Saturday, December 23, 2017

Last Winter's Project this Winter Instead

So here's the deal. My project for last winter was going to be a new gaming machine for myself. My old computer was on its last legs and was a pre-built. Upgrading it wasn't much use and I had an old but venerable Antec 900 case and Rosewill 850 W power supply in the basement. A pair of old 500 Gb hard drives logically linked together make a fine backup solution.

Part of this upgrade was a new monitor with frequency synchronization (to minimize tearing during horizontal sweeps). That meant with Nvidia's G-Sync or AMD's FreeSync.

The former requires proprietary hardware in the monitor. That drives up the price of those monitors (by a couple hundred dollars) and reduces the number and variety of available monitors. So, while Nvidia refused to support the more open standard (which only requires software) and stuck with their proprietary solution, I became more interested in an AMD system.

Last winter, however, AMD didn't make a graphics card that could perform at the level of an Nvidia 1070 or better. So I waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, this past summer AMD released the Vega series of cards that did compare with Nvidia's offerings, albeit with a greater power thirst.

These new cards, however, were quickly snapped up by cryptocurrency miners - instantly driving their prices up hundreds of dollars over their MSRP. I waited some more.

This past fall, Nvidia announced the 1080Ti card and, for several hours after, the price for the Vega cards fell to their intended cost! I snagged a Vega 56 for $399. A couple hours after I did, they shot back up to $600.

AMD also released their new CPUs this past summer. Again, competing successfully with Intel. I went for the sweet spot below the cutting edge and picked up a Ryzen 1700.

I also disassembled my Antec case, cleaned it up, and replaced all the stock fans with LED ones. I also went with an RGB-lit motherboard, CPU cooler (Wraith cooler that came with the CPU), side fan, keyboard, and mouse. Paired that with a 34-inch ultrawide monitor (Freesync) and the end result doesn't look half bad.

So I don't really have a project, yet, for this winter but I finally finished last year's project.

CPUAMD Ryzen 7 1700
RAMG.SKILL Flare X Series 16GB DDR4 3200
DriveSamsung 850 EVO 1TB 2.5-Inch SATA III SSD
GPUAMD Vega 56
MonitorLG 34UC79G-B 34-Inch 21:9 Curved
KeyboardLogitech G910 Orion Spark
MouseLogitech G703 Wireless

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Summer Trips

This year we took two trips, about a week each.

Our first trip was our summer vacation. This year, we went to Arizona to see Sedona and the Grand Canyon from its south rim. Our first stop after landing and getting lunch at Mika's Greek was the Desert Botanical Garden. It was hot and dry out, but it was beautiful. The next day, before heading to Sedona, we visited the Musical Instrument Museum. That was very interesting and we could have easily spent more time there, but we needed to grab lunch and head north to Sedona.

The view from our room's terrace was gorgeous. The next morning we took a Jeep tour up into the rocks and bummed around the town in the afternoon.

On our way further north to the Grand Canyon, we followed Oak Creek to Flagstaff before joining the highway.

The Grand Canyon was also quite beautiful. I found a nice parking spot, so we didn't dare move our car while we were there. Shuttle busses took us back to the Visitor Center, the scenic overlooks, and other destinations nearby. We enjoyed an astronomy night where one could see millions of stars and the Milky Way with the unaided eye. Using telescopes, we looked at both Jupiter and Saturn (and several of their nearby moons). Sarah saw her first shooting star that evening.

There was also some wildlife to be seen. Hummingbirds to condors. Foxes, coyotes, and elk. Even a small field mouse that joined Hope and I on a moonlit porch swing.

After the drive back to Phoenix, we spent a final day at a resort getting a sunburn and relaxing before our flight home.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Second Blood

Why is it my job to dispose of dead things found in the yard?

There's always some level of confusion on my part when these things happen.

Sarah found a snake in the yard.
Neat. She saw a snake!
Not saw. Found. It's dead.
You know it's dead?
Yes. Because, well, it's half a snake, really. And it doesn't have a head anymore.

So it fell to me to dig a little hole someplace discreet, then bury the snake remains. There were two parts, really, and no head. I assume that it was Mika's play thing until it fell apart.

In addition to snapping up house flies, ridding our property of wayward squirrels, and scaring off amorous geese our dog can add to her job jar the task of keeping the yard snake-free.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Chips 'n' Dogs

My daughter and I enjoy cooking together every week or so. This week, she wanted to make barbecue chips and corn dogs at home, because these are not foods one typically thinks of making at home. It was more like a challenge meal rather than something extraordinary.

Chips are straight-forward. Take a big potato, slice it paper thin using a mandolin, dry them thoroughly with paper towels, then deep fry them. The barbecue flavoring was a powder mixture of paprika, chili powder, cumin, onion powder, salt, garlic powder, brown sugar and black pepper.

The corn dogs were a bit more work, but they came out better (in my opinion) than the chips.

We employed an off-label use of Jiffy corn muffin mix.

