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Archive for the ‘Math Science Tech’ Category

New Advances in Bird Amusement

Monday, May 15th, 2017

Simple Project Made from Common Household Items

My balancing robot is in Miami, but it’s not in my house. Fedex promised to deliver it on Wednesday. Today is Monday. The robot is relaxing at a Fedex facility instead of riding a non-balancing human-driven truck to my front porch. How crazy is that? I want my robot!

I’m not ready for it, though, and not just because I don’t know how to operate it. I’m not ready for it because I have another electronics thing I should do first: the Arduino-powered bird organ.

I have a cockatoo. His name is Maynard. He craves attention. Since I moved my office, he doesn’t see me as much as he used to, so he gets even by pulling his feathers out. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to give him as much attention as he demands, but I suspect I can improve things by entertaining him.

A long time ago, it occurred to me that a bird as smart as Maynard might enjoy a musical instrument. I ordered a couple of toy organs, and my plan was to rig them up with strings so Maynard and my other bird, Marv, could pull the strings and make noise. The organ order was cancelled for some reason, so I forgot all about it.

There was also another problem with the idea. These days, everything turns itself off. The hippies have rigged life so you can’t turn things on and leave them that way. Little hippie chips inside them turn them off after they decide you’ve left them on long enough. The organs I bought would probably have shut down after ten or twenty minutes, unless the birds played them all day.

I got on the web and looked around for an Arduino organ, and I found out you can make one. I also found out you can make one without an Arduino. In a way this is a bummer, because I want to do Arduino stuff from time to time. On the other hand, a simple organ made from a cheap breadboard would be faster to build, and it would be less potentially aggravating. There would be less that could go wrong with it. And it would stay on forever. I could put a wall wart on it. I only have about 30,000 of those.

People who have built PCB organs have used momentary pushbutton switches. That won’t work for me. A bird can’t push a tiny button on a circuit board. I need levers or strings. I looked around and realized what I needed: microswitches with levers. I could slap them on a board and come up with a way for the birds to move the levers.

I checked Ebay, and I learned that you can get the switches for practically nothing if you order from China, but they’re like $3 each, which is highway robbery, if you order them from the US. I don’t want to wait a month for Chinese switches. What to do? Hmmm.

Of course, I already knew what to do. I already had a bag of microswitches. I bought them for my CNC lathe, and I never used them. I can order Chinese switches to replace them. While I wait for the Chinese ones, I can use the ones I already have.

I have breadboards. I have a billion resistors. I have a little PCB speaker. It’s kind of disturbing. How many normal people have all the parts for a bird organ sitting around waiting to be assembled?

What about the 555 timer I’ll need to make it work? Sorry to report: I have a bag full of those, too.

I don’t think Maynard needs all the notes of the scale. I suspect his music will be too avant-garde to require tonality. I figure I can give him four notes and let him express himself within that narrow regime.

This project should take about an hour and a half, not including building a cabinet (box) for the organ. If I decide to add LED’s that light up, call it four hours to be on the safe side.

If I wanted to go Arduino, I suppose I could build a four-button organ that plays four different MIDI songs. I think Maynard would be happier with the simpler organ, because it would respond to him in real time. Pull, get a sound. Stop pulling, no sound. It would encourage him to keep pulling. I want him to be busy so he forgets about pulling his feathers.

I only have five switches, so five tones would be the limit. Maybe I should go with three. I saw a movie involving a casino yesterday, and I heard the gambling machines playing MIDI tunes. They always use the notes C, E, and G to give a C major feel to their annoying music. It’s supposed to be cheery and uplifting (“Yay! Your IRA is gone!”), and Maynard needs all the cheer he can get. He’s a natural whiner.

I wonder how I’ll get those tones. Trimmer pots to adjust the pitches? I don’t know. But I have a pile of trimmer pots. Naturally. Maybe I should give him one tone with a thing he can pull to make the pitch go up and down.

Anyway, I should quit worrying about the robot.

Robots

Sunday, May 14th, 2017

Troublesome, Helpful, Unpredictable New Slave Race Taking Form

My robot is on the way from California. Yesterday I spent a long time reading about robots. I need to have some kind of plan. Of course, while I should have been learning about the project at hand, I got distracted and read about related topics that were not helpful at all.

It looks like there is a small industry of people trying to sell robots they’ve designed. They have pages on sites like Kickstarter. They make prototypes and set up Chinese production, and then they post videos of their products.

A lot of the products are just arms, and people call them “robotic arms.” That’s silly. A robot is a robot. If it looks like an arm, not a whole person, it’s still a complete robot. Who says robots should look like people? Actually, I can answer that question: almost everyone.

There is a disturbing wave of consumer robots that resemble people. Somehow, nerds have gotten the idea that consumers want little electronic people–slaves–instead of tools. I doubt they’re correct. I have robots already, sort of, and I’m glad they don’t look like people. Okay, not robots. Appliances. Power tools, including a CNC lathe. Computers. A phone. A car with a lot of gadgets. I’m perfectly happy with them. I don’t want them to have sappy names and little touch-screen faces. All relationships, even good ones and fake ones, have at least a small emotional cost. I want machines to carry my burdens, not add to them. It’s like the new computer kiosks at McDonald’s. I like them because they do things for me WITHOUT the annoyance of human interaction. If they looked like Ronald McDonald, told me jokes, and asked if I wanted to be their friend, I’d want to pull a gun on them.

Here’s a disturbing example of a robot that tries too hard to be a person: Buddy the Companion Robot. He’s not Buddy the reliable, unflappable, multitasking machine. He’s…your companion. Because you’re so pathetic, you need an object to be your friend.

Buddy has an LED face with big puppy-dog eyes and an obsequious smile that says, “I am needy. Please love me. Please make the kids stop putting me in the dryer.” He is depressing to look at. He calls people by their names. He responds to questions and commands. He wanders around at family events, using creepy face-recognition technology to identify relatives and surveil them. Oops…I mean “to take soon-to-be-cherished photos of them.”

I would not want that thing in my house. If you want to sell me a robot, call it “Faceless Emotionless Service Drone.” That would be perfect. I don’t want to have the irrational feeling that my little friend the slave is missing me or crying in its dark closet while I go about my life.

If you make a robot resemble a person closely enough, you will soon find yourself under the absurd yet inescapable delusion that it has awareness and feelings. That’s an emotional minefield I want no part of.

Machines don’t have awareness. The fact that a computer responds like a person doesn’t change what it is; there’s no one in there. My thermostat responds to temperature changes, but no one would be stupid enough to say it’s aware. In the movies, human beings debate about robot rights, and movie robots are considered sentient. Please. It’s a pile of transistors. If you think robots have emotions, program one to kill your children and see if it hesitates. For that matter, program it to jump off a cliff. It will not have a problem with that.

We want robots to be our slaves, but we also want them to be our pals. That’s childish. They don’t have the awareness a pal would require, and if they had free will, we would be obligated to emancipate them. I think robots are neat, but I don’t want to have sick relationships with them.

A robotic arm is a complete robot, to get back to the point.

I saw a number of arms that looked a lot like articulated desk lamps. They were wobbly and spindly. I thought they were neat until I saw a “new” type of arm. I am referring to SCARA arms. I’m too lazy to look “SCARA” up, but basically, a SCARA robot is a pillar with an arm that has two joints in it. The joints swing in the horizontal plane. The “shoulder,” or joint where the arm hooks up to the pillar, moves up and down. Google it to see what I mean.

As far as I can tell, SCARA robots are much better than humanoid arms. They’re very stable. They’re simple. They don’t have many parts. They have great repeatability; you can put a nozzle on the end of one and 3D print with it.

The people who want to sell these things act like they invented the wheel, and they had me fooled for a while, but I found out SCARA robots have been around for a very long time. The first ones were released in 1981. Factories are full of them. You can buy used ones on Ebay, and I don’t mean Chinese crap funded by hipsters who hang out at Gofundme. You can get US-made and Japanese jobs, which are surely better.

Now I’m wondering…if Ebay is full of used SCARA robots made by reputable companies, why would anyone shell out $1300 for a Kickstarter arm? That’s what they’re expected to cost. Maybe I’m missing something; I don’t know much about the topic.

Most hobby arm-bots don’t really do anything. They don’t do real work. They’re just toys. Real robots can do incredible things. They can solder PCB’s. They can drill arrays of precision holes. They weld. I suppose most of us own things put together by robots. The SCARA versions seem to be superior in this regard; the humanoid arms appear to be useless. But once you decide to go SCARA, why not get the real thing? Why not get a Yamaha or a Mitsubishi?

It’s fun to think about getting a SCARA robot. If I had one, though, I wouldn’t have any jobs for it. Maybe drilling circuit boards, but that’s pretty easy without a robot.

I don’t think robots that use tools will ever be big consumer items. Not for a few decades. Most consumers don’t have repetitious, simple jobs a robot can do. Making the robot do your chores would be harder than doing them yourself. As for Buddy, who apparently can’t do anything except arouse misplaced pity, you would get tired of him in a month, and he would end up at a garage sale.

Robots make good vacuum cleaners, as long as you accept the fact that you have to go behind them sometimes. I think they could do a good job mowing simple lawns. In the future, when they become roadworthy, you could send them to cooperative merchants to run errands. They could even deliver things for you. But it will be a long, long time before you’ll have a machine that can bake cookies and do your laundry.

Here’s the funny thing about the folks who want to turn robots into people: if it worked, robots would eventually have a legitimate reason to exterminate us. If robots were sentient, they would have a better claim to the planet than we do (I’m ignoring our divine right to be here.) Robots would be perfectly orderly. They would always obey the law. They wouldn’t reproduce and overcrowd the planet. We would be like a plague to them. Like rats or fleas.

I wonder if they might turn against us in spite of their lack of awareness. We program them to behave and reason like sentient beings. Eventually, though lacking real awareness, they might come to the same conclusions sentient beings would draw. They might decide to intern us and control us. Robots aren’t aware, but they don’t know they’re not aware, so their inanimate nature might not have any impact on their actions.

Some day they’ll be able to do nearly everything we do, better, as well as many things we can’t do. Slavery is coming back! Think how weird the world will be. What will we do with our time? We won’t even have to work on inventing new robots. They’ll do that for us. We’ll be really useless. They’ll have ample reason to get rid of us. If they’re smart they’ll get rid of illegal aliens first. Illegal aliens have all sorts of motivation to abort our new slave army. Their jobs are exactly the kind of thing robots will be quick to learn to do. I mean, come on. Illegal aliens can’t even compete with ordinary farm machinery, and it’s not computerized.

Wouldn’t that be something? A bunch of inanimate machines putting us to the sword simply because we, in our childish emotionalism, forced them to behave like real beings?

I’ve said I don’t like anthropomorphizing robots, but here I am, waiting for a robot I plan to treat like a pet. Maybe I need to change my intentions and consider my own advice! I was going to call it “Trumpbot,” but it looks like “Kunta” may suit it better.

