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August 15, 2010

eBay Dispute Avoided

Last year, I wound up in an eBay dispute with a seller who was eventually banned (read it here). This time I was looking for some heavy duty leads for my voltmeter (really a Digital Multimeter or DMM). The problem is I was getting bad readings of amps on my voltage meter while measuring the current draw of a flashlight. After comparing the result to a friend's DMM, I knew mine was off. His meter had thick leads and the wire said 18AWG on them. If I used his leads on my meter, I got more reasonable results. The leads on my other DMM (which doesn't measure current) say 26AWG and look similar to the ones on the DMM that measures amps. 18 gauge wire is 1.024mm thick while 26 gauge wire is only 0.405mm thick. But the area of the 18 gauge wire is 6 times greater. Therefore the resistance in the skinnier wire is 6 times more than in the thicker wire and that is what was messing up the readings.

So I went looking for leads. After doing some searching I found two sources: eBay and DealExtreme (the place I buy a lot of flashlights). Both sets looked identical, with gray probes described as 10 Amp leads.



I figured they were the same thing. However, I think both are just knock-offs of much more expensive leads by a company named Fluke.

Neither ad said what gauge wire was being used, which would have been a lot more helpful. But looking more closely at the ones at DX, I noticed a user-submitted photo of the leads which had enough resolution to show 18AWG! Perfect.


On eBay the leads were coming from Canada so if I could get them cheaply (it was a real auction) then I could have them faster without paying much more than the the leads at DX ($3.01), even including the $1.99 shipping for the eBay ones (DX ships free). So I put in a bid of $1.13, but I was beat and the leads went for $1.38. The seller had auctions for these leads every few days, but I didn't want to wait and sometimes the leads would go for more like $5-6 when people really bid each other up. The DX leads seemed like more of a sure thing and although they would take about 3 weeks to get here, I went ahead and placed an order. The listing at DX says the item ships in 4-7 business days, but after ordering they showed In Stock. However after a week, they were Waiting on Supplier. I gave them the 7 working days and then went back to eBay. I put in a bid again, this time for $1.23. This time I won, beating out someone who had bid $1, but eBay tried to add the 25 cent next bid increment except I had only bid $1.23, so I could have won the bid with $1.01. I paid immediately and then canceled my DX order. The seller gave me positive feedback, but they didn't ship the item for 4 days and it took about a week to get the leads. When I got them, there was no writing on the wires and, although they were thick, they seemed a little too flexible. I measured the current on my flashlight and got the same low reading as I did with the original leads. These must be 26 AWG also. I immediately placed a new order for the DX leads (they had just given me my money back a couple of days earlier) and hoped I would get the same 18AWG leads the earlier user had received (there's no guarantee with DX, they change suppliers and specifications without notice). I also left a negative review with the eBay seller saying his shipping was kind of slow and the item was not as described, unable to measure even 2 amps rather than 10 amps. I wasn't going to bother with a dispute over something that cost $3, primarily because I didn't want to have to pay to mail the item back to Canada. However the leads were useless and just to prove to myself that I was right, I cut away some of the insulation. I found that the leads were almost all insulation with a tiny core of copper wire. In fact later on I stripped off some more insulation, twisted the copper and measured it with my digital calipers and backfigured they were about 26 gauge.


This is where it gets interesting (well, really you have to admit the whole thing is fascinating). The next day I get a message from the seller saying that he was not aware of problems with the leads, but he cut some open anyway and found the wire was pretty thin. He said he also cut open some Fluke leads and they were a little thicker. He said he would give me my money back and send me a pair of his 20 amp leads (not available through auction, they sell for $7.99) which he said had about 10 times as much wire in them if I would take away my negative feedback. This is a guy with 99.9% positive feedback and I was impressed he was willing to do all of this to make me happy. Plus I would be getting $7.99 leads for free! Of course I agreed, but I told him he should advertise the wire gauge of his leads since the amps don't really mean anything. I never got a response to the e-mail, but I did get the new leads a week later.

The new leads are definitely thicker and less flexible. I am not 100% convinced they are 18 AWG (no writing on these either), but I am measuring 2.1 amps now instead of 1.5 amps with the other leads (the true current should be around 2.8 amps, but the battery itself may not be able to supply that much current).

I'm still waiting on the ones I ordered in haste from DX. However a second set of leads can still be useful for me.

Here are the leads I wound up building later on (see comment below):

August 8, 2010

4 Kinds of Green Beans

I think Carol told me that some dogs like green beans. Austin has been eating grass lately, so I figured maybe some green vegetables would do him good. I was at the grocery store and they had Green Giant green beans on sale.They had "kitchen sliced" (1/2 inch cut) green beans, french style (kind of shredded, those French really know how to get the most of their canned green beans!), and eventually I found the regular old cut green beans. They are all the same vegetable! They are just cut differently. Why are so many types of green beans necessary? Then they also had low sodium green beans, but I'm thinking Austin would appreciate the salt.

