A Call for the Catevator

Posted on 02 Jul 2011 22:41


My cat Wilma is a sweet old lady. She had her 18th birthday this spring, and while she is still as charming and lovable as ever, she is definitely beginning to show her years.

Anyone who has spent much time around cats knows that they are creatures of habit. And like all cats, Wilma spends most of her time lying around in one or two favorite spots. One of those spots is on my bed. Wilma has never been the most athletic cat, with a stocky build and short legs and a clumsiness at leaping which is unbecoming of her species. But even though my bed is pretty high off the floor, she likes it so much that she will jump up on it anyway, however ungracefully.

Wilma is a very social cat, and will often migrate to a room where there is human company. She doesn't expect much attention, but she does like to be near the action. Sometimes if she's alone in another room, she will cry until somebody comes to check on her. The moment she realizes she has company she will chirp, walk over to greet the inquirer, and follow that being to its destination.

Often at night, after I've gone to bed, Wilma will cry forgetfully from another room until I wake up and call for her. She will always respond by pushing the bedroom door open with her nose and standing by the side of the bed. Sometimes she will jump right up from there, and sometimes she will sit there and meow. In the old days, if she meowed, I'd call for her again and she'd jump up. Lately she'll keep meowing until I dangle my arm over the side of the bed for her to head butt. At this point, I might be able to convince her to jump up on the bed with the kind of great encouragement that is difficult to come by after being awoken by a cat in the middle of the night. More often than not, it's easier for everybody if I reach down and lift her over the side of the bed in a maneuver I've come to call "The Catevator."

You would think that a cat as simple as Wilma would settle into predictable behavior, but she has always had a way of inventing new quirks and tricks to surprise me. In spite of the late-night assistance, she still jumps up on the bed on her own during the day when I'm not in the bedroom. But today she caught me off guard with something new. I heard her crying in the bedroom, in the middle of the day. I walked in to find her standing by the side of the bed, looking up and meowing.

She was calling for the Catevator.

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My unsatisfactory grocery situation

Posted on 25 Jun 2011 01:04

I live in the city. Not the dense hi-rise-condo-city or even the row-house-city. But I do live in a medium-density, walkable neighborhood of small-lot craftsmen and bungalows with the occasional townhouse cluster or small apartment building. The neighborhood immediately to the east of me is somewhat denser and more obviously urban.

Now, I chose my home and this neighborhood purposely for these qualities of density and walkability. I have easy public transportation access to most of the rest of the city from here, and I live across the street from a Zipcar lot. I can walk to a couple of dozen restaurants and a dozen coffee shops.

Most importantly, I can walk to the grocery store, which I do every day. My neighborhood is big enough to support one supermarket, but apparently is not big enough to support two. So I can walk to the store, but within the constraints of my chosen circumstances, I have no real choice about it. This wouldn't be a problem if I liked the grocery store, but I don't. At all.

The things that I want in an urban neighborhood grocery store really don't seem that unreasonable to me, and yet they are hard to come by:

  1. I want the assortment to be carefully curated to fit the tastes of the local population. I do not want to see 57 different kinds of spaghetti sauce and 38 varieties of toothpaste. 10 kinds of pasta sauce seems like way more than enough variety if they are well-selected. Trader Joe's is a good example of what I mean by curation, though I understand that TJ's is terribly flawed in other regards and specifically in regard to my next point…
  2. I do not want to patronize any kind of national chain or franchise, of any variety whatsoever. I'm not saying that every single store has to be a mom-and-pop, but I am saying that there is no such thing as "too local."

The short of it? I fucking hate QFC and I fucking hate Kroger, but I'm stuck with them unless I move.

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A moment of digital wristwatch nostalgia

Posted on 18 Apr 2011 02:24


One of the fun parts of growing up in the 1970s and 1980s was the development of wristwatch culture. Wristwatches were one of the last great bursts of popular modernism before the end of the Cold War ushered in an irreversible turn toward postmodern aesthetics and values.

It seems faintly ridiculous now, but there was an era when digital watches were an object of real cultural significance. Early LED watches in the 1970s were a radical statement of high technology—bringing the digital revolution into the intimate personal sphere. They were a fashion statement for the hip but sophisticated man (watches then, just as now, were overwhelmingly a guy thing) and they were very expensive. As LEDs became cheaper, they became more popular, and the transition to LCD triggered a stampede of mass consumer wristwatch culture. My own first watch was a Star Wars LED watch, which I'm sure I got for my birthday in 1978. I owned at least a dozen digital watches over the following decade, most of which were increasingly elaborate specimens of the Casio or Armitron variety. My father, big nerd that he was, had even more exotic examples of Citizens and Seikos.

