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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

PC Recovering...

So... the reformatting to RAID 0 worked and WinXT installed. So I deleted the RAID 0 configuration in BIOS, set it back to RAID 1, and re-installed windows, using a full format.

Looks good. Everything works, and the annoying beep I was getting from the case speaker has stopped. Have managed to get Zone Alarm, AVG, and Spyware Blaster running with no problems.

The big ordeal (for me) will be getting Steam up and running. I'll be keeping my fingers (and toes) crossed!

First home-built PC

I've been using PCs for a long time... the first one was a Tandy 1000 with an 8088 chip running at 4Mhz. My first upgrade was installing 256K of system memory and a gigantic 20 MB hard drive - which just shows how old I am :)

The machine I just built has the following components, and I've yet to get it working reliably - as I'll explain shortly.

Intel Pentium D 820 at 2.8 Ghz
GA-965P-S3 Gigabyte motherboard
2x1048 800 MHz memory
Two Western Digital 160 MB hard drives
Lite-On 48x (16x) DVD-R
GeForce 7900 PCI-e video card
1.44 Mb floppy - A little retro, but it turns out that I needed it!!!

I set up the hard drives to be RAID 1 (mirror image drives), which the motherboard supports. This was not too easy to accomplish - especially since it was my first shot putting a PC together. I had to change the BIOS (something I'd never done), make a floppy boot disc with CD drivers and RAID drivers (something I'd never done), and tell windows to set up the drives as RAID drives (something else I'd never done). It took a long time to figure all this stuff out, and the order in which it has to be done, since there's no step-by-step instruction that incorporates drivers, BIOS and Windows.

Anyhow, I got it all running to where on start-up it said (note the past tense) that it was confgured RAID1 and Windows ran fine.

However... *sigh* It didn't last long. I tied it onto the internet and Windows XP downloaded somthing like 64 updates. I clicked to install them, and the message said it was OK to continue working while Windows updated itself.

So I went about loading freeware firewall, virus, MP3 player, and Steam. That's about the time the PC locked up. Rebooting gave an error message saying that the PC couldn't locate any storage devices. Joy.

So I tried booting from the CD. Got a blue screen of death saying that system_registry was corrupted. Joy again. Couldn't even format the drives.

So I had to go into BIOS and delete the RAID configuration, and set it up as RAID 0 (striped) which *forced* windows to format the new Hard Drive configuration. And I'm in the process of re-loading windows as I type this. If it runs, I'll probably re-format it for RAID 1.

But to be honest, I'd had higher expectations of reliability from a RAID 1 setup Still learning...

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Some cool movies I've watched recently

Mostly Black Comedies. In no particular order:

Four Rooms - an absolute howler. Quentin Tarantino wrote portions and stars in it.
Pulp Fiction - nothing I can say about it that hasn't been said already
Trainspotting - different... very different. And it's wierd seeing Ewan MacGregor (The young Obi-Wan Jedi) playing the role of a debased heroin addict.
Fight Club - Awesome!!! Totally cool. I like the single frame subliminal stuff they stuck in there. Highly under-rated.
The Machinist - Awesome again.
Memento - Didn't care for it much. Very difficult to follow.
The Game - Another outstanding flick. Screws with your mind delightfully.
Grosse Point Blank - Funny, but too sappy.
Fargo - Too funny.
High Fidelity - I like John Cusack, but it just wasn't funny enough.
Reservoir Dogs - Grim, but cool.
Snatch - Awesomely funny. Guy Ritchie kicked butt on this film.
Lock stock and two smoking barrels - Funny, but not as good as snatch. Same director.
Very Bad Things - I loved this one! (and felt guilty for enjoying a grisly movie so much)
Panic Room - A bit predictable. I liked Dwight Yoakam as a villain though.
Bad Santa - ... a tough one to laugh at, but it has its moments :)
Pushing tin - same as above.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Peak Oil - is it real?

I don't pretend to know - but I'm curious enough to consider the possibility and make up my own mind based on the information available.

Economists are funny people. A lot of them seem to believe that the textbook theory of supply and demand translates perfectly into the real world. The reason I mention this is that there seems to be a belief that when crude oil becomes scarce enough, more drilling will occur, increasing the supply - and there's nothing wrong with that, in theory.

The problem is that in practice we are dealing with a finite resource. Ask an economist about the market for dodo bird feathers is doing, and he'll give you a blank look. Adam Smith didn't live in a world of limited resources - he lived in a world of immature industrialization.

With that in mind I found some fascinating charts regarding North Sea oil production at The Oil Drum. This is very thought-provoking stuff! There is a clear double production peak and decline in spite of frenzied exploration and development effort.

