Monday, January 3, 2011


Hooray! I have my own website now -->

All posts have been ported over from here, there's a new one up, and I'll keep updating in the same vein... so if you were following this blog (all one of you), you should go click "Subscribe" :)


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Electric fingers, warm hands

Huzzah! There's a video up of my Ignite talk from last month. There was a lot I wanted to say about electronics and music -- perhaps too much for the time allotted -- but hopefully some of it stuck.

Last Friday, Pokey and I went to see Jazari - a one-man band comprised of Patrick Flanagan and his drums (solenoid-driven djembe/bongos, servo'd shakers, claves, etc.). Flanagan deftly achieves his goal of making electronic performance visually stimulating: the music is complex and thrilling; the machines are mesmerizing. One half of his controller (made from a Wiimote) is adorned with supa-badass springbok horns. Check it out:


From time to time, the overhead projector displayed the Max/MSP patch he was using. It was hugely complex, but probably less so when you understand it; Pokey then recommended me its open-source counterpart, Pure Data (Pd). It's pretty glorious; I recommend this tutorial for a running start.

[Side note about Patrick's gorgeous business cards: they are gorgeous. He burned his name and info into chips of Spanish cedar, the wood selected for its aroma. That's my kind of artist.]

My first Pd project was a patch that generates binaural beats, which can be changed on the fly while it's running. I'm a bit skeptical of this technique; it works on the proven fact that your brainwaves pulse at different rates when you concentrate or relax. The lower frequencies correspond to chilled-out states, all the way down to NREM sleep; the more alert and focused you are, the higher the frequency. Proponents of binaural beats posit that you can affect your disposition by syncing your brainwaves to frequencies pumped in through your ears. I've never gotten it to work, but then, I'm a Spanish major / hobbyist, not a scientist. So go figure.
People generally use binaural beats from the low end (delta waves) to normal "concentrating" frequency (beta waves). This encompasses a range from 2-4 Hz - that is, two to four pulses per second - up to about 30 Hz. But your ears can't hear frequencies that low, so this method uses a workaround: instead of listening to a single tone at 8 Hz, you hear two tones, one in each ear, 8 Hz apart. This creates an aural "wobble" effect, 8 times per second. (You have to use headphones in order to hear the two frequencies separately and get the wobble.)

Many binaural recordings are available on the internet, but most use higher-pitched frequencies, while I prefer lower tones around 120 Hz. Making my own is more fun, and more enjoyable than listening to tinny ear-wobbles over recorded rainforest noises. You can download my Pd patch on Posterous; again, I haven't had any results, but maybe you'll get something. I'll probably update the patch in a bit.
Stay tuned for some knitting and crocheting... Michigan is getting cooooolllllddd.

Monday, November 1, 2010


Too many posts with no pictures! I OWE IT TO THE WORLD to share images of my stupid projects!

So here's one for you...


On Tuesday, we at All Hands Active got our shiny new bylaws ratified (provisionally), then elected our Board of Directors, of which I'm one! To celebrate, I grabbed an old Energizer headlamp I'd been using as a bike light until it started corroding, and swapped out the white LEDs for IR ones. (This is the next step on my journey toward becoming a cyborg with augmented senses.)

Science Materials!

I found four of them in this box, three of which worked, which was just swell. They look pretty much the same as white LEDs...

yeah they look basically the same

The difference is that it's a lot harder to tell whether IR ones are on or off. I tested them with some button batteries and Roxanne's infrared eye. (Roxanne is a wheeled tower housing a CPU, a pair of speakers, a keyboard, a handheld mouse, an LCD monitor, a regular webcam, and an IR one. She stays logged into AHA's IRC channel and - when set up - takes a picture of the space every 30 seconds. She is our assistant and protector; she has a glorious future yet to come.)

This light is invisible to the unaided human eye.

I took out the three screws on the back of the case and set them aside. The back popped off very easily, and while the soldering iron warmed up, I took a spare LED and tested the white LEDs' connections to see which way they were hooked up, with the lamp switch on.

LED, as you probably know, stands for "Light-Emitting Diode". A diode is a component that allows current to pass through it one way, but not the other. So I had to hook up the LEDs in the right direction, or else they simply wouldn't turn on. With new LEDs, the positive leg is almost always cut longer than the negative one, but on a circuit board the leads have usually been cut close to the board. As it turned out, this headlamp had the white LEDs hooked up with the positive legs to the outside.

My IR LEDs were conveniently sized the same as the old white ones, so with some careful bending, they fit right back in the proper holes. (The middle one there shines red when the switch is moved in the opposite direction - like darkroom lamps, very convenient when one is standing in the dark for extended periods.)

