Saturday, November 21, 2009

Windows 7 Taskbar

The one thing that I cannot get used to about 7 is the new Taskbar.  First, Windows 7 replaces the old fashioned task “buttons” with just an icon. 

original taskbar1

Fixing the buttons is easy enough.  Just right click in an open space on the Taskbar, and select Properties.  Check the box labeled “Use small icons”, and change the Taskbar buttons to "Combine when taskbar is full”.  Click OK.

configure taskbar

I could probably get used to just that change, but then they went one step further and removed the Quick Launch too.  For those of you who don’t know, the Quick Launch is that area next to the “Start” button/Orb with all of the tiny icons.  Out of the box, Windows 7 has the ability to “pin” an icon to the Taskbar, but my opinion is that it just gets in the way of your real “tasks”. 

original taskbar

Here you can see I have UltraEdit (UE), FileZilla (FZ), and my KeePass icons pinned to the taskbar, but because Firefox was already open, it pushed those three icons off to the right.  Basically, it’s messy and you never know quite where you’ll find your icons to launch a program.

Getting the Quick Launch back isn’t difficult, but you do have to know what you’re looking for because it’s not just a simple checkbox (that I could find anyway).

Start by right-clicking the Taskbar in an empty spot, go to Toolbars, select New Toolbar…  When the dialog box pops up, type the following in to the Folder field:

%UserProfile%\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Internet Explorer\Quick Launch


When done, click the Select Folder button.

That’s all that’s required to get the Quick Launch folder back, but you’ll want to change a couple of things to get it back to “normal”.  Right now it probably looks something like this, with huge chunks of text wasting space.

task with ql

To fix that, right-click in some of the empty expanse taken up by the Quick Launch, and uncheck the two boxes “Show Text” and “Show title”.

turning off labels

That will pretty much get things back to normal, however if you’re like me, you probably have a number of icons already pinned to the Taskbar.  For each icon that’s pinned, right-click on it, and select “Unpin this program from the Taskbar”.

Unpinning icons

That’s it!  Your Taskbar should be back to “normal”.normal task-bar

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Refinishing a Dining Room Table

Despite buying a new dining room table from a local, reputable show room, and being very careful with it, I found myself refinishing our table after only three years.  I recently re-finished the surface, and was fairly happy with the results.

I took a few photos of the table before I started the process.  Originally, a shellac finish had been applied, which provides both the color and a glossy, hard finish.  Apparently this is very sensitive to heat, as any place that serving dishes or our plates (yes, our dinner plates that we’re eating off of) would sit, we had chipping, bubbling, discoloration, or some combination of the three.



With some help, I got the table out into the garage and began the process.  It had been recommended to me to only strip the top, and leave the sides alone because of the complex curves from the trim-work.  I opted to go ahead and strip these for two reasons: 1) I didn’t feel that I would have enough control over the stripper goo to be able to stop it EXACTLY at the edge and 2) I was concerned about being able to match the top color to the side color.  I did mask off the table legs and left them alone, as they were in mostly good shape.


The first step is getting all of the old finish off.  To do that, I used a citrus-based chemical stripper.  As I later confirmed, the veneer is too thin – sand paper is NOT an option.  After masking off the base/legs of the table, I applied the stripper in a fairly thin coat using a cheap paint brush.  The goo needs to sit a while (about 25 minutes) to do its thing. 


I went with the citrus-based chemicals as they are supposedly more environmentally friendly, and less fumes to contend with.  I’m not sure about the first one, but I can say that the small wasn’t too bad, especially with the garage door cracked open about a foot.  Nevertheless, it is still a potent chemical and it ate through my vinyl gloves in a matter of minutes.  I wound up with quite a bit of the stuff on my fingers, and it didn’t leave any permanent affects that I’ve found so far, but my thumb was kind of dried up and tingly for several days.


After a short break, I came back to the table and using a plastic flat-edge scraper, I began pulling up large globs of finish.  I found that the best thing was to have a paper-towel in hand to continually clean your scraper to keep the blobs from falling on the floor (which make a big mess).  I went through an entire roll of towels stripping the finish off our table.


For me, it took two or three passes with the stripper before I had it down to bare wood.  Notice that the coloring is actually in the shellac finish, and did NOT stay in the wood. 

Once the original finish is off, it is very important to get all of the stripper residue off of the table before you begin applying the new finish.  To do this, you will need a bottle of mineral spirits.  Here you can see me pouring the spirits (the milky-white stuff) onto the table, and I used a scouring pad to work it in.


