My name is Ale Fernandez. I live in Barcelona, Spain and I'm Chilean and Italian.
I am a web developer, artist and technical researcher.
I've lived in Scotland, Italy, Spain and England and career-wise I am interested in distributed systems and their applications to improvised performance and ecology.



Free open source multitrack recording on an android phone

I've been recording rehearsals for a while using my android phone. This gives quite acceptable sound quality and some of it is even on soundcloud. It naturally led to me wondering if more than one track was somehow possible, and I've tried a few combinations of apps to see if they could work together, before getting to this method:

This process has only been tested on a G1 so far so I can't say for sure if this can be done on other phones.  It's a bit tiresome but it proves that 2 track recording can be done. With a few changes to the apps that allow it, it could get a lot easier too.

1) Start by downloading Rehearsal Assistant and Ringdroid. Both these applications are open source, and both are listed on the android market.

2) Make a recording using rehearsal assistant first - it's easy - just push the big red button, but you may want to go into it's settings and set it to record directly as .wav files by selecting "Record Uncompressed Audio" under Recording Quality.

3) Once you have your recording you can play it back and if you long press it, lots of options will appear,  including the option to open the recording in Ringdroid. Do this, and Ringdroid will start up.

4) Now you have to select what you want to save. The problem with Ringdroid is that it's mostly for making ringtones so it will by default only select a small part of your recording - I first zoom out as much as possible by clicking on the magnifying glass, and then try and select all the bits of the recording I want to have as a background track. Try and leave a few seconds of space at the beginning. You can edit it off later. Now save it as "music".

5) Open it again (how laborious!) by selecting from the various recordings available in ringdroid's list. Press the play button.

6) While the recording plays in ringdroid, hold down the home button so as to show up other recently used apps. Select rehearsal assistant again...

7) Now you can hear the first recording you did, and can also hit record again to record your second track.

For some reason if you do it this way, the background recording plays through completely and a second track doesn't sound too bad over it - I've tried to do this in other ways and it always cuts out when in the background for a few seconds.

Again, this is still for putting musical parts down together and seeing what two tracks might sound like superimposed, not for quality professional recordings. It reminds me of the 2 track recording that was possible using cassette players years ago.


Bristol's Budget Conversation and Town Hall BEPs

In case you are from Bristol and haven't noticed, there's currently a "big debate" being held over at in the comments area.

Basically, the city council are asking the public how to cut the huge sums of money that they will have to do without anyway from very soon.

There are lots of reasons why this is flawed. As one commenter posted,
"This “consultation” is a pointless exercise without access to a clear summary of what is for the chop and doing it on the internet just encourages the lunatics. Are there any plans for proper town hall style meetings? Or is this just a sham?" 
But still, I thought I'd publicise it, even if it's a sham, in case somehow it can get a bit closer to becoming an actual debate and taking of responsibility by all parties.

So how do you sift through all these comments and start to extract something resembling usefulness from it all? And how can the public actually get the data they need to make their choices with? Maybe Open Source Software can come to their aid, but as a method rather than as a piece of actual software:

Open Source projects are often overrun by suggestions or even implementations of disparate and confusing features and they have evolved ways to keep this problem at bay.

As the Python programming language project, an open source project, grew quickly towards the end of the 90s, it became obvious that a new way of managing feature requests was needed.

Some of these requests were duplicates of others, or deeply flawed or unimplementable, but each one would be argued on mailing lists or various forums each day. Also, with open source the problem is that sometimes the people making the suggestion don't actually have any ability to or interest in *doing* the work.

So the PEP(Python Enhancement Proposal) came into being. It's a standard document you fill out, that forces those submitting complex feature requests to turn them into focused, clear suggestions. PEP editors on the python team then reject or accept them based on these parameters.

I think a Bristol "town hall" group like the one proposed in the quote above, should be tasked with publishing appropriate stats and data, reviewing pep-like proposals by the wider public, and consulting with those affected by that proposal to ensure it actually makes a difference and doesn't cause more spending somewhere else. It could then also put these in action if passed, after which it would have to monitor the council's progress on them and report back on that too.

If this happened, I for one would help find venues to do this in, help set up the space and even figure out how to get everyone some refreshments!!


Ecologising Open Hardware

I've come to realise, through my experiments and readings, and through spending months in the world of instrument design, that I had until now marvelled in the idealistic beauty of Open Hardware without considering it's limitations in much depth. I thought it might be time to start to see where this fantastic creative world still might fall short from the point of view of the various "green" threats around us.

