Archive for March, 2012

Adventures in Technology

31 March 2012

electronic nightmare

“Technology” is any organized way of accomplishing something. Making coffee has a technology. Fixing a broken leg has a technology. Freeing a being has a technology.

Humans on earth have specialized in the adventure of trying to control MEST (Matter, Energy, Space and Time – the physical creations of the non-physical spirit world).

And I am no exception.

I offer the photograph above as an illustration of this adventure. And if it looks more like a nightmare, that’s how I titled this photo!

Finding a correct Why

When there are errors in applying a technology, repair is required to obtain the desired result. You can’t repair something until you locate the reason why it isn’t working as you expected.

For example, the display was quite dim when the input signal wasn’t stable. Though this is expected, I wanted to make it as bright as possible to reduce this problem. I thought that the device I was using to power the display wasn’t capable of delivering enough juice to make it brighter, so I spent a lot of time modifying the thing to boost the display driver current. Though this was probably a good idea, it did not result in a brighter display.

Then I remembered that the display current is limited by a component connected to another device. I looked up the datasheet for that device, and calculated what the value of that component should be. Sure enough, the value in my circuit was way off. Fixing this did brighten the display somewhat. I could probably get it brighter, but I don’t want to push it too far. These components all have maximum ratings that can’t be exceeded without risk of device failure.

With the brighter display, I was able to notice that there was high frequency noise at the input. I didn’t try to fix this. It is probably due to poor “shielding,” but until I try to fix it, I won’t know for sure.

Remaining unresolved situations

A “situation” as the greatest departure from the ideal scene.

Departures from my ideal scenes bother me. Do they bother you, too? Probably so.

If you’re like me, you spend rather large amounts of time trying to handle situations, or at least discover handlings for situations.

Real handlings are based on correct whys. Fake handlings are based on wrong whys. We have a lot of fake handlings going down on earth today. Because we have a lot of wrong whys.

I sometimes wish the public were more impatient! Maybe more outcry would result in more correct whys found. However, by observation and experience, outcry more often results in more wrong whys dreamed up. This would tend to indicate out-ethics among those responsible for coming up with good handlings for all the various situations. I suppose all this apparent ineffectiveness could be due to stupidity and ignorance. But when you think about it, those are basically forms of out-ethics, too.

In my personal world I try to invent games that I can sometimes win at. But in the world at large, I don’t have this choose-all-your-own-games option. At least, not yet. I must find a way to sell something I can produce for money that I can use to obtain enough goodwill in society to stay alive. And even then, it’s an iffy proposition.

I have this electronic art idea. But I don’t have many products from this idea that I consider salable. I have my skills and interest in ordinary electronics. But the market for these seems limited. Odd, as we are an almost totally electronic society. But production of our devices has become extremely automated. And what must be done by hand is accomplished by low-paid factory workers in the “developing world” (read: former colonies, or wish they were).

The price of optimism

Who in this society has the idea that we could possibly make it through these times freer and more prosperous than ever before? There are, actually, quite a few such people. And they are almost universally derided from the peanut gallery of braying asses, composed mostly of people who are simply too out-ethics to be optimistic.

Other than that, I don’t find that optimism has many liabilities. If you have to die and get reborn for hundreds of times, why not be optimistic about it? I mean: there’s always the chance you could find a correct why and make some real progress towards handling one of our many beefy planetary situations.

So I must tip my hat to the other optimists out there.

There are a lot of sincere voices out there that are not optimistic. And that, itself, is a situation! It suggests that a lot of these very able beings have been unduly influenced by the suppression they are trying to understand and outwit. Well: At least they haven’t totally given up yet.

All you need is a few correct whys to cheer you up.

My Work – An Illustrated Introduction

15 March 2012


I am an artist. My medium is electronics.

I don’t mean to sound ostentatious; it took me a long time to come to this conclusion. I’m 57 now and I’ve been working in electronics for 40 years. It was less than a year ago that I finally realized I was basically making art with it.

Inventing a new paradigm

Usually a person who works in electronics is an engineer or a technician. I was the latter. I worked at this for about 5 years in the late 1970s. For most of that time, I was an “engineering technician.” That means I helped engineers in the lab develop their designs. They have software for that now. I also did testing, calibration and repair. Most of my work involved measurement and control (example: biofeedback equipment).

After leaving the Sea Org in December of 2008, I wanted to get back into electronics. But I couldn’t find a technician job. And I didn’t have any money to re-stock my lab, or even to build equipment myself from scratch. I was looking for an electronics surplus store where I might be able to find cheap old stuff. But all such stores in the Seattle area had closed, and the ones online didn’t seem that cheap. Then I found out about used electronics.

People have been using electronic equipment – computers, audio equipment, commercial equipment – for 30 years since I last worked in the field. And the technology has been upgraded repeatedly during that time. The result: Electronic junk. This isn’t “surplus.” This is stuff destined for the dustbin. Lots of people were just throwing it away. But the environmentalists had a problem with that. Electronic equipment contains hazardous substances like lead and mercury. And it contains all sorts of useful metals, and plastics that should be recycled. So electronics shouldn’t be thrown out; it should be recycled. In the Seattle area, I found two forms of electronics recycling right next to each other on 6th Ave in SODO. One was the Goodwill Outlet, where they attempt to resell thrown out electronics to folks who might have some use for it, and the other was RePC, which specializes in repairing and reselling old computers, and also resells lots of “junk” – mostly computer-related.

