Back From Two Weeks in Bulgaria…

11 September 2017

I just got back (Saturday) from two weeks in Sofia Bulgaria, observing and certifying the acceptance testing of a contractor’s installation of a Command and Control (aka “C2”) system for the Bulgarian Ministry of Defence (MOD). The trip was initially scheduled for three weeks but our team finished up the work early so we scooted home early.

This was my second trip to Sofia this year – I had a whirlwind 5-day trip back in June (three days traveling, two days of meetings) to provide engineering support to a project that had been on-going for about five years.

This flight over was a three-hopper (Boston-Newark, Newark-Munich, Munich-Sofia) which took about 21 hours, counting layovers. We left on a Friday and arrived on a Saturday (flights east are cheaper overnight) so had Sunday available for travel recovery.  I spent the day walking around the city with a colleague and his wife (she had joined him on the trip as a vacation for her).  Got some pictures of the city as we walked around.

We stayed at the Sofia Hilton for the two weeks – a very nice hotel.  My usual routine was to get up around 6:15am, shower, get dressed, and hop on the internet for an hour catching up on news and checking work and personal email.  Sofia is seven hours ahead of the US’s east coast, so it was about midnight when I was connecting; I’d get the score of the day’s Red Sox game (I actually caught the end of the 19-inning game live via NESN-Go game streaming), some local and national news, etc.  The team would gather in the Executive Lounge for coffee and a light breakfast, then hop a cab to the Ministry of Defence building.  Cab prices in Sofia are dirt cheap – a cab for the four of us to travel the 2-3 miles to the MOD would cost 4 lev – about $2.50.

We’d get to the MOD about 9am, badge in to the building, work until 12-12:30 or so and head up to the officers’ café on the 9th floor for a hot Bulgarian-style lunch (soup and salad and a main dish) served restaurant-style (not a cafeteria), which cost us about $1.50.  Then we’d work until 5:00pm or so, badge out, grab a cab (another $2.50) and head to the hotel.

Sometimes a few of us would head out to a restaurant for dinner while the others would hang around the hotel and hit the lounge or the bar for a light dinner.  One night we went out with the Bulgarian Military folks we were working with to Chevermeto (ЧЕВЕРМЕТО), a cultural restaurant with traditional folk dancing and singing, Bulgarian cuisine and drinks. Lots of fun.

The weekend Saturday we stayed over four of us took a tour to a 10th century local Christian church (Boyana Church) and then took a two hour bus ride into the mountains south of Sofia to visit a 10th century orthodox monastery (Rila Monastery).  Photos and video from that trip are here.

The trip home was a little more direct (SOFIA-MUNICH, MUNICH-BOSTON) but still took 16 hours with the layover.  It was a long trip but was productive, successful, and educational! Glad to be back home though!  I may be going back in the spring, but nothing finalized yet.



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Another Country Notched on my Passport, Another Deck Sealed…

13 June 2017

2017-06-06 pano

Sofia Panorama from the Hotel

I took my first business trip of 2017 last week; a 5-day trip to Sofia Bulgaria (3 days spent traveling, 2 days of meetings). I haven’t been traveling much on business these past few years:

  • 2017 – 1 trip (so far)
  • 2016 – 0 trips
  • 2015 – 1 trip
  • 2014 – 1 trip
  • 2013 – 0 trips
  • 2012 – 0 trips
  • 2011 – 1 trip
  • 2010 – 3 trips
  • 2009 – 10 trips
  • 2008 – 8 trips
  • 2007 – 17 trips

Not that I miss the “good ole days” of lots of travel (I don’t!), but I had never been to Bulgaria before (business or pleasure) so I added one more country to my list, which is always a bit exciting.

2017-06-05 16.05.55The meetings were being held Tuesday and Wednesday, so to be there in time for the meetings (and keep the trip under budget) I had to leave Sunday afternoon and fly overnight to Frankfurt, transfer to a flight to Sofia (the Bulgarian capital), arriving Monday afternoon.  I was staying at the Sofia Hilton – a nice hotel to be sure, so Monday afternoon I walked past the National Palace of Culture to the Boulevard Vitosha, where all the open-air restaurants, souvenir shops, and boutiques are.  Great people-watching territory!