The transformation complete, I put the housing back together and tested it. Here's what it looks like, switched off:

And switched on:

And switched on, through an IR camera:

Maahhhvelous! I got a bunch of purple-hued portraits of AHA! people (yay for locking people in dark bathrooms!), then documented the Zombie Walk a few days later. Results are here! A few samples:

Jacob Huge Beard displays the usual desaturation of black dyes.

Epic zombie dude's makeup is largely transparent, revealing the white base mask underneath.

Pokey's Gary Wilson lipstick is also invisible.

An advantage to shooting with invisible light: you can shine it right in people's eyes (for limited periods of time, of course).

Once more, the rest of the photos are available for browsin' on the Facebooks.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Tea and IRC: Autumn again.

I'm sitting on a couch, with cushions and a blanket, wrapped in pajamas with my favorite black sweater, thick burgundy over-the-knee socks, and long grey arm warmers. I have a mug of PG Tips and some peanut butter toast. It's about 8 pm and in an hour, some of us are going to play handball. (We played until 3am last night, against the big Art Museum wall; I still had on most of my pirate clothes from the scavenger hunt.) Autumn life is slow, full and slumbersome.

In the last two days, I've found two things at Digital Ops that I'd thought long lost: my favorite fountain pen, an Ohto Tasche with Noodler's Nightshade ink, and my camera. While I've missed photographing most of this gorgeous October, I intend to make up for that starting tonight. Ann Arbor's October is the best month anywhere. Here is my soundtrack.

I've managed to spend a lot of my time this autumn outside, and as the light dies, I'm staying out of the hackerspace more to savor its last golden dregs. We've been hashing out bylaws for the organization, and figuring out where we want to head for the future. In the meantime, I'm learning to program IRC bots in Python.

This deeper exploration of IRC, or chatrooms-plus, is my latest attempt at getting presence logging up for the 'space. I tried with QR codes, but my hilariously convoluted scheme was thwarted when I couldn't find free webhosting that still lets you just type HTML in a box and have done with it. Things have come a long way since 9th grade, I guess; everybody has fancy templates and drag-and-drop GUI-based widget tomfoolery.

I've been learning Python from Nate, and stealing bot code from Nima and Noam. My current setup includes:
• My old iBook, plugged in at home - a moody server full of caprice, which at random begins holding down the comma, m, or space key. It's great to be able to use this computer for something, as it's taken a couple of flying leaps and now has to be opened with a shoehorn.
• Traumbot - my first functional bot, built from Nima's Prozacbot. When it's active in your channel, it appears as another user. If you type "!present", it will note that you are present at AHA!, appending your username, the date, and the time to a tab-delimited text file stored in my Dropbox. I can open up this file in Excel and see columns "user", "daet", and "tiem" with the relevant information. My next task is to rewrite Traumbot to make it sleeker and more extensible. Traumbot can also record people's fetishes (work-safe).

Traumbot is really "Traumbot ibn ibnGruem"... for a while, I named all the test bots according to the one they branched off of - hence, Merlinbot ibn Prozac, Grumbot ibn Merlin, [Presencebot] ibn Gruem, then this one. If you'd like to drop in and watch the testing, check out #merlinpanic on (a popular IRC server network).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Right now (or very soon), I'm presenting at the fourth Ignite (Ann Arbor). I'm probably nervous, so if you see this, please shout "FACE!" at me. It'll make me laugh, and that is always good. If you're not here, text me when you see me come on the live stream linked above! If lots of people do this, you may be able to see me twitch with shock :D

I've got the Ataritar with me onstage; it's the shiny black guitar-thing that isn't a guitar. (If you want details, scroll down!) The Angry Amp is also up here. I've also got the jankiest plug console that was ever janked together the night before a presentation, because I need to plug the Ataritar, a piezo, and my iPod into the Amp at different points. Grunge-tastic!

Should you wish to explore the diagrams later, you can download a PDF of my presentation here (I believe this dropbox will expire in 30 days).

And if you enjoyed this talk, you should heed my words and come to All Hands Active, the hackerspace located in Digital Ops on Liberty. Several of our own have given Ignite talks in the past, including (Matt) Oishi, Xander Honkala, Bilal Ghalib, and Anthony Oliver. You'll also be able to meet Pokey, whose tongue and ears can be seen in the presentation. Awesome people; awesome times.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ataritar - Part II

So! I finished a thing! And there wasn't even a looming event for which I had to complete it.
Video up on YouTube!

When we left off last time, the Atari Punk Console tone generator was mounted to my newly-customized electric guitar body. After that, I removed most of the guitar's original circuitry from the pickguard, leaving the switches and 1/4" mono jack. One of the switches became a simple on/off for the APC, while the other awaits some future adventure. (I may simply wire up another jack there, so that another instrument can be run into the amp simultaneously.)

