of gas in Europe is a fair bit higher - between $7 and $9 per gallon, or about twice our current pain.

But what's more insane than the price of gasoline? What people propose to do about it. Heard of Senator McCain's proposal to suspend the federal gas tax, which amounts to a whopping 18.4 cents per gallon? Or Senator Clinton's rejoinder? What about our dear President?

I have been mentally composing this blog post for a few days. I felt some of my thunder stolen when I read today's piece from Thomas Friedman, opinion columnist for the NY Times, largely on economic and environmental matters and how they impact the larger picture. I suppose I shouldn't feel too bad - it's tough to compete with the organization, resources, and bite of a professional columnist. Anyway, here's his take on this current insanity. Note the name of the piece is "Dumb as We Wanna Be."

But some fuel got added to the fire of this rant when I read a piece in the local paper by the Republican candidate for our congressional district. (He's so going to get his butt kicked, but I digress.) His solution to our current energy woes? Rely more on domestic sources of oil, such as off-shore and ANWR. In his view, there's still plenty of oil lying under American soil, and drilling it would start to address the problem of rising gas prices and a stalling economy.

Well hot diggity, we're off to Beverly Hills!

At the same time, however, he acknowledges that it'll take years (perhaps a decade by most accounts) for the first drops to begin flowing - hardly a fix for our current woes. He proclaims that there's enough crude in ANWR to supply the whole US demand for ten years. It depends greatly on whose numbers you believe - it could be as little as six months. Even if it is ten years, that's less than a generation. I would expect a candidate for Congress to advocate solutions with a slightly longer time horizon to what is, essentially, a permanent problem.

Whether it's ten years or ten months is kind of moot anyway - the Alaska pipeline only has so much capacity. Throughput peaked at about 2 million barrels a day back in the late 80s. Nowadays, as the North Slope oilfields decline, the current rate is about 1 million barrels a day. So, realistically only about one million additional barrels of crude a day could be transported out of ANWR. Considering that the US uses about 21 million barrels of oil a day, an extra one million equates to less than 5% of daily demand. That assumes that it's all used domestically, of course, which isn't necessarily the case. Global demand for oil is increasing, even if US demand is slowing. ANWR is the proverbial drop in the bucket in terms of global oil production and demand.

Don't expect that extra 5% of domestic production to lower rates at the pump by 5%, either. It isn't like that oil is free, or significantly cheaper than, say, oil from Canada or Saudi Arabia. Oil is a global commodity, no matter where it comes from. $120/barrel is the going rate whether you're in Valdez or Abu Dhabi. Sure, you save a bit on transportation costs - Prince William Sound is closer than the Persian Gulf, but transportation costs are pretty small compared to the price of the oil itself or the price of refining it into gasoline and diesel.

In short, domestic oil isn't going to bring the price of gas back down to a reasonable level.

Not today.
Not in ten years.
Not ever.

We will never be able to drill our way to energy independence. Really, the only place we can get by drilling is to dig ourselves in deeper.

The candidate's position is short sighted at best, and delusional at worst. But, hey, what can you expect from an addict. He, you, I, the whole country, are all addicted to oil. Heck, even the oilman President says so. To an addict, there can never be enough. Addicts, when it comes to their next fix, aren't rational about it, where it comes from, how they'll get it, or what it'll cost. One doesn't treat an addiction by looking for the next fix; that only makes the withdrawal that much the worse when the stash runs out. The only way to treat the addiction is to reduce the dependence on the substance. Cold Turkey can be a violent upheaval and doesn't always work in the long run. Weening can work better, and replacement helps to. What's the methadone or chantix for our addiction to oil? That is what the nation and world need to be doing right now. Instead of dickering over where we can get another million barrels a day, we should be seeking out where we can find a replacement for that million barrels.

That is what political leaders ought to be putting forth. We're in a tight spot, and we're gonna get roughed up pretty bad before things ease up (and they will, eventually the factors contributing to high gas prices will diminish - just don't expect to see it quickly or dramatically). Nothing any politician can do will ease the pain of the pump in an appreciable way anytime soon.

Want to impress me as a voter? Don't pander to me about saving two bucks per tank for a couple of months. Don't make me feel like David with talk about windfall taxes for the Goliath oil companies (removing the tax rebates they enjoy would be more appreciated). Tell me how you are going to change the economic game that got us into this fix. Tell me about increasing gas mileage standards (the ones that recently passed? Please! Europe and Japan are already there). Tell me about making gasoline less palatable so that people are encouraged to use less of it (did you know the federal gas tax hasn't changed in over a decade?). Tell me about investing billions into alternative energy and conservation technology. If we don't, someone else will, and then where will the trade deficit be?

Realistically, nothing anyone can do today is going to have an appreciable effect on the price at the pump. The more important question is: what does one do for tomorrow?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

AA to USB, part IV

This is the continuation of my little project to build a device to power a USB port off a pair of AAs. Click for part I, part II, part III.

