Archive for April, 2007

Yeah, any excuse to build a new machine…

Today’s entry, involving cool things that blink at VNV concerts, will not be seen at this time, because all the pictures are on the computer that just bit the dust.

Ok, the computer’s fine (or as well as it was for the last several years), but one of the drives took to making this loud sharp metallic WHIIIINNNNNE that means it’s time to start praying to the data recovery deities of my choosing*. The machine has two drives, and they’re too close together to determine by ear which is failing, so I decided to turn the machine off and leave it off** until I have a replacement ready.

Anyway, this is the kick in the pants I’ve been needing to justify the purchase of an obscenely fast new machine to myself, and fix all of the issues in the backup rant. Hey, if I’m going to buy a new drive, it might as well be SATA because the old IDE are fast going obsolete, and motherboards are stopping supporting them. So if I have a SATA drive, I need a new motherboard. And if I have a new motherboard, it needs this sexy dual-core Athlon X2….

* Long diversion to talk about backups here:
As a (long ago, far away) IT-person, I know the importance of keeping backups religiously. So to prove how religious I was, I bought a shiny new DVD+-(*&^%etc.)RW (and RMA’d it after it didn’t work) (and RMA’d the replacement too) (and returned it and got another brand at Bestbuy) to back up all my data on a regular basis. By now you’re noticing that didn’t work so well. After three non-working drives (all burned coasters), I can only guess some weird issue between my motherboard / BIOS / hacks to BIOS to fix unexplained missing IDE channels and broken ATA100 support (long rant here, scroll down) and DVD writers was to blame***. So I said ‘yeah, I mean to fix that…’ and took to periodically copying the important stuff of drive 1 to drive 2 and vice versa, up until the point where both run out of space (yeah, I’ve been meaning to fix that…). This backup is a series of big WinRAR archives, not just for the compression, but mainly because every Windows version to date has been fscking BRAINDEAD in any kind of file copying****, while WinRAR, upon finding one file it can’t copy out of 1000, will actually copy the other perfectly copyable 999. But now, WinRAR has been having this issue where it will no longer backup a specific set of data (being most of a drive) to the other drive. Maybe it does something stupid like create a temp file on the C drive, which only has a few hundred megs free, then barf quietly with a Windows ‘ding’ and NO error message even though the destination drive has 50GB free. (Yeah, I’ve been meaning to look into that…) So yeah, at this moment I have a bunch of data on at least one of the drives that has no reliable or recent backup. But it’s not my fault, I tellya. I’m an ECE, I can design these things at the gate level, I’m a former IT-person, I know what IRQ, DMA and PCI stand for, I’m A+ certified, dammit, I know my shit. It was THEM. Them being everybody who isn’t me. Not my fault, I tellya. I was defeated by cumulative creeping idiocy on the part of others. Not my fault. Not my fau…

** Technically, turning off a drive with a mechanical/bearing issue–especially one not used to being turned off–is a no-no…the drive may not spin back up again, at least without a night in the freezer or some “percussive maintenance” (smacking it around) to unstick the spindle, also big no-nos. But leaving it to grind itself up for a few days waiting on a replacement is a big no-no too.

*** It could be some underperformance or latency somewhere in the chain was causing buffer underruns (even though the computer exceeded all ‘minimum’ specs by the drive manufacturer), which, because DVD burners seem to all have some “underrun safe” technology (all of which work in some necessarily unreliable way, like cutting power to the laser and trying to sync back to ‘within a few frames’ of where it left off when restarting, or worse methods like simply writing zeroes there but not stopping the burn), mask any underrun errors that may have occurred. Again, ‘coaster-proof’ anti-underrun features work by relying on the statistics deities to smile upon you for one or two small errors on the disk, and with hundreds or thousands of such errors scattered across the surface, their generosity is pretty well exhausted.

