Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Crittercam

Living around abundant wildlife as we do, we decided to invest in a trail camera.  These are automatic cameras that take pictures (or video) when triggered by a motion detector.  They were originally used by hunters to see what kind of game was using a trail, say, and a what time.   We're no hunters, but the device is lots of fun anyway.

The unit we chose (among many choices) was the Primos Truthcam (tm) 35:

It takes color pictures or video in daylight whenever it senses motion in front of it.  At night, it takes infrared pictures or video, illuminated by the infrared LED array at the top.  Since the "flash" from it is infrared, most animals can't see it.

The camera runs on 4 "D" cell batteries and stores images on an SD memory card.  You can't view pictures on the camera itself - you must remove the memory card and look at the contents on a computer.  Switches select video or still mode, single or multi-shot bursts and video clip length for each triggering.

The first pictures all showed me, fiddling with the camera:

The impetus to get Crittercam came from certain subtle indications that there might be beaver activity on our land:

This is a branch from an oak (read: very hard wood) tree.  Nearly 8" in diameter, it was chewed off completely, then nearly chomped through again a few inches away  The beaver also gnawed off all the bark on the branch.

Once we got Crittercam, we "baited" the area with another branch cut from a different tree and set up for photos:

Looking back at the camera from the "bait" area shows the tasty elder we set out:

Crittercam time stamps all recordings with the date, time and temperature.   Next time:  What the Crittercam saw.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Unitarian-Universalist Take on Holiday Lighting

The "Flaming Chalice" is the symbol of Unitarian-Universalism.   Like almost everything else, it means different things to different people.  Originally developed by Austrian artist Hans Deutsch, it has evolved many times since then.  More about it here.  

Not being an evangelizing faith, and given the questionable environmental status of holiday lighting, many UU families don't do outdoor lights, period.  December also brings tension between those who came to Unitarian-Universalism from Christianity, Judaism and other faiths, given the overwhelming association of outdoor light displays with Christmas.

Nevertheless, I've always like holiday lighting, and wanted to do some for our new home in Rogue River, Oregon.  I decided to make a large (about seven feet tall) flaming chalice to display outside our home and to proclaim our UU faith.

As an engineer, I quickly realized that the design had elements of regular, linear composition and of the chaotic shape of a flame.  I decided to lay out the display using FastCAD, a computer-aided design program I've used for years.  The idea would be to design the display on the computer screen, then to scale it up to the full outdoor size.

The straightforward way to do this is to lay out a grid of lines, then create the lines in full size on the framework.  The initial CAD drawing was:

The drawing used a grid of squares (shown here as one foot, but later changed to six inch), so the design could be easily scaled up to full size during construction.

I planned to use six 50-light strings of outdoor LED holiday lights.  The flame, naturally, would be made from red, orange, yellow and white (shown as black in the drawings) lights, while the chalice would be blue and the base purple.  Later, I swapped the base and chalice colors to keep the blue lights away from the slightly-bluish white lights of the flame.

The display would be supported by chicken wire, which would support the lights.  In turn, the wire would be supported  by a wooden frame made of "two-by-two" lumber.

A tremendous advantage of CAD software is the ability to "try out" design elements and see how they relate without having to actually build the project.  In this display, I decided to center the chalice and base horizontally, and chose to make the top of the chalice the full width of the display (three feet) along a horizontal line 3.75 feet (3 feet, 9 inches) from the top.

It took a while to get the arc that forms the bowl of the chalice right.  As it is, critics say it's more like a Martini glass than a chalice, and perhaps so.  The base was later extensively revised, too, because the version in the CAD drawing seemed too spindly.

Wife Deborah pointed out that my original design used a symmetrical flame, and that a windblown, asymmetrical one would be better. It was certainly true, though it made the layout much more complicated.  In the original design, I laid out each of the colors of the flame symmetrically around a vertical axis.  Now, the layout had to be symmetrical along a constantly-changing axis.

