High Voltage!

I’m actually not entirely sure how finding these videos began, but some shocking videos for your enjoyment:

  • Crazy man throws a wire on 110 kV power line” is about as accurate a title as they come. (Highly, highly not recommended!) It’s essentially the same deal as a lightning strike: one end of the wire is connected to ground, and when the wire makes contact with the 110,000V power lines, it shorts to ground.
  • This one is even more absurd? Someone provides a translation of the Russian: they’re 500kV lines, and some idiots throw barbed wire (?!) onto the lines. You can’t see them throwing the wire, though, so there’s just a tremendous explosion as 500kV rushes to ground before, most likely, vaporizing the wire.
  • This one is really bizarre to me. One description says they’re using “splicing technology,” and another explains that they’re “strengthening the lines.” Neither really gave any explanation to why there’d suddenly be a tremendous explosion and plumes of smoke from all of the insulators. It looks like they sent enough voltage on the lines to jump across the massive insulator. (Which is like a six-foot chunk of porcelain, chosen because it’s ridiculously non-conductive.) Rusty gave a good explanation: it seems that they’ve applied something-or-other on the lines, and are essentially “flash-welding” it on.
  • Substations often have “air break disconnects,” which are essentially a big, metal, mechanical arm that they can “open” to keep electricity from flowing. The design wasn’t meant to to switch “hot” loads, though. Here’s a video of them opening the disconnect on a 230kV line, which… Well, just watch. (It shorts to another wire after a few seconds.)
  • Here’s something sort of similar, except it appears that it’s more of a technical failure. It turns into somewhat of an accidental Jacob’s Ladder, before it burns itself out in a fantastic fashion.
  • This is a neat compilation of various high-voltage “problems.” I actually saw a neat explanation somewhere of what happens in the first video… Something in a high-voltage transformer there shorts to ground, but nothing upstream ever tripped a circuit breaker. The transformer is filled with oil for cooling, before finally it becomes hot enough that it boils and starts spewing ‘steam’ (boiling oil) out its ’emergency’ valves, which makes things much worse, but is actually fortunate in that it blows up the incoming voltage, leaving firefighters with a simple de-energized power grid full of burning oil to deal with. The second is another case of them opening a mechanical “air break” disconnect, apparently in a deliberate test of a 500kV system. Then we see the same clip we saw earlier, and then… The most awesome thing ever. I have absolutely no clue what goes on, but it’s the most awesome fireball ever.

Long-distance NTP

It’s widely-believed that geographic proximity is the main factor determining the accuracy of NTP. While I’m not necessarily disputing its importance, I wanted to mention some interesting tests I’ve done.

As I mentioned earlier, my (“our,” really — @ co-owns it, and keeps paying the bill without sending me his PayPal address… *g*) NTP server was incorrectly, and pretty randomly, labeled as being in Brazil, and thus set to serve time to people in Brazil and, more generally, South America. But the server is in Pennsylvania.

Surely, then, with such a long distance, quality must be terrible? I decided to measure it in reverse: I did a “mock sync” to the South American pool from my server in Texas. The command ntpdate -q servername will “sync” to a server (or set of servers) via NTP, but only show you the offset it would have applied, rather than actually adjusting your clock. I ran this on a server that’s a stratum 2 server that’s been very stable on time: when it syncs with GPS-stabilized clocks every 1024 seconds, it’s rare for it to shift the time more than 10ms. So by syncing to the South American pool, I was able to, more or less, determine the effect of the long-distance, high-latency synchronization:

oxygen ~ # ntpdate -q south-america.pool.ntp.org
server, stratum 2, offset 0.021524, delay 0.23042
server, stratum 2, offset -0.002081, delay 0.17311
server, stratum 3, offset 0.004254, delay 0.19417
26 Apr 00:33:31 ntpdate[5828]: adjust time server offset -0.002081 sec

(First of all, no, my US server is not in that list.) You can see that it selected three servers from the South American pool, and synced to each of them. I had pings of 230ms (0.23042 seconds), 173ms, and 194ms. I had offsets of 21ms, -2ms, and 4ms. Given the three choices, ntpdate deemed the middle the most accurate, indicating that, even with almost 200ms latency crossing continents (or arbitrary divisions thereof), it could be accurate to 2ms.