**** If you try to e.g. grab your entire C drive’s contents and copy them to a backup folder, you are sooner or later guaranteed to run into a file that can’t be copied because it’s “in use” (often by another program simply READING it, because a programmer didn’t specifically tell Windows the program is reading a file in read-only mode). So, it just skips that file and continues copying all the rest of them, right? BZZZT! Wrong. It throws up an error message, making you click OK, and then completely aborts the copy. Good luck dragging a huge folder somewhere and letting it copy overnight while you’re sleeping instead of babysitting it. But you can at least remember that filename, and just re-select all the ones after it and try to copy it again, secure in the knowledge that at least all the files before that one have copied, right? BZZZT! Wrong. The order in which the files are copied is completely arbitrary (in fact, a longstanding Windows bug often causes the LAST file selected to be copied first, followed by the first file selected, and then who knows…), so there’s no guarantee that if it dies on a file starting with ‘G’, all the files starting with A-F have been copied.

One step closer to my own robot army…

  • Councillor Hamann: Have you ever been to the engineering level? I love to walk there at night, it’s quite amazing. Would you like to see it?
  • Neo: Sure.
  • Councillor Hamann: Almost no one comes down here, unless, of course, there’s a problem. That’s how it is with people – nobody cares how it works as long as it works. I like it down here. I like to be reminded this city survives because of these machines. … Of course… that’s it. You hit it! That’s control, isn’t it? If we wanted, we could smash them to bits. Although if we did, we’d have to consider what would happen to our lights, our heat, our air. … There is so much in this world that I do not understand. See that machine? It has something to do with recycling our water supply. I have absolutely no idea how it works.

Beering after work yesterday, someone mentioned the guts of an oldie-but-goodie Ozo router (company no longer exists) sitting in the lab, and how nice it would be to get this up and running again. (For our propellerheads out there, I’m not talking about e.g. a Linksys box for computery things. This type of router is a big industrial CNC machine consisting of a high-RPM drill spindle and Z stepper, and a big motorized table that can move in the X and Y directions. Feed it a block of plastic/wood/metal and a design file, and it turns out a complex machined part.)

Anyway, pretty much every project I’m currently involved with at work is stalled for one reason or another, including vendor douches who won’t return my calls*, fights with everyone’s favorite circuit board house (PCB Nazi Express–to be documented soon), TPOCs who only check their voicemail every six months, etc.–and let’s be honest, the idea of having a huge part-making machine at my disposal is really nifty–so today I got curious and started researching. Venturing into the dark and cobweb-infested corners of our storage area, I find we have THREE of these defunct machines, all missing the same critical component** (and then some). Turns out the production lab, who has two such routers (both working), have been slowly scavenging parts from these to keep theirs running. That works great, say, the first three times you need to replace a funky driver board (or six limit switches, whichever comes first).

It did kind of surprise me a little that the one pair of machines necessary to manufacture the only product the company sells in quantity (i.e. what brings in the $)…have no hot spares. Okay, forget a hot spare (these are large machines, after all), but not even the necessary parts to fix one if it goes. As CC explained, if one of these breaks down we’re kinda fucked.

(Expect a detailed HOWTO if I ever get around to hacking one of these things back to workingness. Plan so far is to gut most of the onboard electronics and command the steppers directly from a standard parallel port using EMC2.)

* “You’re from a 20-person SBIR company that hasn’t had a commercially produced electronic product in over a decade, and you want to buy ONE lousy part? Yeah, I’ll get right on that.”

** The missing piece is a funky old discontinued ISA card for old IBM XTs between about 8MHz to an upper limit of about 33MHz. This card actually has a jumper wire to tie into the PC SPEAKER pin on the motherboard; the DOS program that runs the router does some interrupt twiddling and uses the speaker frequency to control the spindle speed. I swear I heard “…in the ghett-o!…” upon discovering this. (More) sadly, since it looks exactly like an old ISA printer port card, they and the dusty old 286es housing them have been doubtless thrown away years ago in some routine lab / storage room cleaning.

How does a pimp count?

From the archives, when I was (more of) an OCD freak and taped every morning radio show to maintain my exhaustive song parody collection:

“How does a pimp count? Ho, ho, ho! Which reminds me – merry Christmas, from Mancow’s moooorning madhouse! On Rock 103.5, Chicago.”

