Last ever rant about the internet and how amazing it is

I wrote this in an email to a friend of mine, but I've decided that it sums up what I think fairly well and I'd like to share it with other people. Here it is:

A lot of people have failed to appreciate that information technology (I hate that phrase, but I guess it does sum up what I mean) is probably the most important technology to happen to the human race, ever! That's a very big claim to make - I'm implicitly trashing a lot of other amazing technology: the invention of fire, domestication of livestock and grains, writing, the idea of a map, money, counting, the printing press, calculus, telegraphy and so on. Okay, so now I try convince you:

Forget about all of computing, just think of the Internet. Because progress has been slow -- old parts have been swapped out and new parts have been swapped in while its running -- most people have stopped noticing that it has changed life in ways that are too numerous to even list. I'm not talking about the big shiny Internet things that people think of, like Youtube or Facebook or twitter (and that all the oldschool folk rolls their eyes at). Those are cool but also sort of trivial. I'm thinking about a million and one little things that would not be possible (or logistically feasible) otherwise.

What kind of things? A small random sampling: , being able to cross reference things so fast that anyone can do their own informal research into almost anything , finding people that share your interests and hearing their thoughts , , leaking incriminating documents when your company , , , , checking out famous art that's been scanned and uploaded for public viewing , , , than lame press releases repackaged as science journalism , reading the online notebook of an author writing a novel , -- and just generally getting access to more interesting than you will EVER, EVER have time to process! And that's before you get to the stuff that violates copyright. I know it has made me smarter, and reignited my passion about things that I thought had dried up, and got me interested in things I never thought I would be interested in.

There is a myth that somehow sitting on your laptop browsing the Internet is an antisocial experience. I think that is such bullshit. I think its übersocial experience, it is drinking from a rich nourishing soup of humanity (although at this early stage still far from a representative one). Obviously, there is a price to pay. Suddenly, now that you are connected to 10 million people instead of just 2 or 3, your individuality is swamped, and there is less of an emphasis on slowly building relationships with people (though far from none) - its sort of like a huge swingers club but for culture instead of sex.

Another negative is that with emails and forums and such you lose a lot of side channels of information that normally enrich human-human communication: accents, volume, timing, acting, gestures, winks, smiles, grimaces, frowns. I love those things, but I also know that people are adaptable enough that the find a way of representing all these same things in a 1 dimensional string of text to get the message across, things which eventually have the same emotional valence. Sarcasm is :-P, affection is <3, sharing a joke is ;-), joy is :D, shouting is ALL CAPS. Sure, these things can be faked, but they can be faked in real life too, and just like in real life you can tell after a while. And while we spice up our texts (emails, chats, twitters, blogs) in all sorts of different ways to make them informationally rich, we can also store them, search them, cross reference them, recall them after many years - things which we obviously can't do with conversations or phone calls, and that once again is both a good and bad thing. One amazing thing about it is that you can trace your life back, see who you were emailing and about what, see what you were thinking, what kinds of things you were doing, what your moods were at different times. That is an absolutely amazing resource that no-one has ever really had before, not with even a tenth the fidelity. In the past, mostly people kept a box of letters under their bed that was basically an entire lifetime's correspondence, and once every few years they would go through it. That was a different life from the life we will live, and I'm not saying it is inferior, but I know I wouldn't want it after I've tasted this life. I would feel alone, I would feel starved of information and context, I would feel only partially human. And that's really just email.

So I've talked about the strengths and weaknesses of text, which, right now makes up most of the "information" in "information technology". But text only dominates for technological reasons that are beginning to change. VoIP is now extremely widespread, and I think fairly soon speech to text will be pretty commonplace, so that everything you say is also stored as text for you to be able to search it later ("what time did I tell Adi I'll meet him?"). It is also becoming commoditized, viewed as just another technology rather than a class of applications: so these days it's no longer just stand alone apps like Skype, it's voice being embedded into other applications, or even straight into a website. I think within a decade the balance between voice and email is going to blur, and the days when VoIP is just for "special occasions" will be long gone.

