Archive for category Techies & Technology

In Search of the Elusive Volume Control

Did you ever find yourself asking the question “How did I get here?”

The first pro-quality drum kit that I had was a Gretsch five piece with birch shells, Ludwig hardware, and Avedis Zildjian cymbals. It was purchased second hand in the mid 1970s. After being overly influenced by Bill Bruford, a set of six Remo Roto-toms was added a few years later. As much as I enjoyed the set there were two problems associated with it. First, in spite of some nice Shure and AKG mics, it was difficult to get a decent sound out of them in my home recording studio. Of course, being that the “studio” was a basement with scant acoustical treatment and a seven foot ceiling, the kit could hardly be blamed. The second and perhaps more confounding problem was the loudness level. In fair consideration to the rest of the family and neighbors, there were limits on when I could play. I simply could not afford any manner of “sound proof” room and unlike the ubiquitous guitars, basses, and keyboards that my friends played, there was no volume control on a drum kit. As I was finishing my degree in electrical engineering at the time, I was hopeful that there might be a technological solution down the road, something more advanced than the “beep-boop” Syndrums of the day.

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Civil disobedience in the high-tech age: the BART protests

I don’t like using terms such as “high-tech age” or, even worse, “age of technology.” What’s high-tech today will appear quaint in a decade or two (not so long ago, it was considered marvelous to have a computer that didn’t take up an entire room that required supercooling to keep the whole apparatus from fricaseeing itself). But every societal undertaking been affected by the trappings of the Internet, cell-phone service and skilled hackers — even potential confrontations between law enforcement and protesters.

For those of you who have never visited San Francisco or (egad) Oakland, the two cities are joined by the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, which runs under San Francisco Bay via the 3.6-mile long Transbay Tube and extends south on the San Francisco side and in all directions on the Oakland side. It is a very pleasant commuter experience. The family of of Oscar Grant III would probably not agree, given that Mr. Grant was fatally shot in January 2009 by a BART police officer who was later convicted of murder (reduced to involuntary manslaughter on appeal). Ditto any associates of a homeless man named Charles Blair Hill, who was shot dead on July 8 by a transit cop. Hill came at officers with a vodka bottle and a knife, but Grant was unarmed and face-down on the ground when he was shot in the back. This shooting, which was caught on numerous video cameras, qualifies as an execution by any standard.

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Smart move

I’m not surprised that this post at Run Angry has garnered a huge number of comments already. Many people feel the way she does, and since similar minds tend to cluster together in the blog world, the effect of her post about smartphones and babble-technology in general there is predictably amplified. If I were plastered right now, I would post something akin to the following. Read the rest of this entry »

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DIY Bass Trap

So I’ve been busy lately.  Built a new recording/practice studio this summer/fall and I’m finally getting a few finishing touches done. One of those “touches” is acoustic treatment.

One of the more important aspects of studio acoustics is making sure you have a reasonable reverberation time. At the bass end of things, most untreated rooms are filled with the acoustic equivalent of mud. Trying to mix in such an environment is difficult at best. So, the front line treatment is something called a “bass trap”. You can find decent bass traps from a variety of companies such as GIK. The job of the bass trap is to absorb low frequency energy thereby reducing the sonic mud for a more clear and detailed response. Many bass traps are little more than a frame filled with a rigid fiberglass or rock wool material (denser than typical house insulation) and covered with a fire-rated acoustical cloth (such as loudspeaker grill cloth).

As part of the construction, I wound up with a box of 12 two-by-four foot sheets of two inch thick Owens-Corning 703 rigid fiberglass left over. So I purchased eight yards of Guilford of Maine fabric from GIK and sew-on Velcro from Industrial Webbing, made a pattern that is essentially a two-by-four foot box with a lid, six inches high. The Velcro covers the three edges. I dropped in three sheets of the 703, closed the lid, and bingo, four nice bass traps. The photo below shows one of the units open, ready to receive the 703. Note that there is an extra 3″ of fabric beyond the Velcro to help keep any stray fibers contained.

