compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Hi all,

Many apologies if you wanted to come and see me perform on Saturday at the Analog Ladies event in SF. As most of you probably know already if you read my previous post, I’m about hald way through my notice period as I leave NASA and go to work at Google. One of my projects, a space camera for the SOAREX-9 spacecraft, is running late so I need to work through the weekend so I can deliver it in time for launch. It’s not my fault it’s late, but launch deadlines are what they are, so needs must.

I can say with absolute truthfulness that I will not miss this kind of last minute crazy, but a part of me will miss it forever.

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Hi all,

I’m sending this out via my blog because it’s probably the quickest way to reach everyone. Today I just accepted a job at the Google Mountain View campus working in the Security and Privacy Group.

This is… kind of huge. The money and benefits are way better, but the reason I’m really making the move is that I’ve found it harder and harder to deliver on projects in recent times due to ever-tightening budget restrictions and negligible support in terms of access to resources. I’m looking forward to working on new interesting problems that have more of a direct impact on people’s lives — the group I’ll be joining, amongst other things, has the job of keeping our email out the of the hands of people we’d rather not have reading it, as well as doing a lot of other stuff to protect privacy. Kind of the sharp end of the not-being-evil bit, I think.

My last day at Ames will be January 21st. I’ll be starting at Google on the 25th — first week will be all the usual Noogler orientation stuff. And yes, apparently, I really do get a hat with a propeller on it.

This is all pretty difficult to wrap my head around. It’s been 10 years, more than twice longer than any other job I’ve ever had (not counting the various inter-contractor transfers).

Boggle. I can’t really believe I just pressed send on the bunch of emails telling people I’m leaving.

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compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Hi folks,

Many thanks are due to Maria Vorontsova, who kindly gave me a copy of my old album, Element 115, which dates to the late 1980s. I’m intending releasing it via the usual iTunes/Spotify/Google Play/whatever route, but I want to do some mastering on it first. In the mean time, here are some (unmastered) mixes from the depths of digital time to keep you going.

There’s also a previously unreleased remix I did (with permission) for the folk god, Martin Carthy. Well… if you ask me to remix a folk track, you should expect the results to be a bit off-kilter. Anyway, here it is:

For the nerdy out there, the synth you hear on the album is mostly a Korg Z1, with a few things from my old Ensoniq SQ-80. The Martin Carthy remix was done entirely using Symbolic Sound’s Kyma.

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Lexicon Vortex

This here thingummy is a Lexicon Vortex. It’s a rather rare effects processor dating to the late ’80s/early ’90s. The chips in this seem to indicate that mine is roughly 93 vintage. I bought it as not working, sans power supply. The eBay listing said that it wasn’t working and that one of the knobs made the numbers change wildly on the display, and the level knob was scratchy.

The power supply issue was annoying — it requires a 9V AC supply, something rather rare. I was fishing around online looking for one, then noticed I actually had one. Sitting on my lab bench. D’oh. Anyway, I plugged it in and everything lit up. The level knob was indeed scratchy, but about 5 minutes of turning it back and forth fixed that. As for the other fault, it was a simple case of the person who had it previously not actually reading the manual. It had me confused briefly, long enough to actually take the thing apart and put it back together again (I wanted to check the caps anyway, so that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it).

So it seems I have a fully working thing, at maybe a 5th of the going rate. It’s in pretty good condition for its age — near mint.

As for what it sounds like… It’s basically a bit like a delay/chorus/early reflections/random delay kind of thing, but with some rather odd weirdness thrown in. I can’t say it sounds exactly like anything else. A bit dark and dirty, maybe. Right up my street, actually! It occurs to me that it would be interesting to patch this inline with a more conventional reverb or delay to dirty up the tail and add a bit of interest.

Next repair is going to be a DBX 160A compressor that needs a couple of replacement switches, once they arrive from Harman.

In other news, the studio build is going, albeit slowly. I have nearly everything I need now, barring some cables that I have on order that should be here next week. I have a large box sitting there containing half a dozen 16 way TRS snakes and a vast quantity of TRS patch cables and another box containing 16 TRS to XLR female and another 16 TRS to XLR male, various MIDI cables, etc. One disappointment was I was hoping to use a couple of Behringer Ultrapatch Pro patchbays, which are really well made actually, but on testing them they turned out to not be TRS, i.e., they are unbalanced only, so I had to order a couple more Nady PB48 patchbays instead. I think I should have a total of 6, which is probably enough for all the gear. I think, if I’ve counted properly.

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#Electronics, #MoMBlog, #MusicGear, #Recording
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Hi folks.

Tonight I had a bit of determination come upon me, so I decided to have a go at a couple of fixes on two newly acquired pieces of studio gear: an Ensoniq DP Pro and a Yamaha SPX 900. Both are digital reverb/multi-effects processors at the middle-end of the market for their time. Both are long obsolete, but they (now) work great and I’m happy to have them.

OK, so first up was the SPX 900. This was an easy one — just a dead battery. Like most pieces of studio gear from that era, this device uses battery backed static RAM to store user configuration information and patches, so when that battery dies, usually after about 15-20 years, it’s time for a new one.

Yamaha SPX 900

Popping the lid off shows some admittedly fairly old technology, but this thing is built like a tank. Surprisingly, the power supply on the left appears to be linear — no switching regulators in sight! Badass. Anyway, it just took a couple of minutes to desolder the battery (you can see it as an orange ring with a silver center on the bottom right) and solder in a replacement.

SPX 900 Display

On power-up, the first time I got a message saying that memory corruption had been detected (well, duh), then on a second power cycle it just came up fine straight to patch 1, like it’s supposed to. Before the battery swap, it was giving a battery low warning on power up. It didn’t have any user patches in it that I cared about, so I didn’t bother saving them (e.g. via MIDI sysex) or doing something heroic with a lab power supply.

Next up was an Ensoniq DP Pro. I just got it a couple of days ago — it was seemingly working, but the LEDs on the left of the front panel didn’t seem to be doing anything, nor did the 4 digit 7 segment display. I did a minor gulp when the person who sold it to me mentioned that he’d had his tech replace the battery  — this always makes me worry, because I’ve had way more beyond-economic-repair situations caused by hamfisted repair attempts than actual failures. True to form, on investigation, someone had made like a gorilla with a couple of ribbon cables that normally go between the main board and a 2 board stack that includes all the displays that weren’t working (bottom left on the disassembled view). Not only had they ripped them out, they just tucked the damned things in so it looked like they were connected. ‘Ere, it just came off in me ‘and, Guv. Anyway, after a bit of faffy taking the front panel assembly apart so I could get at the connectors, it seemed that the fine pitch ribbon connectors did look slightly damaged, but they did still work. Similarly, the cables had seen better days, but did work fine once I reassembled everything.

Ensoniq DP Pro internals

Yaay, lighty up blinkenlightythings!

DPPro display fix

Anyway, a quick word about these two processors. I must say, they both punch above their weight. The SPX-900 really does feel like the classic SPX-90 on steroids — a much cleaner sound, though not quite as buttery smooth as a REV-5. Many more algorithms, though, including a couple that are heading toward Eventide’s Black Hole algorithm. The reverbs are typically Yamaha, not as colored as those from something like a Lexicon or quite as weird as an Eventide, but very usable indeed. The DP Pro was a bit of a surprise — it really is excellent. I’d put its sound as being somewhere between a Lexicon and an Eventide, in the sense that it sounds good and dense, but it’s capable of plenty of batshit. It has a dual algorithm structure, where the algorithms can be set up to work in series or in parallel, rather like an Eventide Eclipse. I think this thing is an unheard-of classic waiting to happen, so I’m glad I got my hands on one before someone famous decides they are cool.

Fixing things always cheers me up — I’ve no idea why. :-)

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#MoMBlog, #MusicGear, #Recording
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Rather than waiting for the next album to come along, here’s the first track I’ve completed in a long while, here goes nothing:

Much more chilled out and even (gasp, dare I say it) New Agey than my previous work. I hope you like it. If you do, please share!

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

I was wondering whether to actually post about this or not, but like it or not, I think I pretty much have to do so.

I’m not exactly sure what caused this most recent transphobic crapstorm, but I suspect it was most likely the ugly defeat of the City of Houston’s HERO ballot measure. This was a right-wing photo opportunity for hate groups to openly walk around wearing T-shirts emblazoned with their transphobic crapulence. Not entirely surprisingly, the ballot measure was defeated. Let’s keep this in perspective: this was one city, admittedly a relatively progressive one, within a sea of good old boys, guns, oversized trucks and Confederate flags. This should really be an object lesson in exactly why it is that civil rights should not be decided by the popular vote, because as with so many similar cases in the past, all this proves is that the majority of people who can be whipped up sufficiently to rise from their pools of acquiescence to actually vote are mostly bigots.

Following shortly thereafter, a disgusting poll on (no, I’m not linking it here because it doesn’t need my contribution to its Google page rank) went up that was exhorting major LGBT organizations to drop the T, becoming specifically LGB groups and explicitly excluding transgender people. I strongly suspect that its proposer is a right-wing sock puppet, but there are plenty of queer bigots out there so this may not necessarily be the case. This is really beyond belief. Trans people have had a long history of being in the front line of the fight for queer rights — we don’t get to hide or slink back into the woodwork like so many cisnormative LGBs, so for us all-too-often we have to fight or die, in many cases literally. The T has always been the poor cousin of the LGBT world — personally I don’t have much to do with lesbian and gay events because frankly so many people can be total bastards to trans people within those communities, so it just isn’t worth the risk in return for any meager benefit. I’m seeing lots of TERF language showing up — members of the T community have ‘different concerns’ than those of the LGB community, so we’re better off separate. BULL FUCKING SHIT. So what if we have different concerns? Lesbians and gay men have different concerns, so why wouldn’t they prefer to part ways? The hidden agenda here isn’t so much that they want to kick out the T. They want to disenfranchise the people who check more than one box — people who are both transgender and lesbian, gay or bisexual are really the people they want rid of. Why? Quite simply because they are transphobic bigots who don’t want nasty icky trans people anywhere near them, or (particularly) calling them out on their bigotry.

I am over, seriously over, commentary from people who want the T people out saying that, ‘we stand for trans people, but we want our own separate space from them.’ Yeah, right. As I said previously, BULL FUCKING SHIT. What you really don’t want is to confront your own bigotry, it’s really that simple. ‘Oh, I’m not a bigot, I find it really upsetting to be called a bigot, all I want is .’ BULLSHIT. If you hate trans people, at least have the fucking decency to admit to it. Maybe there should be a symbol, or a particular way of dressing you might want to adopt so we can easily spot you and avoid the hell out of you — you don’t want us anywhere near you, so why not?

In the pagan community, a number of elders recently publicly supported the kick-out-the-T measure. Aline O’Brien (aka Macha Nightmare), Ruth Barrett and Luisah Teish all signed the kick-out-the-T petition. Macha Nightmare has subsequently backpedaled and is now claiming that she disavows the petition, though I’m given to wonder why the hell she even thought for one second that signing it in the first place was any way appropriate. Luisah Teish is also backpedaling in her own not-actually-apologizing kind of way. Ruth Barrett is doubling down and crying victim, just like she always has. There has been quite a bit of discussion about whether or not these people deserve to be regarded as Pagan elders as a consequence. I find this a little ridiculous, because realistically eldership really just means that you happen to have a number of students and/or friends and followers who regard you as an elder, which is clearly the case for all of these people. None of them are my elders, and they will have my respect when hell freezes over.

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#QueerofSwords, #TransgenderActivism
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Over the last couple of years or so I’ve equipped a pretty decent electronics lab for cents on the dollar relative to how much ‘real people’ would spend — I’m now having a go at doing the same thing for building a hopefully pretty decent home studio setup for music production purposes.

More than one person has asked me how I manage to do this — I’ve picked up some truly ridiculous bargains — so I must be doing something right.