1 pkg. "JIFFY" Corn Muffin Mix
2/3 cup flour
1 egg
1 cup milk
1 tsp. dry mustard
1/2 tsp. paprika
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 to 1-1/2 lbs hot dogs

I'm not sure the paprika and cayenne were necessary (especially when paired with the chips).

The resulting batter was very thick. We dried the hot dogs well, then dipped them into the batter using a wooden skewer. The batter went into a drinking glass to make dunking the dogs easier. I threaded the dogs deeply with the skewer so I wouldn't lose them in the batter.

Before moving them to the fryer, I used a fork to work the dogs almost off the skewer. Otherwise, they were too secure and would take a lot of force to remove - not something I wanted to risk over a pot of hot oil.

They fried up very quickly. The surface of the batter would look cooked in about thirty seconds, but I'd leave them in for another minute or so to make sure the batter was cooked all the way through and to heat the dog.

Certainly not the healthiest meal we could have made, but it worked out.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Cell Phone Repair

I like my cell phones naked, which means that their screens get cracked. I usually ignore this, thinking that it makes them less likely to get stolen. No one wants a broken-ass phone. In fact, my phone had been sufficiently cracked for some time.

But I dropped it again, not only sending large cracks across the screen but also breaking out chunks of glass near the corner it struck.

Lucky for me that I have a place down the street that does wonderful repairs. We've had phones repaired a number of times at WGA. However, I received a nice small-electronics repair kit for Christmas and was dying to try it out.

So I set up a repair station and got to work.

It's a second-generation Moto X.

The first order of business is to remove the back. You do this by removing the SIM card and, using the SIM removal tool, push the back off from inside. The back is merely held in place by an adhesive matrix.

I was surprised to find schmutz inside my phone. I understand that this is something that you often hold, but this was under the backing that was glued to the backplane. Huh. To remove this back plane, you pry off the rubber boots to the upper-left and lower-right, pop the connectors off under each of those, and remove the eighteen torx screws that clamp the backplane to the screen assembly.

Eighteen T3 torx screws. That lovely kit above only goes down to T4, which explains the little baggie of other tools, which include T3 and T2 torx drivers.

Once that is off, you're left with the motherboard which is snapped to the screen assembly.

Before you pry that off, there are digitizer and screen thin-film connectors to disconnect. That involved pulling up the small bits of Kapton tape, gently flipping up the connectors, then using tweezers pulling the connectors out.

At this point, the phone is as torn apart as it needs to get. The new screen assembly (screen, digitizer, and frame) simply replaces the old one and everything goes back together as it came apart. Great, in theory. In practice, I was putting the screws back in when I accidently turned it on. Good, I thought. I can make sure this works before I get it all put together.

Well, the screen worked but the digitizer didn't. Gah! I must not have reconnected it correctly. So I fixed it, but in the process messed up the screen connection. So I went back in and fixed that, then spent considerable time making sure that the digitizer was connected the right way.

Once I had those thin-film connections right, the phone went back together and worked.

Still one thing missing - the decorative ear and mouthpiece bars. Well, they're a bit more than decorative. They also let the phone rest on them rather than the screen when face down. I had pressed the old ones out of the broken screen assembly, but they are very, very tight.

I don't necessarily recommend doing this, but I put them back in with needle-nosed pliers. I put a plastic bag under my phone so the pliers wouldn't mar the back and I carefully squeezed them back into place.

And that's it.

This repair would normally cost about $200. For me, the screen assembly was $115. Add in the price of the tools and you're still a it shy of $150.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Autism on the Seas

Charles, Jon, Eddie, and Chris - our AotS staff for this cruise

We had known about Autism on the Seas for years. They are a travel agency that specializes in cruise vacations for special needs children. While we've considered them, we are also fiercely independent and like to do our own thing. We know our son and have successfully travelled with him many times. We even took a cruise with him.

On some past vacations, we've had help with him. Sometimes, the help was wonderful. Other times, it fell short. So we really didn't have high hopes for this cruise and were quite prepared to share in taking care of Stephen ourselves throughout the week. Those low expectations were blown away by the services and help that Autism on the Seas provided. We had plenty of respite, although it was more that Steve got a break from us rather than the other way around.

At first, this trip was a disaster! Stephen has something weird wrong with him. On three occasions now, during flights, he has gotten "stiff" for  a half-minute (like a tonic seizure of some type), followed by being extremely sleepy. He also poops during these episodes.

This time, it was worse. Not only did he fall into a deep sleep, but he was clammy, moaning, and had a copious amount of diarrhea. Worse, my clean-up materials were gate checked through to our final destination, so I had nothing to clean him up with during our short stop-over in Charlotte. The boy was covered from his navel to his ankles. Using damp paper towels and toilet paper, I did my best to clean him. My wife, bless her soul, was able to find a laundromat the next day that opened at six to wash our soiled clothes. What we figure is that he has some type of altitude sickness caused by flying because he was jumping for joy in the Cleveland airport prior to our flight and was back to what passes for normal by the time we got to our hotel in Fort Lauderdale. Still, the whole trip down we were thinking that we'd have to cancel this trip and invoke our trip insurance.

