Fireworks in Walla Walla,
WAInstead of digging in crap this year, Greg hooked us up with a much bigger show (involving much less digging) in Walla Walla, WA.

Tuesday afternoon, Jenn got out of work at noon and I picked her up there and we headed straight for Walla Walla.  It’s about a five hour drive and we got there early that evening, just in time to check into the hotel and head over to the site to take a look around.  We measured out where we would need to place the fireworks so there wouldn’t be any fallout raining down on spectators and such.  That was interesting because the site, on the grounds of the Walla Walla VA, had some interesting features.  For example, we were right next to an elementary school that was built entirely underground (it was sort of a mound of earth, like a bunker).

After measuring things out, we headed out for some dinner.  Tuesday was the easiest day.

Wednesday morning we got to the site around 9:00a to start setting up.  Greg was there much earlier to take the delivery of the fireworks.  Once the whole crew was there (seven of us), we got things moving.

Setting up for a fireworks show is a lot of hard work.  We had all sorts of things to shoot - shells ranging from 2.5” to 4”, multi-shot boxes with 1.5” and 2” shells, some candles (like the Roman candles you can get at stands, only way bigger) - and you have to secure all of the apparatus you’re firing them from so it doesn’t tip over and shoot, say, into the audience (or at you).  All of this apparatus gets unloaded off the truck, laid out, set up, and loaded.

Take, for example, a 4” mortar rack.  It’s a set of 10 lengths of 4” diameter PVC pipe.  Each pipe length is about, oh, 30” long or so.  Lay those pipes out side by side and secure them in a wood rack made of two-by-fours.  Space them out with two-by-fours as well.  The whole contraption weighs probably around 35 pounds, give or take.  (I’m poor with estimation, so the lengths and weights are rough, but you get the idea.)

Anyway, we had about 20 4” racks, 50 3” racks, and 5 2.5” racks to unload off a moving truck, position, and stake down (you hold them in position with wood stakes you hammer into the ground and then use baling wire to keep the rack-and-stake combo together and unmoving).

We also had like 20 or 30 multi-shot boxes.  A multi-shot box is like a big cardboard box that has a bunch of pre-loaded mortars in them.  A 2” multi-shot box is like a 30” cube that has 144 2” tubes in it in a 12 x 12 configuration.  (The number, size, and configuration of the boxes vary, but you get the idea - it’s a bunch of tubes that are jammed together and loaded with shells in a cardboard box.)  You basically just cut the top off the box and you’re set to go.  All of the multi-shot boxes have to be unloaded, opened, and positioned inside a wood trough (so if they break open during the show, it’s all contained).

Once it was all unloaded from the truck and set up, we loaded the shells into the mortar racks.

It was about this time that the 100°F heat out in the middle of this field really started to get to me.  I had a headache that was creeping up on me, but by this time (probably around 5:00p or so), I was dying.  The shade wasn’t cool, the headache was pounding from my chest up, and every time I leaned over to drop a shell into a mortar tube, I felt like I was going to puke.  I ended up having to go sit in the car with the A/C on for quite some time, and Jenn busted out a prescription migraine pill she had to help me with the headache.  Meantime, everyone else was wiring things up so the show could be shot electronically.

When you shoot a show, there are basically three ways to do it.  Hand-lit is where you actually manually go down the line of mortars and light them with a road flare.  That’s the sort of show we usually do.  Electronically-lit is where you wire all of the fireworks to blasting caps (basically) and each cap gets wired to a master panel where you can hit a button to send current down the wire, blow the cap, and the firework goes up.  That’s what this show was.  Computer-controlled is an electronically-lit show where, rather than a person hitting the buttons to set off the blasting caps, a computer does it, usually synchronized to music or something.  The really big shows are computer-controlled.

So while I was laid out with a headache, the rest of the folks were wiring up blasting caps.  Jenn did some of that, then we both went to Taco Bell to pick up dinner for the crew.  Driving around with the A/C on was really good for me, and that with the migraine pill really got me back in the action.  I still feel bad for crapping out on the crew, but there wasn’t much I could do.  I have a desk job for a reason, right?

Around 10:00p, we started the show, cued by the local band playing a specific song.  Greg pushed buttons, I sat next to him with a road flare at the ready in case any shells didn’t go up, and a couple of the other guys on the crew waited at the ready with fire extinguishers.  The rest of the crew, including Jenn, sat on top of the underground elementary school and enjoyed the show.  The pictures we got are ones Jenn took from up there.

The show lasted about 25 minutes and was definitely the biggest and best one we’ve done.  High-fives all around after it finished, and after a 15 minute cool-down period and a safety inspection, it was time to start cleaning up.

We didn’t get very far cleaning up before the sprinklers in the field kicked on (thanks, Walla Walla, for turning those off in anticipation that we might not be able to get everything picked up in 20 minutes) so we had to abandon the cleanup effort for the next day.

Thursday morning at 8:30 we were all back at the field, cleaning things up.  Pulling stakes out of the ground, raking up debris,  stacking racks back on the truck.  It was 102°F out there according to one of the clocks on a bank we saw.  Let me tell you - the cleanup never ended.  We just kept raking and picking up garbage.  Finally a bit after 1:00p we finished and headed out to get some lunch and start the five-hour-drive home.

Today I am exhausted, sunburned, and ridiculously sore from throwing mortar racks around.  I’m sure the exercise was good for me, but I’m not so sure the heat was.  I’m glad I took the day off from work; I’d be so unproductive.