Well, the first prototype worked out pretty well. But, hey, one can always do better. So, I sought to make the board smaller by squeezing the components closer together and, more importantly, making it a two-layer board by putting traces and components on the top and bottom. One other major change is that I put a little slider switch on the board for turning the thing on and off. Other devices people have cobbled together often don't include an on/off switch, and I don't really know why. Even if there isn't anything plugged into the USB port, the lack of a switch will cause the batteries to slowly drain away. I had always had a switch in the design, but figured it would be somwhere off the board, a part of the case, and run wires between the two. Then I realized that there wouldn't be much free space in the case, so the switch and the board would be sitting right next to each other anyway. Soldering something to a board is a lot easier than soldering tiny jumper wires between things.

Anyway, this is how the new design looks in Eagle. Looking at board layouts takes a little getting used to. The red is the copper on the top layer, blue is the bottom layer. The backwards writing is on the bottom layer, too - it looks right if one were to flip the board over. The green circles are called plated thru-holes which, as the name implies, means that they are holes that go through the board and are plated with metal to be conductive and solder-able. Some thru-holes are places to attach components, others connect signals between the top and bottom, called vias. This is just a two layer board - imagine the complexity of a six or eight layer board! When things get that complicated, PCB layout folks rely heavily on auto-router programs that use various optimized algorithms to connect signals together. Eagle does have an autorouter, but this I did by hand.

Next I need to have a colleague route this out so that I can populate it. I am also working on a mechanical CAD model of the board, batteries, etc., so that I can design the case just right. Stay tuned.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Scouting for Baby Stuff

I think I've mentioned my careful perusal of the Baby Bargains book recommended to me by one of the pediatrics residents.

This weekend we decided it was time to actually go out and SEE some of the stuff that we'd been reading and talking about. We started on Saturday at Babies 'R Us, which is the only big baby store here in town. It had most of the basics that we wanted to see, and after our trip there, we've pretty much settled on a car seat and stroller frame. We also checked out high chairs, playpens, various swings/gyms/bouncers, bathtubs, bottles, and nursing gear. Over the next couple of weeks, we will slowly form all of our scribbled notes into an actual registry list. It was important to see a variety of stuff, since we are hoping to pick up many things (except the crib and car seat) used, so we wanted a sense of brands/features that would work for us, rather than just one specific item in each category. We left the store with our sanity intact and without spending any money, which was pretty much our definition of a successful trip!

On Sunday, we headed up to Ikea, where the cribs are basic and cheap...which to us, also means more attractive! Here's the one that we've pretty much decided on, because we like the natural wood look better than the white and blue ones that were the other options:

The mattress platform can be set at a much taller level when the crumpet is brand new, and then when she is older, one side of the crib can be removed to make a toddler bed. Since we're thinking about a more expensive mattress (a natural, organic one that's gotten great reviews), it's nice to think that she'll be able to use the mattress for a couple extra years before we get her a bigger bed.

The most fun part of the whole weekend was playing with the outdoor baby goodies at REI! We checked out jogging strollers, bike trailers, and things that converted back and forth between jogging strollers and bike trailers (with ski attachments to boot). And we tried on baby-carrying backpacks, as well. Here's Alex modeling a Kelty:

After borrowing a baby to get a true sense of wearing one, we realized that the one necessary feature is a load-lifter strap to get the weight off of the shoulders.

The outdoor stuff can't be used until the crumpet is a bit older...she's got to be able to hold her head up to ride in a backpack (maybe 6 months or so), and the recommendation on joggers and bike trailers is a year old, when the she'll have enough strength in her neck to really hold her head steady over the bumps. But it's our favorite stuff to shop for, so we're starting early!

We also stopped in at a great store called Twin Cities Green, which I saw an article about in the Minnesota Monthly magazine. They had a bunch of natural and organic baby goods, and we spent a few minutes talking to one of the owners about diapers. He had done a TON of research when deciding what to stock, settling on ImseVimse cloth diapers (Swedish for Itsy Bitsy). They are adorable! The diaper question is really the one big unsettled issue for us. We're back and forth between cloth (hard to pick a brand for the initial investment since different types seem to fit different babies very differently, and also our washing machine is old-ish and thus not Energy Star certified) and gDiapers (washable outer, flushable insert, a bit expensive) as our main contenders. We'll have to keep some disposables (7th Generation makes non-chlorine-bleached, relatively eco-friendly ones) on hand for certain situations (like when the crumpet is at someone else's place).

So, things are moving along in the preparation department. Most importantly, the crumpet is doing great! She's moving a lot, and at our 26-week checkup today, she had a good heartbeat, measured well, and my blood pressure is nice and low. I've been trying hard to do cardio (swimming, spinning, or walking) and yoga every day, and am hoping to continue to cram that stuff in on my surgery rotation as well.

Call to Renewal

Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn't the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn't want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.

Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.

And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our bibles. Folks haven't been reading their bibles.

This brings me to my second point. Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all. 

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.

That is an excerpt from a keynote delivered in June 2006 to the Sojourners at their Call to Renewal Conference, given by Senator Barack Obama. Video in five parts starting here. Note that this was seven or eight months before he declared his run for President - less than a year and a half into his term. He was still just the junior Senator from Illinois. It is also long before he started catching flack-by-association from the media over Jeremiah Wright.

