Saturday, 25 December 2010

New recruit

Hello Lab fans. Please join me in welcoming our new associate, the erudite and alternatively-hinged Kate Mawby. We're all looking forward to seeing some of her projects documented here in the coming year.

Friday, 10 December 2010


Reasons for never getting rid of that old Singer: However "new" a man you think you are, you will never be able to sew as well as your Mum without mechanical assistance.

Spectacles case. Media: Old fag-damaged fleece jumper.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Triboluminescence of sugar

Hello again. I've been really lazy recently. Well, not really lazy - I've been busy doing other stuff for other people, so I've neglected the Secret Laboratory recently. I don't even have a project for this month yet. I'm going to have to come up with something...

Anyway, just to fill the gap, I thought I'd introduce you all to a really easy technique for observing the phenomenon known as triboluminescence. Yes, this is my own method, I didn't nick it from the Internet.

Triboluminescence is an optical phenomenon whereby light is generated when chemical bonds are broken. So how do we do that then? Here we go...

Go out and buy a packet of generic "Extra Strong Mints". You know the kind I mean. They're hard, white and about an inch in diameter. Make sure they're fresh and dry - this doesn't work with soggy old mints.

Bear with me here. Take your mints to bed. Make sure everything is really dark. Hide under the duvet to make sure it's really dark. I don't mean just fairly dim, I'm talking pitch black, the kind of dark I imagine must have existed before the Universe was born. The kind of dark that doesn't even have space attached to it.

Stay in the dark for five minutes or more, keeping your eyes open. Your eyes will struggle to accommodate the dark but they will fail because it's really dark, right? You now have super-sensitive eyes, ready to detect the merest stray photon.

Take a mint from the packet and hold it 'twixt both forefingers and thumbs. Stare wide-eyed at the point where you judge the mint to be (you can't actually see the mint because it's really dark, right?)

Keep your eyes on the judged location of the mint - this phenomenon is fleeting. Snap the mint in half smartly by rotating your hands outwards to bring the broken faces uppermost. In other words, you're snapping the mint towards you, not away from you.

Did you see the flash? What colour did you see?

That was triboluminescence of sugar, brought to you by The Secret Laboratory. You can eat the mint now. Sleep well.

Warning: Eating mints can cause tooth decay. Always brush your teeth before falling asleep after observing triboluminescence of sugar under a duvet at night.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Units with mirrors, footrests, glass shelves and stuff.

A whole new look for 'The Strand' salon in Fulham.
I did suggest that the name should be changed to 'er' but the boss just gave me a dark Glaswegian stare and told me I was very very silly, and then chased me around again trying to touch my stuff.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Tinktank screws up.

It's impossible to follow the Bristlebot performance. However, here at the Tinktank we have progress to report from the 'Fulham' project. In the following video one of our operatives does his stuff, screwing up.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Practical Bristlebots

Domestic chores. Don't you just hate 'em? This month the Secret Laboratory has harnessed bristlebot technology to make housework a thing of the past.

Now I have to think of a way to explain to Bryn why he's not getting his mobile phone back...

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Introducing Neville

Neville is my sidekick here at the Tank. He looks after the 'office' stuff, mainly answering the phone, which is switched off, coz we dont want to wake him up. He's been with us since 1986, when he arrived here having stowed away in my fathers baggage. He's a nice chap, and although he likes to sleep up to nineteen hours a day, he is dead honest. We're thinking of promoting him to 'Project Manager' as the bloke who's been doing it for the last 27 years is bloody useless, the left hand has never known what the right hand has been doing, but perhaps thats been for the best.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Ma who?

An idea for a new game?
An entry for the Turner prize perhaps?
It was probably supposed to be a shed or a stomp box, but the office lost the plans, so we're really not sure!
Update 16/9
Plans found, the Koala in the office had 'em in his pouch all the time.
Apparantly they are 'units' for a hair dressing salon in Fulham. Unfortunately its me thats gotta fit 'em. Last time I was there the Scottish boss kept chasing me around trying to touch my stuff, and I kept bangin' my head on things. He's a nice chap, but really. Ah well, must grin and bear it for the alliance.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

What's going on?