  1. Stop being nice. The first word of advice I’ll give is forget about notions of fairness or niceness. You don’t need to rip anyone off or steal anything from anyone. A trade on eBay is entirely fair because both sides have to agree. If you’re selling, a higher price is good, if you’re buying, a lower price is what you’re looking for, so don’t feel ashamed about that. It’s a game, it’s how the game is played, like it or not. Get over yourself. Look at it like this — you want to create a capability for yourself. It might be you want to build out your wood shop or machine shop, or build yourself a kickass gaming PC, or extend your Star Wars action figure collection. You have $X to spend. If you spend that like a real person and buy new, you might get 3 things for $X. If you buy used, you might get 10. But if you’re a true bottom-feeder, you might get 30 to 100. That’s getting on for two orders of magnitude leverage on $X — it’s not so much that you’ll save money, you probably won’t because if you’re like me you’re going to spend $X anyway — but what you get for your money will be drastically different.

  2. Do your homework. Make sure you know a fair bit about the thing you’re trying to buy. There are several reasons for this, but the biggest reason why people spend way more than they need to is just not having spent enough time figuring out what constitutes a reasonable price to pay for a particular item.

  3. Don’t be in a hurry. You might have decided that you want to buy a new keyboard. You’ve always had a hankering for a Yamaha DX7 Mk II, and nothing else will do. If that’s what you want, go for it, but use the techniques below to help you figure out how to get one (much) cheaper than you otherwise might. If you must must must have one right now, know that you’re probably going to spend 50% – 100% more than you probably need to. If you have the attitude that you want one some time in the next 2 to 3 months instead, you can wait for a better price to come up.

  4. Be flexible. Say, for example, that you want to buy a particular machine tool. You kind of want a particular De Walt, or some such, but something roughly equivalent from another brand is also acceptable. This greatly increases the pool of potential deals, which purely by statistics pushes down the price you’re likely to need to pay. If you want to be a super-duper bottom feeder, you might once every day or two look at every listing in a broad category, giving you the chance to snap up something you might not otherwise have thought of picking up right now for an insanely low price. It’s also usually worth the risk buying extremely cheap stuff from China — I’ve hardly ever had problems and saved a ton on money this way. Beware of fakes, however, and don’t buy anything that would be a serious problem or even a hazard to you if it either failed to materialize or turned out to be defective.

  5. Getting the best out of auctions. Not all eBay items are actually auctions — those that are accept bids up until a deadline, whereupon the highest bidder (assuming you’ve exceeded the reserve price) will get the deal. This kind of transaction is often the best way to get a really good deal, but it’s also an easy way to spend a buttload of money you don’t really need to if you don’t do your homework or (more typically) you get caught up in having to beat another bidder and let the price go too high. The trick here is always snipe. My advice is work out exactly what the most you’d pay for a thing would be, then bid that amount with about 5 seconds to go before the end of the auction. This has several advantages — most usefully, it avoids bidding wars, so you’re never tempted to bid higher because someone beat you, and it also avoids encouraging other people to start outbidding each other. You want to avoid pushing the price up, obviously, so this is the best way to do that. Also, only bidding your maximum has the advantage that you will lose the deal if the price goes up beyond an amount that would constitute a good deal for you.

  6. Look for auctions that end at stupid times. Trust me, you stand a way higher chance of winning a last second snipe bid if your potential competitors are in bed asleep. I bought a digital mixing console (Yamaha 02r) for $56 this way. Yes, fifty six dollars, an order of magnitude under the going rate.

  7. Add 1. This sounds stupid, but always add $1 to your bid price. This is basic psychology — people tend to bid in multiples of 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, etc. If you add $1, that means that the three people who bid $100 will be beaten by your $101 last-second snipe and you’ll win the deal.

  8. Look for Buy-it-now or Best Offer. I have a personal liking for buy-it-now trades because they are quick and don’t require sniping, so the trick here is to search for the thing you want, sorted by price + shipping lowest first. Try to find a lower priced item with Best Offer enabled and just basically shamelessly lowball them. It’s amazingly common to find someone just say yes if they are desperate to make the deal. You have the opportunity to add a comment — now’s the time to exploit some mentioned failing (e.g., a big scratch, missing power supply, whatever) to push the price down.

  9. Look for recently listed Buy it Now at below-market prices. Very occasionally someone will list a buy-it-now item stupidly cheap. You can pretty much guarantee that some other bottom feeder will want it, so the trick is to get in early and act fast. You can do this by spamming a search looking for items as they are added — this works well if you are looking at items across a broad category. If you want something very specific, learn to create a query that will automatically email you when something is listed below the price you want to pay — when that email arrives, jump on eBay immediately and hit Buy it Now. I picked up a current model LeCroy differential amplifier in mint condition, new price nearly $6000 for $300 this way. I have no idea why it was listed at that price, and frankly didn’t care. It’s in my lab now.

  10. Learn the query language. The eBay search box has quite a bit of hidden functionality. You can, for example, use a query like, ‘(hp, tektronix, lecroy, fluke) (oscilloscope, spectrum analyzer, dynamic signal analyzer, DSA) -manual -spare -calibration’ to show you all the oscilloscopes, spectrum analyzers and DSAs listed that are made by HP, Tektronix, LeCroy or Fluke, whilst filtereing out spammy listings for manuals, spare parts and calibration services. In conjunction with stored queries that email you when they get a hit, this is true magic.

  11. Search for lots/multiple packs, etc. Many people skip over listings for multiples of something if they only want to buy one. This can be the very best stunt ever, because sometimes you can end up with 6 of something for less than you’d normally pay for 1. You can then sell off 5 of them, so you end up with the thing you wanted and a profit.

  12. Buy broken things. This option is best if you have a capability of fixing things either yourself or at low cost. Often, items will sell at a fraction of their usual eBay trade price if there is something wrong with them. This is the other really huge route to cost saving. Read the listing very carefully. Often, you find things listed as ‘can’t test’ because the person selling it knows little or nothing about it and is listing it as parts-or-not-working because they don’t want problems. ‘Powers up but now way to test’ or ‘Missing power supply, can’t test’ is music to my ears. Also, if you do your homework and know the usual failure modes of a particular item, having one up for sale presenting those symptoms is a sure bet because you can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be able to fix it at a known cost. I’ll often Google for the service manual for a device before I bid on it so that I know I’ll be able to fix it. Some manufacturers are really good with that — Yamaha are awesome, as were HP and Tektronix in the older days. Others, e.g. TC Electronic, suck hugely and don’t even release schematics, so I’m much more careful. If you’re going to buy something broken, it’s wise to bear in mind that, if you can’t fix it, you might be wanting to resell it, so try to pay below-market (even for a broken item) if you possibly can so you end up not losing (much) money. I’ve been pretty lucky with this — of everything I’ve bought (easily over 100 items of lab gear, shop equipment and music gear), I’ve only ever had a couple of lemons, but it’s always worth being realistic that if you’re going to adopt the Way of the Cheapass, sometimes your eBay-fu will fail you.

I hope this helps, and good luck cheapassing your way to success! 😉

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#Electronics, #MoMBlog, #Recording, #TestGear
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Yamaha REV-5Thanks to the wonders of eBay bottom-feeding, I’ve welcomed home an old friend this weekend. It’s a slightly beaten up but fully working Yamaha REV-5 digital reverb of late 1980s vintage. It’s not one of the better known or most sought after reverbs from that period — for that you’re looking at a Lexicon, probably a PCM70 or PCM80, but the REV-5 is an overlooked gem in my not so humble opinion. It’s a truism that everyone hates everything on the internet, so you can find plenty of people dissing this particular device, but I think this is inappropriate.

Back when I had my for-real studio in the late ’80s, a REV-5 was my main reverb, with a couple of SPX-90s and an Alesis as backup. For the uninitiated, the REV-5 is a bit like an SPX-90 on steroids — much, much cleaner sounding and capable of being dialed up to super-dense or down to being very thin. It does all the things you’d want of a high-end reverb, realistically. You can dial in early reflections separately from the reverb tail, with direct control over the first three initial reflections. You can edit the amount of diffusion, and dial between a very even sounding (Yamaha-ish) tail and a more coloured Lexicon-ish tail. It can also do most of the SPX-90 tricks like chorus, flanging, symphonic, delays, gated and reverse reverbs, pitch shifting, etc., but at far higher audio quality. The front panel has a 3-band parametric (peaking, fixed Q, variable frequency) EQ that makes it trivial to fiddle with the frequency response. The user interface adds a lot more buttons relative to the SPX series, making it possible to directly enter parameters. You can also get one-button access to the 7 most commonly used factory or user patches.

I got change out of $100 for this thing. Just as the turn of the ’90s was the right time to buy analog synths, right now is the right time to build up a collection of rack gear as all of the larger old-skool studios are closing and/or shifting over to in-the-box or hybrid ProTools setups. I doubt the recording world will flip back to the old days of large consoles, but I have a gut feeling that as more and more people (like me, as it happens) have tried a heavily in-the-box approach for a while, they will want to go back to using more hardware.

I have to admit that part of this is because of bit rot. If you have an in-the-box recording setup, you’re stuck with the computer industry’s obsolescence cycle, so you can expect your investment to be largely obsolete within 5 years and probably completely unusable in 10. However, here I am fiddling around with a nearly 30 year old rack mount reverb unit that not only works perfectly but sounds better than just about any plugin-based reverb I’ve used.

I’m not really entirely buying the whole analog summing thing — though it may make a (very) small difference in some cases, I don’t really subscribe to the idea that it’s a good idea to drop a ton of money on something you can barely hear. Far better to spend that on something you really can hear, which is why ancient outboard gear is such a steal right now, particularly if you’re looking to avoid sounding exactly like everyone else with a copy of Ableton Live and NI Massive.

PS: I still want a Lexicon PCM70 or PCM 80. The eBay bottom feeding continues…

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compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

vinyl-vs-cdYeah, yeah, I know. It’s PC vs Mac all over again. This has been a bugbear of mine for years. I’ll come on to that, but for now, here’s a link to an LA Times article by Chris Kornelis that I think does a really good job at talking about this issue, including some lesser-known history:

Why CDs may actually sound better than vinyl

Go and read the article. It’s actually pretty good.

I’ve talked about this previously elsewhere, most recently on Quora. For the can’t-bother-to-click-challenged, here’s a cut & paste of the text of my reply:

You are actually asking the wrong question. You should really be asking which of vinyl or digital formats have the best mastering engineers. From experience, that would be the vinyl. They have to be, mostly because vinyl is actually pretty awful by default. It has relatively poor dynamic range, poor stereo separation, difficulties representing low frequencies accurately, the list goes on. If the engineer gets it wrong when cutting the master, the stylus on a record player can distort or even completely jump out of a groove. They have to match the track spacing to the amount of bass signal, or adjacent tracks bleed into each other. Signal to noise ratio isn’t particularly good either — it’s a little better than consumer/prosumer tape, but nowhere near as good as half inch 30ips, and nowhere even vaguely close to 24 bit digital. Contrary to what another poster said, phase response is weird going on awful because of the precompensation filtering that is necessary to get any bass response at all. On the other hand, most digital formats have pretty good phase response, an essentially completely flat frequency response and if you are using decent equipment, very little coloration of any kind. Technically, any way you compare the formats, digital wins by a huge margin. So why does vinyl often sound better, with better stereo imaging, warmer livelier sound? Quite simply because mastering for digital does not require anything like the skill of mastering for vinyl. A really good mastering engineer can turn a good mix into something that sounds truly amazing — there are mastering engineers who can do digital really well, but they are rare. Vinyl mastering engineers, in many cases, are true masters of their art, no pun intended.

It was interesting seeing the reference to Bob Clearmountain complaining of the awfulness of vinyl, back in the day. My own experience was pretty similar to his — I remember having to tweak and tweak and tweak on mixes to keep bass under control. I’d start with something earthshaking in the studio’s control room, but end up sending out a master that was at best describable as polite. It’s fascinating, now, seeing that CD is essentially in its death throes as a format with vinyl doing better and better numbers year on year. I wouldn’t rule out doing vinyl again, but, do I have to? Really? Such a pain in the ass!

One modifier on this: I’m really talking about uncompressed digital formats here. Though higher bit rate MP3 and MP3-like formats sound fine to me, lower bit rate MP3 encodings can sound really, really bad on some material. The acid test is something with sharp clicks — low bit rate MP3 renders them as really brief farts. Pff! Pff! Or sometimes ffP! ffP! ffP!, which can be a little more distracting.