Video is also getting big, very quickly. Youtube is evidence of that, but its still a bit clunky: you have to actually upload a video, usually something noteworthy, instead of just streaming stuff straight to the Internet. Eventually, video will become just another channel of information, used just as freely and cheaply as text is right now, maybe as part of a discussion, maybe as a comment on some article, maybe as a more exciting form of email, whatever. At some point it will become trivial to search and sort video for specific content, like "James wearing his red jacket". At some later point it'll just be passe.

Now audio, video, mail, and so on has been around for a long time, so why, cast in this new form, do they excite me so much? Because before the web, the channels of communication were one way: mostly private corporations produced generic content for the public to absorb in large enough quantities to offset the huge infrastructural costs. Now, its very cheap to start disseminating your own culture. Eventually, traditional channels will just be swamped, as print journalism is starting to get swamped (weirdly, by itself in the form of free online editions that publishers don't know how to monetize). The old media technologies don't scale, they are boring, they are extremely inefficient, they are generic, not tailored at anything other than a broad demographic, they all make a huge pretense of objectivity when for the most part they reflect corporate interests, and there is no real sense of community. Internet technology has unlocked the creativity of a vastly greater number of people, still mostly those with more than a bit of technical savvy, but I'd be dumbfounded if user-friendliness did not improve radically in the next ten years.

Put in a slightly mathematical way, the Internet is providing a much more thickly connected and of interpersonal connections for information and culture to diffuse through, the information processing capacity of societies as a whole are being vastly increased. "Information processing" here just means whatever we are doing collectively that uses information - we're doing more of it, and we're doing it faster. I struggle to see this as a bad thing.

Some people have complained that there is too much "noise", that most Youtube videos are crap, that only lame authors release books for free on the Internet. Unfair! The Internet is as close to a meritocracy as human society has ever come. In a bizarre and delicious half-analogy that illustrates my point, PageRank , the actual secret sauce that Google uses to sort and rank all the Web's pages so amazingly well, is based precisely on the premise that the Internet has already sorted itself, using a sort of swarm intelligence like that in an ant-colony or a democracy. In this analogy 'votes' or 'pheromone trails' are simply hypertext links. Isn't that magical? That democracy has been encoded as a mathematical algorithm and is generating billions of dollars ever year for a company whose official motto is ?

So, to sum up, the Internet, and other information technologies, will increasingly be the crucible in which innovative companies, governments, ideas, research, music, books, viewpoints, philosophies, trends, hobbies, technologies, ideologies, movements, in fact memes of all varieties (in short, "Culture") are melted down and reforged anew.

I've rambled a bit, but I hope I've communicated some flavor of my excitement. We are just at the brink of some probably unfathomably deep cultural change, ready and equipped to observe it in glorious ordinary-speed detail. Better yet, as the next generation, we are in a position to spearhead this revolution -- unlike our grandparents, we are unblinkered by an automatic fear of technology (my theory is that this technophobia is fallout from the explosion of obscure Japanese VCR manuals from the late 80s).

Isn't that an exciting world to live in? :-)

A flowery mini-essay about why nerds like me shouldn't feel guilty about spending all day on the internet.

When I browse it really feels like I am participating in Something Important, at least something that is vastly different from anything that has come before in human history. The pages that each evening's browsing will unfurl - those encoded ideas and feelings and beliefs that lie dormant on some server somewhere, sourced from a potentially unlimited cross section of English speaking people, each awaiting the opportunity to seed their own unique interpretations in my mind - represent an infinitesimally thin slice of an information system that is rich and complex almost beyond comprehension. Just compare this dense structure with the old-fashioned, linear media like books and films, which could never reveal so much about so many things so quickly, or expose one in quick succession to such a diversity of cultural artefacts, whether they be software programs, mathematical treatises, cake recipes, vacation photographs, DIY tips, political diatribes, love poems, advertisements, boasts, complaints, technical discussions, random chit-chat, or any of a million things in between.

Browsing for me can be two different things. Sometimes I'm focused, picking up on a particular thread and tracing it from site to site until my desire for information is satiated. Other times my browsing is totally unfocused and incoherent, and sort of a lucid form of REM sleep pieced together from fragments of other people's thoughts. I believe that this second kind of browsing is as close as human beings can get to participating in a hive mind.

