Monday, January 10, 2011


Back when I was young I had, like many children of that decade did, a constellation of glow-in-the-dark stars on my bedroom ceiling. Now what glows for me at night is blinkenlights.

When I was young, LEDs were only in certain electronics; in the displays of older pocket calculators, for instance. The high-intensity LED, and the ubiquity of LED lights that followed, was still in the future.

We humans have a magpie fascination for colored lights. Christmas Tree bulbs or holiday lighting, the similar sparkly colors of fireworks, or the lighting effects filling a nightclub seem to have an endless fascination for us. Even now -- with lights and displays, plasma and EL and cold cathode and backlit LCD, super-saturated colors and tiny jewel-like points of light and softly glowing colors that shift hypnotically across the spectrum -- we seem in no danger of reaching saturation ourselves.

Blinkenlights can have function, too. The lights on a modem or the glowing power light on so many appliances is useful information to the end-user. Inside, more lights may glow to inform the technician. The majority of the devices I've created myself have included a power light. An LED and a ballast resistor is cheap, and doesn't take up much space. And when you are trying to find out why the thing doesn't work, knowing it is getting power is a good first check. Since the LED is downstream of the power regulation circuitry, it tests that as well.

I also used to hang an LED on the clock output. Again, a cheap check that the circuit is running (and it also tells you more-or-less how fast it is running.) The Arduinos hang LEDs on the serial ports; even though we mere humans can't read those flickerings, we are very, very good at pattern recognition and can tell the difference between a normal program load and a hang. My RF MIDI remote I wired an LED on each receive channel. In addition, they chase in a specific pattern during the boot-up cycle, letting me know the program loaded normally and at least part of the circuit is running correctly.

Not all blinkenlights are actually useful monitors, however. Some are just there to look cool. Lay the first blame on one of the earliest computers. I can't remember the details of the story at the moment, but the technicians getting ready to display a UNIVAC or some other relay-driven monster realized that; A) it didn't look all that exciting while working, and; B) it was easy to solder light bulbs on to each of the accumulators. A pleasing flickering of "I'm computing now!" lights would happen whenever the computer was actually doing arithmetic.

Later machines had the advantage of big reels of magnetic tape memory that could spin and stop. Both rapidly were picked up by Hollywood, and lasted for many years after the "real" machines no longer used them. The BeBox, a computer much beloved by computer geeks of the 70's, continued this scheme by putting a bezel on the front with LEDs attached to the two accumulators of the CPU.

Conversion kits were available to put a BeBox type front panel on other early personal computers like the Apple II. The enemy of this tradition was increasing CPU speeds -- eventually the registers worked so quickly the blinking would have been too fast to see.

Not that this stopped some companies. The infamous case is the Thinking Machines CM-5, which had such a mysterious and official looking set of blinking lights on their front panel Steven Spielberg changed what Michael Crichton had specified and put a CM-5 in Jurassic Park. Well, he sort of did. Turns out that fine front panel was a dummy. The only connection it had with the computer itself was the power supply. All the blinking was from a chip on the back of the display panel itself. And that's all Steven needed to re-create the look of the "Supercomputer" for his movie. The rest of it was wood spray-painted black.

When I was younger, we wired up part of the "clubhouse" (the cottage in back that we sometimes rented out) with colored lights on extension cords. You could sit in one place and switch them on and off from there. It looked cool. I still do that, only the lights are thousand-watt fixtures that cost several hundred dollars each, and the "switch" is a computerized lighting board...AND I get paid to do it. As a kid, also, fascinated with Star Trek (the one and original series) I wired up more than a few "control panels" with illuminated switches and buttons that controlled nothing but their own light. The sophistication of video displays or other more complex interaction was at the time beyond me.

I've grown up. Moved out of the house, have my own apartment now. But as I lie in bed trying to sleep, I look around and see I haven't left that cluttered room full of electronics parts yet. All around me are blinkenlights. Power strips and surge protectors glow from every outlet. Battery chargers glow as well. Lights are on the sleeping monitor, printer, modem, scanner. Several computers sleep as well (except on those nights where I have one running, monitor switched off, doing an all-night render). My aging G4, particularly, has a sleep-mode light with the seeming aspiration of powering Tony Stark's next set of armor. As it pulses, it lights up the whole room. The nightlight in the bathroom, too, is bright enough to make it look like I left the lights on there. I swapped out the LED for a blue one instead -- so now it looks like a young Drew Barrymore should be whispering "They're here!"

On my desktop are, not always but often enough, test circuits and micro-computers and other things that also light up my twilight hours with glowing and blinking LEDs. I look around the darkened apartment, and as I fall asleep the thought occurs more and this where I hoped to be, as that child? Perhaps the essential difference is that for the child, these lights were mine; they were an artistic creation, an attempt to mimic something intangible about the experience of being in your own star ship somewhere deep in space. As an adult, they are merely the ubiquitous aspect of the cheap consumer technology that increasingly surrounds me. As a child, they suggested frontiers. As an adult, they seem to remind me only of the cheapness of my life.

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