Thursday, December 24, 2009

Frohe Weihnachten 2009

Merry Christmas to everyone.

This year our Christmas bakery was again very productive.

Auch in diesem Jahr war unsere Weihnachtsbaeckerei sehr erfolgreich.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

On the importance of line of sight

Lesson learned:

Line of sight matters when choosing a spot for your TV antenna. A lot. TV signals don't penetrate buildings very well, so if you are living in an area with weak or difficult reception, it's incredibly important that the antenna has as much direct line of sight to the broadcast tower as possible.

A wile ago I climbed on the roof with a roof mount antenna in hand, sat down in the middle of the roof and measured reception quality using the hdhomerun_config_gui software. Reception quality was not great, but sufficient for HDTV at head height when sitting on the roof top. Since the mast that came with the antenna is only about 20 inches high, I replaced it with some bent leftover 1" EMT pipe to get the antenna to ~40 inches above the roof.

Then I mounted the antenna on one of the side eaves of the roof.

Turns out I put it on the wrong side of the house. From roughly the middle to the right-hand side of the roof, the line of sight to San Francisco's Sutro tower passes through a gap in the row of houses on the other side of the street. However, from the left hand side of my roof, there is a two story house in the way. Since Sutro tower is 50 miles away, it's not high enough to peek over the top of that house, and the signal is not strong enough to pass through my neighbor's house and make it to my antenna.

I could either mount the antenna higher above the roof, which will require a longer pipe and possibly some bracing and cross-wiring both to keep the antenna stable and to avoid overloading the antenna mount. Or I move the antenna to the right-hand side of the house ... which is what I'll try next.

As is I can receive several local independent channels, as well as PBS, but none of the other big broadcast networks.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Article about Disney's steam engines

Trains magazine has a nice online article about the steam engines that power the Disneyworld Railroad here. Interesting read.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Layout updates

I'm getting closer to closing the loop for the second phase of the layout. The middle level tunnel storage track is in, and the S-curve from Abzweig Talheim to the switch at the base of the future incline to Emsingen station is built.

I'm now working on connecting Talheim South to the long ramp along the wall, and then the temporary cross-over to the switch mentioned above. I'll probably need another one or two evenings to piece that together. Then another evening of odds and ends and I should be able to run trains from staging ("Schattenstadt") to Talheim station, via the new loop and Abzweig Talheim back into staging.

Meanwhile track 1 is glued down in Talheim. I'll probably do some very basic scenery around Talheim station, ballast the station tracks and built a simple platform, once the industry tracks to the creek bridge and beyond the street tunnel are installed. I'll skip the signals for now, as I'm very worried I might accidentally break them during the ongoing construction.

Once the loop is closed I'll focus on connecting underfloor, slow-motion switch machines, building a small control table, and going back to try and get computer control working, at least as far as track occupancy detection and basic layout control is concerned. This should keep me busy for a few weeks. All rolling stock needs to be cleaned, and fixed up.

I test-ran all locomotives with an analaog power pack a couple weeks ago. While all need cleaning, several are pretty much ready to be converted to digital operation. A few have mechanical issues that need a closer look (Schweizer Krokodil and BR53), and 2 are completely gummed up. One doesn't move at all, no lights, no nothing (my favorite pair of BR236 aka "Doppeltes Lottchen"), and the other shows light, but doesn't move.
I selected the BR50 with cabin tender as my next "victim". It's a good runner, a nice model, and in excellent condition. It also as a quite finicky lead-truck which will help find problematic sections of track.

In the new year we have a big kitchen renovation coming up, so I don't think I'll have much time for major work. However, once that's done, I'll built out the ramps up to Emsingen station, put in a connecting track, and then move on to building Emsingen station, as well as start the mountain and landscaping at the south end of the layout.

I'm planning to build most of Emsingen station outside the layout room and drop it into place, once all track alignments, wiring and switch machines are installed. It's much easier to work on such a big piece when you can access it freely from all sides. It will likely take up some space in the garage for a couple months...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Continous loud tone on a Sunday morning

"wow, my ears are ringing badly today", I thought while making coffee for breakfast this morning. And it wouldn't get better, so I started to look around whether that very high-pitched continuous sound came from outside. Nope. I looked in the garage. Yep, definitely louder, so it's not my ears. It's not the furnace. It's not in the train room, but it gets louder when I go to my work bench and side door. It's not my neighbor either.

Finally, I tracked it down to the UPS of the communications cabinet, an APC BackUPS ES 450. The power LED was blinking between green and red, and unit was clearly emitting the sound. I pressed the power button to shut it down and the noise stopped. Phew. Turned it back on, and the beep came back immediately. Screw it. I turned it off again, plugged the various transformers into the non-UPS sockets. Everything came back up just fine.

After breakfast and being properly caffinated, I looked at the support pages at and sure enough they have a FAQ entry describing my exact problems. Battery self-check failed.

The Back-UPS ES performs an internal self-test every 14 days, the internal self-test checks the integrity of the battery. If the battery fails the self-test, the Power on LED will flash and the unit will emit a constant tone.
A self test should be performed with the UPS fully charged (charging without interruption or transfer to battery for 5 hours) and normal load attached. To do this, power down all equipment attached to the battery outlets. Then reboot the Back-UPS ES by turning it off then count to 5 and power it back on. If the constant tone clears, then it was a false onbattery condition and the unit has been reset. It now is ready to be used again.