That leaves the table with a residue on it, which I wiped off with a paper towel, and then repeated the process with more spirits.  I continued this process until I felt that I had a clean table top.


The mineral spirits dry quickly after being wiped off.  I allowed about an hour before continuing with staining.


Here you can see the nice, clean table top after all of the finish was stripped away.  I was very fortunate that we had been able to keep any moisture or oils from seeping down through the cracks and chips in the original shellac finish, thereby discoloring the wood.  The variations that you see in the oak top was just normal variations in wood colors.

At this point you will need to determine what color of stain to apply.  Since I was not re-staining the legs or the chairs, it was very critical that I get a close match.  I keep about a dozen samples of various colors on hand, so I took a scrap piece of oak that had similar color and markings, and rubbed in a small patch from each of my options to compare against the existing furniture.

It is important to check your match in various lighting, as fluorescent and incandescent can cause coloring to look much different than when in direct sunlight.


This was the point at which it really set in for me as to the quality of the product and misconceptions that we were left with from the sales-lady.  As you can see, the table top has an oak grain to it, and it appears to be several pieces jointed together.  The photo above was taken where the table splits for the leaf, and you can see from the side that the top is just laminated onto some sort of pressboard.

This caused me to take note of a few things.  First, that laminate is WAY too thin to be able to do any sanding on it, as the thickness in unperceivable when viewed from the side.  Secondly, the grain that used to run horizontally along the first lip at the top of the table was actually painted on.

I was really afraid that this second revelation would be the end of this project, but I decided to see how the round-over would take stain.  As it turns out, it stained very darkly, to the point that you really can’t tell what it is, and it just looks like another type of wood.

So without doing any sanding (just cleaning with the scouring pad), I moved on to stain.

To apply the stain, I prefer to use a couple of sheets of the blue shop-towels that can be found in the automotive section of your favorite department store.  Wearing gloves, I dip the towel into the can of stain and begin rubbing into the clean wood.  Honestly, it’s fairly difficult to mess this step up too bad.  I do try to keep the towel moving so that I don’t get blotches where the stain sat too long.


Generally speaking, one coat of stain will be sufficient.  Don’t kid yourself into thinking that you can get a darker stain by applying a second or third coat.  My experience has been that 95% of the stain is applied on the first coat, and I use subsequent coats mainly to touch up any spots where I didn’t apply it evenly enough.


Once the table is stained to your liking, it is important to let this sit for a good 24 hours to let it dry.  It doesn’t hurt to run a clean towel over the tacky finish after a few hours to pull up any excessive stain to help the drying process.

Take a good, hard look at the surface, checking for any imperfections.  The stain should be free of streaks and the top clean.  Be sure that there is no dust or debris on the table.  While the fumes can be a bit potent, I prefer to apply the final finish with the door closed, to prevent wind from stirring up dirt.

Based on recommendations from others, I decided to use Deft as the final finish.  Whenever I apply polyurethane or in this case Deft, I like to use an appropriately sized foam brush.  I find that the foam tends to leave fewer streaks, and you won’t have the problem of bristles falling off into the finish.

Starting with a good clean table, I applied a healthy amount of Deft to the brush and starting at one side of the table, make long smooth strokes across the top going with the grain.  Keeping the motions smooth and consistent is the primary key to having a good looking finish.  This is also a time when being tall and having long arms is almost a must.  If you stop the brush at any point, you will be able to see it in the final product.  This is especially true as the Deft begins to cure.

One nice thing that I found about the Deft is that it cures very quickly.  The temperatures in the garage were running in the mid-sixties throughout this project, and I found that the Deft had cured totally after about four hours.

Once the first coat is cured, it’s time to go over the finish with a scouring pad.  This is about your only opportunity to remove any imperfections or streaks in the finish, although it’s not perfect, and it’s better to get a good coat put on the first time.

Take a paper towel and wipe off the table top, again looking for any imperfections.  Apply the second coat of Deft just like the first, again being careful not to leave streaks.

Allow the second coat to cure, repeat the scouring pad routine, and then apply the third coat.  After three coats, I normally consider this to be sufficient as long as you feel that they were all good, thick coats.

And that’s all there is to it.  I estimate that I put in about 20 hours of labor over the course of a long weekend to refinish the table.  Considering the labor, and the cost of various chemicals and supplies, the estimate that was given of $500-$700 seems reasonable for someone to do the project for me.  Unfortunately for me, my table only cost about $800 new, and so I felt obligated to eat the cost of labor by doing it myself.  Materials themselves cost me about $100.

We now have a beautiful dining room table again that actually is better than new.


