Sunday, April 19, 2015

A New Illumination Project

No, I have not been on vacation. OK, maybe a little bit, but not this entire time.

A long, long time ago, in an RV park far, far away, I designed the original CycleLux system. It worked really well. Even with it's horribly inefficient design, the battery bank lasted months of typical use.

There were a few issues. To start, it was not easily reproducible. The individual parts took a long time to create. On top of that, it wasn't nearly as modular as I had hoped.

As my programming abilities have improved, I have updated the firmware, although I never installed it in the system. It eventually got to the point where no greater improvement could be had without completely redesigning the hardware.

Long story short, I am beyond the design and into the build...

The new headlight is shown on the left, compare to the old version on the right. There are some obvious improvements. In a much smaller package, I have a much brighter light. Combined with my newer implementations of PWM control, this could turn out to be really good. Or explode. Only time will tell. Stay tuned!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Tax Season... More like Refund Season!

I'm sure you've all seen the H&R block commercials. They air them pretty much nonstop about this time every year. You guessed it, tax season is upon us once again, and all of these companies really want you to use their services to ensure you get the absolute highest possible refund...

Some of them try a little too hard...

But should you really be getting that high of a refund? Let's stop and think about how taxes work for a second. Let's say you worked really hard for a year and earned $100 (unrealistic, but it makes the maths easier for the non-math savvy to understand). Now let's say you owe a total of 20% tax to government agencies. Forget about state, federal, and other tax types for a moment, and just focus on the numbers. You owe $20 in taxes and get to keep $80. That's pretty simple, right? The problem is that we don't just pay that amount all at once because no one would be responsible enough to save all year for their taxes... we pay our taxes in increments - a little bit out of each paycheck. The trouble with that is the rate isn't exactly constant and can vary based on location, total pay, and a plethora of other factors. There is no way to know exactly how much we will end up owing during tax time, so we fill out forms that aim to make an educated guess based on previous income, living situations, and overall awesomeness (or the opposite) at life.

This is where the whole thing goes south. I was always taught, as most people are, that I should "claim 0" on my W-4 forms so the maximum tax is withheld. Hold the phone, why would I want the maximum tax withheld? Simple, you reply, because you will get a huge refund at tax time. At first, this sounds awesome, who doesn't love refunds? Um, me, that's who. Do you know what a "refund" actually means? It means that someone owes me money, and that someone happens to be the IRS.

I'd like to think I am pretty responsible with my money. I save, shop smart, and live well within my means. However, I know plenty of people who live paycheck to paycheck. I'm not here to brag or to judge, but an extra bit of money each pay cycle would go a long way with a lot of people. So why are people giving that extra money to the IRS each week just to get it back later (without interest)?

Let's look back at those simple numbers again... If you make $100 and will probably owe 20% in taxes, you should shoot for paying exactly 20% at each paycheck. Of course, it's impossible to know exactly what you will owe, but those forms do a pretty good job at guessing. Why is this so important? Let's look at some more numbers, just for fun.

There are 52 weeks a year, but you take off 2 of them, so you will get 50 weekly paychecks of $2 each. If you claim 0 dependents, the maximum tax will be withheld from those paychecks. That could be easily be 35%. Now, you are paying 35% taxes all year, keeping only $1.30 each paycheck.

Yes, yes they are...

At the end of the year, you have kept 65% of your $100 annual pay which amounts to $65. However, your savings, living expenses, and a few of life's unexpected events cost you $75. That excess cost was likely absorbed by your credit cards.  No big deal, everyone has credit card debt, right? Then comes tax time, and you have a huge refund waiting for you: $15. One thing you might be aware of... people who are constantly out of money are not very good at keeping it once they find some. So you spend that money on a new TV, or a vacation, or to remodel the bathroom. 

Let's say you actually decide to be responsible and you try to pay down your debt. If this year you added $10 to that pile, it was probably already pretty high from the previous years. Assumptions aside, you will owe more than your $10 debt. You will owe interest on that debt - likely 15% or more. That bill just climbed from $10 to $11.50. So you pay that off and come out ahead by $3.50. Hooray! Now let's see how that year could have gone...

Since you filled out your W-4s more accurately, you only had 20% withheld each paycheck, so you got 50 paychecks of $1.60 each. At the end of the year, you made $80 and ended up neither owing tax nor getting a refund. Also, that extra little bit in each pay check was enough to pay for all of your expenses for the year, so you didn't add any debt to your name. In fact, you walked away with $5.25. Wait, how did $80 - $75 = $5.25? Easy, rather than blow that excess money, you invested it all year to the tune of 5%.

