Monday, 14 December 2009

Social Inclusion and Open Source Enabling Technologies

No matter how hard our beloved ICT providers try, there will always remain individuals within our community who resolutely defy any attempt to welcome them into the age of the Internet. You might imagine I am speaking of the elderly, but no - most members of that demographic group are keen to become involved, if only to impress (and possibly scare the pants off) their grandchildren with their intergenerational skills set. Who wouldn't want a techo-savvy grandparent? Hey - some of them even drove the movement in the early days of interconnectivity.

No, I'm talking about people of any age who, for one personal reason or another, have decided not to become part of the revolution. Is it a strongly held belief in the evil of the technology or is it just an irrational fear of change? A fear of failure to perform in a new environment? These are just conjectures and I could be barking up the wrong hill of flying bananas.

Anyway, I have several very dear friends who have slipped through the 'Net and so they have no means to visit YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, MySpace or whatever to view material that I am sure they would enjoy.

How to include them? Of course! Drop it all onto a DVD and post it to them for Xmas! Surely they have a DVD player? Thereby hangs a tale...

If you are the kind of person who just buys retail and bugger the expense, fine. Your posh retail PC or video camcorder possibly came with all the software necessary to burn DVDs that can be played on a typical domestic DVD player. If, like me, you build your own kit from OEM components (or if you're trying to upgrade old kit), you might find that any software bundled with your components is of the "30-day trial" variety. It is all too easy to install the software and forget the T&Cs until months later when you try to use it.

Knowing that I had DVD burning software, I began such a project for a techno-refuser friend of mine. After an hour of work, the software informed me that my trial period had expired and that I would have to pay £39 to acquire the licence to complete the burn. Fair enough, payment-wise, but they could have told me at the start, not after an hour's work, surely? That's just a sneaky and underhand way of attempting to secure a sale. Had they told me at the start, I might have considered paying the £39 (maybe yes, maybe no) but after an hour's work? No way. Deliberately waste an hour of my time and they owe me £39 in my book. Lost sale. Indeed, lost sales, for I will never purchase any of their products at any time in the future, nor recommend them to my clients.

Oh dear, what to do?

To the rescue! Open Source software! After a brief hunt on the Net, all recommendations pointed to DVD Flick as being the solution, and it did everything it promised (Google it). This free package gobbled up every media file I threw at it and turned them into a playable DVD that worked even on my budget domestic DVD player. Deep Joy! The authors invited an optional monetary contribution and I will be making that, just to support the great Open Source initiative. So many times the Open Source guys have got me out of a hole when the Big Boys didn't really care about my predicament.

Priority assessment:

Open Source: enabling and friendly (if a bit geeky)
Big Boys: money and trouble

Which would you support?

Whatever you want to do with your computer, take a look at Open Source software offers before handing money over to the bread-heads. A great recommendation from The Secret Laboratory...

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Bring on the Flying Trappists!

This month, the Secret Laboratory gets all metaphysical and investigates what happens in the brain during those early morning moments before full wakefulness.

If you have ever woken with what you thought was a deep insight into the workings of the Universe, which later proved to be utter bollocks, add a response to this posting and we'll discuss it through December.

You see? The Secret Laboratory is not just about "exploding test tube" shit, although there is some of that...

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Hairs in the bath - a solution

As we approach the end of November I note that the Secret Laboratory has been rather quiet this month (demonstrating to my critics that I have not got too much time on my hands). With time running out, I decided to pull something random out of the hat by addressing the problem of hairs in the bath.

We all know the problem. Whether you're a gent such as myself who finds facial shaving more comfortable following a totally immersive long hot soak, or a lady pursuing the ideal of the silky smooth leg, once you pull that plug you know there is going to be some troublesome debris that just doesn't seem to want to go down the plughole.

The Secret Laboratory has investigated the dynamics of in-bath-shaving-related-debris (IBSRD) and has come up with the following observations and a solution:

As the bath empties, the temptation is to try to sweep the debris towards the plughole. As the wave rushes down the slope of the bath, some debris may disappear down the plughole but most will return with the (now very energetic) wave reflected from the end of the bath and is deposited as the returning wave loses energy on the incline. These are the very same dynamics that are responsible for sand deposition upon beaches.