I read an opinion piece in the WSJ today (yeah yeah I know… gotta stop doing that) with somebody with an unfortunate name* (on further research, a well-respected Rutgers professor) voicing their views about a recent media controversy after radio hack Don Imus** referred to the Rutgers womens’ basketball team as “nappy-headed hoes”, getting himself essentially perma-banned from the air (massive public outcry, a metric asston of advertisers bailing, then permanent cancellation of the Imus in the Morning show). It took specific offense to the “hoes” part, going on about how this meant “whores” (which was terrible-whorrible-no-good-very-bad), but that the pronunciation made it specifically racist, and segued from there into a lengthy psychoanalysis of (template <class T> ambient_generic maleRapArtist();) and his sad insecurity and lack of a father figure causing his preoccupation with Bitches ‘n Hos.

Waitaminnute… hoes?

I remember hearing about some race-related accusational controversy regarding the children’s book Nappy Hair a while back (guessing wildly: the author is probably not racist). But waitaminnit.

Hoes?

If that’s the deal, I’m not sure what the fuss is about. Hell, I use that term casually.

I’ve heard plenty of tasteless shit on the radio in my day, and while this certainly qualifies, equally foul shit (or arguably fouler) from other shock jocks has never generated this much of a reaction (unless there’s a nipple involved). For example, check out how KSFO in San Francisco feels about racist talk, hate speech and death threats. Mind you, this is a Disney-owned station (via ABC). In this case, when someone organized a boycott and encouraged advertisers to pull out, ABC/Disney’s response was to hit the organizer with a cease-and-desist, not censure the on-air personalities***.

I wonder if some of the folks involved in outcries like these**** have ever experienced true racist hate speech — like (NSFW!)this shit, pressed and sold in record stores as recently as the 1960s.

PS. The jury’s still out on whether the plural of Ho is Hos, Ho’s or Hoes. The Associated Press has standardized on “hos” as the preferred spelling; running a Googlefight also confirms it. I don’t like it, because the word’s pronunciation and spelling are then unnecessarily inconsistent. I guess with my preferred spelling, “The garden shed is full of hoes” is ambiguous. Then again, as soon as you go on the radio with it, all hell breaks loose either way (even if you’re not Don Imus) because the pronunciation is still ambiguous. For example, “garden hose” could refer either to something you wash your car with, or a job opening for a security guard at a brothel.

* “Lionel Tiger” (and bears, oh my).

** I didn’t care for the show. Although at 7:31am, my basic objection went along the lines of: *wake up* Agh, fuckin’ politics. Agh, fuckin’ country music….

*** perhaps the key difference is that they were saying “Allah is a whore” on-air, not “ho”.

**** a friend on LJ recently linked me to a thread on a Vegan recipes group, consisting essentially of 3 pages of racism allegations after someone mistakenly referred to Africa as a country. I replied with an amusing tale about my buddy GJM’s experiences at the DMV as a pasty white ‘African-American’, and mistakenly referred to Namibia as a city of South Africa :(

Eureeka! // Coefficient of odiosity

What’s the best way to say to a housemate who’s twice your size, “Dude, you’re a great guy and all, but you really need to wash your ass once in a while.” And any other parts that water needs to hit but doesn’t. I can tell if he’s merely passed through the hallway 15 minutes ago by the Grand Funk, sans railroad, a roiling stench cloud of prickly BO and foul dingleberry juice. There have been a couple times where I skipped a shower in the morning because he’d just come out of the bathroom, on the basis that if I showered in there I would actually get dirtier.

Crap, do I have gutterbrain or something?

I can’t be the only one who got the wrong idea when glancing across the slashdot headline:

Hardware: Satellites Mating Via Robotic Arm
“The launch of the Orbital Express mission, with its two satellites ASTRO and NextSat, the first one servicing the other, …

I should, you know, sleep or whatever.

Medford street sweeping today

This is a datestamp entry.

Backreference

(Where all the Tufts students live, the day after a major holiday people typically spend back home with their families. Methinks somebody’s cousin in Mefud needed money to repaint his boat or something.)

In the unlikely event that I live in Medford long enough, I’m going to generate a plot of these days as some sort of a probability function (with error bars, as appropriate).

