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Archive for the ‘Math Science Tech’ Category

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.

Here’s to a Cherished American Pastime

Saturday, January 7th, 2017

Lying

Today I spent a little while reading about Chinese TIG welders. A commenter suggested getting a used Miller instead of looking at Chinese, and out of boredom, I went to see what other people thought. Man, it’s disappointing to see unprincipled old geezers bashing China on the forums. What a waste of bandwidth. Talk about “fake news.”

You can’t trust anything these guys say. They lost their cushy union jobs because American workers refused to accept a competitive wage. With the help of bad management, they killed the companies they worked for. Now they sit around lying about Chinese products on the Internet, like that’s going to bring Packard and AMC back. It will never happen. Not even Donald Trump can make us THAT great again.

I have lots of Chinese stuff. Some of it is real junk. No doubt about that. But all of it works, and a lot of it is excellent. The prices are fantastic.

Ridgid tools are very good. They come from China. Dewalt manufactures in Asia. I have no idea where Bosch makes its tools, but I guarantee you, it’s not in Europe or the US. I just got an Chinese oscilloscope which is built extremely well. My lathe is a very nice Taiwan job, and my mill, which works great, was made in Taiwan and assembled in China. My vertical band saw is Taiwanese. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it.

The other day I bought a Shars indexable end mill. I paid about $30. Shars sells mostly Chinese stuff. The end mill is magnificent. An American equivalent costs three or more times as much. Am I going to buy that? Are you nuts? Just so some guy in the Rust Belt can be overpaid? That’s charity.

I tried to find some honest comments on the AHP AlphaTIG 200X welder. It was not easy. Creaky retirees who hate China said a lot of nasty things about it. Had they ever used one? Of course not.

I get it. Old American tool companies make better stuff. SOME old American tool companes. But often they’re no better than Asian, and look what they charge. The welder I mentioned can be had for under $850, with a three-year warranty. If it blows up, the seller pays for return shipping, and then they ship you a new one. A comparable Lincoln or Miller will run you over three times as much. It will do exactly the same thing, no better. It will probably last a lifetime. That’s a plus. No one seems to know how long an AlphaTIG will last. But with the Chinese welder, you save two thousand dollars, and you get into TIG several years earlier because of the price.

At worst, you pay about $280 per year for the fun of three years of top-notch TIG and stick welding. That’s assuming the machine craps out in three years.

People always say, “Wait for a deal.” That’s a great idea. When you’re 25. When you get older, waiting five years for something may mean never getting it. You may die first. Or you may lose years of use you can never get back. If you’re 50, you probably have 35 years left (tops) to use your tools. If you lose five years sitting around waiting for a gift from Craigslist, you’ve lost a seventh of them time you could have spent enjoying yourself. If you’re sixty, it’s a fifth of the time. If you’re retired, you may be losing considerably more.

Here’s how it looks:

1. AlphaTIG 200X: $838, delivered.
2. Miller Synchrowave 215: $2735, delivered.
3. Miller Synchrowave 215, used, from a dubious no-name seller, with no warranty: maybe $1600.

Lincoln prices are right up there with Miller.

If I had to rely on a welder to make a living, I would buy American. No doubt about it. I wouldn’t want to worry about having two months of down time while an importer waits for a part or a welder for me. That could kill a business. But to goof around in my garage, Chinese is fine.

If I had to rely on machine tools or ordinary power tools to make a living, would I buy American? No way. Absolutely no way. American mills and lathes are no better than Asian. I’m not sure American power tools even exist. Where would I find them? I know we still make a few big things, like table saws. I think you can still buy American air tools. I don’t know about drills and grinders and so on.

It would be neat to have a shop full of beautiful American tools from the golden age, but people like me never, in the history of the country, had the opportunity to buy those items new.

I remember looking up the Clausing lathe I bought used, to find out what it had cost new. It was tens of thousands of dollars. No normal American had one of those in his garage in 1965. It cost several times what an average worker made in a year. If I spent that much for a lathe, I would have nothing else.

Aside from that, the Clausing was not that great.