Hmmm, so this unit performs an automatic self-test every 14 days, and it *may* fail the test, even though there is nothing wrong with it. The solution is to turn everything off, reset the unit and turn it back on. How lame.

"Legendary reliability" be damned, I know what I'm not going to buy again.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Pearls Before Swine

Pearls Before Swine - Oct 21 2009

I love this.

I had the newspaper cut-out of this strip in my backpack for the last 3 weeks. It's all crumpled up now. Thankfully, things like this stick around in cyberspace for a long time.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Law Abiding Citizen


This movie keeps you on the edge of your seat for its suspense. It also sets you aback for its in stretches very gruesome, bloody violence. You think about the American justice system with its common use of deals between prosecutors and cooperating witnesses even if they committed murder. The need to prove things in court and to convince a jury, versus career attorneys attempting to get and maintain a high conviction rate. And a man who takes justice into his own hands ingeniously fighting the system along the way. It's shocking and fascinating at the same time.

This is one of those movies that make me appreciate what I have, but nothing I would let my children watch.

Another shocker were the several 2,5,6 year-old children in this R-rated film. It escapes me what those parents are thinking, taking their kids into a movie that is so clearly not age-appropriate.

Century Capitol 16 must not be doing well. It was Saturday evening 8pm, when people are flooding the theaters. The parking lot was half-empty. There were barely any lines at the cashier, or concession stand. Very few people in the lobby. The girl checking tickets could leave her post and walk around for lack of visitors. We could walk into the movie 5 minutes before scheduled starting time and still got an excellent seat. What a difference compared to 10-12 years ago when we moved to the area.
Capitol 16 is clearly one of the older theaters nearby and seems to feel the competition from the AMC theatres at Oakridge and Eastridge which are much more modern, and co-located with a large mall.

Since we were a bit early at the theater we watched Michael Jackson's 'This is it' for a little while. It was nice and ok for the 15 minutes, but I don't know whether I would make it awake through the full 2 hours of the movie. And yes, that auditorium had also at most 10% of the seats taken.

Monday, November 02, 2009

What's new around the layout

I've done a couple things around the layout in the last month.

Removed the catenary.

Yup, The catenary that took me a couple weeks to build up is all gone from the layout again. I initially installed it because I wanted the pantographs of my electrics to be guided nicely through the long tunnels on the way to and within staging. There are several tight spots where I felt I need to push the pantographs down to make it through the opening. Turns out that a fully extended pantograph is about as high as the catenary masts. I also realized (and anyone who did this kind of thing before would tell me), that it's a *really* bad idea to have catenary wires in the already tight staging space under Talheim station. They just get horribly in the way whenever one tries to access a derailed train down there.
Instead I will let the engines run with the pantographs fully extended inside the tunnels and provide "catch" devices to gracefully lower the pantographs to normal catenary height at tunnel portals and in the one or two tight spots where I really don't have enough clearance (notably below the street tunnel at Talheim station.

Installed guard rails

With open frame construction and various ramps connecting the various levels, there is always potential that a derailed engine or cars runs off the track and falls all the way down to the floor. Model meets laminate flooring... Usually not a pretty sight once the model lands. I installed protection/guide railings around staging, the ramps, and some curves to protect derailed trains.

Track in Talheim

I glued down more track in Talheim, and am getting ready to install the occupancy detectors. Contrary to staging, which uses current draw sensors, on the rest of the layout I'm using simpler detectors that can detect when wheelsets are in an insulated section of a rail. This will require cutting gaps in the rails and soldering quite a few detection leads. Fun. I'm using the trackage in Talheim to test out the approach, before I do this elsewhere.

Debugging ESU Switchpilot

It looks like my Switchpilots are the first revision and are a bit unstable. They occasionally forget their address, don't turn off voltage to the switch, and/or don't follow their programming. I'm unimpressed. I contacted ESU Support, but haven't heard back yet.

Finally, I fixed a few minor things and relocated a cross-over switch on the ramp from staging that caused several derailments.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Goodbye KDE

After getting fed up with KDE, we switched to Gnome. While some things took some getting used to (again, mostly around dealing with digital photos), overall the experience is a lot more pleasant.

The UI doesn't get nearly as much into the way as KDE does. Gnome has less bells and whistles, but things mostly just work, and on top of that, it's much, much faster than KDE4.

F-Spot is ok, but also suffers from the "hey, you didn't do anything, so I won't write that photo to disk when you tell me to save it after I rotated it for you automatically". One day I'll write (or find) a simple shell script that'll go through a folder and correctly rotate the photos on disk based on EXIF information.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Over the air HDTV - figuring out the basics

I'm sick and tired paying $50 a month to a company I despise. Comcast got enough money from me over the years and our TV viewing habits have changed enough that I don't value the cable-only channels nearly as much as I used to.

So over-the-air HDTV it is. My hdhomerun box supports both cable and over the air HDTV (even at the same time...) I went to the local Fry's and found a shelf full of indoors antennas. Wow, quite a selection. I pick one that sounded decent, went home, set it up in the garage and ... only got channel 36 "Action 36". Urgh.

That's when I learned about AntennaWeb. Plugged in my address and ... oha, all the major stations in the Bay Area transmit from San Francisco (50 miles away). Except Action 36, which has an antenna in downtown San Jose (18 miles) and is rated as the only station I should be able to receive with a simple indoor antenna.