In other news, I just picked up (very cheaply via eBay) an Akai MPC 1000 drum machine. I knew it had some issues, but it looks like I’ll need to do a pretty extensive refurb on it to get it going. It’s missing a fader knob, has a damaged switch (which still works, but is wonky), another that is sticky like someone spilled something into it, and seemingly most of the pads are either dead or so worn that I just about have to karate-punch them to get them to respond. Thanks to, I have a replacement pad sensor board, a set of replacement pads (modified to be more sensitive than standard), a replacement switch assembly for the broken one, and a couple of replacement fader knobs on the way. I also have (from elsewhere) a RAM upgrade on the way, and will probably put JJOS on it. The other thing that just showed up is a JL Cooper SMPTE linear timecode sync box, so I’ll most likely be trying that out over the weekend. My quest for timing that doesn’t suck continues!

PS: Yes, it’s my birthday today. And International Talk Like a Pirate day. Y’arr, maties!

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#Electronics, #Mastering, #MoMBlog, #Recording
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

I’ve written about the Keithley before, but the HP 6612B power supply has been sitting in a box for a few days waiting on me getting time to unpack it and check it out. I’m very pleased. Can we say dead nuts? It’s just as accurate in voltage mode. This will be a very useful addition to the lab because it’ll avoid my usual spaghetti wiring monitoring voltage and current with two separate bench multimeters. I also rather like the fact that it has GPIB, which given its built-in measurement capabilities has Possibilities. It’s not a SMU, but it’s a credible quarter-of-a-SMU, and seemingly accurate enough to do duty as a voltage/current standard if I only need 0.1%-ish precision.

Keithley 2015 THD & HP 6612B

If anyone gets the SMU joke, I’ll be impressed! 😉

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#Electronics, #MoMBlog, #TestGear
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Not. Actually. Satire.

Help us, Eb Metasonix! You’re our only hope!

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#Electronics, #MoMBlog, #Recording
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No, I’m not talking about snake oil audio jitter that can be improved by buying $1500 cables hand-plated with gold between the thighs of virgins. I’m talking about the real thing — the kind that has been pissing me off since roughly 1991 and the demise of computers that were capable of decent timing accuracy.

Way back in the late ’80s, I had a commercial studio. We had a lot of synths and various outboard, most of which being set up so that it could be sequenced via honest-to-goodness 5-pin DIN MIDI. Our master sequencer was none other than an Atart ST. Spectacularly basic by modern standards, but, funny story: this thing was bang-on, dead nuts accurate with regard to timing, both running of its internal clock and synchronized with our 2″ 24-track tape recorder via an SMPTE timecode box.

Back then, if you hit record on the sequencer and played something, when you played it back it came back as pretty much identical to what you played in the first place. A common technique (that I still use to this day) when writing was doing everything real-time with MIDI, then when the time came to track things ‘for-real’, running the sequence one track at a time to get the best possible results. Timing was accurate enough that if I accidentally ended up playing back from tape at the same time as having the ST locked to SMPTE, you’d hear the audio flanging.

Fast forward to the mid ’90s, when I started trying to put a home studio together following the demise of my original studio, a master’s degree and an aborted attempt at a PhD. This time around, I had much better computer hardware, running Windows. Everything you’d read, all the glossy mags, all thought that this was the bee’s knees, but when I tried to record anything I started wondering if I’d lost my ability to play anything in time. I’d complain about it, and people would tell me I was stupid, being too picky or that I just had bad hardware. Trust me, I spent a LOT on getting my hardware right, but my timing still sucked donkey’s balls. Though I really wanted to be able to use sequencers for composition, I think everything I recorded was played real time pretty much up to about 3 or 4 years ago. Same problem — I’d play something and it would come back wrong. Sure, I could quantize it, which would reduce (but not eliminate) the suck, but I couldn’t really understand why nobody else was bothered by this. Many years ago I had an email conversation with the head of the MIDI standards committee (or whatever it called itself at the time). His response was basically, yes, we know, but we’re not going to do anything about it because nobody cares, and our members are all from hardware companies who don’t give a rat’s ass about professional musicians and only want to sell cheap sound cards. At the time I was trying to persuade him to lobby for the introduction of timestamped record and playback of MIDI preserved through record and playback driver chains on Windows and Macs, but it fell on deaf ears. From reading I’ve done more recently, this has indeed been introduced, but many drivers and hardware devices just ignore the timestamps, as does some sequencing software.

Fast forward a bit more, up to about 3 years ago when I started recording the couple of albums I have out right now. They were both recorded mostly using Ableton and softsynths. Yes, timing still sucked on the record side, horribly so in terms of latency and pretty badly in terms of jitter, but since I was sequencing within Ableton and the softsynths’ timing was essentially sample-accurate, I could quantize things back into some resemblance of not sucking so badly that I wanted to chainsaw my investment in equipment, but it still wasn’t right. I still couldn’t do things that I took for granted in 1988. Sound quality was greatly superior, but what use is that when I can’t play in time any more? Seriously?

Not too long ago I pulled one of my old hardware synths, an Ensoniq SQ-80, out of storage with a view to getting it working. I hooked it up via MIDI to my M-Audio (now Avid) Fasttrack Pro interface, using Ableton as a sequencer. I looped the MIDI back into the SQ-80, which has a neat feature that lets you internally disconnect the keyboard from its sound generation for exactly this purpose. I set up Ableton to loop what I was playing back into the SQ-80. I will not be polite here: the results were beyond awful. We’re not talking about me being an oldtimer primadonna with golden ears whining about minutiae — the latency was so bad that it was unplayable, but worse (even) than that, I couldn’t play more than a few notes without notes getting stuck on. Playing slowly, this would happen every minute or two, but play a fast run and you could pretty much guarantee an immediate failure. It wasn’t even close to working, let alone usable.

Before anyone has a go at me for having a broken SQ-80, no, it’s not. I hooked a MIDI cable from the Out back to the In, and it played fine, no noticeable latency, just as if I was running it conventionally. Hooking up the MIDI out from Ableton to a Vermona MIDI-to-CV interface in my modular synth also gave the same stuck notes from hell and horrific latency and jitter. I tried sending MIDI clock — it was all over the place, terrible, unusable.

OK, so what is jitter and latency and why does it suck so much?

Latency is easy to explain — it’s just delay. Notes go in, they get delayed, and the come out again. You hit a note and it sounds slightly late. This is unpleasant for musicians to deal with because it makes the instrument feel dead. English doesn’t have good ways of describing it, but ‘spongy’ or even ‘rubbery’ come to mind. I end up hitting the notes harder subconsciously to compensate. If you practice long enough, your brain starts to compensate for the delay, but it’s not an ideal situation.

Jitter is much, much worse. It’s like latency in principle, except that the timing of the delay varies randomly. This can’t be compensated for or learned around because it’s not predictable. If there’s a lot of it, it can make a seasoned pro sound like a 3-year old’s first glockenspiel session.

Most people probably can’t consciously hear the difference. I have to assume this because the purveyors of modern music gear would have torch-wielding-peasants camped outside their design centres as we speak. However, if you learn pretty much any musical instrument of the old-fashioned kind, you have to train your ears to be sensitive to timing in order to learn how to actually play in time accurately. Some instruments favour this more than others — bass guitar, drums and percussion being probably the most prominent. I’m unfortunate enough to play two of the three, so my ears scream, “NOOOOOOOOO!” at things that most people might just find a little sloppy or just unimpressive.

Innerclock Systems have recently published the results of a very detailed study into the timing behaviour of music gear, both vintage and new. These numbers make fascinating reading if you’re just the right kind of obsessively nerdy.

So these fancy computer based sequencers have been around for a long time now, but it’s interesting that the most significant beat-driven music genres of the last couple of decades haven’t really been based on them. Rather, house music was TR808 and TB303, techno was more 909, electro and hip-hop were heavily driven by the Akai MPC series. What do all of these systems have?

Better than 1ms latency and jitter, often <i>much</i> better.

What does Ableton have? Maybe 30 milliseconds of latency on a relatively fast, well set up system. The best I’ve been able to manage with solid reliability is 57.2ms, though I’ve been able to unreliably manage about 15ms of output latency. This is just the audio drivers — the VST and AU instruments add their own latency and jitter, as does USB if that is the route by which note information is finding its way inside. I’ve not tested it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I often see worse than 100ms of latency when I’m playing a relatively complicated setup. At 120 beats per minute, this is 20% of the length of a quarter note, or nearly a whole 16th!

The reason why this happens is because of the nature of Windows and MacOS. They are multitasking, multithreaded operating systems that are tweaked to give a good user experience first, but aren’t really tweaked for accurate timing at the sub-millisecond level. Since lots of tasks are always competing for processor time, there is no guarantee that the code necessary to deal with incoming or outgoing audio data or MIDI information will actually get executed when it really needs to be. Consequently, it’s necessary to use buffering in both directions to take up the slack — you basically need enough buffering to cope with the uncertainty in the response time. Buffering adds a delay, queuing up data so that when the interrupt routine actually executes that it won’t run out of information causing a dropout in the audio. This is where the latency comes from. Some software, like Ableton, lets you tweak the buffer size so that it is just big enough to prevent dropout. Faster computers with more CPUs can often manage with smaller buffers, but this isn’t guaranteed. Audio is relatively easy to buffer because it’s a simple stream of numbers at a continuous rate. MIDI data is basically just note on and note off switching information, much much lower data rate, but no less timing sensitive than audio. Ideally, incoming and outgoing notes should be timestamped, so you get consistent delays rather than jitter, but it seems that this is even now still usually not bothered with. I actually suspect that Ableton, as used in my test case mentioned above, wasn’t even sending out MIDI data in the order that it arrived, so note offs were going out before their corresponding note ons, resulting in stuck notes.

The use case that I really would love Ableton for would be playing it via an external MIDI controller, maybe a keyboard, maybe an Eigenharp, then have it do clever things with that MIDI data and send it out to other instruments, including my modular synth. Nope. It kinda sorta works a bit, but it’s not really acceptable for serious use.

I think that the music equipment business has been doing the, “Nothing to see here, move along now!” trick for a long time. There are workarounds for some of this. If you’re recording external audio, so long as you’re not trying to  monitor what you’re playing through the system, you can get away with a lot of latency because you can simply delay the audio after the fact so that everything lines up. Ableton does this, as does Logic, ProTools, etc. If you’re playing a softsynth, you only get the outgoing half of the latency, which tends to be relatively consistent rather than jittery, so it’s not too horrible unless you’re playing something very fast or percussive. I once tried playing percussion real-time via USB MIDI and a softsynth (Battery). Um… no. It was not a pleasant experience. I suppose that some people manage to practice enough that they adjust. Try this: look at some videos of people playing softsynths or triggering samples via something like an Ableton Push or one of the many USB MIDI based MPC clones  — look really closely, and you’ll always see them hitting the pads noticeably before you hear the sound. Then look at videos of people playing actual drums. Yep, it’s enough to be visible if you know what you’re looking for.

I think the industry’s main Hail Mary these days is the fact that relatively few people actually learn keyboards traditionally, so they depend on step sequencing and quantization. That’s how I got through my last two albums, at least for the parts I didn’t just play real-time. If you’re inside the sequencer’s world and have advance knowledge of when to trigger a note, you can send it out via a softsynth essentially dead-on accurately.

So how do you fix this?

There are a couple of companies out there who are making a business out of this. There’s Innerclock Systems, mentioned previously, and Expert Sleepers, both of whom essentially send out sync data over audio and convert this to MIDI in hardware. Expert Sleepers additionally can also output CV/Gate or MIDI note information as well as just clocks. This helps and might even be a complete solution if I wasn’t really a keyboard player, since they solve the accurate MIDI timing problem for Ableton on the outgoing side, but they can’t help with latency so they are not a complete solution.

The Akai MPC Renaissance is an interesting beast. It looks like an older MPC, but it actually uses software running on a Mac or PC. It does have its own audio and MIDI I/O and seemingly supports MIDI time code and MIDI clocks. I’d like to believe that it might solve the problem, but I have my doubts.