2017-06-05 15.32.41

Communist Memorial to Bulgaria’s 1,300th Anniversary

The next two days were spent in meetings, with lunch provided, and Thursday was the long-haul day to return; up at 2am (7pm the night before, Boston time) to ride with my colleague to the airport (he had an earlier flight so I got to the airport with a few hours to spare), 2-hour flight to Vienna, 3 hour layover, 9-hour flight to Newark, 4-hour layover (plane was delayed), 2 hour flight to Boston, then an hour in traffic on 93 in the taxi, pulling up to the house at 7pm – 24 hours on the road!


I had way too many hours on my timecard for the week already, so I took Friday off to recover.

Deck Panorama 2Saturday and Sunday was spent staining/sealing the deck, having power-washed it in preparation a few weeks back. It was hot work, but at least it didn’t rain!  It’s a lot of work, but it looks nice when it’s done, and the water beads up on the surface instead of soaking right in!

2017-06-13 18.43.30

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Where Does the Time Go…?

Let’s see… 19 August 2016 to 4 March 2017… that’s over six months; 28 weeks and a day; 197 days. Definitely shirking my blogging duties here.
Lots of water (and snow!) under the bridge in 197 days. We had to cancel a wedding, hosted the fewest trick-or-treaters in all our years at this house (probably because we don’t set up the decorations and spider-webs and music/sound/PA system for the visitors like in olden days), broke out our winter village set-up for the Christmas season with the realization that we will have only a few more holiday seasons in this house to set the village up on the custom-made terraced platform that fits on the ledge over the door, enjoyed a Between-Christmas-and-New-Year’s week up north, and we endured a mini version of the 2015 winter where we got precious little snow until late January then got whacked with three blizzards at both houses in a span of about three weeks – the snow blower got a bit of a workout.
Our youngest daughter vacated the in-law apartment in the basement in October and moved out on her own to an apartment in Haverhill MA. Lynn finished Megan and Dan’s wedding quilt (eight years in the making – interrupted by car-crash recuperation).  We retired the big green recliner-couch in the family-TV room recently and replaced it with a powered double-recliner-loveseat that will better fit in the Ballot Box in a few years.  We’ve had some limbs come down in the back yard from the neighbors’ pine trees. No damage to anything (yet) except the trees. Pine trees grow quickly and age quickly so it may be time to chat with the neighbors about a mutual project to minimize any possible future damage.  I managed to clean out half the garage, enough to get Lynn’s car under cover for the winter. That also made it easier to clear the driveway with only one vehicle (Gene’s) out and in the way during snow blowing.  We got teased by Mother Nature just recently with 3-4 days of late-Spring-like weather (sunny, temperature hitting 70°F), followed by another 3-4 days of single-digit temps at night. My mother used to call that “Pneumonia Weather” (and she pronounced the “P”). We’ve been chasing the turkeys away from the bird feeders on the deck recently – they’d eat us out of house and home if we let them.
Now you know why it’s been 197 days since the last blog entry… Nuthin’ happenen’ here!  🙂
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It’s Been a Brutal Summer…

19 August 2016

It’s been a miserable summer at the TreeHouse – hot, sticky, muggy, but little or no rain, so we’re officially in an “extreme drought” northeast of Boston, and our lawn looks like it! We’ve sworn off pouring treated drinking water onto our lawn for a number of years, and in past years it hadn’t been a problem.  But this year, it’s a problem.  Most of our lawn is now brown, except for the southwest corner that got the benefit of a failed flower-sprinkler-timer that shut on and didn’t shut off over a five-day period that we were up in Maine.  The sprinkler timer was supposed to water the marigolds that line the front walk for 90 minutes every two days via a couple of soaker hoses that run along the front walk on either side. The southwest corner of the lawn was under water when we finally got home, and that area has endured while all the rest of the lawn went crunchy long ago.