Not only was he fine a couple hours after we landed, he was fine all week. And, while he was sleepy on the plane ride back he didn't have any of the same symptoms (although both my wife and I were nervous as hell the whole time).

Beyond that everything - and I mean everything - was great.

Let me start with the end. In the Fort Lauderdale airport Max, another child with special needs that was on this trip, came up to Stephen and gave him a big hug goodbye. That was wonderful. Okay, now I'll go on. I just had to get that in there.

Monday, December 26 - Embarkation Day

The weather was outstanding. Via the AotS group, we had a seating section to ourselves and early boarding. We were met by Jon as soon as we got to the port terminal. He lead us past the entry line to a waiting agent to check us in and get us seated. That was - I feel like I'm going to overuse this phrase - great for us. Stephen does not like waiting in lines. He likes to go, go, go. When he gets cranky we all get cranky and we end up snipping at one another.

That made a wonderful first impression on us.

In that instant, Jon was my favorite person in the world. He helped. For a parent of a special needs child, it's hard to underestimate the power of "come with me."

Soon, we were on board and had our run of the ship. Royal Caribbean did a great job turning the staterooms around and we were able to get to our cabin a little after one o'clock. Another dumb thing about Steve. He pees the bed at home about half the time. So when we travel we bring disposable bed pads and dress him in Pull-Ups at night (and when travelling). He never pees the bed in hotels or on the ship. We have no idea why this is, but it held true on this trip as well. Even though he couldn't get down from his bunk without our help and thus didn't get out of bed at night.

At Sail Away, we had a small deck overlooking to pools to ourselves. That was great for us. Stephen wasn't in a dancing mood but he soaked up the attention. He loves the attention of others. With us, he's constantly being corrected as we strive to teach him proper etiquette (often in vain, but we try). Being able to be himself without disturbing others is something he loved. Although we felt that being on vacation was not a license to act a fool at all times - as soon as we saw him acting a bit big for his britches, we pulled him back a notch. We gave him as much run as we would at a Miracle League party.

At dinner, we had our own section of the dining room. Like I mentioned before, we kinda like to stay to ourselves and are quite capable to dining with our son. So our preference was for a table for four. That wasn't what we were assigned, but we were able to switch with another family so we could sit alone as a family unit. That may seem anti-social (and perhaps it is) but we liked that better. Stephen would reach for the AotS staff when they came by. I kinda wish we were completely separated at dinner time to avoid that. He did that because he loved the AotS staff.

A couple times at breakfast we purposely sat outside our reserved section so we could feel more "normal" and less segregated from the rest of the cruisers. Although having a private area where we didn't have to jockey for seating during breakfast and lunch was great.

Muster drill was a bit of a hash. We got a wristband for Stephen, but I didn't really know where our muster station was. The three of us later found our muster station so we'd know where to head in an emergency.

Tuesday, December 27 - Sea Day

The day started with a flowrider session with the staff. These private sessions were great, although Hope didn't get a chance to try the ride since it got shut down just as her turn was coming up. Oh well. That was followed by a couple hours of pool time with the staff. Again, that was great!

The afternoon respite allowed us to watch the ice show, which was very well done. Respite also allowed us to enjoy the evening dance show.

We really liked the respite at show times. Unfortunately, that means that the AotS staff doesn't get to enjoy the shows on board.

Wednesday, December 28 - Labadee, Haiti

This was our opportunity to enjoy a beach day with staff support. It was a bit of a tough start, since our intended beach was too rough for swimming. Once we relocated and set up further along, things went well. We enjoyed the sun and the sand and the beach barbeque. Sarah initially stayed onboard because she wanted some alone time and the sun was giving her a headache. I got her to join us when I pointed out that we had a quiet, shaded area near a beach.

Ice skating with the AotS staff was fun, too. Hope and I could barely stay upright, but Sarah did well. Stephen skated a little, too, with help. I don't ask that Stephen succeed at everything he tries - it's simply important that he gives it a go.

We again had respite to allow us to enjoy the evening show, as well as a Ladies Night Out with the staff. A few well-placed tips made the drinking a bit more affordable.

Thursday, December 29 - Falmouth, Jamaica

After breakfast the AotS staff got a break, which was good. They were really working hard for us. I don't care for trinket shopping, and we skipped the private family portrait session. We did enjoy the evening respite, even though we didn't have anything planned for that time slot. It allowed my wife and I to enjoy a couple drinks and some silly parlor games with the other passengers. A couple hours of regular cruise time.

Friday, December 30 - Sea Day

This was our last hurrah, and we made it count. A private rock wall session, reserved lunch at Johnny Rockets, a group party at the Labyrinth night club, and respite during the performance of Grease were all enjoyed by us. I enjoyed Dad's Night Out. At first it was well-attended, but as the night wore on and the other dads found better things to do, I enjoyed it more. Even though I had an early morning to look forward to, I stayed out past one o'clock with a couple dads, Chris, and Eddie.

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