Other than building a studio from all-pre-1990 gear, not something that’s really all that feasible due to the demise of tape, here’s what I’m probably attempting:

  1. Using Ableton and a Mac as a last resort. It still wins for mixing and mastering, that’s unlikely to change, but I’m unlikely to use it for tracking or live use any more.

  2. Moving to for-real, 5-pin DIN MIDI and not using USB MIDI at all. Old fashioned MIDI might be crusty and slow, but it has essentially zero latency or jitter unless it’s overloaded.

    1. Which has the corollary: don’t overload MIDI interfaces, so I need a bunch of them.

  3. Find a way to do sequencing that isn’t Ableton and is probably hardware based. Favourite is probably an older Akai MPC from the hip hop era, or maybe something like a Cirklon, though they are relatively spendy (this is a Sarahism for not available cheap on eBay), though the Cirklon doesn’t have the kind of interface I really want. I like modular-style sequencers (I have 3 of them in Euro format!), but they are a ‘thing’ in their own right and not something I’d want to use to put together a whole track.

  4. Find a way to synchronize that sequencer to a digital recorder (which probably won’t be Ableton either — I’m experimenting with using a Tascam DP32SD instead).

This would potentially make for a very fun and fast workflow — mess around with the MPC and the modular to make something interesting and then basically just hit record on the Tascam. Rinse, repeat. Then, later, dump the audio from the Tascam into Ableton for editing and mixing, which is something that Ableton does supremely well.

By way of an experiment, I was playing around with my Korg Electribe yesterday. I was clocking it directly from the clock output on my Eurorack Trigger Riot module, with some hard snappy bass sequenced with an 8 step analog sequencer, audio coming from a couple of analog sawtooth oscillators into a clone Moog System 55 low pass filter. All I can say is, I think I’d forgotten what that kind of really tightly synchronized thwack-you-in-the-bum beat was all about.

I’m not in love with the Electribe. I don’t hate it, but it has a soggy feel, which I’m putting down to latency between hitting the pads and the audio. It’s not terrible, I can play it. Sequenced it’s fine, but I like to finger drum, so timing is important to me. I’m starting to think that my best bet might be to find an old Akai MPC, a couple of which had built-in SMPTE timecode reader-generators. The way this would work is you ‘stripe’ a spare track on the multitrack (the DP32 has thirty two of them, so that’s no big deal), then hook it up to a spare output (probably an FX send) so that when you hit play this streams back into the MPC causing it to jump to the right part of the song and start playing. I could then sync up my modular and/or other hardware synths and have the timing dead nuts. Finding a good condition MPC 2000XL or an MPC 4000 looks like it might do the trick, these being the only MPCs that (to my knowledge) included built-in SMPTE LTC. They actually do a decent job of sequencing MIDI from external keyboards, though they are better known for drums and sampling, obviously. I’ll miss the softsynths, but they could still be used to add some overdubs once the mix ends up back in Ableton, so that’s not so much of a big deal. That said, the possibilities of the Eurorack modular are nothing short of astonishing, so it wouldn’t hurt to be able to concentrate on that.

I have some eBay cheapassing in my future, I think…

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#MoMBlog, #Musings, #Recording
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)
Keithley 2015 THD

Keithley 2015 THD

I just picked up a very cheap Keithley 2015 THD multimeter from South Korea via eBay. It showed up today in very good condition — it could do with calibration, but everything seems to work fine on it. The display is quite dim, as is common with older vacuum electroluminescent displays. The good news, though, is this display module is still carried in stock and can be ordered (new!) from the Tektronix spares department for the princely sum of $66. Score! With the not-cheap shipping, new display and even with cal, this comes out as still a pretty good buy.

On the calibration side, I suspect it would cost about $120 to send it out to Simco or some such, which is probably well worth the money. Alternatively, I might actually send out my big HP, get that cal’d, then use that to calibrate the Keithley using a transfer standard. I need to get at least one of these meters done soon anyway.

Anyway, about the Keithley. It’s a full-featured 6.5 digit digital multimeter with the usual compliment of DC and AC voltage and current measurement, 2- and 4-wire resistance measurement as well as a few extra niceties like support for thermocouples, frequency and period measurement, diode checking, continuity, etc. DC/AC volts has a resolution of 0.1 microvolts, current 0.01 microamps. The continuity beep has user selectable sensitivity and is extremely fast responding.  Of particular interest is a BNC on the back which outputs a reference audio signal that when analyzed by the main inputs can be used to measure total harmonic distortion in an audio circuit. It’s possible to do THD measurement with a spectrum analyzer or a scope with FFT capabilities, but this thing is essentially a 1-button test.  Other than this, it’s built as a system DMM, so it has an extra set of probe connections on the back along with pretty extensive GPIB and front-panel programmability. It’s not quite as cool as the current model Keysight and Keithley meters with graphical displays and built-in data logging, but for the price I’ll certainly not be complaining.

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#Electronics, #MoMBlog, #TestGear
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Hi folks,

NASA Edge (part of NASA Public Affairs, I think, I’m not certain) has released a rather cool photo of the Resource Prospector rover busy doing its stuff at Johnson Space Center as part of the RP15 rover tests. As some of you already know, I designed a camera that looks out of the bottom at the soil below, right at the point where a drill impacts the surface and pulls up material from below.

It’s often frustrating not being able to freely share details of what I do, but for once this picture is fair game, so have at!

Resource Prospector (RP15)

Resource Prospector (RP15) — NASA Edge

This is high resolution image, so if you want the full res version, click and it shall be yours.

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#MoMBlog, #Space
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

I’d like to join a gym again. I like working out. I get very little exercise right now, and weight machines and treadmills are a couple of the things that do work for me without causing damage (iffy tendons due to some unspecified variant of arthritis). I’d like to be able to go swimming again, something I’ve not really done more than a couple of times in 20 years.

So why don’t I just go and do that?

Well, the reason is pretty simple: fear.

I’m a member of the T in LGBT. This means that I’m essentially at risk anywhere that might be transphobic by policy. If a gym or pool manager decided to call the cops because, oh, you know, I’d taken a pee in the bathroom, I stand a pretty decent chance of ending up dead, incarcerated, deported or even ‘just’ traumatized to the point where I won’t want to leave the house for a couple of years. I would also be at risk if some random asshole-of-the-public decided to call 911, too, but I have less control over that.

Today Gina and I were talking about the possibility of joining a gym, ideally one with a pool, that would let me work out while Gina swims. 24 Hour Fitness seemed like a good option, being that they have a location fairly close to us. I decided to check them out. I’d been a member a few years ago for a while, but let it lapse. I’d never had problems whilst there, but I avoided the locker room and was close enough to home that I could get away with not changing in the gym.

This time around, I wanted to really know what their policies were. From their web site (24 Hour Fitness Membership Policies):


24 Hour seeks, enrolls and maintains memberships without regard to race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, marital status, sex, sexual orientation or age. It is further club policy that no circumstance or conduct undertaken by club personnel shall have the effect of discrimination on the basis of any of the aforementioned classifications. All club members shall have full and equal access to the club facility. All members with disabilities shall be entitled to reasonable accommodations for their physical and mental impairments. Any member who believes that he/she is/has been treated unfairly on any of the aforementioned matters should first report to club management or to 24 Hour at 1 (800) 432-6348.

At first sight, this looks like a really good statement. However, there is one thing missing. Exactly one thing missing. I’m not going to belabor the point by spelling it out, but whenever I see this, I can’t help translating this as:


24 Hour welcomes absolutely everyone. NO WAIT, NOT YOU, YOU CAN FUCK OFF. It is further club policy that no circumstance or conduct undertaken by club personnel shall have the effect of discrimination on the basis of any of the aforementioned classifications, BUT PEOPLE LIKE YOU ARE FAIR GAME. All club members shall have full and equal access to the club facility (REMEMBER, NOT YOU). All members with disabilities shall be entitled to reasonable accommodations for their physical and mental impairments (BUT NOT YOU). &c, blah blah blah.

Yeah, that’s nice. Makes you feel all fuzzy and welcome, yes?

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

I’ve been making a bit of an effort to get things-GPIB-related working a bit better around the lab. I have been hair-tearing a bit with my Prologix ethernet-GPIB interface recently. I seem to be able to get it to mostly work fine with single instruments, but it’s not happy with some of them in combination, particularly when my HP5342A microwave frequency counter is on the bus. This could of course be the counter, but anyway, I was fiddling with my HP8591A spectrum analyzer from LabVIEW via the Prologix with some level of success. I did, however, remember a bit of software I picked up some time ago — KE5FX’s HP7470 plotter emulator. This thing works great with the HP speccy!

Anyway, here is a plot from it:

GPIB_17 (5)

You can initiate the plot from within the plotter emulator by selecting the GPIB device from a pulldown menu. It takes about 2 or 3 seconds to pull the data down, then the plot appears. The trick to get it looking sexy like this one is to set the image size as big as possible, swap to a black background and the alternate colors, then save the image as a BMP, load it in Photoshop, scale it back down a bit and bring up the levels. OK, I know not everyone is as much of a Photoshop junkie as me, but Gimp will do this sort of thing just fine too. Then again, if you’re not too finicky, you might find the raw output in default mode just fine anyway.

So, KE5FX, if you’re Googling yourself and spot this post, many thanks and 73s de NQ6K. :-)

PS: The plot is a QPSK signal (just random data from a PRBS generator) at 250 MHz with a 5 MHz symbol rate, 100 averages.

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compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

As some of you may know, but most won’t, I’ve been a user of Omnifocus through various versions for several years now. At a superficial level, it’s a to-do listing app that cloud-syncs across Macs, iPads and iPhones, so your to-do items can follow you from device to device. Integration with Siri on mobile devices also works out nicely, letting you say ‘Siri, remind me to buy the cat a new Ferrari,’ which will automagickally create a reminder to bat the car a new ferrite, or something.

If you look at Omnifocus as ‘just’ a to-do list app, you’re not quite getting the point. For me, I’m way over my head on multiple projects at once much of the time. I literally have so many to do items that it’s impossible to remember them, let alone track them, and am well into the territory that makes a linear list long enough that finding anything isn’t really feasible.

Yes, I’ve read Getting Things Done, by David Allen. I found many of his ideas really interesting, and I think I’m now using most of them.

So what’s this GTD thing all about?

Well, the basic idea is that it isn’t sufficient to just divide your to-do items into projects — rather, you also divide them into contexts, giving you a second view into the mess of items. What’s meant by a project is pretty obvious — something like, ‘Remodel the kitchen’ would be a great example. Individual tasks should be things like, ‘Order a new stove,’ something that is essentially a single thing that needs done that doesn’t break down finer than that. Importantly, tasks should not be split up between personal and work — the system really works best when you glom all of your tasks into it. Contexts indicate where the task is to be carried out (with a loose definition of ‘where’). Email, Home Depot, In The Garage, At Work, etc., are simple examples of contexts. I like to break down both projects and contexts hierarchically. Breaking down projects makes immediate sense, e.g.:

Home : Kitchen Remodel

Work : Project Alpha : Presentations : How to Pickle your Ooblefetzer

Some real(ish) examples of broken-down contexts would be:

Computer : Internet : Facebook

Work : Bldg 123 : Conference Room 6

Computer : Purchasing : Amazon

Outdoors : Mall : Home Depot

Outdoors : Mall : Safeways

What this lets you do is things like deciding to head to Home Depot and then easily pick up a list of everything you need to do while you’re there, even if those things are spread across many projects. That’s the Getting Things Done level. But you can kick it up a notch — if you are going to the mall, you can easily see everything that needs doing under every context that derives from that. Really, GTD and GTD-like systems can’t ever make time where none exists, but they are brilliant at not forgetting things and avoiding wasting time repeating things that didn’t really need to be repeated.

