Better late than never: the weekend in review.

Sep 10, 2008

While we didn't get hit by Hurricane Hannah, the DC metroplex certainly felt her wrath late Friday and all day Saturday. I don't want to say that it was raining cats and dogs but not long after waking up on Saturday morning I saw a squadron of squirrels wearing what appeared to be miniature SWAT gear high-tailing it through rain blowing at a forty-five degree angle toward a nondescript white van in the parking lot. Unfortunately, they've moved back in and are busily digging in the coffee and aloe vera plants on the balcony, Lyssa tells me.

I've had a little too much coffee today, does it show?

But seriously, monsoon season has come to DC and we felt it all day Saturday. Visibility was markedly reduced, the wind tore over the land and scattered what it could, and you could have gone bodysurfing in the field behind my apartment complex. Later in the day it took nearly an hour to drive to the local Microcenter outlet, normally a ten minute drive under good conditions. It wasn't humid, it wasn't cold, it was just wet. Windy and wet, which made it a fine day to stay indoors as much as possible taking care of the laundry list of stuff that needs to get done but somehow never is. You know what I'm talking about; run the sweeper or read another chapter; go through the catalogs on the kitchen table or watch a DVD. Due to the monsoon, Lyssa and Laurelinde got off to a late start. Lyssa's first wedding gown fitting was on Saturday afternoon and the weather seemed to put the kibosh on the trip, at least for a while. By the time I'd had breakfast, gotten my brain booted up, and showered, Laurelinde arrived and they'd taken off for parts unknown. For my part, I dug out my drover's coat and hat to ward off the rain and hit the highway to pick up a new backup drive for Leandra, along with a new cable for Lyssa's backup drive. I don't feel comfortable not having whole-system backups made (even with a RAID array) but hadn't had the money until recently to get an independently powered exterenal hard drive for this purpose. Also, the Western Digital Passport drives are nice, but one major problem they have is that they just don't spin up if the USB cable you plug them in with is too long for reasons I haven't determined yet. So, for Lyssa to back up her data I had to get a cable that she could keep plugged in all the time. What I wound up doing was buying a Seagate FreeAgent 500GB external drive and a retractable USB cable that was just long enough for Alphonse to register and mount the Passport drive for a good price, around $130us in total.

After returning home, I set the Seagate backup drive to formatting on Leandra, cleaned my old backups off of Lyssa's drive, and puttered around the house for a couple of hours, occasionally knocking the odd item off of my to-do list. The carpet was swept, random stuff around the apartment was picked up, and other such miniutia were dispensed with, interspersed with ten minutes of sorting pens here, a half hour of reading there, and ten minutes of checking e-mail elsewhere.

In short, it was a highly productive six hours of goofing off.

I tore into the leftovers in the fridge for dinner (and also freeing up some space in the process), watched a little television, and spent the rest of my evening working out in the living room, stretching out, and working on a handful of writing projects for the rest of the evening (which I'll eventually get around to posting). Lyssa and Laurelinde got back around 2300 EST5EDT on Saturday night; I went to bed shortly therafter.

Lyssa got me up around 1100 EST5EDT on Sunday morning, and after a quick shower and shave we hit the (thankfully dry and sunny) road to get the week's grocery shopping out of the way by way of Jerry's Deli on route 7 for breakfast. Much to our surprise, the food at Jerry's, even though there isn't much that one would really associate with breakfast, is very tasty, mostly organic, and even filling. The turkey wrap I had, for example, was, for all intents and purposes a perfect lunch, and got me through the entire day without looking back. Not only that, it's across the highway from our local Trader Joe's, so after lunch we were able to knock shopping off the list in record time.

After dropping Lyssa off at home and putting the groceries away I packed my gear in the back of the TARDIS and set course for the HacDC space to attend the brain machine building class held by Mitch Altman, a roving hardware hacker and inventor. As I wrote a couple of months ago, I'd started building one of his brain machine kits at The Last HOPE but didn't finish it for various reasons, so I took this as a prime opportunity to complete it. As I discovered, while I still remember how to solder from the days of yesteryear, I'm not very good at desoldering anymore. Namely, the quartet of LEDs I'd installed backwards at HOPE kept me from doing such important things as testing the circuitry. An hour's work with desoldering braid proved fruitless, but the desoldering iron on the table made short work of my goof-up, and inside of a few minutes I had everything put back in the right way 'round, powered up, and blinking merrily.

