Plague Times Are Strange Times

Hey Dane, what have you been up to during the plague?

This page serves as a periodically updated list of things that I've observed and worked on during the 2020 plague. Many of the opinions and observations are just that, opinions and observations. I generally keep thumbnails somewhat small, but this story is best told with images so they are a bit larger than normal. I'm also toying around with center formatting everything so things 'just work' on mobile.

Prepare for a bit of a long read with discontinuous topics

Some Background

I very rarely do story format write-ups, but early 2020 is odd times so why not try something different. For those reading this in the distant future,  A pandemic hit the world in late 2019 / early 2020, some countries fared a lot better than others. The states handled it poorly. Misinformation, uncertainty and a just-in-time supply chain were a fairly bad mix, resulting in a lot of really odd scenarios. I'm a nuclear research engineer, and I work in Cambridge Massachusetts.

As this is a bunch of loosely connected activities, here's some direct linked highlights:

It begins: MIT closes up shop

From my perspective this got real in early February. Cases just began filtering into the states and working @ MIT (a fairly sizeable group of folks working in relatively tight quarters) was curious. There was not really any guidance, just things brewing early on. It was just under two months into the spring semester, so things were in full swing, but there was an air of uncertainty. 

Getting some space for sanity, quickly

With the "undergrads out in 3 days" decree, I gave a hand where I could. Picture being stuck in that position, you don't have a car and you need to get out of Dodge in a hurry. Had I been in that position I'd be faced with a 'where the heck should all my stuff go' problem, should my cutesy half-finished Fusor end up in the recycling bin? What about that boat anchor of a power supply? Are we coming back in a month or two years? Way back when I was doing my undergrad at RPI I had collected *a proverbial crate* of stuff, every weird recycled electronics gadget that I could remove parts from, industrial surplus with a cool key-switch. It was both junk and priceless.

I managed to get some lightly-used basement / storage space on Albany Street set aside for temporary storage for Nuclear Science undergrads / RX operators. It was fairly well received, and got some utilization. There was a lot of 'stuff' that was just thrown out in the chaos all around MIT's campus, rumors were grumbling about Logan airport closing made the situation worse.

A guy with a Jeep

Let me paint the picture. Its cold and a bit rainy (of course its rainy its Boston). A couple hundred people are trying to re-locate, and cardboard boxes are at a premium. I ended up helping a few folks re-locate things down to 'temporary' storage on Albany street. Jake Miskie was kind enough to document this zoo a bit more thoroughly here [link].

Creative Parking and a slew of emails

It was kind of funny how many sporadic emails looking for storage occurred during that period of time. Some Course 2 compatriots had half completed projects looking for homes, some of which ended up crated at home in my basement for the time being. The departure from campus was eery, everyone knew it was going to be hectic, but no one really wanted to interact in groups due to the many unknowns present at the time.

As you may know, I'm fairly involved in a group called MITERS. Shown below is the end-of-times party at miters before everyone scattered about the states.

A number of miters denizens live over at East campus. With the short-notice from admins of  'we're closing up campus for the year', nearly every u-haul and rental vehicle evaporated in a fairly sizeable radius. Given that it was barely half way through the semester, a few EC folks decided to just rent a combined house out east. This began the east-campus invades cape-cod expedition. Shown far right was a great bumper sticker summarizing the year ahead. 

Moving a gaggle of Undergrads to Cape Cod

I checked in with Radiation Protection group to borrow their rather giant van. For reference, the email title: "Adding the EHS van to the GET FIT Program", the GET-FIT program [link] is an MIT exercise program where you log your exercise time and win... Dunkin Doughnuts gift cards or maybe a t shirt.  Either way, this worked out and for-whatever reason was entrusted with a large van. This was a rather large, tall van that never really had the chance of escaping out into the world, most of its journeys were short jaunts around campus. Without further ado, here it is:

With newfound access to a radiation protection van, thanks to the ever-excellent Bill McCarthy it was time to load up.  Lets take a step back here, like most campus vehicles, this particular van-agon spends a majority of its life parked. Now it was going to take a voyage down to Cape Cod and back. I cant thank Bill enough for lending this chariot out during those curious times. I checked the oil and transmission fluid levels, and was mildly envious of how little use this vehicle had seen. 

So we loaded it up with 'essentials' for the trip down south. Bicycles, plants, food, textbooks, and the like all got piled in over the course of 45 minutes. A few colleagues and alums brought over their personal vehicles to help ferry what did not fit in the transport van. Something like 16-18 undergrads stuff was packed in.The ever excellent Savva packing in contraptions and contraband.

The armada of assistants

Friends and alums pitched in to help move folks down to the cape. I think shown is the Austin B mobile and an alum pickup. There were a lot of *things* to move out to the cape and having a train of personal vehicles was nice as i only had to take one big-van trip down.

Bicycles, potted plants batteries, contraband, and some small quantities of non perishable food were hastily piled into the EHS van.
Finally, we got a quick group photo and headed east. Keep in mind this was March, so concepts of everyone wearing a mask, gloves or keeping distance was not really an established thing.Nominally the known cases in the area were in the dozens at this point, stemming from a recent biotech conference.

One of the interesting things during the move was this the number of small DIY electric vehicles. Given the propensity of DIY packs to be somewhat dubious I was a somewhat worried the van would 'rapidly disassemble'. I had talked with each owner and asked them to disconnect the battery packs before moving which probably was the easiest way to make them 'more inert'. I liked this very home-made eBike, its rare to see mid-drive style eBikes, but man how useful would an eBike be when you're now impromptu moving to cape cod, a place that's almost empty in the wintertime, with scenic vistas looking into a cold sea. Its the perfect budget vehicle. I was a bit surprised at the price of the motor, it looks like its a kit from cyclone-tw [link] at ~500 USD. The major advantage over a hub motor is the ability to use the bicycles geared drive train for a better range of speeds. These kits generally have a BLDC hall effect sensored motor tied to a 3:1 planetary gearbox where the output shaft then feeds a secondary reduction. Somewhat annoyingly, these planetaries are generally nylon spur gears to reduce gear-noise (and reduce manufacturing price) but generally fail when the nylon heats up under load. 