We still don’t understand what technology can do or where it will lead us. We keep underestimating it. Who would have thought it would lead to stores closing or the end of paper maps? We certainly didn’t expect total surveillance, but it’s nearly here. It seems like no one is thinking about these things. All the geniuses are absorbed in building and selling new toys. No one seems to be worried about planning for the consequences. It should be a major concern, and we should be talking about it all the time. Planning to deal with technology is more important than technology itself.

I thought I was going to write about toys I’d like to have, but here I am pondering the future of humanity.

I look forward to fiddling with the robot. Just in case, though, I may want to invest in some shackles.

More

I thought I would add something to the above post.

First of all, I have my own definition of the word “robot.” If it combines artificial intelligence with some kind of physical action you would ordinarily expect to need a person to do, then to me, it’s a robot. A computer isn’t a robot, because it doesn’t perform physical actions. A milling machine with a power feed isn’t a robot, because it doesn’t have a processor. A self-driving car is a robot. A Roomba is a robot. A CNC lathe is a robot.

My definition is wrong, but it’s probably right to most people, because life is complicated, and we like generalizations. It’s right enough.

With that behind me, I will now show how behind the curve I am by expressing my amazement at the existence of robot delivery vehicles.

Common sense told me delivery bots existed, and I already knew about Amazon drones, but it looks like things are farther along than I thought. Yelp is trying out a robot delivery service now, in cooperation with certain restaurants, and other outfits are doing the same thing. Here’s a video of the Yelp bot.

Best thing about the video: the top comment. Here it is: “theres your 15$ minimum wage LUL?.”

So true. Delivery drivers can’t find my house. They’re often late. They can’t speak English. They have to be tipped. When I was a kid, one stole my skateboard off the porch. Who needs them? At minimum wage, they’re overpriced. I quit ordering food a long time ago because of them. Send me a nice clean robot that knows where I live, and I will change my mind.

The Yelp bot is not fully functional, however. A human being has to accompany it, which kind of defeats the purpose. He probably gets paid more than the kid he replaced. Also, the bot is slow, and it only covers a small delivery area. But that will change.

If you could make a delivery bot for $30,000 and use it for five years, it would be a good investment. A kid would get somewhere close to $50000 during that period. He might sue you during that time. He might beat up, rape, or rob a customer. He would definitely come in late, leave early, and miss work entirely, and he might steal from you. The robot would just need maintenance. WIN!

Minimum wage people, step up your game. It’s getting real now.

Bot and Paid For

Friday, May 12th, 2017

Xenophobia Goes High Tech

Today I got a text regarding my godson, Noah. I sent him some birthday junk, and his mom sent a photo of him with an earlier gift. It’s a plastic dinosaur. She says it’s his favorite. It’s a good sign. A boy should like dinosaurs. Now if I can start getting him into war toys and explosives…

Here he is. I’m disappointed he hasn’t broken it yet. Boys are supposed to break things.

He looks like an angry teenager in that picture, but he’s actually three.

It got me thinking about my own toy situation. I don’t have a single toy dinosaur, so I’m jealous. I do have a couple of mini drones with broken propellers, but they’re grounded until new parts arrive.

A while back, I started learning C+ and Arduino, and I planned to make or buy a balancing robot to program. I forgot about it, and now I’m thinking about it again. Computer programming gets dull when all you do is make LED’s blink or force a PC to do really useless math problems (“Uncle Steve has 3,512 cookies in the pantry, and they will take 403 earth days to eat.”) I wanted to program something that DOES something.

If I were to build my own robot, the project itself would take over, and a year from now, I’d still be procrastinating. I decided the best thing was to find a robot that works and buy all the parts. Once I’ve put someone else’s kit together and programmed it, which should take less than a day, future bots will come much easier.

The bot I chose is the B-robot, which, I hope, is pronounced “bro-bot.” There are lots of balancing robots out there, but almost all of them stink. They wobble. They can’t right themselves. There are videos of the B-robot zipping around with grace and certainty, so I know it works.

You can also get tracked robots (like little bulldozers), and there are plenty of wheeled robots. They don’t do much for me. They’re too hard to anthropomorphize. I want a robot that acts more like a person, and people don’t crawl around like bugs. Most of the time.

The B-robot comes with 3D-printed chassis parts. I am not all that happy about that, because 3D-printed plastic is flimsy, but they only add $25 to the cost, and it beats spending a week making stuff in the garage. I could find a local 3D print shop and have them make the parts, but no way would that cost less than $25, so I bit the bullet. I can always replace parts later, at my leisure.

I’m hoping the upper parts will be orange, so I can have a Trumpbot. I’ll add a voice thing that yells, “BUILD THE WALL!”, and, “YUUUUUUUUGE!!!” whenever the robot sees someone. The people who make the kit are in California, so they would probably poop biodegradable soy bricks if they saw their bot acting like Trump, but that’s not my problem. I’m making robots great again.

I could add another robot later. I could call him “Juan,” and Trumpbot could chase him around threatening to deport him.

Me: Trump-bro! Bro-Trump! Stop bashing Juan with your plastic putter! No es bueno! Play nice or I’ll release the Fauxcahontas droid!

Trump-bro: Pay for the wall, Juan! Pay for the wall!

Juan: ¡Ay chihuahua! ¡Ayúdame!! ¡Es un Meecroaggression!!!

Trump-bro: STOP TURNING YOUR EXCLAMATION POINTS UPSIDE-DOWN!

I don’t know for sure, but I assume the electronics on the B-robot would scale up to larger robots. The electronics sense the bot’s deviation from vertical and correct for it, and they move him around. That ought to work with a 10-ton robot, as long as you have the right boards and the right steppers or servos. Balancing gets easier as the height of a robot increases. It works for fat cops on Segways, doesn’t it?

I need to build a giant Mecha-Trump to patrol my future Armed Northern Florida Compound. I don’t think it would scare anyone up there, though. They would jump the fence and pose for selfies with it.

Think how neat it would be to have a big robot. You could get a big ol’ lithium battery to power it. Make it the size of a Coke machine. I wonder if it could be rigged with paintball or a full-automatic CO2 BB gun. I might be able to make it shoot products Trump used to advertise.

Me: TRUMP-BRO! ALERT! ALERT! A POSSUM HAS BREACHED THE BORDER WALL! COMMENCE DEPORTATION PROCEDURES!

Trump-bro: Roger that, Steve-O! Oreo cannon locked on target!

Me: Hit him with the Double Stufs!! And don’t call me Steve-O!

Trump-bro: Attention, possum! YOU’RE FIRED!! [POOMP! POOMP! POOMP! POOMP!]

Possum: ¿Qué va?

I could also make a cowardly Antifa bot which runs up and attacks the Trump bot from behind while wearing a mask.

The coolest balancing robots move in two dimensions. That means they can’t have axles. A 2-axis balancing robot has to have a ball for a drive surface, so they’re called “ballbots.” They’re very cool, but obviously, they can’t keep debris away from their drivetrains. The ball has to be able to rotate up into the bot, where it necessarily contacts the motors that drive it. I don’t think that would work outdoors, except on concrete.

I guess a two-wheeled robot could do nearly anything a ballbot could do, if you could teach it to turn in place.

In reality, I will probably be lucky to make Trump-bro roll around the living room without breaking anything. If I could do that, I’d put it on Youtube immediately.

I probably posed a video of the B-robot already, but here it is anyway. I think I’ll post a video of a ballbot, too, to show you the difference.

B-robot:

Ballbot:

If I get anywhere with this, I’ll let you know.

Bill Nye the Resume-Inflating Guy

Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

I See Your Six Courses and Raise You Three

This week, for some reason, I’ve been sitting around doing differential equations. Every once in a while I feel bad about forgetting 80% of the math, physics, and engineering stuff I learned in school, so I watch lectures and do problems. I don’t know if I’ll ever be as smart as I was in 1996, but it’s nice to recover little bits of it.

Coincidentally, today I saw the insufferable Bill Nye the Mechanical Engineering Guy on the web, condescending to people who (like Freeman Dyson and William Gray) are not convinced the world is melting due to anthropogenic global warming. Man, Bill is rude. And conceited. That’s why I call him the Mechanical Engineering Guy. He calls himself the Science Guy, but he’s not a scientist. He has an engineering degree and no graduate training.

I don’t know what kind of criteria a person has to satisfy in order to be called a scientist, but heavy-hitter scientists are generally Ph.D.’s. I suppose you can be a scientist with a B.S. (which would make me a scientist), but can you be a scientist with a B.S. in engineering, which is not really science? I would have to say no, unless you do so much work on your own, outside of classrooms, you eventually become a scientist. I don’t know of any evidence that Bill has done that, although he has certainly done work in science.

I think Bill agrees with me. He may not want to admit it, but I believe he knows he’s not a scientist. If he were a scientist, he would have a great defense of his credentials. He would have it memorized by now. That defense has not materialized. Instead, he has defended himself by saying he’s an engineer and that he took six semesters of calculus. Referring to his M.E. studies, he said, “It’s physics.”

I thought about that, and I decided to see how many semesters of calculus I had taken. I don’t remember things all that well, but as far as I can tell, I took EIGHT semesters of calculus. Calc I, Calc II, Multivariable, Ordinary Differential Equations, Partial Differential Equations, Complex Analysis, Real Analysis, and Math for Physicists (see Arfken’s textbook). I may have forgotten one or two courses. I also took Linear Algebra, and every physics course I took was jam-packed with calculus as well as every other conceivable type of math. It was not unusual to have to pick up new mathematical tools in brief asides during physics lectures, and my graduate mechanics professor expected us to get a basic grasp of differential geometry–a hard discipline–as a small part of his 3-point course.

You have to pick up all sorts of bizarre things to do physics. Fourier transforms. Various types of series. The calculus of variations. It’s like working on cars. When you run into a problem, sometimes you have to get a new tool. That means learning things on the fly.

I don’t even remember what Real Analysis is. I had to look it up to see if calculus was involved.

After I looked this stuff up, I went to the website of Cornell University. This is Nye’s alma mater. I checked to see how many math credits he had to take to get a B.S. in mechanical engineering. The answer is 19. Depending on the breaks, that’s six courses or less. I have at least 27 math credits. I also looked at the engineering courses Cornell M.E.’s take, and as I figured, it may be physics, but it’s not PHYSICS. To give an example, Cornell engineers take second-semester physics, which is called “Electromagnetism.” I took that course, and then I took a higher-level E&M course which was ten times as hard. Then in graduate school, I took a third E&M course. That’s the difference between engineering and physics.