The original posting can be found here. I would have re-posted the charts, but the pix wouldn't show up on blogger for some reason :-(

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Current reading redux

Twilight in the Desert - A book about 'peak oil' in the major Saudi Arabian fields. (I am just starting it tonight)


It's my understanding that all oil fields go through a bell-shaped curve of production. Beyond the peak, production falls off, regardless of how much effort and money are spent. The oil doesn't ever really "run out", it just becomes less plentiful. There are still stripper wells in Pennsylvania, even though it's not the producer it once was...

New techniques and technologies are constantly improving the recoverable oil, but this only delays the inevitable. Furthermore no major fields have been discovered in 50 yrs, and the North Atlantic field developed just 10-15 yrs ago is already in serious decline.

The authors point out that oilfield data from the Saudi government is a state secret. Then they mention that the Saudi oilfields that provide 25% of the worlds supplies are over 50 yrs old, and very mature at this point. The question they ask and attempt to answer, is whether those ageing oil fields are peaking or possibly in decline at this point. That's what's in the forward, which I read last night.

The answer will have grave consequences for our energy-dependent civilization, particularly with regard to personal transportation. Cheap gas may not last much longer. I'll blog more about it as I learn and digest the contents. It certainly sounds plausible...

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Current reading

Adventures of a Physicist - Luis Alvarez.

Luis Alvarez is a personal hero of mine, and to be frank, I don't admire very many people, and not very much. What I admire about him is his boundless sense of curiousity and his incredible ingenenuity at finding ways to satisfy that curiousity.

Luis Alvarez experimentally confirmed the positive charge nature of cosmic rays (highly accelerated nuclei), electron K-capture decay, and meson-catalyzed fusion. He also invented phased-array radar and the first aircraft ground-control landing system. He performed important work in the Manhattan Project, mainly involving the complex triggering mechanism for the plutonium device.

Wandering outside the realm of physics, In conjunction with his son Walter, Luis Alvarez has seemingly solved the mystery of the dinosaur die-off. Their theory of a cosmic impact being responsible for the K/T extinction is widely accepted today.

A great man with a truly great mind.

Blogger Template Beta

Trying a new look for the blog! I'm going with an orange earth-tone look for now.

An excellent idea, as the content often sucks and the posting frequency is spotty. Hey - it's my blog and I can insult myself if it suits me ;)

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Twilight Zone Stock Market

I haven't posted anything on the economy lately. I guess that's because there are so many others who are more eloquent and educated than I am. They also have a better finger on the pulse of the markets and news. I'm a dillettante in investing and economics, while these other guys have day jobs doing this. That's why I don't have very much original to say about the subject.

The links to the right are the ones I trust to be least conflicted about reporting what's really happening in the economy - as opposed to watching CNBC.

Anyhow, I was lying half-asleep the other morning and an odd thought crept into my head about the market and its unusual bouyancy (Dow making new highs) in the face of some very difficult macro conditions (housing meltdown, auto manufacturers collapsing, etc). I say 'odd' because the stock market is not usually something one would expect to be swirling in my cortex at 3:30 AM

Interestingly enough, the bond market and copper futures are unmistakably forecasting a hard landing. Copper being such an excellent leading indicator of economic health that it's known as "Dr. Copper"

Of course CNBC is ignoring the grown-up investors: copper and bonds. Rather than keeping the public informed, they're doing the rah-rah cheer for speculative fools and the general public - which are probably one and the same :)

Anyway, on to my groggy waking-moment theory: What I thought might be helping to keep the market bouyed up is share buybacks. There has been record-breaking share buyback activity taking place by companies with cash on hand - as opposed to using the cash for acquisitions or investment in new equipment (capital expenditures, or "capex"). Not exactly an original idea - here's the original idea:

The reason behind the unusual level of share buybacks as opposed to paying dividends or capex spending: Sarbanes-Oxley. Among the provisions of "Sarbox", as it's called is this (from Wiki): "Significantly longer maximum jail sentences and larger fines for corporate executives who knowingly and willfully misstate financial statements, although maximum sentences are largely irrelevant because judges generally follow the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in setting actual sentences"

My basic waking thought process being that these guys can no longer cook the books in association with Arthur Andersen. The only way they can make the earnings per share look good in this challenging macro environment is to have fewer shares floating around the market. So they buy them (at these high frigging market prices) with their shareholder's (my!) cash.

