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Archive for the ‘Math Science Tech’ Category

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.

Consider the Ant

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

Forget the Palmer Worm

Since I wrote about my literature-reading habits today, I might as well follow up with some info on my technical reading.

It will sound stupid to a person who isn’t mathematically or technically inclined, but there is a special kind of pleasure associated with reading a well-written text or how-to book for STEM people. Believe it or not, there are texts which could actually be described as “beloved.” Herbert Goldstein’s Classical Mechanics and Morse and Feshbach’s Mathematical Methods of Theoretical Physics come to mind. It’s very hard to write a good STEM book, so when someone does it right, you almost feel like putting the book in bed next to you, like a little boy curling up with a new toy fire engine.

When I came to Miami from Texas, I had a lot of technical books, and I had to store them. I didn’t know carpenter ants ate paper. After several years, I checked on the books, and a lot of them were ruined. I had lost Richard Feynman’s autobiographical books, two neat quantum mechanics books by someone named Cohen-Tannoudji, Amit Goswami’s Quantum Mechanics, and a number of other books I liked. I lost my Japanese edition of Krazy Kat, which I treasured.

I had a copy of Mathematical Methods of Physics, by Mathews and Walker. I had bought it new. The bugs left most of it alone, but they ate a big hole in the spine, and it bothered me every time I looked at it. I felt so bad about it, I looked around online for a replacement, even though I didn’t need the book. If you check prices for new copies, you will understand why I didn’t buy one. They are not cheap.

This week I started Googling again. I found someone selling a new copy for well under the market price, and I decided to take a chance. It’s on the UPS truck right now, on its way here. I hope it’s really a new copy.

I also replaced some Schaum outlines. These things are priceless for STEM students. Textbooks tend to be pedantic, terse, and incomprehensible. Schaum’s authors know that if people can’t understand them, they won’t get paid.

I don’t know how much I’ll use these books. Honestly, I don’t think Mathews and Walker is a good text. It just bugged me. I can sell my chewed-up copy for about what the new one cost, so no loss.

There are also some books I’m glad I sold or lost. J.J. Jackson’s book on E&M is pretty horrible. I think I still have Fetter and Walecka’s abominable mechanics text. If so, I should start using the pages to locate end mills on workpieces.

Ants eat books. Believe it. Don’t take any chances when you store your library.

Overpriced Resistance is Futile

Sunday, December 18th, 2016

Joy Comes in Bags From China

This week I decided to bite the bullet and go through the projects that come with the Radio Shack Electronics Lab Learning Kit. I bought one when Radio Shack closed a bunch of its stores last year. It’s kind of a neat tool for learning about electronics. Cheap, too.

The lab is basically a breadboard (six columns) with various things you can connect to the components. Built into the lab, there are switches, an analog meter, a buzzer, and other things that can be useful.

I think the best way to do this is to keep a lab notebook and do reports. As a former physics teaching assistant, I should have no problem with that. I have to make up experiments, though, because the stuff in the Learning Lab books isn’t written for people who collect data and do analysis. The writer, a well-known electronics teacher named Forrest Mims III, just wants people to build stuff, see if it works, and move on.

I decided to do things like changing component values and writing small tables. Then I can compare the results with the mathematical formulas associated with the circuits. Short and easy, except when ineptitude gets in the way.

Writing things down is very important when you do anything technical. I say that as a person who doesn’t do it. I have suffered the consequences.

This isn’t the only thing I’ve done to amp up my electronics game. I bought a bunch of cheap components on Ebay. This was a genius idea I should have had ten years ago.

When you build circuits, you’re always in need of this resistor or that capacitor, and if you don’t have them on hand, you have to drive to Radio Shack, drive to a different store, or order the parts online. My local Radio Shack, where I used to shop for parts when I built current and temperature controllers for a professor’s laser diodes, bit the dust in 2015. We have an incredible electronics supermarket in Miami, but it’s expensive and far away. Ordering online is fine, but if you did it for every part in a simple circuit, your build would take six months, and buying one part at a time anywhere is way expensive.

I found some guy selling 1% tolerance 1/4-watt metal film resistors for $15. How many? Which values? Try 2800! All values! Nearly. You get like half a pound of resistors in a huge number of values. I also found great deals on film caps, Chinese ceramic caps, and a few potentiometers in common values. For the heck of it, I picked up some IC’s and sockets. Can’t hurt.

