Wednesday, November 7, 2012


It's like something out of William Gibson.  More and more, in more and more places, "high tech" (aka electronics) is being worked on not in spotless labs with ranks of test equipment, but with rusty screwdrivers while propped precariously on top of a milk crate and surrounded by empty boxes of Chinese take-out.

It is a matter of perspective.  Technology has always needed to be patched and salvaged.  It has been happening from well before the days of background bicycle mechanics, probably way before the days of itinerant tin-smiths.  We just haven't (or at least some of us haven't) quite caught up on our Future Shock and we just aren't quite used to seeing shade-tree mechanics and third-world repairs and improvisations done to things that have LEDs and microprocessors and other digital parts.

Oh, yeah.

My laptop crashed, with my only copy of the software I was writing for the Morrow Project boxes.

Rant, and pics of things being soldered, below the fold.

This is me trying to rescue what I can off the hard disk using the guts of a Tekram external disk drive.  I was able to get into the disk and rescue the work in progress, but I'm distracted enough by the dead computer I'm just going to have to fix it first, then get back to the boxes.

The next step is attempting a clean system install.  But to do that I need to back up as many files as possible -- a nasty prospect, since not only is that external HD a USB 1.0 device, but the only computer I have that doesn't throw a fit when I connect it is an old G3 laptop with a mere CD-R burner.

Of course if I back up everything, once I stick the drive back in it will boot like there was never anything wrong.  But I was overdue for back-up and cleaning anyhow.

I also went into work today and made four bucks.  Two hours on the clock, and a ticket waiting on my windshield when I got back out; the new tags that I was finally able to buy (late fee and all) with Monday's paycheck are still in the mail.  The car is legal.  They can see that if they run the tags.  But it doesn't have the stickers...thus, a fine.  Again.  One more poor tax.

I also stopped by my gym.  There was nothing in my account on the first so the membership fee was declined.  So would make sense to just freeze the account and take a month off, right?  Nope.  Can't freeze the account until it is paid up.  And it is technically "overdue charge" even though it is payment for a month that hasn't happened yet.  So if I'm already being charged a late fee, and being told I can't cancel this month, does that mean I can use the gym?  Of course not!

Same routine at AT&T.  At least, there, after twenty five minutes on the phone and talking to twelve representatives in different parts of the US, I was finally able to reach someone who could cancel the cell phone I can no longer afford.  Except that they apparently count consolidating my bill (which I requested some months back) as a "new service," thus I'd face an early termination fee.

So all of that ended up saving me not a single cent.  No customer service is the slightest bit interested in talking to you, unless your words include "I can pay with check or credit card."  Every single one is "Pay us the full amount first...then we might be willing to talk about modifying your contract."

So that leaves me, with the computer I do all my design work on in pieces on an old t-shirt.  With wires and broken microphones and tools and adhesives spread out over the table I will use to eat a frugal meal of basmati and canned soup.  Last weekend, money I could have used to have something more than a Cliff Bar to eat over a ten-hour, two-performance day went instead for batteries.  So, yes; here I am going hungry in order to just barely afford basic supplies for the show I am mixing...for people who are paying upwards of $45 a seat.  Welcome to the arts.

When I was in college, the joke was "What can you get for a buck?  A cup of coffee.  What can you get for six bucks?  A new Windsor-Newton Red Sable brush, and a cup of coffee to keep you going and keep your mind off how hungry you are while you paint something wonderful with it."  (Coffee was cheaper then!)

But, honestly, I'm not spending THAT much on electronics parts and art supplies.  The most I expended was during construction of the Fury Gun, when I built up a good thousand dollars worth of tools -- drill press, bench grinder, welding kit, Dremel, etc.

I haven't owned a car yet that hasn't cost that much and more, and as a lump sum to boot (aka needed a new engine or other significant work).  And a single month's rent is damn near that much. 

Well, the box got this far:

I have a function now that will turn ASCII text or numbers into display on the VFD.  Which is a bit less bright than I'd hoped -- 24 volts is really pushing it for minimum; the specs say 30-60 volts.

(I also failed to discover a single weaponizable disease name or chemical weapon name that looked decent when displayed in seven-segment equivalents.  "VX Gas" looks like a cartoon character swearing; "@%$&!)

So all the parts are now on the ugly board.  Now it just needs the wires to the rest of the faceplate:

There's one more alligator-clip stage left.  I've block diagrammed the basic behavior, which is more like stations than it is like states.  The most active and time-dependent state is when the alarm is sounding.  That looks right now to be a large program loop containing a single counter, with various counter-determined events such as PWM up for the light, writing a new word to the display, and altering the frequency of the tone output.

The latter is what I'll probably check with alligator clips.  Well, that and the analog input via resistor ladder -- because if I have to rewire for digital input, I want to be doing that before I have to work around all the other face-plate wires!

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