Look at the American tools hobbyists were able to afford back when the big American companies were still manufacturing. Atlas and Craftsman lathes. Flimsy garbage, with tiny capacities. Nobody had a new 15″ LeBlond in his home shop. The closest you could get was WWII surplus.

There are a lot of people who buy old US junk and “restore” it. They’re proud of what they’ve done, and they put pictures and videos on the web. About 95% of the time, when it comes to machine tools, they’ve just repainted tools without returning them to new condition. For example a guy will buy a lathe with worn ways, and he’ll strip it, paint it, and make the feeds work. That’s not a restoration. It’s still junk.

Some kinds of machines can be restored without spending too much. Woodworking tools aren’t very precise, so they don’t have to be scraped and ground when they get old. I have a beaten-up table saw which works as well as it did when it was new in the 1990’s. But lathes and mills lose accuracy with time, and you can’t get it back with a can of spray paint.

I considered buying a “restored” mill from an outfit that scrapes them. I found out it was a bad deal. They scraped a few things, yes, but they kept the old screws, the motor, the bearings…everything you would want to have replaced. The paint looked nice, though. That’s important. You could do it yourself for $15, but never mind.

Human beings love to blame others for their problems. China-bashing is just another manifestation of the inclination. What if American union workers hadn’t demanded unrealistic wages and hadn’t refused to work full days? What if the people who ran companies had been more responsible? Maybe we’d still be selling tools instead of buying them.

The most revered American lathe company is Monarch. They still sell their coveted 10EE lathe. This is a small machine that does extremely precise work. Guess what it costs? Over $100,000. And it’s not even new. They sell refurbs. They buy used Monarchs and put new parts in them. Even the manufacturers can’t afford new American products.

I’m surrounded by China, and so are the old guys who lie on the forums. They use Chinese phones and computers to bash China. Chinese goods are all around us. Why should we delude ourselves and pretend these things aren’t there? If your shoes, your computer, your desk, your TV, your flooring, your wallpaper, your appliances, and half of your American car are from China, why not buy Chinese tools, too? Come on.

Here’s something really funny: Harley riders bash the Asians from dawn till dusk, but Harleys are full of Asian parts. Americans don’t make motorcycle forks! We definitely don’t make the electronics in the bikes.

I may get a welder this year. I don’t know. I do know the China-bashers will make it harder to get solid information.

Wanted: Hunchbacked Lab Assistant

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

Free Swill; Must have Green Card

I feel like I’m reaching a turning point in my evolution from white collar sissy to metalworking technonerd. I’m finally starting to feel like I have almost enough crap.

Back in around 2007, when I started buying tools, I would go out in the garage, hoping to do something, and I would see a big void. No table saw. No welder. No band saw. No nothing! Then I started accumulating stuff, bit by bit. This week, I knew I had made progress, because the 2017 Grizzly catalog arrived, and I didn’t even open it. There is nothing I absolutely have to have, right now, in order to keep from going crazy.

Mmm…Chinese TIG welders…mmm…credit card points…

Sorry.

Today I was working on Ladyada’s Arduino tutorials again, and I opened a new page. It listed a bunch of junk I had to have in order to do the next tutorial. Listed: a tiny push-button switch which can be inserted in a solderless breadboard.

I groaned. My local Radio Shack went Tango Uniform a while back, so if I want electronic parts, I have to drive across town to the electronics supermarket (where I will definitely spend over $75 regardless of what I “need”), or I have to wait for Ebay. Or I guess I could drive to the nearest Radio Shack, but dang, I love that electronics supermarket.

Anyway, I decided to check my stuff just to be sure I didn’t have what I needed. I went to the garage, and in the little drawer cabinet on the wall, I saw a drawer labeled “SWITCHES.”

Yes, I already have maybe thirty switches, not counting the ones I have left over from making guitar amps.

I’m living the high life. I should be in a beer commercial.

DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!

Monday, January 2nd, 2017

Bot of Course

I’m glad I got started with Arduino, because it helped me get back to learning C. It’s moderately enjoyable to learn C without any external apparatus, but somehow it’s more fulfilling when you add a second device (after your PC) at the end of a USB cable.