Just in case anyone was wondering what's going on, please join me in welcoming the Cosmic Tinktank to the Secret Laboratory. This alliance is sure to provide amusement and edification for years to come.

Tinktank Here

Just testin' out new powers.
If this works, the staff here at CTT will try to come up with some stuff.
Ooo now I'm editing, vandabadoozie.
Dont worry we aint insane, just mildly mad.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Silly String results

This goes back to a project started in February 2010, namely, what actually happens if you shoot a can of Silly Party String with an air gun? I would have forgotten the project had not Kate Mawby pestered me regularly, demanding results. Thanks also to the Croydon Tink-Tank for safety advice and video recording services on the day, and to Su Wayland for making encouraging remarks from the safety of an upstairs window.

Don't try this at home!

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Freedom Boot modifications

The Ledbury Freedom Boot has now been gigged twice and two weaknesses have been exposed.

Firstly, the beading pins that affix the bottle caps to the stick are too dainty by far. Whilst they have not yet shed their load, they do bend easily and corrective action is frequently required mid-set.

Action: The puny beading pins are to be replaced with 6 x 1.5" black laquered dome-headed screws.

Secondly, the googly eyes fell off the toe-cap, demonstrating that "Sellotape Self Adhesive Sticky Fixers" are not as effective as the blurb on the pack would have you believe. Oh yes, the adhesive facing is aggressive and sticks to almost anything. The problem lies with the foam pad between the adhesive faces, which, like unto a marshmallow, has barely any cohesive qualities at all.

Action: The eyes are not to be replaced as they contributed little to the overall musical impact anyway.

All will be well for Acoustic Roots Linton 2010. Bought your ticket yet?

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Freedom Boot

Missed my July posting deadline - Bah! No projects posted in July because I was too busy festival-going, gigging and suchlike. I never imagined how stressful semi-retirement would be. Never a minute to oneself.

Anyway, the July project (now the August project) is the Ledbury Freedom Boot - that's the working name, not the final production name. It will probably end up being called something sinister like Cthulhu or Betty.

The Freedom Boot (aka Ugly Stick, Zob Stick or Lagerphone) is a linear array of percussive elements with a stomp-activated mode of deployment. I am tired of thinking up ways to avoid admitting that it is basically a boot on a stick adorned with beer bottle caps. You don't need a scholarship from the Royal Northern to learn how to play the Freedom Boot.

Our band, The Fylthe, is enviably well endowed kit-wise, so why a Freedom Boot? It's all Tom Waits's fault. Our Great Hairy Leader insists that our cover of Waits's "Underground" should be as dirty and noisy as possible, hence the Freedom Boot. Can you hear it yet, in your head?


there's a rumblin' groan
down below, etc...

Also, Waits is notoriously litigious and fiercely protective of his property, so having a big steel-toe-capped Doc Marten on a stick could come in handy in a pre-courtroom scenario.

Ready for Acoustic Roots Linton! Couldn't get the whole instrument in shot - sorry.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Re: cycling

Scraping the barrel this month - only just made it with a last minute project for June. It's not so much of a project really - more of a handy tip.

After many seasons of exposure to the elements, certain types of rubber bicycle handlebar grips begin to decompose. In the heat of summer they become a sticky mess. If they are part of an integrated "grip-shift" system, replacement is moderately expensive and definitely a pain in the bum.

Spotting an old inner tube in my spares box, I wondered if I might re-clad the grips using sections of the tube. I thought it might be difficult to install the cladding but no - a bit of decisive tugging and the job was done. They feel better than new and I saved myself a few quid.

Not exactly the "Work of Genius" expected from the Secret Laboratory but definitely a lesson in how not to give up on busted shit.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Hacking the Jackhammer, part two

I am delighted to report that Marshall were only too pleased to supply me with the components I needed to restore the Jackhammer to its former glory. It is great to interact with a company that does not subscribe to the "No User Serviceable Parts Inside" philosophy - a company that does not ask to see my "Level Umpteen Soldering-Iron" qualification or "Registered Safe Screwdriver User" certificate before accepting my order.