Accoding to AntennaWeb, I need an antenna with the "blue" and "violet" color codes due to my location and distance from the broadcast towers, which require an amplified, large directional outdoor antenna. In other words, a commonly known "TV antenna".

Fry's doesn't have any (!) outdoor antennas, nor does the local Walmart. Both carry lots and lots of indoor antennas ("perfect for HDTV"), which are barely suitable to receive TV signals from up to 20 miles away. The vast majority of the South Bay doesn't fit that description. No wonder half of the boxes were returned...
Radio Shack had outdoor antennas, but not amplified, they weren't even rated for "blue", and still cost over $70, plus $35 for an amplifier.

In the end I ordered a Terk HDTVo antenna from Amazon, which showed up this week.

Today I went on the roof to test reception with that antenna. I used the hdhomerun_config_gui application running on my TV computer in the living room with the X Window output redirected to my Mac laptop, which I carried on the roof with me. Must have been quite a funny sight. Me on the roof, with an antenna in one hand, typing away at laptop in my lap with the other...

I'm able to receive all major broadcast networks, FOX, CBS, ABC, NBC, PBS, plus a bunch of local independent stations. KTVU, the local FOX affiliate, comes in weakest of the bunch, so I'm using as my guide when directing the antenna.

I planned to mount the antenna to the eaves board of my roof, so that it overlooks the neighboring house. Turns out that the signal of KTVU severely degrades about 1 feed above the roof line, and is reasonably strong at about 3 feet above the roof line. So I need (at least) a small mast. I don't feel like penetrating my roof with mounting a TV antenna. Instead I will likely mount the mast on a side-wall on the left side of the house above the master beed room, where the roof is not quite as high above the ground.

Of course I need to ground the antenna mast, as well as the antenna cable. I'm going to use the electrical conduit of the solar PV system for ground, and reuse the grounding block installed by my dear friends at Comcast for grounding the antenna cable.

Now, where do I find a suitable 5-6 ft long antenna mast and appropriate mounting hardware nearby?

Friday, October 16, 2009

The creek is done

I spent months on getting the creek under the bridges in Talheim right. It's finally done, and I'm very happy with the result. Click the picture. Seriously.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Lots of water

We had lots of rainfall today.

This is Permanente Creek at Charleston Road in the late afternoon of October 13th.

And this is what it looks on normal days...

Friday, October 09, 2009

Peace Nobel Price for Barack Obama ... Really?

I couldn't believe the news this morning. Really? No, seriously? Obama has been in office for a mere 9 months and is already receiving the Peace Nobel Price? What will he get after 4 years?

I am very, very happy for our President to be the recipient. It's a great honor. A huge surprise. Apparently, even the White House initially had only a single word comment: "Wow". How many sitting presidents have received the Nobel Price while in office? It's a very small club.

However, I believe Obama should choose not to accept the price.

It comes too early. Much too early. While he is doing many good things in international relations, he doesn't have measurable results to show. ... He's on a great trajectory. The scores look good. His work and projects are showing great promise. He should re-apply for promotion next year when the tricky projects are rolled out and he has shown this great performance over a longer period of time. ... whoops, it's performance review season at work, and my committee notes provide just the right vocabulary ;-)

It's been reported that Obama accepted the price. The Washington Post has a nice summary mirroring my sentiments.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Layout updates

Over the last couple months I spent a lot of time experimenting with track alignment and options for Emsingen. My updated requirements list is roughly as follows

  • passenger station for a small city (it's ok to have a semi-rural/small town look & feel)
  • ability for train meets (i.e. at least one siding long enough to hold a decent sized freight train)
  • single through track (I'm building a single track main line after all)
  • proper signals for two direction operation on at least two tracks
  • enough sidings to allow for terminus operation (i.e. some passenger trains end in this station, the locomotive runs around the cars and the train later leaves in the direction it came from)

    Now the list of nice to haves:

  • "lok station" (i.e. small coaling/operations/service facilities for steam + diesel locomotives to service locomotives of trains ending in Emsingen)
  • engine shed (for one or more locomotives)
  • 2+ industrial spurs or loading options
  • some multi-use yard tracks to break down/shuffle car cuts left for Emsingen and Talheim by a freight train passing through

    When I started tearing up the original plans, I relatively quickly came to add a couple more nice to haves:

  • lokstation/engine shed needs to be on the near end of the station from the controls (what's the point of e.g. a turntable, if it's hidden behind the engine shed/roundhouse and servicing facilities)
  • a (small? how small?) turntable would be really cool.
  • sorting of cars needs to happen on near side of the station, too. You need to see what's moving where
  • yard tracks need to be straight

    ooops. Here's my first try:

    The location of the station building is pretty much set on the city side of the tracks. I converted the former freight area to become the lok station, including a 3 stall round house, and turntable. The round house, as a side-effect, conveniently hides the tunnel entrance of the ramp to the middle level, so I'm hoping that the effect will be "train enters the stage" instead of "train exits yet another tunnel". The space for the service area is tight but workable, given it's a small terminus with only a few road locos to service, as well as 1 or 2 locomotives stationed here.

    On the other side of the main track is an open air loading ramp, or maybe I put some oil tanks in that corner on the inside of the right turn towards the bridge.
    The yard tracks are a bit odd, and too short for any real work. There is a limit on how deep the station area can become without encroaching on space needed for the middle level. However, they correspond well to the available length of the yard lead. One problem I have with all approaches is that I'm having trouble properly operating the arrival/departure track without using the main line track. I kind of want to maintain the ability for fairly busy operation on the main line (either automated, or by a second operator), as much as that is possible on a single track ...