I’m still going through Ladyada’s tutorials. She can really teach. They say those who can’t, teach, so if you turn that logic around and twist it, maybe it makes sense that she’s an exceptional teacher, because she’s not one of those who can’t. She’s the owner of Adafruit Industries, which is a well-known supply house for tech hobbyists. Her PR blurb descibes her as an “MIT hacker and engineer.” I suppose she is overqualified to teach.

I have learned how to make the Uno print things out and do simple math. Naturally, I find it almost impossible to use the code she provides. I can’t take that kind of boredom. I have to make changes. I suppose that’s a good thing, because if you just copy and paste, all you learn is copying and pasting.

I’m thinking it may be time to build a robot. I guess that seems like a surprising jump, given that I can’t do much of anything with the Uno. But it turns out building and programming a robot is really easy, mostly because thousands of other people have already done the work and published the important parts online. Programming robots is one of the main ways people get good at Arduino.

I started looking at robots, and most of them were horrible. There is an Arduino-brand robot, and it looks like motorized ashtray. It’s a circular PCB with two wheels. I’m sorry; I don’t care how great it is as a teaching tool. I’m not going to be happy teaching an ashtray how to navigate the floor of my office, especially now that I don’t smoke cigars.

I still can’t believe I put dozens of Cubans by the side of the road for the garbage people. Those were some fine smokes. I just looked up the statute of limitations, and I’m safe, so yeah, I bought a lot of Cuban cigars. Take that, coppers. Not that the government cares. I’ll bet no one has ever been so much as fined.

There’s a robot called the “BOE bot,” and “BOE” stands for “Board of Education.” I guess that means it’s overpaid, can’t be fired for incompetence, and teaches kids they should consider being gay. The bot looks pretty boring. It’s sort of a little cart that putts around dodging things and following lines painted on the floor.

Here’s what caught my interest: self-balancing robots. These are robots that exist in unstable equilibria. They balance on two wheels or some other inadequate type of support. Cut the power, and they fall over. They’re much neater than four-wheeled robots because every time you turn them on, they demonstrate the possibilities of modern hobby electronics. Simply balancing and moving around are impressive tasks for unstable robots.

I looked at a bunch of these robots on Youtube. Most involve three flat platforms arranged like a two-story building. Wheels and motors go under the lowest platform. Batteries go on top. Each wheel has its own motor. To do it right, you should use steppers, but people use crappy Chinese hobby motors too.

Determining what kind of robot was best was not easy, because people have posted videos of bad robots during the last year, while others posted videos of superior robots as long as six years ago. My natural tendency was to look at robots which had been built recently, but then I would dig up older videos and learn that better designs had been around for quite some time.

I don’t know why people continue making bad robots. Everyone has Google.

Some of the robots are really awful. They fall down, or they can’t maneuver. Some have wires attaching them to computers. Come on! That’s insane. Who wants a robot that can only walk three feet?

One of the neatest robots is a kit job, and it’s called the “B-robot.” The name alone justifies the purchase. Many self-balancing robots wobble and don’t maneuver well, but the B-robot is nimble and sure of itself. It has an arm, too, so if it falls, it can use the arm to boost itself while it rights itself. Unfortunately, it costs $125, which is like $121 more than I want to spend.

I guess the next version will be the Dude-b-robot.

Why get a kit? Because every robot you didn’t design yourself is really a kit. Even if you make the parts, you’re using someone else’s design, so buying a kit is not cheating in any important way.

When I first learned it was possible to build two-wheeled balancing robots, I was surprised. After I got used to the idea, I started to wonder why I couldn’t built a one-wheeled robot. It could change direction faster. If you can balance with regard to one axis, you should be able to balance with regard to another at the same time. That’s what I thought. Then I checked. Sure enough, it has been done.

In my uneducated opinion, the best type of “one-wheeled” robot doesn’t have wheels. It uses a ball instead. It’s unclear who invented it. Various people seem to be trying to take credit. You put three or four steppers in the base of a robot, and you arrange them so they turn a ball trapped under them. The robot balances on the ball, and it can move in any direction by turning it.