Another thing GTD is awesome at is C. A. R. Hoare’s concept of ‘waiting faster.’ Everyone hates waiting — I’m sure I, like most people, feel like I waste half my life waiting for things: stuff to be delivered, other people to reply to emails, applications to be processed, etc. Tony Hoare (admittedly in the context of the mathematics of concurrent processes, but hey, I’ll steal anything that works!) suggested that by waiting for as many things to happen at once, then acting on whichever one completes first, you end up waiting as little as possible and being as efficient as possible. I use Omnifocus to track everything and everyone I’m waiting on, which means that I don’t need to get stressed out by asking lots of people for lots of things all at once. The difference this makes to my effectiveness is pretty surprising.

Omnifocus also lets you tag every task with your estimate of the time it will take. This takes a bit of work to maintain, but it gives you a very important third route into the data. I use this to create a ‘Fast Attack’ view of my to-dos, which cuts across all my projects and contexts, limited to tasks taking no more than an hour and sorted so that the fastest things happen first. With this, if I’m told I have half an hour before a takeaway shows up, for example, lets me rattle off a few emails or update my timesheet or whatever with time I’d otherwise probably spend staring mindlessly at Facebook.

Setting deadlines on tasks is really important. It’s a GTD principle, but Omnifocus does this really well. You can defer a task, which means that it will be hidden until a specific date and time, or set a due date, which will start warning you when it’s coming up and nag you when the date has passed. From personal experience, I have learned only to ever set due dates when there really is a due date for the task — if I ever get carried away and start creating a schedule for myself, all that happens is that everything gets out of hand and nothing really gets done, and I’m too scared to open OmniFocus because there are 58 red tasks staring me in the face. No, don’t do that. If it’s something like a paper that’s due on a particular date and time, go for it. That’s what this is for. But don’t ever use due dates when there isn’t really a hard deadline, or you’re missing the point of the system. Omnifocus has some very nice features for creating repeating tasks — I can, for example, have it remind me to suggest going to see a film. If I check this off, the reminder goes away for 2 weeks, then starts popping up again. The other kind of repeating tasks have a hard interval, so I have reminders to submit my time sheets, do my weekly and monthly reporting, pay my rent, etc.

Omnifocus implements GTD’s recommendation to regularly review your task lists. You can set, per task, an interval over which you want to review everything. Some people like to set this to 1 week, but I actually like it do it daily. If I don’t have time, it can wait until tomorrow, but by going through my task lists even very cursorily once a day, ruthlessly putting projects on hold if I can’t work on them yet, deferring tasks until later when I can, fixing things up as plans change, is really the only way I can keep everything on track.

So far, this is all standard(ish) Omnifocus and GTD. I have some of my own tweaks and brain-hacks, however.

My Omnifocus Kanban hack

One other feature I’ve had a love/hate relationship with in Omnifocus is flags. You can flag an item, which visibly shows its importance, and can be sorted against or shown in its own query. I find this psychologically bad — if I have flagged items, it stresses me out, and I also don’t necessarily make good decisions about what to work on if something is nagging at me. Flags are an invitation to procrastinate, in my opinion. Instead, I abuse the flag system for something completely different — Kanban. The Kanban idea comes from manufacturing, where the idea is that you have a table with (nominally) 3 columns — the left column is things to do, the right column is things that are completed and the middle column is things that are in progress. So much so obvious, but Kanban’s magic special sauce is that only a fixed number of things at most are allowed into the middle column at once. The idea is that this stops manufacturing processes from getting gridlocked or producing lots of stuff that isn’t really needed yet. Omnifocus doesn’t really support Kanban, but it’s possible to abuse the flag system for it. Basically, if something isn’t flagged, it’s in the ‘left’ column. If it’s flagged, it’s in the middle column. If I’ve already checked it off, it’s in the right column, logically speaking, though I never actually get to see something that looks like a traditional Kanban board. So basically, I let myself flag 3 to 5 things I’m ‘doing’ at once. Even this is really too many, but what it does is give me a one button view of the stuff I Really Am Getting On With Right Now. My ‘Fast Attack’ query covers all the little faffy short tasks that aren’t really even worth flagging because they get done really quickly anyway. Between those two, and just these two, I know what I should be doing, and don’t forget anything. Psychologically, this really helps, because these lists never have more than 4 or 5 items in the Flagged/In Progress view and maybe a couple of dozen in the fast attack view, so it doesn’t get overwhelming.

The Input/Output Hack

This one is due to me personally as best I can tell. I had 3 or 4 false starts implementing GTD which kind of worked but always ended up failing. In a couple of cases, the amount of stuff just got out of hand and I couldn’t really cope with it, to the point that the system just fell apart. In a couple of cases, it worked so well that I ran myself into physical exhaustion that took weeks to recover from. This is the most recent version of my personal system that, so far, seems to be working really well for me.

I have a very strong work ethic. In work time I tend to do work stuff. That means that I tend to prioritize things that I need to deliver to someone or do for someone extremely highly, to the extent that this dominates. In extremis, I’ve found myself working crazy hours on a project and literally only eating, sleeping or doing work directly on that project, never allowing myself to prioritize anything else. As a consequence, I tend to build up what I have come to call infrastructure debt. By never really allowing myself time to build infrastructure — to do the things that you need to do that allow the things to get done, I’m always way more stressed than is OK, and tend to be cobbling together ways of working rather than having everything to hand. It occurred to me that I needed a brain hack to fix this, and it was going to take something like Omnifocus to pull it off. Thing is, I have no difficulty figuring out what needs done to put all this infrastructure in place, it’s just that, normally, I was not allowing myself to spend any time on it. The mythical ‘free time’ never actually occurred, because I was either working or flat out exhausted.

Here’s the hack. I think it’s pretty cool.

I now divide all my projects, without exception, into the following four categories:

  1. Always. These are the things that always need to be done, regardless, because a wheel will fall off my life if they don’t. This includes things like paying the rent, regular paperwork that can’t be delayed, etc. This category should be used very sparingly.

  2. Recreation. Things I would like to do when I need to switch off. I list things like, go see a film, go to the beach, watch Netflix, etc. Stuff that gets done both when my brain is turned off and in order to cause my brain to switch off. I don’t include personal projects in this list, because personal projects are still work within this system. By way of an example, I might have a something in this category like, ‘Go play music for a couple of hours,’ but definitely wouldn’t have something like, ‘Finish mastering those last 3 tracks for my next album.’ The decision is brain off or brain on, basically.

  3. Output. An output task is something that is directly needed. These are ‘day job’ tasks, as well as any chores that are an end in themselves rather than enabling something else. Effectively, these are all the tasks I used to obsessively work on in the exclusion of all else. Output tasks create infrastructure debt because they need to be supported.

  4. Input. An input task is something that isn’t directly needed, but that builds the infrastructure necessary to support an output task. Input tasks by definition pay down infrastructure debt. An input task would be something like, install a new piece of equipment, tidy up the lab bench before a new project starts, order and install some shelving from Home Depot to support a remodeling project, etc.

These are the four folders at the top of my project hierarchy. Work projects mostly go into Output. Personal projects that create something also go into Output. Stuff I need to do so that I can effectively work on Output tasks goes into Input. I can use the perspectives feature in Omnifocus (Pro version only, but well worth the $$$) to create myself a set of 3 buttons:

  1. Rest Day. This shows recreation tasks, plus any Always tasks that are currently due.

  2. Output Day. This shows all my Output tasks, as well as any Always tasks.

  3. Input Day. This shows all my Input tasks, as well as any Always tasks.

So basically, on a morning, I can decide. Am I exhausted? Then I should click Rest Day, use that as a suggestion for something to do and a reminder of things that Must Get Done Or Else. If I’m feeling really ‘On’, I’ll click Output Day, which houses the tasks that typically need the most braining. If I’m kind of in the middle, not really feeling focused enough for detailed work, I’ll click Input Day, whose tasks tend more toward the physical. My work ethic guilt makes it hard to hit anything other than Output Day, but I know the consequences of that all too well. In all cases, if I decide to do a task that’s really brief, I’ll do it and just check it off. If it’s something more substantial (more than an hour typically), I’ll flag it and add it to my Kanban-hack-repurposed Flagged list — by keeping this list to no more than 3 – 5 items, it stops me from being overambitious and running myself into the ground with overwork. Also, I know I really suck at multitasking, so the best hack for dealing with that is to only do things one at a time, which is kind of the point of all this.

Summarizing my System

To sum up, the way I work this is each morning, with my coffee, I generally do a daily review of all my tasks, so by the end of that I have checked off anything I missed and have a pretty good idea where I’m at. I mercilessly put projects on hold if I can’t work on them because I’m waiting for something — this is key to keeping things manageable, as is using Defer to throw something forward in time to pick up on again later. By looking at my Flagged/In Progress button, I can remind myself what I’m in the middle of, and add one or two more things to that list from my Input or Output perspectives. If I have a few minutes to spare, I can use my Fast Attack perspective to kick out a few emails or whatever. I capture new tasks straight into Omnifocus wherever possible, but I do heavily use the ability to create tasks via email otherwise, then I file that task appropriately next time I do a review.

Right now, I have 3 concurrent major projects, a fourth semi-unpaid work project, a musical personal project, social stuff and other stuff I wouldn’t mention here all going on at once, and amazingly it’s not really stressing me too much and I’m pretty much staying on top of it all. Considering that I am someone who always regarded themselves as really sucking at this kind of being-organized, this says a lot.


YMMV. IANAL. I am not your mother. GTD doesn’t work for everyone, particularly if you don’t have much leeway in organizing your time. GTD has a cultlike following, for sure, but I’m not a true believer — I junked it several times before hitting on this approach, particularly the Input / Output hack. I am not inherently awesome, and do screw up sometimes.

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#GTD/Omnifocus, #MoMBlog, #Musings

On Caitlyn

Jun. 3rd, 2015 12:07 am
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

I seem to be getting asked my opinion about Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair debut quite a lot right now. Rather than repeat myself all over social media, I thought it might make sense to write something about it here.

Firstly, this is complicated. Gender is complicated. I barely understand my own, so I definitely don’t understand anyone else’s. People seem to be looking for an explanation, nevertheless, so I’ll do my best.

OK, so where do we start? The first thing to understand is that Caitlyn most likely identified as female way back, certainly for years, probably right back to childhood. She was an Olympic athlete – this is something that I saw the edges of, back in my late teens when I was involved in yacht racing. The level of singular purpose, focus and dedication that getting to the Olympics requires is quite beyond anything 99.999% of us will ever see. You can take it from this that she has, at least the capability of, a singularity of purpose and drive to succeed that most of us have no concept of.

She’s not dumb. That much seems clear. Few people involved in sport at that level are, from personal experience. A decision to transition would not have been easy – it never is – but doing so when you’re already very much in the public eye is pretty much unprecedented. The closest previous case might be Lana Wachovski, but in her case she was not anything like as in the public eye as Caitlyn.

Transitioning is by nature a slow and difficult process. Having access to the money for surgery, particularly facial feminization surgery, makes a huge difference to both the timeline and ultimate outcome, but still, it’s not an instantaneous thing. Yet, the media was carefully managed to report this as a BOOM! MIKE DROP! event. Caitlyn has basically gone at transitioning like someone wanting to win an Olympic gold, and given the photos, seriously nailed it. It’s like she chose femininity as a metric and decided to max it out, to the extent that maybe 0.01% of cisgender women could even get close.

I don’t know if any of this is a good or bad thing for transgender people. Only time will tell. For sure, it’s got people talking to an extent that has barely happened previously, with the exception only possibly of Laverne Cox’s Time Magazine interview. None of this would have been imaginable 20 odd years ago when I transitioned. Not 10 years ago, or even for that matter 5 years ago. The mainstream media are being positive about transgender issues. The orthodoxy has flipped. Transphobia is now being clearly called out as hate – everyone who has posted transphobic opinion about Caitlyn’s coming out seem to be being eviscerated by public opinion. It seems that wrong-gendering or deadnaming Caitlyn is a one-way ticket to douchenozzleville, population you. Fox News is having a predictable shit fit, but just seems to be digging itself deep.

My gut tells me this is probably all for the good.

Only time will tell.

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#MoMBlog, #Musings
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

I am someone with way too many projects. Putting it another way, I have way more projects than time. I can also say that I have more money than time.