With everything loaded up I headed even more east than Boston. Had I mentioned that this van was basically un-used? It had accrued only 8009 miles before departing (and a transmission warning light). Have you driven an incredibly tall van on a windy day before?  Neither had I. One of the cape-cod area bridges crosses a large stretch of open water and was especially windy. This made the ride all the more interesting. Transmission warning light seemed to be dependent on fuel-tank level which was curious. The roads were quiet, the skies were clear, the year ahead was going to get weird. I spent most of the drive hyper attentive but also pensive. What was work from home, how do you do hardware remotely, is this a bit of a vacation?

We got to cape cod un-scathed and proceeded to unload everything onto the lawn so I could head back before the sun evaporated away. There were many things, but also many happy-to-have-found-a-home people. I left the cape at ~4 PM, went on a quick grocery store run (isopropyl alcohol was not available locally so I figured I would check if cape cod was any different. I loaded up on IPA and dairy free yogurt and headed back east before it became too dark. The empty van was surprisingly even more subject to gusts of wind as there was no ballast to keep it planted to the ground. In my somewhat hurried state, I managed to forget to bring my phone charger, but was able to get away with one that was leftover in the glove box, which, somehow only supported a 0.5A charge rate, or just enough to keep the phone (GPS) on, but not actually charge.

After dropping everything off I headed back to Cambridge to return the van. The grocery store had the standard 'its a blizzard lets make french toast' things missing. Milk, Bread and Yogurt were gone, but everything else was there. I think I counted three folks wearing face protection, I was wearing some spare purple lab gloves and a mold-over vented N95.

Happy Pi Day 2020.

Got back to Cambridge and paid $20 for some diesel to refuel the beast. Interestingly, this particular van hides the fuel door behind the driver side door, which took a solid five minutes to find.  I promptly returned the van to its sleepy corner of campus, impressed that everything worked out. Ran across some interesting roadside attractions on the way down, an impromptu scalper supplying medical supplies out of a pop-up tent. I got back home, took a shower and unplugged for the remainder of the day. I didn't do anything particularly strenuous, but for whatever reason the anxiety of the unknown really chews through energy efficiently.

At home I was happy that we got the moving done, kinda curious to see what the subsequent weeks would be like. A return to normalcy, or whatever that would be, and whenever it would happen. I was admittedly anxious, I took precautions, wearing gloves and a mask throughout the whole trip but, information about how the plague spread was not fantastically available. Spent the rest of the following day cleaning and organizing the miscellaneous home hardware, mostly as a way to keep my hands busy and not think about the zoo ahead.  McMaster-Carr was still up and running so I ordered some bins and grabbed some lumber from a local supplier. Got rid of some uncertainty by organizing things and making some shelves.

Gallery of images from the Cape Cod Excursion [link].

Masks On Begins

I initially got involved with what would become the MasksOn program via Habib from e14/media lab. There was an email sent along about a plot to turn scuba hardware into emergency PPE. Initially I was a bit dubious of this working, but its important to consider the particular time this occurred. MIT was closed, along with all the labs and fun people. I reached out to be a part of some of the more formal MIT support programs but was ignored. MIT really enjoys its kingdom building and communication is remarkably mediocre.
Everyone was stuck home, waiting around indoors for news, which was mostly just uncertainty with a dash of confusion. This was, at least to me, a productive distraction. So I got to work.

Using I Robot filters as part of emergency PPE

Part of the brainstorming process was thinking up alternative mechanisms for providing protected air to the user. I had used some irobot filters for providing cleaner-air for a control cabinet, however the idea of using it as PPE was interesting.

How do you test a respirator?

Having worked at the MIT Reactor Laboratory for a while, we periodically get respirator fit-tested. This is a fairly straightforward process where you wear a test fixture and move your head around and it verifies a seal. I poked around and the one used on campus had been re-purposed for Covid research activities. I was aware of a broken one, hiding in a closet and figured I'd give it a ago at fixing it. A few hours of dorking later and I was getting nowhere. All I knew was the unit uses IPA alcohol as part of its process and their was a small vial with the broken unit.

Finding a manual and figuring out why it was malfunctioning

The unit itself is a TSI PortaCount Plus model 8020, this thing was somewhat old and I could not find the user manual online so I reached out to TSI and was able to get a copy of the manual [link] and addendum [link]. The addendum describes serial settings and dip-switches for rs232 / serial baud rate. The manual calls out 99.5% reagent grade IPA, and the stuff in the kit was somewhat questionable. Its unclear if I've been around too much IPA, but when 70% IPA contacts skin it wets really easily. When 90+% IPA contacts skin it does not. The reagent in the kit was questionable and after i placed a small amount on a crucible and burned it, water was leftover, so its likely this was only 70%. We have a possible suspect.

Super IPA

I had a thought that the IPA purity was possibly a culprit, but we're at the beginning of a pandemic and IPA is straight up non-existent. Its not available on chem supply websites or McMaster. Yes, the almighty Mc-Master Carr cant get it. So I thought a bit, its likely that lab-grade IPA exists on campus, how hard would it be to get some. Bio folks like their IPA, so i reached out and via a friend of a friend of a friend some IPA was secured. As it turned out everyone being stuck at home resulted in a lot of people who desperately wanted something to do. It appeared in eppendorf tubes, freshly run from campus. 100% IPA is significantly better than 70% which I had been using / was in the test kit.

With some back and forth, and purging of the test fluid, its up and running again, the respirator fit test machine is back in business.  Its old and cranky but its sometimes working. Lets get it to be reliable.

Lets dig thru some parts of the manual, what self-testing can i do to verify things are working or troubleshoot what parts are finicky. Its likely there's some residual moisture from the non-70% IPA that was used.  It looks like there's three major test procedures, particle check zero check and max check. Lets dig into each test and see what parts can be done with what i have on-hand. I don't have an actual mask to hook up to this so I'd need to make something.