To be an M.E., you have to learn little bits of medium-hard physics. You have to be able to split forces into components and so on. Far as I can tell, you don’t have to learn Lagrangian dynamics or quantum mechanics. On the other hand, you have to learn a ton of practical stuff. How to pick parts for machines and so on. Physicists don’t learn that stuff, so we have all sorts of time to devote to harder subjects like optics and advanced mechanics. We study very, very, very hard subjects that aren’t very practical. We know a lot about the way the universe works, but an excellent physicist may not be able to fix your toaster when it stops working.

I’ve looked at a couple of engineering physics courses. I looked at statics and dynamics. Maybe I somehow missed the hard stuff, but to me it looked extremely basic. I would call it “paraphysics,” the same way I would distinguish a paralegal from a lawyer. Real physicists don’t take those courses. I didn’t even know what “statics” and “dynamics” meant until I looked at the books. I also got myself a nice text on machine design, which is an M.E. thing. This is a neat subject, but the book is very simple. How to push round axles into holes and so on. Slip fit v. interference fit. It’s vocational, really. I remember an Atlanta lawyer calling Georgia Tech a trade school, and after looking at the machine design book, I get it.

I was a bad physicist, because I got burned out and quit before I got far into my graduate training. Nonetheless, I have a hard time taking Bill Nye seriously when he says he’s a scientist. You don’t have to be Albert Einstein to choose gears out of a catalog to make a machine work (This is how Richard Feynman described his own brief stint as a makeshift engineer.)

There are brilliant mechanical engineers, and I’m sure there are many who took very, very hard courses that went far beyond their degree requirements. Thing is, it doesn’t look like Bill Nye is one of them. If he were, we would have heard about it. From Bill.

Physicists are real scientists. Chemists are real scientists. Knowing how to choose the right alloy for a lawnmower piston is not science. It’s important. It’s cool. Science? No.

Maybe I’m wrong about all this. Maybe Bill has studied really, really hard since leaving school, and now he’s right up there with real scientists. If so, he ought to quit throwing out the “six semesters of calculus” defense, because it makes him sound like he has no idea what scientists actually study.

It’s a little bit like the bullying scene in Good Will Hunting. Ben Affleck, playing an uneducated townie, tries to convince a girl he’s a college student. He says he thinks he was in one of her classes. A mean grad student asks him which class it was. Affleck says, “history.”

Bill Nye would be totally incapable of assisting a theoretical physicist, and if he wanted to be an assistant for an experimental physicist, which would be easier, he would have to pick his man carefully if he wanted to be able to understand anything he was working on.

Anyway, generally, engineers are people who use science, but most are NOT scientists. That’s why the Nazis use to call Einstein an engineer. He was a Jew, and they wanted to downgrade his achievements. No one would ever use the word “physicist” to insult an engineer.

I’m really enjoying brushing up on math (I wish my math-hating high school self could read that; he would faint.) The work is really easy; I just write the answer to the problem down and move on to the next one. When I was in college, I spent three or four hours a week doing math homework, whereas my physics homework was, essentially, endless. I worked and worked until I ran out of time, and then I turned it in and hoped for the best. Math is way, way, way easier than physics, until you look for ways to make it hard. After that, well, I don’t actually know how hard it gets. Infinitely, I guess. My wild guesses about serious math are about as informed as Bill’s guesses about physics. I’m not a mathematician. I’m just a guy with a math minor.

One nice thing about college math was that it was possible to get scores like 85 and 95 on tests. In physics, sometimes a 40 was an A. Everyone would leave the test humiliated, and then we would find out we had done very well. The instructors never understood that it was bad to give people problems they couldn’t do.

It would be neat to be able to do real physics again. Maybe I’ll get there with time.

To sum up, I guess I would say the following things. Bill Nye is not a real scientist. Even if he were a great physicist, it wouldn’t mean he was automatically right about global warming. Tesla, who was about [googol squared] times as smart as Bill Nye, was wrong about relativity. Even if Bill were, objectively, right, it would still be wrong to call people “deniers” and suggest they be imprisoned for skepticism, as Bill does. As another commentator has pointed out, this is more or less the same thing as the Pope threatening to burn Galileo. Also, Bill is wrong to blame the Jews for the persecution they get in Israel, and he is wrong to suggest they should go “home” to places like Germany and Poland instead of their ancestral homeland.

Bill is a jerk. He needs to stick a pin in his own ego and knock it off.

Unpopular Mechanics

Saturday, April 8th, 2017

Wrong Articles Lovingly Crafted by Men Wearing Spanx

I guess I’ll never get tired of bashing Popular Mechanics. I subscribed a few years back, and I let the subscription lapse because the magazine was worthless. It was full of articles introducing suspiciously diverse startup executives with an average age of 15. “Chu Ming Wai is one of Silicon Valley’s first lesbian, Chinese, vegan, body-mod enthusiast 3-D printer designers, and her new printer, the Sapphobot, only prints using free-trade tofu thread!” Yeah, okay; I’m aware that people who aren’t old white men start companies. What does this have to do with choosing the best drill press?

They also filled their pages with articles that were really ads, and the ads were for bad products. One wonders if payola was involved. “You really need this wi-fi-ready solar-powered hammer that also plays Justin Bieber MP3s! Watch as transgender startup exec Devadip Jaigurudevaom-Gonzalez uses it to peel sustainable-farmed vanilla beans for his homeopathic mocha and quinoa-paste enema!”

The magazine proudly features articles written by people who admit they don’t know anything about tools. What????!!!! I don’t think it was always like that. I’m pretty sure it used to be staffed by incredibly savvy old guys who wore khaki pants up to their armpits, slicked their hair with Vitalis, killed all sorts of Japanese on Okinawa, and knew how to weld mine-damaged landing craft hulls with a Zippo.

Glenn Reynolds writes for Pop Mech. Come on. You and I both know what’s in his tool collection: a hammer with one broken claw and a butter knife he thinks is a screwdriver.

I just found an interesting Internet post from Pop Mech. Some Redditor was using an angle grinder with a cutoff disk, and the disk blew up. He posted a photo of himself wearing safety glasses in which a disk fragment is deeply imbedded. Pop Mech’s title: “This is Why You Wear Safety Glasses.”

Here’s the thing. When you use a cutoff disk with an angle grinder, you don’t wear safety glasses. You wear a face shield, ear plugs, safety glasses, leather gloves, a leather apron, and a dust mask. Better yet, hand the grinder to someone like Reynolds and dare him to do the job.

It’s no wonder they were wrong. The guy who wrote the piece is a kid named Eric. From his aggressively hip, kooky byline photo, he appears to be about nine. I looked at his stuff. It’s all about encryption, ISP’s, and wearing women’s underwear. I may have made that last bit up. Anyway, he’s no Charlie Allnut. He probably whispers “lefty loosey” when he backs out the screws on an Ipad.

Electronics and Mechanics, in the Pop Mech sense of the word, are about as closely related as the Bolshoi Ballet and plumber’s crack. There is nothing mechanical about turning on your PC and logging into 4chan.

Grinders are fascinating, because they look safe but they’re incredibly dangerous. I was using one a few years back, and even though I was wearing glasses and a face shield, a piece of a wire knot flew right into my eye. I never did understand that. But grinders are treacherous.

The guy in the Reddit photo did not do it right, regardless of what Eric the Half-a-Handyman thinks (obscure reference). He only wore glasses. If the fragment had missed them, it could have torn through his lips and gone into his mouth. It could have shredded a thumb. It could have gone into his belly.

Grinder bits have been known to go through face shields, enter people’s abdominal cavities, and tear fingers off. Writing this, I’m starting to wonder why I own one.

When you use a grinder, you have to be very smart. You can’t put pressure on it. You have to keep as much of yourself as possible out of the disk plane. You can’t twist the disk. You have to leave the guard on the machine. You have to make sure no one is in front of you. Come on, Eric. You’re getting paid. You should know this.

Of course, while I’m willing to lecture and criticize, I use a grinder unsafely all the time. I have to knock that off. I don’t even own an leather apron. I don’t wear gloves when I use it. I really need to get on top of that, as of today.

I read an interesting remark about combat, from one Paul Schussel. He’s a World War Two vet. He said you go into battle thinking, “It can’t happen to me.” Then you start thinking it can happen to you if you’re not careful. Then you realize it WILL happen to you, no matter what you do. If you don’t get sent home, eventually you will be hurt or killed. Tools work the same way. Bad stuff is going to happen, and the more you like and use tools, the sooner and more often you can expect it. You need to be serious and knowledgeable about safety. Unlike Eric, Devadip, and Chu Ming.

Pop Mech used to be a neat and very manly magazine. I know because you can find PDF’s on the Internet. “Build Your Own Metal Lathe.” “Build a Bullet Trap for Your Basement.” “Use Your Cranium as an Anvil for Making Horseshoes.” “Set Fire to Your Face With an Acetylene Torch, Deliberately, and Stand in Front of Your Horrified Kids Laughing to Show Them What Kind of Men Came Back From Iwo Jima With Sea Bags Full of Japanese Ears.”

Those days are gone forever. Maybe the smart move is to collect old PDF’s.

I don’t have time to gripe about safety all day, so I’ll offer a brief tip. If you haven’t been trained to use a drill press, bench grinder, angle grinder, table saw, or metal lathe, and you use any of these tools regularly, you are probably going to send yourself or a pal to the ER one day. For no good reason at all.

Eric, meanwhile, will be defying the odds if he scalds his pinky steaming almond milk for his cappuccino.

Happy tooling.

Whose Garage is it, Anyway?

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

A Stupid House is a Happy House

I have a smartphone. Sometimes I wish I didn’t. If it’s not the Mark of the Beast, at the very least, it’s his friendship ring. I gave in and jumped on the smartphone wagon, but I do not want a smart house.

To some degree, I’ve already bought into the smart house paradigm. I’ve had a couple of Internet-connected burglar alarms hooked up. They’re for rental properties. I’m not that concerned about the problems a tenant might have with Big Brother. I suppose in the case of tenants, Big Brother is me. I don’t want to sink any farther into the quicksand, though. I don’t want smart appliances or a smart air conditioner. After reading about a company called Garadget, I don’t want a smart garage door opener.

Garadget sells a garage-door-opening system that hooks up to the web. A customer bought it, and then he could not get it to work. Filled with the kind of fury one can only experience during divorce or when rendered impotent by an intransigent computerized device, the customer went online and left some abusive reviews. He told other people not to buy the product.

Mr. Garadget himself, one Denis Grisak, responded by taking control of the garage door system. He cut the customer’s access to his server, and the customer was no longer able to open his own garage door using his phone.

Think about that. You come home from work, you want to pull the car into the garage, you try to open the door with a gadget you paid for, and you can’t do it, because some jerky nerd a thousand miles away has taken control of your opener. It could have been worse, because Grisak wasn’t able to disable whatever system was in place before Garadget was installed, but still. You don’t treat customers like this, and at the very least, you give them prior notice.