Conventional wisdom has it that I should really feel guilty about this. We’re not supposed to start things and not finish them, but this is an inevitable consequence of having more projects on the go than there are hours in which to finish them. Digging deeper into the reasons for this is that it’s all really a consequence of having more interests than projects, coupled with an obsessive personality that requires me to push myself to achieve some level of mastery of everything I do.

It would probably be more psychologically healthy to get better at being bad at things. Being good at things just breeds more work. It sets standards that obsessives like me have to match somehow on every new thing we try. But if I could actually live with being bad at something, then perhaps I could just enjoy doing it, and leave it at that?

Unfortunately though, if you’re not of-the-most-privileged-caste, i.e., if you’re not a straight white male under the age of 30, you pretty much have to be good at everything or people (of all castes, not just the most privileged) will take pot shots at you, figuratively or even literally. It would be nice to just be able to screw up sometimes, to just be able to admit for once that, look, I just have no idea how to Do That Thing. But no, to stay employed I’ve always found I’ve had to be better than just adequate, better than good enough. I avoid competition wherever possible, because ultimately I always am forced to live with either losing or utterly destroying the opposition, neither of which is acceptable to me. To lose, if you’re not of that privileged caste, is all too often to lose everything — something that can not reasonably be risked if you have any responsibility for your own well-being or that of anyone else. To win can be even worse, because being seen to win can make people hate you more than anything you could imagine. I have way too many examples of this from my own life. If I’m forced into a fight, I’ve usually walked away, wherever possible, but sometimes I’ve had to become the warrior that isn’t really the me that I want to know.

So sometimes the way to survive is to accept the need to walk away. The need to leave things unfinished, to grieve their loss and to move on to the next thing.

Sometimes, though, it’s necessary to stand and fight. When someone wants to hurt you and yours, who is prepared to stand between you and your dreams, who will seek to drive a wedge between you and your principles, sometimes it is necessary to embrace the warrior-self and do what’s necessary to not-lose. All this talk of winning and losing grates on me — I don’t really care about winning. All I really care about is compassion and being allowed to extend compassion to others, so when I’m forced to fight I get upset and angry mostly because my ability to be compassionate has been curtailed. I’d rather be a pacifist in all things, but life has never allowed that.

What this ultimately means is that I always have several ‘things-I-could-be-doing’ stacked up, so at any time all I can really do is choose which one to be getting on with. These things, for me, are usually either paying work, creative projects of my own, projects that let me increase my capability of doing something, or self-maintenance. I’m not that great at prioritizing the last of those. I’ll admit — I’m messy and I’ll often leave domestic things undone longer than I should. I tend to prioritize paying work and then things I need to put in place so I can continue to do my paying work. Personal projects kind of slide into the gap. I don’t get as much done in that direction as I’d like, but I suspect I’m not alone in that. I can only pull this off by not finishing everything I start — I don’t typically know at the start of any project where it’ll go, or whether I’ll have the emotional energy necessary to move it forward.

I know that I’m judged harshly for this, but I’d be judged harshly for not doing it anyway, I’m sure. I could have a perfectly neat house, but that would mean giving up on some of my projects that help keep my skills up to the point that I can stay employed. This might sound ridiculous, but it’s fair to point out that, despite decades of experience, several NASA awards and a Cambridge PhD, I’ve been laid off twice in the last year. If I’d not been prepared to go way beyond the call of duty, I’d not have been rehired either of the last couple of times. I survive on the ‘oh-and-can-you-justs’ of managers — I don’t really feel I have the option of not being able to do anything, even if it’s outside my field, even if I don’t have the resources to do it. This is why I have my own electronics lab and machine shop — technically I shouldn’t need either of those things in order to be able to stay employed, yet rarely a couple of days have gone by in the last couple of years that haven’t required those facilities. Consequently, I have to put huge priority on being able to do just about anything related (however vaguely) to my job. Of course, theoretically I should be able to move sideways into another job in the bay area, but doing that would require giving up the one thing that was important enough to me to make me prepared to give up my whole life and move to another country, nearly a decade ago.

I apologise, therefore, to everyone close to me.

This can’t be easy to be near.

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#MoMBlog, #Musings, #QueerofSwords
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Hi folks,

A good friend of mine, John Tkalcich, needs help urgently. For reasons beyond his control, he and young family have been living out of hotels for the last month and a half. They need to head to Minnesota to stay with John’s parents, with a plan to be back in the Bay Area at the beginning of August.

HarleyI looked after the kitty concerned, Harley, a few years ago. She’s a real sweetie, and is probably missing her friend Nibbler who passed away very recently. Harley is 11, in very good health (no known issues), and is spayed and microchipped, and good with children and other pets. John is willing to help cover costs.

So, cat people, can anyone help? We can only have two kitties here, otherwise I’d take her in myself without hesitation. This is pretty time sensitive — John needs help with this literally in the next couple of days because his original arrangements for Harley fell through as well as his backup plan.

If you can help, ping me and I’ll put you in touch with John. If you can’t help directly, please please please reshare this and boost the signal.

Thank you in advance!

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

I kind of got all enthused today and started designing a modular synthesizer.

Note to future self: I apologize, I knew it was going to be a pain in the ass, but it’ll be awesome. Honest!

I’ve wanted a modular since I was in the single-digits-of-age. Specifically, I wanted a Moog modular. A System 55. A really really big System 55. I just wanted to get that out there right away, so you all realize that the crazy started really young.

In more recent times, two albums ago realistically, I started using softsynths in a big way. I have a fairly chunky investment in Native Instruments and East West plugins as well as licenses for Logic, Ableton Live and suchforth. Don’t get me wrong — softsynths are awesome and are utterly unapproachable for sheer awesomeness-of-noise-per-buck. The only problem is that they drive me batshit freaking nuts because of the delay and latency associated with doing digital audio with an operating system that really wasn’t designed for it.

I’m not a classically trained player, but I’m probably describable as traditionally trained, in the sense that I put in the years of no friends and 8 hours a day and the bleeding fingers. I can, and actually usually do, play my instruments real-time and have the skills to pull that off. This also comes with an annoying tendency to be able to hear when timing or pitch is off when any normal sane human would be totally fine with it and already on the way to the pub, thank you very much. Pitch isn’t so much of an issue with digital gear, but AARGH FREAKING BASTARD timing kind-of is. I can hear when something is a few milliseconds off — not only does it make things sound wrong, but it also throws off my playing. If you can tell the difference between a really good wired gaming mouse and the nasty Bluetooth mouse that came with your computer, it’s like that, but much worse.

I’m wanting to start on another album, but I really want to fix this before I get into it because it’s just way too frustrating otherwise. I’d also like to find a solution for gigs that gives me rock solid timing — I’ve done some live performances with softsynths, but it is quite challenging to pull off playing anything fast when you can’t quite hear exactly what you’re playing when you’re playing it.

Old skool analog has no timing problems whatsoever. Response time is basically in the order of single audio cycles, not the time it takes to queue up a couple of buffers and hoof them out over USB to an audio interface. Faster than I can hear, which is fast enough anyway. The undisputed Kings and Queens of analog are of course modular synthesizers. Happily, these days they are merely really expensive and complicated rather than the price of a Ferrari and complicated. I’m not so great about the really expensive. I’m OK with the complicated.

A ridiculously awesome A-100 system that does not existIf you want to lose the rest of your day, go to Analog Haven and have a play with their modulargrid tool. This thing lets you spec out an arbitrarily enormous modular in one of several rack formats with modules from about 30 or so manufacturers. I had a go with it and came up with a truly epic modular configuration that would have cost >$10k. Basically I set out to spec a synth that could do the kind of things I typically do real-time with soft synths, except (nearly) all analog and fully real time. I went for the Doepfer A-100 Eurorack format because of the large variety of third-party modules available off-the-shelf and relatively low cost relative to some of the other formats. That and the smaller module size means I could cram more awesome into the lack of space that I haven’t quite got available. The picture above (you may have to go over to the original post on in order to see all the images if you don’t see them) is not actually real — I made it with modulargrid. It’s basically three synthesizers in one, maybe four, kind-of. There are enough VCOs, Moog clone ladder filters, VCAs, VCOs and ADSRs to manage a 4 voice polyphonic pad, simultaneously with a 2 oscillator bass monosynth, a completely separate 2 voice Karplus-Strong plucked string synth, a 4 operator monophonic FM synth, digital delay, digital reverb and 16 channel CV, 16 channel gate and 8 channel MIDI interface that will let the whole lot be run from Ableton Live. That’s a LOT of stuff in about the same physical space as a midrange Moog modular, for about a fifth the price. That said, a fifth of the price of a really nice car is still more than I want to pay, and I kind of have the bug to actually design some of this stuff.

There are a few things that give me the heebie jeebies. I’m not so keen on doing my own scratch-built VCOs because getting them dialed in so their tuning tracks accurately without drifting with temperature is the kind of problem I could solve, but I’d kind of rather it was someone else’s problem, if you see what I mean.

So basically to sum up the stuff in the rack, there are a lot of little 4 into 1 audio mixers. These things are pretty much ubiquitous because there are so many cases where several signals need to be combined before moving on to the next stage. I picked out the modules so I hopefully wouldn’t run out of mixing capability if I tried to patch just about everything all at once. I think I counted 7 of those. I threw in a 4×4 matrix mixer too because it looked like a nice thing to have. Mixers aren’t too difficult to design — not necessarily trivial because there is still a fair bit you have to get right, but it seemed like a tractable place to start.

This morning I had at LTSpice and came up with a basic circuit for a module that loosely corresponds to a Doepfer A138a Linear Mixer. Since I seem to need a boatload of these things, it’s low-hanging fruit that’s worth going after, I think.

m001-ltspice-modelThis is what I knocked up fairly quickly. A word of warning — I’ve not built one yet, so if you pick up on this circuit and find it doesn’t work, then sorry, but not my fault. :-) It’s a bit messy, but basically it models a 4 input mixer with a pot for each channel and a master gain pot. There is some extra voodoo in there for ESD protection on the inputs and outputs and for bandlimiting — it should have a -3db point at about 75kHz and optionally also at about 5Hz. There’s a not-drawn bypass switch that bridges out the cap that links the summing bus to the final gain stage so you can choose whether to run this DC or AC coupled. The idea is to have an essentially flat response from 20Hz to 20kHz, but not have too much response outside that band because modulars have lots of wire everywhere whose main object in life is to receive the transmissions of passing taxi drivers. I also separately came up with a really simple analog 8-0-8 LDO reg and dual pi filter arrangement that should squash any hum on the power well below the noise floor. Yeah, NE5532 opamps, old skool, I know, but there is plenty of drooled-over classic gear stuffed full of those things and they are both multiple sourced and really cheap. Input impedance should be very close to 100k, with output impedance close to 1k, as per the Doepfer standard. I have to say, it’s really nice to do some old skool dual rail analog again after all these years. Running 3.3V single-supply is all the rage, but it’s just not the same somehow. :-)

m001-schematicI redrew the schematic in EAGLE next. It was actually pretty straighforward — for once, I could find all the parts I needed in the EAGLE library. Normally, this never freaking happens, so I have to spend hours creating the parts from scratch. But anyway, here it is. It looks a little odd because things that I’d normally draw as variable resistors are drawn as header connectors because, at least for the prototypes, the connectors and pots are going to be hand wired rather than soldered direct to the PCBs. This is actually standard practice for most modules of this kind, but to be honest if I ever have to make a lot of these things I’ll be looking to eliminate that wiring because it’s the most likely single point of failure.

m001-pcbNext up was a PCB. This was actually pretty straighforward. I went for 0402 surface mount for most of the passives, but chose to go old skool for the regs because of easy availability, low cost and extreme reliability. I went for through hole inductors because I won’t know exactly what I’ll be dealing with until I measure a real synth power bus, so it may be that something as simple and cheap as a wire link with a ferrite bead threaded on it will be sufficient. If not, I can chuck in a 1 microhenry inductor with decently low series resistance easily enough. The ESD protection is a bunch of surface mount Schottky diodes that clamp the inputs and outputs around the power rails — to maintain their own survivability, they are at the inboard end of series resistors and they have low value ceramic caps across them. Seems like overkill somehow — this board is about 80% power filtering, ESD protection and band limiting and about 20% actually doing stuff.


