Sunday, March 28, 2021

Coyote Ridge Hike

The Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority opens the Coyote Ridge preserve at the east end of Bailey Rd only a few times a year. Normally, they only offer docent-led group hikes. However, due to COVID they switched to a reservations-only model and we got to enjoy a self-led hike with very few people around us. We used the opportunity to take it very slow and enjoy plants, animals, and the views. 

The climb from the parking lot to the top of the ridge via the switchbacks is strenuous, but spectacular due to the wildflowers in full bloom and the many Bay Checkerspot Butterflies.

The trail along the top of the ridge meanders between the rolling hill tops, and has some nice views. It's mostly flat and provides some welcome respite and variety.

A great way to spend a Sunday morning.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

SVL: March Ops

CabCams tested and ready to go

With Santa Clara County back in Red Tier we started to plan for an end of the month remote ops session. This week the county upgraded to Orange Tier and California announced availability of vaccinations for everyone in April, so things are definitely improving with regard to the pandemic.

This month's Ops was for club members, and became sort of a shake-down session. The layout hadn't run since the November Open House, and we wanted to try out using Zello Personal instead of FRS radios to facilitate remote operator communications with Dispatch and Yards, including the ability to have multiple sub-channels for focused communication.

Extra 200 is staged in Dodge Siding for a trip to Tracy

Somewhat to my surprise, we had a lot of problems with Zello. The app is very slick, and easy to use. It does project the feeling of being on a radio link, which I think adds to the realism of communication.

However, multiple participants reported problems with a significant delay of the microphone going live, as well as being throttled by Zello for sending too many messages. It's not a good situation when the dispatcher can't talk to the rest of the crew because Zello determined that he has been too active and repeatedly puts him into a "timeout box" for two minutes.

I spent a good part of the evening jumpstarting the session. When the crew settled into a rhythm and the session was running, I got to run train 443, which required a local operator due to the large amount of switching needed in Nowheres and Silicon. After being in a session facilitator role for most of last year, it was very nice to again run a train on the layout.

Train 443 (in the front) has suspended switching in Silicon to let Extra 200 pass. X200 is controlled by a club member in the UK.

With switching chores in Silicon completed, train 443 continues to Windsor

Overall, this was a good, but somewhat chaotic return to operating our layout. There is a Youtube Live recording with sound from the dispatcher channel which might be enjoyable to some of my readers.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Morning Hike on Fortini Trail

We're using the last few opportunities of free entry to Santa Teresa County Park, before parking fees kick in again on April 6th.The park is particularly nice at this time of year. The grass is greeen, the poppies are out, and the wild turkeys are roaming around.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Solar System Refresh

Back in 2007, we installed our rooftop solar system. The SolarCity installer told us that we should plan on replacing the Xantrex Inverter after about 10-12 years. It lasted 13 years and finally died last fall. Tesla gave us a pretty good deal on a replacement inverter and in early February, our new Delta inverter went online.

I'm still waiting for the Tesla gateway to arrive so we can set up remote monitoring. Meanwhile, I'm checking in on the system from my phone using the inverter's Bluetooth connection. The app I use is called Delta M Professional. It is quite bare bones, but gets the job done. Our system is still producing 3 kW at peak, the panels are holding up well in year 14. In the afternoon we have some shading from one of the trees in the backyard, hence the uneven downswing of the power production curve. This will get better in the summer months when the sun is higher in the sky during the afternoon.

Yesterday was a pretty good day with clear skies and we produced over 18 kWh, which is roughly inline with March historic production.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Published. Again. (2)

Part Two of the article series Jeff and I wrote for Roundhouse, the magazine of the NMRA British Region, was been published recently, and today our printed copy arrived.

Part Two focuses on the practical aspects of setting up and running the November 2020 Virtual Open House at Silicon Valley Lines. The technical setup, practical considerations for tools and software, as well as ensuring a positive visitor experience.

Hopefully, we'll be able to offer a similar event to a global audience very soon.

Monday, March 15, 2021


Cool clouds today

Saturday, March 13, 2021

SVL: Upgrade Orgy

I spent most of the day today at Silicon Valley Lines tending to deferred computer maintenance. I upgraded the computer running DecoderPro at the programming track, and the layout computer to Catalina which is the latest version of MacOS X that will run on these somewhat old machines. Downloading OS versions, installing them, and applying point updates took a loooong time. Once the OS was updated, I double-checked the JMRI installation. I needed updated drivers for the USB to serial converters built into the NCE USB interface and the LCCBuffer USB, but that was easily accomplished, once I figured out which exact drivers I needed. I upgraded JMRI to version 4.22 on both computers through a couple intermediate steps at 4.12, 4.18, and 4.20 as recommended in the release notes. The upgrade process itself -- while boring -- went off mostly without problems. 