A nut genius in England spent an incredible amount of time designing his own copy of BB-8, the small robot in the new Star Wars movies. A ball bot may have a ball which is mostly contained in the robot’s body, but you can also make a small robot which rests high on the upper hemisphere of a ball.

I guess I should be satisfied with a two-wheeled robot to start, because it has been done a million times, and there is an appreciable chance that I’ll be able to make it work. Ball bots are intimidating.

Once you get your robot on its feet, so to speak, you can start doing mods. You can put sensors on a little “head” at the top so it tracks objects. You can put a laser on top of it and shoot at things. You can put a camera on it. You can add a cup holder. You can add various types of displays. You could send the robot to your wife with a display reading, “Help. Out of toilet paper.”

Is it useful? Not in the slightest. At least I don’t think so. But it would teach me a lot without boring me too much.

I hesitate to put this in print, because some idiot may think it’s a great idea, but I believe you could use something like this for home defense. It’s possible to blind people with lasers. It works so well, it’s considered a war crime. You could send a robot out into your yard to shoot lasers at the faces of violent intruders.

I’m not suggesting you do that, because it’s vicious idea, but I suppose it would work. I don’t know how easy it is to get a laser strong enough, or whether it could be carried on a robot a person could reasonably be expected to build at home.

On the whole, I still prefer sharks. Call me a throwback.

It would be neat to make a robot that tracks balloons and shoots them with a laser. That’s actually possible.

I don’t know. There must be some use for these things.

Perhaps for now I would be smart to learn simpler things. I’m having delusions of grandeur.

I may have to trim my expectations, but there is no reason why I can’t build some sort of reasonably interesting robot. If I succeed, you will know all about it.

Wile E. Coyote had Nothing on Me

Friday, December 30th, 2016

Latest Arrival From Acme

The new oscilloscope arrived, and I have had several major triumphs.

1. I managed to turn it on and make it work.

2. I figured out how to get a bunch of downloaded Arduino sketches into the Arduino program.

3. I managed to edit the downloaded files to work with the version of Arduino I have.

4. I succeeded in building a breadboarded adaptor that allows me to put the Arduino’s output on my scope screen.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Tektronix distributes a set of Arduino files that turn an Uno into a signal generator. I found the files and downloaded them, and I figured out how to get them into the machine. Problem: the first one I chose would not compile.

I got an error complaining about a C type called “prog_uchar.” I got “prog_uchar’ does not name a type.”

I thought I was missing a library, but after Googling around, I learned that prog_uchar comes from an earlier version of Arduino, and it doesn’t work in later versions. I had to replace it with “const char.” Okay, fine. It worked. I’m pretty impressed with myself, since I don’t really know C.

I love the scope. I thought it would look cheap, but it’s very nice. Solid and businesslike. The screen is gorgeous. I love the way it just tells me frequencies and voltages instead of making me do math. The fan is a little loud, but as you would expect, there are online guides to installing better fans.

I have felt conflicted about hacking it. When I ordered the scope, I didn’t realize the hack would essential turn the scope into a more expensive model. I have been thinking it over. On the one hand, it seems a little shady. On the other, they sold me this thing, and I feel like I should be able to extract whatever potential it has. People hack car computers all the time to make them run better.

Anyway, for now it’s great. It’s nice to get one toe into the 21st century.

After using my balky old Hitachi, which weighs maybe 25 pounds, it’s a real luxury to us a 10-pound scope which does what you tell it to. The probes are easy to attach. They’re already adjusted. It’s like going from a Heathkit computer to a Fat Mac.

I got to use my super-cheap bulk resistors and capacitors on the breadboard between the Arduino and the scope, and that was nice. I found out the skinny leads on the cheap resistors work for breadboarding. That was a relief. They’re not ideal, but they serve their intended purpose, which is to allow me to do things requiring resistors when I don’t have top-quality versions of the values I need.

I will try to get through the exercises now. It will be neat to know what a few of my new buttons do.

Is This How Dr. Nefario Got his Start?

Thursday, December 29th, 2016

Molto Bene

My world of perpetually entry-level technology and engineering gets more interesting all the time.