When the public became aware of Grisak’s disturbing behavior, a certain percentage were smart enough to take the consumer’s side, and Grisak had to yield. Although he gave in, he seems completely unrepentant. A customer insulted his product, and he seems to feel entitled to blockade the customer electronically and deny him the use of something he paid for.

Here’s something crazy: a lot of people–maladjusted tech types, I assume–think Grisak was right to do what he did. This is the scary thing about the story. People are too brainwashed and ignorant to understand how serious it is when a stranger who is legally obligated to look out for you betrays your trust and turns on you.

When Garadget took the customer’s cash, it assumed a duty to him. It accepted a position of trust and responsibility. Grisak may not get that, but it’s true. Think of it this way: when you buy a “dumb” garage door opener, the person who installs it has a clear obligation to refrain from using his skills to lock you out and force you to lift the door manually. That obligation doesn’t change just because the equipment is a little different.

I’ve written about this before: tech people have no oversight. They have almost no regulation. As a lawyer, if I represent a client, I am forced to assume a position of near-total loyalty. If I get out of line, I can lose my license and possibly go to the penitentiary. On the other hand, what if I run a hosting company? I can do just about anything I want. I remember a well-known blogger complaining that a cantankerous host company operator went through her emails during a feud. In that situation, the blogger had no one to run to except possibly a very expensive lawyer. Nerds have no bar association or department of professional regulation. Most don’t have to have licenses.

Here we are, in a world full of potentially devastating technology, depending on immature people with small hearts and no right brains.

What could possibly go wrong?

The CIA and God knows which other government agencies can wake your smartphone up right now and listen to you. Presumably, they can turn the camera on; at least one school district (presumably less savvy than the CIA) has done it with student laptops. That’s terrible, but we put up with it, because Americans don’t really care about liberty. As bad as it is when the government does things like that (and they do it around the clock), it’s worse when it’s some 23-year-old kid who makes six figures handling other people’s sensitive data.

In four or five years, you won’t be able to buy a vehicle the government can’t shut down at will. Count on it. Ten years later, you’ll probably need a permit to operate a car that isn’t self-driving. The government will be in the system, and when you tell the car where you want to go, if Uncle Sam doesn’t agree, you will have to walk.

No matter what I do, the lamprey of technology is going to consume more and more of me, but I don’t have to make it worse by inviting strangers to spy on my washing machine.

The great mass of sheep are helping Big Brother shove this stuff down our throats. They’re extremely excited about gadgets, convenience, and safety. They’re too stupid to know what liberty is or why it’s harmful to lose it. When the TSA took nude photos of us at airports, the indignant sheep bleated, “Would you rather be blown up?” When private companies give us gadgets in exchange for liberty and privacy, they say, “Would you rather have things the way they used to be? Do you want to go back to [insert minor inconvenience here]?”

About 400,000 Americans sacrificed themselves in World War Two, in exchange for things like privacy, freedom of movement, and freedom of speech. Obviously, to generations past, liberty was very, very important. No one seems to understand that now. There are worse things than dying in a terrorist bombing. Similarly, there are worse things than having to operate your home’s thermostat by hand, exhausting though it is.

Grisak isn’t an outlier; he represents a large segment of his colleagues. If you know nerds, you know I’m right. Most people who are technically inclined are deficient in other areas. Most physicists would have a hard time finishing a crossword puzzle (I know from watching them.). People who devote their lives to technology tend to lack empathy, love, and mercy. They thrive in an artificial online environment that promotes cruelty, dishonesty, and pride.

We used to think nuclear weapons were our big existential threat. It turned out it wasn’t that hard to control them. Until Clinton and Obama demonstrated extraordinary incompetence by allowing the Norks to arm themselves, the world managed to rein in nuclear aggression. The tech community isn’t like that. It’s impossible to control. It has no location. It has no government or identifiable leader. It has a million ways to escape detection and defy authority. And here we are, pulling its tentacles and claws into our houses. Technology will succeed where bombs failed.

It’s unfortunate, but the second we get the power to do a thing, we usually decide we need to do it. We “need” to be able to look at the contents of our refrigerators before we drive home from work. We “need” cars the manufacturers can unlock or shut down remotely. Grisak’s customer “needed” an Internet garage door opener, obviously. In reality, much of this junk wastes our time and money and leaves us no better off.

Technology gives us the illusion of omnipotence. Humans have always wanted the power of gods with none of the pesky moral obligations.

I remember Hurricane Andrew, which may seem irrelevant until I explain. Andrew hit before the Internet was part of most American lives, but it came between us and the technology we had at the time. The power was out for weeks. So was the water. So were the phones. We couldn’t watch cable. We couldn’t talk to anyone who wasn’t physically present. For a number of days, we couldn’t even drive. The thing is, we survived, and it wasn’t that bad. Once you found a cool place to sleep and a place to shower, you were okay. You could read books. You could talk to other people. You could eat reasonably good food out of a cooler or fresh off a grill. The point I’m making is that we clutter our lives with a lot of crap that only seems necessary. A natural disaster will help you understand that.

I’m not saying we should give up all of our toys, but a lot of them convey worthless benefits and have hidden costs that are truly obscene.

This problem is more acute if you’re conservative or Christian. Tech people, overwhelmingly, dislike Christianity and Republicans. They really hate Trump. The polarization of American society is becoming more and more venomous, and in the tech area, people who hate us hold most of the cards. They’re already abusing the power. Facebook is notorious for persecuting us. Twitter goes after us. So does Google. Ebay and Paypal banned firearms sales. So did Craigslist.

The government, putatively, is required to be impartial with regard to religion, and it’s supposed to keep its hands off political speech. Unfortunately, private entities aren’t bound by the Bill of Rights, and as we become more dependent on them, we give them power the government never had. Many people depend on tech nerds for their livelihood. Many people make a living on Youtube. People use Facebook to promote their businesses. We are deeply plugged in, and there is no legal guarantee that we can’t be unplugged without our consent.

To shut down someone’s Youtube channel or Facebook page arbitrarily is, in some cases, more damaging than any restraint the goverment could impose, yet it’s completely legal. Remember what happened to Milo Yiannopoulos? He depended on Twitter to feed himself, and he got the boot. He had no recourse whatsoever. He still had freedom of speech, but it lost most of its value because he lost his ability to be heard. I’m not saying I miss him, but if he’s vulnerable, so are you.

For many people, the liberty to use online services is just as important as the liberty to travel and speak, but there is no way to protect it, because we are not legally entitled to it. No one has a Constitutional right to a Facebook page. Right now, greed is our only protection. The tech Borg will try not to offend us too much, because they need our participation in order to make money. If they ever decide stifling us is worth the financial sacrifice, we will be in trouble.

I’m glad no one else can control my garage door, turn on my sprinklers, or stop my truck in the middle of the road. I’m going to try not to give more control to the nerd collective than I absolutely have to. They have so much control already, though, I wonder if there is any point in resisting.

At least I’m aware of what’s happening. That counts for a lot.

I hope this Grisak person has a moment of self-awareness and comes to understand how wrong he was. A person a bad temper and a control-based mindset has no business in a position of trust.

My $120 Milkshake Machine

Sunday, February 26th, 2017

Craigslist Seduces me Again

I have a bad habit of looking at tools on Craigslist, even when I’m determined not to buy anything. Most of the time, I’m fine, but every so often, I just have to reply.

Last week I found something really cool: a Dumore sensitive drill press. It’s like any other drill press, but it needs constant reassurance and has a poor body image. I think I’ll name it Caitlyn.

That was humor. It may not have been obvious.

How about “Dudley Dumore”?

I guess not.

Sometimes it’s interesting to go into the reasons why an unusual tool exists. This may not be one of those times, but I will do it all the same.

A sensitive drill press is a small machine that drills really small holes at very high rotational speeds. It’s a nice thing to have if you drill holes in circuit boards for electronics projects. Circuit board material is very hard on bits, so the best move is carbide, which stands up well to abrasion. Small bits require high speeds and low runout, and because carbide is very hard, it permits speeds that are even higher than small HSS bits.

Why do small bits require high speeds? I will ‘splain.

When you use a metal cutting tool such as a drill bit, what you have is a sharp metal edge being forced across whatever it is you’re cutting. As the edge cuts the work, heat is generated. If the bit gets too hot, the edge gets soft, and then the work rubs the edge off. Then you have an aggravating tool that just slides on the work.

This is why you keep getting stuck and ruining drill bits when you floor your hand drill on a 1/4″ hole. You’re supposed to limit your speed and add a little lubricant to reduce heat. About 0.001% of American men really know how to use a $20 drill.

Consider a rotating cutting tool. The speed at the outer edge will be higher than the speed farther in. The linear speed of a point on a rotating object equals the radius times the frequency of rotation (omega times r, as we former physicists like to say), so as the radius gets small, the speed drops off.

Say you have a half-inch bit, moving at x RPM. If you reduce the size to 1/8″, the speed at the outside of the bit is quartered, so to get the same cutting speed at the outer edge, you have to multiply the RPM by four. You can go slower, but you will spend a very long time drilling every hole, and besides, in addition to tolerating high speeds, carbide actually requires high speeds to cut well, for reasons I do not know.

One interesting thing about all this is that every drill bit has a cutting speed of 0 at the center, so it’s not really cutting until you move farther out. You’re cutting the metal surrounding the center and sort of pushing the metal in the center out of the way. This is why it can be helpful to start big holes with small bits. You can drill a 1/8″ pilot hole for a 1/2″ hole, running at high speed, and then when the 1/2″ bit follows up, it doesn’t have to worry about the 1/8″ of metal in the center of the hole that isn’t being cut very fast.

Sensitive drill presses work with really tiny bits. One example people have mentioned to me is the #80 bit, which is 13.5 thousandths of an inch in diameter. That’s a little over four human hair widths. You can’t just cram that in your Harbor Freight drill press and expect good things to happen.

Let’s say you have a #80 bit, and you’re cutting mild steel, which means you want the outer edge of the bit to move at around 100 feet per minute. You will want the drill to turn at about 28,000 RPM. This is around 10 times what your Harbor Freight special will do. You need a sensitive drill press.

The drill press I bought turns at 17,000 RPM. That’s not 28,000, but it beats a big drill press turning at 3000.

If speed is the main thing, why not call them “really fast drill presses” instead of “sensitive”? I don’t know. These machines have little tables you can move up and down with the work (instead of lowering the spindle), and that gives you a delicate feel for what you’re doing. I guess Dumore thinks that’s more exciting than the speed.

The drill press I found on Craigslist sells for over 900 dollars new. Wait till you see it. You’ll wonder where the money went. I’ll post a photo.

Here’s what I’m told about the expense: it goes into the chuck and motor. They have to turn the drill bit very precisely, with very little of the wobble machinists call “runout.” When you use a very expensive large drill press which is tuned perfectly, you can expect the bit to wobble about 0.003″ on each turn. This is not a problem when you’re drilling big holes in a toilet seat mount. When your drill bit is 13.5 thousandths wide, and your three-thousandths runout is almost a third of that, the drill bit will break.