Opened bass trap

Bass traps are most effective in the corners of the room. These units are stiff enough that they stand up by themselves so I simply propped them in each corner. Here is one sitting behind my drum kit:

Bass trap in corner

These were relatively inexpensive to make, especially considering that the 703 was surplus from the construction. I can barely sew on a button, so a faithful family member did the sewing duties for which I am extremely grateful.

FYI, a thread about the studio was started on the VDrums forum this past summer. You can find it here.

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Non Essential Sound Products

A while back I offered my thoughts on a particular type of over-priced and over-hyped audio snake oil, namely power cables. So today I get my new issue of Bass Player magazine and what do I see? Why it’s an add from Essential Sound Products hawking their MusicCord AC power cord with the headline “Your stock power cord is choking your sound!” If you go to their site (which I won’t link to) you will find unsubstantiated claims about other AC power cords producing “Thin, One-Dimensional Tone; Attenuated, Gutless Bass Response; Hiss, Buzz and Noisy Backgrounds;  High-Frequency Roll-Off; Blurred Imaging; Bloated, Sluggish Bass Response” and other issues. Geez, I certainly wouldn’t want my bass guitar to suffer from “Bloated, sluggish, attenuated, gutless bass response”. Granted, I always thought that “bloated” was rather the opposite of “attenuated and gutless” in this sort of situation, but perhaps normal AC power cords are worse than I thought. Of course, you won’t find anything on their site in the way of serious double blind listening tests to validate these claims. As I offered a light critique in the afore-mentioned post, I won’t rehash it here. I only have three things to say regarding this company right now:

1. Apparently they have discovered (or are at least hoping) that naive musicians offer a profitable new market beyond tweak audiophiles. And hey, given that higher end basses are in the multi-thousand dollar range these days, maybe $100 for a power cord is well within the budget of the “tone paranoid”.

2. Not to be outdone by the power cord, the company also offers a six outlet power strip. With surge suppressor mind you! On sale, the bargain price of just a dollar short of $500. Why, you save $100 compared to the normal price! Gee, I can think of an alternate route: Go to the local hardware or electronics shop, pick up their most rugged surge suppressor power strip, give $100 to charity, buy a new stomp box, fold up a bunch of $20 bills and stuff them under the leg of that wobbly table in the back room to level it, and you’ll still be ahead.

3. They are not the worst offender. Look at this. That’s right, $3500 for an AC power cord.  This is nothing short of vile.

While searching for some material on this topic, I came across this article discussing whether or not there are audible differences attributable to power cords.  When I got to this part I just had to laugh:

To many in the engineering community, blind ABX is an accepted experimental design. Using the blind ABX protocol, we failed to hear any differences between an assortment of generic power cords and Nordost Valhalla. Therefore, we cannot conclude that different power cords produce a difference using the blind ABX protocol. However, we also cannot conclude that there are no differences. We simply failed to prove that differences can be detected to a statistically significant degree using a blind ABX protocol.

So in other words, if a proper double-blind test doesn’t reveal any differences, the only thing you have shown is that a double-blind test doesn’t reveal any differences. Apparently, there are no further consequences or conclusions to be drawn and it has nothing to do with what humans can or cannot hear. Brilliant!

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Hot Water Heat Pump

For most folks, the second most energy intensive activity in the home (after living space heating/cooling) is heating potable water. For a great many people the obvious choice is storage-based or on-demand fired by natural gas. But lots of folks (like me) don’t have natural gas service so we usually rely on storage-based electric water heaters. They’re relatively inexpensive to purchase (maybe $300-$350 or so for a halfway decent 50 gallon unit) but expensive to operate. Standard government estimates run around $500-$550 per year. This figure depends a lot on your usage and local electricity rates.