RezVibe l’arnins, pt. 1

Ok, so I now have a Dildonics tag for all the trancevibe stuff. It’s an exciting informative journey through the no-man’s land of small volume electronics production.

I’m going forward with this project (and documenting it) mostly for my own personal edification. I’ve never developed and commercialized something before (unless you count my childhood four-leaf-clover stand, which, incidentally, had comparable sales volumes), and it’s probably not going to happen without getting my own sweat involved.

How it usually works (or I’d like to think so) for gadget geeks is, you work by day as an engineer at a respectable technology company–you develop cool gadgets… you see your babies through from conception to mass production (and occasionally help your landlady carry out her garbage). By night, you use the vast product-development knowledge and connections you’ve acquired to fuel your own pet projects, which will of course revolutionize the free world and put sliced bread back in its place. However, I work at an R&D company that does mainly SBIR contracts, so there we develop technology and run experiments; we don’t mass-produce things.

Since the last vibe-related update I have done a couple “production runs” of 3-8 units at a time (since that’s how many I had parts on-hand for), and thrown in a Digikey order for parts enough for a mind-boggling 25 more. Did I say Digikey? YES, I SAID DIGIKEY. For those not in the know, think of Digikey as sort of a really big Radio Shack store online. Except that they still sell discrete electronic components (not cell phones), albeit at an often substantial markup. It would be funny if you went to the Verizon Store to buy a phone, and when you made your purchase, the guy behind the counter sprang up, ran to the Radio Shack next door and bought the requested model retail, then came running back to stuff it in a Verizon Store box and resell it to you.

Some things discovered lately:

Mailing Stuff
First class mail (letter post) isn’t just for letters; you can mail up to 4 lbs of stuff (in a bulky padded envelope, or even a tube or a box) for a few bucks.

There is a class of mail called “media mail” specifically for media, which can be big and heavy but mailed ridiculously cheap. This applies ONLY to media however, which specifically means records, CD/DVDs, videotapes, sheet music, and bound printed matter which does not contain advertising. The USPS is actually pretty strict about it (according to research), and will occasionally open up media mail packages for inspection if they think someone’s cheating.

You can mail stuff across the pond for just over $5. 7-day Air Mail. However, these shipments involve a green Customs Form, PS Form 2976 (items under $400), which requires a duplicate writing of the sender AND receiver’s full name and address; description, weight and value of goods (2x), and two dated signatures. This makes one sore hand if you ship a large batch of stuff overseas. I still have no idea whether “value” equals “price paid”, “Bill Of Materials cost”, “BOM + labor”, or “retail, but there’s an implicit understanding that shippers mark the goods as a gift, or substantially undervalue them to avoid socking the recipient with a huge tax”. Anyone? (Ahem, trying to be legal, mainly to avoid fines / jail / siezed packages.)

You can’t ship adult materials to Uzbekistan.

You can’t ship “obscene articles” to the UK.

Actually, there are a fuckton of countries with restrictions on spicy materials. (Not to mention a zillion other things such as alcohol, money, pork, live bees, and “All foodstuffs if the time left until the “use-by” date is less than 70% (calculated from the date of manufacture)”.)

Don’t ship a damned thing to countries ending in “-stan”.

Manufacturing

“Bad boards” do exist, and can’t reliably be detected by visual inspection (by the board house or otherwise). As I found out recently in a project at work too, even expensive houses (Bobby, I’m looking at *you*) release severely fscked-up boards now and then. For that one, about half the vias (small metallized drill holes that pass a signal from the top side to bottom side, or vice versa, manufactured by drilling the hole out of the fiberglass board and letting metal grow inside it) didn’t connect. A couple of the DrmnVibe boards had either shorts or open traces (where the metal of the trace was etched all the way off/through; the opens were cleverly hiding under white silk screening). I now have a simple test jig to verify DTV boards with a real ‘bullet’, even if one is never soldered to it.