JMRI changed behavior in the JSON interface with regards to notifications around version 4.15, which breaks the integration of the custom web panels we use for controlling the layout. We'll need to dig a bit deeper to understand how to fix that. This problem was the main reason the layout computer was still running JMRI 4.14 so we have known about this problem for a while. It's time for a fix.

While the computers were downloading and updating stuff, I filled out the submission paperwork for inspection of the cars I built, decaled, and weathered over the last year. I also measured wifi signal quality around the layout room to help with investigations to improve quality of our cab cams.

Overall, a productive day, even though it doesn't feel like it.

Update 2021/03/14:
We've traced the change in behavior to JMRI being more strict about JSON requests and requiring a method field in the JSON data our panels send to the server.

RSD5: On the layout

My two RSD-5 lettered for Silicon Valley Lines numbers 1665 and 1667 moved to the layout tonight. After unpacking I couldn't resist taking them for a short trip from Hallelujah to Bayshore and back. Here's the pair rounding the curve at the Bayshore shops. As I was running the train I noticed that I forgot to clean the wheels after weathering, so power pickup was ... variable. 

On the way back to Hallelujah I caught the train at the bridge in Escape. The first batch of decaled and weathered two-bay hoppers looks very nice as the wheels are pounding the bridge decks.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

One Year Work-From-Home

On March 11th, 2020 -- one year ago -- I went into "work from home" mode, because the office was closed due to COVID-19 health concerns. As so many others I naively expected that this thing would be under control by June. In team meetings we were confident that we'd be working from the office again "by July at the latest". Little did we know ...

I had worked from home occasionally in pre-COVID times, even in the office I primarily used my laptop, so the impact on my work style was minimal. I now used a dedicated chair in the living room, that I only used when working. I set up a desk light that I turn on in the morning when I start work, and turn off in the afternoon when I'm done for the day. Since I no longer have a commute to separate "home" from "work", these little rituals help with defining time and space, and lead to better work/life balance. 

Our patio became my favorite place to work. I adjusted outside hours as temperatures changed. I started with sitting outside after lunch. As we got deeper into spring and summer, I settled on a routine of working from the patio until late morning, and moved inside when it was getting too hot outside to make the extra heating from the laptop comfortable.

In July 2020 I finally admitted to myself that this COVID thing is going to be with us for a while and returning to the office full-time in 2020 was looking increasingly unlikely. My employer had set up a program to support office furnishings at home which I used towards a motorized standing desk like I had in the office, a nice monitor, and external webcam, keyboard, and mouse.  

A year into this exercise we're still unclear about when we'd be back in the office 5 days a week. We have shown that the team, the department, and in fact the company can function with a vast majority of the office population away and connected only by electronic means. The impact on employees has been very uneven. Especially families with smaller children are struggling to organize their days and bring together the needs of work, childcare, and school. At work I have seen a trend towards both more structure and more freeform interactions. Meetings with larger groups are more structured with everyone joining online. At the end of the meeting everyone is gone, and there are no informal hallway conversations on the way out of the conference room. There has been a major democratization at larger meetings in that it no longer matters whether you participate in a meeting from the host room or another room. The experience is the same for everyone. There's been a significant increase in impromptu video chats and one-on-one meetings that are often shorter than a full meeting slot. This helps make up for the lack of in-person interactions, but isn't a great replacement to sitting down with a colleague over a coffee.

Of course there's no business travel currently and, as regular readers of this blog know,  I have been traveling quite a bit for work. Long-planned trips to London, Zurich, and Sydney at the beginning of the pandemic were canceled. We might return to the office at least part-time later this year, but I doubt I will be on a business trip for the foreseeable future.

Things have changed. This might be the "new normal". Or not. Let's wait and see what the next year brings.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Trees (2)

My tree experiments are starting to come together. I'm getting better and faster at building the trees. The grass area on segment two needs a few more trees. 

Since I'm using LED bands for lighting, the shadows on the backdrop are quite undefined. I haven't decided yet whether or not I like the effect.

Friday, March 05, 2021

Morning Poppies

California Poppies close up the flowers overnight, and open again in the morning when the sun comes out. It was still quite cool this morning. Just right for a hike.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021


Slowly, I'm getting the hang of it. I'm working on multiple trees in parallel, so that the glue can dry on one tree while I'm working on the next. This is the first tree that I'm reasonably happy with. The branch structure looks believable and it has no oddly angled bulges. Still missing flock and leaves. 

But, what a fiddly and slow-moving job. I was very close to throw these things out of the window in the last few days...