Thursday, 27 March 2014

The Viscount Project, Part III

Woodworking is lots of fun. I made dovetail joints the newfangled way:

Doing this made me feel full of geeky and also full of awesome.
It felt like cheating. A little. Doing it this way. Instead of with a saw. Or a toothpick. Like they did in the old days. But it also made me able to cut dovetail joints, so: compromise accepted!

After gluing all the corners square, and marking and cutting big thin bits of wood for the top and bottom of the box, I cut the sides in half so the box could swing open to reveal the pedals when it was all put together.

Then I made my fatal error.

My plan required the keys to come in from the top of the box. There were supports. The keys would get bolted to the supports, and live happily inside their box. But this, crucially, required attaching the bottom of the box permanently, i.e. with nails and glue, and then attaching the top bit removably, i.e. with screws. That way I could put the box together, finish it, and then take it apart again to get the keys inside.

Instead, I very precisely, meticulously, with no drips of extra glue— and at the very end of class— glued-and-nailed the tops on each half of the box.

Then I rode my bike home through a lovely sunny spring day in Bath.

Then I realised what I had done.

I emailed the instructor— in a state I'd be reluctant to describe as 'panic'— to warn him, but really, deep down, I knew the glue would be set by then, and I'd just have to find another way to get the pedals inside the case.

Thankfully most things are— in life and in woodworking— if not reversible, at least work-around-able. At the next week's class, after following the pedals' electrical traces carefully through the PCB board I determined I could lose the top 1/4" or so off the circuit board, which is the bit that sticks up the highest. I then spent about 40 minutes sanding it down. (PCB board dust cannot be good dust to breathe in. Remind me not to do that again.) Finally I could slide the pedals into the case. Victory!

* * *

One secret of woodworking is: you know those beautiful corners you see on the box? It did not start out that way. After everything else was in place, I planed and sanded to get all the bits aligning perfectly. At the end it looked as though I had really just measured and cut to a degree of precision I am definitely not capable of. I like that aspect of wood, its forgivingness.

During the week I had ordered some hardware online, so that went on the box, again with Paul's don't-do-it-the-dumb-way-here's-how-to-do-it-right friendly guidance and good ideas. As the class finished I took everything home, took the hardware back off, and put some coats of Danish Oil on the wood.

Danish Oil is my new favourite thing. It makes old bleached wood look amazing, it makes new raw wood look amazing, and it makes everything waterproof without making it shiny. (When I bought it, I naïvely thought that it would just be some fancy oil. It is an oil with all sorts of horrible toxic solvents in it that make it penetrate into the wood. This part I like a bit less. I have learned how to save and reuse white spirit, now, though, so I don't have to feel like I'm destroying all aquatic life in Britain every time I clean a brush.)

Here is the final product of the woodworking class. I am very happy with it:

Pedalcase: closed.

Pedalcase: open!

Now you may be thinking one of two things:

  1. Wait, what does this do?
  2. Why are there wires sticking out the side?
These two things are related. There is an Arduino hooked up to the pedals. The next step is to write a nice little bass synth that can be controlled via pedals.

Soon, soon...

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Viscount Project, Part II

(The second in a series of how-I-am-turning-an-old-electronic-organ-into-some-new-modular-instruments)

Woodworking: A class at Bath City College.

From some friends I heard about this woodworking class.

I had, yes, already bought a ridiculously good saw in fulfilment of the stereotype that the first thing to do when you get interested in some new past-time is to go out and spend some money on pro-level kit.

Now it was time to do something about it.

The class was a bunch of dudes, predictably and unfortunately. (Oh, England. Oh, Western civilisation) On the upside, they were all super nice guys. Also on the upside, my new boss decided to take the class when he heard me talking about it (Paraphrase: "Is it ok if I take that class? It sounds really cool but I don't want to crash your weekends.") so we got to have some casual time together learning how to chisel out a mortice.

Paul, our very capable instructor, quickly got us up to speed on the various tools involved in woodworking. Turns out there are a lot:

  1. Square (two types, a 'normal' one and an engineer's one)
  2. Gauge (two types: Mortise and Marking)
  3. Ruler, duh.
  4. Some kind of bench squaring helper I don't know the name of
  5. Vise
  6. Clamps
  7. Chisels (four sizes) and wooden hammer
  8. Plane (my favourite tool!)
  9. Sander (many kinds)
  10. Tenon saw (the thing I have already)
  11. Dovetail jig
  12. Router
  13. Bandsaw
So with those things at home, I could begin to duplicate this project. It is impressive! I want them all, but also I don't want a home full of tools I never use. Hmm.

Probably the most critical thing I learned in this class is the importance of making a full-scale drawing. This is part of the 'design process' and really forced me to be specific about how things were going to fit together. (Unfortunately no documentation of that drawing exists for blogging purposes.) As we will see, I didn't think everything through and so the design process continues through the time of this writing. :)

Once the drawing was sorted, I got to pick some wood, use an amazing planing machine to get it to the approximate thickness I wanted, and then get starting cutting these badass dovetail joints:

Making sure the keys fit in the bits of box I have cut. (Spoiler: they fit!)

They don't fit that way! Lots of clamps keep things square during gluing.

The college is full of mad things like a 6' stone saw. Definitely do not distract anyone using that thing! Also: Sawyer! Neat.

Paul was great about things like: reminding me to (for instance) mark out where I was going to put nails ahead of time, rather than just pounding them in and hoping they looked okay. Also there were several times when I felt like I had screwed something up irretrievably, and he had some magic trick for fixing it. Most of the time it involved approximately 5 seconds of using some power tool I have never heard of. This made building a nice box with basically no woodworking skills a bit like walking a very low tightrope just over an incredibly reassuring net.