I laid out what I wanted to use for the central axis of the flame on the drawing (shown as purple line running through the center of the flame), then used a built-in CAD function to draw lines perpendicular to the axis over its length.

Using single-color strings meant that each light could be no more than four inches from the next in the string.  Also, the red outside of the flame is a longer path than, say, the inner yellow one, yet each must use 50 lights.  In the design process, I actually created 50 colored dots of each color to be sure things worked out.

With the design done and the lights ordered from 1000 Bulbs, I was ready to start building.  It didn't really matter if the wood framework was exactly straight and square or not, since the grid from the drawing would govern where bulbs were placed.

To make the grid, I laid out colored hemp strings every six inches horizontally and vertically, being careful that they were parallel and perpendicular.  Held in with large push pins, I later labeled each grid line with the numbers from the diagram.

If I had it to do again, I'd use smaller-mesh chicken wire.  The stuff I bought had hexagonal "cells" about 1"  by 2".  With, say 1" by 1" wire, I could have placed the lights more accurately.  The lights were attached using black nylon cable ties (what some people call "Zip Ties") from Mouser Electronics.  While you can buy these in local hardware stores, they're fiercely expensive compared to $0.007 price when you buy 1,000 of them.  I was fortunate to have a cable tie gun, which tensions and cuts off the tail end of the ties with a pull of the "trigger," though you could certainly do without one.

Then, it was just a matter of attaching all 300 lights.  After that was done, I removed the grid strings, since they were no longer needed.

Finally, I pained the wood frame black so it would not stand out at night.  On the first night we lit it up next to the road, Deborah and I wondered if the peasants would attack us with torches and rakes, but nothing happened.  "That's because," Deborah said, "People don't know what it is."

Perhaps not today.  But it's a start.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

"I'll take Jeopardy! practice signaling devices for 200, Alex"

Any Jeopardy! viewer knows that the signaling button is perhaps the most important and yet difficult part of playing the game.

When Alex finishes asking a question, an off-screen staffer presses a button to allow contestants to "ring-in" and be recognized to give their response.   If a contest rings in before the "end-of-question" switch, their signal is disregarded AND their button is locked out from signaling again for a while.  (I'm not sure exactly what the lockout period is, but it's probably between 0.5 and 2 seconds).  When a contestant is locked out, other contestants have a chance to ring in ahead of the one who jumped the gun.

One of the reasons long-time champ Ken Jennings stayed so long as a champion was his mastery of signaling.  It's a human who presses the "end-of-question" switch, so the best competitor will be the one who is most in-sync with rhythm the staffer uses to press the switch.

Contestant wranglers tell would-be contestants to practice ringing-in, even suggesting using the souvenir Jeopardy! pen they receive as a practice device.  But the pen is not as big as the button used on the show and, most importantly, does not provide feedback when the  button has been pressed.

Since Deborah is going to be on Jeopardy! in only a month, I embarked on a crash program of practice signaling device development.  Electrically, it's simple:  A transformer converts 117 volt power from the wall into 10 - 16 volt power needed to operate a doorbell.   One of the output terminals of the transformer goes to one of the terminals on the bell, the other through the contacts of a pushbutton and then to the other contact of the bell.

The most important part, the signaling controller, turned out to be the easiest:

I used a piece of 3/4" PVC plumbing pipe about 6" long and two 3/4" PVC plumbing pipe caps, for a total price of $2 or so.   The  button is a regular old-fashioned doorbell button that snaps into a 5/8" diameter mounting hole.  It has two screw terminals, onto which I attached a 4' or so long piece of red/black "Zip cord," the kind of wire used in small appliance power connections.

There were a number of doorbells at the hardware store and at the home center.  Some were wireless, with a small battery in the  button enclosure to power a tiny radio transmitter that signaled the bell when the button was pressed.   Others were "wired" types, using the transformer, bell and button system described above.