    A simplified approach for the yard tracks. Basically, I left enough track to shuffle cars for switching and local deliveries.

    I also re-aligned the tracks in the lok station a bit. I'm not happy with how the switches to the lok station clog up track 1 in front of the station building. I want servicing to be located between the tracks and the turn table. The setup is a bit loose here, since I don't have a turntable (yet), and most roundhouses require a certain distance between turntable and doors, which is larger than what I accounted for here. I might have to circle the round house to the right and potentially move the turntable more to the left further into the curve, which would affect the arrangement of the servicing and access tracks. Clearly more accurate planning is needed for this area.

    A sneaky approach to get more usable length for the yard tracks by using slim switches with a small angle, and allowing the tracks to encroach on middle level territory. The lead track is to short to hold a full cut of cars from the longest yard track, plus locomotive.

    Here I attempted to address the problem of "how do I get a complete train from the yard onto the main line with no switching maneuvers". As a side effect the industry track on the right gained some space. Unfortunately this also meant more encroaching on middle level territory.

    Same idea, with longer yard tracks and simplified trackage, no dedicated yard lead.

    A variation on the theme that leaves much more space around the industry track, but again requires somewhat odd movements for yard operations.

    Going back to basics. Instead of trying to squeeze a lot of yard operations into an impossible space, I just go with two storage tracks, making them as long as I possibly can. The alignment of the mainline track slightly changed by removing the curved switch, which leaves space to arrange the two storage tracks more neatly.
    What I like about this setup is that it allows me to do some switching operations, without eating into space I had originally allocated for scenery, industry, and roads.

    Less is More.

    This plan is also updated with the actual track layout I'm using on the middle level around Talheim station and on to the tunnel.
  • Monday, September 14, 2009


    Here's to another 100 posts!

    and yes, Hello Kitty Beck's beer is about as weird as the idea of writing a blog sounded to me almost 4 years ago...

    Why does KDE 4 suck so badly?

    Yesterday I installed Ubuntu 9.04 on Patricia's computer at home. The installation process was very easy, as usual for Ubuntu. I proceeded to install kubuntu with KDE4, since we prefer using KDE over Gnome.

    One login later my socks were blown off. Wow! So much eye candy. Animated windows. Transparency effects. A pretty task bar. ... but, where's my desktop? What did they do to the K menu? How do I modify menu entries? Where's konqueror? Where does my digital camera show up? What is this plasma thingy? How do I turn of this active widget thingy that's slowing my computer to a crawl? Why does it take so long to launch an application?

    First I turned off all the desktop effects, which are pretty, but make KDE *really* slow to handle.

    Next, I tried to slim the default fat window title bars (whose fatness remind me of Windows XP). This is apparently only possible by selecting a different theme than Plastik.

    Now, dealing with this horrible contraption they call the K menu. It's a big, fixed size box that shows all the menus one would expect in a Startmenu, sorted into various tabs (Favorites, Applications, Computer, Leave, ..)
    If the menu is longer than what fits into the box (i.e. > 7 entries), a scroll bar appears and one needs to scroll. In the age of 32" wide-screen computer monitors, this forces me to search for the application I want to start via a little peep hole in the lower left corner of my screen. Going back up the menu tree requires clicking on the a slim bar to the left of the menu list that only has a back marker once you hover with your mouse over it.

    What's worse, I haven't found a option to rename, delete, or move menu entries around. This is particularly annoying in the Leave tab on this computer, since there are 8 options and two separator lines, which moves the Shutdown menu entry just below the bottom of this box, so one is forced to click in 5 places to shut down the computer:

    K -> Leave -> scroll down -> Shutdown -> Shutdown now

    On to the widgets screen. KDE3.x had, like most modern operating systems, the concept of a desktop. Most people clutter up their desktop with various icons, just like they clutter up their desk with paper and stuff. KDE4 took a cue from Macintosh and added widgets that by default show in the background of the screen, instead of the familiar desktop. While on the Mac the widgets are overlaid on top of the regular screen, in KDE4 they are behind all other windows (like the old Microsoft Active Desktop). The point of this escapes me. I also turned this off.

    Digital camera integration with gphoto, konqueror, gwenview, and the kamera io slave worked pretty nicely in KDE3. Not so in KDE4. Looks like for now I'll open konqueror and go to camera:/ manually. gwenview became totally useless. It rotates photos for me when viewing them, but there is no way to save just the rotated photo.
    konqueror has a plug-in supposedly using imagemagick to rotate photos (great!), but I can't figure out how to make it actually do that, all it shows now under actions is options to convert images to other formats.

    I'm aware that most of this is fixable. My point, however, is why this needs to be so unintuitive. E.g. I actually like the rotate photo buttons in Windows Explorer. They are simple and get the job done. Loading The Gimp for every rotated photo is just crazy.

    Enough whining. On to figuring out how to make this work the way I want...

    Sunday, August 16, 2009

    Visiting the Selfkantbahn - Sunday

    It was a long evening yesterday, and I had trouble getting out of bed at first. Reminder to self: If you are not used to drinking beer, do it in moderation...

    However, today's the day!

    Shortly before 9am we were back in Schierwaldenrath where Christoph and Jan had already prepared the locomotive for the day. There was not much left for us to do so we went inside the car hall for coffee and breakfast. Yup, the two of them did the job of oiling, lubing, and a light polish in less than a quarter of the time it took us yesterday...