By themselves, electric resistive water heaters are relatively efficient in simple terms. Generally, between 90 and 95 percent of the electrical input is translated to heating water. This, of course, does not account for generation and transmission of said electricity, and as the average consumer is many miles from a generation plant, the system efficiency is much, much lower. In other words, bringing the fuel to the consumer (e.g. natural gas) and having them burn it on site achieves a much higher system efficiency.

Ultimately, an electric water heater is not much different from a toaster or space heater: You pass current through a resistive element, the element heats up, which in turn heats the water (or the bread, or the air).  So how do you make a system like this more efficient and less costly to operate?

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Today’s Fun Factoid

According to our college’s IT director, the server that handles faculty and staff email receives between 80,000 and 100,000 incoming emails per day. Of these, only 10 to 15 percent are good emails. The remaining 85 to 90 percent, perhaps as much as 90,000 incoming emails per day, is nothing but spam. I suspect that these percentages are not unique to our institution.

So, how much are we spending to build and maintain an infrastructure that delivers mostly unwanted garbage created by assholes who don’t pay a thing for its (ab)use?

I say it’s time we put a bounty on spammers and then create a reality TV show called “Spam Hunters”.

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ProAudio Review Jumps the Shark

As a long-time pro audio guy, I’ve been reading ProAudio Review for years. They do a good job of keeping me informed of the latest gear and spotting new trends. I received the September issue yesterday with the cover tease “Technically Speaking, Snake Oil Vs. Reality”. This was the topic of Editor Frank Wells’ column and I assumed that it was going to refer to a take-down of some dubious claims made by the “tweak audiophile” community from the perspective of audio professionals. What sorts of claims? Well, the audibility of $5000 loudspeaker cables, for example. What I discovered was pretty much the opposite.

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Tsk, tsk: The ignorant public can’t dictate scientific research!

The shitbirds at OneNewsNow.com, the “news” arm of the American Family Association, are unreal. Actually, they aren’t; their brand of reportage is all over the place, and it’s as if they’re engaged in a contest with Christian Newswire, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, the Family Fuckface Association, Focus on the Fuckface, FuckfaceNewsNow.com, and any number of other outlets to see who can make the most noise and the least amount of sense at the same time. The word of the day, every day, is whining.

A recent complaint, titled “Public ignored; full steam ahead for embryonic sacrifice,” exemplifies the fact that Christers’ distaste for a scientific endeavor is usually inversely proportional to their comprehension of its intracacies, and more importantly, its benefits. But the loopiest thing is the chief reason the “article” gives for why ESCR should be squashed: Some folks don’t like it!

The National Institutes of Health has issued guidelines for research on human embryos. One pro-family spokesman accuses NIH of ignoring the public on the matter.

The guidelines, which are based on a presidential executive order, open the door for research that pro-life groups have fought against for years. Dr. David Prentice of the Family Research Council tells OneNewsNow those guidelines set up a system that creates an incentive for embryonic sacrifice. He goes on to say NIH simply did not listen to the public.

“Of the 49,000 comments they got, 30,000 told them not to fund any human embryo research [using federal funds]. The acting director of the NIH said they just ignored those comments,” Prentice notes. “[So] the question wasn’t whether to fund it, but how to go about sacrificing embryos.”

How dare the NIH not allow its policies to be determined by plebiscite!

Prentice adds those figures show America is still strongly pro-life. “And [that] they want our taxpayer funds going towards successful and ethical adult stem-cell research — the stuff that is already helping patients now,” he emphasizes.

Those figures show what everyone knows–that pro-lifers are much more apt to leave comments with the NIH about ESCR than people who favor the research, because the latter have no real reason to opine now that things are slated to go forward. Lying is the stock-in-trade of Jesus fans, and an ABC poll taken two weeks ago underscores this well: 55 percent of Americans surveyed think that abortion should be legal all or most of the time, while only 43 percent believe the opposite. WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU LIARS?