So there you have it:
 Plan to get a refund and get 3.50% of your annual salary.
Plan not to get a refund and get 5.25% of your annual salary.

Of course, all of these numbers are totally made up estimations, but for the the mean American household income of $54,000, smart planning could be an additional $1000 in your pocket at the end of the year. Taxes may be unavoidable for most, but you have the advantage of knowing they are coming. Think ahead, plan out your expenses, and stop getting so many refunds.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

New Project - Power Supply Controller

So, I built this today...

External Controller for Adjustable Power Supply

It is an AVR based controller for my HSCN-600-12 power supply. The circuit drives a variable input on the supply with a potentiometer and reads the voltage output which is then shown on three seven-segment displays. The controller also switches the main A/C power to the supply as well as the output. 

Want to know more? 

Click here to check it out in the PBKEC project pages!

The complete source code and schematics are also available for download on the main site.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

I am right; the research proves it!

As a nurse, my wife is commonly asked what her opinion is on various procedures and methods and what the accepted research has to say about a wide variety of things. She almost always answers the same way, but a few nights ago (and for the first time ever) another nurse beat her to it by saying, "[...] they can make the research say whatever they want it to say [...]." This is an opinion shared by my wife and I, but few other people seem to realize this obvious assertion. Have you ever noticed how every side of every argument has research to back up their claims? We've heard it all. It would seem that everyone has an opinion they want heard, but no one wants to listen to anyone else.

My wife deals with a plethora or interesting topics at work concerning health care procedures. They can't all be right, can they? Well, yes, that is, depending on how they conduct their research. It all comes down to the selection pool. A few (hundred) years ago, surveying just the people that live in your town might have been sufficient for a scientific study, but in today's overpopulated society, there are far too many different types of people in different walks of life from different backgrounds for this to be effective. In any given major city in the United States, there are typically millions of people, but only some of them are from that area. Others moved from smaller towns or a completely different kind of metropolitan area, and others migrated from another country, continent, or (maybe some day) planet! Some are healthy; some are obese; some have children; some are single; some are in college; some have grandchildren in college; some are insane; some are insanely intelligent; some workout; some work from home; some don't work at all. I think you see where I am going with this. Every aspect of someone's life shapes their beliefs, ideas, thoughts, and even their health. Ideally, all of these variables could be used to further enhance a study - to show the differences in people of different cultures, ages, and origins, and they sometimes are - but far too often, these differences are used as a tool to skew the outcomes of a study.

As an engineer, I am no stranger to the scientific method. It was a staple of most of my education. The first step is obvious: ask a question. The second step is just as important, but often overlooked: do a bit of background research. It's the third step that really trips people up: form a hypothesis. And with that, it's game over - you have just asked the person conducting the experiment to have an opinion on the matter. Now, some people may be above such a complex, but most of us are at least somewhat prideful. Even if we don't show it in public, deep down inside, we all want to be "right." Having an opinion about something instantly turns us all into selective scientists - taking note of every little thing in our lives that might help to prove our point. It's this behavior that can all too easily slip into the formal research being conducted. Soon enough, a study is no longer about bettering humanity, but about making a statement or proving a point. Honestly, who wants to spend days, months, even years conducting research only to find out we were wrong from the start?

But then again, if someone isn't passionate about a topic, they probably aren't going to invest the time and resources to do a study in the first place. A random man on the street would probably never decide to start researching the effects of "pushing mag" on a laboring woman unless he works in that field, is close with someone who is pregnant, or had a bad experience with his own child's birth and is trying to find out what went wrong. Here is where the supposed solution would come into play: the independent research consultants. These are (unbiased) groups of people who are contracted to research a topic and present the results. But even this approach has its flaws, primarily, the paper trail. Who is asking them to do the research, and who is paying for the research to be done? If my entire research operation was being funded by a major pharmaceutical company and they asked me to conduct the effects of a new drug on the "average" human being, you better bet that on some sub-conscious level, even the most upright and unbiased researcher will have this thought lingering in the back of their mind: "I hope our results are favorable so the company doesn't pull our funding or cancel our contracts..."

Which brings me back to my original situation: the patient in the hospital asking a nurse what the research says. You would like to think that a hospital conducting research would have the patient's best interest in mind, but even those so called "non-for-profits" have a CEO who likes to make money, and there is always a chance that every study conducted has some monetary skew in place. All too often, the only reason something is done in a specific way is to save the hospital expense - not that the patient would ever see a reduction in their bill. Don't believe me? Talk to a labor nurse working at five different hospitals (not all in the same "network" of hospitals) and see what they have to say about the ancient art of child birth. Then again, maybe I'm wrong about all of this. I didn't exactly cite any research here...