Before I started the job at iThemba labs I never really had the opportunity to go on an uninterrupted browsing spree. But now on the weekends when I come into the office I can spend literally the whole day on the internet. I can't get over how stimulating it is! i mean, isn't this one of the most exciting things to humanity, ever? I really wonder how this will be amplified as the technology gets more elaborate and the number of people connected to the web increases exponentially.

I'm reading a book called Darwin Among the Machines which, among quite a few other playful ideas, argues quite eloquently that the agglomerating mass of information we call the web, and the substrate of interconnected computers that underlie it, form something as close to a brain, an evolving intelligence, as our unimaginative definition of the term 'intelligence' actually permits. An intelligence that not only serves as a dumping ground for our information, but in its own right manipulates us into maintaining its servers, updating its data, and enlarging its semantic reach. Much in the same way that our cells maintain the large scale structure of our bodies for their own purposes, though now of course we naturally see the cells as being subservient to the organism, instead of the other way round.

I was thinking the other day, and got started on the idea of what someone’s personality really is. Okay, I admit it, my brain was in an altered state. But for what its worth I'll try bring some of the overwrought craziness back with me. Warning: it takes itself a little bit too seriously. Oh well.

What if people actually have no ‘real’ personalities at all. The personality, I thought to myself, might simply the interplay of their brain-modules as perceived from the outside: the surface of a complex, but deterministic flowing algorithm that continually responds to the environment. There’s nothing there, in the sense of ‘the truth’ about our personalities. Each brain module that contributes to our personality is simply a skeletal, information-processing structure, devoid of any real identity as a ‘conscious agent’. The various constructs of this mind: its ethics, its conception of reputation and/or status, its use of logic, its sensitivity to emotions like love, hate and suffering, its ability to choose between pride or shame, or any of the other things that form the palette of human experience, have no intrinsic validity or truth other than their utility in promoting the survival interests of the genes that underlie each mind.

But there is room to find this not a nihilistic or ridiculous conception of existence, but a spiritually exciting and uplifting one. Whenever fortune conspires against us, whenever we have setbacks and losses, and feel our confidence coming undone, we simply remember what we are, and how our responses are just the flickering of light on the shell of experience, our thoughts are just calculations by a reproduction-maximising machine, our lives iterations of kind of never-ending game of genetic reproduction. When we see why we are upset – because our self-advancement programs are encountering obstacles – we realize that its not being alive that is unpleasant, it is being too concerned with our own insistence on a reality that is negative. In a Zen-like way, there is no solidity, no real meaning to the interactions, interpretations, and impressions that constitute our world. The real world lies outside the system of things that make us happy or sad, rich or destitute. There is no ‘real’ me – what I think of myself and what my friends or enemies might think of me is all there is, and even then, the substance of these long term thoughts, these assertions, like "she’s too demanding of other people", or "he's such a serene guy" or "they're so happy together" are blown around by neurochemical winds and continually bleached clean by the seeping past of time, as memories fade and impressions change. If we aren’t rigorously defined from the outside, where are we defined? We aren’t! The beliefs of myself or others aren’t any better or worse definitions of who ‘I’ am than a description of all the atoms that comprise my brain. So of course why should I care if people don’t see me as I see myself?

I’m a program in a sea of programs, and we are all opaque to ourselves and each other. It is rare when a chance event, or a concerted effort on our part seems to render our shells momentarily transparent, so that we think we know what is going on – but we are still forever blinded by reality. Interpreted in the right way, this is a very liberating thought – because it blunts the arrows of criticism that people shoot at others and themselves, it softens the blows we perceive life deals out. Things that upset us only do so because of the slavish way in which we take our self-constructed reality seriously. For example, the hypothetical lost promotion ends up eclipsing the much more significant fact that almost all middle-class people like us are constantly fed and relatively healthy. Likewise the lover’s rejection shadows the uplifting fact that our children, when we do have them, are much more likely to survive now then at any time during humanity’s history. And when we resent all the luxury items we can’t buy, we forget about all the essentials we can, not including the significant and life-changing luxuries of long-distance transport, books, the internet and mass media, tertiary education, modern medicine, and electricity, which are surely some of the most exciting things to have happened to humanity since the dawn of language.