Adult stem-cell research, which does not involve killing a tiny human being, is now being used to help more than 70 documented medical conditions and diseases.

If a three-day old blastocyst is a “tiny human being,” what’s in the spooge ten million torqued-up teenagers are presently spilling into their wadded-up socks? Infra-midgets? You can’t parody this sort of shrill yet stoic ignorance.

However, the part about adult stem cells is on target. Of course, an intelligent, honest, and progressive sort would look at this and say, “Well, since ESC’s are like the adult version, only totipotent, they should turn out to be even better sources of treatments and cures!” The God-soaked fuckhead, on the other hand, says, “Well, we have what we need already! None of this killing of cell heaps! Praise Jesus and save the little souls!” It’s well beyond pathetic.

Research on human embryos, in contrast, has produced no useable results.

Maybe if fuckheads for the LORD would back off (their yammering played a major role in GW Bush’s vetoing of federal funding for this kind of research), the undeniable fruits ESCR could be realized. To completely shackle something and then claim it hasn’t done any good is the mark not merely of a stupid person, but an evil person. I hope that unassuming, pro-science, harmless self-described Christians realize that godless people like me have to actively fight the idea that every one of you is as fucked up in the noggin as your self-appointed voices for the faith are. This Prentice guy is beyond the pale.

I really don’t approve of this article at all.

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Suck it up

My dad likes his toys, and he recently got one of these:

This is nothing more than a vacuum cleaner that operates on its own. It has infrared sensors that instruct the robot to turn as it approaches a wall, and since this doesn’t always work, there’s a large contact-sensing bumper on the front of the disc. Since there are many situations in which you would want the unit to turn even in the absence of a physical barrier (the junction between a carpeted living room and a tile kitchen, for example), the iRobot comes with several transmitters that resemble computer speakers and create a “virtual barrier.” It comes with a docking station for use after cleaning.

Developed through a joint venture between MIT and some entrepreneur, the iRobot (my dad’s is in the “Roomba” series and, given that there’s a Golden retriever in the house, is a pet-specific model) even has a software interface that allows savvy hackers to modify the robot’s behavior to their liking. Over two and a half million models have been sold to date.

Watching the thing in action really does summon forth images of an R2D2 that has been hammered nearly flat by a pile driver or car compactor. All that’s lacking are the beeps and chirps.

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Stink-free underwear being tested on high

Leave it to the Japanese:

Koichi Wakata, the first Japanese astronaut to live on the International Space Station, is testing the clothes, called J-ware and created by textile experts at Japan Women’s University in Tokyo.
“He can wear his trunks (underwear) more than a week,” said Koji Yanagawa, an official with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Well, so can I. So can anyone. That part’s not innovative.

Wakata’s clothes, developed by researcher Yoshiko Taya, are designed to kill bacteria, absorb water, insulate the body and dry quickly. They also are flame-resistant and anti-static, not to mention comfortable and stylish.

You have no idea how long I’ve been searching for briefs that are both fireproof and flashy. Usually you have to sacrifice one for the other.

Wakata, who arrived at the station last week for a three-month stay, said on Sunday that the clothes appear to be working.
“Nobody has complained, so I think it’s so far, so good,” Wakata said

I would imagine that the threshold for complaining about smelly skivvies is somewhat different when circling the earth at crazy speeds in a maginal-gravity environment than it is when, say, prowling a terrestrial nightclub. And why do these guys bother with underwear anyway? Plenty of people down here on the ground go commando, so why not astronauts? What’s next, interstellar butt-floss?

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Motorized jacket designed to bolster moviegoers’ emotional response

At the just-completed World Haptics Conference in Salt Lake City, scientists at Philips Electronics unleashed a jacket lined with an array of small motors designed to react to events its wearer is watching unfold on a movie screen–not in such a way as to mimic physical goings-on, but so as to increase empathy with the actors.