I heard this address as a podcast not long after he gave it - in the middle of June, 2006. This was one of the orations by him that convinced me that this man must be President someday. His conciliatory message, his ability to travel far and wide among various groups and points of view, and his belief (and ability to articulate this belief) that the United States is not merely Red states and Blue states - these are things that the country is in desperate need of. There can be no progress made from the politics of division. 'My way or the highway" - especially when the speaker is the majority - is quite simply un-American in its most fundamental sense. Could one have expected such a speech from Senators Clinton or McCain?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Jasper!...That's really disgusting

As part of our master plan for Sunday, Hilary and I wanted to get Jasper out on a long walk in the morning. The weather was supposed to be good by midmorning, then deteriorate during the day. With our planned trip to the Cities in the afternoon, we also wanted to be sure Jasper could get out for a while early, because we'd probably be wiped by the end of the day.

So, off we went. The weather was, thankfully, rather nice. Our planned destination for the walk was a nearby coffee house where Hilary and I could tank up, so to speak, and grab a tasty nibble for breakfast. Our hope was that, by the end of the walk, we'd be fed, the dog would be ready to nap the day away, and we could get away quickly. Alas, Jasper had other plans. Our walk takes us along a creek, which in turn feeds into a river. Jasper, being both poodle and labrador, definitely qualifies as a water dog. You can guess where this is headed. While it was nothing new to us that Jasper dashed off into the river before we were a third of the way there, it was a bit of a bother, because the water isn't all that clean to begin with, and he ends up getting little bits of all sorts of stuff that collects on the bank into his hair. Once wet, there didn't seem much sense in preventing him from getting wet again, so he happily dashed in and out of the water about a half-dozen times on our way up to the coffee house.

Also, being a nice morning, he felt like rolling around. That's not too bad, I suppose. Near the end of the river portion of the path, he started rolling particularly enthusiastically. I wanted to bring him back up to the path to put the leash back on him, and so walked down to where he was on the bank. That was when I noticed that he was rolling back and forth over a dead fish.

Yes, you read that correctly, a dead fish.

An 8- or 10-inch river trout from the look of it. It might have been there a little while, too. Only in a dog's mind could it make sense to imbue onesself with the stink of a dead fish. It certainly made no sense to me.

So, picture the scene of Hilary sitting in front of the coffee house while I went in to buy stuff. Jasper is mostly wet, with bits of leaves and twigs in his hair, a dab of mud on his brow and paws, and starting to smell of rotting fish. He happened to be sitting in the sunshine, which on his black fur did no one any favors, and got him to heat up and start to pant. I said picture the scene, not the smell, which would be a combination of wet dog, old fish, and morning breath. Such pleasant company Hilary and I keep.

I got out food and drink and we began the trek back. We kept our pungent companion on the leash, lest he get himself into more odorific trouble. A good thing, too, because he did manage another feat. When we were most of the way back, we noticed that Jasper was chewing on something. This, too, is nothing new - Jasper very much enjoys sampling the gastronomic wonders of the world around him. This hors d'oeuvres was small, furry, and a part of a larger morsel he'd sampled a day or two before. We think it may have been a mouse, or rat, or similar small scurrying creature. Thankfully, we could reel him in. Unable to persuade him to give up his prize, your humble narrator actually pried his mouth open and yanked it out. I like to think I am not a squeamish person - I'm looking forward to the prospect of watching a bit of brain surgery sometime in a few weeks - but this was a test and no mistake. I must have gotten over it quickly, though, because I did a repeat of this scene not five minutes later when Jasper discovered some hunk of bone.

As you can imagine, the ol' boy was in great need of a bath when we got back. His is traditionally good-natured about this ordeal - he mostly just stands there. That is well, because it took a good deal of effort to remove the accumulation of the morning's walk. Needless to say, it meant that Hilary and I didn't get away as quickly this morning as we'd planned.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Denny sent me a wonderful Life is Good T-shirt. It's a very cheerful bright pink, and as you can see, has a tulip and the word "Grow" on it.

(As you can also see, I am doing exactly what it says.)

This is really the first week that my size has become truly unwieldy. It's a bit hard to get up and down from the couch or off the ground or to roll over in the middle of the night. The abs are not really working anymore!

Alex also couldn't resist a profile here I am doing Tree Pose in the spirit of spring:

Many other things are growing around here, too:
Our flowers are growing. We'll have tulips and daffodils in a few days now!
Basil is starting to grow, since Alex planted it this past weekend.
Jasper is growing more and more obedient: he's surprising us with his ability to "stay" and his loose-leash walking is really coming along.
Our collection of baby goodies is growing. We're also going out for a big scouting expedition this weekend to make a registry-ish list. (Apparently we'll have to lengthen our shopping tolerance past forty-seven seconds in order to do this.)
My swimming skills are growing: I'm taking swim lessons at the gym, and tonight, Alex and I went to get in some practice. I mostly practiced crawl and breaststroke, and then spent some time with the kickboard practicing my breathing, which is the hardest part of crawl for me.
Our travel plans for the next couple of months are growing: I booked my flight to the Dartmouth reunion today. (And to respond to Clara's comment on the last post...yes, Luna is the little foal that you remember, and he's going to be five, because he was born on our graduation day in 2003!)