 Particle check appears to be pretty simple, install IPA in a cylinder with a wick, the unit slurps it up and likely heats it with a small heater to make vapors. The vapors are registered with a beam-brake or beam-scatter counter. Its interesting if i ran the test with a cold unit it would barely pass, but a subsequent test passed with no issues. Its likely water got in the heater and  the extra thermal mass prevented it from getting to temperature. I dug around and found the counter (has a small laser logo on it). I used a very small vacuum pump to draw a vacuum on the unit (evaporate off any water stuck inside). This is a barely rough vacuum pump, its a small diaphragm pump from sparkfun.

I re-ran the particle check test after an hour of very rough vacuum and it started passing with 10k-counts on the first go! Progress!

I had no problems passing the zero check, but last up was the MAX FF check anyway?

MaxFF is basically a way to make sure the solenoid valve internally works well, and surprise surprise it didn't. I opened it up and cleaned it out as best as possible and actuated it (coil resistance was fairly low so i used a 5V supply with a current limit. I applied silicone lubricant as the valve looked like it used a silicone flapper seat. After a lot of faffing about it was now clean and sealing again. I found this funny part in the test procedure 'we bound the value so we don't get div-by-zero issues'.

The Dane workshop was not really suited for MasksOn development, I was by myself and there was a much greater concentration fo MasksOn folks out of OnShape, so I went on a trip to bring them the goods, a working albeit old portacount respirator tester. OnShape comically enough just moved to this big monstrosity of a building in Boston. Nothing like paying for super expensive real estate and having nearly everyone work from home. MasksOn at the time was called 3D Corps, there was a lot of things to do at the beginning and things were in flux. I did the hand off on that rainy night and it was great briefly meeting John, we had chatted plenty of Slack but in-person is always interesting.

There were a lot of plots related to MasksOn, but its useful to paint a picture first of what was going on in the medical scene right around now. The states is run on privatized healthcare which worked tirelessly to extract money from those who were in their care, despite this high revenue they opted again for a just-in-time system, why pay for storing things when you can just get them delivered on demand? Welp the small stockpiles that did exist were exhausted within days. *days*.

In the US everyone was staring at this bonfire from a distance. It was embarrassing.

Some industries do a good job defining hazards, namely radiation workers. Rad work is serious, the hazard is measurable and there's protection for it. Imagine the excuse 'lead shielding is expensive just use a trash bag instead'. Its absurd.

PPE should be a protected thing under OSHA rules, but pandemics were a new one even for OSHA. Is a pandemic a workplace Hazard? Is this something that warrants Hazard Pay? Was EVERYONE going to get a hazard bonus?

<add documentation here>

The EUA appears

Realizing how terrible things were the FDA lowered the bar for PPE, under the Emergency Use Authorization. This spurred a lot of emergency PPE to exist, folks with 3D printers went to town printing sneeze guard holders, thingiverse got flooded with dubious designs, and full on legitimate vendors went full speed making EUA compliant things. Portable "PCR" machines were born, antigen tests appeared, it was remarkable how much got done while a lot of people worked from home.

So this was the first-ish generation of the kit, a seal-able bag with appropriate labels and a warning indicating this was for emergency use only. The kit came with documentation and was packaged up as a mask with an injection molded adapter that mated to a P100 anesthesia filter which was still available in quantity while other PPE was not. Interestingly the P100 filters for surgery still existed and generally were useful for not only a day but multiple days without issue.

Lightspeed Manufacturing did the kitting and there was a small group tour, its a really wonderful place. Scott was nice enough to grab this sleepy photo of me with a size small mask and the newly injection molded filter adapter. This was so exciting, a group of strangers got together and build a product in the worst possible manufacturing environment and shipped ~30K kits. These ended up in hospitals around the states and even snuck their way into popular TV shows.

These kits went everywhere. Literally everywhere. The exact people they went to and hospitals was not public but this map is, look at how many places these *scuba mask kits* reached, its absurd. This map was generated 100days into the kits being available, roughly 22k kits were shipped. Note that they didn't just cover the states, they also covered some vessels offshore.

A clip from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver hammered on how absurd it was that the worlds super power was down to ski goggles and scuba masks but it was kind of amazing seeing this make its way to the public eye so quickly. Its hard to link directly to the episode and I wasn't really excited posting copyright protected videos here, but suffice it to say John went hard on how absurd it was that nurses were donning garbage bags to protect them from micron sized virus's. The good bits of MasksOn didn't get much notoriety but I think the purpose of the segment was clear, a huge disconnect between front line worker needs and the available resources.

You can find more information on this

and some pictures here: [link]

<more documentation todo here>

Helping out "Go Kart Dad"

I think we could all use some good news, and this one is great. A good friend pinged me regarding one of his relatives working on a homemade electric go-kart with his kids. I was on-board immediately. As you may have known, I'm a fan of silly small electric vehicles.To preface things, at this point getting things in the mail was sporadic and shipping times were all over the place. I had a number of battery modules and associated whatnot at my home-lab and quickly determined that they were better suited being put to use. One of my favorite battery related things is the magical 36v operating point. Its rare that things sub-divide this well while matching up with the de-facto lead-acid topology.

Chemistry Configuration Discharged Voltage Charged Voltage
Lead Acid 3 x 12v batteries in series 33 43.2
LiFePO4 12 Cells in Series 30
Li-Ion 10 Cells in Series 30
Li-Ti 16 Cells in Series 30.4

12 Cell Big Battery Blob

I was gifted four of these from a colleague, they are 12S-3P K2 systems custom packs, with an on-board relatively low current BMS. This is roughly 9AH at '36v', and plenty of run time for a small electric children s go-kart. The on-board BMS should also protect against over-voltage and under-voltage, which should keep them fairly safe. I recommended a simple 42v scooter charger (2A) from amazon as they are fairly ubiquitous, but nominally to keep an eye on it while charging. 

Electrically Loading the Unknown Pack

Without knowing much about these packs (or their on board BMS) I decided to run a quick load test. The motor controller is rated for 22A, which was do-able with my 2.5kw load. I set the control current and let it sit for 10 minutes at what should nominally be the highest power the pack sees. Realistically its unlikely that the cart could accelerate and hold the max current continuously, I think the closest condition would be driving in a tight circle for many minutes which is probably not-feasible. 