I bought a digital storage oscilloscope. I will need to learn how to use it. I found out Tektronix (a top-level oscilloscope maker) has published a series of exercises designed to teach people how to use DSO’s. The exercises require an Arduino board. I bought one today.

I sort of glanced at Arduino a year or two ago, but I never got into it. It sounded like cheating. I wanted to learn how to design circuits from the ground up, and that’s not how Arduino works. They supply you with a prefab board you can program. I was offended! I thought I should learn electronics so well I could build whatever I wanted out of the drawers at Radio Shack.

I now think I was stupid. Designing circuits from individual components is not simple. It’s probably best left to real engineers. And aside from that, real engineers don’t build everything from resistors and capacitors. They use integrated chips which contain a whole lot of ready-to-wear circuitry. I think getting into Arduino would be a good idea, unless I want to create my first complex circuit when I’m 80.

What is Arduino? Glad you asked.

I don’t know a whole lot about it, but the idea is that a company in Italy sells you a board with a microcontroller and a USB port on it, and they tell you absolutely everything about its design and how to use it. In other words, it’s “open source.” Then you use C to write programs for the microcontroller, and you use the board for projects. There are additional boards called “shields” that snap into the main board, and you can build circuits that are more complex.

You can download a free program that allows you to write code for your boards. You connect them to your PC using USB.

It’s pretty cool, and I am hoping it will also be a gateway to bigger things that don’t require me to be dependent on Arduino.

“Arduino” is a hard word to type. The letters don’t seem to follow each other naturally.

I learned some stuff which may be even cooler than the Arduino stuff. If you use Arduino boards, you will shell out at least five bucks per board, even for Chinese clones, and they take up a fair amount of space. There’s an alternative. There is a family of integrated circuits called “ATTINY,” and they’re the size of op amps. If your project is simple enough, you can program an ATTINY and move your project to it. You can start on an Arduino board and move to an ATTINY.

This is remarkable. I’m talking about a chip the size of a Tic Tac.

Here is the bad news: it’s hard to get an Arduino board without resorting to mail order. Radio Shack sells them; good luck finding a Radio Shack within 20 miles in 2016. If you live in a city full of educated, cultured people (i.e. not Miami), you may be able to find other sellers, but in my area, you are better off shopping for churros, women’s stretch pants that display every possible crease and contour of the pelvic region in minute detail, or really fancy tire rims.

I shelled out $25 for an Arduino Uno board today, and that’s a lot of money for what you get. When you buy the original Arduino stuff, you’re actually making a donation to the Arduino movement, so it’s overpriced. I didn’t feel cheated, though, because it seems like a worthy cause to me. If you buy clones, you’re not hurting anyone, because there are no patents, so if I ever need more boards, China, here I come.

I ordered a few ATTINY’s because they’re so cheap. I plan to play with them eventually. I would love to create a digital tachometer for my drill press. I would be the boss nerd of my whole block.

I don’t promise all of what I wrote is correct. But it could happen.

My studies with the Radio Shack Electronics Learning Lab are zooming along quite well. Now that I’ve given up on the idea of writing reports, I’m flying through several projects per day. It was a good move, because it would have taken me a year to do it the other way. Whatever I lose in depth of study, I more than gain in progress from concept to concept.

Today I get started on doing something or other with the lab’s digital display. That’s pretty cool. In my mind, electronics can be separated into two categories: stuff that has alphanumeric displays and digital components, and all the other stuff. That’s probably not quite right, but it’s how I see things. To me, making the leap from stupid circuits that turn LED’s on and off to circuits that put numbers on an LCD screen is a very big deal. It’s a jump from 1920 to 1975. It’s a jump to a realm which includes nearly every interesting electronic device a normal person owns.

You would think a Radio Shack product with the phrase “Learning Lab” in the name would be a kid’s toy, but it’s not. It’s very useful. If it included an oscilloscope, it would be considerably more advanced than the equipment I used in my first college electronics class.

One of the great things about it is that all the things you need for a whole series of projects are included. You can teach yourself electronics using a powered breadboard and your own components, but amassing the materials will be a giant pain in the butt. The cost of the Learning Lab is way more than offset by the grief it will save you.