The solution is to avoid sweeping the water towards the plughole. Instead, with your hand, keep injecting energy into the waters, even in the upper-reaches of the bath, with a constant stirring action, round and round. So long as you keep all of the water moving, it will continue to carry the debris and eventually disappear down the plughole of its own accord. You may find you don't even need to clean the bath afterwards.

I don't know - I really ought to charge for this kind of practical research...

Friday, 23 October 2009

Snoods R Us

This is a tale of recycling to make us all feel good about ourselves again, after stamping all over the Planet with our big carbonised feet.

Recently, my rogue washing machine ate my favourite fleece jumper. It got caught between the spinny thing and the non-spinny thing and melted through friction. I could have thrown it away but hey, I've got a Secret Laboratory...

Salvaging the unchewed bits from the fleece, I began to wonder what I might make of them. A snood! What else? Great for keeping my neck warm whilst cycling, now the winter is upon us.

Historical note: traditionally the term snood refers to a kind of bag worn on the head with the express purpose of containing hair. More recently, snood describes a tube of fabric worn around the neck and which can be be pulled up around the lower part of the face. It does the job of a scarf but you don't have to agonise over what kind of knot is in fashion this year - it's just a tube.

Obviously some stitching would be involved and therein was the first challenge. Broadly speaking, the head is wider than the neck and so any hem stitch would need to be stretchy just to get the thing on. I know we're all on a spectrum here. If anyone can get away with a straight stitch, all I can say is try banging the rocks together guys - see what happens in the next million years.

My ancient Singer can't do fancy stitching like that, so I engaged the services of Agent A and her fabulous Bernina. In no time at all, she had the stretchy hemming sorted out with a special zig-zag stitch pattern:

I installed elastic in the bottom hem and a draw-string in the top:

Hey presto - snood!

And sooner may a gulling weather Spie
By drawing forth heavens Scheme tell certainly
What fashioned hats, or ruffes, or suits next yeare
Our subtile-witted antique youths will weare...

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Revitalising shoe polish

You know how it is with tins of shoe polish. We don't polish shoes as obsessively as we did in the old days, so, invariably, when you open up that tin that's been at the back of a cupboard for 10 years the contents have gone all dry and lumpy. Sometimes you chase a lump around the tin for ages, failing to get any on your rag. Sometimes you manage to get the whole lump on the rag - too much even for a regiment. Sometimes the lump escapes and goes on a wild tour, making your home look like the lodger's been on dirty protest. Familiar scenario? Here's the solution:

Place your tins of polish in a pan with about half an inch of water just to cover the bottom. Bring this to the lowest simmer you possibly can for about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave to cool.

When cool, open up your tins to find the polish looking as good as the day you bought it!

Another work of absolute genius from The Secret Laboratory...

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Wonky Trigger Fish

It was supposed to be a Trigger Fish for my girlfriend but it went a bit wrong. That's the trouble with home-made lavender bags - you never know what you're gonna git. Ah, the things we do for love...

Monday, 24 August 2009

No more knots

The Secret Laboratory is not just about invention - it's about learning too. The Secret Laboratory is happy to share learning.

Did you know that there is a strict definition that distinguishes a knot from a tangle? There are computer programs out there that can analyse random tosses of string (Grannies) and declare whether or not a knot is present. Just for the record, if you can fix both ends of the string, rope, cable, whatever, and still untangle the mess between, no knot was present, howsoever convoluted and difficult to sort out. The famous disappearing knot is not a knot at all.

When it comes to knots, I'm a minimalist. I know about seven knots (reef, sheet bend, fisherman's, double fisherman's, bowline, half hitch, alan) and these are great for most purposes. I know when and where to use them. I don't need or wish to learn the other few hundred variants on the theme. It's not for nothing I was never a Boy Scout, although I did accidentally become a First Biddulph Brownie Guide when I gave my vows to a Snowy Owl I got drunk with in Switzerland 28 years ago. I thought she was joking. Apparently not, as I discovered at breakfast next morning. No way back. Take the vows, do the time...

Am I rambling? Sorry, I intended to discuss my new knotless existence. Knots are weak, they lead to weaknesses in the rope (as illustrated by the break-knot, a knot that allows you to break any rope by the power of subsequently broken fingers alone). You need to leave knots behind and work with the very structure of rope by splicing.