I started visiting these places regularly, looking for good deals on used equipment. The best deals were at Goodwill. But they make more money selling used clothes, so they have been getting out of reselling electronics. RePC has become my mainstay. And as I picked out bits that looked interesting or useful, I developed a new way of working with electronics.

One piece I found early on illustrates this. It was an AC power control box. It controlled power to 8 outlets, apparently responding to a radio, or otherwise remote, control signal. This box cost me about $10. It included a beautiful aluminum rackmount chassis, costing about $50 new; the outlets ($1.50 each); a bunch of 12volt relays ($2 each); a power transformer ($5) and a bunch of electronics. I decided to leave the outlets in place, add some switches from Radio Shack, and make myself a deluxe outlet strip with a multi-voltage DC supply in the back.

power box

Exploring the paradigm

My next find was an old Heathkit vacuum tube voltmeter (VTVM – illustrated above) with a damaged meter faceplate. You don’t need vacuum tubes to make a good voltmeter any more, so I took them all out and replaced them with some cheap opamps. It’s not perfect, but it’s part of my bench equipment. It has gone through a variety of design changes since the original modification.

In this way, I acquired many pieces of junk equipment and used panels, controls, and other parts from them, and created new equipment of my own invention. Below is a more recent example using the front panel and mixer from an old PA amplifier plus a lot of other junk parts to put together a box I can use to experiment with resonant circuits (sine wave oscillators).

resonator project

In doing this work, a few basics became clear:

1. You need an enclosure for your work. If you don’t have that, the project hangs out all over the place, the way this one does. In this case, I wanted the internal parts accessible. But normally, you would not want that.
2. No need to build power supplies. In the resonance project, I cobbled together a power supply out of spare parts I had laying around. But when switching power supplies are available as used power adapters for $3 each, why mess around with power supply design?
3. Scrap plastic works better than scrap metal for secondary structural elements. Scrap aluminum is hard to find, and scrap steel is too hard to work. I found a supplier of scrap plastic (about $3 a pound) which provides a material that is very machinable, a good electrical insulator, and strong enough to use in electronic equipment.
4. Some parts are worth salvaging and some are easier to buy. I buy resistors, transistors, bypass capacitors, project boards, shrink tube, and mounting hardware. I try to salvage the rest from junk equipment. I have gotten most of my power semiconductors, for instance, from old power supplies and audio amplifiers. And I get most of my connectors from junk computers and audio gear.
5. Parts data gotten from the internet is crucial to enable one to design new circuits using used parts. I totally rely on a site called “datasheetcatalog” to find out what the parts I salvage are and what they are capable of.

Can this be art?

The jury is still out on that question.

But it was clear to me that I was basically engaged in an artistic endeavor. Unless you want to dismiss it as a mere “hobby” there was no other way to describe it.

I had started some websites around the concept of me being a web designer and programmer. I extended those to include my work with junk electronics.

Certain basic elements that we think of as “artistic” are present in this work. You have color. The parts and wires come in all sorts of colors. Some are even color-coded.

green and yellow leds

The little module above is made mostly of LEDs salvaged from a piece of network equipment. The problem color is the project board. It would work better as a dark blue. Instead, I have to live with this ugly color of phenolic board. Sometimes I find glass-epoxy boards that I can re-use. They are green or blue – more aesthetic. However, when this board is lit up, the LED colors become the focal point.

Here is a little project stuffed into a black plastic box. When the cover is on, the LEDs are covered with a blue plastic lens, and you can only see them when they shine. I prefer panels that allow a person to see some of the internal parts.

blue spots innards

I found a foam pad a Goodwill Outlet once. I thought maybe I could use the pad. It was a heat/massage pad designed to be sat on and operated using a little hand control. I took all the hardware out of this pad and found a bunch of motors that operate as vibrators. You can see two of them mounted on the back of this project. It’s the first test version of the idea I had for what to do with these motors. They are used here to demonstrate the interaction of two things trying to vibrate the same object at different rates. In this case, the object is a mirror (I had originally envisioned doing this project with sound). The mirror reflects a red laser beam onto a nearby wall. And when the motors are running, that gives you a projected light pattern that shows the interaction between the two frequencies.

back of vibrating mirror

In this project, I made the whole frame out of scrap plastic. This is unusual, but I couldn’t find an appropriate used enclosure for it. I had extra mirror plastic, so I made the control panel with it, too.

front of vibrating mirror

This project, and some others I was working on, got me interested in the best way to drive small DC motors. I made a little “wand” (below) that uses a simple switching technique that provides somewhat better speed control that a rheostat. This project also illustrates the re-use of a green glass-epoxy board.

dc motor controller wand

The future

Will this type of work become a fad? I’d certainly like to be paid to do it.

But perhaps it lacks that certain flair that people expect from “art.”

We’ll see. Perhaps I will be driven by necessity back into bookkeeping or conventional engineering.

I know my heart will always lie in inventing my own stuff, though. It’s fun.