Things that are shrinking:
Alex's circuit board (he's redesigning and streamlining)
My lung capacity
Blissful research time left before surgery rotation (yikes!)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

More Photos from Eastern Swing

With John and Peggy at the Inn:

Mini-shower for the crumpet...wonderfully cute goodies from Bob and MJ:

Little socks that look like Mary Janes:

It's amazing to think that in a few months, we'll have a tiny enough person in the house to fit into these outfits!

Blogging the Road Trip

Sorry to all you techies, but I'm going to interrupt the AA to USB posts to report on where I've been over the last week while Alex has been at home, holding down the fort and getting his geek on!

Last Wednesday, I flew back to New England to interview for the joint family medicine-preventive medicine program at Dartmouth. This would be an "outside-the-match" residency position, letting me know months and months in advance where we will be spending the next few years. If I get in, I will spend January to March of next year in New Hampshire, starting Masters of Public Health courses in Lebanon (just down the road from Dartmouth) and also doing some clinical work at the family med residency in Concord. Then I'll start the family med residency in June. That lasts three years, and then I would finish the MPH coursework and do a "practicum" year during which I would implement a quality improvement project. Total time about four and a half years. Whew!

Anyway, the combined program sounds like a perfect fit for what I want to do, giving me great family med training and also teaching me a lot about how to carry out practice improvements. After submitting my paperwork in February, they set up a two-day visit for me last week. I was at the Concord program on Thursday for eight—yes, eight—interviews with faculty and current residents. It was a little stressful, but everyone was very pleasant, and many of the interviews were more like nice chats. Then, that evening, I went out to dinner with the program director, his wife, and a couple of residents. I'd really like to do my training there—they have a great curriculum, the residents are quite happy, and the program seems to be very responsive to proposed changes that residents and faculty suggest.

Friday was spent in Lebanon, where the preventive med part of the residency is based. I had four interviews in the morning, which all seemed to go very well, and then spent the afternoon at a couple of class sessions. First was a leadership session, with a discussion on different leadership styles. Then, several of the residents presented their progress on practicum projects. I loved this part of the visit as well, and was very inspired by the great relationship between the faculty and residents.

Here I am in my maternity business suit:

I had a minor panic last week that my planned shirts were not fancy enough for my interviews, and went running off to Motherhood Maternity, where I found several quite sophisticated ones. I think I looked about as zippy as a 25-week pregnant lady can look. I got away with the same black suit jacket that I've had since med school applications (no buttoning anymore), and a pair of black maternity pants from Target.

As you can see, dad was enjoying some time with his granddaughter:

After the stressful part was over, we had a wonderful weekend in the Upper Valley, and then back at home in Connecticut. We went to Spring Sing to hear some a capella, shopped at the Co-op (ciabatta, cheese, Grade B maple syrup), hit King Arthur for some scone mixes, had breakfast at Lou's with Chris and John, and checked for baby goodies at the Dartmouth Co-op.

I also got to spend a couple of hours at the barn with Panache. Here he is with buddies Luna and Aly:

He is in full spring shedding swing, so most of that time was spent scrubbing lots and lots of fuzz off of him. Here's the pile—I think he beats Jasper for its size, and all of this was manually removed, too—no clippers!

It was wonderful to see him, even though I couldn't ride this time. He's weathered the winter OK, but will probably fatten up a bit now that it's spring. He's almost 30 now, and is certainly enjoying his Vermont retirement.

We also hit the Norwich Bookstore had a great dinner at the Norwich Inn pub with John and Peggy.

Back in Connecticut, it was great to catch up with folks around town. I also continued the crumpet's tour of important New England landmarks (most of which, interestingly, involve food) with donuts at Phillip's and ice cream at Charlie's. Spaghetti dinner with the regular crew on Sunday night rounded out the weekend beautifully.

Now I'm back home, very happily reunited with Alex and Jasper. The residency program has promised a decision by the first week of May, so keep your fingers crossed!

Monday, April 21, 2008

AA to USB, part III

This is the continuation of my little project to build a device to power a USB port off a pair of AAs. Click for part I, part II.

It is a wonderful thing to work where I do. I could just bop in this weekend, grab a couple of resistors and capacitors from the large and varied stock on hand, fire up the soldering iron, and see if I can't this here board working. Don't worry about misappropriating company resources: the resistors go for about $0.02 apiece, and maybe $0.10-$0.50 for the capacitors. The inductor might be a whole dollar...I'm not sure - it's the big red thing that clearly doesn't belong there. My intended design uses a surface mounted inductor that is much smaller (a footprint a tad larger than the chip in the middle). I used this red bo-huncker because I didn't get around to ordering my own parts from Digikey until just yesterday. (It's a handy thing that Digikey is located in Thief River Falls, MN. It means that I'll probably have my parts delivered by the USPS tomorrow without having to pay for expedited shipping.)