Unfortunately, you can’t have one. They don’t sell them any more. But there are similar products out there. And you can find them used on Ebay.

The only problem with the lab is the analog meter on the board. I don’t use it. I use a Fluke meter which works better and is harder to blow up.

I guess I’ll fire up the Arduino and try to figure out how to use it. If all goes well, I should have a working minion by Tuesday.

There’s no Need to Talk About It

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

I’m Old Enough to Scope it Out and Keep it Loose

Sorry for the really obscure Amazing Rhythm Aces reference.

I have done the unthinkable. I have replaced my Bronze Age Hitachi oscilloscope.

To be more rigorous, I have SUPPLEMENTED my Bronze Age Hitachi oscilloscope. I don’t plan to throw it out, but I got a new scope which will probably see more use.

I got the Hitachi because I was nostalgic for the days when I used to be intelligent, i.e., the days when I was studying physics. I took two electronics courses in college, using Tektronix scopes, and when I decided to revive my interest, I found a creaky Hitachi offered for fifty bucks (maybe it was seventy-five).

My college electronics courses were truly, truly useless. I’m not sure why they bothered. They took the physicist approach, and physicists can’t do anything. If you want to know where an electron in a certain type of potential is likely to be at a certain time, a physicist can help you, but if you want to design a simple headphone amplifier, you might as well hire a bartender. Physicists learn nothing which is of practical use.

My first course was full of calculus, and it centered on the theory behind simple electronic components. We built ridiculous things like differentiators and integrators. When was the last time you went to Best Buy to look at a new 55″-screen integrator? Never! People don’t use integrators. They use stereos, computers, and smartphones. I didn’t learn how to make one useful thing.

My second course was called “advanced,” but it was about things like shining a UV light on a piece of metal and counting the electrons that left its surface. I’m sure Samsung pays top dollar to designers who can count electrons.

Say what you will about engineers. They may be creepy and scary, but they can actually do things.

The Hitachi was useful when I built guitar amps. I used it for monkey jobs, such as finding out how far a signal went in a circuit before being cut off by one of my wiring mistakes. You can’t do that very well with a multimeter. You need a picture, because AC signals on multimeters don’t tell you much.

Unfortunately, the Hitachi is an analog scope, so it doesn’t tell you anything. It just gives you a picture of the signal. If you want to know the voltage or frequency, you have to work it out with a calculator or multiply in your head. Up-to-date nerds use digital scopes. They have little readouts on the screen, and they tell you stuff about what you’re seeing. They also store information so you can look at signals later.

I don’t recall whether the Tektronix scopes I learned on were digital or analog, but given the era, I would guess that they were analog.

You can go on Ebay and get old digital scopes from American companies for not too much money, but they have certain parts that tend to blow, and you may or may not be able to fix them. Also, the cheap new Chinese scopes have more features. I decided to go Chinese.

The Chinese oscilloscope game is quite interesting. There are a number of companies that make scopes that look pretty much alike, and it seems like every budget scope costs exactly the same amount: $400. But it gets complicated. Some scopes are built well, and others aren’t. Some scopes can be hacked, and others can’t. You have to shop carefully.

The scope I got is rated for 50MHz, but here’s something interesting: the frequency is limited by software, not hardware. In other words, the manufacturer makes a scope that will work fine at 100MHz, and they program it so it only goes up to 50 so they can charge less for it. Weird. Naturally, nerds have found the hack that restores its full capability, so once I hack my scope, 100 MHz will be well within range.

There are other hacks for oscilloscopes. I don’t know what they are. I do know that the big drawback to low-end Chinese scopes is crummy software. They tend to have bugs that pop up, and people complain, and the manufacturers have to come up with solutions. It’s my understanding that American scopes are less buggy, which is one reason they cost four times as much.

It will be a little weird, turning on a new scope that does what it’s supposed to do, without requiring a nurse or a shaman to make it function. I haven’t had that experience in well over 20 years.

