Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Laptops aplenty

I have, at last count, five laptops. A Commodore 286 that got me through my first years of teaching (came with the computer lab), Another Commodore 386 I bought for $50 from a friend ( VGA, 256 colours running Windows 3.1 ), a Pentium 90 MHz machine from a company that was clearing out their old machines, a Pentium II I got from another teacher ( needed some RAM and a new 4 GB hard disk - cranky but works fine ) and now a Dell Inspiron with CD burner and DVD. It came to me without a power supply and a burnt out inverter, which I got through ebay.
Having all of these machines makes one thing very clear to me: I am not a big laptop fan.
Batteries - all laptops outlast their batteries. Unless you drop them from a building or something. Sure new battery technology lets you run it for more time, but the batteries will crap out eventually by holding a charge for less and less time, until you might get five minutes. Replacement batteries are, if they are available, stupid expensive.
Repairs - Two examples: a laptop at work with a broken LCD panel cost us $700 to fix. The Dell I just fixed myself cost me $25 in parts, the new part was easy to install and it would have cost $500 ( of course I did have the whole thing in pieces all labelled "fragile", "do not touch" and "are you insane, man?", and then discovered it was just a single part with two connectors and two screws ).

I don't find them particularily portable, the keyboards are awful and the touchscreen mouse tend to be very difficult to use. And I can't see myself sitting in Starbucks drinking $5 coffee and... doing whatever it is people with laptops in Starbucks do ( no, really, tell me....). Of course, you can add a mouse, external keyboard and monitor... but then you've got a desktop.

I've been at a lot of baseball games, martial arts lessons, swim lessons and birthday parties where I've thought it would be nice to have something to use to finish my play or movie script ( more later ), but then again, I can always bring paper and pencil.

Maybe I can trade it in for a steam engine. Now I need one of those....

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Things that scared the crap out of me circa 1975

Kolchak: the Night Stalker
I've been watching the DVD of"Kolchak: The Night Stalker". 1974-1975, Darren McGavin (aka the Dad from "A Christmas Story") investigates supernatural phenomenon in Chicago. Lasted one season, but left an impression on me (apparently on Chris Carter as well, who said "The X-Files" was partly inspired by it). Not because it was scary - the monsters were about as scary as any space alien Captain Kirk or Doctor Who faced: cheesy guy in a rubber suit quality - it just had a good, scary story around the campfire quality to it. Especially the few episodes where the monster wasn't seen, or you only saw a vague glimpse of it.
There were a few sources of scary stuff in the 70's for a kid in suburbia. Here's a few that top the list:
The Exorcist - never actually got to see it, but the schoolyard stories about it were far more gruesome and horrifying than the movie turned out to be.
Rod Serling's Night Gallery - I still hate earwigs...
Karen Black in that movie where the demon doll keeps coming after her. Whoa geez, I can still see the teeth.
The "Movie of the Week" where the little evil gnomes live in the crawlspace. Kept me out of there.
And "Scrooge - the Musical". OK, sure - it was a musical version of "A Christmas Carol". But when the Ghost of Christmas Future pulls back his hood and there's a grinning skull underneath... that's when I started sleeping with the covers over my head. I was seriously scared by it. I think horror is most effective when it really comes out of left field.
Weird that I could sit through a good British Hammer Horror, Frankenstein or Werewolf movie, or even The Blob with people getting digested by a slime mold, and the thing that kept me up at night for weeks was from a musical.

"Sound of Music" messed me up pretty good too....

And he quoteth from the good book, which smells,

Many thanks toJouslare (Aka Robert A. - friend since junior high) for the quotes from the original text of "Miniature Brains", reprinted here for your edification:

Envisaging the latent possibilities of electronic computers, even sober scientists are apt to indulge in day-dreaming. If we are to believe some of them, information machines will be able in the near future to do everything that human beings believe they are capable of doing: waging war, drawing up new tax laws, and making films for television -- maybe even inventing a shoe string that won't break.

We are unwilling to lose ourselves in Utopian visions. Let us see what electronic computers are actually capable of doing today, or what -- if the programmers and techincians are given another few years to play with them -- they are certain to accomplish...

And this gem:
The housewife of the future may not be able to do without her electronic cook. She will no longer have any time to cook, because she will have to go to work to earn the money to pay the installments due on all her beautiful electronic appliances.

Oooh! Tecknologee!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Project #147 - subassembly B42X: I Hate 120V

front panel
back panel
OK, I'm building a laser show. Yes, a 1970's psychedelic laser show. Because I Can.
Anyway, this is my least favourite part - wiring 120V AC. It's easy, sure - there are only two wires - instant death and not instant death. Or at the very least large popping crackily sparks and instantly fried electronics with smoke and fire and me using four letter words I don't normally use in polite company. See, I've screwed up 120V before and it's not fun. I've worked with household wiring that's been incorrectly done and I've gotten shocked. I've destroyed perfectly good appliances trying to fix them. There's a reason it says "no user servicable parts inside" - it means "instant searing pain/death to those who enter and touch the wrong thing".
But I do it - very, very carefully. This seems to work. My voltmeter told me the numbers I wanted to see and there were no sparks/flames/smelly smoke/me writhing on the ground. A coworker sees me with all these wires and says "You know where all those wires go? You're a lot smarter than I am".... no, just too cheap to hire an electrician.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Project # 124 - Vinyl to MP3