I had always thought of splicing as some kind of ancient maritime excuse for not joining the Scouts (or the Brownies) and avoiding the task of learning hundreds of different kinds of knot. How wrong can one be? Now I will never use a knot where a splice will suffice.

Gaze upon this wonder:

Just an eye-splice on a three strand rope, my first attempt. Isn't it beautiful? These are the people who took me there.

WizzPod results

As promised, WizzPod was taken to the Acoustic Roots music festival at Linton. The trial was abandoned when it was discovered that the ground was too hard even for the stiff beer-line to penetrate.

Instead of plastic beer-line, WizzPod Mk II will be fitted with a metal pipe to facilitate insertion even in the most challenging of subterranean environments.

Watch this space!

Friday, 21 August 2009


Festival season being in full flow here in the Three Counties, my accomplice (Agent S) and I decided to turn the resources of the Secret Laboratory to the solution of an age-old festival problem:

You know how it is. You've had a great day listening to the music and quaffing the real ales and ciders. You've barbecued everything you managed to find in the cool bag and you've jammed until the wee hours around the illicit camp fire. At long last, it's time to hit the tent. Safe in your sleeping bag, it's not long before you hear the nearby sound of some poor soul answering the call of nature. It begins with a drawn-out, mournful Zzzzzzzip sound as a tent is prepared for exit. Scuffling sounds, then muffled thuds as the hapless tenant staggers towards an unforseen nettle patch or worse. You know that before dawn it will be your turn...

Unless, of course, you are the proud owner of a WizzPod, the Secret Laboratory's two-fingered flick in the face of Nature's call!

How does it work? The role of the funnel is obvious and should not require explanation. Suffice it to say that it is gender unspecific and both myself and Agent S anticipate no particular difficulties in use. The tube below the funnel is a section of beer line (that's right, the same kind of line used in pubs to connect the cellar to the serving area - kind of ironic, really). The beer line is stiff enough to be inserted into the ground within the privacy of the porch area of the tent. Holes drilled in the lower half of the beer line provide a soak-away feature well below the level of the pitch.

Above, note the holes drilled in the beer line, the sharp angle of the tip to facilitate insertion into the ground and the plug to prevent blocking of the line during insertion.

Agent S and I will be trialling the WizzPod at the Acoustic Roots festival this weekend - watch this space for results.


Q. Why not call it the PeePod?
A. Loads of products out there called PeePod, not all to do with Pee.

Q. Why don't you take this to Dragon's Den?
A. Can you imagine their faces? Their withering comments? We invented the WizzPod in the interests of privacy and dignity, not National humiliation.

Q. How much can it hold?
A. We used a 12.5cm funnel. Given that volume V of a cone is 1/3 pi r^2 h, we find that our funnel holds about a pint - enough for most festival purposes, given that the soak-away tends to keep up anyway. Note: ground conditions and soil structure can affect performance of the soak-away.

Q. Can you poo in it?
A. No. There's a clue in the name.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Measure Twice, Cut Once...

Measure twice, cut once - great advice from my mate Rob. Great, that is, if you measure correctly on the two occasions in question. If you get it wrong twice then you're into the realm of contingency-driven lateral engineering (or bodging, as it was formerly known).
How is it possible, after months of planning and careful consideration, to cut holes in the wrong location on the smart housing one has selected for one's project? Some people have suggested that ale is to blame. I prefer to think that I am keeping in touch with my feminine side :-)
Anyway, once the holes were cut, it was easier (and less embarrassing) to re-design the innards of the thing to fit the holes rather than to move the holes to fit the innards. After all, who is ever going to challenge me to open it up and reveal the mess that lies within? It works, that's all that matters.
What are we talking about? Why, the Musician's Friend, the Universal Belt-Mounted Signal-Boosting Gadget Thingy. Here it is:
Based on the LM358 chip, this cute little fag-packet-sized device sits between your instrument and whatever lies beyond, be it a PA, a mixing desk or whatever, outputting a strong, clean signal. Just for fun, I built in Phantom Power as well, to satisfy those folks with quirky pickups (that's what the second switch is for).
Cost? Around £15 (plus a lot of swearing during construction).
Another one-off work of genius from the Secret Laboratory!