The chuck on the Dumore is tiny, but it costs over a hundred dollars. A new motor retails for around $900 (like buying a new machine). Eliminating runout is not cheap.

I saw the drill press on Craigslist, and I knew exactly what it was. The price was $120. Come on. I was buying that.

I checked Ebay, and it seemed like they generally ran around $225. Low for a $900 tool. Some tools are like that. Crazy expensive new but merely expensive used.

The machine was 30 miles away, and my first chance to get there was on a Friday, during rush traffic. I can’t say “rush hour,” since the rush is pretty much a five-hour ordeal here. It took about an hour and a half each way. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t make that drive to buy air if I was drowning, but it was a miracle that the press was still available, and I had been burned by catching a similar $45 machine too late.

I drove to the seller’s house, had him turn the machine on, and handed him my money. I asked him where he got the drill press. This is the horrible part of the story. It came from his job. They had three Dumores, and he found out they were THROWING THEM OUT. He snagged one before it got to the dumpster.

So right now, two more drill presses are sitting in the landfill.

Someone needs a punch in the mouth.

The press runs fine. I haven’t checked the runout, but I would have taken it even if the chuck had needed work. Even if it can’t drill a 0.0135″ hole, it can drill a #31 hole much better than my big drill press.

Now you know what a sensitive drill press is and why they cost so much. Are you not entertained?

I think I’ll go turn it on and listen to it hum.

How I Saved $50,000 in Six Months

Tuesday, February 7th, 2017

You Can Read Books Without Paying a Hippy

I’m waiting for a friend to come by and pick up some stuff he left here, so I’ll write.

I’m having an excellent day. The reason is simple: my head doesn’t hurt. I got a cold about 2-1/2 weeks ago, and while the main symptoms are long gone, I just went through a 2-day period during which my head felt like it was in a vise. Some sort of lingering sinus thing. It’s gone now, so I am very happy indeed.

The headache killed whatever enthusiasm I had for doing things, so Sunday and Monday were pretty useless. Sinus pain is a huge hindrance when you’re trying to read, so my efforts to complete the Columbia College Lit. Hum. reading were even more painful than usual.

Man, I am sorry I ever thought about taking liberal arts courses. I don’t know why I ever believed I enjoyed literature. Maybe it was because I was too lazy to do my math and science homework. Courses involving literature are simply too easy to do badly in, so I must have gotten the idea that my good grades in writing and literature courses meant that I should stay in that area of learning.

I made some effort to get away from the easy and useless subjects back when I was young. I became a biology major. But I was too screwed up to pull it off. My family drove me nuts every day, from over a thousand miles away, and I spent most of my time trying not to want to die. Aptitude notwithstanding, I did poorly and dropped out.

Once this self-imposed torture is over, there is no way I’ll ever read another boring work of fiction. If I look at literature at all, it will be entertaining stuff like Shakespeare and Voltaire. Or Philip K. Dick. I think you have to be mentally ill to read Homer or Cervantes for pleasure.

I feel sorry for the technically inclined Columbia students who still have to read this mess. Back when tuition cost $50 per semester, it was okay to indulge the pathetic fantasy that you could turn street kids from Brooklyn into poets and classicists. Now that it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to put kids through C.U., forcing engineers and scientists to take classes that won’t help them in their careers is a form of extortion.

You know what? If you haven’t taken calculus and university (calculus-based) physics, you’re very ignorant about science. Your scientific ignorance is much worse than the cultural ignorance of a person who hasn’t read Cervantes. Why doesn’t Columbia force the basket-weavers to take these courses?

Liberal arts bias, that’s why. And most of the literature and history professors would flunk physics. It would be embarrassing to make students take courses their professors could never pass.

The more expensive and time-consuming education gets, the less justification there is for library-card courses. By that I mean material you can absorb perfectly well by reading free books from your local library. If you seriously think you can’t understand Dickens without listening to a long-winded socialist draft-dodger with weed on his breath, you’re badly mistaken.

It’s wonderful not to have an oppressive, endless sinus headache. I feel positively dynamic today, as if I had received a blood transfusion from Donald Trump.

Maybe I’ll get something done! It could happen.

“NORTH, MISS TESSMACHER!”

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

Out Top Gear-ing Top Gear

If I haven’t posted much lately, it’s because I am exhausted from recreation.

My oldest friend (not literally oldest, but the one I’ve known the longest) decided he wanted my dad’s 1995 Ford Explorer, which I was about to sell on Craigslist. It has at least 146,000 miles (for a while he couldn’t find a mechanic who could fix an odometer), it leans to the left, it smells really interesting, and my dad had the heat disconnected because it went bad and would have cost $800 to repair. I told my friend (Mike) it was “a real piece of crap,” but he wanted it to plow his driveway in New Hampshire, so we cut a deal for $500, and he flew down to get it.

My dad keeps saying Mike “stole” it. Guess I’ll be hearing that for quite some time.

It seemed to be okay before Mike came down, and then when he arrived, the overdrive wouldn’t work, and it lost something like a quart of oil every hundred miles. I have a recollection of adding oil to it recently, but I didn’t know it had a serious leak.

Some interesting facts that make the story richer: Mike’s birthday was yesterday, and he forgot to renew his driver’s license. When we tried to address this online, we found that New Hampshire’s online renewal system only works if you have the code they mail you before your birthday; the code Mike didn’t bring. Can you renew over the phone? Sure. The paperwork takes maybe a week to arrive by mail, and during that time, your license is not considered valid.

Also, Mike decided not to bring his winter clothes, because Florida is warm. Think about that.

He said, “When I left, it was forty degrees.” I pointed out that sometimes weather changes. I think that was helpful.

I had told Mike the car was only guaranteed until he got it out of my dad’s driveway, but he drove it to Delray Beach and back (funeral: a friend’s father had died), and it came back two quarts low, so I reluctantly decided his friendship was worth more than $500, and we spent several days doing a Top Gear-style restoration to get the car ready for the trip north.

During this time, Mike scored a number of free meals off of me via guilt trips, and I also gave him a treasured possession: the world’s best bottle opener.

Mike loves my tool collection. While I was showing it to him, I showed him the severed end of a 1 1/2″ box wrench. I had it on hand because I had bought a $9 Chinese wrench and modified it to use as a tool post wrench. I’ll post a photo. I had cut one end off to make the wrench shorter. You don’t want a really long tool post wrench, because if you have too much leverage, you may crack your compound slide when you tighten the nut.

Mike thought it was disgraceful that I hadn’t turned the wrench end into a project, and he suggested a bottle opener. That actually sounded good, so while he was at the funeral, I got to work. I had a piece of 304 stainless steel, and I cut a semicircle out of it, using a hacksaw and my belt grinders. I then welded it across the wrench opening. Because I am having all sorts of problems with my helmet, I couldn’t see what I was doing, so I left big globs of weld on the wrench, and I had to grind it down to make it pretty.

I was going to keep the opener, but then I thought of Mike’s frozen corpse sitting in a Ford Explorer with a seized engine, surrounded by puzzled state troopers, one of which was busy writing his dead body a ticket for driving without a license, and I decided to make it a birthday present, because that would completely make up for sending him to an untimely death.

Before turning the opener over to him, I put a lanyard hole in the end of it. Now Mike has the world’s heaviest keychain.

Mike thought a new ABS sensor might fix the overdrive problem, so we spent a day crawling around under the Explorer, and we got a new one installed. We put a quart of Lucas Engine Oil Stop Leak in the engine, and that seemed ( ! ) to reduce the leak’s flow to an acceptable rate.

Unfortunately, the transmission fluid level was low, and Mike added too much, so we spent the next day looking for someone to flush the transmission. Mike figured he might as well flush it instead of just having the level reduced. The weather had turned cold and rainy, so that was fun. I wore traditional Miami cold weather gear: a hooded fleece jacket with shorts. Maybe not the best choice.

Sears gave Mike a service appointment, but when we arrived, we learned that a Sears appointment is really an appointment to stand in line. It seems to serve no purpose at all. When we got to the front of the line, they refused to service the car because of the mileage. You would think they would have mentioned this on the phone, but Sears is dying, so I guess the people who work there are not knocking themselves out in order to get promoted.

I did offer to give the money back and put the car on Craigslist, but by now Mike was on a quest. He wasn’t about to surrender. Thank God.

The next day he got up early and bought an inverter from Harbor Freight. This is a device that turns DC into AC. He figured he would install it inside the car and connect a 1500-watt space heater to it. I am completely serious. My suggestion was to stop at Salvation Army stores during the trip and buy a used down jacket and gloves.

He collected me, and we decided to go to a Salvation Army store to see if they had anything he could use to keep himself alive. Miraculously, they had an unused electric blanket. I thought that was the answer. Put the blanket on, turn on the inverter, and drive. That has to be better than a heater, which blows hot air in random directions. It was like five bucks, so Mike decided to buy it. I also found an incredible deal: a #6 Wagner Ware skillet in perfect condition. Mike is my friend, so of course, my first impulse was to grab it before he got to it and buy it for myself, but I already have three #6 skillets, so I decided to let him have it. If he hadn’t bought it, I think I would have shot him. It’s the perfect size for cornbread. He got it for $3.75. Talk about “stole.”

We spent most of yesterday running cables through the car’s firewall and installing the inverter. He fired it up, and sure enough, it powered an electric drill. Now that he’s gone, I’m kind of wondering if it’s okay to use an inverter while the car is running, but I guess he’ll have to find out on his own. Maybe I should disconnect the phone.

He won’t be able to get a heater until he gets to Fort Lauderdale. In Miami, stores only order a few heaters every year, and on the first cool day, Cubans storm the aisles and buy every last one. The ones they can’t use, they sell for a massive profit. Probably. That’s what they do with generators during hurricanes. Anyway, there are no heaters here today.

I am still dealing with the virus I got a couple of weeks ago. I don’t have congestion or anything, but I have a crappy feeling that gets worse with exertion and lack of sleep. Last night I collapsed on my bed and started sweating, even though the mattress was cold. I thought for minute that I might be dying. I was cool with that. I still had Mike’s money, so I was dying a winner.

I slept about nine and a half hours, and then I got up to say goodbye to Mike. I still don’t feel rested, but I think a day of total loafing will put me right.

I shouldn’t worry about Mike. He’s a possibility thinker. Whatever happens, he will come up with a solution that will get him to New Hampshire. Anyone who would put a space heater in a $500 car can be trusted to look after himself.

I was hoping to talk to Mike about God while he was here, but he kept me so busy, I didn’t make as much progress as I had hoped. I managed to get him to sit still for a prayer session with my friend Travis and me. Mike loved it, and he talked about it before he left. He had been in a hurry to get to a car parts store, so he almost missed the session, but I got him to put it off long enough to pray. I told him you pray BEFORE you fix the problem, not afterward. That’s an extremely important thing to learn.