The jacket contains 64 independently controlled actuators distributed across the arms and torso. The actuators are arrayed in 16 groups of four and linked along a serial bus; each group shares a microprocessor. The actuators draw so little current that the jacket could operate for an hour on its two AA batteries even if the system was continuously driving 20 of the motors simultaneously.
So what can the jacket make you feel? Can it cause a viewer to feel a blow to the ribs as he watches Bruce Lee take on a dozen thugs? No, says Lemmens. Although the garment can simulate outside forces, translating kicks and punches is not what the actuators are meant to do. The aim, he says, is investigating emotional immersion.
“We want people to feel Bruce Lee’s anxiety about whether he will get out alive,” says the Philips researcher. The jacket, responding to signals encoded in the DVD or to a program designed to control the jacket on the fly, can do a host of things, such as “causing a shiver to go up the viewer’s spine and creating the feeling of tension in the limbs.” During the fight scene, says Lemmens, the jacket will even create a pulsing on the wearer’s chest to simulate the kung fu master’s elevated heartbeat.

The makers say they have no plans to make a matching pair of pants. I’m sure adult-film theater owners everywhere are disappointed.

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A lot of peta can be a good thing

Ever hear of a petaflop? Until recently I had not, and would have guessed that it was either some kind of houseplant, an undergarment, or a failed gymnastics move. Instead, a petaflop represents one quadrillion floating-point calculations per second, a figure currently at the outer limits of supercomputer capabilities.
As Wired Science reports, a computer scheduled to go online in three years will boost this already staggering figure by a score or so. The 20 * 1015-calculations-per second computer represents the endpoint of a joint venture between nuclear physicists ad IBM, and wil be the property of the department of energy.

The specs of this machine are appropriately boggling, especially to a CS ingenue.

By almost any standard, the new computer will be staggering. It will have 1.6 million processing cores, 1.6 petabytes of memory, 96 racks, and 98,304 computing nodes. Yet, the new computer will have a much smaller footprint at 3,400 square feet than the current fastest computer’s 5,200 square feet. And it will be much more energy efficient than its predecessors, only drawing six megawatts of power a year. That’s about how much energy 500 American homes use in the same period.

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Pleasures of the Flesch

In what passes for my professional life, I write and edit math and science lessons for middle-school students. As a result, I have recently become acquainted with an obscure feature of Microsoft Word: “Readability Statistics.” This is enabled by accessing the “Spelling & Grammar” tab (under the Tools –> Options) and checking “Show readability statistics.” Once you’ve done this, every time you run a spelling and grammar check, you’ll be presented with a dialog box like this:

Those stats pertain to my previous entry, which dealt with the inane yammering of James Dobson and Glenn Beck. The first bunch of numbers are self-explanatory and contribute to the final two metrics, the results of the Flesch-Kincaid Readability tests performed on the entry.
As the Wikipedia entry explains, a Reading Ease of 90-100 means that anyone with eyes and a pulse can supposedly understand what the material says, 60-70 means a 13- to 15-year old can grok it, and 30 and under means that a college degree might be required for understanding. Note that my entry’s score proves that material may be comprehensible even when its subjects are not.
Just for fun, I ran my next-oldest entry through the program:

Consistency! And since all things revolve around PZ Myers, I analyzed his own entry about the recent Dobson/Beck tardcast:

Profane neologisms and too-long sentences, both if which I am fond, evidently raise a document’s presumed reading level–probably more the latter than the former, as suggested by this one-sentence “story”:
Once upon a time, a huge ugly monster pooped in his hands and then ate it, yum!

Apparently the average fifth-grader is equipped to at least read what is on most creationist sites even if the verbiage there consists entirely of poop and doo-doo-ka ka.