Wired or wireless, though, the electronic doorbells all proved inadequate.  The reason is that all of them use an electronic circuit.  When the button is pressed, the circuit changes the AC power from the transformer to DC power to operate the sound generator and amplifier that feeds a built-in speaker:

Here's one of the electronic doorbells.  The fatal flaw in them for me is that it takes a finite amount of time for the power conversion to DC, so the "bell" doesn't ring until 0.5 to 1 second after the button is pressed.  As a doorbell, you probably wouldn't care that the bell didn't sound until a second after you pressed the button, but on a game show that delay is intolerable.

In the old days, doorbells were simple.  They used a solenoid, a simple electro-mechanical device that changes electric power to physical motion.   It's really nothing more than a sliding piece of steel inside a coil of copper wire.  When power is on, the steel is pulled into the center of the coil by magnetism.  When the power goes off, a spring returns the it to the original position.

Many doorbells have two chimes, and are set up so that you can have the front door bell go "Ding-Dong" and the back one just "Ding." 

After the hardware store and the home center, I was driven to the place I should have gone first, an honest-to-goodness electrical supply store.   There I found a real solenoid-operated doorbell for $12:

The picture shows the transformer to the left and the doorbell to the right.  The chimes are rectangular pieces of steel.  There are two solenoids in the center.  When the "front doorbell is pressed, the top one (the one with the white plastic striker) pulls to the right and hits the "ding" chime.  When the button is released, the coil spring pulls the shaft back, where it hits the left "dong" chime.  Since I only wanted one chime, I used the lower solenoid.  The "ding" part operates the same as the upper one, but when the button is released and the spring forces the shaft back, it is caught by a (yellowish) foam cushion, so there's no sound made.

It works perfectly.  The button turns out to be an illuminated model,  making it easier to see in the dark.  Not needing an official enclosure, I just stuffed the transformer and  bell back in the box they came in, with the power and button cords running out under the lid:

So, when the answer is "It's the number of doorbells Andy had to buy before getting one that would work," the question is "What is three, Alex?"

Friday, November 1, 2013

Deborah on Jeopardy! The Back-Story

Deborah has earned a contestant spot on Jeopardy!  She'll be in one (or more!) of five episodes to be taped on December 4, 2013 and airing sometime in the week of March 24, 2014.  Here's how it came about:

Deborah has loved the Jeopardy! TV show since time out of mind.  As many of us have considered, but few have done, she actually tried out to  be a contestant on the program - four times.

Jeopardy!  uses a January on-line test to pre-qualify would-be contestants.  It's a wicked exam:  There are fifty questions in fifty categories, and you're given only 15 seconds to type the answer to each one.  Generously, though, the test does not require you to state the response as a question, as you must on the live show.

One never knows how one did on the test.  Either you get invited to a secondary tryout sometime in the next few months, or you don't.  The test that got Deborah was on the show was in January 2012.  Since contestants remain in the "contestant pool" for 18 months, one cannot qualify using next year's test if one is still in last year's pool.

Unusually, Deborah was invited to the secondary tryout on all four of her attempts.  These are regional, though one is always offered the possibility of trying out at Starbase Jeopardy! at Sony Pictures Studio in Culver City, California as well.  Deborah has always felt that one's chances are better, though, at one of the outlying sites rather than in L.A., where there are many locals competing.

The secondary auditions she attended were in San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles and Sacramento, with the last being the one which got her a coveted slot on the program.  It had  been almost 18 months since the Sacramento audition, and she was beginning to lose hope.

The auditions are usually scheduled at a large hotel.  There are usually several auditions over one or two days, but each entrant is assigned to only one.  On arrival, one is given a sourvenir Jeopardy! pen, which one uses to fill out a basic information sheet.  After checking in, the 25-50 auditioners go into the room and meet the contestant wranglers.  Either at sign-in or in the AV-equipped room, each contestant is photographed, and given the photograph to hold.  At her auditions, the wranglers actually used Polaroid film cameras, having apparently bought up all the remaining film stock.  

