Wednesday, November 30, 2016


I can stumble through a tune now on the fiddle.

I take it to work with me. I don't always get the two scheduled breaks, I can't always practice on those breaks (sometimes I need to use the time to make a call or have a snack or something), but I still average fifteen minutes of practice every day.

Not a lot. But that's every weekday, plus I pick it up at least once on the weekend. And it adds up, bit by bit. Eventually even Diamond Mountain gets ground down.

Now all I need is more things with a good Bird Quotient. Unfortunately programming and writing don't make it. Fifteen minutes isn't even enough to figure out where you left off.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Stark Envy

There is a lot to envy about Tony Stark. But what I mean in this case...well, several scenes (in the first movie especially) sum this up well. He's in his man cave, elbow-deep in the high-tech equivalent of grease. He's unshaven, he hasn't eaten, he's pretty much only keeping himself going on beer and hard rock.

But he's still going. He's thinking, he's innovating, he's building.

I can get about four hours at a stretch. Maybe six hours total in any given day. The rest of the day I'm spinning my wheels. I can stare at the screen or sketchpad, shove my nose into the books...doesn't matter. That four to six hours is all that I have available to actually, creatively, problem-solve.

Last night I got hauled off to an unexpected rehearsal. Before it started and between acts I worked on the misbehaving Holocron software. It took me something like an hour of actual hands-on-keyboard to see where I'd screwed it up this time.

There's a flag that sets the pulse direction, up or down. Two blocks that test for flag condition then execute various things (mostly, setting a new target value for the LEDs, either max bright or min bright). Oh, yeah. And when everything else is done they flip the flag.

Except I was getting worried about undefined behavior in some of my "if/else" loops. So I switched out the "else" block for an implicitly defined "if" block.

Strip out everything else, all the interior loops and tests and function calls. What did I just create?

if (toggle == 1)
toggle = 0;
if (toggle == 0)
toggle = 1;

Yes; in this case, "if/else" was a better logical construct, exactly because the "else" statement isn't evaluated. It doesn't run unless the conditions to run the "if" statement are false.

And that's the sort of stupid error I'm trying to fix in my Holocron software. Because most of that work has not happened in those four golden hours, but during time when I'm struggling to try to concentrate at all.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Ozzie who?

A quiet Sunday morning. Will be meeting friends for brunch in a few hours. I put on some coffee, grabbed the apple turnover I purchased on impulse yesterday at the bakery cafe across the street, and flipped a Wes Mongomery CD from my binder of random jacketless CD's into the player a neighbor gave me when she moved.

And...perfect. Sunlight is breaking through the overcast, there's just the slightest nip of fall in the air, and I've got the day off to relax. I'm happy.

This is what we give thanks for. These moments of grace. It is never the life you expected, certainly not the life you planned, but it is the life you have and, all in all, it isn't bad.

I've been lucky enough to travel a little, and there are certainly those moments of awe and those moments of connection with the rest of humanity. I've spent much of my working life in live theater and have had the experience of being part of creating those moments when the emotions and the lighting and everything comes together and time stands still at the cusp of that final chord. But I am especially thankful that I have family and friends, and as wonderful as the times of lively debate are those moments of quiet comfort when everything that really needed to be said is already said.

Rich or poor, sickly or robust, farmer or philosopher-king, eventually we are all Ozymandias, the legacy of our life but a pair of broken and confounding feet. So treasure those moments of grace. And it is not a bad thing, either, to live your life in a way that allows them to happen to others. Share kindness, and friendship, and love. Share music and art. Know that in the simplest act of boarding a bus or serving a cup of coffee you may be part of some other person's perfect moment. Take pleasure in the pleasure of others because, that, too, is a moment of grace.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Whadaya mean, "too sensitive?"

Monday I did a long workday, went to the gym, worked on the Holocron, went out for dinner, and still had time for a few minutes of fiddle practice.

Tuesday I was sore, nor did it help that I had to climb the walls of the theater (pretty much literally, using rock-climbing moves up the unistrut to get to the things I needed to adjust). But still got the Holocron work and the fiddle practice in.