I'll leave this one here, with two future-post teasers:

  1. Wait, how is this thing going to work? What does it do?
  2. I make a nearly-fatal error in the assembly of the box!

Friday, 14 March 2014

The Viscount Project, part I

The first time we lived in Bath, we had an old Viscount organ. Here it is:

This is not an organ. (This is a picture of an organ.)

Around the time we were planning to move to London, something in the keys started dying. The beats were okay, the bass pedals were okay, but something in the connection to the keyboard was dodgy. But  that was fine, because the good bits of the organ were the beats and the bass pedals. What's more, I had an idea:

pull out the brains/guts and make them standalone instruments.

So, just before we moved, I pulled the whole thing apart. This thing was put together by hand, and it was built to last. Persistence paid off, though, and in a couple hours I was looking at this:

There was a lot of dust.

Knowing that I wouldn't be doing anything with this immediately— and also knowing that I have the memory of a fruitfly when it comes to details (unless, weirdly, they are presented to me in the form of dialogue, in which case I will remember them forever) — I was careful to photograph all of the wires' connections before I pulled them apart.

Then we snuck the outside frame bits into a tip (shhhhh), packed up all the electronics into some suitcases, and moved to London!

Our place there was okay. But there wasn't a lot of room to spread out and build stuff.

Then we went to Japan, where Emma got a book deal:

And a bit over a year after we left Bath, we moved back, into a nice house. Where I rekindled the dream of the Viscount-bits-in-a-box. Or rather, boxes.

Next up: I sign up for a woodworking class!

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Iterative Design

This movie is a series of screenshots of everything we tried as we designed and build Shazam for iPad. One thing that I think this demonstrates is the importance of iterating, trying things out and throwing them away when they don't work, are confusing, or conflict with something that works better.

This is hard in any creative endeavour, of course. But there's a specific way that it seems hard for boss-types to let go of the idea that they can see a 'final design' in a meeting, sign off on it, and then have it built by some devs. You don't really ever know what you're building until it's done— sometimes you don't even know until after that— and so things like navigation and user interaction have to be worked through again and again and again.

Neil (@foley), one of the geniuses I work with, says things like "the first time you think you've solved a problem, you have definitely not solved that problem yet." I think there's room in software development methodology for an embrace of this kind of development: get some really good devs and a designer who doesn't mind a two-way street, give them some basic goals like "build something good" and then, possibly, push the process into a "finalizing/release-prep" stage when it needs some sort of release (public or internal) in order to continue maturing.

Friday, 6 December 2013

On the realness of the imaginary

Sometimes you have a thing in the back of your mind forever, and then you read or hear something that sort of jolts it out of the shadows and into the open. This just happened to me with the words "real" and "imaginary" as opposites, and as synonyms/parallels with "true" and "false", or "useful" and "fake" and so forth. There is a thing that has bothered me about the way we use these two words. I'm going to try to unpick what it is. (It came up because I was reading this page about Lacan, which was linked as an aside in a story in The Stranger, which is— perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not— where I get most of my news about the USA since I stopped getting the NYT headlines emailed to me every day. They are my #1 source of news because they syndicate Dan Savage. Good one, The Stranger. You get my pageviews.)

(Of course, our categories of "opposite" are always intricately bound up with each other, or they wouldn't make sense: the opposite of "black" is "white", after all, not "spoon" or "snow" or "quickly". Each is a color, is an extreme and pure color, and is a color that is sometimes thought of as not really a color, not like the colorful ones anyway. The opposite of "man" is "woman"; the opposite of "child" is "adult", and so on. However, even though these opposites need to be in the same category in order to make sense as opposites, they can be thought of as diametrically opposed, or at least as non-overlapping Platonic ideals with which reality can be filtered. One can exist, of course, on the continuum between adult and child, between man and woman, but the continuum itself is linear: it is fairly straightforward to, given one point on the line (and a cultural context), describe something that would move a given person toward or away from a given terminus. And this is how we think and speak of "real" and "imaginary". But this leaves out some fairly important things about the brain, consciousness, and our perception.)

So what we're implying when we say something is "real" is what, exactly? That is can be seen, touched, or moved around? That it has physical existence? What about a dream? People will contrast something that happened in a dream with something that "really" happened, which is a pretty clear distinction. But the dream is also real— it's a real dream. If I imagine a unicorn, it's not a real unicorn, but it is a real imagining of a unicorn. It's a pattern of neural connections and activity inside my head. But then, so is the dream. And so is the sky, the sidewalk, the sunshine... or at least my perceptions of them.

Ok, we're in brain-in-a-vat territory now, so it's time to wrap things up. Our minds are real: they are patterns in our brains. Our brains our real, although we don't have any appreciable direct perception of them most of the time. Everything else is real, and so is (separately) our internal representation of it as a pattern in our mind.

Oh hi, Daniel Dennett, what are you doing here?

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Since June, eh? Well, here.

I knew it had been a while. But since June? Whoa.

A while back I decided I wanted to start dedicating regular time to songwriting, which is a thing I completely stopped doing... geez, in retrospect basically when I left Chicago. I've written music since then, but not much in the way of, you know, songs.

This isn't so much a song, either, but it came out of some songwriting time, and in honor of the movie coming out today I thought: here.

(aaaand we're off to the theatre!) 

Friday, 28 June 2013

Saved my life

Hey, check this out:

Excellent, eh?

Having talented friends/partners is awesome. Sometimes I get sad because I'm not doing everything all the time better than anyone else. But lots of the time (and more and more as I get older) I am also/instead thrilled by how much beauty and joy and talent comes out of the people who I get to spend time with.

So that's neat.