The muggy heat has put a crimp in my ability to do much yard work either, so the shrubs along the front of the house are in extreme need of trimming too, but that won’t happen until I can bring the electric hedge trimmer back down from Maine.  Maybe in two weekends.  Sigh!

Woburn has a enacted a voluntary water ban (don’t water on Mondays, Wednesdays, or Fridays).  The only watering we do is for flowers; 2 hours on the raised flowerbeds out back once every five days, one minute of the drip system on the deck each morning for the four hanging plants, and occasional watering of the front walk marigolds when they look like they need it.  The raised-bed watering also nourishes the Concord grape vine on the pergola so it’s flourishing.  I’ll have to start keeping an eye one the grapes now to make sure I harvest them after they ripen but before the birds get to them.  I misjudged last year and didn’t get any harvest. I assume the birds enjoyed them.

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Back in the Groove (or Furrow)…

(click on thumbnails to see full-size images)

12 JUNE 2016

IMG_20160613_064956234_HDR-33pct20xA couple of hundred years ago I started a Mother’s Day tradition at the house in Woburn… the girls (at ages 7 and 9, with help and guidance from Dad) would plant “Yellow Boy” marigolds all along the curved front walkway.  We’d plant them on Mother’s Day (much to the occasional rainy-day chagrin of the girls) and Mom got to do whatever she wanted while we worked.  She usually sat in the shade, sipped her coffee, and offered occasional advice to the workers and the “knows-nothing-about-gardening” supervisor.  Sold in flats of 48 plants each, and spaced at 6 inches apart, it took a little over four flats (192+ individual plants) to trim the entire walkway.

I continued the tradition as long as I could, but as the girls grew up and went off to college and one got married, scheduling the planting event on Mother’s Day became harder and harder.  Eventually Lynn and I picked up the grunt work from the girls, which meant we could postpone the actual planting by a few weeks to avoid the late spring frost troll that occasionally showed up, trying to kill uncovered early plantings around Mother’s Day and the few weeks after.  The 90+ feet of bright yellow marigolds became a neighborhood landmark over the years.  We would have perfect strangers stop and chat while we were planting, telling us how much they enjoyed and appreciated the look of the yellow border.  One unrecognized neighbor thanked us for planting such a stunning display as he often used it when giving directions to his house… “Take a right at the house with a gazillion yellow flowers along their front walk…”

Last year was an aberration.  Lynn was in recovery mode from the accident, and I had a few more “ODARs” (Other Duties As Required) on my To-Do list associated with the recovery period, so we skipped the annual planning tradition and just mulched the empty flower-beds along the walkway; nothing got planted.

This year we resumed the tradition.  Lynn found a couple of flats of “Yellow Boy” marigolds at the local garden center last week (a bit late in the season for whole flats, that’s usually an earlier-in-the-season option) so she grabbed them.  I weeded and raked and sifted the flower-beds Saturday and early Sunday to remove the weeds and the ever-present pebbles and stones, and we set up an assembly line Sunday afternoon.  4725333775_d03783f952_bWith Lynn’s bad ankle and my bad knee we were a lot slower than usual, but we made up for it by spacing the plants 12 inches apart instead of the usual 6, so it was half as many marigolds and half as much work (yeah, right!).  At this stage of growth they look more like runway landing lights than plants (see the image at the top of this blog entry for this year’s photo right after planting), but time improves them!  The photo at the right is a shot taken in 2010 to show what the marigolds WILL look like after a month or so of growth.

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Oh, I’m A Lumberjack and I’m Okay…

…to the tune of…

We have 2.6 acres of land at the house up in Maine, with a LOT of trees, so I acquired a refurbished Homelite ZR10568 42cc 16-Inch Gas Chain Saw a few years ago for use up north to keep the trees in check.  I’ve used it to clear out whole trees to expose a pair of nicely-shaped spruce Christmas Trees on the edge of the lawn in back, and I’m forever trimming the fast-growing white pines that are all over the meadow that used to be a grazing field for sheep many years ago.