Here’s the rub: the resistors have thin leads. This doesn’t bother me, because I would much rather have a thin lead than wait ten days for a resistor.

The resistors arrived today, and I decided to check one. I was suspicious of the 1% claim. I don’t need 1%; 10% will be fine and dandy. But you want to know what you bought.

I hooked a resistor to a meter and heated it with a soldering iron. The value was 430 ohms. The resistor measured exactly 430, which was way beyond any level of precision I’ll ever need, and it didn’t move when I heated it. SOLD!

Even if the resistors aren’t great, they’ll allow me to build things without waiting, and if I have to, I can get better stuff to replace them in permanent projects.

Caveat: some guy on the web says he scraped the paint off his cheap “film” resistors and found carbon resistors inside. Not that a 1/2-cent carbon resistor that works is a bad deal.

The soldering iron is also news. Twenty years ago, when I got my Weller soldering station, I thought I was the coolest kid in school. I was used to pencil irons that weighed a pound and had to be placed in cereal bowls because they didn’t have stands. I started looking into different irons this year, and I found out my Weller was strictly low-budget.

It turns out you can pay a thousand dollars for a soldering station, and they come with lots of crazy attachments. Also, cheap stations don’t have enough power. They take too long to melt solder, and this can actually screw up your joints.

I thought about getting a Hakko. They’re very popular. But I kept looking, and I found myself a dream come true: the Ersa I-Con Pico. Yes, it has THREE names.

Ersa is a snooty German company (what a rarity), and they make high-end soldering stuff. The station I got is like their Maverick or Vega (remember those?). Still, it’s way better than my Weller or a Hakko. It has a digital display. It pumps out about 80 watts. It gets hot in ten seconds. Best of all, it has a tiny iron a little bigger than a pen.

The general rule with cheap irons is that they’re too long and too heavy. There’s no reason for it, as far as I know. It’s just a fact of life. It can be very hard controlling a soldering tip four inches from your hand. The Ersa’s tip is like two inches from your fingers. Beautiful!

I think this is an example of having a lame tool you didn’t know was lame until you replaced it with something good.

I haven’t soldered anything yet. The package just got here. On Sunday. Amazon is starting to scare me with their newfangled speedy deliveries. I half expect to wake up and hear Jeff Bezos singing in the shower.

In summary:

1. you need a pile of cheap electronic components from Ebay;
2. you need a better soldering iron; and
3. you should really try an organized approach to learning about electronics.

I preach to myself.

One more tidbit: if you have a cheap multimeter and you want to kill yourself because the Chinese probes won’t hold onto anything, spring for some Fluke spring-loaded probes. I finally did. What a difference. I had cheap Chinese ones, and the plastic flaked off until they refused to hold anything. I could have cobbled a solution together, but I bought new probes, and now life is sweet.

I think I may sever the Chinese probes, toss the ends, and attach alligator clips.

With my new soldering iron.

Hmm…I think that might be “cobbling a solution together.”

BTW, I found out how you’re supposed to make shrink tubing contract. They sell miniature heat guns for the purpose. You can buy a fancy “rework station” that includes a heat gun. I think that’s a stupid move, because one part of any all-in-one tool will always break before the rest, and often it can’t be fixed. So there you would be, with your fancy station, a heat gun that doesn’t work, and another heat gun sitting beside it taking up space.

And the new heat gun wouldn’t match the station, which kills the fun of the whole all-in-one ethos.

A company called NTE makes a small heat gun that gets good reviews. I may get one. It’s about $20. I’m tired of roasting my shrink tubing with a lighter.

Hope this is helpful to you. Probably not, though.

New Tool Knowledge

Saturday, December 10th, 2016

Try to Contain Your Excitement

I keep learning things about tools. It’s astonishing how much there is to learn about using the few simple items I have in my garage. People who really know tools must have stores of knowledge comparable to engineers.

A week or two back I created a new handle for my blow gun. Then something happened that required me to switch a tool from one air compressor to the other, and I realized I had a male fitting on the end of one hose and a female fitting on the end of the other. I could not switch tools without switching the fittings on tools.

This one left me scratching my head. Surely there was a right way to do this. Everyone else uses male or female fittings, but not both.