There is so much to appreciate, so much to be grateful for, that it seems ludicrous to be upset by the transient upsets of our day to day lives. Our negativity, when we encounter it, is far from being borne of a dark and hateful world. Instead, it might well be that the genetic recipe evolution has devised for our brains – the way our bodies respond to stress, the way we evaluate our success compared to that of our peers, they way our experience of happiness seems to be less of an absolute measure of our wellbeing, like a barometer is of height, but a relative measure of how our actions have recently changed our situation, like a spirit-level – hasn’t been precisely fine-tuned to today’s world. It is fair to say that evolution stopped designing our brains a few tens of thousands of years ago. Nowadays, the fact that people pursue long-term careers, build aeroplanes in huge teams, run for president, and write long novels is almost an accidental benefit of the pursuit-of-status and creativity-stimulating routines that served us so well as hunter gatherers. What a soft, subtle joke that fate has played on us!

This isn’t meant to be a point about evolutionary psychology. It is meant to be a point about life. A reminder that the vagaries of our emotions, the self-constructed reality that either depresses or elates us, is an almost entirely virtual reality, one that can be re-rendered from thousands of different perspectives, no single one of which is any truer than the other – and that the idea that one is more ‘natural’ because it happens to be the one that life is imposing and that we are implicitly accepting, is of course totally bogus. Into this wide-open gap left behind by our rejection of a ‘natural’ reality, onto this blank page, our own definitions of status, of achievement, and happiness are waiting to be written. Perhaps that is the exciting thing about being alive in the modern era – the terms of our engagement with life, and with our instinctual programming, are suddenly up for grabs.

Lonely in Cape Town

I'm back in Capetown! I would be more overcome with joy if there were more people around, but sadly there are only a handful... But even if the first two days have sort of oozed past without much eventfullness, I have many plans and priorities to keep me on track. I have a maths project that needs writing, a couple of electronic projects to persue (least of which is the Coilgun, which is awaiting Part II and Part III), and a whole array of ennobling commitments like Daily Meditation and Run In The Morning to uplift my spirit and neurochemistry.

However, there is some news in that Marks Have Emerged. I got a respectable <redacted> for Physics 3021F, and a preliminary Maths 3000W mark of around <redacted>. Hooray! I will celebrate by making some vanilla coke when I get home using ordinary coke and vanilla essence... </redacted></redacted>

But to tide over the crazy cat lady who is the sole reader of this humble blog, I have published some garden path musings on evolutionary psychology... but look to Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins for the really eloquent thoughts on the same. Plus they have PhDs.

Warning ! This post is super-long kind of "Adventures of a Mad Scientist" thing. Probably TL;DR.

I’ve been quite busy these past few weeks since the exams ended. I realised long ago that a hobby a day keeps the blues away - but its taken me quite a while to doing anything about it! Like I said, tho, these holidays have been crammed with project-related excitement, and writing in layman’s language so as to keep you in the know, I will now recount my latest technological escapades conducted from the comfort and safety of my bedroom flat.

On the dawn of my first exam-free day, when the sun coaxed me through the window into bounding out of bed, I decided to make a list of Things I Wanted to Actually Do. Such lists had been worked out before during the euphoric optimism that normally follows the start of a term break. Instead of trumpeting the start of the holiday with a call to arms, most To Do lists ended up mocking me with all the great ideas I knew I wouldn't have the energy to pursue. For the first two years of varsity, most of my winter breaks have dripped past from behind my bedroom window. I’ll be lucky if I can make my breakfast before 12pm, and usually things grow more and more boring until my only reprieve comes in a plastic box from Rent-A-DVD.

This time, however, I had the greatest hopes that things would be different. As a positive start, I went back through Christmas last’s list, cutting out unfeasible or redundant things and adding a few new ideas. The items were divided into sections: Electronics , Programming , Exercise , Identity Stuff (clothes, furniture and decorations for my room), Reading , and so on. The sections I endowed with multiple ideas, each worthy enough to consume the whole holiday if things turned out well.