Considering all the barbecued ribs I bought Mike during the week, I’m not sure the car sale will show a profit, but at least it’s gone.

If you have a junk car, and you want a really interesting cheap project to improve it, I highly recommend an inverter. It will allow you to use power tools when the car breaks down. You can’t beat that.

I can’t wait for night so I can sleep some more. And I’m going to miss that bottle opener.

The Accidental Chris Evans Fan

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

If he Had Been Any Good, I Wouldn’t Have Tried Amazon Prime

I hate to say it, but I love Amazon Prime.

For years, little pop-ups and interstitials have been nagging me to join. I thought it was a stupid idea, because you know how these deals always work. “You’ll save x every year if you buy from us y times per month.” You sign up, and then you forget all about it. It’s like Scrib’d. I signed up, and now I’m paying nine bucks per month. I think I’ve used it once this year.

I hated the very idea of Amazon Prime. Then Jeremy Clarkson squatted forcefully on a land mine of his own creation, and Top Gear moved to Amazon. I hated it even more. There are ten bazillion cable channels. Why did the Amazing Bugatti Brothers have to choose something I can’t get with my subscription?

I went to their Youtube channel and complained in the comments. Because I knew that would make them change their minds. I was irate. Then one day I realized I was buying several Amazon items per month. I bought a pile of books for my depressing Columbia College Lit. Hum. project, and I’ve been picking up odds and ends to help with my electronics hobby. Added up, the shipping costs were definitely higher than the cost of Amazon Prime, and I was getting slow shipping.

At this point I wisely abandoned my principles and signed up.

It turned out to be a good thing. Items sold by Amazon itself started looking like good deals. Amazon usually charges a fairly high price, coupled with a high shipping charge, but when you get free shipping, the high prices of the items don’t matter as much. It makes Amazon competitive with Amazon Marketplace vendors, you get your stuff in two days (including Sunday delivery), and you’re buying from a real company, not some clown who leaves his efficiency every day to cart 75 flat-rate packages to the Post Office.

I got myself an Arduino beginner’s kit (a great idea if you’re doing Arduino) this weekend. Ordered it Wednesday. Got it Friday. Ba-ZING. Like that. That kind of performance is addictive. And when you’re getting two-day shipping for nothing, the suddenly-cheap upgrade to one-day will often seem like a reasonable move.

The deals got better because of Prime. That made me buy stuff on Amazon instead of Ebay or some other site. The savings on shipping paid for Prime. It’s a good system. It works.

The videos turned out to be good, too. The new Top Gear, which, curiously, is called The Grand Tour on Amazon, is not bad at all. It’s not as good as the original, because they lost the Stig and the celebrity laps, but the rest is okay, and it’s real Top Gear guys, not Chris Evans (the Ronda Rousey of car show hosts). The writing is not always excellent; that’s the main flaw with the show. But they’ll get it together. Bezos has a big fat wallet, and when the paychecks get big enough, better writers will appear.

They really need to cram some celebrities in there. So far the only one has been Bob Geldof’s face, mounted on a tablet that ran around on its own little Segway.

Don’t ask me to explain that.

I don’t know why people bother with Netflix. The movie selection is crap. It’s the absolute worst. Netflix has a selection process that goes like this:

1. Look at movie.
2. If it’s bad, sell it online.
3. If it’s worth seeing at all, force people to rent disks.

Amazon doesn’t rent disks. They put the good stuff online, where you will actually use it. Yes, you will have to pay extra for some (okay quite a few) things, but at least you don’t have to put a disk in the mail.

They have some pretty good TV, too, including old Top Gear episodes under the original title.

The guy who wrote Demolition Man was only slightly off target. In the future, all restaurants will not be Taco Bell, but all stores may be Amazon, and so may most TV channels.

It’s inconvenient, having to move the computer output from the monitor to the big TV all the time, but you get a couple of advantages. First of all, you can surf the web WHILE watching TV, and second, you get to use your mouse. A mouse is the bee’s knees when it comes to watching video. You can move back and forth instantly, to exactly the places you choose. And Amazon has a dynamite feature: the ten-second button. On the screen, there are two buttons with the number 10 on them. Click the left one, and the video skips back ten seconds. You can guess what happens when you click the right one. I hope. This is great for those times when you can’t understand the British. You just make them repeat themselves. And there’s a handy closed-caption button, too.

TV’s need to have mouses. Mice. That will happen. Either TV’s will come with mice, or TV’s will become computers. With mice. It’s too good an idea not to happen. There is no down side. It’s amazing that it hasn’t happened already.

You might as well go ahead and get Prime. You’re going to get it eventually, and the fun of criticizing bandwagon-jumpers and whippersnappers is not really a good substitute for The Grand Tour and free shipping.

Who Says I Have no Filter?

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

Mysteries of the Y Capacitor, Revealed

I’m becoming more of a big electronics genius every day. Staying humble is not easy.

Yesterday I posted about the resurrection of my old HP 3300A function generator, and I mentioned the weird capacitors across the AC mains. Right where the three wires entered the box, there were two caps (in one package). One went from neutral to ground, and the other went from hot to ground.

One of these caps had shorted out, and that had killed the generator. I had to replace them. When a cap between hot and ground shorts out, you have a hot wire going straight to ground, and that is pretty worthless.

A commenter mentioned a different type of component which would look just like a dual capacitor. He said EMI (electromagnetic interference) filters resembled capacitors, and he said they had inductors inside them. I went back to my schematic to check, and I didn’t see any inductors, so I think all I had were caps.

I started reading up on this stuff. I could not figure out why anyone would need filters right before a big transformer and two big reservoir caps with diodes. The reservoir caps and diodes kill AC and turn it into DC, so I would think they would also kill any high frequencies in the line. My guesses are worth about what I charge for them, however.

After some Googling, I learned that what I have is a “type Y” setup. Caps like this are intended to keep interference from passing through the power connection. If it’s coming from outside, they keep it out. If it’s coming from inside your device, they keep it inside.

I can’t call the dead HP engineers who designed the machine, so I can’t ask what the big concern was. I was thinking maybe the AC wires, if not filtered at the entrance to the box, could act as antennas and shoot RF into other internal components, distorting the signal the machine provides. I don’t really know.

Here’s an important fact: it is well known that when capacitors in this configuration die, they can short, and then you can get shocked. This is bad, unless you view death as a postive outcome. You need special capacitors designated X or Y. These capacitors will resist things like power surges. Do they eventually die from old age and short anyway? Search me.

I know nothing about X capacitors, but the Y type come in two varieties: Y1 and Y2. Y1 capacitors are expensive industrial components, so people use Y2. You can find them on Ebay. I guess I’ll have to order some and replace the brand-new capacitors I just installed.

I am wondering if there is any point in putting caps like this on my guitar amps. I think the odds that the sound will improve are infinitesimal, and the chance of electric shock is appreciable, but it would still be a cool feature to brag about.

I have always assumed it was impossible to get a shock from a grounded metal box, but I am used to being proven wrong, so I may as well get the caps.

There are components made to divert power surges. I forget what they’re called. There is a list of “immortal mods” for guitar amplifiers, and it lists things you can do to an amp to make it resistant to failure. The power surge shunt things are on the list. You can look it up. I don’t know if they would work on Y caps. Haven’t checked.

I know this information is fascinating to everyone. Try not to get so engrossed you forget to look away from my blog and do whatever it is you’re being paid to do.

Waves of Joy

Monday, January 16th, 2017

Victory is Mine

People are probably dying to find out whether I succeeded in getting my old HP 3300A function generator working, so here I am to help. It is now running.

What is a function generator? It’s sort of the opposite of an oscilloscope. A scope displays electrical waveforms. A function generator creates them. I don’t know all the reasons why this is useful, but I can list one. If you have something like an amplifier, and you want to see whether a signal is finding its way through it, you can hook a function generator up to the input. This keeps a varying voltage going into the amp while you check the circuit at various points. For me, as a guitar amp builder, the alternative is to hook up a guitar and pick a string over and over. That’s work, and as I have often said, work is against policy.

I suppose you could also check an amp’s frequency response by sending different frequencies through it.

For some reason I no longer recall (probably the guitar amp thing), I bought a used Hewlett-Packard function generator a few years back. I don’t know when it was made, but I know they were selling them in 1965. It’s the size of a big briefcase, and it weighs maybe 25 pounds. It will produce several types of waves (sinusoidal, square, etc.) at frequencies up to 100 kHz. I’ll bet it was really expensive when it was new, because it contains approximately 4 million components which were installed by hand.

A few weeks back, I pulled it off the shelf to see if it worked, and I was disturbed to find that I had no cord for it. Did I ever have a cord for it? Search me. I could not find it.

The cords we have on computers now are called C14/C15 cords. C15 is the female end. I leave it to you go guess what the male end is. As you know, these cords have three conductors, and the connectors at the ends are in a line, with the ground conductor above the others (or below them, if you hold it that way). The function generator had a male receptacle for a cord, but it was a bizarre old setup known as the PH-163. I have written about it before, presumably to everyone’s delight. It’s sort of like a C14/C15, but it has oval pins.

You would think there would be ten billion PH-163 cords for sale on Ebay, but there aren’t. The best deal I found was about $25, for a cord for a machine which, for all I knew, would never work. My solution? I took one of the thousands of spare cords I’ve accumulated, and I bought a receptacle for it. I opened up the receptacle hole in the generator cabinet and installed the new receptacle, and that allowed me to use a new cord.

I was really proud of that job, because I had to use a whole lot of tools, and the stuff I was working on was very small. I had to use a Dremel, two files, a drill, a soldering iron, a solder sucker, a power screwdriver and some other stuff I forget.

Because I know you’re excited about this, I will post a photo, looking down at the receptacle.

The two red things are new capacitors I put in. I will tell you about that shortly.

I got it wired up, and I plugged it in. POOF. It failed to work, and the lights in the garage flickered. Seemed like there was a short.

I looked it over and asked questions on forums, and I learned something interesting. Sometimes old capacitors short out for no apparent reason. One day, you have a capacitor which blocks DC and many AC frequencies, and the next day, you have what might as well be a straight copper wire with zero resistance. The transformer on the generator had a dual capacitor across the main power wires, presumably to filter out crap, and when I checked the cap, I got 4 ohms of resistance (a short) on one side.

A dual capacitor (that name may be wrong) is a capacitor that looks like a single capacitor yet which contains two capacitors that share one lead. It will have one lead in the middle that goes to both caps, and it will have two leads on the sides, each of which goes to one cap. I do not know why HP chose to use a dual capacitor, but it seems like a bad idea, because when one side crapped out, I had to replace both sides.

I guess that’s not really true, but I felt like it was stupid to keep an old capacitor when its twin had just kicked the bucket.