I think for many people, these objects represented an accessible means to dismiss the recent past as boring and obsolete, and therefore irrelevant. A lot of baggage accumulated in the 1950s and 60s that people wanted to put behind them. It was Morning in America. Digital watches helped us bury the lumbering old institutional modernism of the Space Age with the liberating new modernism of the Computer Age. Away from an Old Europe and toward a New Japan. Technology would still save us, but now it was all about the personal. These things corresponded with the development of other consumer digital technology like video games and personal computers. It was all new and it all reinforced a new common culture of technological renaissance.

If all this sounds improbable, understand that watches played an equivalent role in consumer culture as mobile phones do today. I'm sure we'll look back on our preoccupation with elaborate phones with similar smirking amusement some day.

By the early-to-mid 80s, complex multi-function watches became the dominant form. Alarms and chronographs were a baseline of functionality. Better models had monthly calendars, multiple time zones, thermometers, computer interfaces, and all manner of obscure features, finally culminating in the infamous video game and calculator watches that became the stereotype of 1980s geekery.

But in the mid-80s two other trends appeared that would prove disruptive to wristwatch evolution. New hybrid analog/digital designs seemed to introduce a renewed sophistication to popular watch aesthetics. You could have the classic elegance of an analog dial and complex modern functionality all at the same time. It seemed to be an admission that style still mattered and that the ancient art of the timepiece delivered beauty most convincingly. The other trend was the emergence of Swatch and the idea of the plastic disposable fashion watch. In contrast to the increasingly sterile black plastic attitude of Japanese watches, Swatch represented the frivolity and carefully cultivated shallowness of 80s teen culture (Bueller…Bueller…). The Swatch and ana-digi trends lasted a few years in a typical fashion arc, but the end result was both a return to more traditional watch design and a decline of interest in watches in general.

Late 1980s and early 1990s cultures broadly turned away from technology and modernity as a source of inspiration for fashion. The digital watch, once savior, itself became an object of anachronistic scorn. The Grunge era kicked the neon Hair Rockers out of school. A creeping neo-urbanism and the decadent nostalgia of the Baby Boomers became the new animating forces of cultural expression, until slowly a new technological utopia of the Internet Age began to take root with the approach of the New Millenium…

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Multimeter madness

Posted on 03 Feb 2011 21:23


I am currently the owner of no less than 6 vintage bench multimeters. I probably really only need 2, so I ought to let some go. I'm definitely keeping the HP 3466A (personal favorite) and the Fluke 8840A/AF (dependable workhorse). I don't know if I'll have the heart to give up the Fluke 8860A that I am fixing up, as I've grown increasingly attached to it the more I work on it. The 8860 has that space-age industrial design thing going on that floats my boat (so do the HP's for that matter). I am an incorrigible sucker for anything that looks like it could be a prop out of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

However, the HP 3435A, Fluke 8800A, and the Heathkit nixie tube thingy definitely have to go.

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IV-4 VFD tube clock progress

Posted on 30 Jan 2011 02:10

Many things left to do, but the clock part works.

The circuit so far includes:

  • 6x IV-4 VFD tubes
  • 4x CD4094 CMOS shift registers
  • 2x CD4504 TTL-CMOS level shifters
  • Atmel ATtiny2313
  • 6.5536 MHz crystal
  • a large number of jumper wires

Remaining circuit elements will be DC-DC conversion, user interface (buttons), and host communication. Then some more firmware and some software. Then I'll write something up about how it all works.

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Ask a serious musician...

Posted on 28 Jan 2011 23:32


Would you rather have a vintage instrument or a brand new instrument? (Assume both choices are of high quality.)

There is no "right" answer to this question. The answer they give you and the reasoning behind it tells you something about the tastes and personality of the artist.

Same is true for most any creative pursuit. I prefer vintage myself. Not because it's "best," but because it's most authentic to my personality.

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There are four kinds of software

Posted on 27 Jan 2011 06:13

  1. Software that is open source.
  2. Software that isn't open source but should be.
  3. Software that should never be made in the first place.
  4. Software that I don't care about.

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These VFD tubes are multiplying

Posted on 18 Jan 2011 00:50

…they must be up to something


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