The unsightly orange wire (ok, a LOT of it's unsightly, but that's the process of creation) is a jumper that bypasses some components I didn't feel like putting on this first prototype. The red and grey wires coming in from below are the input power; the ones on the left side are the 5V output. Again, I would have put an actual AA battery holder and USB port on this board, but I didn't have them on hand. Besides, with free wire leads, it was easier to hook the board up to a power supply and multimeter for testing the input and output, respectively.

The red LED I threw in there to tell me if I'm getting any power out of the thing. In my ultimate design, that LED will shine on the side of the case, and will be green instead of red. Again, this was just a stopgap to expedite the testing.

Ok, on with the testing. Turns out that I initially soldered that orange wire in the wrong place - shorting the input power and ground together. So, it was a good thing that I was testing the board with a power supply instead of actual batteries - a power supply can be reigned in and deal with short circuits gracefully without blowing up. Batteries, on the other hand, don't like short circuits very much. Even if it isn't as potent as a shorted out laptop battery, a shorted AA can get dangerous and toasted in a real hurry.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. Even simple circuits rarely work right the first time. I'm glad I didn't burn anything at least. A bit of troubleshooting, a little more soldering, and eventually I realized my mistake. After that, when I turned the power on, I got a nice glowing red LED and a multimeter readout of 5 V. Mmmmmm, glowing light!

Of course, an LED doesn't really require all that much power to light up, which is why they'll eventually replace compact fluorescents. One of my goals with this doohickey is to be able to supply the full 500 mA of current at 5 V that the USB spec call for - 2.5 W of power. So, to push things a bit further, I ganged together a bunch of resistors to force the device to supply more current. I'm pleased to say that it did so without a hiccupy.

Ok, so this at least proves that I can still follow a chip's datasheet and do a circuit layout. What next? Well, I already mentioned that I ordered parts - enough to populate a couple more boards. I am also working on a new revision of the circuit board in the hopes of making it smaller. This board would have copper traces and parts on both the top and bottom. I think I'll also pay to have this board fabricated for real, which means it won't be bare copper, but also have the familiar green coating on top and white markings and such. I'll post when again I get that sorted out.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

AA to USB, part II

This is the continuation of my little project to build a device to power a USB port off a pair of AAs. Click here for part I.

So, I started casting about for components. Thankfully, the proliferation of USB devices provides plenty of possibilities and reference designs. I found a nice chip designed for this exact application from Texas Instruments, the TPS61092. It's a tiny bugger (more on that later), but it satisfies the two things I wanted to improve upon. It can supply up to 500 mA at 5 V, and would be upwards of 96% efficient in converting the power, which means that more of the energy in the AA batteries is delivered to the device, and less is lost to heat. It also has two features I haven't found in most other DIY ipod chargers - an input to turn the thing on and off (most designs are on all the time unless the batteries are pulled), and an output that lights up when the batteries get low.

I wanted my design to be compact, which implies implementing it on a printed circuit board and using surface mount components. In order to do a printed circuit board properly, one needs to first lay it out on a computer. I used a free program for this, popular in the Make and open-source communities, called Eagle. It looks and operates like most other electronics CAD program I've ever used, but the controls take some getting used to. It's a bonus that it works on my Mac laptop - most are windows only.

If I were posting this on Instructables or Make, I would go through some of the process of explaining the design. Instead, for a more lay audience, I'll just throw up some pretty pictures.

This is how the layout looks in Eagle. The white outline at the top is the USB port, which should put the size of things into some perspective. The whole board measures 1" x 1.5". I am pretty sure I can eventually cut that in half. All the red are the copper tracings. This board only has one layer of such tracings, which makes it easy to prototype. I had a coworker take this design an cut it out on something called a board router. A board router is like a dremel tool with a tiny cutter tip that is attached to an X-Y stage. What it's routing is a sheet of fiberboard that has copper adhered to the to and bottom. The cutter tip cuts the unwanted copper away, leaving the traces you want behind. This is a relatively quick way to prototype a circuit board, but usually only in one or two layers. A computer or cellphone has a circuit board with 4-8 layers - very complex - and gets made with a different process.

I said earlier that the chip, the TPS61092, was a tiny bugger. is. The chip measures 4 mm to a side, and has 16 miniscule contacts around the perimeter. Most surface mount chips have leads - little bits of metal that extend out from the package a bit so that you can get some solder onto them. This chip doesn't have leads that extend out, they only are on the edge, and they're 0.3 mm wide. What is more, the underside of the chip is itself one relatively large contact - for heat dissipation. Being on the underside means that I can actually get a soldering iron onto it to heat it up. But, with some a little help and advice from another coworker who does this kind of thing for a living, I was able to get the chip soldered on.

Here's another view, from an angle, so that you can see the small leads soldered on. In doing this delicate hand soldering, it was quite helpful to have a device somewhere between a microscope and microfiche viewer. It magnifies the view and puts a lot of light on it, so you can see what you're doing and inspect it later. It also magnifies every tremor in your hand, amking you believe you'll never be able to hold anything steady, even if you've skipped the coffee. Looking into the scope at the magnified work area, tiny tweezers shaking in one hand, soldering iron shaking in the other, I was put in mind of how a neurosurgeon must feel anastomosing a 2 mm blood vessel in the brain. Thankfully my life doesn't depend on the outcome of this fine work - just my ego.