The Jackhammer is now in full working order. The remaining question is: What is the Jackhammer actually for? OK, it's a distortion pedal but we're already quite distorted over here in Ledbury band land...

Friday, 23 April 2010

Hacking the Jackhammer

"Oh, you mend things don't you? Would you mind taking a look at..."

My heart always sinks when this question is asked. Often I arrive to be confronted with a heap of '30s-'50s electrical junk with that tell-tale patina of flaking varnish and oxidised metal, only the protective film of sticky kitchen grease having secured its survival into the 21st century. There's a smell about that junk as well. It's the smell that says "Plug me in and you're dead".

What a delight then to discover this little gem amongst a heap of junk:

A classic musical effects pedal, all that is wrong with this baby is that two of the spindles are bent and the knobs are missing. Rated 9v, I ain't gonna die through messin'.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The strawberries are safe - for now...

Further to a previous posting this month, it was a nervous moment when we modded the Davis Vantage Pro 2 environmental data logger last week. It's always a nervous moment when you try to mod a largely surface-mount motherboard with a clunky old soldering iron better suited to soldering cables to plugs. So many tiny, delicate components, so close to the heat source...

Battling with what surgeons call "intention tremor", we successfully removed the integrated antenna and replaced it with a socket, enabling Dr. Alcock to experiment freely in his role as Time Domain Reflectometrist for the Strawberry Farm.

Plugging a new (external) aerial into the socket, the first thing we noticed was a marked improvement on signal strength, the device pulling in data from the three remote stations with no problems. Davis note: you should be supplying these devices with an aerial socket instead of relying upon some c**t with a soldering iron to do the job for you!

Notice the signal strength from one of the remote stations - 42 (ringed red). That was previously about 30 with the suppled integrated aerial. Now we have a socket, Dr. Alcock will be experimenting with new aerial designs to drive that figure even higher.

The Secret Laboratory - not just about dicking about in sheds. More news soon...

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Stereo to Mono converter - how to do it properly

On occasions you might wish to feed a mono PA input from a small stereo device such as a personal MP3 player or cassette player.

Historical note for youngsters: cassettes are those little plastic boxes full of brown string that your parents keep in cardboard boxes on top of the wardrobe. The de-facto standard of 129 metres of brown string wound on little bobbins is almost but not quite enough to store one whole album. This is what passed for copy-protection in their day. Left in a car for five summers, all cassette recordings of any kind evolved into either Wings or Steeleye Span anyway. This phenomenon has never been fully explained but is thought to be an early experiment in what is now known as consumer subscription expiry.

For example, you may wish to provide some recorded music during the interval between sets at a live gig, or you may be a quizmaster or quizmistress delivering the "music round" at your local pub. Either way, the material is on your personal device and you want it to go front-of-house, through the desk or whatever.

I know what you are thinking. You go to your local electronics store, you get a 3.5mm to 3.5mm stereo extension cable and a 3.5mm stereo to 1/4" mono converter and the job is done. Oh ho ho! No. You risk (at best) distorting your sound or (at worst) frying your kit. That's your decision but here at The Secret Laboratory we like to do things properly.

Here's how to do it properly:

Find a 3.5mm stereo jack plug, a 1/4" mono jack plug, a length of shielded two-core audio cable, two 10K resistors (brown-black-orange) and some insulating tape or heat-shrink tubing.

Solder all the bits together according to the following schematic and following instructions:

On the left, your 3.5mm stereo jack. Source (R) will probably be a red wire - connect it to the "ring" on the jack (you may need a meter to check which tag is the ring but it's usually the tag on the right as you look from the rear of the plug - red ring right is how I remember it). Source (L) might be blue, white or some other colour. Connect it to the "tip" on the jack (usually the left tag as you look from the rear). Connect the shielding (Source G) to the "sleeve" of the jack (that's the BIG tag that also serves to secure the cable when you crimp it). In this particular application it doesn't actually matter if you get the L and the R mixed up but it's good to get it right. Don't mess with the G though, else you'll be pissing signal to ground.