Here’s a few of the lessons I learned while completing this project.

  • Chemical Strippers ONLY!  Regardless of what the salesperson may have told you about being “real” wood, it is only veneer, and sand paper would go straight through it.
  • Be prepared to find anything.  Again, even though our table supposedly did not have any painted-on finishes, all of the wood grain from the edge of the table somehow disappeared when I stripped it.  I was able to recover, but be sure to go into this process with the attitude that you MAY have a permanent table cloth covering your new “finish”.
  • It’s not hard work, but it does take time.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Kel-Tec PF-9 Update

I thought I would give a quick update regarding the status of my PF-9. I've now been shooting it for about nine months, and while I don't consider it a "pleasant" gun to shoot, I've really grown to like it.

I've put about 400 rounds of ammo through it, and have had only a few jams, almost all of which where when feeding the last round from a brand new clip. Since then, that clip seems to have worn in and no longer gives me fits.

There was one other incident that I had with the gun, and that was a split casing from what I later realized was reloaded ammunition. I was just out shooting targets when I felt my face get peppered with hot powder, and the gun jammed. The shell was stuck 90% into the chamber and had to be pushed out with a stick.

At some point during all of this, the extractor (which is just held in by a spring) popped out and was lost. That was frustrating, although if I had realized the situation before I left the range, I may have been able to find it. As it turns out though, I couldn't find it and I was leaving for a trip in a few days in which I wanted to carry the gun.

So doing what any normal person would do, I ordered the $1.50 replacement part, and paid $38 to have it shipped over night. I was very careful to order it first thing on Monday morning, about 8:30 (central), as I knew that the factory was in eastern time. The website was fairly easy to order, and I left feeling confident that it would be in and replaced before my Thursday departure.

As you can image, I was upset Tuesday evening when no UPS man had shown up. Wednesday morning I gave Kel-Tec a call and asked for a good explanation. The lady that took my call (I'm sorry, I don't recall her name) was very calm and took the time to check into the order. She could not explain why the package left late, but assured me that it had left Tuesday (a day late), and produced a tracking number to prove it. I asked what she was going to do about my $38 shipping bill that didn't exactly work out. She took my number and told me that she'd do some research.

At that point, I pretty well wrote off the lost funds. The part showed up Wednesday night as promised, I was able to fix the gun, and took it to the range to verify proper operation.

I carried over most of my road trip, and felt confident, and comfortable with it. I picked up a ConcealmentT at the local gun show, and really like how it holds the Kel-Tec out of the way yet accessible. But that's another story...

After I returned from the road trip, I happened to be checking my account, and I noticed a credit for the $38 and some odd change (the cost of shipping). Yes, Kel-Tec had some failure to deliver as promised, but they stood behind their service and made it right to the customer. That's worth a lot in my book!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Upgrading a Laptop Hard Drive, Dual Booting

About a year ago, I bought a Dell Inspiron 1501 laptop with a 70GB partition with Windows Vista factory installed. That installation was current and stable, but I needed more space and also wanted to have it dual-boot with Kubuntu (Linux). The laptop was otherwise still working good and fast enough for what I needed, so instead of replacing it, I decided to upgrade the hard disk with a 320GB, 7200RPM drive.

I was really dreading the thought of reinstalling all of my applications in Vista, so I thought I'd try to clone my Vista partition, re-image my Vista partition back onto the drive, and then add Linux. Here are the steps I took, using nothing but free, open-source tools:

The first step in any project like this is to develop a plan and have everything ready. You will need the following:

  • A good, working PC that's worth the time and monetary investment. Your Windows partition should already be installed and working good.

  • A download of the Clonezilla ISO boot disc, burned to a CD-ROM. (

  • A download of the Kubuntu ISO Linux installation disc, burned to a DVD. (

  • New, larger hard disk. If you're adding Linux to your PC, you'll want to allow at least 20GB to give you a little room to grow.

  • An external USB hard drive, at least as big as the Vista partition that you'll need to back up.

The basic steps are as follows:

  1. Backup the existing Windows Vista installation.

  2. Swap out the hard drive with the larger one.

  3. Restore the backup of Vista into the original location on the new drive.

  4. Install Kubuntu onto the new system, leaving a room to grow the Vista partition.

  5. Resize the Vista partition to take advantage of the larger disk drive.

Backup the Existing Vista Install

  • Boot your Vista PC up. It wouldn't hurt to run a defrag on the drive, as I suspect that it would speed the gather times, although I didn't on my PC.

  • This may seem obvious, but always make sure you have ALL of your data backed up before attempting a process like this.