Next time - populating the rest of the board, and trying to get a pulse...

Friday, April 18, 2008


Over a couple of posts, I'll be describing a little project I've been working on. When all is said and done, this device will take a pair of AA batteries and use them to power a USB port, something called a boost converter. What's that good for? It could be used as a backup power source for something that is powered or recharged over USB, such as an ipod. My iphone gets about 4 hours of video playback on a full charge - this device I'm making could be used to augment or recharge the iphone battery to double that playback time - good for long flights.

Now, the end result will be useful, but is hardly the point of the project. If I was actually interested in having such a device, I could just buy one. If I wanted something cooler than store-bought, I could purchase a Minty Boost kit, a tin of Altoids, then have a fun for an hour with a soldering iron.

No, the point of this project is the design of it and the doing of it. I haven't done much electronics work since I left college, so it's nice to dabble in it again. Partly I wanted a little side project. Another part of it was that, while looking over the development and design of the Mint Boost, I thought that I could do a better job. It's a cool piece of work, and the Altoids tin gives it some geek chic, but there were two things I wanted to improve on. The first is a limitation on current. The chip at the heart of the Minty Boost, a MAX756, is spec'ed for only 200 mA at 5 V. The USB specification is to be able to supply up to 500 mA at 5 V. I'm not sure what the power draw of an iPod is while it is playing something and recharging, but I figure I may as well try and satisfy the spec. The second limitation is efficiency. The Minty Boost does better than most DIY designs, but is only about 85% efficient. I figured I could do better.

Tune in next time for the start of the design, and oh so tiny components...

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Busy Weekend!

Friday night, Jasper did very well at obedience class. We worked a lot on moving attention and loose-leash walking, and definitely caught on to some techniques that we can use to train him! It will just take a lot of practice now.

Then we headed off to poker was a huge table this time, so things got pretty crazy. We both lost out pretty quickly and headed home.

Saturday, I had to get up early and go into the hospital to enroll patients into my research project. (Not that I'm bitter or anything, but I had to BRUSH SNOW OFF OF MY CAR before I could drive.) Three patients had had the defibrillator implantations on Friday, so it took me most of the morning to get around to each of them, but it was worth it since all 3 consented and did the initial intake questionnaires! Alex went off to the farmers' market while I was at the hospital.

In the afternoon, I volunteered to man the humane society's "Adoption Day" booth at Petco. Once a month, we take dogs up there for some PR, which often leads to an adoption connection. This time, we had 3 puppies, who were adorable and very popular! All was well until I put one of the puppies in the back of the car to bring him back to the shelter. Warned that he had gotten sick on the way up, I laid down a thick layer of blankets and towels before clipping him into Jasper's restraint tie. We cruised on down the highway, puppy as happy as could be, until we got within about a mile of the shelter, when there was suddenly a tremendous stink from the backseat. I glanced back to see a giant pile of poop, sitting (luckily) in the middle of the towel. Then came the gushing noise...puppy had decided to pee all over the backseat as well (and not just on the towel). I rushed the rest of the way to the shelter and yanked the pup out of the backseat before he could make any more of a mess, swearing that I would never again have a non-crated puppy in my car. Lots of Clorox wipes, and removal of the soiled towels (which belonged to the shelter and thus could be laundered there) resulted in a basically presentable backseat, though I left the windows open (despite the drifting snow) for the rest of the day. All seems to be back to normal today.

Alex had a much cleaner and nicer-smelling Saturday afternoon, heading to the bike shop for clip-in shoes and pedals (part of his birthday present). Now he's just waiting for the weather to improve so he can try them out! These shoes will fit the spinning bikes at the gym, too, so he'll probably get to use them there first.

In the evening, we headed up to our favorite coffee shop for a "money date." The general gist of this was that 1) we aren't broke, and 2) it will cost a million bazillion dollars to send the crumpet to college.

Before bed, we also inscribed all the crumpet's books, so we can remember where they came from! Here I am working on that:

Today, we had a relaxing morning after banishing the dog to the backyard when he bugged us at 6:45 (it was warmer today, in our defense!). Waffles, paper-reading, and other couch-bound pursuits eventually gave way to the main tasks of the day. #1 on the agenda was a trip to Home Depot to pick out new fixtures for the bathroom. When the real estate agent visited a few months ago, she recommended painting it and replacing the vanity and mirror. Since dust and paint fumes are not good for the crumpet, Alex is going to do this while I'm in Arizona. In record time today (less than 45 minutes), we picked a new vanity base, top, mirror, and a few faucet options.

Since it was a beautiful sunny day in the 40s (much nicer than the muck of the last few days), we also took Jasper for a long walk at a local park. At the end, we did some more of his moving attention/loose-leash walking practice.

Getting a treat for keeping his attention on Alex:

Look at that nice loose leash!