Note these images were taken with a Flir E6, so the resolution isn't amazing, however, you do get a good idea for thermal buildup.The purpose of this test was to determine if the battery, and more particularly the battery management hardware, would stay reasonably cool during its use.  After a 10 minute 22A load test, the controller sat at a mild 107F / 30C, starting from an ambient environment of 80F / 23C. The pack was officially ready for go carting. Note that a 22A controller really only sees that current when accelerating from stop, the actual current consumption at top speed on level ground is probably closer to ~10A, or ~400W. This pack should provide about an hour of run time.

The Kit controller

The kit came with a 22A controller, and is the generic 'jasontroller' configuration. Large array of TO-220 through hole mosfets on one side, heat-sunk to an extrusion case. Unfortunately, as many jasontrollers are, nothing is labeled, as a bonus, the only easy to identify cables here are the motor sensor, the three phases and the battery input. The throttle was non-standard 5 wire, and there were a pile of 'extra connectors' of confusing purpose. I cant believe they sell an undocumented blob of wires. 

Starting off I did notice an LED indicator silkscreen. A majority of these controllers actually are born to have a status-led, or blink codes used to determine what the controller is up to. These can be handy for diagnosing a failed throttle sensor or an under-voltage state. Lets tack on a small 0805 LED. And by 0805 LED I meant big through hole led because I was out of easily accessible surface mount LEDS. With some status info, now it was possible to sort out what the controller is trying to do.

Digging around to find the bus voltage feedback

To change the under-voltage cutoff, without access to the controller firmware, the only option is to trick the controller into seeing the correct voltage. To do this we change the resistor divider. I started by feeding the controller's DC bus with a fairly stout power supply. With everything connected (motor, throttle, controller logic power switch, motor sensors) I slowly ramped the throttle to verify the motor was functional starting at '48v'. Note that when running a BLDC controller from a power supply, almost every bench supply is single-quadrant, meaning it cannot sink power, just source power.

Finding thresholds

With the controller powered up from a bench supply, I tacked a small sense lead to watch what i believed was the controller voltage sense point. I found that at 42v it cut out (sense point 2v), we needed to adjust that to be closer to 35V, to do that I added a parallel resistor across the positive side of the feedback circuit, 12K was enough to bring the sense point for under-voltage cutout up to 2v at a battery input of 35V. The battery pack had its own under-voltage cut-off, however its way less stressful to have the controller cut out first, than try and interrupt 20+A at the BMS.
I put together a rough labeled diagram of the final setup. This made it easier for the go-kart installation, as I was not going to be there for the first spool up test. Quick video of the spool-up and the go-kart in action below.

After the modifications to their stock eBike / motor controller to convert it to operate at a lower battery voltage, I recorded a quick video clip showing the simple functionality. I still found it remarkable that they shipped this kit with completely incompatible throttle connectors. Video below:

A few weeks later the following wonderful machine was born. The battery pack and motor controller worked out great. The top speed ended up being ~10-15mph but the acceleration was stellar, [link to file]. It was excellent to see how well this worked out, glad to have made someone else's quarantine more interesting.  I think after some initial testing there were some turning-radius issues so they opted for a split axle, with the right side driven and the left side freewheeling. Looks like a good time.

Great job guys! More details of their build are here [link]

Drive In Movie Night

Around a month and a half into the pandemic, the idea dawned to do a socially-distant drive in movie night. Everyone could stay in their own cars, audio received by radio-waves, what could be better.  A diy-drive-in is actually incredibly simple to do, but requires a dark remote place. The pandemic mildly restricts drive ins because, bathrooms are less accessible. Stores are not open, and at the time bathroom sanitary-ness was an open question. We dug around and found an industrial park that was nearby enough and dark enough to work. Advert for the evening shown below.

I didn't get a good photo of the setup, but nominally the projector was a model XYXYXYX and I used a Greenworks 36V 300W inverter, tied to two 12S LiFePO4 eBike packs. Each pack is ~350wh, and an Anderson parallel adapter was used to increase capacity. I used a normal pull-down projector screen, however, I forgot how good this projector was. We left the screen up and projected the side of the frame onto the 53' shipping container. Next time a cloth projection screen would work, interestingly it looks like 'outdoor movie night' took over eBay, and screens are only available in either ginormous or comically small size. 

We watched one of the greatest movies ever made, TURBO KID. Everyone had a blast. Right before the end, heavily murdery scene a rent-a-security guy appeared and asked us to stop tresspassing. Still was a great time had by all. Also the pixel-phone's night vision mode is amazing. Shown is an impossibly good image of the setup, thanks Fred. 

Hiking and exercise

After a few weeks of working remotely, loosing track of time and being a bit wound up I tried a 'work from home but outdoors' day. Its late March, undergrads were all kicked out a week and a half ago. Its still cold, and everything is uncertain in the ether.  I hopped on my derpy home 'mountainbike' eBike, which is admittedly less used than the road bike or the newer mountain eBike, but it works. I brought along with me a folding chair and a backpack of snacks.

I live outside of the city and aside of some dog walkers its fairy quiet. The first real voyage out to do some exploring started in late March. I had gone on plenty of jogs around the neighborhood but the amount of uncertainty and unknown was pretty overwhelming for everyone. Folks were washing their mail, leaving their packages outside for a few days in case there was surface contamination. There were a lot of zoom calls, or the like it was also February so its cold and snowy up in the northeast. Escaping in February didn't have a lot of allure, namely due to the temperature. When things started warming up in March I masked up and hit the pedals. 

Exploring local areas

The park and nearby woodlands are always a treat. This spot in particular is a favorite as it looks out onto the reservoir with a fairly open view. In early April there's not enough thermal energy outdoors for the flies and mosquitoes to awaken so its a fairly excellent experience overall. It was quiet. eerily quiet. While there is not a large motorway nearby, I had always heard something in the background, low flying prop planes heading towards Hanscom Air Force Base, someone with comically loud landscaping equipment chipping away at their lawn, or the small engine fishing boat puttering around the lake. Nothing, there was nothing but cool crisp wind.

I kept exploring via mountain bike, but nominally keeping within a 'walk back home' radius.