I kept thinking about the pluses and minuses, and I realized female was the way to go. If you put a male fitting on the end of a hose, the compressor will discharge every time you remove a tool. A female fitting will have a valve in it that shuts the air off.

Here’s the question: why did I have a male fitting on one hose? I must have asked about the correct fitting a long time ago, when I got my first compressor. I must have had the right information. My best guess is that I installed a new hose, ran out of fittings, and used what I had. Then I forgot to get a new fitting.

Anyway, whatever the explanation is, here is the answer: put a female fitting with a swivel on the end of your air hose.

In researching this, I also got into the subject of different types of air fittings. I know of three types, offhand: automotive, industrial (I think it’s also called “mechanical”), and universal.

In the past, I never thought about the type of air fitting I was buying. I just assumed they were the same. Then I found out about the different types, and I had a new research project on my hands.

Which is the best kind? NO ONE KNOWS. People do whatever they want. Believe it or not, there are regional preferences. In some areas, you want automotive, because that’s what everyone else has. In other areas, you want industrial.

To make things worse, there are rarer types. Some are supposed to provide superior flow.

A guy on a forum provided a great solution to my problem: universal female coupler and industrial male couplers. A universal female coupler will work with all male couplers. I went to Home Depot last night and got me a universal female coupler.

The replacement hose I bought is a Flexzilla. I agonized about which brand to get, and finally I decided to give Flexzilla a try. It’s bright green, so if you step on it, it will be a choice and not a mistake. It has no memory (I can relate). It’s light. I like it. If I hadn’t gotten a Flexzilla, I would have gone with rubber. Poly is too stiff.

I found out that machining coolants are more complicated than I thought. When I started, I learned to use WD40 on aluminum and Ridgid threading oil on steel, and that was about it. The other day I picked up a fantastic indexable end mill from Shars (where low-budget machinists shop), and I found that the finish varied, so I started looking into the problem. That’s how I ended up reading about coolants.

First, let me say the cutter is great. The big gripe with indexable cutters (cutters with several carbide inserts in the end) is that they give poor finishes due to minor differences in the heights of the cutting surfaces. I cut a piece of mystery steel, and the first 75% of the performance gave me an astonishing silky surface. Better than I could ever get with an end mill. The problem is that the finish got worse after that.

I am not knocking the product. It proved it can do a great job. I recommend cheap Shars indexable end mills. I paid a little over $30 for a 2″ mill complete with three no-name inserts, and it works. Check prices on American indexable end mills and see why I’m so happy.

I was cutting with a light application of Ridgid oil, even though a lot of people don’t use oil with carbide and steel. I read up on it, and I found a couple of sites that said interesting things. First, coolants and lubricants may be counterproductive. Second, it may be possible to grind HSS tools for aluminum that require no lube at all. Two different subjects (aluminum and steel).

One site said that liquid coolants chill carbide edges as they land on them, causing tiny stress cracks. Then the edges break down prematurely. The site suggested that the wear you avoid by using coolant is outweighed by the damage the coolant does. It said something about commercial shops spending 16% of their machining budgets on cooling and only 3% on tooling, which suggests the coolants cost way too much.

I don’t know if it’s true. I plan to throw some steel on the mill and find out.

Another site said clearing chips was the most important part of preventing finish issues. That sounds likely to me. The part I was machining had little swirling scratches on it, and I know they weren’t caused by the inserts. I think they were caused by bits of metal caught under the inserts. If that’s true, then I can get a beautiful finish on steel simply by blowing air on parts as I cut. It will blast the chips out. I think the oil may have made the finish worse by making chips stick to the metal.

A company called Kool Mist makes little devices that blow a mist of air and coolant on parts as you cut. I’m thinking I may get one and omit the liquid. It would blow chips away from my cuts. I’m positive I don’t need anything other than a light squirt of WD40 for aluminum, and it may be that I don’t need any liquid at all on steel.

I read that stainless is too gummy to cut without coolant, so I guess you just have to accept that.

To get back to the HSS/aluminum thing, I find it hard to believe that it’s possible to machine aluminum dry. It’s impossible with carbide in a mill, because the aluminum welds itself to the cutter instantly. I’ve never tried HSS dry on a lathe, but you can get away with carbide, although the finish is bad if you don’t lubricate.

I’m wondering what kind of rake I need to machine aluminum dry with HSS. Maybe I can find the info online.