But I am so glad Wednesday was a short day and the next four days are off work.

I needed to dial in the sensitivity on the touch sensor before I moved on to the last parts of the software. And that took four days. And the solution is a software cludge. 

The theory is simple. Let current leak through a high-value resistor into the parasitic capacitance around an input pin and associated antenna until it charges and trips the pin. Measure the time; that's the total capacitance. 

A human body in contact with, or even close to, the circuit changes that time and you can thus detect it. I can get the circuit to detect a hand moving six inches away.

But not in a stable way. The values fluctuate too much, including the sensitivity climbing up steadily over time. The touch I'm looking for is getting lost in the noise.

And two other problems. The sensor wire is inside a sealed acrylic cube. So the ground floats when it is used in battery mode. And the sensitivity goes way up when it is tethered via USB. So my software cludge looks at the detect events and if they are way, way above the default threshold it assumes the Holocron is on USB and flips to the higher threshold setting. And I'm forcing auto-calibration at frequent intervals. And I'll probably write in a masking routing to prevent trips from coming too close together.

(That's more RTOS stuff there, of course. The Holocron is constantly feeding illumination level and color updates to the neo-pixels, meaning you have to use counters and/or interrupts instead of relying on delay() to tweak the timing.)

On to a new "Talk" animation, and take at least a weak swing at the user programming buttons. I've got the first six boards soldered up now and I have at least that many orders waiting to be filled. I'm glad I'm smart about this and have refused to accept payment until I'm ready to ship. (Because I still have to run out to the lasers to cut more pieces, too. At least the designing is finally done on that.)

Oh, and I just ran into the cutest hack on Hackaday. I'm already leveraging the fact that you can reboot the Holocron merely by tipping it far enough to activate the tilt sensor. But with a capacitor on an I/O pin, you can detect if the sleep interval was short or long. Meaning different behaviors depending on whether it has just been turned on, or if the user tips and restores.

And, yes, I was tempted to give up on the capacitive sensor and use this to trigger the sound effects on the "Talking" Holocron. But it made it a little too much like a Moo Can.

Saturday, November 19, 2016


It's cold out. Rainy also.

Good day to spend inside prop-making. Where I'm chasing down cold solder joints. Perhaps I need to scrub my PCB's before I start soldering on them. Or on the revised board (which I thought was complete until I thought of adding pins for a "talking" version), increase the annular rings on some of the critical pads.

No failure yet on any surface-mount component. But the hand soldering has thrown up two USB jack errors and even a couple of loose joints on the LEDs.

Oh, yeah. Talking. There's an Adafruit board that will trigger 10 consecutive (or random) sound files when a single pin is held low. Unfortunately they discontinued the version with an on-board power amp, which means I need to find space on the Holocron for two additional circuit boards. This, and even more ribbon cable, is so aesthetically displeasing I don't really feel like making this a standard option. After all, this is why I went through all the effort to make a single stand-alone board that combines charge management, USB hosting, and LED controller:

Also aesthetically displeasing is the sound. I experimented with the drivers I had lying around, and I needed to pump up to three watts into a quality driver before it could push its way out of the acrylic box and sound half-way decent. I've gone and ordered another of the surface mount transducers that failed me on the raygun project --

-- because anywhere else would create at the least a nasty shadow and possibly require a hole in the box as well. Besides, sound coming from a hole sounds like sound coming from a hole. It is a better effect if it sounds like the box itself is making the sound.

Pity I happen to know a little acoustics (and cabinet design). Because what this really calls for is a ported enclosure:

But that totally changes the look of the Holocron. And this is not a time to think outside the box. I've spent way too long refining on this particular box. It is time to brave the rain, visit the lasers and cut enough pieces to start shipping complete Holocron kits. (I have just enough to make one complete kit now, and I might assemble it myself just as a final check of the latest round of adjustments).

Or solder up the last of the current run of circuit boards. I stopped dead when I ran into odd USB behavior, but now I know what was going wrong and can fix it. I should probably solder up a complete "talking" Holocron before I order the version 1.1 boards, though. There's just barely space to put a couple more terminals for that...

