Wednesday, February 11, 2009


I was sitting in my living room, and happened to see a bird that wasn't one i see every day out the window. I've not done much birding of late, but i picked up a handy pair of binoculars and looked. It's clearly a female Downy Woodpecker. And she went up and down the two crab apple trees in the median that divides my street. I went back upstairs and got the tripod. Then i went back up and got the camera. I took 187 pictures by holding the point and shoot camera to one eyepiece of the 10x50 binoculars, while sitting in my living room. So, i'm taking shots through the window glass. Usually, that's such a bad idea. Window glass is not what opticians call optic quality. There are all sorts of defects, which give you distortion. And you can get glare. And, the camera may attempt to focus on it. But the camera usually focused on branches if the shot was out of focus. Here's one of them.
You can tell that she's a female. The male has this unmistakable red spot on the back of his head. The view directly through the binoculars is much better than this picture. The detail is better. The color depth is better. The focus is way better. You're seeing the bird in this shot, dot for dot, cropped from the much bigger original image. All other shots are cropped and scaled smaller. This blog is only 400 pixels wide. You might think this shot was taken in the woods. But the background is in fact the neighbor's house. This is clear in the uncropped original shot. So you think you can't get wilderness shots here, but apparently, you can. She put on a great show, and i got this other shot.

This is at the top of the tree, with the gray sky behind her. She paused a bit, then flew to the other tree, where she then continued to put on a great show. Of course, that's my perspective. She was just looking for things to eat. She kept poking at the tree, though never seemed to do it any damage. It was an hour. She left after combing both trees. I hope she got something out of it. Maybe she'll come back. But she wasn't interested in the leftover fruit still hanging from the tree. The cardinals and squirrels eat it, and when there's snow on the ground, so do the robins. And there was a robin out too.

You can tell he's a male American Robin. His head is darker than the back and wings. The female would have the head the same shade as the back and wings. And he was digging in the dirt under this bush. He came out into the sunshine only a couple times. He'd hop up completely into the bush when someone would walk by, especially with a dog. Often the robins are wary but hang out in the middle of the lawn. The snow was melting, but the ground was probably still frozen. Robins around here migrate south if they can't find anything to eat. Many stay all year round.

I'm guessing that this is a female House Sparrow. I didn't snap this shot of her, per se. She appeared in this shot with the robin. I didn't see her through the binoculars with my eyeballs at all. Examination of all these shots reveals a bird nest i'd never noticed as well. European House Sparrows are not sparrows at all. Genetically, they're finches. They have that short finch like beak. But it's too late to rename it a House Finch. We already have a bird called a House Finch. House Sparrows are incredibly common around here. This one also seemed to be uncharacteristically shy. Didn't care one way or the other about the robin. Just unusually skittish. She didn't stay long.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sign this form

Instead of fax, a recruiter sent me a Word doc form to print, sign, scan and send. Easy. The way it should have been decades ago. I've been waiting a long time for this. Oh, sure, MS Word isn't an open standard, but OpenOffice reads it just fine.

But first, my printer's black ink sprays everywhere. The company logo was blue. It came out fine. So, blue works fine. So i set the font to blue, to get clean output. Printed it and signed it.

My scanner wasn't working. It's not new, i've had it for a decade or so. It's a UMAX Astra 1200S. I had to clear junk off of it, plug it in (the wall wart died years ago, so it gets very clean 12 volt DC power from the computer, so it's been on all this time. I needed to plug it into the SCSI interface), install a driver (well, user level scanning software), reboot, and tell my scripts where it is.

Then, after the scan, i converted it to black & white, increased the contrast to darken it, then converted it to jpeg for email. Piece of cake.

So, now i have a working scanner, right? Well, after i find a place for all that junk. I can't just throw it all out. Some of it is stuff i'm supposed to scan.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Valentine's day

The official joke for February is as follows:

Two antenna met on a roof top. (That's where they hang out.)

And they fell in love.

And they got married!

...Well, the wedding, frankly, wasn't very good.

But the reception was excellent!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


I changed the plugs and wires on this 1999 Subaru Forester. These are the tools i needed for this delicate job. Yes, that's a hammer next to the very long scissors on the right. The box in the middle had the new wires. The new wires are now on the car. The old wires are to the right of the box. The new spark plug boxes are red, and are to the upper right by the white phone. The bright orange handle belongs to my newest favorite tool. It's got a flexible shaft, and a very strong magnet at the end. My previous big job, changing the battery in my 2000 Saturn (pictured to the left), netted me some very expensive metric ratchets. One ratchet covers 8, 9, 10 and 12 mm bolts. And it came in handy for this job on the battery and the windshield washer reservoir. Very slick. I have an engineering degree. I would not have signed off on this design. These are spark plugs.