I don’t think I want to machine that way as a habit, because I love carbide. You don’t have to grind it. Grinding lathe cutters takes a long time. Carbide inserts last forever in aluminum, and you can get a very nice finish. If I start messing with additional HSS tools, I’ll want to get more tool holders, and they weigh about ten pounds each. I feel like HSS is an answer to a problem I don’t have.

Why did I get into this quest? Because I failed at fly-cutting. A machinist I respect told me to fly-cut with high RPM’s, so that’s what I did with my mystery block. The edge of the bit kept wearing down as I cut. I had forgotten this crucial information: he was referring to aluminum, not steel. When I finally did it right, I had to turn the mill at about 100 RPM, which is ridiculous, and the finish was not that great. The end mill flies through work, and the finish is superior. Done deal.

Remember the treadmill my neighbor threw out? Probably not. I have the motor out, and I may want to machine the shaft to take a new pulley. A forum guy warned me about a potential problem. He said that if you take the armature out of a permanent-magnet motor (like a treadmill motor), the magnets will instantly demagnetize, resulting in reduced performance. Like life wasn’t complicated enough. He said you have to put a piece of steel between the magnets when you take the armature out.

This led to more research, and I learned some stuff.

In the dank, dreary past, many magnets were made from an alloy called Alnico (aluminum, nickel, cobalt, iron). If you shake it too much, it loses magnetism. If you drop it, it loses magnetism. If you take an armature out of a motor with Alnico magnets, it loses magnetism. Engineers designed iron objects known as “keepers” to insert in motors to prevent demagnetization when motors (or similar devices) are disassembled.

I found a couple of sites that said that Alnico is history (unless you play the guitar). Now cheap magnets are made from barium-ferrite powder, which can be cast in useful shapes. Barium-ferrite is supposed to be way less snowflaky than Alnico. More than one website told me it does not require a keeper.

The motor I have almost certainly has barium-ferrite magnets, because the next step up is rare earth, and rare earth magnets cost a lot. So I should not need a keeper (not the magnet kind). But the forum guy claims he ruined three treadmill motors just by removing the armatures briefly. So now I’m thinking I should find a piece of pipe and make a keeper, just to avoid the issue.

My small belt grinder has an armature that has been removed, and it works fine. I asked some electronics nerds on a forum, and they claim no keeper is required.

My advice: if you take a treadmill motor apart, use a keeper. Maybe it’s unnecessary, but it definitely won’t hurt, and it will cost you nothing or about two bucks.

What else have I learned? Let’s see. Belt grinders are fine for grinding HSS bits, but the bench grinder is faster, and it’s probably cheaper. Belts wear out fast.

Deburring…I learned about deburring. This means the removal of sharp burrs from metal parts. I have a worn-out belt on my small belt grinder, and I’ve been using it for deburring. It’s fantastic. One or two five-second passes will put a beautiful soft edge on a part. Try it. Don’t even bother with files. They’re for losers.

That’s all the earth-shaking information I have at the moment. I’ll leave you with a video of a guy using an indexable end mill to make a giant steady rest.

New Toys; New Projects

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

Too Lazy to Post Photos

I have a few things going on in the shop. Figured I may as well write.

First of all, the woodturning tool rest is all finished. I haven’t used it yet, because I am thinking about dust collection, and I haven’t decided what to do about holding the tailstock end of the work.

When you turn wood in a lathe, you hold the left end in a chuck or some kind of spur, and the motor, which is at that end, turns the wood. The right end sometimes has to be supported, too. For that you are likely to use a live center. That’s a thing that has a point or some other grabby structure on the inboard end, to hold onto the wood.

To use my existing tailstock, I would have to extend the wood across the lathe’s carriage, and that would be a pain. I think I’ll make something that clamps in a tool holder. I’ll have to align it every time I use it, but how often will that be?

Dust collection is supposedly impossible with a lathe. You just reduce the mess as much as you can. I don’t have a dust collector. I have a shop-vac, which is made for a different job. A shop-vac makes air go fast in a small tube. A dust collector moves high volumes of air through a bigger tube. This is what I’m told.

Because there is no hope of good dust collection anyway, I think I’ll try the shop-vac. I plan to get a dust hood, which is a flat, rectangular piece of plastic shaped a little bit like a funnel. You aim it at your dust, and you hook a dust collector up to it. I think I’ll rest one of these upright on the lathe bed, with the hose going down through the openings. It should help a lot. At least it will get the big chunks.

