New page on the site, with loads of trivia and neat knowledge nuggets: the ABOUT page, as seen in the blog header!
Archive for March, 2011
aka Finding the Meaning Model Railroad Edition?
So my model train locomotives that I’ve been waiting around a half a year for arrived in the mail last week. So. Exciting. Few people will understand why, but it is. I subscribe to the Milwaukee Road Modelers Yahoo usergroup, which is an incredible resource and a fascinating discussion forum that I’d recommend to anyone interested in such affairs. On the group, one member Eric, who is like mister milwaukee electric, chimed in that he had gotten two of them, and one couldn’t pull much weight. Naturally I had to test mine, but my train layout was packed up in boxes. What to do…?
First, I went digging for spare track. There was an old fluorescent light cardboard box stuffed full of it out in the garage. This I had wisely purchased off eBay a long time ago, and it had formed the backbone of my old layout in Chicago. Second, a trip to the local hobby shop for some rail joiners. I know I have a ton of them somewhere, but a daunting stack of sealed boxes packed tight with many small objects stood between them and myself. Armed with these, and a power transformer which had been easy to locate among the moving boxes, I set up a long, straight test track to find out how many cars my new engines could pull.
Somewhere along the line of setting this up, I had the thought, wow, I wonder how long it’s been since I’ve actually set up a train track on the floor? Probably not since I was a kid. For that matter that last time I ran a model train was the beginning of last June. Ten months ago.
With the train on the track, I turned up the juice. It was the same transformer I had as a kid, the same knurled handle applying those volts to make a miniature fantasy-land come alive. A familiar old feeling I hadn’t felt in some time came rushing back; the excitement of a tiny network of gears and axles churning under my command. There is some child-like wonder inherent in the animation of these bits of plastic that takes me back to someplace hard to reach, someplace hidden. Late that night, I myself was transported; backward through time, lying on the carpet, watching the long stretch of passenger cars move back and forth.
A friend of mine once said, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you what you should or shouldn’t do on your railroad–it’s YOUR empire.” Indeed. And while my empire resides primarily inside of boxes at this point, I have no doubt that these two will be big stars when it makes a triumphant return.
The transmission around here went dark for a while. I tend to do that after I write something I really like. As if the next thing has to somehow equal or better it, and the pressure is too much. Well, this post is plainly not going to be as cool as the previous one, so let’s just set the bar nice’n’low.
However this doesn’t mean that nothing awesome has happened over the last week; the speakers are assembled and I’ve been adding/subtracting foam to try to find the optimal amount of stuffing. More detailed impressions to come…
Also, something arrived in the mail last week which I’ve been waiting for since last October; two Milwaukee Road model train locomotives. Another first breaching of what will no doubt become a massive topic on the site–model railroading! I had a (semi?)glorious train layout while I lived in Chicago, but unfortunately it has resided inside many boxes since the move to Texas. As I get motivated to bring more pieces of it out and eventually start construction on Layout 2.0, expect to hear more about model trains in this space.
Yardwork happened too. Much needed yardwork. And the accompanying post-yardwork hot tub dip. That part was good.
And lastly, car repairs! YUCK. I think tonight will be a ‘drowning my sorrows in fine pizza and delicious wine’ night. Ugh. Mondays.
This weekend I spent a lot of time working on a project I’m excited about: new speakers. These speakers are not for myself, they’ll be a birthday gift for my little brother, but still! Building loudspeakers is something I’m definitely passionate about, although this is the first time I’m mentioning it on the site. So let’s get into it!
First of all, why is this cool? Well, a ton of reasons. Building speakers is an art of trade-offs. There is, and never will be such thing as ‘perfect’ speakers. Every system is a compromise in some sense, with strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. For example, the two main strengths in the ones I’m making right now are a high efficiency rating of 91dB (pretty good! This means that given less power, these speakers play louder than most), and a very smooth frequency response. The smooth frequency response was my main goal; important because my brother is going to recording school. If he’s going to be using these to audition recordings and potentially do mastering, it’s critically important that they don’t add their own ‘color’ to the sound. Speakers with choppy response curves can still sound great, but they add their own personality to the tone, which does not copy over to any other stereo setup. So it would be a terrible idea to master a recording on a system with a response curve that has lots of peaks and valleys. The weaknesses would be that I maybe didn’t get as deep of a bass response as I would’ve wished, and the price went a little higher because I insisted on drivers with good responses. In order to try to keep the costs down but still use good components, I omitted a midrange and used only two drivers per channel. For the enclosure, I chose to use a port to get what bass I could. I’d prefer a sealed box, but again, these are the compromises that you get forced into making. It’s part of what keeps it interesting.