On the right, your 1/4" mono jack going to your PA. Connect the red signal wire (Source R) to a 10K resistor and the other signal wire (Source L) to another 10K resistor, making sure the two wires don't short at this end (that's where the insulating tape or heat-shrink tubing comes in handy). Twist the other ends of the resistors together and connect them to the "tip" (PA Sig) of the mono jack. Connect the shielding (Source G) to the "sleeve" of the jack (PA G) and crimp to secure the cable, just like you did at the other end. Get this right and the whole assembly will fit inside the 1/4" jack housing. Oh, er, now is a REALLY bad time to remind you that you should have made sure the plug housings were already on the cable - I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry...

Right! You have just constructed a simple "audio mixer" - tell your friends! They'll think you're some kind of electronics genius! "Buy an audio mixer? No, I just make my own - it's nothing, really..."

Or: "Yeah Brett, I'd love to come to dinner tonight but I'm, like, building an audio mixer?" Think of the potential to keep 'em hot!!!

I showed my version (above) to Steve Glennie-Smith (Electronics Engineer par excellence) last night and he said "That's quite neat - for a programmer". Praise indeed!

Thursday, 1 April 2010

The importance of antennas

No, not "antennae" - that's what insects have. Antennas, as in aerials. Sticky-up or sticky-out bits of wire that mysteriously capture signals from the thick soup of radio-frequency data that's whizzing through the ether as we speak.

Perhaps you've got a long-forgotten Yagi in your loft or strapped to your chimney. A sat-dish on your wall or whatever. How soon we forget the importance of these humble items of hardware, yet we are becoming ever more reliant upon wireless communications technology.

Let me really drive this home with a concrete example:
  • No antennae, no automated irrigation systems.
  • No automated irrigation systems, no strawberries.
  • No strawberries, no Wimbledon.
You see? Tennis itself relies upon technicians willing to spend hour after hour experimenting with bits of bent wire.

Yesterday I visited the home of the perfect strawberry with a view to helping to create the ultimate wireless irrigation management system. Dr. Alcock's technical expertise combined with The Secret Laboratory's 40 years of soldering experience is certain to secure the future of UK sporting excellence for years to come.

Watch this space.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Audio attenuator

I know, I know - everyone is wondering when I'm going to pop a cap in the aerosol of Silly String. I'm still waiting for the Great Hairy Leader to lend me his vidcam. I want the best possible footage for your delectation. More news soon...

The project for March did actually take place. The Hairy One needed an audio attenuator to balance line-out from a sound desk to mic-in on his video camera, so he could record some live gigs without unwanted background noise. A bit of Googling turned up schematics for a suitable mono attenuator. The Secret Laboratory adapted the design to produce a stereo attenuator for the purpose, constructed entirely from salvage. This is recycling at its best.

The R1s are 10K and provide the bulk of attenuation. The R2s are 1K and serve to sink optional power from the camera input to ground, fooling it into thinking it really is dealing with a powered mic (you lose a bit of signal here as well but, hey, attenuator - there's a clue in the name). The C1s are 104 ceramics. You could use almost any similarly rated ceramic caps here - all they are doing is making sure that no DC power gets from the camera to the desk. This model provides approximately 21dB attenuation.

I really wanted to etch a custom board for this project but, when I sketched in on paper, it looked like three strips of Veroboard, so I built it on three strips of Veroboard.

I put phono plugs on the desk end (line-out) and a single 3.5mm stereo jack on the camera end (mic-in). Worked a treat.

I wanted to post a photo here but the device was needed on the night in question. I'll post a photo as soon as I get the device back.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Results for February's project

Thanks to everyone who responded. There were six genuine voters and two virtual voters. Analysing the responses was not as straightforward as I had expected.

Kate voted for option 3. Kate's cat also voted for option 3 but I suspect this was just Kate's way of trying to wangle some extra representation and so I'm accepting only the one vote (sorry Kate's cat).

Cosmic Tink Tank voted for option 3 and included some interesting suggestions to enliven the proceedings. I won't be using the suggestions but, hey, what a creative mind.