So anyway, I think the panel artwork will look something like this. Kind of like the Doepfer module that inspired it, but with the AC/DC coupling switch. I kind of want to go for a minimalist black panel look too, because Modular Moog (and end of argument). Since I have the CNC equipment for it, I’ll most likely engrave the panels from sign material — this stuff has a white core with a shiny black surface laminate, so I think it’ll look really good. It’ll be rather slow  to machine, but at least all the holes and the outer cutout can be done at the same time (though not with the same cutter, naturally!).

I’m not quite done poking at this yet. I think I’m going to swap out the 3 pin power connector for one that matches the Doepfer standard directly to make cabling easier. I think I also need to give the gain pot circuit a bit of attention too to limit the maximum gain. Channel activity blinkenlights would be nice too. Hmmm…

I’m intending writing up the designs as I go along. I’m going to open source the design. I’ll probably end up selling partial and/or complete kits or maybe even prebuilt modules if people are interested, but first time around this is for my own use.

So what do you think? Am I as nuts as I think I am for attempting this?

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#Electronics, #ModularSynthModules
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Hi folks,

I put up a new post on Patheos on Thursday, but have been flat-out busy so I’ve not linked it before now. Here it is, should you be so inclined as to read it:

The Gentrification of Poverty -- Digital painting by Sarah Thompson (source textures courtesy, under license)Queer of Swords: The Gentrification of Poverty

The essay this time is about gentrification and about poverty, but also about the weird intersection of the two, where people are convinced by society that they are doing well when, in fact, objectively they are actually living on the edge of poverty.

This might seem a little odd, particularly to someone not living somewhere mindbogglingly expensive like London, New York or Silicon Valley, but these days it really is possible to make a six figure salary and yet have not much in the way of disposable income, not enough money for savings, no way to buy property or to put a child through school, and to be close enough to the edge that a couple of missed pay checks would result in homelessness. The same salary somewhere much cheaper might well lead to more traditional financial security, but good luck finding a job paying >$100k in such places.

Figuring our why this happens is outside the scope of the Patheos article, but basically it really breaks down to looking at where the big chunks of money disappear to. First and foremost, it’s being sucked up by property — either you’re paying into a mortgage, usually as a consequence of vastly inflated property prices, or you’re paying rent, in which case you’re basically handing over (in the Bay Area particularly) more than half your income to someone else, with nothing long term in return.

I suspect that there are solutions, but they are sufficiently unconventional that there is too much resistance, both within ourselves and from the society around us, to make the changes necessary. I’ve been fascinated by the tiny house movement for some time (Google it if you’ve not yet heard the term) — I think that, practically speaking, this kind of radical downsizing probably is the only practical answer, but it has a flaw. Owning a tiny house when everyone else is paying ten times as much for a conventional house works great. However, when 80% of people have downsized, this will just cause the market to optimize upward, so it will probably end up costing just as much to live in a tiny house as it currently does to live in a McMansion, except that we’ll be living in a tiny house. This is exactly what I mean by the gentrification of poverty — we are forced into poverty by a system that is taking away our security and bleeding all of us dry, so there is a danger that if we allow ourselves to end up in that kind of gilded poverty, we might not notice and might not say, hey, no, enough is enough, quit that shit, we’re going to stand up for our rights.

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#Musing, #QueerofSwords
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Hi All,

My latest Patheos post just went up this morning. This time around I’m talking about #BlackLivesMatter, Ferguson and institutionalized racism in the United States. Not exactly a happy happy joy joy piece, I’ll admit. To be honest, I’ve wanted to write something on this for a while now but never really could quite get a handle on how to express the way I feel.

Anyway, the post is here:

Black Lives Matter (artwork: Sarah Thompson)

#BlackLivesMatter isn’t just a statement of fact — it should be a mantra that we all recite, loudly and often, and mean it.

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

I’ve used various versions of Cadsoft’s EAGLE PCB design software for years now, mostly with the full commercial version with all the add-ons enabled. I stuck with version 6.5 for a long time, mostly because I didn’t want to jinx my space camera board by upgrading before the final rev was out to manufacture.

Anyway, I’ve been working on another project recently that has a lot of duplicated subcircuits, so I decided to drop the hammer and upgrade to version 7.2. This wasn’t a free upgrade — it cost me $550 to make the jump from 6.5, but after a few days use I’m thinking it was worth it.

The biggest differences with EAGLE 7 are the ability to create hierarchical designs. Some other PCB CAD systems have had this ability forever — I remember drawing schematics in ORCAD in the late 1980s that were hierarchical, but this is a new thing for EAGLE, and to be honest it was the one thing that always wound me up and had me longing to use something like Altium Designer instead.

So anyway. Hierarchical schematics. The basic idea here is that, rather than having a single schematic split over multiple pages with named signals connecting across them, you have the option of creating subcircuits that appear as a rectangle in the top level design that are defined by one or more separate sheets. If that’s all this meant, it wouldn’t buy you much, and you could kind of fake the same thing by drawing a rectangle and naming the signals coming out of it. However, the big win is that you can create as many copies of this subcircuit as you like — in some designs, this is an absolute lifesaver. Nothing sucks more than getting a board back and finding that one of the eight amplifiers you painstakingly drew had a wrong connection — this way, wherever possible, things are only ever drawn once regardless of how many times they are reused. To a programmer, this is pretty obvious, to the extent that flattening out a design and manually cutting and pasting would seem like a really stupid way to work, but there really are two different cultures here, so what should seem obvious isn’t necessarily.

I had an idea a while ago for a musical instrument inspired by the Hang Drum — I wanted something electronic that triggers synthesized sounds, but existing electronic hand drums (I own a couple of them, a Korg Wavedrum and a Yamaha thingy whose designation I can’t remember off hand) didn’t quite work for me. I wanted something with faster response times than usually possible via MIDI (the Wavedrum solves that), with the ability to drum with a very light touch (nothing seems to support that). The light touch thing is a requirement of getting older and suffering from arthritis — if I whack away at a djembe for a couple of hours, I typically regret it for a few days. I’d like to be able to play really softly, but otherwise keep dynamic control. I had the idea of building a drum controller that will be shaped roughly like a Hang Drum, with playing surfaces most likely made out of hardwood. The obvious approach of sticking microphones or accelerometers to the bottom of the pads doesn’t really work for me because it wouldn’t be likely to be sensitive enough, and in any case I want to be able to mute a decaying sound intuitively they way I would with a real drum, so I wanted something pressure sensitive. Strain gauges were my first thought, but they tend to be super-spendy, unrealistically so given that I’d need quite a few of them. It then occurred to me that you can get strain gauges already set up as a nicely matched set in a bridge configuration if you just buy a load cell instead. eBay has tons of extremely cheap load cells available because of the ubiquity of low cost electronic scales — though a standard scale circuit wouldn’t be effective, an amplifier with a faster response time, sampled at 2kHz or more, would do the trick quite nicely. I started sketching a circuit in EAGLE, partly because I ultimately want to build one of these things, but mostly because I wanted to throw something not completely trivial at EAGLE 7.2 before I have to use it to design something that flies for work.

At the time of writing, the design is nowhere near done, but I entered enough of it to give EAGLE a bit of a workout. I used a microcontroller with built-in ADCs (Atmel ATMEGA128), with some jellybean opamps (2 per channel) as amplifiers. I’ve not tweaked or verified the amplifiers yet, so the component values are a wild guess, but I cared more about giving EAGLE some exercise than details. The nice thing was that I only drew the load cell amplifier circuit once, then used EAGLE to duplicate it multiple times. This all just worked basically — it was surprisingly easy.

On the layout side, your design gets flattened, so the modules go away. There isn’t a way to lay out a module, then copy that layout to other instances of the same module — I suspect that this could be done in an ULP script, so we might see this added by a third partly developer relatively soon.

One weird thing was component naming. In hierarchical designs, rather than C3, you see its position in the hierarchy fully expanded, e.g., TRIGGER1:STG_AMP6:C3, meaning module TRIGGER1, submodule STG_AMP6, component C3. Though this is pretty convenient during the layout process (you can type commands like show *amp6* to highlight everything within a module, for example), it doesn’t really work if you want to put component legends on the board. There is an option to renumber parts so that each module starts on a multiple of 100, so something like the above might appear as C603. I can live with that, and I kind of like the implicit structure that this naming gives you, which would be nice when poking around with a built-up board in the lab later.

EAGLE circuitOne thing I really wasn’t expecting was the improvements Cadsoft made to the autorouter. I should say, I’ve always been agnostic about autorouters. I don’t generally use them because I typically find that their results are awful compared with what I could get from doing the tracking by hand. However, having once briefly attempted to hand route an FPGA (back in the late 80s using one of the first Xilinx devices, and XC3000 series I think), I am quite aware of my limitations and do accept that there is no guarantee that a human layout will do better than that of a carefully crafted AI algorithm. I always like to have autorouters available to me, however, because they are awesome if you want to do a quick sanity check to see whether a board has routing issues or overly restrictive design rules before jumping in feet first and committing to days or weeks of work. Anyway, the short version is that EAGLE now has a topological router algorithm that does a much better job than its older autorouter. Playing around with my design, I did a quick manual placement of the parts then fired up the autorouter, expecting it to do a crappy job. I was shocked to find that not only did it produce a nice looking layout using just two layers, it managed to almost completely avoid traces on the back of the board. I manually added a power and ground plane — you still need to hand-place vias giving access, but the autorouter will pick them up and use them. With this in place, there was only a single route on the back of the board, which actually turned out to be an extra power plane-like voltage reference signal. Not only that, the routes looked pretty good on the top, much more like something a human would have made. I found a couple of minor things I’d want to change in a real board, but nothing serious. I am shocked to hear myself say this, but this is an autorouter I’d actually be prepared to use for a real design.

EAGLE still doesn’t do autoplacement. There seems to be a knee-jerk avoidance of autoplacement these days (ORCAD had it in 1987!), but experience working with simulated annealing based FPGA layout systems show that autoplacement can beat human placement by huge margins if you give it some structural hints. Maybe in EAGLE 8?

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#Electronics, #MakerCulture
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

This was a really difficult post for me. I broke down in tears trying to read it to Gina — though this was a usual part of my final editing process before I submit a column, normally I’m not fighting tears and gasping out the words. Some of you may know the history I’m talking about, most won’t.

Anyway, I’m going to leave it at that. The post is online at Patheos now, so rather than spoiler it further, I’ll just let you read it where it is.

Blue YuleQueer of Swords: Blue Yule

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#QueerofSwords, #TransgenderActivism
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Hi Folks,

finished bed

As many of you probably know, Gina and I moved recently, so we’re still playing catch-up with furniture and other things we need but don’t yet have. Gina wanted a platform bed for her recently acquired queen mattress, but wanted something super strong. We’ve both experienced bed collapses due to the usual underbuilt Ikea slat designs, so she asked me to not mess around for this one. Also, finances are tight, and setting up the wood/metal shop is still on the to-do list, so a minimalist design that doesn’t require complicated tools was a requirement. Consequently, this is just the kind of thing that is likely to be useful to someone else in similar circumstances, so here goes!

Miter saw action shot

My first design decision was to construct the bed entirely from 2 by 4 dimensional lumber (3.5″ x 1.5″ section). I designed everything in Geomagic Design — yes, I know, this isn’t anything I couldn’t have scribbled on the back of a sufficiently large envelope, but I am a creature of habit. Looking around Home Depot, we found some cheapish redwood that wasn’t too horribly knotty and went with that. This project needed nine 12 foot boards — we had them mitre sawed in half so we could get them to fit in the car easily.


All in all, the project was completed in less than a day. The wood cost just under $100, with another $12 for screws. I used square drive, 2.5″ long No. 6 wood screws — I would seriously recommend square or torx drive screws for this project because Philips or flat screws will be hell to use when you need a lot of them.