There’s also the brand name aspect too. Just like having your favorite sports team or buying new shoes from your favorite brand, getting speakers from a particular maker is sort of exciting in and of itself. This time around I picked a tweeter from a Danish brand I’ve always wished I could afford, Scan Speak. Scan Speak is very highly regarded in the industry, and with that awesome pedigree comes an accompanying price tag. I’m guessing the recent economic downturn led them to eschew their typical snobiness and produce a series of drivers ‘for the people’ called their “discovery” series. Maybe it’s called that because it’s my opportunity to “discover” what it’s like to listen to Scan Speak (on the cheap)? This I look forward to.
Something else very neat about speaker building is how long lasting it is. I built myself a pair in high school, and with one driver replacement (right midrange went bad) they’ve been serving me faithfully ever since. That’s well over a decade of listening. GOOD listening! I built another set for my buddy Luke, probably over a decade ago as well. Not long ago he told me he’s still lovin’ them and they continue to serve as his main listening system. That’s so rad! It brings me joy to think about this; the construction that I’m setting in motion in my garage today will last for decades. These are long term actions right now.
And more than that–these things will be making MUSIC! There will be huge moments of rocking out, when you’re getting ready to go do something great and you put on some tracks to pump yourself up! There will be mellow times late in the night when you come home and put on some chill vibes before you wind down for bed. Sad songs for when you just need to wallow in despair for a while, or daily anthems to get you into the groove of doing what you need to get done. These things are mood machines. Life enhancers. Tone establishers. Music colors our lives, it shapes our feelings. All those emotions will be flowing forth from these paper cones and cloth domes. I love that idea. LOVE IT!
In the morning, I cook myself an omelet with red onion, cheddar, and spinach. Filled up and ready for action, I head out to the garage. The sun is searingly bright and as I step out, I hear a crescendoing rumble in the sky. Before I can even step out onto the driveway, I say to myself aloud, “what the hell IS that?!” As I pass under the garage door I look up and see one of the biggest propeller planes I’ve ever seen flying very, very low overhead. It’s a 4-engine passenger plane, like one of those vintage prop-airliners from the 60s or something. Very unusual, and a pitch-perfect start to the day. It’s like a good omen. I watch it lumbering slowly across the sky in a wide arc as it turns toward the nearby municipal airport, slipping away behind the treeline.
Making speakers is something I love doing so much that if I could choose one thing to do for the rest of my days, building speakers would be near the top of the list. While I was out in the garage, I thought back to Geoff Marcy and his story of picking what he wanted to do with his life. Things weren’t going good and he knew he had to make a decision to go in a new direction. He thought, well, what I really want to do is find planets even though it seems like a crazy idea. There’s really no money, glory, or fame in it, but I just want to do this because that’s what makes me happy. I could say the same thing about speakers.
So here I am, out in the garage, doing one of the things I love best! It is literally an ideal spring day, with temperatures in the high 70s and a nice cool breeze. I’m out with my measuring tape, drawing lines and slicing wood panels with my circular saw. There’s brown aviator sunglasses on my nose, to protect against wood chips and the blinding Texas sun. A few mistakes here, a curse word there, and a course correction gets me back on track. By the day’s end I will begin to see the cabinets take shape, and there are very nice looking flush-mount circles cut with my new router for the drivers. This is a new skill I have learned today, seen in the lead picture at the top. A neat speaker cutting jig helped me get just the right cut. Using these new tools is gratifying.
Mid afternoon I uncap my water bottle and take a huge swig of the cool refreshment inside. Stopping to assess my progress, it’s uncanny how quiet and peaceful things are between the rounds of power tools. Birds chirp somewhere in the trees and the streets are empty. No one else is here, no one super into this the way I am. It feels like this instant is a triumphant moment, but without anyone else around who ‘gets it’ enough to chime in and say “oh man, what’s happening right now is so sweeeet!!” The absence of conversation feels both ironically strange yet somehow appropriate in an inexplicable way. Here I am, by myself in the garage, making it happen, “blowing it up” so to speak. I guess this sums up what it’s like being into niche hobbies, hey?