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Moving on...

OK, so the quest for invisible white light ended when I discovered that human skin drinks IR. It didn't seem to matter how hot I drove the giant IR array, nothing bounced off my face unless I wore the special make-up. I'm fine, really. I can deal with failure. Don't mail me...
Moving on, what I want to talk about this evening is PE-HD (High Density Polyethylene to the uninitiated). What an amazing material! I can't believe that I've been consigning so many tons of it to recycle (Council euphemism for landfill) for so many years. I'll never throw a scrap away again, I promise!
So where do you get this wonderful material? For a ready supply, check your fridge. PE-HD is what your typical plastic milk cartons are made of. Next time you are about to throw away a plastic milk carton, try this instead: Wash it and cut out as many flat panels as you can. Now think what you can do with this stock. You can bend or fold it and it doesn't crack. You can cut or staple it and it doesn't tear. It doesn't like conventional "glues" but it is happy with double-sided adhesive tape and sticky fixers, etc.
What led me to this personal discovery was the need to devise a helmet-mounted harness for my mobile phone. I'm doing a sponsored abseil for the Severn Area Rescue Association this weekend and I thought it might be a good idea to grab some 3GP video on the way down. The milk-carton PE-HD was the perfect solution. It was so easy to make a stong and secure custom phone case with PE-HD and a few staples. It's everything Origami should have been but never was.
What can you do with yours?

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The quest for Invisible White Light continues...

In a recent comment concerning this investigation, Dr. Alcock correctly pointed out that I was in need of some beer and a lie down. However, he later forwarded me a photograph of his own TV remote control taken with his camera phone, demonstrating (a) the variation in response of different imaging elements to invisible radiation, and (b) that Dr. Alcock himself was in need of some beer and a lie down.
As I had just completed repairs to my large array of IR LEDs (see last post), I decided to compare what my camera could see with what my phone could see.
Below: A photo of the array taken with my camera - green, as expected. Still not very bright though. It appears the green sensors are only marginally receptive to IR and the red and blue sensors scarcely at all.
Below: My phone appears highly sensitive to IR, the red and blue sensors more so than the green.

And they say the camera never lies...

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Progress with Invisible White Light

The story so far...

I needed to get some measurements on the response of my camera to invisible light radiation. Here I took a photo of myself (in a mirror) illuminated by ultraviolet light. I could not actually see the light myself but the camera could, as you may see. If you grab a sample of my face and run it through a colour histogram tool (e.g. in PaintShop Pro) you will see that red and blue are very much in evidence and green scarcely at all (the tiny amount of green present is due to ambient light interference - I really should have done this experiment in the dark). So there you have it. That's what I call Ultra Magenta - the red and blue sensors in the imaging chip responding inappropriately but usefully to ultra violet light.

That's the red and blue sorted out. What about the green? That's where I need to infill with the infra red, which looks green to the camera.

I have tried but I cannot illuminate my face sufficiently using even a score of old TV remote control handsets. Here's the solution:
A large array of IR LEDs. Got to get it working first. Watch this space...

Friday, 19 June 2009

Invisible White Light!

Further to my last post, I've just discovered Ultra Magenta! It's not really ultra magenta of course - that's just my name for it. I experimented further with my digital camera and discovered that it could also see ultraviolet, which the blue and red sensors render as a kind of visible magenta!

Add my ultra magenta to my infra green (see previous post) and you've got invisible white light!

Think about it - a flash unit with an infra red and an ultraviolet source, both invisible to the human eye but the camera sees it as white light! The ultimate unobtrusive flash.

No - this is too good. It's probably been done...

I need to do tests, tests, yes, tests (mutter mutter...)

Infra Green?

It's not every day that someone discovers a new colour so I thought I'd mention this latest find from the Secret Laboratory - Infra Green. That's right - never been seen before, I reckon.

OK, it's not really a new colour. I was mucking about with my digital camera when I noticed that it could actually "see" the invisible infra red radiation from my TV remote control. Oddly, it rendered this invisible wavelength from the far red end of the spectrum not in red but in green - the exact complement in at least one colour model! If you're looking for green (e.g. through a green filter) the last thing you expect to see is red - it ought to be black! There's probably a perfectly reasonable explanation why my camera's green sensors (and green alone) are able to see infra red but I am not in possession of that explanation. It's probably something to do with what scientists call weird shit or quantum bollocks or something.