Mid April brought some late snow. For whatever reason I enjoy running in bad weather. It was impressively silent out on that snowy quarantined morning. Its unfortunate my robot snowblower was hiding near the city, so shoveling here was a manual exercise.  

A first attempt at work from home: outdoors edition

It was late April so things were still cold outside I had a 10' x 10' tarp and rope and was tired of being cooped up in an apartment. I ventured out and made an impromptu remote office. I dragged along a camping chair, laptop, a battery pack and an electric thermos. It was crude but it was mine. There was plenty of 4G for short zoom audio calls and with a modified green works inverter I was able to laptop for a while, albeit significantly chewing through my eBike battery.

The thermos i used was an ali-express cheap 12v vehicle 'thermos', I ran it from a small 12v LiFePO4 battery module. This provided some hot water for tea. The spot was alongside an out-of-the way trail and a few dog walkers said hi. It was a goofy setup but I was having fun and the change of scenery was nice. After around an hour it began raining. Interestingly folding camping chairs do little to keep your bottom from freezing off and I made a note to bring some foam padding for the seat bottom next time. With MIT being in a state of 'how does remote work, work' I had some time to document some incomplete projects and explore more modern formatting options. This began the slow move to making things more mobile friendly.

I later found some more interesting work from home, albeit outdoors spots

There was a really interesting pavilion hiding as a remnant from some depreciated girl scout campsite. It had two large picnic benches and a surprisingly non-leaky roof. This was way better than my dodgy folding chair and a tarp. It had a bit of 'scooby doo ghost town' vibes but I made a sign that said 'working remotely' with a smiley face on it, this surprisingly made everything more legitimate. Passerby's that found me all exclaimed that it was an excellent 'remote office' and asked questions about what i was working on, etc. Having a notebook really does make things look more legitimate.

Work from home outdoors tips and tricks:

I found that some simple things to bring along make a big difference. A small cloth tablecloth, a few snacks, handwipes and a 12v thermos to make some tea made the outdoors productive. Later on I brought along a modified greenworks '40v' 300w inverter, which makes an excellent e-bike -> 110vac converter. I also dragged along a small 'desk fan' for those warm days. The 'desk fan' was really just a leftover 12v computer fan but, I later upgraded to a baby-carriage rechargeable fan. Living the fancy life out in the woods. The view from my 'desk' was quite excellent. This was a great escape.

The nearby park was a really excellent reprieve from the world. Tea and outdoors is a good mix. Carrying a separate battery just for the thermos was bulky, so i opted for this small '60W' DC/DC converter to lower the battery pack voltage down to 12v to run my thermos. The under-voltage cutoff on the dc/dc was ~32V so i had some protection against over discharging my eBike pack.  The  thermos was fairly low quality and I ended up removing its incredibly bad heating element and replacing it with three TO-220 resistors, resistance welded to the underside of the thermos. At least those parts had datasheets. At ~20W it would take nearly 45 minutes to get a cup of water to ~90C tea temperature, this was by no means a speedy cup of tea.

My exploring range was somewhat tied to how far I could pedal my overly heavy franken eBike + the amount of battery I had on board. One of my fun hobbies was to spy 'accessible' outlets. My eBike batteries are a bit retro, these are the go-to 12s4P A123 26650 packs, while they are only 390wh, they are were free surplus packs from my days at A123 systems. It had been a back-burner project to make a modern 10S lithium pack, as, it would nearly triple the energy density in the same mechanical form factor, eliminating the need to recharge so often. 390wh is ~15miles of eBike range or, roughly 5 hours of W530 laptop + inverter use. This was nominally 'just enough' for a workday and some zooming around. I did spy an unguarded J1772 charger on my voyages, which added yet another project to the list J1772 bike.

Bigger tires are not better tires

26" rims can technically hold a number of sized tires. Stock ~1.5" wide tires were getting old, so why not try and make it a fake fat-mountain-eBike given that it could just about hold 2.25" wide tires. I tried Bell Kingpin 26x2.25" bike tires 'with Kevlar'. This was a failed experiment, I found that the wider tires were incredibly likely to fail in new and exciting ways. I tried run flat inner tubes but I kept getting thorn punctures and really odd blowouts. I was hoping for a comfier ride but i got a lot of walking back thru the Forrest with punctures that no patch kit i had could seal up.

Back to some useful-sized tires, my journeys ended up in some interesting places. Sometime around June everyone else figured out what I had figured out, mountain biking around was wonderful, so every boat launch and trail was kinda packed with wandering pedestrians. This is a bit troubling as bike paths thru the woods and densely packed joggers can result in bad. I opted for 'not quite trails', ie power line service routes. They are sometimes private but sometimes public, so with some sleuthing you can spot the non-trespassing ones and go for a properly secluded biking session. These routes are generally not terrible, as some chonky 4x4 electric service van needs to make its way down these dirt paths. Ive never actually seen one, I imagine they are just advanced landscaper vehicles. These trails snake under the HV tension lines for ages and oddly rarely intersect with roadways. Generally these become 'convenient walking paths' if they draw a line between two places, like a high school and a shopping center. I did find a few folks who were also out for a jog. I really had not seen these towers up close

I found a wayward transmit tower hiding in the woods. This was properly hidden, I could not find exactly where it was getting its power from, as most of the conduits feeding it immediately went underground. It was run by SBA [link] and probably a remote cell site. It a large propane tank in the back, likely to run an emergency generator but all in all this seemed like a large cabin for a cell tower repeater.

More relics that were really curious. Still not sure what these stairs were doing or where they were going. There's nothing over here for them to go to.

Dane Gets Lost in Astro-Photography

The ever-excellent Bayley Wang grabbed a Celestron CGEM-8 ages ago, and due to the chaos surrounding the time when MIT closed, it was stuck in MITERS for a while. Thanks to some help from DLAB Jack, I was able to borrow it for a bit. The nighttime camera phone pictures don't do it justice, its a cool setup.