NTP “subtracts” latency from the times, so that a high-latency connection won’t affect the accuracy of the time. (What does break things, though, is highly-variable, or highly-asymmetric, latency, which is pretty much impossible to “calculate.”) Still, I was surprised by just how good it was.

I then tried a test synchronization to the US pool:

oxygen ~ # ntpdate -q us.pool.ntp.org
server, stratum 2, offset 0.001096, delay 0.07080
server, stratum 2, offset -0.003190, delay 0.07475
server, stratum 3, offset 0.013041, delay 0.07225
server, stratum 2, offset 0.005535, delay 0.07397
server, stratum 3, offset 0.003419, delay 0.02605
26 Apr 00:34:36 ntpdate[6216]: adjust time server offset 0.001096 sec

This time we got 5 servers (as is normally the case: I think the set of 3 is just given out for groups with only a handful of total servers). Four of them has pings around 70ms, and the last had a ping of 26ms. The middle server had na offset (time difference) of 13ms, but the other four were pretty close. (And when one server is “way” off, NTP disregards it anyway. Plus, it was a stratum 3 mixed in with mostly stratum 2’s, which is another count against it.) It suggested advancing my clock by 1 millisecond. (When the code is good enough to discard a 13ms difference as ‘wildly inaccurate,’ you know it’s good.)

So we have a 1ms “error” in the US, and a 2ms to South America. Africa is served by a mere 5 NTP servers. How did that go?

oxygen ~ # ntpdate -q africa.pool.ntp.org
server, stratum 2, offset 0.086558, delay 0.62405
server, stratum 3, offset 0.005741, delay 0.32759
server, stratum 2, offset -0.006428, delay 0.29601
server, stratum 2, offset -0.007126, delay 0.32123
server, stratum 2, offset -0.004245, delay 0.29314
26 Apr 00:31:07 ntpdate[4913]: adjust time server offset -0.004245 sec

Oddly, I was served all five servers in the zone. If you look at pings, they ranges from 293ms to 624ms. That’s really bad. And the first server gave terrible time: essentially wanting to advance my clock 87ms. But again, with multiple servers present, NTP did a great job of working out the right time. It ended up trying to move my clock back 4ms.

300ms (best case) pings, going from the US to Africa, and it’s accurate to 4ms?

Some conclusions, caveats, and comments to consider:

  • “Accuracy” and “error” are really not appropriate terms. Because the server doesn’t have a time source connected directly (e.g., a GPS receiver with pulse-per-second output, a WWV receiver, or a cesium / rubidium reference recently synced to the atomic clock), the server really doesn’t know the true time. Thus we can only measure how the time differences compare. In this, I essentially just assume that my server has the accurate time, which is a dubious claim.
  • The main conclusion here is that NTP is really good at dealing with long pings. The fact that my data is crossing the ocean doesn’t really matter: it can calculate round-trip error. In light of this fact, and ignoring other information, geography is not important.
  • The server I took these measurements from sits in a data center on a nice fat backbone to lots of other providers. Thus it could be argued that it may have a much better connection that a home user might. It would be interesting to try these measurements from a normal PC on a “normal” home line.
  • Thus, my point isn’t so much that “Geography doesn’t matter” as it is, “Even if geography works against you, you can still get really good time with NTP.”

Google Charts

Have you guys seen Google Charts? It’s a quirky little API I didn’t know existed until I saw a passing allusion to it. Essentially, you pass it a specially-crafted URL (essentially the definition of an API) and it will generate a PNG image.

Here’s a fairly random line graph. My labeling of the axes makes no sense, but it was nonsensical data anyway.

One of the cooler things they support is a “map” type of chart, like this US map. The URL is a bit tricky, though this one of South America is easier to understand: chco (presumably “CHart COlor”) sets the colors, with the first being the ‘default’ color. chld lists the countries, as they should map up to the colors: UYVECO is “Uruguay,” “Venezuela,” and “Colombia.”

What has me particularly interested is that I’ve recently installed code to watch connections to my NTP servers. Here’s my Texas box, a stratum 2 server in the NTP pool (pool.ntp.org). I bumped it up to list a 10 Mbps connection speed to signal that I could handle a lot more queries than the average, although it’s still nowhere near its limit. In addition to the stats you see there, it keeps a “dump file” of every single connection. (As an aside, this strikes me as inefficient and I want to write an SQL interface to keep aggregate stats… But that’s very low-priority right now.)