Getting a treat for walking along next to me:

Tonight, we finally booked Alex's flights to visit me in Arizona and worked on our advance directives so that we can have them scanned in at our next OB appointment, thereby crossing two items off my to-do list that have been hovering over my head for far too long. In fact, my to-do list is such a mess of scribbles, highlighting and cross-outs that I think I may print out a new copy tomorrow!

E-Filing Fallacy

The local weekend paper had a small column about the looming tax deadline, spent about 2/3 of it enumerating the benefits of e-filing, for the taxpayer and the tax receiver, with quotes from the head of the IRS office in the state. Well, for reasons I laid out in a letter to the editor I sent in response, I think the author missed the mark about the costs of e-filing. I elaborate:

...I'm not a luddite - I'm an engineer enamored with technology. I prefer to do my taxes using a computer. For the last several years, I have purchased mainstream tax preparation software to do them. Each software package out there (i.e., that runs locally on a computer, not via the internet) for preparing taxes that I have come across charges for e-filing, sometimes as much as $20 for each federal and each state return. This on top of the $20-$80 paid for the software itself. Balking at such extortion, I file my state and federal taxes by mail.

In each year I have used such software, my AGI has fallen below (sometimes well below) the cutoff that qualifies me for free e-filing. Yet, for all the intelligence programmed into this software, there is no possibility for me to e-file my returns for free - unless I ditch all the work I have done on my computer and move to an online service. One year I asked one of the software publishers why this was so. Their reply: if you have paid for software for doing your taxes, you probably won't mind paying for the convenience of e-filing. That doesn't seem very convenient for me! Another reply: if you are using software to prepare your taxes, it's probably because your returns are complicated enough, and your income high enough, that you wouldn't qualify for free e-filing anyway, so we don't bother checking. I present myself as an exception to the rule.

Free e-filing services that exist are almost exclusively online. Even if you accept that the connection between your computer and the online service's is encrypted from end-to-end, you are still entrusting incredible amounts of very sensitive personal data to some unknown entity's computers - something I refuse to do. I understand the data is retained on the company servers so that a user can pick up where they left off, even on a different computer. However, I feel that, like in so many places in society, personal protection and privacy has lost out to convenience and the illusion of security. In the terms-of-use for most of these online services, it is stipulated that the data they retain about you and your taxes becomes their property, not yours. Why would anyone want to cede control of such information? Although the $54,000 AGI cutoff for free e-filing encompasses the majority of taxpayers, most of these services will charge for returns that are in any way complicated by such things as investment income, itemized deductions, self-employment income, etc.

How did such a situation come about? Quite simply, it was a sweetheart deal for the tax service industry. The IRS, by law, is not allowed to directly compete with those who offer tax preparation services for a fee, which includes software publishers. The IRS is specifically forbidden to accept e-filings directly from individual taxpayers, regardless of how they are prepared, without having it first pass through a middleman, often for a fee.

For additional reading, I suggest an article by Damon Darlin that appeared in the NY Times on April 23, 2007, in the wake of the debacle of Intuit's tax processing servers slowing to a crawl just as the tax deadline loomed.

If the IRS (and state revenue departments) are serious about realizing the cost savings of having everyone adopt e-filing, they must also get serious about making it free and safe for everyone. Eliminate the for-profit middleman. Allow the IRS to accept e-filing returns from individual taxpayers directly. Require any software package certified for preparing taxes to offer free e-filing, regardless of income. Forbid online services from retaining personal information.

The tax service industry will wail on about the government undercutting their business, and rightly so. I'm not worried about the local accountant however - their personalized service will always be needed. The IRS is a part of the government, whose duty it is to serve the people's interest - not industry's. If the IRS wants to save money by having me e-file, they shouldn't require me to pay (either in money or security) for it.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Jasper Class

Tomorrow is our third dog obedience class (though only Jasper's second, since the first one was just for the humans). The school that we chose uses clicker training. I had heard of this before, because people also use it for horses, but had never actually tried it myself. The way that it works is that you use a "click" from a little plastic and metal device to mark the desired behavior, and then follow it up with a treat (usually food). This is supposed to be better than using the treat alone, because often you cannot feed the dog the treat fast enough to correlate exactly with the behavior that you are praising, or the behavior occurs too far away to immediately reward with food.

We were skeptical, especially since we thought the clicking noise might totally freak Jasper out, but it seemed to be worth a try. Plus, this method is used by all of the recommended trainers around here. At our first class (the one without Jasper), we were given our clicker and sent home to teach Jasper the click-treat correlation. Upon learning that Jasper was shy, the teacher instructed us to start off by clicking the device in a different room (so I would click in the kitchen, and Alex would give Jasper a treat in the living room), and then move closer but kept the clicker muffled in a pocket for a couple of days. By the end of the week, Jasper was accepting the noise, and certainly enjoying the little treats that he was getting basically for free in this phase! Once the clicker became OK, we started to click and treat for attention. Jasper had a leg up on this concept, because we have always rewarded him for looking at us, especially when we say his name. That was pretty much the only training we could do with him for the first month or so when he was permanently encamped under the coffee table! Now he loves to rest his head on the couch and gaze at us...probably because we often share food with him, which initially was a way to build rapport and try to overcome shyness. Now that he leaps up and runs into the kitchen when he hears us rustling around in there, we could probably back off on this!