Then they get great big stock options that they can exercise today, bonuses today, and pay raises today. Meanwhile the company that I've invested in is cash-short as we begin the painful slide into a recession. Anyway, that's my hypothesis, and not being an insider (or even very competent at reading shareholder reports), I have no way of proving it or disproving it.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The ride that was

Here's a shot of me on yesterday's ride - which lasted a little longer than the previous one! Thanks for the pic, Dave :)

The ride that wasn't

Wednesday morning a few of us planned to go for a group ride. I had to be back by 1:00 P.M. to spend some time with my little gal - and so it seemed safe enough, time-wise, to meet the boys for breakfast at 8:00 AM.

By the time everyone showed up for breakfast and ate, it was about 9:30. Then I had to go pick up my bike, and realized I'd left the key for it at home. So that delayed us another half hour. Ugh!

One of us (Daniel) had to drop his kids off at pre-school, so he was left behind (which turned out to be a good thing). The remaining three of us set out to visit a guy who is just starting a motorbike repair/race shop. He's a M/C race instructor at the Buttonwillow track, and also rents one-piece racing leathers. He's also community oriented - trying to get a group of sport-bikers to go with him on the upcomong all-Harley toys for tots ride. If I'm off work, I'm going!

Anyway, we pissed away another 30-45 minutes at his shop. Then I decided to get some fuel... and then we decided to go a different route as we were running short of time. Here's where it got weird:

As we were leaving town for the foothills, we passed a guy on a red bike on the side of the road. I thought he was waving 'hi', and waved back, and kept going. At the next stop, Victor asked if I'd seen the guy trying to wave us down. I said "No, I thought he was just waving. We'd better go back and see if he needs help."

We turned around, and by then he was on the road, going the other direction. Soon enough we caught him and signaled him to pull over. He pulled over and could barely stand up. He took off his helmet and said he'd been in a wreck and had been knocked unconscious. He was favoring his left arm and it looked like his shoulder was broken.

He couldn't remember where he'd crashed, where he was coming from, or where he was going... and he'd just been riding his bike back into heavy traffic! We called Daniel to bring his truck and a ramp. By the time Daniel showed up the guy was coherent enough to provide the phone numbers of some contacts. He got hold of both his kids and his employer. He refused an ambulance, so we loaded his bike and took him home.

And by that time the opportunity for a ride that day had been pretty much lost... but in many ways it seems like destiny that all our delays getting on the road led us to him when we were most needed.

Update: I called the guy who crashed and learned that while he has a torn rotator cuff and can't lift his arm, that nothing is broken. I hope things work out OK for him. Maybe when he heals, we'll do a group ride with him.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Radio Control Geeks

On my way to work yesterday I found myself arriving a bit early. I got a call from my carpool partner after I'd left the house. He said he was at his kid's soccer match, was running behind, and not to bother picking him up. Already en route, I decided to drive directly to work without the detour.

As I got near the aqueduct I spotted a plume of smoke rising into the sky. I'd seen these Radio Controlled (R/C) aircraft flying here before, and since I had extra time, I decided to take a half mile side-trip and see what it was all about.

I drove down a very rough road until I got to the gate that led into a small air strip. There were several RVs, trucks, and small pavillions set up, with a 'main thoroughfare' going through the center of it all. There were perhaps 20-25 people there, with fascinating aircraft.

The model jets were pretty cool. I saw models of the F-4, F/A-18, and the F-117 stealth fighter. I have no idea how the guy got that F-117 to fly - supposedly the real thing is inherently unstable and requires several computers to constantly reposition its control surfaces to keep it stable.

Anyway, I was very startled to see that these aircraft are now powered by small turbojet engines! Being a power plant guy, that of course was where my attention focused. The engines are about the size of a "Big Gulp" cup.

Unfortunately it was twilight by the time I arrived and the jet fighter guys were done flying for the day. I noticed that each of these modelers had a leaf blower to get the engine spinning up to firing speed, and also a 10lb CO2 fire extinguisher, for reasons best left to the imagination.

Socially these guys were friggin weird. I tried to initiate a couple of friendly conversations, but there was *no* interest whatsoever. You'd think these guys might possibly be keen to show off their very expensive and intricate toys, but they treated me like I was the IRS - or maybe a leper.

I mentioned to one guy that things had come a long way since I'd been to a model airfield, and that back then 'ducted fans' powered by piston engines were the only option other than propellors. He turned to his friend as though I'd not even spoken and said "You know, I have an old model D8V ducted fan in my garage. I think I might rebuild it and put it in my Falcon". Then they started a big conversation about it, ignoring me completely. It just seemed a bit odd...

Next I wandered over to a guy who was setting up a propellor driven plane with a small real-time camera on it. I mentioned to him as well that aircraft power plants had come a long way, what with the gas turbines. I mentioned that I worked at a gas turbine power plant nearby, and pointed to the plume from the cooling tower. No interest: He quickly cut me off with "I have a brother in law that works at one of those."