    The morning was cool, with patchy fog and overcast skies, and by 10am I found myself in the warm cab of the locomotive switching an extra freight car to the tail end of the train. By now I was much more comfortable with the controls and had a blast. I must have been grinning over both ears most of the time. I picked up the freight car, spotted it to the end of the train, and then pulled the train forward into the service area so that the folks in the dining car could comfortably load food and drinks for the day.

    It's not trivial to stop the train in a way so that the dining car ends up near the entrance door to the workshop, since from the cab you can't see neither the car in the train, nor the entrance door. All you know is roughly how fast the train is going, and hear over radio how far away the car still is ("two car lengths, one car length, 1/2 car length"). No-one complained, so I guess I stopped reasonably well.

    Once the dining car was loaded, we pushed the train back to the platform, uncoupled and topped off water. Then it was back to the coaling platform for refueling and cleaning out the ash box, and my Dad took over to bring the locomotive to the head of the train for the first run of the day. Thomas took some excellent video footage of my switching maneuvers with my camera and I'll post that (and more video footage) once it's edited.

    Wolfram showed up shortly before 11am, and immediately started taking pictures. He looked so professional in attitude and attire that I had to clarify with the other seminar participants that, "yes, that's my brother, he lives nearby, and no he doesn't do this for a living". Quite a few passengers filled the platform, and at 11:15am we took off for the first run with Dad at the controls. He did a great job and carefully guided the train to Gillrath. It was very hard to take good photos or decent video footage even from the car behind the engine. The angles are not right and you often wish to be flying next to the train so you can film through the open cab windows.

    After the return trip we had a quick lunch since it was almost time for the second run. Bernd took the train down to Gillrath and I brought it back to Schierwaldenrath. I (again) had a little problem with braking when we got to Birgden and accidentally left the brake lever in a slightly open position so the stop in Birgden became ... errrm ... a bit abrupt towards the end. Did I mention that braking is hard? Especially when you try to be gentle to the equipment. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. Back in Schierwadenrath, I didn't want to leave the cab, I could have go on and on, but sadly my turn was over.

    Wolfram, Dad, and me skipped the 3rd run and had excellent ice cream at the station restaurant instead. While Dad relaxed in the shade, Wolfram and I climbed on the loading ramp and waited for the train to return. It was already time to say Goodbye to Wolfram since he wanted to get back on the road to drive home.

    Thomas took the train to Gillrath, and I managed to get back in the cab for the return trip to Schierwaldenrath with Jan at the controls. It's very interesting and enlightening to watch a professional engineer who knows the line by heart, play with the controls, move the locomotive with centimeter accuracy, and just the right amount of steam or braking. It was also another demonstration of how a good team of stoker and engineer can work together in an almost artful dance to feed and care for the machine.

    Once we returned we received our certificates and now it was really time to say Goodbye. To the group, to the railroad, the people that cared for us all weekend long, and of course "our" locomotive 20.

    On the way home the sounds and sights of the weekend continued to play in my head. It was an awesome experience, and if I lived closer to Schierwaldenrath I would be there more often. Contrary to modern locomotives, steam engines feel a lot more alive, a feeling that is impossible to experience by looking at photos or watching them on TV. If you ever have a chance to see steam engines in operation, ride in a cab, or maybe even, take the controls yourselves, go and you won't regret it.

    Friday - Saturday

    Saturday, August 15, 2009

    Visiting the Selfkantbahn - Saturday

    Today I drove a steam locomotive.

    The day started with firing up the locomotive. It took about 4 hours from lighting the first firewood in the firebox until steam pressure was within operating range. Meanwhile, stoker ("Heizer") Christoph and engineer ("Lokomotivfuehrer") Thomas explained the very basics how a steam locomotive works, and we had the pleasure of oiling, cleaning, and polishing the locomotive. Yes, cleaning and polishing, too.

    After lunch everyone got to move the locomotive within station limits to practice accelerating and braking. There are two mechanisms to control acceleration: Amount of steam sent to the cylinders and amount of steam expansion within the cylinders. The general effect is similar to gears in a car. High gear at high speed uses less gas, but barely has enough torque to get the car moving in the first place. Some steam with little expansion in the cylinders gets the locomotive moving. Relying more on steam expansion in the cylinders once the train is moving saves steam pressure and therefore fuel.

    Braking is quite an art. The trains on the Selfkantbahn like most trains use an air brake system which uses air pressure to control brake cylinders in each car. The practical implication for a novice engineer is that contrary to a car,it will take a few seconds for braking to take effect, and the train will keep braking at the given pressure set in the main brake line. When the brake is released only slightly, it will fully release the brakes at each car, and on top of that it will take several seconds for the locomotive to re-pressurize the main brake line. We got to practice this on a demo system in the car hall.

    There is also a direct brake system on the locomotive only, which is generally used when the locomotive is moving without a train, or, if we have a train, similarly to a hand brake in the car when going uphill from a full stop: Hold the train in place, while the brakes in the cars are already released.

    During my practice run in the afternoon the main brake line overloaded (too much pressure). This caused quite a commotion since it was unclear why this had happened in the first place. I was standing in the locomotive twisting thumbs and making a stupid face, while both Christoph and Thomas got to figure out what happened, and decide whether it's safe to continue the trip. In the end the net effect was that we got to de-pressurize and re-pressurize the brake system.