Of course, this is how those infra red security cameras work. Normally we view the images in black-and-white so we're not really aware what colour of sensor actually recorded the image. I always imagined one needed a special sensor to record infra red - not so...

Anyway, this got me to wondering what else my camera could see that I couldn't, and what other lies it was telling me when I released the shutter.

Then came the bombshell! What's the problem with flash photography? Too white and too bright! Suppose you had an infra-red flashgun - that would provide the necessary green signal without startling your subjects. Then infill with just a touch of visible magenta flash to balance the colour to ambient levels. Result? A very unobtrusive flash, no more than a pinky glow at 2/3 the apparent brightness of a conventional flash.

More news soon...

Friday, 12 June 2009

Mandolin Stuff

Mandolins are a bugger. Were I a guitarist of note there would be millions of guitarists to compare me with and demonstrate that I'm a guitarist of relatively poor achievement. When it comes to famous mandolin players, it's like the old business of trying to name famous Belgians. There are loads of them but nobody quite recalls them. Thus, it is incumbent upon me to represent famous mandolin players in Ledbury, even though I only know half-a-dozen chords and thrash them out like I am trying to saw a biscuit tin in half with a junior hacksaw.
Talking of which, why do I get funny looks when I go into Rodway's and ask for the Adult hacksaw section?
Cutting to the main story, an acquaintance of mine brought an ancient mandolin to me, explaining that it had been a gift and that he wanted to know if it could be rendered "playable". Looking at the poor thing, it was indeed in bad shape. I took it home for further inspection. Peering through the soundhole I could see the Vicar's house through the back - and the Vicar waving - not the best sign for a mandolin. The neck had been replaced at some point in its history and had been set at the wrong angle, producing an unplayably high action. The tailpiece was shattered - generally speaking, it's a good idea to have something to tie the ends of the strings to. The face was sunken, like your granny's cheeks when she tries to smoke a tightly rolled ciggie.
However, the Secret Laboratory loves a challenge...
Back glued together, no more gaps. French Polish applied!
New tailpiece! Bit of old scrap alu found in the dark recesses of the Secret Laboratory.

Some Abalone used to replace the missing Mother-of-Pearl inlay.
In short, this mando is now just about playable. I've worked on the action but I just can't get it down any further - there's no room. The sound, however, is astonishing! I wish my regular mando sounded so bright.
By the way, I can thoroughly recommend "The Secret of Successful French Polishing" [Lindsey Doyle].

Friday, 5 June 2009

Full Circle!

If you were thinking of entering this month's What's Happening in the Secret Laboratory competition, don't bother - you're too late. The prize jelly babies have gone to a good cause.

I was, of course, measuring the water flow rate through a concrete griffin's bottom and the back pressure on the pump. Why? Read on...

Followers of exploits at the Secret Laboratory (pre-dating this blog) may remember that a few years ago I converted a garden water feature to serve as an automatic tomato watering facility so that I could go on holiday, safe in the knowledge that there would be tomatoes upon my return. This year I didn't bother with tomatoes so I came around to thinking maybe I could convert this converted garden water feature into... a garden water feature. A crazy idea but it might just work...

Let me introduce my Dad (1928-1998), a man filled with grandiose ideas and a master of unfinished projects. In 1970 he bought a concrete griffin with an internal tube connecting its bum to its mouth. Our garden was to become a veritable water palace, worthy of kings and princes. All summer long my Mum and I waited for the sound of tinkling water. All summer long the griffin lay idle, gathering moss. Thirty-nine years later, still not a drop of water had entered the griffin's bottom to delight visiting nobles - until now!

The best thing is, turn a valve, engage the timer and the installation reverts to an automatic tomato irrigation tool again!
Yes, yes - I have to do some work on hiding the beer line and the power cable. Everything's under control...

This one is for you Dad - a gift from the Secret Laboratory!

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Work in Progress...

So, what is happening at the Secret Laboratory this week? A bag of jelly babies says you'll never guess.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Bloody Artists!