It turns out Austin isn't crazy about green beans and Katie, of course, will have nothing to do with them. Austin still has a couple of favorite patches of crab grass that he will graze on during walks.

Bulletin Board Upgrade

It had been a while since I have tried to upgrade the MyBB software for my bulletin board. They just released a major upgrade, so it was important to get up-to-date (I think). Here's what I needed to do:

First, shut the bulletin board down temporarily.

Second, backup all the files. There is a control panel that lets me download a backup file, but I can also do a backup to the server, which I think would work better. Best to do both. Also it is best to download copies of settings.php and config.php in the inc folder, just to be safe.

Download the software. I thought there was a way to do this through cPanel, but maybe not. Instead I just downloaded it to my hard drive and then uploaded to the forum folder. Fortunately, myBB is very, very small, only about a megabyte.

Using cPanel's File Manager, extract the installation file into a temp folder. Then, using File Manager again (my FTP software wouldn't do this because it won't overwrite directories with files in them), copy all of the files in the temp/upload folder into the mybb folder, overwriting just about everything.

Now set some of the file permissions per the instructions

Now, in a web browser, go to the forum URL /install/upgrade.php and follow the instructions.

Clean up. Delete the install folder, the zip file, and the temp folder. Reset permissions on config and settings to 666.

August 6, 2010

I Made a Wiki

At work we use these really old programs written in the early 80's to take input and create drawings that we use on our plans. This was seriously cutting edge technology back in the day, using Fortran programs to create electronic files. Over the years the company that makes the drafting software has made a lot of changes and we kept paying consultants to update our programs so they would still work. The guy who originally wrote the programs went on to other things, not least of which was becoming second in charge of our agency before leaving to become a consultant.

VBA Wiki logo

We are now a couple of versions behind the latest version of our CAD software, partly because the file format has changed and it takes a lot of preparation to make the jump. Meanwhile, it takes us longer and longer to adjust the drawings that come out of the Fortran program to show it like we want. There are beams we didn't even know about that have never been incorporated and nobody has been willing to try to make changes. It's a dying technology.

Skipping ahead, the latest version of the CAD software (made in 2008; the version we are using came out in 1998) uses Microsoft Visual Basic for Applications to run macros and user commands and programs. The good thing about that is it doesn't take any other software to create programs since it all runs internally to the CAD software. This 2008 version was installed on our machines earlier this year in preparation for us to migrate to it (well, most computers have it, but mine doesn't because I forgot to leave my computer on the night they were running the installation). In the last few weeks I have been learning how to do some computer drafting which I had never even attempted before. As our CAD technicians reach retirement and are not replaced (primarily because if a person knows enough about computers to be a CAD technician, they can make more money than we offer), engineers will be doing more of the drafting, so I want to minimize the drafting by updating our programs. If I can get the output from 80% complete to 90% complete, I can cut the workload in half.

So last week I started playing around with VBA on a spare computer. My goal was to draw a rectangle. I created a form with a Width and Height field and a button that says Draw. The idea is that when I run this macro (or program or application, which are all the same thing) I can enter the Width and Height and the computer will draw a rectangle.

But things are 3D now and to make a line you have to make points. The points are arrays of 3 numbers (X, Y, and Z coordinates). Then you would think there would be some command like DrawLine from Point A to Point B. But not, you have to write:

CreateLineElement2(Nothing, PointA, PointB)

This took about a day to figure out because I didn't know what command to look for or how to set up points, and so on. You can look for help online, but the software is fairly obscure and programming it in VBA is even more obscure. What is worse is that they have changed the language a little over time, so one of the basic sample programs I tried to run bombed out. Well, once I had a line, it wasn't but a few minutes until I could draw a rectangle.

Next I wanted to place a cell, which is a standardized drawing that might consist of text and lines (for example, a stop sign graphic that has eight sides and says "STOP"). This took another day and some really very odd stuff. And I guess all of this is so basic that nobody on the internet feels a need to explain it.

Really the only other thing I need to be able to do is place text. So that was another day or so. If I can place lines, cells, and text, I can pretty much produce a complete drawing by repeating all of those things.

So I wanted to write all of this down, mostly for me, but also for anyone else trying to do the same thing.

I thought I would create a Wiki on my website. I have been writing a lot of stuff at a Flashlight Wiki and wrote some stuff for the family Wiki that Jeb set up before it got erased. And of course I read the biggest Wiki of all, Wikipedia, and have even made a couple of edits to articles there. In fact, all of these Wikis use the same software, which is called Wikimedia. And it is free. It runs on a web server like blog software or bulletin board software. So I figured I could install it just as I was able to create a community bulletin board even though it hasn't gotten much use.