(Oh, yeah; there's alternates. Best is go with Teensy and the Adafruit audio adaptor daughterboard for it. Skip USB hosting and in-place recharge and just put a string of Neopixels in for lighting. The Teensy does the heavy lifting of not just sound playback but DSP to equalize it. But that's costlier, still messy, takes up even more space, and requires I spend time programming.)

Bunny of the Week

The Great Pyramid of Cholula.

Under a 14th century Spanish Colonial church (a major pilgrimage destination) and covered with so much earth and other structures it looks like nothing more than a tall and regular hill lies a massive pyramid.

Begun somewhere around 200 BCE and built in stages over a thousand years, this elaborate pyramid complex is half a kilometer per side, larger in base and volume than the Great Pyramid of Giza, making it the largest monument in the world. Tunnels and passages wind through the structure; archaeologist have uncovered over six kilometers of passages so far. It is of course richly decorated, including fantastic murals, elaborate stone carving, and there are also multiple human burials.

And it is built on top of a cenote. Which, to add just that extra level of fantastic (something else I learned within the last couple of days) the distinctive cenote of Mexico's Yucutan Peninsula (deep circular pits where the surface has collapsed into massive limestone caves) are concentrated in a ring of shocked and fractured limestone that is itself a remnant of the Chicxulub Impact (the probable cause of the K-T extinction event of 68 MYA). These cenote are often connected in strings of caves, following the flows of an underlying aquifer which extends all the way to the sea.

Oh, yes, and just to put the Ancient Aliens firmly in the mix, an old name for the site is Acholollan (Nahuatl) meaning "place of flight." And, yes, the suggestion has been made that mysterious older inhabitants did just that. Perhaps their planet needed them.

So. Largely un-excavated (although quite well known and, like any ancient monument you've heard of, a major tourist destination), layered down through history from Spanish Colonization to late pre-contact to the height of the Mayan Empire to truly ancient caves to a catastrophe from tens of millions of years ago. Extending deep underground from the modern excavations to excavations by treasure hunters and seekers after building materials back through the Colonial age at least, to deep passages to natural tunnels to deep underground rivers stretching all the way to the sea.

And my only question is; why hasn't Lara Croft already been there to raid it?

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Powered by Brains

There has been a push since at least the Industrial Revolution to offload the rote work -- the repetitive, mindless tasks -- onto machinery. The Maker revolution dotes on this, and my personal props work has paralleled; moving to technologies that let me copy and paste details instead of sculpting them individually, using mills and other power tools to achieve desired surfaces instead of hand-smoothing them, etc.

The downside, though, of getting rid of as much of the mindless drudge work as possible, is you don't have mindless drudge work to do when you are tired, sick, it is hot and you just got off a long day's work, you only have an hour before you need to go off and do something else, etc.

I'm looking at a big task list for the Holocron orders right now. Sure, there's some sanding and patching, and some soldering. Those are mindless; I sanded the last one over a couple evenings while watching YouTube.

But before I can even tear into the stack of orders I need to fix a couple remaining issues. I need to do the next round of PCB corrections in Eagle CAD. I need to edit the new solution to the USB jack into the laser SVG's. I need to dial in the sensitivity on the sensor and write a couple of new functions into the software.

None of this is stuff I can do when sleepy or when my head is fuzzy or when I'm distracted. None of them can I do without several consecutive hours to look through the change orders, re-familiarize myself with the parts/functions/software/layers etc., and still have the time to take careful caliper measurements and run tests and otherwise make sure the work is being done accurately. I can't throw any of this at the wall in hopes it will stick. It requires a free day (or at least a free afternoon) with health and no major distractions.

I can't even make up the rest of the stack of version 1.0 PCBs. Because before I can get to the relatively mindless rote of soldering in the discrete components I have to delicately place the surface mount and run a reflow oven cycle. That takes the kind of steady hand that does not come after the fourth cup of coffee and in any case requires a free hour or more for setup and cleanup.