I bought a two-tier welding cart, and I learned a lot about this type of product.

When you buy a Miller or Lincoln welder, you get a serious industrial product made in America, except maybe for the strange items Lincoln sells at Home Depot. I don’t know about those. If a cart comes with your welder, it will probably be a dubious item made in China, from Chinese sheet metal.

My welder came with such a cart. It works fine, but it’s not the greatest cart on earth. It’s a little short, so the tank bumps against the welder. Also, the sheet metal could be stronger where the tank sits. There are little locating tabs around the tank base, and they bend easily.

I also have a plasma cutter, which is similar to a welder in size and weight. It didn’t come with a cart. You can screw wheels to the bottom, but then you have a plasma cutter with no area for tool storage, and it’s way down on the ground.

I got an email from Eastwood, the company that sells reasonably good Chinese tools for working on cars. They advertised a two-tier cart. You can put a welder or plasma cutter on each tier, and it holds two tanks. The weight capacity is 350 pounds, I believe. It looked good, but it’s Chinese, so I looked at other products.

I found out that you can pretty much forget about finding a good US-made welding cart. Cornwell makes one (it may be Chinese, but it has Cornwell standing behind it), but they only sell them from Cornwell trucks. I’m not going to chase some guy in a truck. I ruled that out.

There are a zillion two-tier welding carts on the web, and almost all are the same model, made in China, rebadged. The weight capacity is not great, and they get mixed reviews. I decided to give up and go with Eastwood.

The cart arrived, and it took an hour to put together. It had one defective part, but I’m going to make them replace that. Basically, it’s a nice solid design. It has two shelves of fake diamond plate backed up by horizontal supports. The shelves aren’t bulletproof, but the supports are very strong, so the shelves are more than adequate. It has hooks for holding cords. It has tubes for TIG rods. It also has two trays to hold little items like consumables.

It will hold two large gas bottles, and it uses a wonderful system of sturdy steel hoops.

They must have had issues with the rear wheels and axle, because now it comes with a thick steel rod and two very heavy wheels with bearings.

I put my plasma cutter on the bottom and my welder on the top. Suddenly my garage seems twice as big. What a relief. I highly recommend this product. They say welders are supposed to build their own carts. I could not have made anything this nice, and the parts would have cost what I paid for the entire cart. Go ahead and make a cart if you want. I feel like I got a deal.

I would say the footprint of the cart is about 3′ by 2′, so it’s not small, but it will seem small once your welders, cords, and bottles are off of the floor.

In other news, a neighbor blessed me by throwing out a treadmill. I put it on my truck and hacked it apart. I came away with a 2HP motor and a linear actuator. There was also a lot of metal I might have used for welding, but I didn’t have any place to put it.

I am now working on a control apparatus for the motor. My first treadmill motor came with an MC-60 control board, and for that, all you need is a potentiometer. The current treadmill has an MC-2100 board. People on the Internet insist it requires a PWM (pulse wide modulation) input. I found a schematic for a simple add-on circuit, and I’m waiting for the parts to get here.

I’m thinking I’ll make a mandrel with a 1″ shaft and make myself a two-buff variable-speed buffer. Do I need one? OF COURSE. What don’t I need?

I did some research, and it looks like you want 5000-9000 SFM on a buffer, so I’ll want 8″ buffs and a fair amount of speed. The shaft has to be thick because buffers need long shafts, and long thin shafts wobble. With a long shaft, you have access to deeper areas on parts, and you can also mount sanding drums on the buffer.

Should be pretty cool. If I go through with it.

I also learned that you can use a 2×72 belt grinder to drive a buffing attachment. You buy a 2×72″ drive belt (not abrasive), and you make a buffing attachment that fits on the end of a tool arm. The belt drives the attachment. You can use it for anything that will work on a small arbor. It’s brilliant. Some day I want to try it. Depending on the VFD and the size of the pulley on the attachment, you can get a crazy-wide range of speeds.

Last thing: I’m turning a chunk of mystery steel into a bench block. I found it in an abandoned warehouse. It’s about 3″ x 2″ x 4″. I tried to fly-cut one side, and I learned this: fly-cutting is not for steel. With a 3″ fly cutter and an HSS bit, you have to do something like 90 RPM, and that takes forever. I burned up my cutting bit several times. With aluminum, you can run flat-out, but steel is not as friendly.