I found a neat resource: the forum at Eevblog.com. This is a website started by an Australian geek named Dave. I tried another forum, but the people were just a little too obnoxious. I don’t know why electronics turns some people into the fat kid from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, but it does.

Dave’s videos are neat, too. He’s a real engineer (someone who gets paid to do electronics), so he knows a few things, and he spills his guts regularly on Youtube. He takes scopes apart, which is nice. I decided to get a Rigol DS1054Z largely based on his dismantling video. The scope looks a little “Hello Kitty” on the outside, but on the inside, the build quality is very impressive.

Will I ever need even 10% of the scope’s capabilities. Not this year. Well, that means not in the next three days. Okay, not in 2017. I think. But who knows what I’ll be doing in 2018? Can’t hurt to plan for the future. I would really love to learn a little about digital circuits, and you need a digital scope for that.

The Hitachi’s problems appear to be fixable, and I feel obligated to try a repair. On the one hand, it’s practically worthless even when running normally. On the other hand, it’s a sophisticated, top-quality instrument that must surely have cost over a grand new, so it seems a shame to turn it into a parts cadaver.

Why didn’t I fix it before buying a new scope? First, I am lazy, and I like to buy new stuff. Second, I was really dreading fixing it. Third, when you need to fix a scope, one of the things you should have on hand is…a scope. That works. I should find the Rigol useful while operating on the Hitachi.

I can’t figure out what “Eevblog” means. I believe “vblog” is Australian for “vlog,” but what’s “Eev”? I saw something indicating it means “electron volt,” but if that’s true, what does “eV” mean? Short answer: it means “electron volt.” “EE” means “electrical engineer.” That still leaves “v” to be dealt with.

Well, my brain must have been short-circuited. The “V” is from the “vblog” part, not the “EE” part. Okay, so it’s “EE Vblog.”

Australians. Whatever.

I remember Dice Clay wondering aloud whether we do nuclear testing there.

I think we do.

If I get the Hitachi to function, I will almost certainly write about it here. You have been warned.

Notes From the Grinch’s Workshop

Sunday, December 25th, 2016

No Roast Beast This Year

Christmas has not been bad. It’s just me and my dad now, but life is peaceful, and my relationship with God is rewarding.

I don’t hear from my other relatives much. My sister is not really part of the picture now, and the others just don’t contact me often. It’s always about business when they do. I guess I offended them in some way, but I don’t know what I did. My grandfather left a screwed-up estate, and that tends to create alienation among relatives, but I have never taken a dime or a single article I wasn’t entitled to, and the only time I offered to work for the estate, I refused to charge. Oddly, they chose a cousin who took 33 percent of the proceeds of his work.

Could have saved each one of them thousands of dollars. Whatever their reason for turning me down was, it must have been compelling. Or maybe they just didn’t think it through.

I did hear from one aunt. Her relationship with the others is not great, but I don’t have any problems with her. She was upset because Obama jabbed Israel in the eye, refusing to oppose an anti-Israel UN resolution. She believes God will punish the US because of it, and history appears to show that she had good reason to be concerned.

For years, Democrats ridiculed people who said Obama had problems with Israel, but at some point during his administration, the gloves came off, and now people admit he’s Israel’s enemy. No apologies from the apologists, however. No admission of error.

The Bible predicts that God will start defending God personally when all the nations of the world turn against it. Has that happened, with the UN resolution? I’m not sure. We elected Trump, and he appears to be a rabid Israel fan. Ordinarily, you would think that would count for something. But he got fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, an enemy of God from the word “go.” That counts for something, too.

I am not worried, because worry is wrong. Besides, my relationship with God is going very well, so I don’t expect to suffer as badly as other Americans. I’m not all over the web calling the Israelis Nazis and comparing the Jewish state to South Africa. I hope as many people as possible get it together and stop provoking God, but I’m glad I’m withdrawing from the mass of ignorant people who are doing their best to bring on disaster.

The day was productive for me, by my standards. I spent a lot of time organizing and moving useless items into places where they will not be in the way as much. I spent some time reading an old quantum mechanics text, and I watched a quantum mechanics lecture on Youtube. I did a couple of simple problems. I am trying to pick up bits of the knowledge that leaked out of my head after I quit graduate school.