    All in all, I think I did O.K. Under direction from Thomas I brought the train up to speed, slowed down and stopped before railroad crossings, rang the bell, and, to my utmost delight, blew the whistle. The interaction between steam pressure and steam expansion is not yet quite clear to me so Thomas had to guide me a bit, but I think I managed to do a decent job.

    It was a hot day, and being in the cab was even hotter with the fire burning like crazy 2 feet before you. The cab was very crowded with stoker, engineer, and two seminar participants, one driving, one trying not to be too much in the way, paying attention to instructions, shoveling coal, or refilling the boiler with water. We went through several liters of bottled water and "Apfelschorle" on each run. Replacing the empty bottles when we got back to Schierwaldenrath became an important chore.

    The practice runs happened to be two specials with paying customers from Schierwaldenrath to Gillrath. Yup, the whole, whopping 5.5km of track all the way from one end to the other end of the line.
    The first run was booked by a Mazda fan club. Quite a sight when 40 Mazda sports cars along with their owners and respective girl friends enter a railroad museum in their shiny, little cars passing "our" shiny little steam engine.
    The other run was for the youth group of a local fire department, as well as a birthday party in one of the cars.

    After we returned with the second run to Schierwaldenrath, we had coffee and cake, watched/helped set the fire for the night and left the locomotive in the engine shed for the next day. Later in the evening the group had dinner together, and we had a fun time. The fact that I'm living in California was drawing quite some attention and many questions about life and work especially in comparison to Germany.

    Tomorrow I will drive the 13:45 train from Gillrath to Schierwaldenrath, which -- for extra fun -- runs with the locomotive backwards, and therefore the controls will be behind me when looking on the track ahead of the locomotive. I'm curious if Wolfram will be here in time for the 11:15 departure which will be driven by my dad.

    Friday - Sunday

    Friday, August 14, 2009

    Visiting the Selfkantbahn - Friday

    We arrived at the main station of the Selfkantbahn in Schierwaldenrath just in time for the start of the seminar. After a brief introduction in the Buffetwagen, we did a tour of the museum, and visited the engine shed where we saw "our" steam engine No. 20 for the first time. She looked a bit dead standing there in the shed with a cold firebox and cold boiler. And I couldn't decide whether I should feel sad, curious, or excited about tomorrow. It didn't quite feel real that tomorrow we will fire up the locomotive and it will come to life.

    I'm nervous. After looking at the various levers and manometers in the cab, as well as a brief explanation from Christoph, our stoker for tomorrow, I re-read the explanations how a steam locomotive works. I hope I can get this thing to move once it's my turn, and especially get it to stop...

    Later during dinner we received our engineer hats, and had a fun time discussing various railroady topics. The seminar group is quite interesting, and participants come from all over the country. I'm the youngest by far. Dad's the oldest by far. Most are in their fifties. Some came alone, others brought wives or family for moral support.

    Saturday - Sunday

    Monday, July 27, 2009

    Toronto Pearson International Airport

    I arrived from San Francisco 70 minutes late. We did make up some time, from the ground delay at SFO. Getting to my connecting gate was simple. Get off the plane from the US, follow the signs to customs, show boarding pass and you are sent through a door into the transit area, walk down a long corridor, and arrive in the international departures terminal. Not even 15 minutes. Very nice, bright terminal, by the way.

    Though I think when that airport agent sent me through that door instead of to the passport verification booths right next to it, she mistook my red german passport for a canadian passport. I noticed that a bunch of Canadians around me were sent through the door directly, while everyone else was sent to the passport booths. I didn't have my passport out, so when she saw it was red she just waved me through...

    Boarding for Munich starts in an hour.

    "We're just missing a fire extinguisher ..."

    My flight to Toronto left San Francisco 90 minutes late because ... wait for it ... one cockpit fire extinguisher showed low pressure and they had to exchange it. However, apparently you can't just buy a fire extinguisher easily at an airport.

    After waiting for 30 minutes (on the plane...) Air Canada finally located a fire extinguisher at United Airlines. United needed some paperwork processed before they release the fire extinguisher to Air Canada (clearly I'm flying with a banana airline, that can't be trusted to pay its bills). The pilot came on and explained that "the paperwork from United will take 20 minutes or so to process".

    Another half hour later, a United technician steps onboard with the bright red fire extinguisher (yay!), pilot explains that they "have the bottle. Now we just need to do the paperwork and we are on our way". We left a mere 30 minutes later.

    The cabin crew was very nice about it though, they passed out water, the (very nice) entertainment system was running, and since I have a 4 hour layover in Toronto, I don't mind being late. Though sitting 6 hours in a plane instead of the expected 4.5 is a bit annoying., especially when you know that you have another 8.5 hour flight after that.

    Friday, May 29, 2009

    Door size label measures the door, not the frame

    This weekend I'm going to replace the side door of my garage. I carefully measured the door and opening of the existing door. 31.5 inch wide between the outside of the frame. The rough opening in the wall is 32 inches wide and 81.5 inches high. So far so good.

    Yesterday, I went to Home Depot, picked out a door style, and bought the 32x80 inch model, pre-hung, right-hand side. So far so good.

    Today I measured the existing door frame again: 32x81.5 rough opening.
    I measure the door: 33.5x81.5 ... Huh? Check the sticker. Yup, it says 32x80. Measure the door again: 33.5x81.5 inches.