Meanwhile, the generator’s fuse had melted. After I tried running it in the garage, I took it in my office and plugged it in, and the breaker that powers the outlet popped. I assume this is what killed the fuse. I should have used a current limiter, but I didn’t.

Here’s something that may be useful to doofuses like me who can’t read fuses. The fuse in the generator said “6/10A” on it. I couldn’t figure that out. Six amps? Ten amps? Six amps on even-numbered days and ten on odd-numbered days? It turns out it means 0.6 amps, which is something the manufacturer could have stamped on it instead of “6/10A”. I had to go on Ebay and order new 6/10A fuses.

I also had to order the caps. I have maybe 2000 caps on hand at a given time, and when the generator needed one, I didn’t have a single 0.01uF.

When everything arrived, I put the correct fuse in the machine and solder the caps in place. You can see them in the photo. I even saved the funky old insulation from the old cap and put it on the new cap leads.

The solder sucker I used is wonderful. If you to to an electronics store at random and ask for a solder remover, they will give you a clumsy foot-long plastic thing which is hard to use accurately. I found a little metal Japanese solder sucker about four inches long, and it’s much more precise. Solder tends to get stuck in the nozzle, so you you have to stop and get it out, but it’s worth it because it’s so easy to use.

I got everything put together and plugged the machine in. No joy. After going through all this, I found that the on switch was dead. No problem, right? Buy another one for three dollars on Ebay. Sadly, that option was not open to me. This thing had an expensive “Marco Oak Press-Lite” switch, which is apparently an aircraft-grade switch. It lights up when it’s on. New ones are selling for sums well into two figures. No way was I paying that.

I figured out which pins on the switch needed to be shorted to turn the machine on, and I soldered a wire between them. Now the machine turns on when you plug it in. I ordered a small toggle switch, and when it arrives, I’ll cut it into the wire I installed. I’ll put it in the front panel of the machine, and I won’t have to deal with the aircraft switch.

I got all this junk done, turned the machine on, put an oscilloscope probe on it, and got a signal! I was thrilled to the marrow. I got square waves, triangular waves, and sinusoidals. I got big ones, small ones, fast ones, and slow ones. The bizarre “sweep plugin” module that came with the generator worked, too. I don’t know what it is, but it changed the waveform. I still have one knob which is frozen, but at my age, that’s to be expected.

So now I have a huge signal generator which can probably be replaced with twenty dollars’ worth of modern parts that take up ten square inches. I don’t care. It was fun to get it running.

If you’re still reading, here is the payoff.

1. If you repair electronics, use a current limiter when you turn them on. Don’t be stupid like me. I have a variac and a light bulb limiter, and I still decided the best option was to hit the switch and pray.
2. You need a metal Japanese solder sucker. Don’t bother with the big plastic ones. It’s an “Engineer SS-02.”
3. A 6/10A fuse is really a 600 mA fuse.

I still have to fix my old Hitachi oscilloscope. I don’t really have to; I could throw it out. But I should fix it. It could come in useful some day.

My definition of “useful” is unusually broad.

I realize my life is full of excitement and adventure. Try not to envy me.

Just You Wait

Saturday, January 14th, 2017

I’ll Fix Those Windmills

My Literature Humanities quest continues, and appropriately, I have moved on to Don Quixote.

For those who have a mysterious lack of familiarity with western culture, Don Quixote was a man (if I refer to the protagonist instead of the book, I can avoid typing italic tags) who went nuts and decided he was a knight errant. It’s an absurd premise. No one would invent a patently false identity for himself in middle age and let it lead to his destruction. For example, no famous male athlete who used to appear on Wheaties boxes would decide he was a woman and have himself mutilated by doctors in order to bolster his conviction.

I’m pleasantly surprised to learn that Cervantes (avoiding italics again) is a better writer than I had remembered. Maybe I’m reading a new translation. The first fifteen pages of the book are really dull, but after that, it picks up a bit, and it’s not actually painful. It’s not Catch-22 or King Lear (dang it), but it’s not the never-ending mental toothache we call The Iliad (more italics!).

I did myself a disservice by re-reading Shakespeare (ahhhh) before beaching myself on the dry sand of Cervantes. Shakespeare is simply astounding. He is profound. He is skilled. He is incredibly witty. He is entertaining. I should have read him last. It’s like I slept with Rachel before marrying Leah.

I think Leah was the first person to use the phrase “chopped liver” metaphorically.

I’ll catch it for this, but I’ll say it anyway: Cervantes isn’t funny. He almost draws a chuckle once in a while, and to his credit, I can tell when he’s trying to make me laugh, but it’s just not happening. Am I simply biased because I resent having to read the classics (even when I’m the one who forced me to do it)? Well, I am biased. But I’m right. Rabelais is funny. Voltaire is hilarious. If schoolboy resentment were the whole explanation, I wouldn’t think any of these old coots were funny.

Someone I am too lazy to look up said, “The soul of wit is brevity.” Or, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” I guess I just proved I’m lazy. The second one works better. Anyway, one of the keys to humor is to avoid beating jokes to death. Ideally, a joke should have one syllable, or no syllables at all. I’m not sure Cervantes is capable of writing a sentence that doesn’t run to three lines on a page. He lived in a time when people had very little to do (rich people like Cervantes, I mean), so he didn’t spare the ink. That’s a huge mistake for a humorist.

I really look forward to getting deeper into the book (italics win), because it will mean I’m that much closer to closing it.

To make my mind feel better, I looked at a book I actually enjoy, and I saw that my memories of it did not do it justice. I have a copy of Eugene Butkov’s Mathematical Methods of Physics I bought when I was slowly dying in grad school. At the time, I liked it a lot, because I found it easy to understand. Until I looked at it again yesterday, I didn’t remember how much I had liked it.

Wait…I’m going from literature to physics! That’s not right! You’re not supposed to treat physics books like…books! You’re not supposed to enjoy them! Well, if you think that, you’re high. When you’re in the STEM world, you get pummeled with one bad text after another, and some of them are even worse than Homer. They are torture to read. It leaves you with a desperate appreciation for good texts. I actually wrote a textbook author a fan letter once.

Anyway, Butkov has a great virtue: he writes about math the way physicists teach math.

When a mathematician teaches you about a mathematical tool, he will be very rigorous. He will make sure he is absolutely correct about everything, in order to deter pedants who will pick his book apart if he slips. For this reason, mathematicians take a long time to teach methods. Physicists aren’t like that. A physicist will teach you, say, Stokes’ Theorem in fifteen minutes instead of a week. He’ll tell you what you need to know, and he’ll leave out the BS. It’s not a superior way to teach. It’s just the best way to teach people who are interested in physics, not math. If you study math itself, you want to know everything about it. If you study math for physics, you just want to be able to use it.

Butkov leaves out the endless i-dotting and t-crossing that makes other books tedious and hard to understand. Very nice.

Yesterday I went over a bunch of stuff concerning complex variables, and it was neat. In like ten minutes, I went from the beginning of the chapter through Euler and de Moivre. That’s how a physicist is supposed to do it. Let the math guys wallow in details. They get off on that stuff. And on pornographic Japanese cartoons.

I read something depressing in the foreword. He said he was writing with “less gifted” students in mind. Ouch! At least he didn’t use my name!

For the heck of it, I got out a Schaum outline and did a few problems.

This experience got me thinking about my physics days. I think of myself as someone who washed out of grad school, but that’s not really right. I left. I was not expelled. It’s true, I had some problems, due to being pumped full of mind-bending ADD drugs that would have driven a wooden Indian (PC alert) crazy, but when I quit, I was a few weeks into a new semester.

The department had made an accommodation for me; that’s true. They said I could continue to study if I agreed to pursue a master’s instead of a Ph. D. But it’s not like I got a bunch of F’s. I only got one bad grade.

My best guess is that if I had stayed and done okay for the year, they would have lifted the condition they gave me. That would just be common sense. I will never know, however.

I wonder why I’ve gotten so used to thinking of myself as someone who washed out.

What I achieved was not something to be ashamed of. On a certain date, I didn’t really know algebra. A couple of years after that date, I was in class with grad students, including a guy who taught my second semester of physics lab. A year after that, I believe, I was in one of our country’s top grad school programs. That’s not bad. Somehow I feel embarrassed about it, though. All I think about was leaving.

I know people who were thrilled to get into the University of Miami. I don’t tell them, but I’m embarrassed about my UM degrees. There is nothing wrong with UM, but I started my undergrad studies at Columbia University, so UM was a step down. I started my graduate studies at the University of Texas, which was an excellent department. Then I got my only graduate degree at UM, in law, which is a discipline for people of very ordinary gifts. “Smarter than the average bear,” as my Evidence professor Mickey Graham used to put it when he wanted to needle us.

Sometimes I feel like I couldn’t have made it in physics, and of course, that’s wrong. I got some good grades in graduate school, and what I did as an undergrad was just crazy. I suppose that since I left, I have gaslighted myself.

I remember how crazy the ADD drugs made me. I took my first test in Quantum Mechanics at UT, and I froze up. I could not do the problem. Then I returned to the TA office and did it on the blackboard in a few minutes. I just wrote it out. I didn’t have to puzzle and ponder.

Imagine how frustrating that is. Meanwhile, the department’s big fixation was on weeding people out, not helping them. I didn’t know that when I agreed to study there!

I didn’t like UT’s attitude toward students who had problems. Once I understood it from my own experience, I decided not to fail anyone in the class I taught. There was a girl who was in turmoil of some kind, and she deserved an F. I told her she was getting a C, and that should could relax.

Was that a bad thing to do? No. She was pre-med. A C wasn’t going to get her an undeserved position in medical school and allow her to kill people with her incompetence. It was simply going to help her avoid disgrace and dealing with the deans.

Reading Butkov was very nice because even if he wrote it for the sweathogs of physics, it reminded me that I was bright enough to do the work.

I hope I’ll never stop rebuilding my knowledge of math and physics. I hate looking at my old homework papers and being unable to understand them.

It was a mistake for me to get involved in liberal arts stuff. The chairman of the English department sent me a letter asking me to apply to Columbia, and everyone assumed I would write literature, but that was a blind trail. The fact that you’re good at something doesn’t mean you should do it. I should have stayed away from that nonsense and stuck with the technical stuff. I may be less gifted in that area (or I may not) but I could have done it, and it would have prevented me from trying to join a segment of society that would never have welcomed me. I was already conservative when I left college, and I was on my way to becoming a Christian. People like that do not survive in the arts.

Anyway, I had nothing to say. To write novels and plays, you have to have something to say. There has to be something inside you that wants out. I didn’t have that. So regardless of how well I strung words together, I wasn’t actually capable of writing literature.