But last February at the TreeHouse in Woburn, a mini-blizzard dropped a good-sized tree of the “willow” variety (not a weeping willow, a regular willow with buds that look like pussy willow buds).  The tree itself was on the very edge of our neighbor’s land, growing right by the brook in our back yard.  It fell across the brook and square into our yard, thankfully missing our pergola that sits in the raised flowerbeds and supports the Concord grape vine that sprawls over it and provides shade in the summer and fruit in the fall.  However, the fallen tree did clip a few branches off the birch tree we’ve been encouraging for the past fifteen years or so and deposited the broken top of the willow in our giant arborvitae bushes/trees, remnants of the privacy bushes that used to hide the above-ground swimming pool that was where the pergola and raised beds are now.

Massachusetts (and most state) property law says that a neighbor’s tree that falls in my yard becomes MY tree – and my responsibility – so it was up to me to get rid of the now-horizontal trespasser.  Ordinarily that would be a straightforward task, but this tree was also engulfed in Celastrus scandens – invasive bittersweet vines, so I had to remove the knurled twisted tangle of sinews that covered the entire tree before being able to get the chainsaw anywhere near the trunk.

I spent three non-consecutive weekends cutting the knotted tangled bittersweet vines away from the fallen tree, packing my multi-bushel-sized bicycle-wheeled garden cart head-high with the pieces – so high I needed to cinch a strap around them to keep the pile from toppling out of the cart.  After more than twenty runs to the community compost pile in the woods, I was ready to attack the tree itself.  The top of the tree had broken off and was still hung up in the arborvitae, and it wasn’t going to be extricated by a single person, so I ignored that and attacked what I could with the 16″ chainsaw.

Serendipitously, newly-engaged daughter Audrey is beginning to pull together her plans for the wedding and reception (to be held in October 2017).  She is planning a rustic wedding theme (outdoor wedding, reception in a barn, etc.) so she saw the felled tree as an opportunity to make, rather than buy, table centerpiece bases and a cake platform out of round thin-ish slices of the tree trunk.  Running a chain saw is fun, so I sliced up 14-15 1″ thick slices of the tree – bark and all – for her to sand a bit and polyurethane. We also did a 3″ thick slice as a potential cake platform. It may not work out, but it will look way cool if it does, and costs next-to-nothing to try!

Once I had de-brushed the trunk and cut up as much of it as I could with my “light-duty” saw, I called on a friend to bring his industrial-strength 20″ chain saw and assorted equipment (ropes, come-along, peavey hook, etc.) to help me get the tree top out of the arborvitae and slice up the remaining main trunk.  We threaded a long rope through the branches of the hung-up treetop, splayed out the ends of the rope about 40-50 feet out away from the treetop, and PULLED! Down it came out of the arborvitae, and we pulled it away from the work area to attack later.  Then he fired up his bigger chain saw and attacked what was left of the trunk.  He was able to cut up manageable pieces back to the middle of the brook (still enough water in the brook to impede a complete removal) which I stacked under a tarp to dry.  Should have close to a half-cord of firewood once split. Willow is a light wood that burns quickly so it’s not much good for heating with, but would make great outdoor fire-pit fuel.

The final work involves clearing out the rest of the bittersweet vine and cutting up the smaller but long logs into shorter chunks suitable for stacking and/or burning. To assist with that I built a sawbuck that has been on my to-do list since I bought the chainsaw – five 8-ft PT 2x4s, three 5″ long 1/2″ bolts, six 1/2″ nuts, six 1/2″ washers, 24 3-1/2″ wood screws, and a couple of hours last Saturday with my miter saw and a drill. $45 in materials… almost as much as what the chainsaw cost me!

EPILOG – 17 April

And finally done!  Cutting up the remaining bittersweet vines and remaining tree parts took longer than I’d like, but I finished up today.  It looks a lot better than it did that first day I started hacking away at the mess.  I even vacuumed up the little chainsaw chips left from cutting up the tree parts.  The neighbors must’ve thought I was off my rocker!