    I should have bought the 30x80 model, like my gut told me to. Another trip to Home Depot coming up. Return the door, buy the smaller version.

    Wednesday, May 20, 2009


    Erdbeer-Rhabarber Kompott auf knusprigen Keks mit Schlagsahne. Hmmmm. Lecker.

    Sunday, May 03, 2009

    Fun with diverted files

    I recently wanted to install a new program on grumpy, my MythTV box. apt-get install spat out a bunch of changes and dependencies, but I let it go ahead. What I didn't notice was a coreutils upgrade that was tucked away in the list, and led to the following error

    Preparing to replace coreutils 5.2.1-2 (using .../coreutils_6.10-6_i386.deb) ...
    Unpacking replacement coreutils ...
    dpkg: error processing /var/cache/apt/archives/coreutils_6.10-6_i386.deb (--unpack):
    trying to overwrite `/usr/share/man/man1/md5sum.1.gz', which is the diverted version of `/usr/share/man/man1/md5sum.textutils.1.gz'
    dpkg-deb: subprocess paste killed by signal (Broken pipe)
    Errors were encountered while processing:
    E: Sub-process /usr/bin/dpkg returned an error code (1)

    Woah. Now what? After some fumbling around, I gave up for the evening. It was late, I was tired.

    This morning I took another look at this. apt-get install -f led to the same error. After some googling and browsing around, I tried

    grumpy# dpkg-divert --list | grep md5sumlocal diversion of /usr/bin/md5sum.textutils to /usr/bin/md5sum
    local diversion of /usr/share/man/man1/md5sum.textutils.1.gz to /usr/share/man/man1/md5sum.1.gz
    grumpy# dpkg-divert --remove /usr/bin/md5sum.textutils
    Removing `local diversion of /usr/bin/md5sum.textutils to /usr/bin/md5sum'
    grumpy# dpkg-divert --remove /usr/share/man/man1/md5sum.textutils.1.gz
    Removing `local diversion of /usr/share/man/man1/md5sum.textutils.1.gz to /usr/share/man/man1/md5sum.1.gz'

    Running apt-get install -f again fixed up everything and the queued packages installed.

    I didn't really know about how diversions worked before this (though, now that I got to play with them, it's kinda cool), so I'm baffled where this local diversion came from, as all the other diversions in the list are maintained by packages.

    Thursday, April 30, 2009


    There is a Google blog post with more details.

    Wednesday, April 29, 2009

    Computer cabinet

    Ever since we moved two years ago, "Chef", my file/web server, was sitting in the living room, and various other assorted computers were packed away in the garage.

    You might argue, "why do you want to keep so many computers, when you survived for two years without them just fine?" ... Hmmm, good point. I am planning to consolidate a bunch of stuff, e.g redo the storage architecture for MythTV (do I really need 1.5T of RAID1 disk space in the living room, or can/should I split up into a true backend/frontend infrastructure, and combine this with the file server?)

    Either way, those servers need to go somewhere and my old rack didn't fit into the train room, so I built a new rack that fits under the layout, and has enough space for those old Sun workstations, and my servers.

    Since I still do wood-working near/in the train room, I added doors and dust screens. All the parts are left-overs from other projects:

    • The posts and wheels are from the old rack, and the posts shortened to match the new height requirements.
    • The bottom and top boards are from the tree house project (remember those roof plywood pieces were cut from a 8x4ft board).
    • The plywood for sides and doors was originally installed as cabinet doors in the garage. After one of the previous owners replaced the garage door the rails of the garage door are right in front of those built-in cabinets, so the doors no longer opened (!) One of my first actions in the garage was to take down the doors...

    The new cabinet fits under the layout framing with 1/2" to spare, just as planned. When rolled to the middle of the room, I can access both sides of the rack. It's a bit cumbersome because the lower end of the layout framing is at a height of 27", but it works out reasonably well. I don't think I need to access this too often.

    Tuesday, April 28, 2009

    Ein Baumhaus - selbstgebaut (Teil 2)

    Fast fertig. Jetzt fehlt nur noch die Dachpappe.


    I built this tree house from redwood lumber over the course of 4 days while on vacation a couple weeks ago. The lumber is from Home Depot. Assorted screws and some power tools I was eyeing for a while, I picked up at OSH. The first day was spent with preparing the site, digging holes for the poles, mounting the platform frame to the pressure treated posts and cementing the posts into place. The platform frame is made from redwood 2x6 boards held in place by 4" Timbertite screws.

    After letting the cement cure for 2 days, Day 2 was spent on adding two additional floor joists and installing the platform floor. I used Spax 3" screws for mounting the floor. A variable speed, corded 1/2" power drill is invaluable for this. Normally, Spax screws don't need pre-drilling, but it's a good idea to pre-drill when you need to set a screw near the end of a board. I kept the drill in my battery powered drill, so was able to work quickly.

    Day 3 saw the cutting of 7.5"x1/2" 8ft redwood planks into slats for the railing. The table saw is awsome for this. I sanded down the rough sawed boards first. The railing is built from 2x4" redwood boards at 2.5ft above the platform floor. I attached the slats using Spax 1 5/8" screws, again pre-drilling the slats, since the screws are close to the end of each slat. Finally, I added the support beams for the roof and cut the rear posts to length, so the roof slopes down towards the fence.