  • Shut the PC completely down (make sure you're not just closing the lid or going into Standby).

  • Insert the Clonezilla CD-ROM and boot the PC. Do NOT attach the external hard disk at this time.

  • A few questions will come up, asking what language and keyboard to use. Just select English.

  • Select device-image to use the disk/images functionality of this software.

  • Select local_dev to use the external hard drive.

  • It will prompt you to attach your external USB drive. At this point, you can plug in the external hard drive. You will see some data come across the screen as it loads the appropriate drivers. When it is finished, press Enter.

  • When asked to mount a device as /home/partimag, you need to decide which device listed is the external drive. Usually it will be last in the sdX series (such as sdb), since it was last to be attached. Often the description shown will be a clue that it is an external drive.

  • Select the directory that you want your disk image to be stored in. I just put mine in the the / (root) folder.

  • Select the Beginner option.

  • For my purpose, I chose the saveparts option, since I was ONLY interested in my core Vista installation (and none of the OEM or backup partitions). In hindsight, I probably would have saved myself some time if I had just backed up the entire drive.

  • I used the default file name for the backup image.

  • The next screen asks which partitions you want to backup. Again, since I was only concerned with the main partition, I looked through the list to find the largest (69GB) partition. Press the Space Bar to put an asterisk on that line, and then press Enter to start.

At this point, the system is taking a backup copy of that partition and writing it to the external hard disk. A typical image should take at least about an hour, and possibly much longer depending on the size, CPU speed, and disk speeds.

Replace the Hard Drive

  • Unplug the external hard disk and turn the laptop upside down.

  • This process depends a lot on the model, but from my Inspiron 1501, there's just two screws and they're "labeled" with a hard drive symbol.

  • Slide out the old drive, put in the new one.

Restore the Vista Backup Image

This step took me a few tries to get it right, but as best as I can remember, these were the steps I used. Originally when I started this project, I had intended to install Linux first and then put Vista on after-the-fact. As it turns out, something in the Vista bootloader did not like being installed to a different partition number. After several frustrating hours, I went to plan B described here.

  • Insert the Clonezilla boot CD into the drive. Do NOT reattach the external hard drive yet.

  • Turn on the PC to boot into the Clonezilla software. Note that after install Kubuntu, you may need to change the BIOS settings on your PC to boot from CD-ROM before the hard disk.

  • A few questions will come up, asking what language and keyboard to use. Just select English.

  • Select device-image to use the disk-images functionality of this sofware.

  • Select “local_dev” to use the external hard drive.

  • It will prompt you to attach your USB device. At this point, you can plug in the external hard drive. You will see some data come across the screen as it loads the appropriate drivers. When it is finished, press Enter.

  • When asked to mount a device as /home/partimag, you need to decide which device listed is the external drive. Usually it will be last in the sdX series (such as sdb), since it was last to be attached. Often the description shown will be a clue that it is an external drive.

  • Select the same directory that you did at the beginning. This is where the image was stored on the disk drive.

  • Select Expert mode. I'm not totally sure if I wound up changing anything in here or not, but you'll get a much clearer picture of what your options are by using this mode.

  • Select the option to restoreparts. We want to restore our image to a specific partition on the new disk.

  • A listing of images on the external drive will appear. Select the one that you just created.

This is the point which I'm not totally sure about – I think after I inserted the blank hard drive into the system, I had the option to recover all of the partitions from the image that was created. While this wasn't my original intention (since there were two other useless partitions that I didn't need to waste disk space on). As I said before, until I installed Vista back to sda3, there was no way that I was able to get it to boot. Instead it just sat at a black screen with a cursor blinking in the corner.

  • One way or anther, I was able to recover the disk partition structure from my partimage. It was in the menus somewhere, I just can't find it right now. When the list of eligible partitions to restore to comes up, select the same partition that the Vista image came from. We'll take care of resizing it later.

  • The next screen will list lots of miscellaneous options that you can tweak. I believe that I left these all as default, although I did play with some of them before I got a combination that worked.

  • The next screen asks if you'd like to create a partition table. I believe that I had already recreated mine by this point, so I chose the -k option to NOT create a partition table.

  • I had Clonezilla do nothing after I was finished.

  • Next it will prompt you twice if you're really sure that you want to do this.

  • It should take less time to restore the image than it did to gather it, but still plan on about an hour.

  • After the restore finishes, remove the CD-ROM and reboot. If everything has gone well, it should boot into your original Vista installation, just as you last left it!

  • Shut down the PC.