You know, I never could get my LEDs soldered in properly on the first try, even as a kid.

I managed to piece together the rest of the brain machine using Mitch's demo unit as a reference, testing every step of the way. To those of you who are interested in electronics but don't have any experience with building a kit, read through the instructions once or twice before you even plug in your soldering iron and, if they're not numbered, break the construction process into discrete steps. After ever major step, power up the circuit if possible and make sure that it works. For the brain machine, stop after you've got most of the components soldered down and the four red LEDs along the edge are installed, drop in the microcontroller chip, and apply power. If the LEDs don't start lighting up in sequence, something's wrong and you'll have to figure out where. This will save you a lot of headache and possibly having to un-do the last couple of steps to figure out what went wrong.

Like I did when attaching the circuitry to the goggles, in fact.

The kit I'd bought at The Last HOPE came with the microcontroller stuck to a small square of conductive foam to prevent static from damaging the delicate chip. This small square of conductive foam looked ideal for attaching the circuit board to one of the earpieces with a few squirts of hot glue. Unfortunately, conductive foam is also good for keeping a circuit from working because it will happily short connections on the board that shouldn't be connected. Oops.

Enter wire cutters to nibble the bits of foam from the PCB and glasses, another few squirts of hot glue, and everything fell right into place. The circuit powered up, the LEDs started blinking, and the microcontroller was programmed with the proper firmware from Mitch's laptop.

I haven't tried it with the headphones yet, though I'll probably do so later this evening. I will say that the beta wave synchronization pattern the brain machine runs gives some interesting visual effects after a minute or two (modulo over a decade of brain manipulation techniques; why didn't I take the handle MK-ULTRA, again?) and the visual patterns, insofar as my lovably synaesthetic sensorium are concerned, 'sound' like someone repeatedly picking G#, Bb, middle and low C, and F over and over again on a guitar. One gentleman at the space, upon trying the device, went white knuckled as he held onto his chair when the program started running.

The source code for the firmware is freely available from the Makezine article I linked to above; I'm thinking about hacking around with it to create a few new patterns, which I'll post here.

Mental note: research using microcontrollers in synthesizers.

Before heading out that afternoon, I picked up a few kits to take back with me (another brain machine for Laurelinde and a TV-B-Gone, just because) and stashed them in my doctor's bag (which has become my HacDC field kit) and helped a couple of people working on their kits. Due to the fact that there weren't any printed instructions and my .pdf copy of same was corrupted (how did I manage that?) we were relying on Mitch's instructions and peering at the finished unit he had. When I had my brain machine assembled and working I helped a few people with their own projects, and during wrap-up helped clean up and organize the equipment (we were in the church's dining room, down in the basement, rather than the HacDC space itself).

While standing around talking with Mitch, I posed an interesting question to him: how difficult would it be to build a TV-B-Gone into a tube a little less than an inch in diameter? Yes, I'm considering building one into my steampunk sonic screwdriver (update on that to come).. Mitch has built one into the bill of a ballcap, which he's used to wreak havoc at appliance outlets, but the circuit board is still about two square inches in size. I pondered using a Dremel to pare away as much of the unused PCB as I could, but upon closer inspection it wouldn't have been possible due to how densely packed the traces are.

I talked it over with Mitch for a while, who then showed me some of the microcontroller-based light/position hacks he built, which are little more than a microcontroller chip, a socket for same, and a small number of discrete components soldered directly onto the pins of the socket; the whole thing rides on the back of a coin cell battery. "You could always build it without the PCB at all," he remarked.

I won't be able to use a coin cell for power, and in fact I'd be hurting for space inside the brass pipe due to the wiring of the screwdriver bit, but I think that I could pull it off. I might even be able to draw from the same power cells as the UV LEDs and sound generator. But that's going to have to wait a bit.