I think if we end up doing this show again, we need a bigger crew.  Seven people is about right for the smaller show we’re used to, but we need more folks, particularly for the cleanup effort.  Maybe twelve or so would be a better number.  That and some leaf blowers or something to move the debris around a little more efficiently than garden rakes.  I thought a riding lawnmower with a catcher on it would be ideal.

The crew we did have was awesome.  To Greg, Matt, Corey, Alex, Cassie, and Jenn - Good job, folks.  That was a damn fine show.

Check out the pictures.  It’s good stuff.

subtext, process comments edit

I’ve been working on several different projects where I’m learning new stuff from scratch.  For example, I’m trying to write my own Subtext skin for my blog.  And as I read the documentation (or attend the meeting, or watch the presentation, etc.) that was created to convey the information to me, I realize that the creator of the material has always omitted the one thing that would suddenly allow the concept to click:


Picking on the Subtext skinning (since it’s fresh in my mind): It might be super important to tell me which lines in file XYZ need to be changed to show me how to make it do something interesting, but if you don’t tell me what file XYZ is and what its purpose is, the only thing I’m going to learn is that if you do this specific change, you’ll get this specific result.  I don’t have any context for why you made that change, so I can’t really infer any other changes that I could potentially make.  All I learned was the example.

I had a friend who would explain game rules this way.  If she was trying to explain, say, Monopoly, rather than starting out with explaining how the pieces move or what the object of the game is, she’d start out right in the middle with something like how you get sent to jail and how you get out, or what happens to you if you roll doubles.  If you already know how to play and need a refresher, that’s one thing, but for the new person you’re trying to explain the game to, you’re forgetting to provide context.

I see this happen a lot with folks who work on projects for a long time.  When it’s time to demo the end result of the project, they jump right in at the middle, forgetting to explain the overall value of the project, why the audience should care, or what the audience is about to see.  The problem there is that the audience will more than likely just nod their heads and tell you that they understand when the truth is they don’t.  Why didn’t they get it?  No context.

So here’s my public request to anyone trying to convey any information to anyone anywhere - provide context.  Your audience will thank you.

media, gaming, xbox comments edit

I haven’t gotten a chance to put my media center together yet, but I got a comment that points to a pretty decent article about using the Xbox 360 as a media center extender.  It may be easier than I thought.  Looks like the .VOB files you rip from DVDs are actually renamed .MPG files, which can be directly streamed.  I may have to try this out.

It would be easy enough to have the DVD backups on a drive and a virtual filesystem of symbolic links to all of the VOB files that have renamed targets (so “Cool Movie.mpg” would point to “Cool Movie/VIDEO_TS/VTS_01_1.VOB” and mask the whole rename issue).  Wouldnt’ be hard to write a program that generates that filesystem.  I’ll have to try it.

UPDATE: There seem to be two problems with the way Gizmocafe does things.  First, it’s not really a proper DVD backup solution - it only works if your sole goal is streaming the movie.  Half of the reason I’m doing this is as a backup solution.  Second, you may have a little bit of fudging to do in the DVD ripping software to get movies with multiple VOB files to work.  For example, the movie Borat seems to have three separate VOB files - those would have to be connected to so they could stream in one continuous movie.  The Gizmocafe tutorial doesn’t really address that.

gaming, xbox comments edit

O-rings around the base of the whammy
barProblem: You have a Guitar Hero II X-Plorer controller for Xbox 360 and the whammy bar is loose. You want the whammy bar to tighten up without having to take apart your guitar and you don’t want to go through the exchange process with RedOctane.

Solution: Get four (4) size AS568A-008 (3/16” inside diameter) neoprene o-rings. Slowly push each one over the end of the whammy bar (the neoprene will stretch, but take your time with it because you don’t want to break the ring) and down to the base of the whammy bar as tight as you can. Four rings will cover the entire base of the whammy bar up until the bend. When they’re on, it’ll look like the picture.

The o-rings will generate just enough friction to make it so the whammy bar moves easily but will stay in place when you let go, leaving it in easy grasp for the next time you need it. Putting multiple rings on will keep the bottom one from slipping away from the guitar body and losing friction. Getting them to the bend in the whammy bar makes it just that much more secure because it’ll take more effort for the rings to round the bend and come loose.

Too Much Detail: I tried several ring sizes and materials to get here. Size 8 is just big enough to barely go over the whammy bar end and still fit snugly around the bar proper. Neoprene is the right material because other materials either don’t stretch quite enough or don’t offer enough friction. For example, I bought some rings from the Home Depot plumbing section that had an “oily” or “slick” feel to them because they were probably Buna-N and treated for resistance to oils and liquids. (I blogged about how I was learning too much about o-rings.)

Where To Buy: I bought my o-rings at McMaster-Carr. In the search box on their site, put “AS568A” and it’ll get you to the o-ring page. From there, select the “AS568A Dash Number” as “8” to get the ring size set. Finally, select “Neoprene” as the material. As of this writing, they only carry one product that matches those criteria. It’s a bag of 100 o-rings that costs $2.48 (no, you can’t get a smaller pack or buy individual rings - they’re an industrial supply store, not a consumer goods shop). Shipping was about $5 via UPS ground for me.

We tried this out last night in a feverish game of GH2 and it works pretty well. The rings never had to be pushed down or adjusted, it just worked. A sub-$10 solution and not having to actually open up the guitar? Can’t ask for much more than that.

UPDATE: While I’m happy to help folks out, I’m not in the o-ring business.  If you want some o-rings, head over to McMaster-Carr and pick some up.