Did you know Astro-photography is very similar hobby to small arms collection? You cant just have a telescope, it needs a sight, an aiming camera, a tracking mount, a pile of widgets and filters. Batteries, band heaters a laptop, the list goes on and on. So what did I end up trying out? Good Question

I managed to find some dark skies thanks to the nice folks at Autumn Hills Orchards, mid winter, clear skies and quite cold. It was wonderful.
To not freeze into a solid block, I repaired / revived a diesel heater, documented here [yeet heet]. I piped the hot air into the jeep and stayed surprisingly warm overnight.

Here was the live-support system, yes it looks ridiculous. It got down to -15 Celsius / 8F, it worked phenomenally well.

Photogrammetry of complex machine spaces

If you want to reference the location of something in a complex, somewhat crowded machine space, can you make a model and use photogrammetry to point to specific things? This episode of 'Dane try's to find a reason to get / use camera equipment' lets try and test out this concept in a somewhat confined particulate sampling shed. The initial plot was simple, use a nice DSLR and take a pile of images without moving around equipment, while the limited access to campus was available. At this point we were on-site one day a week, so the plot was go in take a lot of pictures and sort them out at a later date. How hard could that be?

For compute resources I had my 'crufty Xeon' a large dual-CPU Xeon, with 96gb of ram and some solid-state storage. A single RTX 1080 was the video card, which eventually became an RTX 2070 when I was able to find one. With a bunch of CPU available what are my options for crunching that directory of photos into a 3d scene?

First attempts at photos were a bit of a mistake:

The first issue was my fault. It had been a while since I had been in this 'science sampling shed' and it was smaller inside than I thought. I picked the wrong lens so almost everything was very very limited in terms of photo available viewing area. I had to stand basically at the walls of the room to get any sort of larger picture. I was hoping 'maybe mesh room does not care' and can sort it on its own. But yeah we can see how that went below. I ended up with 1.42GB of photos from a Panasonic GH3 as my 'dataset', hoping that if i took enough photos itd just work out'

What about images from a 360 camera?

The next step was to use a GoPro 360 camera (the cheapest / easiest to get a hold of camera at the time). The logic was fairly reasonable, grab a few ~18MP 360 degree photos and feed them into 'meshing software' and hope the output was reasonable. So i did that, and lo here's the GoPro Fusion 360. A very weird camera.

360 Video Adventures

I had this idea, where I wear a 360 video camera and go do some longer trek mountain-biking / exploring. Seems simple right, put camera on head go biking right? As it turns out the GoPro 360 that I used was a peculiar beast, the fusion 360 is an earlier variant, which opted to do all its meshing off-board. The process for going from footage to embed-able video is fairly cumbersome. I documented some of the trials and tribulations here: 

MIT Reopening

Getting researchers back in and Getting tested twice weekly

Some interesting observations while on campus during this time

Disabling communal devices water fountains and water coolers are either turned around to discourage use or wrapped over / spouts removed.

Testing opened up at the Johnson Athletic center, this was all indoors, as the 'stand around outside by MIT medical' wouldn't work so well during the winter. The setup worked surprisingly well, there were 3 spots for folks to scan your id / phone-app bar-code, when you scanned in they would see a photo of your face, you confirmed your phone & DOB, then were given a sampling container. You'd head to these weird 3-person stations where someone would observe you picking your nose.

This was way more labor intensive than Harvard's approach. Harvard offered little baggies with bar-codes and sampling container. You could grab a few before hand, when you needed to provide a sample you do it and drop it off. Maybe Harvard trusts folks to not putz with having other folks submit tests on other peoples behalf, or maybe it was just cheaper.

You take your little sample container (with associated bar-code) to a drop off desk, where they get loaded into trays and sent down to the BROAD institute, a few blocks away.

The testing process ended up with small trays. These appeared to be a stainless block that was cnc'd with slightly oversized holes to fit everyone's testing samples. I imagine these were grabbed by a pick and place for faster analysis.

Vaccinations @ MIT:

At risk Faculty & Staff were offered vaccinations fairly early, but this was limited to MIT Medical staff & rather older folk.
Around January 2021, MIT started getting excited about vaccinating more of its personnel, and setup booths and chairs for doing large group vaccinations. This was exciting as it was a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. But alas, like most things, it did not pan out. Massachusetts leaned heavy on having the state be the sole distributor of vaccine. To complicate things, northeastern demonstrated it was unable to play fair [link], and mildly screwed it up for the rest of nearby academia.
MIT ended up getting small amounts of vaccine in early May 2021, but were unable to guarantee second-shots. In the meantime updates to signage and new processes for keeping case numbers down continued along.

Speaking of signage changes:

There was a modified tele-presence robot equipped with UVC bulbs that got a dock station over in the Athletic center. I'm not sure if it was used frequently or not, but the signage was interesting. Water-fountains now had industrial lockout tag-out applied to prevent use and other oddities were added, sporadically around campus.

Here's the lil' fella, now with some updated documentation. This contraption is by Ava Robotics, a telepresence company in Cambridge MA. They have some details about their disinfection robot here [link]. There's a pamphlet here [link] and a local copy [link]. The Ava disinfection bot was parked in the MIT field-house / ice rink where bulk testing was performed. It always was on its charger pad, but that is likely due to it operating only when people were not around.

A 24-Hour IHOP, but for plague testing

Almost all of the little adorable vials from Cambridge and nearby areas ended up here, you could walk by at night and see the small x-y pick and places or some lab technician staring at a vertically mounted screen. This is Broad Institute 320C [link]. Note you couldn't stop by to get tested, but most of the surrounding tests were PCR'd right in that small building. During the day, small school buses would appear, miscellaneous cars would appear all dropping off tiny coolers with bio-hazard stickers of (likely) testing vials.

Some other changes appeared, the entrance into MIT had these dystopian subway access gates installed. Because planning isn't really a strong point, the test depositing area is just outside of these gates, so you would end up getting to the test drop off site, finding out you needed to initialize your access for the day, then, wait around for 15minutes to get thru to drop off your test kit. It was not great but you could see why it existed, permitting the public and plague in at random puts those who work there at risk. With some anecdotal digging, there had been no time in the history of this buildings existence where the front doors needed to be locked.

Take a step back for a minute, these doors had been open for decades and only during the pandemic were they locked and then access restrictions added on. The two doors to either side were locked from the outside but open-able from the inside, I imagine as a fire escape route. 