Install Kubuntu

Kubuntu installed from the Live CD is very simple to do, and is nearly impossible to mess up. The only tricky part to this is if you're wanting to expand the size of the Vista installation (like I wanted to). When you get to the section where you create the installation partitions, you'll need to select the option to configure it manually, being sure to put Kubuntu at the end of the disk.

  • Insert the Kubuntu DVD into the drive and boot the PC.

  • When you get to the option to Prepare Disk Space, be sure you change from the default to Specify partitions manually (advanced).

  • Select the hard disk (usually something like sda). Click New partition table.

  • You should see some free space show up after your Vista partition(s). Select the free space, and click New partition.

  • Start by creating a partition for the Swap Space. I did a 8192MB area at the end of the space, containing the Swap Area.

  • Next I created the main (root /) partition. Logical, 100GB, at the end, Ext3 file system, and the root (/) for the mount point.

  • Finish the installation, which only takes about 20 minutes.

  • As part of the install, it should automatically recognize the Vista installation. When you reboot, you should have a Grub bootloader with options for Vista and Kubuntu.

  • Be sure to test the boot-ability of both Windows and Linux to make sure they're both working.

Expand the Vista Partition

Vista is my main operating system with the tools that I need to do my job. To give me some more breathing room, I left about 100GB of free space between my restored Vista installation and the newly installed Kubuntu install. Now it's time to put that free space to good use.

  • Shut the PC down and again insert the Kubuntu DVD into the drive. Boot the PC and enter the Kubuntu Live environment.

  • Once you get to a desktop, open up a console window. Look under the K button, Applications, System, Console.

  • Begin by expanding the partition size (not the same as the formatted size) of the NTFS (Vista) partition. Type sudo fdisk /dev/sda, or whatever your primary drive is called.

  • Press 'p' to display the current partition table. If you've done everything correctly, you should see your NTFS partition, and its associated starting and ending positions. The next partition should start somewhere well after the NTFS partition's End. This is the free space that we want to use.

  • Press 'd' to delete the partition table entry (we're not destroying data, just recreating the partition geometry to be a larger size. Enter the partition number of the NTFS partition. Mine was sda3.

  • Now do 'n' to create a new partition.

  • Select the option for a Primary partition.

  • It should automatically find the same number as you had before. If necessary, override it to be the correct number.

  • The default Start and End numbers should both be correct. Just make sure your Start is the same as it was before, and that the End is bigger than it was before.

  • Press 't' to change the Type of partition.

  • Enter the partition number that you want to modify, again 3 for my system.

  • When it prompts you what to change the type to, enter 7 for HPFS/NTFS types.

  • Toggle the bootable flag by pressing 'a', and again selecting your Vista partition.

  • When you're done, you can press 'p' again to display your changes.

  • Once you're satisfied, press 'w' to write the changes to disk.

  • You will now need to reboot your system for the changes to fully take affect. If the Kubuntu DVD ejects itself, be sure to push it back in so that it will again boot into the Live CD.

At this point, you've resized the partition, but Windows is still only using as much as it was originally sized for. Next we'll effectively do a non-destructive reformat of the disk.

  • Once you get to a desktop, open up a console window. Look under the K button, Applications, System, Console.

  • Test the resize by typing sudo ntfsresize -i /dev/sda3, where sda3 is replaced with your NTFS partition.

  • This will run some tests against the disk, let you know if it's in a consistent condition to perform the resize, and also let you know what the maximum size will be.

  • Assuming that the test returns successful, you can begin the resize by doing sudo ntfsresize -s 170384M /dev/sda3. The 170384M number comes from the maximum size that the parition will hold (according to the test). I took the size reported, and subtracted 1MB from it, just in case there was some rounding errors that might bite me. And finally, the /dev/sda3 is my parition.

  • This process will only take a minute or so. At this point, it's time to reboot into Vista again.

  • As part of the ntfsresize, it has flagged the disk to have chkdsk run against it the next time Windows is booted. Let the chkdsk run. It will have you reboot when it's finished.

  • Reboot into Vista.

  • Once you log in, you should be able to see your full disk!

  • You should still be able to boot into Kubuntu also!

You've now just upgraded your hard disk to a larger size, enlarged your Vista partition, and setup a dual boot with Kubuntu Linux!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Great Plains Super Launch 2009

Paul Verhage, KD4STH hosted the GPSL this year in Topeka, KS at the Kaw Area Technical School (KATS). In all, I believe that we had about 10 balloons launched on Saturday morning, and there were attendees from at least eight states plus a couple from Canada.