First of the sections on my list was ‘Electronics’.

Electronics has been my neglected darling during the last three years, mainly because it is such a time consuming hobby. All the electronic parts, gadgets and gizmos that looked cool were proudly arrayed in boxes and trays on my dusty Electronics Shelf in the lounge. They ones that did not were banished to a jumbled existence in a cupboard. The parts on display had collected furry coats of dust since I had set them out so long ago, and were looking decrepit and abandoned. Even the rubber-bands I had piled in a corner of my shelf had cracked and shrivelled from months of exposure to the sunlight that slants in through the window each afternoon.

Work was to be done, and the long green trestle-table, the battleground of my competing interests and ideas, had to be made ready. With a decisive swipe I cleared my table of eraser shavings, old files and orphan paper-clips and made way for my chunky second-hand oscilloscope. In the middle of the table I plonked down my 'breadboard' - the mysteriously named device that allows prototype circuits to painlessly be assembled without the help of a soldering iron. Last of all, I hoisted a large whiteboard into place above the table - a catchment area for ideas and circuit diagrams that overspilled the limits of my mind's eye.

In my list, ‘Electronics’ was subdivided into three main projects. The first project was to get back into a Lego robotics kit I had kept from years back, which had made it all the way here from Joburg along with some other mostly useless junk. New things could be done, and old things redone for the benefit of amazed friends. However, a problem lurked, or rather didn’t lurk, from within the ‘RCX’ – the boxy yellow brain that twitched and spun the Lego motors and probed the diminutive Lego sensors.

An array of 6 AA batteries failed to stare up at me when I opened the bottom of the suspiciously light yellow brain. Hmm. Cogs spun. Batteries were expensive, and didn’t last long anyway. Another solution was needed. I hunted around in this postmaster’s shelf that is divided into dozens of little wooden sections, in which I keep on assortment of electronic beasts like transistors and LEDs. There I found, not the one component that was exactly what I was looking for, but two components that were not quite what I was looking for.

No problem, cabrone! I soldered the two doodas (voltage regulators) together and after a bit of electronic jiggery-pokkery I had a robust, healthy 9V power supply – the exact voltage I would need to pretend that 6 AA batteries were powering the yellow behemoth from beneath. Sure enough, when the yellow brain was jump-started from the circuit I had built, powered by the wall through a long wire, it beeped into life, and on the small LCD screen appeared a jerky black-and-white animation of a Lego man doing a little dance.

However, another surprise lay in wait that would doom my whole enterprise to failure. A frantic hunt through the big box full of Lego parts failed to reward me with a vital part. This part was the cable for the miniature signal-tower that allowed the computer and the brain to speak to each other, communicating such useful information as how much battery life was left, and what the darned thing was supposed to do. Without this vital connection my yellow brick was as useful as a golem with no scroll. Until I find it (or buy another), I had what amounted to a glorified digital clock. A new cable would be expensive, and it appeared I had left the old cable in Joburg.

Not to worry! Unperturbed by this sudden fatal weakness in my plan, I returned to the list to see what the second item was. “Bring Coilgun Back From The Dead”. This project, like the last, was about doing something I had already done, but better and with the hindsight of a bit of physics education. Many years ago, when I was writing A-levels, I had built a series of ‘coilguns’ – electrical contraptions that can launch a nail from a coil of wire using a simple circuit. Coilgun Mark I wasn’t built at all – it comprised a couple of totally random components rigged together according to a dodgy internet tutorial. It looked terrible, but the Mark I worked. Its performance was pretty dismal, though ­– when the coilgun was turned upright the nail could, with luck, make it all the way up and hit the ceiling of my bedroom with an amusing ‘ding’

The Mark II and III used components I had either scrounged or built specially using wire obtained from my high school equipment cupboard. The coils were wild and uneven, and one of them wasn’t totally straight. But the performance was good enough (punching through a coke can) to easily warrant their making! The Mark IV was the beaut, though. A real beaut. The coil was wound professionally in two stages. The windings were even and neat, and the centre of the coil wide enough to accommodate beefier nails than of the previous models could handle.