You can download the drawings below. Have at — this is open source woodworking! Locations of fasteners aren’t shown, so use your imagination. If in doubt, use more screws. :-)

Drawings and cutting list for Gina’s bed (note — if you’re reading this on a service that strips out links, you can get the drawings by heading over to my main blog site (

Just a word about the engineering side of the bed. It doesn’t need fancy construction — basically, the user’s weight is distributed via the slats onto the rails (joists) at each side, which sit directly on top of 2 by 4 feet that direct the force straight into the ground. No weight is borne on fasteners, except on the cross brace which isn’t critical anyway (it’s there mostly to make sure the bed stays square). Using 2 by 4 lumber for everything keeps things simple, but it’s overkill for the slats — most people use 1 by 3 or 1 by 4 slats which are nowhere near as strong. Certainly, when Gina sat on it there was no noticeable deflection. Constructed, it should weigh about 80 pounds if constructed from redwood — I’ve not weighed it, this was just calculated from the volume (courtesy the CAD system) multiplied by the standard density for North American redwood. Nerdy? Whoahyeah.

One other little design feature is the bed deliberately has a clear span underneath accessible from the sides — I intend making some slide out tray boxes to hold spare linens. I’ll post about them when I get that far. :-)

It might be a little unclear from the drawing how the feet go together. Here’s an extra image from the CAD system (looking up at one of the foot assemblies from below) that makes it a bit more obvious:

Gina's bed foot assembly


Here, the extra ‘foot’ that isn’t in contact with the ground isn’t load-bearing, it’s just there to make it possible to align the feet with the bottom of the rails and secure everything in place. The feet are super solid, probably overkill, but hey, beds collapsing under you in the middle of the night aren’t a lot of fun, so…

Tools and materials:

  • 17 six foot lengths of 4 by 2 lumber (I used redwood, anything will do)

  • Lots and lots of 2.5″ No. 6 screws (with torx or square heads, you can thank me for that later)

  • Electric drill/screwdriver

  • No. 6 countersink bit

  • No. 6 drill (for predrilling holes so the screws don’t cause cracking)

  • Speed square/engineer’s square for marking out the lumber

  • Tape measure

  • Clamps, lots of clamps. You can never have too many clamps.

  • Saw. Anything will do, but a miter saw is ideal. You will want to check that it is cutting good right angles in both axes, or it’ll bite you later when you get to assembly.

  • A large framing square makes it easier to get the frame square. It’s not a big deal if you don’t have one.


  1. Cut the lumber to size, following the drawings. Use stops on the mitre saw so that all the ‘feet’ are exactly the same length.

  2. Assemble the legs as subassemblies first. This makes the bed go together quickly.

  3. Assemble the frame.

  4. Add the cross brace — you’ll want to pull the frame square as you screw it in place. Once that’s done, the frame becomes pretty rigid.

  5. Add the feet and screw them in place.

  6. Finally, add the slats. One screw in each end is enough.

  7. You’re done!

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#DomesticBliss, #MakerCulture, #MoMBlog
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Hi all,

BuddhappropriationI went off on a bit of a digression about cultural (in)appropriation in my latest post on Patheos.

Go take a look, and leave a comment if you feel so inclined. :-)

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compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Hi all,

I have a new Patheos post up on my Queer of Swords column. This time, I’m talking a bit about TDOR and how that intersects with my own experiences as having survived a transphobically motivated attempted murder. Definitely not fluffy, this piece.

The Black Heart of IndifferenceAnyway, you can jump over to it on Patheos here:

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#QueerofSwords, #TransgenderActivism
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Wow, this has been a week. Or several. I’ve been quiet for a while because I’ve been buried by our house move. So anyway, movers were booked for last weekend. Sunday, to be specific. They showed up, tutted a lot, initially tried to refuse to take anything, then got told by their boss over the phone to get on with it. They didn’t have a big enough truck and complained that we didn’t have everything quite lined up just perfect tied up with ribbons and bows for them.

Light at the end of the tunnelI have never dealt with such a huge bunch of wusses as regards movers. They were capable enough, actually very fast, once they got going, but oh my doG the whining. They moved a whole truck load, but it just amounted to 2/3rds of our stuff, practically speaking.

Anyway, cut to the present day. Three days later after many hours of sorting out and chucking of stuff, we are now at a point where we are more or less ready for the Wuss Crew to come over and move the rest of the stuff. Gina and I have done many car loads ourselves, moving things that they refused to move last time, like tripods, light stands, kitchen stuff. You know, anything not tied up neatly in a cardboard box with a freaking bow on it.

Gaah. My back hurts (old injury from excessive ATV driving in the Arctic, most likely), my shoulder hurts (this is its hobby, I think, nothing unusual). Oh and we found woodworm in some stuff that was stored in the rafters, so I’m chucking/abandoning anything made of wood that had been stored in there, including a few benches as well as a fairly substantial load of timber. I was going to move this, but I think I’ll gift it to the house owners toward their remodel — they can check it for beetles themselves if they want it.

Speaking of woodworm, if the little nasties are in things stored in the garage, they must be pretty much everywhere in the infrastructure of the house. Not to mention the vast colony of termites under the floor that have reduced the posts holding the house up to the diameter of a human thumb. The place really needs to be torn down and rebuilt, or it will be a death trap in a reasonable sized quake. We were pretty lucky in the last one, I think.

So much for my machine shop and lab. I’ll have to start over from scratch setting everything up, which will be a little frustrating, but I am kind of looking forward to doing some for-real woodworking. I’m intending making shelving for the shop, lab and house, benches for the lab and shop and probably a few pieces of random custom furniture. Any excuse for woodworking is good with me, however!

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#DomesticBliss, #MoMBlog, #Musings
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

My new Queer of Swords post is up at Patheos. Halloween from a transgendered perspective, with a touch of rant just to be sure.

Grr Arg!

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#QueerofSwords, #TransgenderActivism
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)
ETA: Kobe now has a foster. Thanks all!

Hi Folks,

I’m desperately asking for help here on behalf of Rev. Lee Whittaker and particularly on behalf of his kitty, Kobe.

This orange guy in the picture is Kobe, Lee Whittaker’s cat. The less-orange guy is Lee. :-) Gina and I have been looking after Kobe for a couple of years now, but we can’t continue to do so after our house move (that’s coming up this weekend — eek!). The new place allows two cats, not three, so we have to prioritize our two (Pi and Bitta). Lee is currently in student accommodation at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley that does not allow cats — he’s working on moving to a different hall that will let him take Kobe back, but it is not going to be possible to make that happen by this weekend.

Kobe with Lee WhittakerLee has arranged a longer term foster for Kobe starting 2 or 3 weeks from now that will last until he is able to move rooms at PSR, but we desperately need someone to look after Kobe until that happens. We need someone to help by looking after Kobe for 2 to 3 weeks to bridge the gap.

Kobe is affectionate with humans, but ideally needs to be an only cat. He has some special needs — he needs a grain-free diet, and he is epileptic.

Please help if you possibly can — we are moving on Sunday, and really need to move Kobe by Saturday 25th October at the absolute latest. If you can’t help directly, reposting this to your kitty-loving network would be next best thing and very gratefully appreciated. We can supply enough of his grain free kibble to last for a good while.

Thank you in advance,

Sarah (on behalf of the fuzzy orange guy and his cat-daddy)

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compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Yaargh. Just sayin’.

Strippers & Dikes! I replaced the primary oxygen sensor on Gina’s Honda about a month ago with a cheapo third-party replacement. It was iffy to start with, throwing an OBD II code or two occasionally, then turned up its toes entirely after about 3 or 4 weeks use.

After being mugged by a passing Honda parts department to the tune of two freaking hundred and freaking seventy dollars, labor being of course free because I fitted it myself in all of about 5 minutes, said car is now running as smooth as a baby’s bum. Also it is (relatively speaking) good news that the cracks I saw in the exhaust manifold don’t look any worse than they did last time I had it to bits, so they are probably old, possibly manufacturing defects, and may not actually be going to cause a problem in the time scale that we’re likely to keep that car (months not years).

In other news, wow am I exhausted (no pun intended). This month is totally nuts. All my buses arrived at the bus stop all at once this month, I think. And half of them broke down and demanded that I fixed them, without a manual or any tools. And it’s not even half way through the month. Still to happen is a field trip to the Mojave, packing and moving house, all while I have zero vacation or sick time.

Like I said, Yaargh.

PS: For the curious, the fieldwork is at Zzyzx in the Mojave desert, on the edge of a salt flat, about half way between the middle of nowhere and the edge of nowhere. I’ll be supporting instrument testing on an experimental rover. Gina is going too — it’ll be about the only chance we’ll get to actually get away together anywhere for some time. The crazy is scheduled to continue and/or get worse, so…

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#MoMBlog, #Musings
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Hi folks,

After skipping a column due to Life Happening, I have a new column up on Patheos. This time I’m talking about True Names. Neoplatonism for the internet age. All your data are belong to Facebook and the NSA. That kind of thing. Have at!

We are Cat!Queer of Swords: True Name, True Identities

True Names have power. This is an idea that has been debated by philosophers for millennia, but what does this mean for the Internet age? What are the deeper consequences of the Facebook real names fight?

[ Read more on Patheos ]

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compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Sorry to be a little cryptic, but anyone who knows what I mean by this will know why I’m intending celebrating ASAP!


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#MoMBlog, #Musings
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

Tektronix TLA 624 running a virus scan Tektronix TLA 624 running a virus scan

I mean… seriously?

While I was waiting for a compile to happen, I looked over at the logic analyzer and saw it…

… running a freaking virus scan.


Two things I never really thought I’d be saying in one sentence.

(It’s a really good logic analyzer, but the Windows thing freaks me out a little!)

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#Electronics, #MoMBlog, #Musings, #TestGear
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

We just put down a rental deposit on a house in south San Jose, CA, and will be moving in on October 25th. This is a huge relief.

Strippers & Dikes! The new place is quite a bit smaller than our existing place, but probably costs about the same per square foot per year. This will save us quite a bit compared with our existing place. It’s very close to VTA Light Rail and 85, so I have both car and non-car commute options for work. People coming to visit will be able to get Caltrain to Mountain View then VTA Light Rail to very close to the house. We’ll also be walking distance to quite a few shops and restaurants, so it should be pretty convenient. The move date is also pretty much ideal, in that it will give us a 1 week crossover with the end of the month on our old place.

We will have to get rid of quite a bit of furniture, and possibly acquire a few things that will fit in the new space. The lower rent will be much more sustainable, however, so that’s handy. I also bought a nearly new fridge and AC unit from the outgoing tenant’s garage sale. We’ll need to pick up a washer and a dryer, but that’s it for major appliances.

The landlord seems to be the hands-off type, which is fine with me. I’d rather have to fix the occasional thing myself than have a helicopter landlord freak out about the weird science going on in the garage. ;-)

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compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

I was asked elsewhere for high res photos of the knobs in situ for comparison with the originals.

Yep, not much comparison, but that wasn’t ever the point! I could probably have faked lookalikes, but this would have been a CNC machining job and a LOT of work. I could have done it using the 4th axis on the Sieg milling machine, but it would probably have taken me a couple of days at least. Sure, I could have made quite a few knobs once the CNC program was written, but for a one off, and particularly when I don’t really care much what the knobs look like, they just have to work, this was enough for me. :-)

High res closeup of replacement HP knob High res closeup of replacement HP knob

High res photo of replacement LeCroy knobs High res photo of replacement LeCroy knobs

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#3Dprinting, #Electronics, #MakerCulture, #TestGear, #Uncategorized
compilerbitch: That's me, that is! (Default)

I’m proud of my wife’s work, but I can say with absolute honesty that this episode blew me away. Tanesh is the TransSaints Chaplain and transgender minister at City of Refuge UCC in Oakland, CA.

Tanesh has survived more than most of us can possibly imagine, yet she has an intense love of life and drive to help others that is truly humbling.

If you are a podcast listener, grab this one right away. If you don’t normally listen to podcasts, listen to this one anyway. You can do so right from the web page without needing to install anything.

Rev. Gina Pond Rev. Gina Pond (photo: Chuck Fry)

TWIH Ep 16: The Power of Prayer: A Life Testimony with Tanesh Watson Nutall

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