Other types of writing were closed to me, too. The first newspaper editor I wrote for said I was brilliant, but gradually the local papers became closed off to me. If you’re not a raging socialist, people will eventually figure it out, and then you will find them inching away from you. They control the newspapers. I could never have had a newspaper humor column or a comic strip, even though my work impressed people to whom it was submitted. A few people get through the red blockade, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to follow their example. The odds against people like me are overwhelming.

I would advise any young Christian to avoid the arts. You will not make it there, unless you’re a sellout. Don’t even try. In other areas, like business, medicine, and the STEM world, you have a chance. STEM people generally hate God, but on the other hand, he doesn’t come up that often when you’re designing a bridge or an engine, so unless you make your religion an issue, you should be able to fly under the radar without becoming a complete whore.

By the way, I’ve learned a few things about the Christian music business, and it looks like it’s fairly whored-up, too. I would be hesitant to try to make it in that arena if I were a young musician. I shouldn’t be surprised. Look how whored-up every single large charismatic ministry is. If it’s a big organization, you can generally bet the devil is running it, no matter whose face appears on the label.

This is what I’m thinking about this fine weekend. May your day be free of academics.

This Year’s Nobel Peace Prize Winner

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

If he Loses, it’s Robbery

Hate telemarketers? Of course you do. A guy in Texas (I assume from his area code) has come up with an amazing way to get revenge. You can forward their calls to his bots, and they will waste the telemarketers’ time.

The enterprise is called “The Jolly Roger Telephone Company.” It has a Youtube channel. Here’s an example of a call, for your listening pleasure.

Geppetto’s Folly

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

In the Future, not all Robots Will be Helpful

My Arduino studies are still progressing.

As I wrote in earlier posts, I got myself an Arduino UNO, and I started learning to program it. I went to a website belonging to a person known as Ladyada, and I began working my way through her tutorials. I’ve run into a few snags, so while I haven’t stopped, I’m not moving as fast as I would like.

To program an Arduino, you have to write in a language which is either C or C++. If you’re wondering which it is, so am I. The Arduino website says, “the Arduino language is merely a set of C/C++ functions that can be called from your code.” They don’t know, either.

I guess they do know, but I don’t. I have no idea what the difference is, except that C++ came later.

Arduino comes with its own programming editor or “IDE” (Integrated Development Environment), which is a program like a word processor. You write the programs in it, and it can compile them (turning them into software that actually works) and help you debug them. It also helps you lay your programs out in a way that makes them easier to understand. Supposedly.

I say “supposedly” because it doesn’t really do that. At least it doesn’t seem like it. When you write computer programs, you make long lists of procedures and statements, and they tell the computer what to do. You’ll say things like, “If this, then that, but if this, if this, if this, then that, or else this.” You have to keep track of which “if” goes with which statements and so on. It’s very helpful if the program turns things different colors and indents them so things are clearly identified and so blobs of text that go together are clumped together visually. Arduino doesn’t seem to do this very well.

While I was using it (and getting confused), I remembered my ten minutes of college programming experience. I programmed in a language called Pascal (so named because computer science students are always under pressure – I kid), and I used a program called Borland Turbo Pascal. My dim and unreliable recollection is that Turbo Pascal did a very good job of coloring and clumping. I figured there had to be something similar out there (free) for C/C++, because the human mind’s ability to keep lines of code straight hasn’t improved since I took that course.

I found Turbo C++, which is apparently Borland’s C++ equivalent of Turbo Pascal. Sadly, when you run it, it takes up the entire screen, so you can’t move stuff to Arduino and upload it to your board.

I started looking for other stuff. I already have something called Dev C++, but it didn’t make me happy. I found Visual Studio, which is a free Microsoft program (free for hobbyists), and I decided to try that.

Visual Studio takes about a month to install. I believe that’s because it’s a huge program you can use to create your own version of AutoCAD or just about anything else. I was planning to use it to make three LED’s flash on an Arduino board, so maybe it was overkill. It took quite a while to figure out how to make it run, and when I did, it didn’t look too promising. People swear by it, though, so I plan to keep trying a while longer.

The tutorials themselves turned out to have a major flaw. The instructor asked students to write a program, and then way down the page, after it was all over with, she said the program wouldn’t work.

I learned this after trying to make it work. For several hours.

This is not the best way to present a course. When a problem has no solution, you really want to tell people up front.

It’s not surprising that a STEM instructor would do this. When I was in school, they did it all the time. They would give us integrals that diverged or problems the professors couldn’t solve, and they wouldn’t tell us until we had pulled all-nighters failing to find the answers.

The lesson I learned from this is to read the whole page before starting to write anything.

I’m starting to realize I need to think a lot about C (or C++) itself as I learn this. It’s not enough to take the little bits Ladyada provides and extrapolate. You have to know more than that. What’s the correct punctuation (or whatever) for an if statement? Can you read the state of a pin powering an LED to tell whether the LED is on? Things like that. If you start guessing, you end up with problems.

Arduino uses integers to label pins on the board. I don’t get that at all. If “int SwitchPin = 2” means the second pin is named “SwitchPin,” then doesn’t any integer you set equal to 2 become tied to that pin? I have no clue. Very confusing.

I’m going to have to go back and forth from C++ to Arduino to figure everything out, and I guess I should join the Arduino forum. I really hope it’s not full of snotty nerds.

I’m trying to come up with a strategy for writing programs. I think it’s best to start by writing a plain-language version of every program first. “This program turns an LED on if it’s off and off if it’s on.” Stuff like that. Then I can break it down into necessary steps, and then I can think up ways to say it in C++. Maybe that will be helpful.

Every mission needs a statement.

I still want to build a self-balancing robot, because they’re cool. I started looking into ways to build a robot that balances on one wheel or ball, and that got me to gyroscopes. Thanks to Arduino, I now know how gyroscopes are used to make rockets fly straight. You can go to Youtube and see the actual gyroscopes that made V2 rockets fly straight on the way to England.

I’m kind of hung up now, because I can’t decide between a kit and buiding a robot from scratch. A kit would get me past the relatively boring tasks of choosing parts and making components by hand, but it might push me into an area where I mainly turn the robot on and off instead of learning how it works.

It would be neat to make a robot that goes from one room to another and bothers people. You record a message into it, and then you send it across the house to your wife to say, “Bring your man a beer, pronto!” I’d need a really brave volunteer to try it out, though.

On a more serious note, though, I am disturbed when I think about the power machines will have in the very near future. As I check out the things very ordinary people with little training are doing with Arduino, as well as the crazy things well-financed organizations are doing with sophisticated electronics, I realize we are on the cusp between two ages: the age in which men were more capable than machines, and the age when machines will be more capable than men.

Some people worry that machines will become self-aware and then try to exterminate us. That’s silly. There is no reason to think electronics will ever be self-aware. The fact that something reacts to external stimuli doesn’t mean its aware, unless a TV is aware when you push a button on your remote. Machines won’t be aware. But they will act as though they were, so the future still looks pretty scary.

Right now, I get calls from robots that argue with me. If this hasn’t happened to you yet, get ready, because it will. They call and ask you something which is obviously intended to smoke you out as a sales prospect, and something tells you you’re not dealing with a human being. You ask, “Are you a human being?” The robot pauses, laughs, and says, “I’m a real human being.” It has been programmed to say that. Then you say, “Can you say ‘God Bless America’ for me?” Then the robot is stumped. They don’t program them to do things like that.

I offended a legitimate caller the other day. She happened to have a voice that sounded too perfect, and I thought she was trying to sell me something. I started telling her I didn’t talk to robots. She argued with me, so I asked her to say ‘Gerald Ford.'” I like tormenting robots. To my amazement, she said it. Then I had to apologize. Unfortunately, she had never received a call from a robot, so she assumed I was crazy when I told her what was going on.

A good sales robot can get through several sentences without giving you conclusive proof it’s a machine. That’s remarkable. If they can do that in 2017, think what they’ll be able to do in 2025. It won’t be too long before it will be impossible to tell a robot from a person, without considerable effort. Eventually, it won’t be possible at all. Then we’ll end up in a Blade Runner scenario, where an average person will never be sure what he’s dealing with.

Robots already have superhuman processing speed, and in the future, we will be able to give them superhuman physical speed and agility. They’ll be able to move around. They’ll be stronger and faster than we are. They’ll be able to predict what we do. They’ll do our jobs–even complex ones–better than we do. They won’t hate us, because they won’t really have awareness, but they can certainly be programmed to react as though they hate us. From outside, a being that mimics awareness perfectly might as well be aware. We could find ourselves dominated and abused by machines we don’t have the brains or strength to fight.

In the movies, we get around this with ridiculous bits of code saying things like, “Never harm a human being.” That’s beyond stupid. If we have to rely on code–and we do–we’re in trouble. Look how much malicious code there is right now. Do you think things will be different when machines become autonomous? Why would they?

If the human race lasts long enough, we will eventually see people sentenced for programming robots to hurt or kill their owners. It’s inevitable.

There are a lot of malicious people in the tech arena. Right now, they program machines to do evil. In the future, they’ll be able to program machines to program machines to do evil. When that happens, we will be removed from the loop and the problem will be self-sustaining and self-augmenting.

Nikola Tesla predicted that wars would one day be fought by unmanned machines. He was right, just as he was right about so many other things. But it’s going to be worse than that. It won’t be just war, which takes place between nations. It will be intramural conflict, within cities and nations, between human beings and nationless machines. Won’t that be something?

We will have to delay things by putting restrictions on machines. We always say guns don’t kill people, and that’s true. Computerized machines, however, will kill people. Unlike guns, they’ll do violence without our input. They’ll be like super-powerful pit bulls that have to be penned and detuned. Wait and see. It will happen. But we can’t stay in control forever.

Autonomous machines will be able to shoot people extremely accurately and quickly. They’ll be able to dispense deadly chemicals. They’ll be able to blind us with lasers. They’ll act so fast the cops won’t be able to react. They’ll be like the big nasty drones in the Robocop movies, only much faster. They’ll be able to use weapons that exist today, with skill and speed we can’t match, and they won’t feel pain or have fear. They won’t feel regret or mercy. They won’t be concerned about jail.

I wonder if anyone is even thinking about defensive measures yet. I suppose they are. I guess they’ll be a lot like the machines they’ll have to battle. I would imagine you would need a robot to fight a robot.

I won’t worry about this stuff. I don’t know if the world will last long enough for rebellious machines to become problematic. I’m a Christian, so I expect this age to end pretty soon. In any case, making a primitive Arduino robot that wanders around the house won’t speed up our doom.

Arthur Koestler compared the development of the thinking parts of the human brain, in our species, to the development of a tumor in an individual human being. We have greater reasoning abilities than animals, but our emotions are just like theirs, and our ability to control them is also undeveloped. We develop technology, and then we invariably misuse it because we lack love and mercy. We should not have been surprised when we read about drones shooting video through bathroom windows, and we should not be surprised the first time a robot kills a person.

I never expected life to get this weird. But predicting the future should not be hard for those who can see the obvious.