Early 1990s, dawn of the Web, there I was making a presentation to colleagues at a certain college in South London, enthusing about the new technology and demonstrating how easy it was to put material online. And the most amazing thing is that you don't need to worry about compatibility, I explained. It doesn't matter what screen resolution or dimension is available on the target machine, it doesn't matter what fonts are installed, what colour depth the graphics card supports, everything sort of moves around, gets switched, swapped, substituted, resized and sorted out so it's viewable at the user's end.

So, what you're saying is that we're not actually in control of the way the page looks? queried the Artists in the group.

That's right - isn't it wonderful?

Solemn shaking of heads and tuttings of disapproval ensued. We're not sure we like the sound of that, they said. In fact we don't like it one bit.

Well, I wasn't worried. If the Artists didn't want to embrace this exciting new medium, that was their loss. No skin off my nose. We'd keep it in the Geek community for now - maybe the Artists would come around to our way of thinking eventually - always an open door and a friendly welcome in Geek World. We need all the friends we can get...

Here we are, nearly 20 years later. Did the Artists come on board? No. Instead, they stole the Web from us and destroyed it with over-complicated markup tags, Cascading Style Sheets, Dynamic Web Templates and suchlike that don't work cross-platform. Perfectly good tags were declared deprecated, so we're not sure how much longer they will be supported on each of the many browsers. Nothing works predictably anymore, as any web-designer will confirm. Ah, but it works in FireNumpty 6.5 (or whatever) is not an excuse!

So, if anyone witnessed a strange chap kneeling on the ground outside a certain Secret Laboratory yesterday morning, spilling his tea down his dressing-gown and pounding the earth with his fist in a fine impression of Charlton Heston in the final scene of Planet of the Apes, that was probably me.

You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Whither LVLR?

I don't know what's going on with the LVLR project. You know how it is when you've got 99% of the resources you need to realise a successful project outcome but that missing 1% remains out of reach? No? Oh, well - it's really frustrating, that's what it is. Try it sometime - it'll drive you insane.

What is LVLR? It's a navigation aid for SCUBA divers, particularly those working in conditions of low visibility and those over-tasked with other equipment considerations. Yes, yes, there are plenty of underwater navigation aids on the market already but none works quite like LVLR, not even the impressive and highly desirable Heads-Up-Display (HUD) that was developed by Oceanic originally for military purposes, later versions becoming available for the technical/recreational diving market. Add to this the strong possibility that LVLR could probably retail at sub-£100 and you've got the kind of "pocket-money" item that many divers would buy on spec and then wonder how they ever managed without.

So what does LVLR actually do, precisely? I cannot give details here as this would compromise the patent application. Let's just say that LVLR does something that no other product can do; it's all in the software and the peculiar Human-Computer-Interface (HCI).

I went diving yesterday with my good dive-buddy Richard, just to keep our skills up-to-date and to have a bit of fun. At the dive site an unusually heavy algal bloom was taking place and, at about 1m, visibility was truly appalling (unless you're a Police diver, in which case I suppose 1m visibility is something of a luxury). We got lost. 13 acres of murk and we didn't know where the hell we were (except how to get back, of course; at this particular dive site, North is almost always good and gets you close to an exit or something else you recognise). Eventually we found what we had been looking for - a 1910 steamboat lying about 23m deep. We actually bumped into it before we saw it. It would have been fun to stick around a while and explore the boat but we had used half our air getting there and that's when it's time to turn back - penetrating the "wreck" would have been foolhardy in the extreme. Now, if we'd had LVLR, we would have got there sooner and our more controlled dive-depth profile would have saved even more air...

So, why is LVLR still not realised six years after its initial conception? The missing, vital component is a miniature pressure transducer of the kind found in dive computers and some dive watches. I remember when these were readily available on the Internet - I wish I had purchased a few back then. Now there is no sign of these particular devices anywhere on the Internet, though I know they exist. I suspect that certain OEMs have acquired exclusive rights to the source, just to keep would-be competitors at bay. I wouldn't care if I were a competitor but I'm not - there is nothing like LVLR out there. LVLR is truly unique...

An early prototype of LVLR sits in its prototype waterproof housing, awaiting the arrival of a suitable pressure transducer. Will the sleeker, slimmer production version ever see the light of day? Only time will tell.