Garage sales rock. Aside from completing my 80's record collection (though I had to wade through a lot of copies of "Thriller" and "The Nylons" to find those copies of "Stiff Little Fingers" and "Sigue Sigue Sputnik") I now have the power to turn that vinyl into MP3s. Here's what you need:

A decent turntable. Very easy to find at thrift stores or garage sales now that all is CD and Ipod. Anywhere from $2 and up. Mine was $2 for a JVC and stylus. It's a bit of a crap shoot as this one works better than the $24 I spent on a turntable at the Salvation Army, plus the $37 for a new stylus.

An amplifier Most turntables don't put out enough power to connect directly to your computer. You'll need an amplifier to boost the signal. This is a $5 (garage sale)mixing board from Radio Shack, but you could use any decent amp. Again, easy to pick up at a garage sale. The one weak point of amplifiers is the capacitors which can fail after a few years and lead to a lot of added noise or a channel dropping out. This is usually why old stereos crap out on you.

A decent audio editor. Audacity. is a free sound editor you can use to record, edit and convert sounds to MP3 files. I use an older version of Sound Forge which also allows for automatic click and crackle removal.

It takes about an hour and a half to convert an album including recording, breaking a sound file up into tracks and converting to MP3. The quality is pretty good, but it really depends on the state of the record, turntable, amp and sound card.

I've been converting some nice old Vancouver 80's punk there's no way I'd ever find on Itunes. It's fun to listen to DOA, Pointed Sticks and Poisoned again. Of course, given these albums are 20 years old and still playable, and I've yet to meet a computer file format that's lasted that long - I may just be spinning some wheels here.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Vanity vase

Face + JPG + Rhinoceros = Vase

My profile makes a nice vase, according to my wife...

Done withRhinoceros 3D modelling

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Sam and Max - Freelance Police

I'm not a gamer. This is not about video games. But this is good.
Sam and Max: Freelance Police has risen again.
Once upon a time there was a very funny comic that was turned into a "point and click adventure game". It was funny, fun to play and didn't hurt my brain. The company that made the game made other similar games like "Monkey Island" and "Full Throttle". I liked these games too. A couple of years ago, they said "we're making a sequel to Sam and Max". All was good. Then the Bozos took over. "This game is not what the consumer wants - they want more 'Star Wars' shoot-em up themed games, so we're canning all adventure games - piss off wankers" (OK I added that last bit).

This was not good. Apparently the game was all of 90% complete when they dropped the ball.

I'm not impressed with todays computer games. Oh sure, they look great, but the basic premise (and ask a gamer this) has not changed in ten years. the big sellers are "First Person Shooters" where you're a gun that shoots stuff. Ok, there's "real time physics" where if you shoot a chair, it falls apart like a chair would... and there's AI where if you shoot at someone they shoot back and might hit you... and there's multiplayer capability which means you and a bunch of other guys can shoot each other.... whee....

Anyway, Telltale Games has picked up the rights to the Sam and Max gaming world.

All is good again.

Miniature Brains

And the title...
Brian's is kind of cryptic - Liverspot, I finally discovered, is in reference to his many dalmatians. Pat is not a "Bad Dad"...
I had been pondering a title for a blog for some time. It reminds me of when we used to compose imaginary band names - must be somewhat cryptic, amusing, seemingly random ("Death Cab for Cutie" comes to mind).
"Miniature Brains for the Home" is the chapter title in a book on computers I read in the 9th grade. For some reason I found it insanely funny and it's stuck with me for all these years.
And it was a lot better than the other names I had come up with:
- View from Lynx Mountain
- Bob Zilenski's Herring Skiff
- Tardis Vortex
- Devil Ducky (taken anyway)
- Workbench Clutter
- Daggit Droppings
- Geared Locomotive
- Box of Circuit Boards
- Ephraim Shay World Tour
- Unfinished Project #72
- Self Deprecating
- #4 Robertson
and the very, very close runner up
- Lone Jackalope Theory

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Alright, Fine....

Right. Good. Both brothers have blogs - now I do too. All is good. No it's not. I've been avoiding this but it seems inevitable: I must publish. So much stuff and so little documentation. All the minutiae I find fascinating and I keep to myself. Not that I couldn't be spending the time on projects. I mean - laser show, rocket video camera, garden railroad... the list goes on.... and on... I take on projects on a daily basis. "Oooh - with duct tape, 20 gauge wire and a PIC processor I could build a laser missle guidance system? Off to Princess Auto!". Cursed MAKE magazine!


By way of introduction, I'm Sean and this is MY blog. I'm 42, married, dad to 2 kids, teach high school physics and computer science, live in deepest, darkest suburbia and like dark beer.

I have a garden railroad - the Lynx Mountain and Blackberry, I like mucking about with computers, building stuff, taking stuff apart, geocaching and astronomy.

At least, that's what I'm doing this week....