Drop-Day 2010 Tech

I figured I'd start writing this up on the return flight from Drop Day, so I'm typing here at an odd, cramped, angle from my flight back from LA to Pittsburgh.

Drop-Day was a fine production, a victory for both hobbyist physical computing, and the forces of democratic freedom. I was impressed with the stark giant white cube dance floor with the, as Biff describes, lovecraftian monolith as a centerpiece. Something about the smaller size and the fog machine made people actually want to dance this year. The sensory rooms were excellent, although some of the code running the party never got off the ground. There is something uniquely appealing about a party that crashes, and requires rewriting of computer code and recompiliation on the fly. In addition to projected visuals ( Kanada, Perceptron, Cortex, Live and recorded video feeds, and other trippy renderings ), we had a few Alumni constructed blinkylights. Keegan completed a most excellent glowing octahedron, Suresh completed a rather nice modification of a commercial lamp, and I constructed several more pairs of goggles. I have spent most of my time travelling ( and very little sleeping ) this weekend, and it was well worth it. However, I doubt I'll be traveling back any time in the next five years. Others travel from much further away (London, Fairbanks) to go to this party, which should give you an idea of how important this party is to Dabney alumni.
RGB controlled diffuse illumination lamp :
Suresh successfully modified a modern style diffuse diffuse illumination lamp for controllable RGB color. He even designed and ordered a custom multi-layer board for the thing. I will try to track him down and see if designs and photographs are available anywhere.

CCFL octahedron :
This project was a wire-frame octahedron, approximately two feet on each edge. An octahedron can be viewed as 3 intersecting squares, once for each of the x, y, z, axes. In this design, each axis was assigned a specific color. The octahedron was constructed using two standard cold cathode fluorescent lighting tubes per edge, driven by black-box driving hardware that is powered by 12V DC. 12V is switched to the various edge drivers using darlington arrays controlled by an AtTiny2123(?), with 12V pulled from a modified desktop computer power supply. The skeleton of the octahedron itself was build by cutting wooden dowels to size, drilling a hole through each end, and joining the ends with zip-ties. The lights and driving hardware was also secured to the skeleton via zip ties. A great effect of the hue rotation on tie-dye style patterns is to cause the location of edges to appear to shift as the color changes and alternatively illuminates different parts of the pattern.

Revised goggles :
The goggles you see in these photographs still use the same old LEDs in ping-pong ball design, stripped down and controlled by an AtTiny13a. I would not recommend this design, as technically the chip is unable to source more than 60mA, where the goggles may require up to 120mA. Offhand the AtMega(4,8,16)8 chips are the only ones I can think of that can source sufficient current, and since they can hold more elaborate programs might be a better choice for future designs. Additionally, although the AVR micro-controllers can function at a range of voltages, the nonlinear V-I curve of the LEDs means that attempts to balance the white-point using resistors must be in the context of a well defined voltage ( preferably a constant 20mA current source, but that takes up board space ). Additionally, I was surprised that the internal resistance of coin-cell Cr2023 batteries limits them to approximately 0.3mA continuous draw. Although the much higher mean current draw of ~20mA for the goggles can be supported, this will cause the battery voltage to drop during operation and the LED white-point to drift. Eventually the voltage falls below the operating voltage of the AtTiny. The coin-cells will recover after about ~30 minutes of rebound. We're still seeing some problems with party-durability but hopefully refining the PCB board design and construction can improve on this. Building the goggles is incredibly annoying and I doubt I shall be constructing any more by the old methods for some time. I'm still a bit baffled as to how someone magically managed to repair solder connections and rebuild the connector on one of the goggles in the middle of the party, but ... thats Dabney house for you.

Laser Spirographs and Monolith-Monitor tower with EL wire :
I don't have good documentation on this at the moment, other than this system crashed a lot during the party, but was still super awesome.

Thanks to everyone who made this happen, it was great to see you all again.

p.s. : rumors are that "weird parties" are associated with the large neuroscience conferences.
p.p.s : These airline headphones state that they will not work outside the airplane. Since I am using them in my laptop and all technology for remote activation/disable is much much more expensive than replacing cheap headphones, we can reasonably assume that United Airlines is lying to us (about so many things)


90% of Wealoneonearth editors are currently building drop-day. Hopefully pics will follow.


1: my mind is full of information-particles !
2: gnoson?
2: that is an excellent development


Meet Kyle Munkittick

Very rarely, my wanderings in the blogosphere bring to somebody impressive. Well, today is one of those days. Meet Kyle Munkittick, graduate student and multiple daily updater. He needs some love, so our readers (all six of you) should go over and comment on his posts.

Now for some content. I went to a talk at the Brookings Institute by Intel CEO Paul Otelli on rebuilding American innovation. To summarize, barring major structural changes, we are screwed. Decades of dysfunctional education have caught up with us, while the patent system is "if not broken, very close." We are 40th out of 40 countries in innovation growth. There are not enough engineers and scientists, yet the job market remains unstable. Businesses, instead of adapting to the economic crisis, are hunkering down. In short, we have a problem, now how do we get out of it?

There are of course no simple solutions, but it strikes me that the common thread here is science and technology. We need to spur investment, and bring new people into the field. Positive incentives are a good start, direct federal R&D spending and science scholarships, but perhaps we need to start applying a little stick as well. Cash for clunkers for dead technology, punitive measures for industries with little R&D investment (R&D in the power industry is basically nil). One great idea I heard is that in China, the top 10% of science fair participants automatically get into the university of their choice. Imagine that, instead of stacking, athletics, arts, and community service extra-curriculars, our bright students aim for #1 for science fairs. Now, I never did one, closest I came was robotics, but I guarantee that if science fairs were a surefire shot to college, my school would have sent people. In terms of inculcating the scientific mindset, science fairs are probably more efficient than anything else you could get a high school student to do.