I suppose I could put a quality left-hand lathe tool in the cutter with a carbide insert, but for the moment, I’m going with an indexable 2″ end mill from Shars. I happen to have a box of TPMR inserts I bought by accident (no screw holes), and they will work with this end mill. It should be a lot better for steel, although the finish may not be fantastic.

A bench block is like a miniature anvil. You put it on your workbench and rest things on it while you work. You can put a groove in it to hold long things horizontally, and you can put vertical holes in it so you can drill things on the bench and go all the way through them. It’s a nifty item to have, and making it is good machining practice.

That’s about all I have at the moment. I may post photos later when I have more time.

More: Eastwood Rocks

The cart I bought from Eastwood had a minor defect, as I mentioned above. I got on the phone with them and told them about it. The cart has four tubular supports that hold the top shelf. Two are big tubes which are part of the cart’s frame. The other two are smaller tubes, maybe 5/8″ in diameter. On my cart, one of these tubes has crooked threads in the end, and it’s about 1/4″ too short. I had to shim it with washers to make it work.

Guess what Eastwood’s solution is? They’re sending me a new cart. They can’t pull the part and send it, and they don’t want the old cart back. Translation: free cart. I can fix the old one. It already works with the washer shims, but I can weld two ends in a piece of steel conduit and thread them, and it will be a perfect replacement for the defective support. I can even paint them black so the part looks OEM.

This is sweet. I don’t need two welding carts, but the cart doesn’t know it’s a welding cart. I can put my bench grinder on it, and I can put a buffer on the bottom shelf. I can put up to 350 pounds of stuff on it. I can even store extra gas bottles on it, if I choose to get into TIG or something that requires gases other than Argon/CO2.

Eastwood is kind of a neat company. They specialize in finding low-cost stuff that works reasonably well, and they are very aggressive about courting customers and making them happy. They’ve put a lot of self-help videos on Youtube.

I have a free 2HP motor, a free treadmill motor, a free linear actuator, and a free welding cart. What else do people want to give me?

Nineteen Eighty-Four, Plus Thirty-Two

Sunday, November 27th, 2016

Welcome to Wrinklevision

It’s nice to be able to write about earthly things once in a while. I still live here, after all.

This week I underwent a passage of sorts. I got a real TV. What does “real TV” mean in late 2016? I admit, I’m not completely sure, but I can list a few things.

1. Flat panel
2. High definition (1080p or better)
3. Connects to Internet
4. Allows nerds to film you naked

Number four isn’t essential, but it appears to be a reality. Many TV’s have cameras in them (God only knows why), and nerds have found ways to activate them remotely. So if you’re going to walk around the house naked, wear a mask and work out. As for shutting down the microphone, you will probably have to go in a cut a wire.

If you still have a prehistoric TV with a picture tube, you’re in for a surprise when you upgrade. You’ll have to pay someone to haul your old $2000 Toshiba to the dump. No one wants a 200-pound TV with wheels, no matter how great it was back when you used it to watch [TRIGGER ALERT TRIGGER ALERT] Buffalo Bill shoot Indians. There are a few kooks out there who have uses for them, but you won’t find one. If you take it to Goodwill, they’ll tell you they don’t want it.

I was using what I thought was a huge TV to watch Youtube and a few cable shows. It has a 42″ screen, and it’s 1080p. I moved up to 55″, and the new TV has something called “Ultra 4K,” which is even more detailed than what we currently call “high definition.” It’s so detailed, you can pretty much forget about finding any programs shot in Ultra 4K. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure why they sell these TV’s.

High-definition TV is already causing problems. Have you ever tuned into the HD version of your favorite news show? It’s shocking how the female newsreaders look. Remember that perfect skin? Where did it go? Actresses over the age of 30 must be losing their minds over HD. They should call it “Wrinklevision.”

The TV has Wi-Fi built in, but it doesn’t have a webcam, so I wear whatever I want, and I slouch. Why do you want Wi-Fi? Simple. It lets you connect your TV to the Internet and download video, without playing with cables.

The new TV has two remotes. Don’t ask me why. One is a tablet. It’s actually a very nice tablet. It has no cameras, so, again, I won’t be popping up on porn websites, and it has 16MB of memory. It’s bigger than my phone. It’s so big and bright, I use it to read Kindle books.