Stripping USB cables by hand takes a long damned time. The “USB-A to bare wires” Digikey part went out of stock, so I searched for a replacement and found it was cheaper to get a ‘real’ cable (USB-A to mini-B) and just cut the B end off. I think manufacturing-wise I’m going to either stick to pre-stripped cables from now on or add a B connector to the board. Otherwise it’s cut the end off, strip back insulation, strip 4 tiny signal wires, then deal with the ground shield consisting of braided metal (like the stuff in steel wool) that’s a bitch to cut off cleanly, and leaves bits of fine metal wire everywhere to short things out and/or embed themselves in your thumb.

Manufacturing PITAs, in decreasing order:
Soldering boards
Reassembly of COTS vibe, aligning 3 screws at once while holding a board in between
Stripping USB cables
Packaging and shipping
Drilling holes for cable (PITA factor doubles on discovering someone lost the chuck key…)
Disassembling COTS vibe, removing guts
Batch programming with PIC programming jig
Final testing with Tezt.exe and bullet jig

Ok, last rant on these for a while, I swear :P

“This is Habib with Industrial Machinery Magazine(…)”
“No thanks.”
“It’s an entirely free subscription, which I’ll send out just as soon–”
“We’re not interested, we get too many magazines.”
“OK, can I just confirm your information–”
“Not interested.”
“It’ll only take a minute–”
“Not interested.”
“When should I call back?”
“Er… call back? If you call back tomorrow, we still won’t be interested.”
“OK, I will do that then. Thank you and have a ni–”
*click*

(joke’s on him – tomorrow was a holiday…)
Does every other industry get these same knuckleheads? Or is electronics a special haven of junky free publications (in exchange for sellable personal info)?

More @#$% trade magazine peddlers

It must be Horny Sales Douche mating season or something. Do you suppose if I write “BUY NOW” in loud colors on a bottle of saline and throw it out the window, they will leave me alone for a while?

*ring ring*
Me: (my name and company’s name)
Peddler: “Hi my name’s so and so with such and such, can I just confirm your information…”
Me: “Sur– wait, who is this? Is this about magazines?”
Peddler: “We’re a global leader in complimentary technical publi–”
Me: “No thanks, we already get too many of those things.”
Peddler: “It’s free you know. It’s full of useful information!” (or something to that effect)
Me: “I know. Not interested though.”
Peddler: “N-wait, you’re turning down a completely free subscription?”
Me: “Yeah. Hmm..tellya what, I’ll make you a deal. We have this big stack of unread magazines piling up on a table in my office. For every one of them you remove, you can send us one of yours…”
Peddler: “Okay, thannks, have a nice day *click*”

Again Jeff and I are taking turns fending off peddlers of stupid waste-of-trees free (advertising-funded) trade rags, and more importantly, contract design/manufacturing and consulting services. “No we’re not interested in your contract R&D service.” “Why not?” “Duh, we are a contract R&D company. You are our competitor.” “No we’re not interested in your consultancy services.” “Well why not?” “Google is my software consultant.”

So the phone rings, and it’s this distributor (name is familiar as we’ve done business with a similarly-named, but different, company in the past) calling to “make sure his records are up to date”. Sure, OK I says.

So he’s reading off my position, etc., and then spelling back my name to verify: “G..I..B..” (Aha! Now I know where you bought my name*. Fucking RTECC…) This is nobody we know, it’s a salesdouche.

So, salesdouche asks for my email address, I tell him it’s classified I prefer not to give out that information, and he gets all defensive… “I’m not going to spam you!” I start getting off onto a mini-rant– “Well, different people have different definitions of spam, and it so happens the definition of spam used by the last 30 people who bought my name from RTECC and spammed me differs from mine.”–but my officemate walked in just then and I felt the need to sound more professional. Anyway, it turns out we do NOT have an existing account with this company; this guy just wanted to call up out of the blue and let us know he sells crap… ask if I have any immediate need for some switches & relays, or expect that I soon will** for any upcoming project, because man, if I ever do need any switches & relays, he’s my guy.

* my last name has two common spellings. On encountering a situation which screams, “I Will Sell Your Name and Crapflood You with Junk”, I intentionally give the other one. That way, whenever I get mail or phonecalls addressed to (wrong one), I know immediately that the caller is intent on wasting my time.

**unfortunately, the parts I specify and purchase are driven by the application’s requirements, not what some horny sales rep calls me up trying to unload that week.