There’s a tiny bit of red sunburn on my neck and a mix of sawdust and sweat on my brow. I am in an odd mode of excitedly rushing to get to the next step yet leisurely configuring the power tools for my next operations. Occasionally a dog-walker goes by, curiously eyeing the piles of wood, my setup of sawhorses, and various power tools strewn about. Sporadic flocks of kids fill up the air with sound as they pass down the block. Now and then I hear the distant roar of a power saw from someone else’s garage. It’s a great day to get some work done. Maybe once an hour I stop and look around, conscious that I’m doing something I love, which I only get to do once every few years. Building loudspeakers is expensive. And time intensive. A whole lot of planning goes into picking the drivers, crossover points, cabinet design; this is sort of a sacred moment, The Moment Of Genesis when ideas begin to take physical form.
There may be no money, glory, or fame in it, but I have a lot of love for the speaker building art. I don’t think I could ever make a living off of it, even if I decided I was willing to risk it all to try. But I hope to build many more sets over the years, to share my love of high-fidelity sound, and help give to other people the experiences that their own DJing can give to themselves, with crisp detail in the playback.
Alright here comes one I’ve been holding out on for a few weeks now: The Wakemate!
What the heck is it? : It’s a wristband you wear to bed. Inside there is an accelerometer, which measures when and how much your wrist is moving during the night. This is a method of sleep analysis called Actigraphy. There are many smartphone apps that use the built-in accelerometers in your phone to measure the same thing when placed on the mattress next to you. The downside of this is that you’ll need to put the phone quite close to your body to get accurate results, and even then it’s not going to be as sensitive to small movements that a wristband like this will pick up.
I’ve been using it for about two weeks now and I have to say, it’s pretty awesome. It connects to the phone (either Android, iOS, or Blackberry) via bluetooth, communicating once when you go to sleep and then again in the moring when it’s time to wake up. You set an alarm for the latest time you want to wake up, then the wakemate will watch your sleep patterns and wake you, up to 20 minutes before your designated alarm time. The idea is that if you are awakened during a period of light sleep, you won’t feel as groggy as you would if you were in deep sleep and jolted awake.
While the alarm aspect is certainly a cool idea, and I’m sure some people will be all about it, myself, I’m much more interested in simply looking at the data of how well I slept last night and how much deep sleep I got. Deep sleep, where your brain switches over to delta waves, is the restful kind of sleep that will make you feel more well rested in the morning.
Corresponding to how much deep sleep you get, the wakemate website gives you a “sleep score” which you can view on their website, along with all the other data on how well you’ve been sleeping. Just last night I got my highest sleep score yet, an 89. Interestingly, last night I slept 5:02, where the previous night, where I slept for 7:14 and got a score of 69. The difference? Last night I got much more deep sleep, and I never woke up during the night, which is something else that can lower your sleep score.
They don’t give much explanation on exactly how the sleep score is derived, but as you get more data on yourself and the variables start to rearrange themselves, you can make an educated guess as to how they tally it. One other really helpful thing is that they allow you to tag your nights with different labels. Some of mine are “vino,” “late supper,” or “swam”. Tracking these variables over time might allow me to see what effect they have on my alertness the next day.
Their website also shows you a plot of the raw movement data taken from the wristband for each night. To me, this is the coolest thing to look at, because that’s really the data behind all their calculations.
Why would you want all this data? Probably the same reason a lot of people enjoy having bike computers. It’s just cool to know stats about yourself and try to measure ways that you could be improving things, or figure out what you’re doing wrong.
I’m guessing some of you already knew the basic facts, so onto some detailed impressions: the wristband itself is a little snug. It’s make of elastic on one side and what feels like flannel for about 3/4ths of the rest. I figured out that you need to insert the electronics so that the flat side faces your arm, and the curved side faces out. That frees up a small but important amount of stretching so that the wristband isn’t quite so tight. It also helps to insert it on the side that is under the “wake” instead of the “mate” and wear the band so that the elastic area is closer to your body. Hard to describe, so see the picture:
Knowing these facts, the wristband is very wearable. I don’t wake up dying to take it off, nor does it distract me at all going to sleep or in the night. I suspect for some people with large wrists though, you might be finding or making your own wristband to stick the electronics inside of.