The line continues to move, of course. Code crunching is increasingly moving to automation now. PCB is automated (if you like the results, which I don't). But of course that merely amplifies the problem. Because then the work that needs to be done so the project can progress is the intense concentration of original insight and artistic thought.

And, yeah, you can (and I've been forced to, on more than one theatrical design contract) reach into your bucket of trite old ideas, recycled ideas, and stolen ideas. And the people around you will still coo and aw about how creative you are.

But it isn't as good and it really doesn't feel right. Every single lighting design I've done for theater has involved me spending at least two hours doing nothing but sitting in a chair in the auditorium staring at the set. My average is a week of back-burner, of thinking off and on about the show, making scribbles, re-reading the script, etc., until the idea finally comes.

Fortunately, that kind of necessary percolation does seem to be entirely compatible with being tired, sick, busy, hot, whatever. It just needs the world to spin a few times before the ideas are ready to take full form.

Saturday, November 5, 2016


I'm still mainlining history. It has steamrollered from something I picked up to make the long hours at work go a little quicker (listening to podcasts) to near obsession. I find myself going past the fiction section in both the book store and the used DVD's to find the documentaries and (perhaps increasingly) the historical epics.

I'm currently reading through an alternate-history take on events in the Byzantine Empire under Justinian (aka the Belisarius series), and I'm watching the edutainment program Young Indiana Jones. 

The latter has the usual edutainment conceit of every famous person you probably heard of in school showing up to take a moment to interact with the protagonist. You can see it coming; heck, I didn't even realize it was that kind of a series when a masked man in Arab dress rode up to the Giza complex on a bicycle (towards our stranded heroes) and I realized immediately this was going to be T.E. Lawrence. And I have to say that the show plays fast and loose with dates and ages and assorted other facts (Norman Rockwell meeting Picasso and Degas at the Lapin Agile in 1908? Really?)

But it is a fun show and it is always fun to see some of these places and people and cultures brought to life. The great thing about an interest in history is you recognize more and more of the references and the quotes, the places and the people.

The Belisarius series is also a whirlwind tour through places -- and through history. Belisarius comes from a culture that is obsessed with the classics. The Byzantine royalty are very familiar with the classics and, like the Roman Empire they consider themselves a continuation of, venerate the Greek writers of antiquity. They are also a trading empire. Many of the other cultures interacted with have a similar literary bent and long memories for their own histories -- the Persians, for but one example.

And many of the characters are military men, and it is still true that literate military men know the campaigns of Alexander and Xenophon as well as they know those of their contemporaries. (Plus it doesn't hurt that the alternate part of the alternate history is a future power struggle that has sent two emissaries back to support opposing sides -- and bring them up to date on histories that world has yet to experience).

And, yeah, I finally had to pick up an atlas and start really trying to nail things down in at least the region of the Mediterranean. I happened to find a rather nice "Atlas of the Ancient World" edition of National Geographic just as I was feeling the cartographic pinch. But truth be told, I've been using Google Maps to get a rough grounding in where things are in relation to each other.

I suppose I have always had a background fascination for the stuff. I think if you boil down the question of why I never threw myself into it like this before, it would be because of how I learn (which is a poor mismatch to how some subjects have traditionally been taught). I don't learn from the bottom up. I learn by putting together a basic structure, then filling in the details. It is like a holographic data structure, not like defined sectors on a disk that can simply be filled up one by one. I quite literally can not remember (and can not associate) facts before I have this overarching structure to plug them into.

The traditional presentation of history is long on the facts and short on the analysis. And nearly missing on the synopsis. So you are confronted with having to memorize tables of names of kings and dates of conquest, with no real sense of the "why" of anything.

The presentation of history is changing, I think. Although the more analytical stuff has always been out there. Think of Henri Pirenne's great History of Europe, which I am convinced is thanks to the Germans separating him from his books, forcing him to write the "real" stuff of history and go back later to fill in the dates. Or oral histories, which place you in a place and let you figure out what it all means the way the person living that life would have.

Then there was a time when I was working at Fort Mason Center, taking lunch under the bows of a W.W.II Liberty Ship and reading a book from the nearby Friends of the Library sale. It only seemed natural to read naval histories of the war, and given the theater the men, women, and materials that came through that base were being shipped to, the Pacific Campaigns.