Coupled with some parts I scrounged from a friend’s uncle, a formidable beast was born. It could punch straight through metal cans and glass bottles, thin steel plates and an old clipboard. It was fun while it lasted, serving as a great distraction from my boring A-level lectures, but eventually its time was over. It was disassembled and boxed for my move to Capetown, and apart from one solo performance briefly in 1 st year to a couple of proto-friends, it was never to see any action again.

Rebuilding it wouldn’t be an enormous challenge, but once rebuilt the real work could begin. I would diagnose every part of the coilgun, calculating and measuring all important variables about its electronic makeup and design. These would be fed into a computer program and used to predict its performances – and better yet, I could program the computer to update the design in order to improve the performance. Virtual changes could be made without the real coilgun being tediously disassembled and rebuilt. Science and engineering to the rescue of the fiddly art of coilgun-making!

The real fun of embarking on this project lay in something other than the coilgun itself. It lay in the fact that all the extra care it was going to take required me to design and play with quite a few other circuits and solve other problems that were related only tangentially to the coilgun. This is the best part of a Real Project – there are many spin-off projects that provide their own entertainment and their own challenges. To begin with, I had to diagnose the components inside the coilgun. This was no easy task; my trusty multimeter (the 20-th century equivalent of the Star Trek tricorder) could only measure some of the important things. One particular property of the coil, called the inductance, was totally beyond its ken.

When I designed the coilgun all those years ago, I had tinkered with a home-built system to find the inductance, but in this regard I only went so far. In 2 nd year, however, I had used the same approach to do an experiment required for the Physics Lab course. I had used it to get more accurate data than what I could get by hand – and I had been able to measure the inductance of a coil I selected from my spare parts bin. I intended to refine the procedure and eventually create a very general purpose tool.

The way the thing worked was quite novel. A computer programme devised a series of sounds. The sounds started low and got higher and higher, and if you listened to it through a speaker you heard something that resembled a slow whoop. Disconnecting the speakers from the computer and connecting them across an electronic component, the ‘sound’ remained a mere electrical signal and was sent shooting through the component. Each ‘sound’ made the component ‘ring’ at a different volume, and the way the component sang when excited by the sound was carefully recorded just as if it was itself a sound, using the ‘Line In’ of the computer to listen to it.

The idea then was to program the computer to calculate properties of the component by seeing how the electrical ‘echo’ varied with pitch. Simple electrical formula provided the desired properties of the component when many of these echoes had been taken into account. It was this programming effort that I decided to embark on – the first step was to provide a tool I could use to measure all manner of properties of the coilgun. Once it was complete, I would begin work on the coilgun itself using the program as stethoscope to listen to the heartbeat of my coil!

The program I wrote from three years ago wasn’t a good place to start. It was an abomination – what programmer’s like to call ‘spaghetti code’ – a big mess of uncommented lines of code, with cryptic workarounds and hacks making the whole thing impossible to understand and re-engineer, even to the person who wrote it! I blame this not on my own sloppiness – although I could have made it easier to modify by following some simple principles – but on the god-awful but ubiquitous language it was written in, the workhorse (and a horse of a language it truly is) of modern programming, known as ‘C’.

My new program would be written in the cleanest, most elegant prose. Any programmer worth his salt knows that this can only be accomplished in the great dynamo of a modern language, known as ‘Python’ (okay, this is a silly thing to say, but got to keep the prose spicy). Python was designed in the early 90’s by a researcher working at the Stichting Mathematisch Centrum in the Netherlands. He wanted a clean, modern programming language to serve as the ‘glue’ that connected together older, messier bits of computer recipes that were used to process the vast quantities of information – in the form of the mangled wreckage of quarks and gluons – that the particle accelerators at CERN spat out ever year.

He named the language after Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and the Python tutorial that comes with every copy of Python (which is free) proclaims that “making references to Monty Python skits in documentation is not only allowed, it is encouraged!”. Open-minded programmers all over the world adopted Python fast , because it threw chunks of useless crap out of most other modern languages, retaining some familiar features, as well as introducing some beautiful new concepts.