The app (I have a Motorola Droid X, so these comments pertain to the Android version) is, how should I put it… finicky. Given, this is the first version, and it says on their website that improvements are soon to come. But I have had it crash on me at least 4 times now, and sadly if the app crashes, you can kiss that nights data goodbye. There is no way to restart the app and tell it, “hey I just woke up and there is data you need to get!” Nor is there a way to take your wristband to the computer and plug it in to upload. If the app crashes (and it does!) you’ll lose that night. That’s definitely a bummer. But I expect this will be remedied with future updates.
On the whole, the app could use a lot of improvement, with a persistent volume setting for the alarm, a built-in viewer for your stats, a bigger ‘stop the alarm button’ (it’s tiny!), more features, and less crashing! I’d say the current implementation is spartan, but functional >70% of the time. Suffice it to say, really looking forward to the updates!!
But all criticisms aside, this puppy is awesome. It was worth the $60. I don’t know how long the battery lifespan is supposed to be, but I intend to use the wakemate every night until I’ve run it straight into the ground. Seeing a graph the next morning of how well you slept last night is just fascinating. I can tell you that, but until you see it yourself, based on your own actual sleep last night, you won’t quite appreciate how cool it truly is. (It is very cool.)
I’ll update this review after I’ve had a month or two more with it, and I also might blog about using the wakemate and dreaming, which is something I’ve been looking forward to since I signed up for the preorder, over a year ago!
When I started this blog I told myself I would use this space to talk about things that inspire me and highlight the best in human character. I want it to be more about building things up, and talking about what is possible, rather than tearing things down or endless snark, cynicism, pessimism, paranoia, etc. The headlines lately have been dominated by disheartening news, particularly in my home state of Wisconsin, but there have been some awesome things going on, which I want to spend time thinking about.a
There’s been some great press on the Ice Cube Neutrino Observatory lately, including an excellent article in IEEE spectrum. I had previously blogged about Ice Cube, and it continues to remain in my thoughts, how awesome this thing is. Every time I read dismaying political news or feel despair at the missteps of our society, I remind myself that we’ve got dudes at the south pole tracking cosmic rays, and I feel a little bit better about our species. It’s reassuring–maybe the large majority of people are too caught up in the hustle of daily-life to bother with such existential “big-questions” but there is a tiny group of people working to answer these questions for our behalf. Those people are called heroes.
Something else which is very, very cool is the STEREO spacecraft. Thanks to these guys, for the first time ever, we have a full 360 degree view of our sun. Sitting in same orbital position as earth, one satellite sped up and one slowed down, so that eventually (read:now!) they are positioned on opposite sides of our star. If I extrapolate correctly from the image above, it looks like from now and until around 2018, we can actually see the whole sun–enabling scientists to track sunspots, and the massive bursts of radiation that periodically spew forth. Although the odds of these radiation bursts and magnetic storms just so happening to align with Earth’s position are low, when it does happen, it directly affects all of our lives, in the form of blackouts, GPS interference, and slowdowns in many global industries affected by this radiation. The rotating image at right is the first 360 degree composite they made of the sun. There will be a lot more of these to come!
The STEREO satellites, to me, represent some small measure of mastery over our cosmic front yard. It’s good to have a window to know what’s happening outside. And it excites me to think that we’re doing it. Not only do we have the technology to do it (the most obvious barrier), but we also have the political willpower to spend them dollas to get up there and DO it (this is the real obstacle to most awesome science). That, my friends, is what you call rad.
I’ll sandwich in an honorable mention slash eulogy here for the NASA Glory satellite, which recently crashed into the Pacific. It’s a sad thing to think about, but worth mentioning, because hopefully they will try again. Long story short it was intended to monitor a whole slew of climate-related metrics to get us closer in touch with what the Earth is doing. Obviously very important work. This is actually the second satellite of this nature which failed to achieve orbit, so conspiracy theorists unite! (that’s the extent of my negativity here today)
Another neat thing I read about recently is the All-Sky Fireball Network. In addition to having a maximum ass-kicking name, the project monitors the sky with a nationwide network of smart cameras, with the aim of tracking any meteors burning up in the atmosphere. William Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office states coolly, “nothing will burn up in those skies without me knowing about it!” Sweet!!