    On Day 4 I installed the remaining support beams for the roof, and the plywood. The plywood was cut from two 8x4 boards. I had them cut at HomeDepot to 6x3.5ft and ended up shortening one of them to 6x3ft, so it doesn't stick out too far in the back. The roof support beams are 6ft long and the plywood sticks out all around by about half a foot, giving a bit more shade and space for wrapping around the tar paper.

    This was a bit more interesting than I expected. I installed the top plywood piece first, secured it in place with several screws. Then threw the second plywood on the roof, and realized I can't reach beyond the first beam to add screws. Climbing on top of this, with a half secured plywood board in the rear was ... a bit annoying, but I was too lazy to get the ladder out of the garage.
    Once the plywood was in place, I cut the rear wall from 6ft redwood fencing boards, sanded them on the inside, and again screwed everything in place. A jigsaw makes cutting openings for the roof beams easy.

    All that's left to do is find some reasonably priced tar paper. I need 6x7ft, plus some slack, ~50 sqft. The smallest roll at HomeDepot costs $40 and covers 100 sqft.

    Anyone want to share?

    Sunday, April 19, 2009

    Ein Baumhaus - selbstgebaut

    Naja, Baumhaus ist vielleicht etwas uebertrieben, eher wohl Spielhaus auf Stelzen. So oder so, ich hatte diese Woche Urlaub und wollte wenigstens einen Eintrag von meiner Liste streichen koennen.

    Montag und Dienstag verbrachten wir mit diversen Handwerkern, die Angebote fuer anstehende Renovierungen im und am Haus abgaben. Mittwoch nach dem Fruehstueck wurde der Bauplan gezeichnet, und dann kam der Grosseinkauf. Zwei Stunden bei Home Depot, eine Stunde bei OSH. Am Abend war es dann beschlossene Sache, dass ich das Fundament aus Zement mache (und nicht Eisenbahnschwellen wie urspruenglich geplant).

    Donnerstag baute ich zunaechst den Rahmen der Platform aus 2x6 Redwood, und montierte dann die Pfosten (4x4 pressure treated fir) in die Ecken (mit Timbertite 4" Schrauben). Schoen gleichmaessig ausgemessen, so dass die Platform in jeder Ecke die gleiche Hoehe hat. Was ich nicht bedacht habe war die leichte Hanglage am Zaun, und so musste ich mich beim Lochgraben fuers Fundament hinten etwas verkuensteln damit die Platform in jeder Richtung eben ist. Das letzte Loch war Donnerstag abend mit Zement gefuellt und die Platform und Pfosten provisorisch abgestuetzt waehrend der Zement abbindet.

    Samstag ging es dann mit dem Boden der Platform weiter. Ich zog zwei zusaetzliche Spanten ein (2x6 Redwood) und montierte dann den Boden (2x6 und ein paar 2x4), worauf mir aber dann doch tatsaechlich die Schrauben ausgingen (Spax Stainless Steel 3").

    Gleich nach dem Fruehstueck am Sonntag ging es nochmal zu OSH um den Schraubenvorrat aufzustocken. Dann ging es Schlag auf Schlag. Die restlichen Schrauben im Boden der Platform kamen rein, dann die Balken fuer das Dach. Nach Bestandsaufnahme der Vorraete stellte ich fest, dass ich zwei weitere 2x4 brauche, um das Dach ordentlich abstuetzen zu koennen. Ein Besuch bei HomeDepot steht auf dem Programm... Fuer das Gelaender habe ich grob gesaegte Redwoodbretter abgeschliffen, zersaegt und verschraubt (mit Spax Stainless Steel 1 5/8"). Fuer die Rueckwand haben die Bretter nicht mehr gereicht, und ein paar muessen noch nachgekauft werden.

    Und da steht es nun in unserem Garten, das langersehnte Baumhaus. Naechstes Wochenende sollte alles fertig werden. Rueckwand ran und Dach drauf.

    Wednesday, April 15, 2009

    Da kommt's hin ...

    A high-quality online model railroad magazine

    Just came across Model Railroad Hobbyist, a quite nice online only model railroad magazine. Several well-known authors are writing for this magazine, Joe Fugate is an editor. The magazine looks very good, and is well done. The articles are targeted to the serious modeler, and, especially the step-by-step instructions, go into quite some detail. Nice. I wish them best of luck, and hope they succeed financially as well.

    Friday, April 10, 2009

    A random Link

    Every so often one comes across a really well done site, and then it's written in a language you don't speak. Case in point: Avontuur in Miniatuur

    The layout is very nice. The quality of the text and pictures is top-notch. I really like the Tips & Tricks section.

    ... and it's all in Dutch. Thankfully Dutch is close enough to German that I can find my way around, even though its quite a bit of work to muddle through words like "oppervlaktespanning" (surface tension), "afwasmiddel" (dish washing detergent), or "injectiepuit" (syringe). With a little bit imagination and reading the sentences out aloud the meaning often becomes clearer. "Oberflaechenspannung", "Abwaschmittel", "Injector thingie" convey enough meaning to make clear what the author wants to tell me.

    Much more fun than using automated translation tools.


    and if I actually paid attention, I would have noticed the "English" link in the top right corner earlier, though there is much less content in English than Dutch.

    Monday, March 30, 2009

    M4.3 earthquake near San Jose, CA

    This earthquake just happened less than 15km from my house.

    What I found interesting (and how I noticed this in the first place), is the chatter in the discussion channels at work went up immediately as the quake happened. Cool.

    Also, I didn't notice the waveforms feature at USGS yet.