The tablet remote can be used to locate and stream Internet video. You push a little icon, and whatever you see on the remote goes to the TV.

To be honest, this feature has not been useful to me yet. I mainly watch Youtube, and if you watch Youtube, you really want a mouse. I have a cable running from the PC to the TV, and I use the TV as a monitor when I watch Youtube. Works great. But some people rely on services like Netflix, and as I understand it, the tablet is nice for that kind of video.

The main thing that makes the TV wonderful is its combination of size and resolution.

I don’t know a whole lot about shooting video, but I have come to realize that big TV’s and amateur videographers are changing our notions of how much stuff should appear on a screen at one time. I am guessing here, but presumably, when TV cameramen and directors shoot things, they have to think about the average TV screen, and they limit themselves to scenes that won’t drive viewers nuts. For example, you would not want to watch the chariot scene from Ben Hur on a 5″ screen. They must leave a lot of things out. Amateurs appear to be unaware of the limitations of viewing screens, so they pack enormous amounts of material into scenes.

When I watch a machining video, the uploader may show a huge percentage of his shop in each scene. There may be lots of things in the shot I need to see. If I stick with a 48″ screen, I’ll need to be within 8 feet of the TV to see all the good stuff well. With a 55″ screen, I can sit across the room, on the couch, and see everything clearly.

The bigger screen also increases the size of text, so if I want to go through Youtube videos and look for things I want to watch, I can read the titles. I don’t have to go to the TV and squint.

I think amateur videographers, who don’t know what they’re doing, are pushing us to bigger screens. At least those of us who watch their videos.

I said I was using the tablet to read Kindle books. Guess what? I can use the TV, too. It’s so big, I can sit on the couch with my feet up and read books comfortably. No reading glasses! I like Kindle for books I don’t care enough about to buy in paper form, and for books I can’t find anywhere else. The big screen makes reading them a pleasure. It also works for Scrib’d.

The tablet is a strange accessory, but I keep coming up with uses for it. I can check my email while I watch TV. If I see something interesting on TV, I can Google it on the tablet. Crazy.

The tablet’s Wi-Fi is much faster than the Wi-Fi on my phone and my old tablet. No idea why.

I watched a couple of high-definition movies on the TV, and while it’s considerable nicer than fuzzy low definition, it’s not overwhelming. Every once in a while, a little voice inside me says something like, “How did Ben Affleck get in my house?”, but it’s not a constant gee-whiz experience.

I haven’t tried running CAD on the big TV. I may need a new video card, because Ultra 4K sucks up a lot of processing power. I do look forward to it, though. Anything that allows me to sit a comfortable distance from my monitor is a blessing.

You’re thinking the TV cost an arm and a leg. Not really. I didn’t go for the $3000 jobs that probably have functions that would make a HAL 9000 envious. You can get Ultra 4K for way under a grand.

I’ve always thought people who had big TV’s were silly, because TV is a waste of time, but now there is finally a decent selection of worthwhile things to view, and there is a reason why a big screen makes sense, so I joined the club.

Sooner or later, as I have said for years, there won’t be phones and Internet and TV. There will just be the Internet, and it will do everything. The new TV brings me one step closer to that bizarre paradigm. In a way, it’s a disappointment, because I don’t really want cable TV premium channels, and when TV is fully integrated with the Internet, HBO and Showtime will be ubiquitous. I suppose the same will be true of the really dirty channels.

We’re all being united by a disturbing, invasive network of wires and radio waves, and privacy is a thing of the past. It’s very bad, but you can’t do anything to stop it without unplugging and basically sitting in the dark. I suppose I may want to do that eventually, but until it reaches that point, I intend to enjoy the new technology.

My TV is giving me traffic reports I didn’t ask for. Arggh. This just in: “Gloria Estefan Reacts to Castro’s Death.” Every time I pause it, it tells me things I don’t want to know, and half of it is advernews or possibly journotainment. “BREAKING NEWS: YOUR SEARCH HISTORY, CREDIT REPORT, FAMILY DOCTOR’S UNENCRYPTED FILES, CRIMINAL HISTORY, AND BANK ACCOUNT BALANCE INDICATE WE MIGHT BE ABLE TO GET YOU TO BUY THIS WRENCH!”

Oh well. You take the bad with the good.