Further, I have some IPGeo code I played with. More than meets the eye, actually: a separate database can give a city/state in addition to the country. (It comes from the free MaxMind GeoLite City database.) Thus I could, in theory, parse the log file created, match each IP to a state, and plot that on a US map.

This reminds me that I never posted… I set up NTP on the second server Andrew and I got, where we’re intending to consolidate everything, but haven’t had time yet. It sat unused for a while, keeping exceptionally good time. So, with Andrew’s approval, I submitted it to the NTP pool. I set the bandwidth to 3 Mbps, lower than the 10 Mbps my Texas box is at.

I was somewhat surprised to see it handling significantly more NTP queries. (They’re not online, since the box isn’t running a webserver, but for those in-the-know, ~/ntp/ntp_clients_stats | less produces the same type of output seen here.) It turns out that a flaw in the IPGeo code assigning the server to the right ‘zones’ for some reason thought our server was in Brazil. Strangely, while the United States has 550 (at last count) servers in the pool, South America has 16. Thus I got a much greater share of the traffic. It’s still low: at its peak it looks like me might use 2GB of bandwidth.

So there are a few graphs I think would be interesting:

  • A line graph of the number of clients served over time. Using Google Charts would save me from having to deal with RRDTool / MRTG.
  • A map of South American countries, colored to show which of the countries are querying the server most frequently. (The same could be done for my US server, on a state-by-state basis.)

American Auto

What is it with American auto companies and so utterly failing with hybrids? Gas it $3.50/gallon and up right now as I post this. There’s a big green movement. In short, people really care about getting halfway decent gas mileage.

So American auto finally got with the program and offered a couple hybrids. The Ford Escape hybrid, for a long time, was the only one. Tree-huggers and penny-pinchers alike can…. uhh…. marvel at the utter contradiction that is a hybrid SUV.

Of course, Chevy didn’t want to be left out, so they joined. Except that seem to have missed the memo even more. Calling it the “Green Car of hte Year,” they introduced “America’s first full-size hybrid SUV.” It gas mileage is exactly the same as my non-hybrid Toyota Highlander: 20-22 MPG.

Seriously, guys?

News Anchors, Awesome

Wasting time on YouTube:

  • Insane News Man” is pretty funny. Not until about the seventh time watching it did it occur that it was maybe a teleprompter problem, and the transition into his co-anchor being absent and a man being “murdered and then set on fire while celebrating his birthday” were two separate things.
  • This talkshow clip is in a foreign language (Dutch?), but I still can’t help but crack up laughing every time I watch this. You don’t need to understand what’s being said.
  • This weatherman is a classic. It’s a college station. Someone eventually interviewed him; it was his first time and the director kept distracting him by trying to give him cues, which just made things worse.
  • Off the topic of news anchors, “The worst hockey player!” is hilarious, if only because it would be me if I played hockey.
  • Worst Hockey Fight” is almost as good, although the first 20 seconds or so are worthless.
  • You might have seen this Home Shopping blooper before, but I’d never seen the full version before, which is where the hilarity lies. Long after it’s obvious that the horse picture he’s referring to is actually a butterfly / month, he continues calling it a horse, and even starts pointing out imaginary details.
  • This one, though, is even funnier, albeit much older. They’re selling “safety jumper cables” while the model shows off a poncho for no apparent reason, before the anchor very deliberately… Well, just watch.


A long time ago I coined Wagner’s Law: “While driving, the probability of encountering a bicyclist is exponentially higher when approaching a blind curve.” Why this is, I have no idea, but the world’s bicyclists always seem to be entering blind curves when I’m driving. I very rarely get to pass a bicyclist on a long stretch of straight road where I can see that it’s clear to pass. Instead, I’m entering a blind curve, where I’m forced to slow down and stay behind the bicyclist. This probably drives the people behind me crazy, but the only alternative would be to drift into the other lane, which is downright suicidal since I can’t see oncoming traffic.

Today, I’d like to coin Wagner’s Second Law: “As an organization grows, the percentage of unnecessary members rises.” By the time you’re a college, you probably have a lot of jobs that, frankly, aren’t necessary. We were joking yesterday about how the school ought to cut about 15 jobs and merge them into a single person’s job, with the title, “Director of Pointless Memos.” They can be the one that’s in charge of taking an e-mail sent to the whole campus and forwarding it… to whole campus… And the one in charge of sending us an e-mail informing us that the work order system for submitting maintenance issues is “now available,” even though it’s been available for at least two years and was not previously unavailable, and so forth.