As usual, I take pictures as I attack new projects like this, so the whole set (including some of the linked-to photos in this blog post) are in a Flickr “Album” titled 20160227-Downed Tree Removal.

Posted in House, Winter, Woburn, Yard Work | 1 Comment

A Geeky Christmas Dessert – Raspberry Pi

We use Amazon Christmas lists in our family, but I’m not very good at keeping them up to date or remembering to put stuff I want on the list. This year I remembered to put something on my list I had been interested in experimenting with for a few years; A Raspberry Pi.  What is a Raspberry Pi, you ask?  The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card-sized single board computer that plugs into your TV or monitor and can accommodate a keyboard and mouse, and a lot more. This is a little computer that can be used for many of the things that a desktop PC does. The design is based on Broadcom BCM2836 system on a chip with a 900MHz ARM Cortex-A7 quad core processor, Dual Core VideoCore IV Multimedia coprocessor and 1GB RAM. This board is powered from a 5V micro-USB adapter and runs various operating systems such as Raspbian, RaspBMC, Arch Linux, RISC OS, OpenELEC, Pidora and Microsoft Windows 10(!).

38Y6466-501Megan and Dan bought me the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B starter kit for Christmas.  It came with a credit-card-sized motherboard, a clear plastic case, and a micro-USB power supply (the same kind of power supply you use to charge an Android phone).  With the motherboard in the case, it slips easily into a shirt pocket.  In addition to all the circuitry for the computer (CPU chip, 1GB memory, audio, graphics, etc.), this tiny motherboard has a power connector port, four USB2 ports, an RJ-45 Ethernet port, an audio-out port, an HDMI graphics out port, a CSI (Camera Serial Interface) in port, a DSI (Display Serial Interface) in/out port (for use with touch-screens), a long bar of places to connect various other controllers and sensors, and a micro-SD port for memory/data storage.

RaspberryPiSizeI made the silly assumption that there was a “BIOS” on the board, but when I hooked up a keyboard, a mouse, a 32-inch Hi-Def HDMI TV, an Ethernet cable, and powered it up… nothing!  So I did a little more research.  It turns out you need to hard-format a micro-SD card (I had a spare 4GB card, the bare minimum required) and pre-load the NOOBS (“New Out Of Box Software”) bootstrap loader on the card, then run NOOBS and use it to install any one of a number of graphical OSes onto the card.  A 4 GB micro-SD card only had room for the Spartan RISC OS for Pi.  A bigger card will give me more options (Raspian, Linux – a bunch of flavors, even Windows 10!) so I may pick up a few cards and try more than one OS.

IMG_20151228_231314933Once the micro-SD card was prepped, it booted up into NOOBS, presented a list of possible graphical OSes available over the internet, and let me choose any of the OSes that would fit on the installed micro-SD card (of which there was only one; RISC OS for Pi).  I installed RISC OS for Pi by downloading it directly over the internet to the micro-SD card in the Raspberry Pi.


Next step will be to pick up a few more micro-SD cards to try other OSes, and then experiment with adding components that can sense conditions (cameras, touch-screens, RFID proximity, accelerometer, temperature, clocks, etc.) and write some code that will respond to sensor inputs.  Fun!

UPDATE 1 (30 DEC 2015)

I went out and bought a couple of 32GB micro-SD cards, loaded the full-featured Raspbian OS on one of them. Raspbian (a version of Linux based on Debian) is the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s official supported operating system, and comes pre-installed with plenty of software for education, programming and general use. It has Python, Scratch, Sonic Pi, Java, Mathematica and more.

IMG_20151230_110508290_HDROn the other card I loaded Windows 10 IoT Core For Raspberry Pi 2.  The “IoT” stands for “Internet of Things,” where little limited-function gadgets are connected to the Internet and can be monitored and controlled by dedicated small computers (like a Raspberry Pi!).  THAT is the real reason I wanted to experiment with a Raspberry Pi; to build my own controllers for dedicated devices (a weather station, or a temperature alert system, or a synchronized lights-and-music controller, or…).

Posted in Computers, Hobbies, Technology | 1 Comment