This shiny new thing is the possibility of:

  • Having a brain wave.
  • ordering some cheap parts online,
  • Going through a creative process to produce
    1. a circuit diagram,
    2. a materials list and
    3. parts list,
    4. a printed circuit board

  • before finally assembling an item

Whilst designing what turned out to be my Bird Symbiot, a prototype of a system for outdoor sound generation, I visited and contacted lots of people in different occupations. It's not the most essential of applications but I do know a bit more about what happens between me recording some music, and it being played by a device, and about how it can be powered in a more sustainable way. As a project it spanned acoustics, mathematics, electronics, world music, sound generation and clay making. I had a lot to learn.

One of these visits was when I got help assembling my first circuit (a lady ada sound shield) from Marcus Valentine. He has been working in electronics for many years and has a home workshop for electronics design. The circuits he designs - usually the pieces in a larger pool, are sent off as diagrams and parts lists to process. They come back in a way similar to construction sets, with 200 or more mini circuit boards all printed together from the same slab of plastic.

This then, in a typical small electronic item's production process, goes back to a large company which then manufactures thousands of them.

At another point while making my Maker Faire exhibit, I needed some good solar panels, and synth maker Tom Bugs offered to give me some that he had ordered but never managed to use. He runs Bugbrand, which is an online shop, and also a small workshop in the area, doing electronics design of sound making devices. On the borders with open hardware, Bugbrand items are designed mostly in this mini Stokes Croft factory, and an online shop deals with the sales. Selling crazy music making electronics and boards seems very fitting in a place with as much experimental music in it as Bristol, and he also runs workshops internationally, where people make them themselves. I saw in his workshop a PCB printing work area for creating small runs or prototypes of circuit boards. He confessed he hadn't used it much. A colleague built the boards while he pretty much ran around concieving new boards, answering forum questions, ordering parts and selling the finished products online.

It was only much later, by speaking to other inventors and hackers at the Maker Faire, that I got to see more of the true Open Hardware manufacturing approach. Open Hardware makers will work alone as needed, but will often team up with small shops or other projects to order parts or design aspects of their work. The landscape of this creativity is really a friendly ecology of helpers, a small world where people begin to know each other.

Of course, the main benefit of open hardware is the supposed availability of plans and designs for the good of everyone else, but there is still no equivalent of the GPL or CC license when it comes to actual objects and things.

The open hardware approach seems to be going towards ordering components, then assembling and selling items in online markets in a semi bespoke manner. It's true, some are starting to do more: Feral Trade sells Cube Cola, which once amazed the BBC when they once sent for many litres of it. The order was neatly placed at the centre of their huge van, in a tiny concentrated bottle.

Cube Cola is published under the GPL, but beyond that, it has hit on a brilliant distribution method centred on the ready availability of sugar and fizzy water to dilute and prepare it with.

There is a convergence between the green and the techy in open sourcing Hardware - as seen in projects like the Reprap or larger open source cousins that can cut or shape metals or even precious stones. But this is not a typical aspect of it's lifecycle.

We have to begin cutting down on this politically, monetarily and ecologically fragile, long distance distribution network occurring at either end of this beautiful creative centre.

Another problem is the predilection for and reliance on high wattages. Maybe this is just the "macho" side of electronics - typically a men's world. There is little use of freely available energies that can be channelled to help these processes.

For the bird symbiot I realised pretty early on that making something audible at low power would mean using natural amplification. This turned out to mean using clay - something whose production I found to be readily available by using an old rag, some sticks and by ordering basic materials from a few miles outside Bristol, and a firing process used cooperatively in a local art studio.

But there is also a bias in some aspects of the tinkerer world, towards a repulsion ("ugh - knitting!") for what is seen as lesser "craft" rather than a welcoming of other disciplines in order to collaborate towards creating a device. But I hope this is only a marginal problem, and that some healthy partnerships can emerge soon. It will be significant to see some of the main open hardware proponents start to work in projects with larger scope than just the basic circuits, and requiring a wide range of skills and work shared by many different kinds of people.

At the Maker Faire in Newcastle, some of the biggest attractions used a tremendous amount of electrical power. Lots of the items I saw seemed to use a lot of money and electricity to run. I recently saw a lot of people turn their backs on what I thought was an interesting bike power project because people see it as not enough power to do anything useful. The bird symbiot uses the equivalent in solar power of 2 AAA batteries, and can burst into song with some good sunlight flying by it. A 3v fan on an oven or a wind powered pump for some water can mean the difference between a gruelling existence and a plentiful life.