Last week, the first class with the dogs, we had free playtime at the beginning. Jasper loved it, since he is very sociable with other dogs. He was also a star at most of the other things we worked on: we had already taught him "sit" and "down" at home.

Good down!

He was not as good at "stand" from a seated position...he kept trying hard to keep his butt on the floor while reaching for the treat in front of his nose! Maybe this bodes well for "stay," which we haven't taught yet. He was also a complete failure at attention walking, which is where you walk along next to or in front of the dog and click/treat when the dog gives you eye contact. Jasper looks absolutely everywhere else but at us...perhaps because he trusts us and wants to keep an eye on everything else. So we've been working on that a bit at home this week. I've found that what works best is to sit him in front of me and do click-and-treat for eye contact, so he gets into that zone. After a minute or so of this, we start walking, and he usually offers some looks, which become more frequent when he sees that he's getting rewarded for it. (Nice to see those cogs moving in there.) The reason this exercise is so important is that in the future, it leads to good loose-leash walking, which is a stage we would very much like Jasper to reach. As he has gained confidence in the world, he has also started pulling like crazy on the leash, especially at the beginning of our walks!

The other fun thing we have been working on is a touch stick. This is a dowel with some tape (the "target") at one end. The dog learns to touch it with his nose, and once that behavior is established, the stick can be used to "shape" other behaviors, for example guiding the dog to turn in a circle. Initially, Jasper was VERY opposed to this idea, which is not surprising for a dog who has probably been whacked with things in the past. I had to start working with him right on his sleeping pad, where he is most comfortable, and with the stick on the floor. Slowly, I was able to go from sitting on the floor, to squatting, to standing, and we now practice in other parts of the house. As you can see, he is definitely catching on:

To the left...

To the right...

No hokey-pokey yet! Though we are working on "shake," which he will now try to do with no prompting at all when we pull out his bedtime treat. In fact, he waved his paw at me earlier when what I was really asking for was "down." All in good time, I suppose!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Quiet Weekend

It's largely been a quiet weekend. Hilary was up at a conference in the Cities, and I send a fair bit of time just taking care of errands. We could dearly use another day (or two) of weekend just for relaxing. Ah well.

As such, I haven't really got anything to report. Instead, Here are some pictures.

This is a part (not even the most sophistocated part) of the ATLAS detector/experiment at the Large Hadron Collider. Notice the guy hanging out in the low center. Yes, it's THAT big, and its hundreds of feet underground in the Alps. The eight rings arrayed around the central axis are enormous superconducting magnets that create a cavern-sized torroidal magnetic field. The big area in the middle, which has since been filled, is where the actual particle detectors are located. This photo was the astronomy picture of the day from Feb 25th. The picture was taken by a CERN employee named Maximilien Brice.

This is me Da hanging out at one of the lookout/sniper embattlements of the walls of Old San Juan.

These doors are a masterwork of Renaissance Florentine sculpture: the intricate brass doors of the Baptistry of St. Giovanni, which faces the Duomo cathedral of Florence. For an interesting read on the background of both the Duomo and Baptistry, read "The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance: How Brunelleschi and Ghiberti Changed the Art World."

The quaint streets of the hill town of Radda in Chianti.

More quaint streets, these in San Giminiano in an evening mist.

That's all I got for now. Look ahead to posts next weekend from the start of the (outdoor) Farmer's Market!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Happy Birthday, Alex!

Sorry about the lack of posting...I don't even have a good excuse, since I'm not in class or the clinic right now! I do have ideas for several more posts to come...look for updates on Jasper's obedience training, a recap of the conference I attended last weekend, and more crumpet books.

Today's post, however, is all about Alex! I made sure to take a bunch of pictures, too, since he is usually the one behind the lens. We had a great birthday meal out at Chester's, a new restaurant in town. Though the wait was much longer than we expected (and were told when we showed up), we did get a free appetizer out of it, and it bodes well that there is an actual hotspot in downtown Rochester on a Wednesday night! After running into a staff physician, some residents and medical students, and several other familiar faces, we realized that for once, we had actually found the cool place to be.

Here is Alex before dinner.

The restaurant is in the downtown mall, so we were able to sit outside the restaurant but still inside the building (particularly useful as much of Minnesota is under a blizzard warning for the next several days, though it's just supposed to be icky cold rain for us).

Here is Alex on the phone with Art and Denny, showing off their gifts!

Dinner was very tasty, particularly the lavash pizza appetizer, and I was impressed that there were several good veggie entree options. Alex suggested sharing a dessert. I secretly did not think that this was going to be sufficient, but was proved wrong as the chocolate cake was enormous and definitely plenty for us to split! And really, anytime they take chocolate cake and drizzle more chocolate on top of it, you can't lose.

We've just staggered home, very full, and Alex is currently putting Jasper through his evening training paces. I think we're going to finish opening presents in a few minutes here...