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Medtronic seeking distance runners for “Global Heroes” program

Medtronic is recruiting runners who benefit from medical technology to participate in its fourth annual Medtronic Global Heroes program. Up to 25 runners will be selected to receive a paid entry and travel expenses for themselves and a guest to the Twin Cities Marathon on October 4 or its companion 10-mile race. The deadline for applications is March 31.
In addition, the Medtronic Foundation will donate $1,000 to a select non-profit patient organization that educates and supports people who have the Global Hero’s medical condition.
To qualify, runners must currently be using a medical device to treat heart disease, diabetes, chronic pain, spinal disorders, or neurological, gastroenterology and urological disorders. Eligible medical devices include any pacemaker or implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), any spinal device, any neurological device, any insulin pump, or any heart valve.

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Medtronic seeking distance runners for “Global Heroes” program

Medtronic is recruiting runners who benefit from medical technology to participate in its fourth annual Medtronic Global Heroes program. Up to 25 runners will be selected to receive a paid entry and travel expenses for themselves and a guest to the Twin Cities Marathon on October 4 or its companion 10-mile race. The deadline for applications is March 31.
In addition, the Medtronic Foundation will donate $1,000 to a select non-profit patient organization that educates and supports people who have the Global Hero’s medical condition.
To qualify, runners must currently be using a medical device to treat heart disease, diabetes, chronic pain, spinal disorders, or neurological, gastroenterology and urological disorders. Eligible medical devices include any pacemaker or implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), any spinal device, any neurological device, any insulin pump, or any heart valve.

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Wired names top ten tech breakthoughs of 2008

As one might expect, virtually every one of the items on this list relates to either personal computing or cell phones. The notable exception is #8, which is more a testament to the phenomenal reach of Michael Phelps’ singular near-hijacking of the Beijing Olympics than to the impact of the supersuit on the general population, which is clearly nil.
Some editorial comments on the top ten:

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Grad student invents “gym car”

I’m not sure if this is a great idea, but it’s certainly an impressive contraption. A graduate student at Coventry University in Britain named Da Feng has designed a car that houses a step machine, rowing machine, bench press, pull-up simulator and weights within its small interior.

Photo courtesy of Wired.com
Called a “human-electric hybrid,” the car relies on use of the machines to charge its batteries. Likke racing bicycles, the car’s frame is carbon-fiber, meaning it is extremely lightweight and probably costs about 3.7 shitloads.
I don’t know if such a machine would be street-legal in the U.S., but it’s certainly interesting to look at.

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How a Setback Thermostat Saves Energy

There is some confusion as to precisely how a setback thermostat saves energy. In fact, because of misunderstandings I have heard a number of people proclaim that a setback doesn’t save energy. There are two common arguments:
1. Although you save energy as the house is initially cooling during the setback period, the furnace has to work overtime to make up this loss once the setback period is over. This “overtime” counteracts the initial savings for no net savings.
2. If the house is set for, say, 68F, when it cools a degree to 67F the furnace will turn on. It takes just as much energy to bring the air up one degree, whether it’s from 67 to 68 or from 59 to 60.
So what’s the deal?

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Salary Survey Results: Electrical/Electronic Engineers 2008

Electronic Design has released their 2008 salary survey for electrical and electronic engineers. Average salary for design and development engineers is now $94k (base salary). Engineering management is up to $116k. The highest paying regions are Pacific and Mountain at $114k and $103k, respectively. The lowest regions are East North Central and West North Central at $87.4k and $90.3k (I guess North Central USA is not the place to be).
Other interesting tidbits include a very telling disparity between men ($97.5k) and women ($78.6k). Starting salaries are around $50k. Those with one to four years of experience are pulling in $60.5k, at five to nine years $76k, continuing in like manner to $106k for those with 20 to 24 years experience. The highest paid specializations are ICs and semiconductors ($122k) and computer product design ($118k). At the other end we find safety and security ($80k) and components and subassemblies ($84.9k). Most other specializations were in the 90k range, such as R&D, test & measurement, software design and automotive electronics.
Engineering education was not included in the survey, but I have little doubt that it would drag the numbers down. Then again, the hours are completely different.

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