Updated testing @ MIT

With the students back on campus testing switched from in-person (show up at two testing sites and be supervised during testing) to un-supervised. You get a kit which contains some details about the sample collection, inside that kit is another baggie with a nose swab. You correlate the kit barcode with your mit account, put the sample in the lil vial and then bring it over to a few collection points on-campus. Late January 2022 KF94 face masks were distributed as the omicron variant caused a fairly sizeable spike on campus.

Earlier on in the MasksOn portion of this write up I did delve into OSHA and hazard pay, did you know MIT provided hazard pay for hourly workers for a period of time? This did not affect salaried workers, which even though I pushed the issue, I did got an incredibly hand-wavey answer from the head of MIT HR:

"MIT salaried staff are exempt from hazards"


Installing a Digital Nuclear Safety System at the MIT NRL

Lets start with some back-story. Some time in 2014 the hardware for an upgraded controls system for the MIT NRL was submitted to the NRC. fast forward to late 2019 and it was approved. Here's the submission in all its photocopied-pdf glory:  [link]
Interestingly there's a timeline embedded into the installation, 180 days. This is probably to ensure that approved upgrades happen in a reasonable timeline but its not terribly clear. Unfortunately that 180 day window started right around when Wuhan was experiencing the beginning of the pandemic. An extension was granted, but upgrade season had begun!

What is being research staff at MIT like during this time?
The return to research was broken into three phases, the first of which had little guidance on Covid testing intervals. I opted to go at least weekly, but the testing interval wasn't well defined for phase 1.  Building access was restricted to only the building you absolutely need. By this period the personnel who were on-campus residents had a once weekly requirement. During research ramp-up phase 1,  MIT medical had its hands full, trailers were setup for testing, and the actual 'get tested' process changed a bit over the phase 1 / rampup.

The safety system install involved removing a bunch of legacy hardware, identifying abandoned cable runs, removing things, documenting, labeling, cabling and the like. Realistically this compounded by issues of hardware abandonment, when items were removed from service its nominally less intrusive to simply leave that hardware / cabling in place, instead of removing. Integrating that practice over decades resulted in a lot of abandoned things. Documenting and removing those things were laborious to say the least.

Interesting artifacts
While removing some ancient pico-ammeters, way on the bottom of a rack cabinet there was scribbled "This Sucks" with some very vintage grease pencil. Clearly the last installation had its trials and tribulations. I added a new sticker for whoever ends up doing this process again in the distant future, an Easter egg in an atomic time capsule.

Legacy instruments that were removed ended up piling out on a table outside of the control room.
Slowly it grew to a bit of a cacophony of elderly technology and miscellaneous gray wires.

<documentation incomplete, need to finish>

The passing of Steve Finberg

Who's Steve?

Steve Finberg was one of the big pillars of making the MIT Swap happen, he worked at Draper labs near MIT for ages. Steve would appear periodically in miters, handing you a stack of fliers to staples to buildings and dorms and telling tall tales of times long gone. One of my favorite photos with Steve was a late Friday tearing apart a Sevcon prototype motor controller.
One of the early times visiting MIT was the Swapfest. For those who have not experienced it, well, its a very variable event. Everything from computer parts to contraptions are for sale in flea-market format. The event normally took place outside sprawling around near the MIT Albany Street Garage open area and into the garage as well.

There were always interesting things, some were at quite a bargain. You'd run into folks who you had not seen in ages, get into strange conversations, and meet interesting new people. Need a vacuum tube or a really cheap WIFI access point? Swapfest has you covered.
Need a dish antenna for your homemade satellite receiver? One swapfest vendor has most of the parts but is missing the reflector, but it turns out another vendor upstairs has the missing part in her pile of cruft.

W1MX, has a really nice write-up about Steve, its a good read [link]

The Swapfest returned in 2022 with the heroic efforts of a larger group of people, mostly W1MX, but also a few Miters folk. The most remarkable part about re-awakening the Swapfest after its slumber was the interest of the many new radio club members and the ingrained knowledge some of the vendors had. They remembered where to go and what to do, which was not anticipated and made things so much smoother than expected.

Infinite Mile Award

MIT hosts an award thing 1x per year. The award is monetary, USD 500$ before taxes. A webcast can be viewed here [link]. Due to the pandemic this was a webcast instead of in-person event. The webcast was oddly a series of pre-recorded clips from each group meshed together, which was likely to mitigate issues of multiple zoom calls technical problems. The award came with a glass plaque and a paper certificate. The award was centered around 2020 installation activities which were fairly enormous, and somewhat documented above.

In an odd twist of fate, the subsequent year I was on the review committee for the 2021 awards,  which was a really interesting experience. The review process involved being sent a Dropbox folder full of recommendations, generating a 'score' and comparing notes between other IMA review members over a zoom call. Generally there's one person selected per group, IE: one person (or small team) from mech-e, one from CSAIL, etc. For larger 'groups' like Haystack, which is basically an entire observatory, it can be more than one person.

Dane's Impromptu Pandemic Audio-book review

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars - Christopher Paolini
I was not expecting such a wild ride of a book. It really went everywhere, I went into this book without much detail about its plot which was great in retrospect, as it was really unpredictable. I listened to this as an audio book, and I've found that the narrator really makes or breaks a book, fortunately the narrator [Jennifer Hale], did a fantastic job. This was a 'started out as a routine survey mission and ended up really interesting.

The Murderbot Diaries -
Martha Wells
Let me start by how much fun this series is. I loved every bit of it. You follow a wayward machine-person as they escape the boundaries they are born into and explore whatever life is for a human masquerading as a robot masquerading as a human. The internal monologues are great, the somewhat ethereal questions are great and  the narration is fantastic. I thought the concept would get old, but nope i was hooked.

I ended up listening to: All Systems Red [1], Artificial Condition [2], Rogue Protocol [3], Exit strategy [4], Network Effect [5] and Fugitive Telemetry [6].

There's supposed to be a book 7 / 8 coming out in 2023 or thereabouts and I'm excited to see where the series goes.