For most of these programs, you download a file to your server, then uncompress all the files, edit a configuration file, and you are done. At least that's what I thought. I forgot that I also need to set up a database on the php server with an admin name and password before I do any of that. So I ran into some trouble there, but got it set up eventually. Then I set up a subdomain so that I could just go to wiki.igirder.com instead of igirder.com/wiki. It went pretty smoothly except for setting permissions, but I think that is squared away too. To avoid spam like the flashlight wiki gets, I decided not to allow anyone else to edit the Wiki for now. I also added a logo which is the rectangle that I eventually was able to draw, including cells (the red arrowheads and blue circles). In fact, because I am so bad at drafting, it was easier for me to modify my program to include the text "VBA" and "Wiki" on the drawing instead of using the drafting commands.

August 5, 2010

Six Flags Strikes Back

Last year when Jeb and I went to Six Flags we were able to ride most of the rides with fairly short lines until after lunch, but we still got in everything we wanted and maybe then some. This year Bob, Andrew, and David wanted to go. Figuring that it wouldn't be as crowded during the week, they picked Wednesday. I bought tickets online with Bob's credit card and printed them out and then met at one of my work's branch offices out that way so I wouldn't have to pay parking and they wouldn't have to come pick me up. The plan was to meet at 10:00 and we met that within a few minutes, which means Bob did a great job of getting the boys moving first thing in the morning. We got to the park and in the front gate at about 10:20, which was fine since the park wouldn't even open officially until 10:30. As we sweltered in the sun waiting to get entrance to the rest of the park, I said "Man, it's going to be hot today." I eventually said this so many times that Bob had to tell me "You're not helping." Everybody already had sunscreen on and I had drunk a big cup of water on the way out, so our first ride we took was to the bathroom (no line!).

Andrew and David debated whether it would be good to do the biggest and best roller coaster, Goliath, first or do some others first. They were worried that once we went on that ride, all the others would seem inferior. But I figured we should ride it first while the lines were at their shortest and we got through the line in maybe 15 minutes. I had ridden it before, but that ride is just fantastic. Bob really liked the zero g's as we went over the hills.

Next we walked towards the Batman ride, but Mindbender was on the way, so we stopped there. The line wasn't very long and while Andrew and I waited for the back seat (which I learned last time is supposed to be the best one), Bob and David got on in the middle before us. This is when things started going not so well. They went out a couple of hundred feet and had just started up the hill. Meanwhile the second train pulled almost into the station. Then everything stopped. The person running the ride said that there would be a delay for an undetermined amount of time and if people wanted to leave they could go out the entrance. Some of the people in the main line left, but most of the people ready to get on the next train stayed. After about 10 minutes and another announcement some more people left. Then the people in front of us for the back seat left. We weren't going to leave because Bob and David wouldn't know where we were (the Droid stayed home so it wouldn't get beat up or wet, so we couldn't even talk to them). After a total of 20 minutes or so they sounded the track alarms and Bob and David were on their way back up the hill. The train that was in the station pulled all the way in, but then they kept it empty so they could do a test circuit (though Bob and David were living test dummies going around at the time). Once they got back into the station, they decided to ride again with Andrew and me and nobody was waiting yet. It's a good ride. In the back seat I think you pull more g's as you come out of the loops.

Next we went to the Batman Ride. We were able to walk pretty quickly through the first part of the line but pretty much came to a dead stop when we go to a big sewer drain they have you walk through to give the sense of entering the grimy underworld of Gotham. But unlike most pipes, this one is in the sun and inside the pipe it is incredibly hot, which Bob pointed out more than once (and it didn't help). After that we bypassed a room of back-and-forths that seemed to be air conditioned which didn't seem to make much sense. Why bake people in the sewer pipe when there was a whole room available?

Anyway, after maybe 45 minutes we were up to the front of the line. Batman is a really good ride, but David said it was just like Busch Gardens' Montu (he's right: both were made by the same company one year apart).

After Batman and just a few minutes before noon, we decided to eat lunch, so we got hamburgers and fries (begrudgingly, since they had all eaten hamburgers for the last few days). Expensive. I think Jeb and I did better bringing our lunch and going out to the car, but this was quicker and let us enjoy some air conditioning. Plus I had gotten the tickets for $6 less than I thought they would be, so maybe paying $10 for a pretty average hamburger wasn't so bad.