Mille Vache voted for option 2, which I would have been delighted to run with but unfortunately Mille rendered option 2 redundant by publishing the recipe in advance of project selection and execution. Never mind - it was a good service rendered by Mille and I trust everyone will try the recipe (I certainly will).

Angie voted for option 2 but see Mille Vache above. Sorry Angie. At least you've got the recipe now.

Andrew voted for option 2. Yep, that's right. Sorry Andrew. Blame Mille Vache. Enjoy the honeycomb!

Su voted for option 1. I am counting this vote as valid even though I know for a fact that Su is voting that way only to try to put me on the spot. You don't believe I can do this number theory stuff, do you Su? I have only one thing to say: Tom Westerdale, Birkbeck College. He taught me everything I know about number theory, set theory, logic and computability. Although I'm a wee bit rusty, I've still got my notes...

Anonymous voted for option 1 but then disqualified himself/herself by voting twice for option 1. A bit harsh maybe but Anonymous could be anyone - perhaps even Su trying to inflate her representation. Anonymous did almost redeem himself/herself by suggesting that option 3 would be more fun but, in all fairness, if I'm invalidating this person's vote for option 1 then I must do the same for option 3.

So there we have it:

Option 1: one valid vote (Su).
Option 2: three valid votes (Mille Vache, Angie, Andrew) but option rendered redundant by early disclosure.
Option 3: two valid votes (Kate, Cosmic Tink Tank).

A clear win for option 3. I kind of thought it would go that way.

And here you are - the very can that's going to get it. The contents conform to European directives 76/769/EEC and CE 3093/94. I'm not saying that's good and I'm not saying that's bad but one way or another it will do no more harm to the environment than if it were deployed more conventionally, at a party for instance. The only difference is that my special party will be over in seconds. The only way to reduce impact is to ban this stuff altogether and that would probably be a good thing.

When is it going to happen? Well, I had planned on doing the deed later today but a friend of mine offered the use of his professional quality video camera in place of my humble mobile phone video capture facility. I must admit I couldn't resist the opportunity to capture some high-speed vid and render it in slow-mo for your delectation.

Do not try this at home. See you in March!

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Your chance to vote on February's project

February has been a slow month for the Secret Laboratory. I have several serious projects on the go but there will not be any results until late March at the earliest. Therefore, as infill, I have decided to test the intellectual orientation of my readership. You may vote upon the following three last minute projects for February, the most popular of which will be published here.
  1. Decidable Predicates. How to decide whether numbers possess a given property.
  2. How to make that yummy honeycomb stuff they put in Crunchie bars.
  3. What actually happens if you shoot an aerosol can of "Silly Party String" with an air pistol.
You may vote 1, 2 or 3 by responding to this post.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

A mystery...

An unknown agent appears to be testing The Secret Laboratory. This morning a package arrived from an anonymous sender. The address was written in block capitals, so no handwriting clues. No return address on the package, no note inside and the package was franked with a "Royal Mail postage paid" label, so no postmark. Who could it be from?

Inside: two mugs of Welsh origin, each bearing a conspicuous dragon emblem; a small jug of Scottish origin; a brown paisley scarf of English origin; a newspaper clipping from The Wirral News reporting upon the activities of a certain rock band with whom I once had some association.

Sifting analytically through my portfolio of friends, I could see tenuous links to many among their number but no single friend satisfied all of the criteria. Those with a Wirral connection might know of my Welsh connection but not necessarily of the band in question. Those with the band connection might know of my Welsh connection but nothing of the Wirral. Those with the Welsh connection would know nothing of my Wirral or band connections. Those who might have judged that the scarf would work well with my tweed jacket and moleskin trousers might have known of the band and my Welsh connection but what were they doing in the Wirral? As for the Scottish jug, well, was this just a Red Herring? Or a Kilmarnock even - that's a plaice in Scotland.

I confess to being utterly stumped.

Band, Scarf, Scotland, Wales, Wirral; that's five factors. I should try drawing a Venn diagram to narrow the range of suspects but, on paper, Venns only work with three factors. Looks like I'm going to have to fire-up the multidimensionaliser tomorrow. It's been in the shed all winter - I hope it still works. Now, where did I put the 2-stroke oil?