Yesterday I got a notice in my mailbox informing me to make sure to update my mailing address with people sending me mail over the summer. We’ve been debating whether one line was a typo, or whether it was deliberate… One assumes the former, but after getting a sufficient amount of utterly pointless memos, we’re not entirely convinced that they didn’t mean to tell us exactly what it says:

The U.S. Post Office change of address form does not apply to our campus e-mail addresses.


I haven’t been paying too much attention to my NTP server, but some e-mails on the list about problems with the monitoring server got me to look at my server’s stats. Apparently the monitor experienced a bit of network turbulence and started considering everyone to be way off.

I was looking a bit at my local NTP stats. The last polling interval stepped my clock forward 5.024ms. This is perhaps more than I’d like; sometimes the offset is less than a millisecond.

So I started wondering what sort of accuracy this was. My server was happy with its sources, so it’s at the longest polling interval: once every 1,024 seconds, it’ll check. Thus, over 1,024 seconds, I lost 5.024ms.

Some quick calculations show that this is a 0.000491% error. I guess I’ll take it.


There were a couple people screaming profanities outside my window. After about ten minutes one of them shouted, “Come drink with us” at some girl, and I looked out and saw that they had beer bottles.

Sufficiently irritated at this point, I called Campus Police. The dispatcher said, “I just sent someone up that way for this,” so I turned on my radio.

Sadly, the officers had the wrong location and missed them. But I was observing the whole thing through my window listening to them. I had to find a way to call back without divulging that I was listening to them, so I just stated that I’d seen the officers look in the wrong spot and leave. She asked me for a better description of their attire, in addition to my exact description of their location. I watched a couple cops slowly approach, observed the people I’d called about, and swooped in.

At this point I expected the students to stop yelling, apologize, and be asked to move back into their room. Instead, one of the students, upon seeing the police, threw his bottle down, screamed, and took off, with the second kid following him. The officers initially chased them into the woods.

One officer stopped chasing them as they got into the woods. I was slightly disappointed to see them get away, except that all I really wanted in the first place was for them to stop yelling profanities and derogatory comments at people. So I was happy.

But I was even happier when another officer radioed in that he had seen the kids come out of the woods and was picking up the chase.

At this point my batteries died, so I’m not yet sure how this ended. But suffice it to say that it ended up significantly more interesting than I’d initially expected. And the drunken jerks are gone.

As an aside, the school’s 100W repeater (into a high-gain antenna, it seems) seems to overload my poor little VX-2. I tried enabling its attenuator feature, but it still didn’t seem to cut it. I then tried removing the antenna, but then the signal was too weak. (Although still audible.) My IC-W32 holds up much better to the overwhelming nearby signal, but its batteries don’t. And my ASTRO Saber is entirely unphased by the signal, but its batteries died the other day and I hadn’t recharged them…


Fast Company has an interesting article talking about how the human race seems destined for laziness. Presented two choices, one the “default” (as in, it’ll happen if they don’t do anything), the other being far superior but requiring that they do something, most take the inferior default.

The main example is the “Save More Tomorrow,” where, in essence, most of your “raise” will be socked away into your 401(k) program, unless you request that your employer give you the money. (I assume there’s a lot more going on than them simply failing to give you your money.)

But he presents some other interesting statistics. Organ donors, for example. His example is Germany, but it’s the same deal here: you have to opt-in to being an organ donor. In Germany, 12% of people are organ donors.

Austria requires that you opt out of being an organ donor. What’s their donation rate? You could argue that it’d be close to 12%: for such a big decision, surely 88% of people don’t want to be organ donors. You could also take the other side of the coin: 88% of people were too lazy to check the box, so 88% of people would be organ donors.

But it’s a two-variable problem. In Germany (and the U.S.), the 12% is people who were willing to donate AND who cared to check the box. In Austria, you need the people who don’t want to donate AND who cared to check the box.

For this reason, 99% of Austrians are organ donors. Only 1% opposed being an organ donor AND took the time to opt out.

It’s interesting, then, to apply this to computer interfaces. How many sites, when you register, have “Sign me up for lots of spam!” checked by default? It always annoys me, but I bet they get a lot of people that way. They’re not militantly anti-spam, so they lazily leave the box checked.

When you leave a comment right now, please tell me what you think!