This was the first year that we were able to do a tour on Thursday prior to the main event, this year at Garmin. Unfortunately, there were no photos allowed during the tour, but it was cool nonetheless.

The group as a whole had about 45 minutes of interaction time with a couple of software engineers from Garmin to ask questions and get a better feel for the direction that the company was going. Afterward, they broke us into smaller groups and showed us the manufacturing (avionics) and R&D areas. We also got a short side-trip over to the G1000 flat-panel avionics support area for a hands-on demo.

Thursday evening was completed with a screening of the movie BLAST at the KATS conference center.

Friday was of course filled with short presentations from a number of the groups. I took a few photos from the event.

Here Paul was showing his high altitude chamber. Depending on the seal of the chamber (he has three different ones here), he can achieve a vacuum equivalent to 80k-100k feet.

Paul had a Van de Graff generator toy that causes a lite piece of foil (think Christmas tree tinsel) to levitate. I've got to find me one of these.

Bill Brown has been very active lately developing small and disposable tracking systems. Here he is showing one of his newest 6m designs.

Several anti-tree systems were shown and discussed for removing payloads from the top of a tree. As far as the coolness factor goes, this "potato gun" was near the top of the list for launching a tennis ball with a fishing line attached to the back side. This one was actually used on Michigan's payload Saturday morning.

It was decided to launch from the KATS parking lot, three blocks from the hotels. Groups started arriving by 6:30am, and the first batch lifted off about 7:40am.

The Northwest Technical Institute (NIT) had an impressive setup for transporting Helium in the back of a truck. The wood rack and cargo straps seemed to hold everything very secure.

Here the NIT and ORB groups are inflating their balloons.

A student from the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium preps her capsule before take off.

EOSS was well prepared and organized as usual. They now break into two teams - a balloon inflation team and a capsule preparation team. The payload is only attached to the balloon after all checks are in place.

Paul with Nearsys begins the prepping of his payload prior to inflating the balloon.

EOSS was the first group ready, and the first group to launch. The air was calm enough that only one group used lanyards at all. Everyone else stood their balloons up, and just released.

Here Paul is making the final preparations before releasing.

Seen here is NSTAR's flight (left) and two UTARC balloons (right) just after release.

I managed to get dubbed the "Launch Meister" after volunteering to do launch coordination with Forbes Field, which was only a few miles away. Even though I was chasing Paul's balloon (Nearys) which launched in the first group, we did not leave for about 30 minutes after the inital launch since I was responsible for clearing the other groups into the air. Then, I hadn't planned our escape route very well out of Topeka, and wound up doing some backtracking.

Crys and I made it to Garnett, KS less than 5 minutes after touchdown, using some new software that I had developed to track the balloons. All worked pretty well until we went to retrieve Paul's capsule.

We drove to the location on the edge of town where it had landed, and actually started getting new packets from the tracker. That was a good sign, except that now it showed the capsule in a different location. So we drove back into town. We were just coming up on the updated location, when we got another beacon from it, and what do you know but it was now in a differently location yet!

At this point, I was getting frustrated with Crys for leading me on a wild goose chase, while in my mind I was trying to figure out if the problem was with my tracking software, Crys's eyes, or Paul's GPS.

I finally gave up and went to help the Michigan group pull their payload out of a tree (we had spotted it from the road during all of these excursions), because at least we knew where that was, and it wasn't going to move on us.

It took about an hour or more to shoot a rope up through the tree. In the end, someone wound up crawling up the tree high enough to get a hold of the capsule and drag it down. Unfortunately, I didn't bring my camera down for this event.

All payloads were retrieved except for ARBONET, which the last I heard thought that they'd had a complete power-supply failure, and therefore was not transmitting any RF. On top of that, they felt that they had ascended at 500'/min, which put their predicted landing sites 20-40 miles further down range from the rest of the group.

Lunch was held at Pizza Hut in Garnett, which our large group quickly overwhelmed. They managed to get food out reasonably fast. Dinner on Saturday evening was back in Topeka at the Cracker Barrel, which could handle our group much better, although the ~50 of use still got spread out.

I did finally figure out the issue with tracking Paul's payload after touchdown during dinner Saturday night. Apparently, his capsule narrowly missed a tree and tell within 10 feet of the owner of a house. The owner picked up the payload, put it in the back of his pick-up, and then called Paul on his cell phone. For whatever reason (to be helpful maybe?), the guy then drove the payload into town and then back to the house where they finally met up with Paul.