I also spent time with my handy-dandy Radio Shack Electronics Learning Lab. I have been going through the projects and writing up lab reports, because reports help you learn things, but the more I got into it, the more I felt it was counterproductive to write things up. The material in the workbook does not lend itself all that well to report writing, and writing slows the process down by a factor of maybe ten. I started going through the book assembling and dismantling the projects one after the other, without writing anything. It seems to be the right way to do it. If I really feel the need, I can write about certain subjects, but I believe writing about everything will keep me busy until I’m 70.

It’s nice to do things right, but if you overthink and do them TOO right, you fall behind and never get anywhere. I wish I had understood that when I was in grad school. I felt like I had to understand everything, backward and forward.

I’ve been fiddling with the test equipment I own. I found out I don’t have a cord for my ancient HP signal generator. The resulting kerfuffle is really something. A thousand years ago, when it was made, they used a connector called the PH-163 or Belkin 17952. It’s sort of like a modern computer power cord connector, but it has oval pins. In 2016, a PH-163 cord will run you thirty bucks, not including shipping. Forget that. I ordered a male PC connector, and I’m going to rip the old connector out of the box, carve up the sheet metal, and put the new one in. I don’t even know if the signal generator works, so I’m not going to Sotheby’s to bid on a priceless antique cord for it.

My old Hitachi oscilloscope has a messed-up volts/division knob on one channel. It’s very hard to turn, as if someone put glue in it. I tried running Kroil into it, but it didn’t loosen it up completely, so I guess I’ll have to dismantle the scope and take a look at the pot/rotary switch/whatever behind the panel. I have no idea whether it can be fixed.

I’m also getting a funny display when I check the square-wave calibration function, and from what I’ve read, that means parts on the PCB have to be replaced. Fun, fun, fun. I don’t know how much effort I want to put into a scope that cost 50 bucks, but I plan to see what I can do.

It’s time to get a real scope. That means digital. I thought I might try to get an old Tektronix or HP, but people seem to agree that you’re better off getting a new Chinese job. I may splurge for a Rigol DS1054Z. They get raves. It would be nice to work WITH a scope instead of working ON it.

When people talk about the old scopes, they say they do most of what the new ones do, and the quality is better, but they also say this part burns out and that part quits working, and then you either have to become an oscilloscope technician or buy another one.

I don’t know much about it, but it looks like you can hit Ebay and pick up a 20-year-old scope that does what a modern Chinese one does, for maybe 40% less than Chinese. But is that a good idea? I saw a technical guy tear down the Rigol, and it’s no Alibaba toy. It’s built like Kim Jong-Un’s armor-plated underground end-game outhouse.

The Hitachi was fine when I was basically using it to see if I was getting any AC signal at all, without worrying whether the display was correct. I was working on tube amps, and that doesn’t require a lot of precision. I can’t get by with grossly distorted waveforms for the rest of my life. Sooner or later I’ll need to know what a signal really looks like.

I dread opening the box up and looking for problems. I’ll probably have to remove and store thirty knobs to get the front panel off, and they’re attached with microscopic set screws.

One of the big down sides to fooling with electronics is that you have to join forums frequented by guys who have never, ever, for very solid reasons, gotten a date. Some of the people are nice and helpful, but others think that because they’ve spent their entire lives staring at circuit boards and watching Japanese cartoons instead of engaging with human beings, the rest of us should crawl to them on our faces and shower them with offerings of Jolt cola and Skittles before begging their forgiveness for existing.

You really have to finesse them to get what you want without falling into the mud-wrestling pit. You have to know when to say, “Great. Thanks for the information,” when you have received no useful information at all and simply want to end the interaction.

I guess it’s insulting to humor and cajole people you could never respect, in order to get answers out of them, but you can only treat people as well as they let you.

Anyway, it was a pleasant, peaceful day. It would be nice if I woke up tomorrow and the half of my family that died from old age and cancer was still here, and we were all in Kentucky sitting around a Christmas tree, but things are good, and they’re getting better.