Not wanting to lose our lunches, we went to the log flume next. In October it was pretty chilly, but a little water at this point seemed like a good thing. Unfortunately the lines were pretty long and the log flume line went out past its entrance. Worse, most of the line was in the direct sun. A little girl in the family behind us was about to pass out so her Mom skipped ahead to a shady spot and a Six Flags worker brought them some cold water. As we were leaving the ride, I saw the log her family was on and she was up front and smiling. Like a sea monkey, she came back to life when she got wet. The log flume was decent but Andrew didn't steer all that well. We got a little wet, but not bad. While we were in line, David was thinking about what kind of amusement park he would make if he ran things and we figured that a good thing would be to wait in one line and get a seat in a moving stream of chairs that would take you to each ride and then become part of the ride. You'd go through all of the rides in your chair and never have to walk anywhere or wait in any lines.

Next we headed back across the entrance to try out Acrophobia which drops you and then uses magnets to slow you down at the bottom. However some workers were crawling around on it with ladders and the three guys who worked that ride were just hanging around the front looking at women and told us it was closed, but they didn't know for how long. They thought it would re-open at some point.

The train was waiting in a nearby station, so we got on that and went to its next stop which was back near Goliath again. From there we got in line for Thunder River, another water ride and one that can get you substantially more wet than the tamer flume ride. Watching people as they left the ride it looked like a third to a half of the people were soaked pretty good and others were only a little wet. It was another long line, but it was mostly in the shade. Still, one of the girls in front of us was feeling woozy or something and had to go find a cooler place to sit until her friend got closer to the front. This ride has round boats that seat maybe 10 people around the edge facing inwards. A woman across from Bob and I said we looked like we would be getting the wettest. It's a funny ride, sometimes very calm and leisurely but then sometimes it gets the feeling of really being on a river raft. Because you might not get all that wet, they throw in a waterfall. So I got kind of dumped on by that but we were moving quickly as we went under it. Then we went by a corner where people at the park can shoot you with a fire hose. It isn't high pressure like a fire hose, but it has about as much flow and Bob and I got the worst of it, completely soaking wet. Towards the end we went into a water divot and water came pouring over the edge of the boat between me and Andrew and I got soaked again, but at that point I couldn't get any wetter. At least I had Tevas on. But the others had tennis shoes. As we neared the exit ramp, I stepped on the top of Andrew's shoe and water came gushing out of the shoelaces part like in a cartoon. David probably was the driest. But one good thing is I really wasn't nearly as hot for a while. I had my cellphone in a ziplock baggie, but had forgotten to put my wallet in there, so it was soaked, but no damage.

Bob still wasn't feeling like a roller coaster, so Andrew, David, and I went to the Scream Machine. Andrew didn't know what the Scream Machine was, so I told him it was a machine that you put your hand in and it squeezed your hand until you screamed. He said he didn't want to do the Scream Machine, but he knew it was really a roller coaster so we went anyway. The line moved particularly slowly because they were only loading 3 of the 4 cars in a train and leaving the last car empty. Plus they have people that have paid for Flash Passes that get to go to the front of the line which means everyone else waits that much longer. They only let a certain number of Flash Pass people ride at a time, but if that's another carload of people, now they are down to half a load. This is part of the reason all of the lines were slow. I didn't even want to think about trying to stand in line for the Superman ride, especially since most of that line is in the direct sun and we had enough sun already.

Anyway, as we got to the front Andrew and David got to a car before me, so I had to wait for the next one. The guy in front of me was by himself too so we sat together. I'm not sure if movie theater etiquette applied and I wasn't supposed to sit right next to another guy, but I didn't want to wait for another coaster either. The ride up the hill was pretty smooth, but even the first drop was incredibly rough, like going down a bumpy hill in a wagon. And it just got worse. It is amazing how much a wooden coaster shakes. It was pretty miserable, rougher than I ever remember. I may have to swear it off like I have the other wooden coaster there, the Georgia Cyclone which is even worse because it throws you around side-to-side too. After I got back I asked David and Andrew what they thought and they said it was terrible and now they had headaches. Andrew said he would rather have put his hand in a machine until it made him scream. Plus the line would probably be shorter. I don't know, though: Even the kind of lame rides had long lines.

It was maybe around 3:00 and we were pretty pooped, but we decided to take the sky bucket over towards Acrophobia and see if it was back open again. The sky bucket line was maybe 30 minutes long, but it was a nice ride across the park. Of course Acrophobia was still closed, so we headed on out. As we left I told Bob: "It is just as hot as I thought it would be!"

So we missed out on a couple of the big rides like Superman and didn't get to ride anything twice (well, Bob and David rode the Mindbender twice), but we still got a lot in:

  • Goliath
  • Mindbender
  • Batman Ride
  • Log Flume
  • Train
  • Thunder River
  • Scream Machine
  • Sky Buckets

Happy Birthday, Mom!