Tracking these meteorites also gives them a vector for both where they should land and where they came from. Thus, if any of the meteorites leave remains that can be retrieved upon impact, the guys can study them, knowing a bit about their origin. Doublesweet. In effect it’s like getting free samples from outer space, without the need to launch costly rockets. Their data will also enable spacecraft designers to learn more about the nature of hole-punching threats that meteors would pose to future vehicles. Triplesweet.
Learning about something like that is exciting, but I also get the feeling like, geez, this is so great, why didn’t we start doing this like 30 years ago? Again, the technology is nothing new, it’s simply summoning the will to pay for it that holds us back. Every time something like this gets funded, our priorities inch a little closer toward making sense in my mind. It’s reassuring to think about!
In a world of easily classifiable game genres, this one is legitimately hard to explain! I think the best analogy would be, “it’s like the movie Inception”. You’ll see what I mean:
Basically you’re a little 8-bit dude inside a procedurally generated (aka mostly random) maze, with a pea-shooter. The objective is to get past your enemies and make it to the exit, which takes you up a level. You goal is to get to as high of a level as you can. You can’t die in this game. If you take too many hits, the screen zooms WAY in on your pixelated self, and you find yourself back in the previous level. This is somewhat of an opportunity because anytime you pick up power-ups, they don’t kick in until the next level. So whatever you get in level 19 will apply itself on level 20. This means that when you get kicked down one level, you can selectively choose new power-ups which will help you get past the next level that killed you last time.
Okay, so this is where it STARTS to get crazy: any enemy or power-up you see, you can “go into”. For example if an enemy is shooting a wide scattershot that bounces off the walls, making it impossible to get past him, you put the mouse cursor over him and hit shift. The screen zooms WAY in on him, and now you are “inside” of the enemy. You run around and get power-ups that are weaker and more useless than what he had before. Once you’re satisfied, you find the exit, go back out, and now the enemy is easy to defeat because you gave him useless power-ups!
You can also do this with power-ups (although in my experience they tend to be hard)… so if you see a level 1 heat-seeking power-up and you say to yourself, gee, I really wish that was a level 9 health boost, you can “go into” it, and change it. If you die while you’re “inside” something, you get kicked back a level. So say you were on level 15 and you went into a power-up and died there–now you’ll find yourself on level 14.
And this is where it gets REALLY crazy: you can “go into” things which are “inside” of other things. Say you went inside of an enemy but you can’t find any weak power-ups to sabotage him. Just “go into” a strong power-up and make it weaker. Woah. Things are getting trippy.
You can also go into yourself.
Although doing this simply takes you back one level. And I’m not sure why you’d want to do that. If you keep going back far enough that the level number turns negative, you turn into a ghost. Hah! The higher you go in level number, the game gets more difficult (duh); and curiously, this applies to negative numbers too. I went down to -15, and at that point it was hard to actually win, taking you progressively deeper and deeper as you keep losing.
At first I was scratching my head. Then I was laughing. And after 20 more minutes I was like, wow, this is actually kind of genius. The game itself is very simplistic, but the idea of what you’re doing is weird as hell.
I can think of a lot more things I wish it could do: I wish I could go into the walls to make my own path, I wish I could “go into” the exit (although I don’t know what it would do… maybe skip a level if it were extra hard to win “inside” the exit), I wish I could disable the music which is also procedurally generated based on what’s around you, I wish I could zoom the perspective out to see a bit more of what’s around me, and I wish there were some kind of incentive to go into yourself. So forth.
In the later levels you start encountering baddies who relentlessly chase you down from across the maze and take many hits to kill. This makes it a lot harder to sit still for long or be choosy about which power-ups you want to collect for the next level. It also makes it more stressful. I bounced back and forth between 23 and 24 for quite some time, and each time I started level 24 I had this feeling of dread because I knew the really fast pink monster was coming…
When you keep bouncing back and forth between the levels sometimes they stay the same for a little while. But after 3-5 times they change, which means you might be getting overwhelmed by enemies in an unfamiliar place and drop back several levels in a row. On the website the designer says, “see how high you can get. I got to level 26.” 24 is the best I could do. Damn you, fast pink monster.
You gotta see this game to believe it. And since it’s only $1.75 + a donation that you choose, so there’s really no reason not to. It’s an indie game made by one guy, so go support him. And get your mind bent!