The Ministry For The Future - Kim Stanley Robinson

I really wanted to get thru this, but it was too depressing. I made it 11 hours in, but all the aspects of this book that I liked were hampered by this year, its just a difficult listen when you're isolated and the future looks bleak. It is incredibly long, and the length is drawn out by the depth and slow pace. I like the premise, eco-terrorists reclaiming the planet by force, but listening to this during early 2020 was rough. The voice acting was pretty good in the audio-book, they opted for eleven narrators. To keep each person different they really went to town on accents.

It was also incredibly long. I've had a good time with a lot of the earlier Kim Stanley Robinson books, but this couldn't keep my attention. 

Hail Mary - Andy Weir
Hail Mary was an interesting listen. Its difficult to keep the narrative exciting with just two characters so the book uses a lot of flashbacks in the form of recovered memories. Our main character re-learns who he is during the process of trying to accomplish some comically involved activities. Even though there's a lot of back and forth, The story-line is easy to follow, the audio-book was really well 'voiced'.  I really liked the polyphonic representations of Rocky's voice. This was a captivating listen.

There is a mcguffen, a biological 'life form' that allows for some ludicrous physics. You kinda need to just accept that it exists and not get hung up on how it exists. After that you're all set for a really curious ride.

Some things that didn't quite work for me:
* The magical Taumoeba which eats the Astrophage really heavily ignores any form of thermodynamics. The comically energy dense fuel just looses all of its energy to nowhere when killed by its predator. When a fuel tank accidentally gets infected by Taumoeba, its only described as being smelly not like tera-joules of energy radiating from every surface.

The Space Team series is 110% goofy

The plot is ludicrous, the episodes are incredibly strange but it was a good change of pace. The bizarre situations made for a good distraction during the unending media chaos of 2020. There's also a lot of books in this series that are all tied together, somewhat loosely.

Cambridge the Ghost Town

I did get a chance to take some photos of places that were normally busy but immediately switched to being boarded up. This is the google Cambridge campus, right in the Kendal square area. During normal times this was a bit better lit and had folks flooding in and out, especially during noontime. Serious amounts of hustle and bustle was replaced with this wonderful silence. Why does a software company need in person offices in a comically expensive place to live anyway? Everyone was figuring this out at the same time, the real estate sat mostly empty.

A few instances of 'why do we actually need people on site' popped up in places I did not expect, the Lowes Parking lot. I was waiting around for a curbside pickup of a shelf (very exciting) and I found this dystopian monstrosity. I
t appeared to be a solar powered 4g connected, uh..  snitch?
Maybe an method to reduce PD personnel from being around other people? It was fairly creepy.


MIT's Stata center on a weekday middle of spring term. It was a ghost-town. The wall displays were still up but there was no one to see them. The lunch area being dark during the mid-day was just plain weird. This whole area swarms with people during lunchtime in the before-times. It was interesting that the lights were turned down / off.

One of my favorite things to do on campus, during downtime, is hunt for interesting contraptions. The media lab alone throws out more interesting gadgets and gizmos than most countries have in their state funded research labs, we had a problem though. At some point MIT Facilities Recycling tried to monetize the Stata center junk thru a 3rd party recycler. Nominally they wanted 1st dibs and pesky students and staff were cutting into ROI. This resulted in 'literally our recycling being locked up' under the guise of preventing the recycling bins from becoming a mess.

It was a real bother, but as it turns out being stubborn does help when fighting to return things to normal. I worked with the recycling folks to get access to the caged electronics recycling.
Attempting to dumpster dive during a pandemic went a bit weird. The excellent Austin [link] spotted a genome sequencer in the Stata loading docks. I was met by another cruft hunter and we kinda carefully took the thing to bits, he had a wonderful collection of tools handy which made the process way easier. It was really refreshing find a new home for the old sequencer, I had not 'crufted' in over a year.

My prize was the camera, almost all of this generation contraption have a fairly fancy chilled monochrome camera inside. I was surprised to find a lot of other interesting kit, a small solid state chiller, a laser light source, linear stages, it was amazing.

My prize extracted, a coolsnap K4 4MP camera [datasheet] Unfortunately the control computer was awol, so the somewhat rare pci card to talk to it is going to have to be an ebay hunt. The chiller ended up getting used on one of the projects with some UROP students on determining the efficacy of thermo-electric power harvesting for low delta rx output.

There were a few remnants of the length of the plague, the MIT Stata center elevator was down for ages, either due to parts shortages or the like. Finally a large whiteboard was rolled over to help 'motivate' its repair. I think it was repaired after 432 days of being reported. This ended up counting to nearly 320 days before I stopped checking. Early on in the pandemic, isopropyl alcohol and ethanol were fairly scarce. Sav-Mor liquors in Somerville managed to keep some humor going, but it was kinda curious what things experienced shortages and when during the pandemic.

Finally a properly odd experience, an empty mid-day infinite Corridor :

Vacant stores become vaccination sites

Fast forward to late 2021 its approaching the peak of the holiday season and one of the hot items to get are rapid tests. These are disposable antigen based tests which are somewhat useful, somewhat accurate but otherwise fairly handy. Given that it's now calendar year 2 of the pandemic the 2021 winter holiday was a bit more active than the 2020 winter holiday. With more people traveling the home test kits were a quick way of determining if that person who was visiting was radiating plague. Comically all of these were out of stock completely surrounding the holidays.

While it would have been great if plotting occurred before hand and these were shipped out pre-holiday, the Federal Government stepped up to provide 4x test kits / household, likely to arrive in March 2022. USPS's main website was used as the request test kits mechanism, which was actually really smart. What impressed me the most was on launch day (when test kit requests became available) the overwhelming response somehow didn't destroy the USPS main site immediately. The website was https://special.usps.com/testkits to order test kits. Interestingly there's a ycombinator thread that somewhat digs into the behind the scenes [link]. Who doesn't want free stuff, a significant portion of the country tried to login at once and *it didn't brake* which was really remarkable. The kits that arrived were from a number of vendors, I got two 2-packs from Binax.

Image Galleries

There's a few galleries referenced in this write-up, all are available here:

Concluding Remarks:

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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 
Electrical & Electrical Power