He was setting up an LCD monitor on the passenger seat of his truck, and an antenna on the roof to get the signal from his on-board camera. I was very impressed and told him how cool I thought this was. Two more R/C owners then came over and quickly got between us, and started asking questions about the output of his video transmitter and how many amp-hours his battery was good for (Ha - as though I am ignorant of such things!), basically being rude and exclusive.

The view on the monitor was fascinating however. Now I know how birds feel - wow. You could see the entire valley, the airstrip, the aqueduct, and the group of campers - all in a single view.

He did a flyover and one of the guys started waving while watching the monior. Everyone commented on how bright and clear the picture was considering how poor the abmient light was. I was impressed as well.

And by that point it was time for me to be back on my way to work. So I congenially said "goodbye" to the group clustered around the monitor, and headed for my truck. Nobody bothered to respond. The obsessive/compulsive model builders that I knew in grade school are all grown up!


OK, it's time to displace that post about the worn out tire :)

I've been working too much and not getting enough days off. Meanwhile I've been taking care of some tasks that are required to be completed before year's end. They are alas turning out to be a bit more involved than I'd realized. No matter, I'll get them done.

We managed to have a couple of nasty upsets yesterday. Once in the morning before getting off work, and another shortly after we'd arrived for the following night shift.

The first event was a bit weird. The first inkling we had that something was amiss was a light rumbling noise, which got louder and louder, until it was shaking the windows of the control room. I got up and poked my head out the door to see if it was coming from the facility next door (natural gas flaring off, or something), but it was coming from our plant.

We quickly scanned through the screens and learned that the high pressure steam vent valve had come open 100%. We also found that it could not be placed in manual and shut from the control room. I grabbed my jacket and earplugs and headed for the top of the boiler (about 7 stories up).

Approaching a 1200 psi steam line roaring to atmosphere is difficult to describe. Not many people would care to get near such a release of energy. Every cell in your body vibrates from the noise. The shattering chest-rattling thunder of Niagara falls, concentrated down to a raging hot valve you have to shut off. So I did. This wasn't the first time I've had to do this - just the first time recently and the first time I've actually written of it.

I figured that we'd lost quite a bit of level out of the boiler, with the vent open so long, and sure enough, we had. As I made my way down off the boiler I heard the feedwater pumps starting and stopping... mind you these are big pumps, and you don't get many starts before the motor protection relays decide the windings are hot enough and prevent further starts.

So I got back to the control room and sure enough, the boiler was low on level and they were trying to keep a feedwater pump going. Problem is when you really need the water and open up the feedwater valves, the pumps lose suction pressure and trip off on NPSH. So they'd had a few issues trying to fill the boiler too quickly while I was on the boiler. We cut a little load off each turbine (to cut down on steam production) and slowly started building levels again. Eventually everything got back to normal and we were cruising with everything back in automatic again.

The cause of all this fuss? One steam pressure transmitter with an output signal that suddenly started spiking to a couple of thousand psi, telling the control system to vent the pressure off. I think we need some redundancy here...

This shift's moment of truth: Loss of fuel gas.

We'd been here perhaps two hours when suddenly the alarm for low fuel gas pressure came in. I pulled up a real-time trend, and pressure was plunging off the cliff. Both gas turbines went into a runback - this reduces the rate of pressure loss and also reduces the odds of a flame-out at full load, which is an ugly thermal stress on the machine. The issue of thermal stress cannot be overstated - many of the metal parts in the combustion path are ceramic-coated, and rapid cooling of the metal causes cracking and loss of the ceramic coating that protects the metal parts from hot corrosive exhaust gas.

I called the foreman's office for our gas supplier and told him we were losing fuel pressure. Then I looked out the door to see what was up with them. All their flares were blazing - although it was night you could read a book like the sun was up - fierce shadows are cast by the bright yellow fireballs on top of the flare stacks.

Meanwhile both gas turbines had runback completely and their generators had come off the grid. The turbines stayed lit however and hung on at 3600 rpm. The steam turbine began losing load as the boiler pressure decayed. With the gas turbines offline, there was not much exhaust gas to generate steam. Gas pressure stabilized, and then started to recover. Within a couple of minutes, fuel pressure was back to normal. We quickly synched the generators and loaded the gas turbines up. Had to wait a couple more minutes to get the fuel gas temperature back up, then up to full load and into emission compliance.

The steam turbine, being quite a laggard, didn't start recovering until both gas turbines were at full load for a few minutes. I was very happy we didn't lose either gas turbine, because when they flame out, you are stuck with a 15 minute boiler purge (for each one!) to eliminate any combustibles. And we would have lost the steam turbine too. Talk about a slow recovery time. At least this way it was over with in 15 minutes.