Thursday, 14 January 2010

The WHUMMMP of clean underpantlessness

It is the sound that every solitary male dreads. What begins as a subliminal thumping grows over the weeks to become a truly disconcerting racket, like unto a teenager learning to play drums in the garage. At last comes an Earth-shaking WHUMMMMP! and the lights go out all through the house. Silence. The washing machine is dead.

This would be distressing for either gender, of course, but the special (and most ironic) tragedy for the male is that calling for an experienced service engineer is like phoning the AA to change a wheel; an admission of extreme girliness. Even if the task has never presented itself before, one feels a masculine obligation to give it one's best shot and fail miserably rather than admit defeat at the outset.

The alternatives are even worse. It's one thing to be sitting in the laundrette in crisp white boxers with "Heard it on the Grapevine" going on in the background whilst your Levis whirl around the tub; quite another thing to be sitting in the laundrette in threadbare nylon paisley briefs with "Steve Wright in the Afternoon" for accompaniment. It doesn't thrill the ladies - trust me, I know about these things.

I would have been particularly upset to lose my Hotpoint Aquarius 1000M. After all, this was the rare edition that included the "Single Bloke" setting on the wash programme selector. No need to understand the intricacies of the other settings - just chuck all your stuff in, select "Single Bloke" and press "On". Everything comes out just like your Mum had done it.

Taking care to isolate the machine from power, water and drainage, I drew breath and heaved it from its lair beneath the fitted cabinets and the sink unit. An adrenalin rush, blood coursing through my wiry biceps, I felt alive.

Seizing a screwdriver, I considered which of the many screws were most likely to grant me access and which were likely to send some delicate internal component tumbling down into an unreachable abyss. Selecting three likely-looking candidates, the top was easily removed and the innards of the beast were laid bare.

As I gazed upon the wonders within, I noticed a spring where no spring should be, then a place where a spring should be but where there was no spring. It took a moment but then a rush of realisation, a "eureka" moment as all suddenly became clear: a spring had come loose. Not any old spring though - a very important spring - the one that holds the thingummybob (yes, thanks Gracie fans, we know...)

But why had the spring come loose? Closer inspection revealed that the hooky bit at the end of the spring had broken off, and this, in turn, was because a certain retaining plate had either never been fitted or had been removed by some rogue service engineer in the past. There was no trace of the missing plate within the machine but the evidence of slots and threaded holes (plus the presence of a retaining plate on an identical partner spring) gave the game away.

No hook, no retaining plate and me running low on clean undies. What to do?

The Secret Laboratory boasts a collection of pliers that would shame a light engineering workshop - 14 to be precise, each with a different purpose. Two of these were selected to fashion a new hook on what remained of the broken spring. The spring now in place, a new retaining plate was fashioned from an old PCI slot blanking plate and secured with a screw of exactly the right type found in my Dad's old collection of "everything you could possibly need". He died in 1998 but to this day he's never let me down. Whatever you need, it's somewhere in his collection - you've just got to work out where he put it (and sometimes this involves bizarre "visualisation" techniques, crystals, incense, chanting and all kinds of hippy shit).

Job done! I reckon that saved me a couple of hundred quid. Another work of genius from The Secret Laboratory!

Note: If you want to try fixing your own washing machine, please observe the usual sensible precautions. Turn off the water supply before disconnecting hoses. Have mops and buckets ready before disconnecting the outlet (you wouldn't believe how much gunk is sitting in the sump). Stick a cork or something in the thing the outlet drained to. UNPLUG UNPLUG UNPLUG! Don't trust the on/off switch or even the wall switch - they don't always do what you think. Remember, some electrical equipment can hold a potentially lethal charge even after being unplugged. If you see something that looks like a little tin can, just walk away and call an expert (one of those babies once threw me across a room and I'm lucky to be here). Finally, if you are of the Compensation Culture, do not under any circumstances attempt to fix your washing machine. In fact, don't try fixing anything. Don't even try staying in bed because I don't want to be sued when you get bedsores. Just close your eyes and try not to exist.