If you have a shagged-out old dive computer or dive watch containing a pressure transducer of the type described, please contact the Secret Laboratory!

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Blues Stomp Box - complications

OK, so the Stomp Box MkI didn't quite work out as planned. I didn't expect it to be perfect first time. One-off projects like this evolve over time.

The first fault was with the LED power indicator. Personal memo to self: never connect a self-blinking LED across the power input of an audio device, unless you actually want that Floyd-style heartbeat in the background all the time.

Second fault... I had such faith in that piezo transducer! I was so certain that, being a contact device, it would be relatively immune to external noise and would pick up only the stomp from the box. I was right, but in such a wrong way. No feedback problems (hurrah) but every last detail of sticky shoe sole issue was faithfully fed to the amp, making it sound like an octopus making love to a biscuit tin. Boom-schluppp Boom-schluppp, etc. In desperation, I added a layer of rubberised carpet to the top of the Stomp Box. This made it sound like an octopus trying desperately not to be discovered making love to a biscuit tin.

The blinking LED had to go. I replaced it with one of those low power plain jobbies with a built-in resistor, designed for direct connection across rails. So far, so good.

The piezo element had to go. I replaced it with a dynamic element from a crap old cassette-recorder microphone, embedded in foam packaging.

As far as I was concerned, I now had a Stomp Box! I shoved it through my 100W Laney Linebacker, took the top-end off and was pleased to hear a satisfying Whump Whump Whump coming through.

However, everyone's a critic, so it seems. On its first night out, the Stomp Box was still deemed to be too "toppy". Some said that thicker carpeting or even neoprene rubber casing might help. Others argued that an active low-pass filter might be the solution (sledgehammers and nuts spring to mind). Personally, I suspect the ability of the performers. Just because it's called a Stomp Box doesn't mean you can just plug it in, stamp on it and expect to sound like Catfish Keith on day one. These things need learning...

Friday, 20 March 2009

Blues Stomp Box

There's a bit of a story behind this project - sorry but that's blogs for you.

Angie, a very good friend of mine, not content with being a perfectly competent folk singer and guitarist, decided to become simply the best blueswoman in the county and a serious rival to the best the World has to offer - no, really.

Then came the bombshell. Angie wanted a stomp box. For those not in the know, a stomp box is one of those little wooden platforms that blues artists stomp with their toes or heels to add a bit of percussive oomph to their performance - cheaper than hiring a drummer.

In the olden days, hillbillies would make stomp boxes out of old wooden boxes made of... er... old bits of old wooden box, and very fine they sounded too. These days you can buy handcrafted, french-polished stomp boxes online for only a few hundred dollars... HOW MUCH? That's like a red rag to a bull for the Secret Laboratory!

Materials list:

  • Bits of old wood. Plenty of old bits of wood in the Secret Laboratory. Indeed, the Secret Laboratory itself is constructed almost entirely from bits of old wood (no secret laboratories were harmed in this project).
  • Bits of old electronic equipment (plus a few bits of new electronic equipment from sustainable sources). Sorry, but in noisy modern music venues you need to go through the desk and the PA to be heard, and this necessitates a bit of preamplification.
  • Screws and glue... loads of glue..

Equipment list:

  • Saw
  • Drill
  • Screwdriver
  • Soldering iron
  • Brain

With brain, use saw, drill, screwdriver and soldering iron to transform old bits of wood, glue, screws and electronic gubbins (from sustainable sources) into a stomp box. That's about it really. Results below:

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Welcome to the Secret Laboratory!

OK, it's just a shed but it says "Secret Laboratory" in big letters over the door, so that makes it a Secret Laboratory in my book - even if it's not that secret anymore. It's where I do my best stuff.

This being a new blog, I've got a bit of catching up to do. Four current projects to document here: Mandolin pre-amp, Blues stomp box, Bamboo cycle trailer and Homebrew dive computer; an element of danger in each. Watch this space!

Ah - I almost forgot to mention my new assistant, Igor. He's not very bright but he's a keen learner and helps with things like chewing through cables, etc. When I placed the ad, I specified a small, hirsute hunchback with funny ears, but this wasn't quite what I was expecting. What on Earth was the Agency thinking? Apparently he's on some kind of "Rodents back into work" scheme and I have to fill in loads of bloody forms every week.