Next year's GPSL location is still being discussed, but so far the Dallas/Palestine/Sulphur Springs, TX area is being heavily discussed. Watch the GPSL website for more updates.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Ham Radio installation in 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee

I finally traded in the mini-van for something a little more fun. The one thing that I was very scared of was the space (or lack thereof) in the Jeep compared to the older Grand Caravan that I used to drive. I had custom built a center console on the Caravan, and it could hold practically as many radios as I could afford. The Jeep, on the other hand, was another story.

I reluctantly decided to nix the idea of putting HF in this vehicle. I've found that I just don't use it that often, I didn't have room for the radio, and I especially didn't have room to store several Ham Stick HF antennas in the back (like I did in the Caravan). So that left me with a much more manageable problem of where to put my Alinco DR-620 dual band rig, which fortunately for me, included a detachable/remotable face.

In my Grand Cherokee, I decided to mount the radio's head in what used to be a small cubby hole in the front dash. Once I had decided where to mount the head, I started the install by getting through the firewall.

I pulled the plate from the under side of the dash (just under the steering wheel) and started looking for a clear area. In the past, I've had some luck at utilizing an existing grommet that had been placed, but not used - presumable it was for a feature that didn't come with my make/model. There was no such luck this time, and I wound up drilling. The best spot that I could find due to the brake's master cylinder and associated plumbing was just under the accelerator feed.

The round thing on the left is the steering column, and the bar on the right, is the accelerator pedal.

Here you can see the hole from the engine side. The hole is right in the middle of the photo.

I decided to use my lip-mount dual band antenna that I already owned to mount on the hood of the Cherokee. Through the hole, I ran both the power and an RG-142 teflon coax between the passenger compartment and the engine compartment. Using tie-wraps, I kept the cables tied in position to reduce vibration stresses and failures.

The power cable is a molded (zip style) 14 gauge power cord purchased from Although technically the ground could be picked up through the chassis at the radio, and you'd only have to run a power cable, that is not a good idea.

By running the pair all the way back to the battery, you minimize your radiated EMI because of the close spacing between the conductors - I've found this to be very critical on modern computerized vehicles.

Once I had the cables in the engine compartment, I went back inside and started fishing them through the interior. The drivers side seat is electrically powered, but there was still enough room at the front to mount the body of the radio under it. Routing the power and coax actually turned out to be one of the easier tasks - I just lifted up the edge of the center console and slipped them up under the plastic. I had already taken the cover off of the gear selector, so I was reasonably confident that there wasn't any critical or sensitive wiring under there.

The most difficult part was getting the console apart far enough to route my cable from Alinco's separation kit. To do this, I took the gear shifter covers apart, and then pulled the front console's plate back away from the console.

I drilled a 1/2 inch hole in the top side of the cubby hole. This is where the separation cable is routed.

While I was in here, I picked up +12V from the switched cigarette lighter plug. I don't actually pull any significant current from this plug, but instead I use it to drive a relay. That way I can switch off all of my radios (which are powered directly from the batter), any time the ignition key is switched off. I wrote up my wiring concept years ago and can be found on the RCKARA website. Note, I no longer use the "Accessory Line (from stereo)" as the schematics point out - instead I use this cigarette lighter power.

My five year old daughter started helping me at about this point. A smile means things are starting to come together...

Under the seat, I screwed a piece of aluminum angle directly into the floor, which happened to be a flat plastic vent.

The radio rests on the floor under the drivers seat, with the speaker pointed up. There is more than enough audio in this configuration.

The face of the radio is mounted to a couple of blocks of wood, by using the mounting bracket that is supplied as part of the separation kit. I cut two blocks of wood, and painted the forward one black for fear that you might have been able to see it sticking out from behind the radio face. The rear block was beveled up at 25 degrees inclination to make the screen easier to read while driving. I screwed the two blocks together with a pair of counter-sunk screws, then attached the included Alinco mounting bracket to the front wood piece using a couple more screws.

I drilled a hold big enough to pass the RJ-11 connector for the separation cable through the bracket, and after some trial-fitting and trimming, I was ready to install the mounting bracket.

All that was needed was some heavy-duty Velcro fastener. The Heavy Duty stuff that you can find at the hardware store works wonders - just expect to pay $3-$4 per foot for the stuff. Anything cheaper will come loose, so don't waste your time. I put a light coat of polyurethane on the back edge of the rear wood block to help the sticky Velro stick better.

Here's the wood mounting bracket installed in the cubby hole, and ready to have the plastic bracket installed for final assembly.

Once all of the cables inside the vehicle were terminated and secured, it was time to go back into the engine compartment to attach the antenna, and put the circuit breaker in at the battery. Here you can see the 15A breaker sitting on top of the battery, and the black negative lead attached directly to the negative post.