For example, Python requires you to be neat in laying out the code on the screen. If you fuck up your indenting, your Python program will crash! This forces you to be clear in the way you arrange your programming recipes and also gets rid of these stupid ‘{‘ angle brackets that almost every other language uses to group together lines of code. I’ve been a convert to Python since about four years ago, gradually refining my ‘Pythonese’ until I can say in a stanza of Python what would require a novel in C or C++.

Things, however, were not all hunky dory. Python has an astounding collection of ‘modules’ – chunks of machinery bolted on to the basic language to enable you to do cool stuff – like build your own web server, decode zip files, or read mp3s. Playing and recording sounds, however, is not one of those modules. And so before I could build my coilgun, I had to build this tool, and before I could program the tool in Python, I had to tinker around with a new Python ‘module’ that would connect my tool, living happily inside a Python playing ground, to the very guts of the computer, where sounds can be played and received at a hardware-level.

Writing modules isn’t easy, and the description of what to do and how to do it is buried under pages and pages of documentation, which luckily does actually come with Python. My first efforts came to naught, but after wrestling with out-of-date advice and cryptic commands for a day or two, I eventually had a working Python module, that I called ‘soundio’ (for input/output), that could accomplish the very basics: playing sounds and recording them simultaneously through the soundcard of the computer.

Now the real work began, and with it came the trance-like experience I call ‘being In The Zone’. I’m sure it happens to writers and artists and mechanics, to all artisans, but with computers it is especially strange. From the outside, all it looks like is one person glued to a computer for a couple of days. From the inside, a new world has overtaken me, and I am exploring hills and mountains, striking out new routes and rehashing familiar ones. I am totally ensconced in a world of my own making. The slopes of some problems are easy enough that with persistence (and occasional breaks for me to pace up and down thinking while I smoke a cigarette), I can surmount them. Other difficulties are too steep that I must abandon my path and try another.

All in all, I spend days in a trance. I focused on almost nothing but what I was immediately doing. Everything fell by the wayside – cooking, cleaning, sleep. I didn’t eat more than one meal a day, and I didn’t ever go outside unless I needed something from the shops or a breath of fresh air and a cigarette. Each day would start with a scampering out of bed to the computer, greedy to make more progress, and after no time at all each day would end with a deepening darkness and a sudden pang of hunger, telling me it was time to emerge from my trance to see to basic bodily needs.

It was this trance that I became locked in day after day. I must have spent about a week in it, although I can’t actually remember. By the end, I had a polished, shiny new computer tool. Before it could divine any unknown parameters, the program needed to eliminate any sources of error due to the soundcard itself - a brief 'calibration' did the trick (>>> precedes commands that I typed in on the Python prompt).

>>> calibrate()
calibrating, please wait...
left channel zero = 7.646 m
right channel zero = 7.278 m
delay = 90 mS
max volume = 574.4 m

I would plug an unknown component (in this case a capacitor, indicated by ‘C’) into a simple circuit connected to the computer, provide some initial information by typing it in, and lo and behold the unknown values (the capacitance and resistance of the capacitor) would be calculated. The results of the strange sing-song between the computer and the circuit were analysed and summarised in the section titled ‘Analysis Results’.

>>> RC()
value of R? 5.256
Analysis Results:
= 93.11 uF
= 280.8 mOhm

More complicated circuits could be analysed too, leading to a wealth of useful information about the components in my coilgun:

>>> RLC()
Analysis Results:
= 63.44 uH
= 93.11 uF
= 5.236 Ohm
= 280.8 mOhm

So like I said, after a week I had achieved about all I was going to achieve. But go on programming I did – the work was so rewarding, and so addictive, that eventually I began imagining flaws to be ironed out where really there were none. The technique has limits, of course - it can’t measure very small capacitances or very large inductances - but I tried my best to make it accurate in these extremes. Eventually, tho, I realized that my tool was satisfyingly complete, and I moved on to the next stage of my master plan: building the Mark V coil gun.

That story, however, will have to wait until another post.