This is the passenger side of the engine. The thing with the robot arm is a spark plug wire. There are two on each side. So the other one on this side is behind, and difficult to spot. And they come directly out of the side of the engine. In fact, this 4 cylinder engine has the cylinders horizontal, facing away from each other. I'd call it a "flat four". It sounds good, but nobody seems to know if it's a real name or not.

It's hard to see in the picture, but the robot arm ends in this big black knob. If you pull on the knob, this long tube thing comes out of the engine. It's flexible and comes right out. It's maybe 6 or 7 inches long. No plug. Where's the spark plug? There's no room to put anything else into the hole.

That thing to the left marked "Subaru" is the air filter. To get at the plugs on this side, you have to remove the air filter. No problem. Two clips and it's off. Well, the cover is off. You remove the filter, which is brand new. Then you can see the two bolts that hold it down. I used a socket wrench and the 3/8" socket. Why it has an English bolt is pretty much beyond me. Most everything else is metric. Pop these two bolts out, and the whole air filter is out. Then you can get at the plugs, right?

So you put your 3/8" spark plug socket into the hole... where it disappears forever. You can't get your finger into the hole to get it out. So you run to the internet for instructions. You discover that you need some long needle nose pliers with a bend, you need a strong magnet on a stick, you need a 3" socket extender (have one), you need a 1 1/2" socket extender (never heard of one), you need a ratchet wrench that has a hinge by the head so it can flop around, and so on. The guys at the auto parts stores have never heard of a 1 1/2" socket extender. So you go to a dedicated tool store, and pick up a set of extenders, that happens to include one. It also has a 3". It turns out you need two 3" extenders and the 1 1/2" extender. The magnet on the flexible arm has the bright orange handle. Very cool. Dropped tools and bolts can be fished out without having to duck under the car, and without having to see where they fell. Even the heaviest of tools can be picked up off the driveway without bending over. The bright orange handle is hard to miss in the clutter of the engine. Amazing. I'll be using it again.

So, you fish out the socket. When it's most of the way into the hole, you add a 3" extender to it. You fish that most of the way into the hole and add the 1 1/2" extender. You fish that almost all the way into the hole and add your new flexible ratchet wrench. And you feel the socket latch onto something. You assume it's a spark plug, and unscrew it. It comes out. And you disassemble the train of extenders and stuff as you remove it. Use the nifty magnet to pull out a spark plug if you need to.

The driver's side plugs required that you first remove the battery and the windshield washer reservoir. The batter is two small corroded bolts on the hold down clamp, and each terminal had a bolt to remove. The plus (+) side has so much corrosion that you wonder why it still works. But there's a bolt a bit away that's easy to remove, and disconnects everything. And the windshiled washer reservoir comes off with two easy bolts. Don't have to disconnect the tubes and wires, just set it out of the way. Then the two spark plugs come out as before, only you use a second 3" extender instead of the 1 1/2". It has to do with how much room you have.

It may be hard to see, but there's a hammer, and a large pair of scissors. I used them both. The robot cover on the new spark plug wires was longer than the original, and needed to be cut. The hammer was needed for some chiseling near one of the battery terminals to see the nut that you don't need to remove. That's corrosion you're chiseling.

The car has 173,000 miles, and belongs to my wife. The plugs were not corroded. They were not fouled with oil. They were not covered in carbon. They were just worn down. Instead of a 0.045 gap, they had twice that. The center stub was nearly gone. Every evidence is that they'd never been changed before. The car was running rough, especially at highway speed, and now purrs like a kitten. Well, a kitten that can cruise at 70 MPH down the highway for hours.

My wife's mechanic quoted $383. $93 of that was plugs and wires. The plugs and wires i bought totaled $41. I also bought $10 of transmission fluid. So, we saved about $330. Or we would have, except that the plugs were very difficult to get to, and i end up buying $50 in tools. Now the mechanic's quote also included a fuel filter and a pcv valve, and of course, labor for all of the above. The car didn't turn out to need a fuel filter or pcv, so those expenses were not required.

It was roughly five hours of labor, including trips to stores, internet searches and such. It was 22 degrees out when i started, and 30 degrees when i finished. The weather was clear, except that as i finished, it started snowing. Was it worth it? I think it was. And not just for the sense of accomplishment. And not just for the savings. The savings were around $300. And for five hours of work, that's $60 per hour - tax free. But one of the things you don't get when you have the mechanic work on it is what the diagnosis was. It might have been the PCV or the fuel filter, and you'll never know. All you know is all this stuff got replaced, and it works now. You've no idea which part, if any, did it. It was, in fact, the 2nd spark plug. That's the one for cylinder number 3. And the plugs themselves don't show this. They're all very similar. So you'd want to replace them all at the same time, because this job would just come up for each of the others in turn real soon. And you replace the wires because you already bought them, and it was such a pain to get at them, you might as well do it. And, these wires have an active component. Right down there where they connect to the spark plug is a coil. That's right, a coil right on the spark plug wire. Never heard of such a thing. I'd be fascinated to learn what problem it solves.