Now it's time for the smoke test! No smoke this time. The install looks good and clean, and I haven't noticed any EMI-related quirks when transmitting.

Here's the completed installation, ready for our first road trip. The dual-band antenna is the one on the right (drivers side).

Monday, March 23, 2009

Low-budget Lighting Analysis

I've recently been researching the aquarium and plant-growth lights for my wife's saltwater aquarium. There are plenty of acronyms and differing opinions out there to keep a person studying for many months, but I've decided to start collecting the basic equipment necessary to take my own measurements and do quantitative analysis on various equipment.

First of all, a little background information. Carl Strohmeyer actively maintains a great web page that is good at educating a person about the factors involved in comparing lights and lighting systems. I have no intentions of reproducing that information, and at this point can only accept most of what he says as fact. His information can be found at

So far, my research has been geared towards comparing light systems that I have access to, with the ultimate goal of reducing my electric bill. To compare systems, the first piece of equipment that is needed is a spectrometer. My first spectrometer was built myself using nothing more than an old CD-ROM disc and a cardboard box. A similar example can be found at After some tweaking, it didn't turn out too bad.

I did some checking around, and found a "Precision Economy Spectrometer" from Edmunds Scientific for about $40 bucks. This is the unit that I'm currently using. It has the advantage that it comes with a (albeit crude) calibration card.

You can visually peer through the eye-piece as-is, but I wanted to maintain documentation from my sample subjects, so I rigged up my point-and-shoot digital camera to the eye-piece.

As you can see from the photos, my jig is very crude, but gets the job done for less than $50, not including the camera. Basically, it's a scrap piece of plywood for the base, and then I used some card board to space the spectrometer so that it's at the same level as the camera. A couple of large rubber bands holds everything in place. I chose not to glue or otherwise permanently attach the spectrometer, because at least with my Canon camera, the lens extends from the camera varying amounts depending on the zoom level. The rubber bands allows stuff to give if I zoom too far.

The camera is simply lined up with the eye-piece on the spectrometer. I used a couple of layers of card board to lift the instrument up to be level with the camera's lens.

The camera bolts to the plywood with a standard 1/4-20 tripod bolt. I haven't done it yet, but I intend to put a 1/4-20 nut into the plywood itself so that I can mount the whole unit on a tripod. My exposures tend to be on the order of 1 second, so it's hard to get a shot that isn't at least a bit blurry.

It's hard to see, but there's the faint outline from the spectrometer's calibration tape on the camera screen. When taking photos, be sure it's reasonably dark in the room, other than the light under measurement. Also, be sure that the flash on the camera is disabled.

Here are a few photos that I've shot of spectrums. The numbers aren't necessarily exact (it's been a while since I've calibrated it) but they're close.

This is from the Coralife PC Actinic bubs. You can see lots of output in the bluer spectrum.

This is the output from a 10k Coralife PC bulb. It has a much broader spectrum to it - more like a full-range sunlight spectrum. There are at least four definite peaks in the red, green, and blue parts of the spectrum which correlate with a plants absorption ranges.

This photo is from a 50/50 10k and Actinic bulb in a T5 fixture. You can see very specific outputs in the red, green, and blue ranges.

This output is from a florescent bulb in a cheap shop light fixture. Again, it has a very broad output, but much of the output is wasted in ranges other than what plants need.

A second piece of equipment necessary for comparing light output is a light or LUX meter. I chose a Mustech 5 in 1 digital multimeter which can be found on The purpose of this device is for comparing light output, in Lumen.

I haven't done as much tinkering with this as the spectrometer. I can say that my wife's old Coralife fixture with three 54W bulbs was outputting about 550 Lux at 1 meter. Those bulbs had been in there for about a year, and consisted of one daylight bulb, and two actinic bulbs. (The fourth four-pin socket caught fire).

The new replacement hood consisted of two T5 high output 50/50 bulbs, with reflectors. It took a couple of minutes after turning on for the value to stabilize, but eventually settled in at just over 3000 Lux at 1 meter. The lights have been in production for about two weeks now, so I'll try to take a second reading after one month to compare their change.

This pretty well wraps up my lighting experiments so far. The end goal is to find the most economical way light the aquarium, while keeping the fish and corals (and therefor the wife) happy. It's of my opinion that LED's will eventually take over in the market, but they just aren't quite there in terms of cost and beam-width.

With enough data collected and shared in this fashion from a number of different technologies and manufacturers, the aquarium community should be able to make much more intelligent decisions in their lighting choices.