Which I rapidly discovered were a heck of a lot more interesting from the Japanese point of view, which led me into reading a lot of history and ethnographies and other Japanese studies. I sort of walked backwards to an eventual appreciation of anime and samurai films; unlike most of my contemporaries, those were not my starting point.

Somewhere around there I got a fascination for female aviation pioneers, reading a bunch of biographies of same. And this was a better way to grasp history; from the ground, in a narrow field both in space and in time. The problem being of course you need a lot of these tiny, detailed chunks in order to build into an understanding of the grand flows.

When I started working on an SG1/Tomb Raider fanfic, it was planned to go no more than 20,000 words and be all about the humor in two adherents of the Indiana Jones school of archaeology (aka Daniel Jackson and Lara Croft) getting into an argument about the best way to loot then blow up an ancient temple.

It didn't work out that way. To figure out the plot I really needed to brush up on my history of the ancient world. And for some reason, this time it "stuck." I was able to push through that period of not being able to make sense of anything, hammer over and over at the various periods and kingdoms until it finally started to take form.

It isn't a breakthrough to all of history. I am still in fear of the 18th and 19th centuries -- heck, I'm not even looking forward to trying to get a grip on Rome (much less feudal Europe). But I am finding it a little easier.

So even though my podcast resources have temporarily run dry on my period of initial interest, I'm quite happy to listen to forty five minutes on the Siege of Munster or the Tea Trade.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Qualopec Solution

I've been stumped on my fanfic for far too long. Every time I thought I'd managed to clarify just what had happened in the past, it made it even more plain it didn't happen in New Mexico. Where I'd put my characters as of the previous chapter.

So back to primary sources. I watched all the Tomb Raider: Anniversary cutscenes. And oh my. Apparently the White Sands area was a seat of power for Qualopec. Complete with Mesoamerican-style pyramid, surrounded by (!!) what look like Olmec heads. Cripes.

So I'm going out on a Doylist limb here. These aren't flashbacks, after all; they are visions Lara is granted when she assembles the Atlantean Scion. So call them a little confused, the way visions are. Oh, and the opening scene? It's obviously wrong already -- there was only one atomic test in 1945, it wasn't at Los Alamos itself, and it most certainly did not include the buildings of a mock-up town getting blown down. But, hey, the cutscene starts in black and white anyhow. So call it a documentary, with some fudging of the facts for better dramatic impact. And Natla did not fly, burning, out of the crater whilst the mushroom cloud was still growing.

This is far too tempting a road to travel further and further, of course. I'm strongly leaning towards deciding that re the Stargate universe, nothing is canonical that hadn't been shown by the end of Season 4. So I don't have to stick with some of the really absurd stuff about Merlin, for instance.

One is further tempted to assume that everything you've seen about Lara's adventures actually comes out of one of the highly dramatized fan magazines (or ghost-written accounts, before she decided the publicity wasn't actually helping). So Atlantean script looks half-way like a reasonable language, and not like the crazy hodgepodge of cabalistic signs and ersatz hieroglyphics shown on screen during the game. And maybe it wasn't really a t. rex.  Ah, but that way lies madness.

Part of the fun of the fanfic game is sticking with what was actually in the original, and making an effort to explain it (or at least make it seem to make sense).

But when you get down to it, as fascinating as the question is of what the Ancients were up to prior to 2 MYA and after 10 KYA (the dates the show gives for their two sojourns on Earth), particularly their interaction with human (and homo neandertalis) migration, the neolithic revolution, etc., the schema I have for my story isn't going to allow any of the characters to actually figure it all out. It's going to be a mystery to them. It might as well be a mystery to the reader as well.

Trouble is, I do sort of have to know myself. Because I'm still trying to figure out what the hell Natla was trying to dig up in New Mexico (it can't have been the infamous UFO, despite this taking place not far from Roswell). Or why there's a History Channel group of pseudo-archaeologists there now with their video cameras. Or why Amanda was there, and why the heck she thinks Lara Croft would soon follow!