The wranglers welcome the auditioners, crack a few jokes, and explain some of the many legalities involved in the show.  They play a welcome message taped by Alex Trebek.  The wranglers pass out a sheet with fifty numbers, and you enter your name and the date.    Now the contestants take a second written test, this time with one of the "Clue Crew" members reading the clues on video.  It's the same format as the online test - fifteen seconds per question and responses need not be in question form.  At the end you hand in the test, the questionnaire and your photo.

The wranglers leave to grade the tests, while the auditioners take another similar exam.  During this time, the wranglers set up the matches for the mock game-play.  Auditioners are called up in threes, and are shown how to use the all-important Jeopardy! signalling button.  A video screen shows six categories, but only a few questions under each one.  The person assigned to the "Champion" spot, selects the first answer: "Alex, I'll take 'The Crimean War' for 600."  After that, it's regular play, including the infamous "lockout" function:  If you ring-in before the question is completed, your are locked for a second or two, so you don't want to press the button too soon!  If one auditioner is dominating the ring-ins, the wranglers will call on the others to be sure each gets at least few questions to answer.

Next comes the interview.   On the information sheet, auditioners had listed five "stories" they suggest for interviews.  The wrangler will ask, for instance, "So, tell me about your pet foxes."  You banter a bit, and are asked what you would do with the money if you won the game.  You're sent back to your seat, and the next group of three is called up until everyone has appeared.  Deborah has been in  both the first and last groups called, so the choice may be random, or perhaps they match people by their test scores.  It's one of the many mysteries of Jeopardy!.

At the end, the wranglers explain the "contestant pool."  Everyone who comes to a live audition is automatically in the contestant pool.  You remain in the pool for 18 months, though the show does not tape year-around.  

The rough numbers:  About 50,000 people take each on-line Jeopardy! test.  About 2,000 are invited to the auditions and put into the contestant pool.  About 400 people will eventually be on the show during that period.  So, the overall odds from beginning to end are roughly 0.8 percent of getting on the show.  As in the on-line test, you never learn what is a passing score or what you scored.

The other day, Deborah was working in the garden and, as usual, left her cell phone in the house. "When I came in, I saw that I had missed two calls.  One was from my daughter, the other from an unknown caller in area code 310 - Southern California.  The next morning, I'd been trying to figure out who had called, and finally decided to just call back and say 'Someone called me from this number yesterday.'   I dialed the number, and a friendly male voice answered: 'Jeopardy!'

My heart pounded.  'Robert' told me had called to invite me to be on a Jeopardy! episode that would tape on December 4, 2013.  The program tapes five episodes in one day.  If I were champion at the end of the "week" of episodes, the next taping would be two weeks away, on December 18th.

Robert asked me a long list of qualifying questions.  Most were routine.  Then he asked 'Do you know anyone who works for CBS Television, Sony Pictures Studio or their legal-compliance company.'  I explained that my husband had retired from CBS Radio in February and had worked in the same building as CBS Television's KPIX-TV.  Robert asked a few more questions, then said he would have to call me back about the conflict.

The quiz-show of the 1960's are forgotten by most people but still loom large over production of any game show.  The producers bend over  backwards to avoid even the slightest appearance of impropriety.  Happily, Robert called back to say that the powers-that-be had OK'd my appearance."

Robert explained the Sony has an agreement with a local hotel for housing contestants and provides transportation between there and the studio.  He promised to email me even MORE detailed paperwork for me to complete, ASAP.

We'll keep you posted on future doings.  In the meantime, Deborah is over the moon at the prospect of finally being on Jeopardy!  It's always been on her "bucket list."  Besides, the rules say that you can only be on Jeopardy! once - though some may be invited back.  That makes it, literally, as once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.