Aww, baby pictures are the best.

Having removed the guitar's Tone and Volume knobs, I replaced them with the APC's two potentiometers - serendipitously spaced the perfect distance apart, still mounted to the console. (I used a Dremel and a hand rasp - quite possibly the least efficient tools possible - to grind away some wood so that the PCB would fit.)

The extra pot (which I still haven't entirely figured out) and button (to be removed, eventually) just got sort of shoved off to the side... but the 9V fits nicely into the top slot, tucked behind the pickguard.

I put magnets on the pickguard and body, so that the guts are easily accessible. One wire wraps around to the back...

...where it connects to the conductive tape. Here is the excellent secret of this instrument! It uses YOUR BODY as a replacement for one of the potentiometers, an idea I stole from the Drawdio. The APC has "touch" solder pads, which, when connected to some sort of variable resistor, replace one of the pots. I connected one pad to the conductive tape, and one to a loose wire that comes out of the guitar front. (This has since been prettied/practical'd up, with a washer and another magnet.) In order to vary the resistance, you hold the loose wire with your right hand and tighten/loosen your grip on a) the wire and b) the metal tape. The more surface contact with the metal, the better the conductance, and the higher the sound.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Ataritar - Part I

The Good People of AHA! went to Maker Faire Detroit. There were many misadventures along the way, but we got there, and I got to show people the cyborg juggling machine, Skate-Tar, goggles, Angry Amp, and (sorta) LED rope dart. Then, Mitch Altman and Jimmie Rodgers came to visit us, along with Matt Mets, MAKE's resident blogger and all-around excellent fellow. (Mitch and Jimmie were also awesome!) The night before their soldering workshop, we got together for beers at Grizzly Peak, a jam session including the unholy marriage of Skate-Tar and Jimmie's Atari Punk Console, and a photo battle.

Since then, some of us have been working on Roxanne, our beautiful all-in-one makerspace monitor/memory; I'm going to build her ears and pharynx. And she will come with us to the NYC Global Maker Faire in September. But my main project for now is the ATARITAR!

Atari Punk Console (APC), speaker replaced with 1/8" plug

Jimmie brought these into the space for the workshop; it's an audio tone generator, controlled by two potentiometers. I wanted one, but didn't want to buy a full kit, so I was going to order just the PCB... and then I discovered an unfinished one, consigned to a lonely drawer long ago. Goodtiems!

The APC is going to be mounted onto a stripped-down electric guitar body; the strings, tuning hardware, and pickups were removed some time ago. Here, you can see the back of the pickguard, which has a 1/4" mono jack, 2 pots (Volume and Tone), and two switches (for the absent pickups). I've replaced the wiring to one of the switches with a 1/8" jack, so that I can plug the APC in where a pickup would go, and at this point a 1/4" jack can run from the pickguard to my Angry Amp (not pictured). This allows me to run the APC through the guitar hardware to the amp. I hooked up a 1/4" jack to the other switch; in the picture above, the APC and Skate-Tar are both plugged into the guitar 'ware, running through to the amp. Interesting noises!

Next, I needed to cut down the pickguard to accommodate the addition of buttons and switches (being too lazy to drill holes). This was accomplished with wire cutters, tin snips, and a rasp. (A Dremel would've been much faster, but I was too lazy to get it out.)

I also added some hackerspace stickers; these are from Pumping Station: One and OmniCorp Detroit.

And some other things, including a button from kwartzlab (Ontario-place) and patch from the MakerCity Faire.

Finished pickguard! The silver Sharpie is just a fancy way to demarcate the "on" positions for the switches.

The next step was to make the APC a permanent attachment to the 'tar. I removed the 1/8" plug and extended wires between the pots and PCB. However, these weakened connections caused the sound to turn into horrible, high, dolphin-like noises. As I'm going for a more bass effect, this was not the proper direction for things to be going.

With much trepidation, I got the pots back onto the PCB, and it sounded good again.

At this point, I took a break from soldering to enhance the aesthetic qualities of the instrument. I took the stickers off (having multiples), and used this paint that I found in my room while searching for a plastic bag... serendipity! (Paint originally from the excellent David Lamb.)

Applied the paint in the women's bathroom at Digital Ops (the whale to AHA's remora, also the oldest multiplayer gaming facility in North America). This tends to be the place where we contain noxious fumes, loud noises, flying sparks, and so on...



The paint is beautiful and glossy, just as promised. I put on threeish coats and a touch-up layer.

And my AHA! name :)

Thus concludes Part I of the Ataritar Saga! Since these pictures were taken, I've managed to integrate the APC fully into the guitar body and added magnets and such. The next installment will contain an update on whatever variable resistor I manage to scrounge together.

Exciting! :D