Algorithmic Thinking

Welcome back Chris Beck!

You asked for comments on the Princeton essay, so here they are. Professionally, every field of science has been bemoaning how it must explain its fundamental methodology and importance to public, starting with Galileo and the Catholic Church. Computer science is unique in that it is the most intimate form of technology, the one we interact with the most on a daily basis. Yet, the basic paradigm is not to show people the code, to lock software down as much as possible. Programming is a trade, making little trinkets, and programmers are mere tradesmen.

Computer Scientists should distinguish their field from the mechanics of making a computer work. I am not a computer scientist (but I do play one on TV), and it seems to me that the paradigm of CS is an algorithmic understanding of phenomenon. An algorithmic view of reality can be incredibly power, by reducing complex systems to discrete steps, we gain insight. Keegan once said that he finds programming very humanistic, he imagines himself as the computer, and acts out the steps he would take to solve a problem. What kind of complex systems would we reduce if we looked at them from the level of basic agent, and developed a simple fool-proof algorithm for solving them? (I'm thinking healthcare here, but there should be other examples.)


Hello? Is there anybody out there?

I realized that my conception of who reads this blog may not be accurate.

So, out with it. Who the fuck reads this thing? Who are you??


Been a long time since i rock and rolled...

Hey everyone,
been about three years since I posted here. Recently I've found myself constructing political / philosophical / scientific arguments and narratives spontaneously, in increasing volume, so I'm anticipating a return to blogging as a form of self expression...

There's something about the notion of a blog that I find repulsive... but I can't really articulate how or why.

It could be just, I view it mainly as a calisthenic thing for my own benefit rather than a service provided for the readers, because the thoughts are usually rambling and not so well organized, as they should be if the writing is really for the reader's benefit?

One solution is obviously to become a better writer.

Regardless, I suspect I'm going to have to get over whatever it is, because sending spurious off-the-cuff insane ramblings to snoogums is rapidly losing a viability as a method of self-expression... somehow I'm realizing I have little or no personal connection to many people on the list now, most of the posts are just garbage.

Also, I kinda got the heebie-jeebies at my last visit to Caltech... I realized that, returning to that place is not going to make my memories stronger, its going to make them weaker.

To the extent that those memories are crucial to my current conception of myself, they must be preserved at all costs... Which means I must now embark on the journey of the rest of my life, with this concept of a place preserved at my core, but yet not returning, nor trying to articulate or explain it to others... (this effort usually ends in failure in my experience).

I find this echoes some of Everett's earlier posts... depending on ones current mood, the words and images conjured up relating to the Caltech Experience vary so wildly...

I don't feel it was madness. Surely there were more crazed and confused periods especially towards the beginning. But to my mind the whole period was not unlike the ways that I would faux-stumble walk around, kicking open doors... Goldstein once would laugh at the "incredibly haphazard way in which you do things, Chris Beck"... I don't know how many of my friends came to realize that this was entirely intentional, something that I did that expressed the way life can feel so crazy and haphazard, but that so much of it is superficial. It also gave me a feeling of control, I suppose.

One of my fondest memories will be one time Krastina and I went to Venice Beach, and we were walking by the water, and I was sort of doing this weaving thing as I walked, at first to avoid stepping in the waves with my bare feet, but afterwards just to preserve the oscillations, and I sort of stepped in, still totally "haphazardly" and scooped her up in my arms, and spun rapidly, so that her body was held close to mine but her legs flew out from under her, and I spun her for 3 or 4 times, and then set her down completely in stride and we continued walking. She said something afterwards like, "I think that is what I will remember of today."

Another quote that comes to mind although I can't quite remember it, was due to Brandi around the time she graduated... it was something about, how she will forever miss the place and the people, but how we are all preserved in eachothers' hearts... Realize reader, that I intended to work this in when I first mentioned the idea that I must preserve these memories without revisiting the places... but I got completely sidetracked with other ideas that came to mind, a Fundamental Flaw in my capricious, rambling narrative.

Of course I could defend the rambling narrative as a style if I wanted, its the post-modern, rejection of the unbiased viewpoint, rejection of these arbitrary style rules, its Gonzo Journalism, Man, its the only thing that's really expressive and meaningful, its the only kind of narrative that any one cares about.

But that would all be some kind of horseshit cocktail, served up on the rocks. When the little voice tells you, your writing is needlessly disorganized, you need to fix it. This is why I don't like blogging. This is also why I like snoogums, because no email is too trashy for snoogums. Its the fuckin wild west of prose & poetry.

Oh, I wanted to point everyone to this essay, from about 5 years back. The shared concern of two Princeton Professors concerning the future of Computer Science Education & Policy. I thought it was certainly worth glancing at, if not actually reading.


Lemme know what you think, Biffmotron, in particular.

Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that, while I'm not aiming to bring We Alone on Earth down to "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly", I am shooting personally for something more like, say, 19th century France. (think Evariste Galois). If you've got a bone to pick with that, well sir, I challenge you to a duel.


Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

No new content, but I wanted to put a few links up for our loyal readers.

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

And their peer-reviewed journal, Journal of Evolution and Technology.

There are lots of provocative articles with a great transhumanist stance, and I invite our readers to submit articles that I should comment and respond to. I may pick a few of my own for tomorrow.

--Biff-"and onwards into the realm of serious academia"-motron