But I think a basic flaw in the current open hardware lifecycle is just that: We rely still on the generation of power as if it had to be something separate from the rest of the device. It's excluded from the design process as soon as it ceases to be about electronics. So it all needs a more holistic and inclusive approach.

I also have some problems to do with why circuit design has evolved to be flat, and this makes the BEAM robotics world so fascinating - because they stich parts directly to each other creating a device that is by it's nature 3d and doesn't particularly need a board.

What will we do if with vanishing fossil fuels and the need for technologically aided alternative power, we can't make a transistor? A semiconductor? A resistor? - this new open hardware lifecycle needs to green itself at all levels.

So how do you do these things locally and sustainably?

If modern telecommunications and technology is to avoid a crash or stagnation due to whatever natural or man made catastrophes, there have to be freely available applications and designs of every type of electronic item. From vital to domestic, electronic ideas and inventions should be available to the public regardless of their wealth or place in the world. I think this is probably even a human right, linked directly to the right for an education - we have to know how to create and evolve the technologies that our lives and cultures depend on.

All aspects of modern electronics need thorough re-examination so as to find and document cheap ways to recreate them openly in light industry at a local scale, anywhere in the planet.


Maker Faire Exhibit - Weeks 3 and 4

Last week I made the raku clay bird ornament in which the device will be kept, unless I can make a better one before the faire. It was a really interesting process to follow, and Hilda, the potter who showed me it, said things sometimes randomly emerge with clay, not always what you expect. I like that idea, as opposed to 3d design where you try and go for an exact shape. Also it shrinks 10% when it's fired, and so any calculations as to size or tuning would have to be done through lots of different models and trial and error, which I don't have time for as she is now going away for a bit, and I won't have access to her kiln again until after the maker faire.

I'm not completely happy with the results of my first big process of making: it's a bit small and the "bird" only happened randomly during the slab rolling process. But still, it's functional and I put a lot of stuff in it, that I know will need to go in any subsequent thing I make as an enclosure. It has only 2 openings at the top which I will put wires through and seal, it has holes in which to mount a stand, so that it can resonate a bit more fully, a small area in which to put some moss or other small plants, and a shelf inside in which to put the box with the arduino in it.

I then had a good chat with John Honniball and Tarim at PM Studios to see how to get the Maxim PMIC chips I ordered, working to power an arduino. The result is not good: there is a simple, if inefficient way to power one from a 9v battery, but the best way at the moment to get something better going, is to get a Mintyboost kit, and wire it to an 11v solar panel (which I have). The PMIC chips that Marcus Valentine suggested I use, will only work with panels of up to 5v, and anything beyond that will damage the arduino. John says it's a good idea to try the chips anyway, because if I can get anywhere with that, it will mean we can have an arduino running off very low power, and able to use that quite efficiently - so for example from a single AA battery or from a little cell battery. But most likely, it won't work.

This last week on the other hand, I've been learning about fast fourier transformations, wave table synthesis, granular synthesis and reading about the work of Ellen Fullman - who makes a long stringed instrument with a small sound box at either end for amplification. A very different design from mine. I also looked at the workings of recycled aluminium so as to create resonating cones and much more research. As well as this, I've been trying step back a bit and decide how the arduino will actually pick out the best readings and make them into a discernible song.

Firstly, it will be playing in little bursts all day. I hope this will make it more interesting and build up interest for the dusk concert. Most of the time it will just play the readings almost directly, as they are collected (which is what it is doing now), write the readings to EEPROM and turn itself off or go to sleep/power saving mode as much as it can. But if it thinks it's dusk, it will get ready to play something more complex.

In this more complex dusk concert, I want there to be single notes, with overtones and lots of silence in between, a gradual build up for each performance. There will be something resembling a trio of drone, melody and percussion, I think. This makes it easy to decide which role the 2 piezo outputs and 1 wave sample output will take on each time it decides to play.

In the style of an indian classical raga, I would then select 5 or 7 "notes" from the readings it has collected, and play them according to a repeating melody or ostinato pattern.

This would then be varied - the melody would be reached via the playing of small patterns that then build up in speed and complexity to be the pattern again.

Then this somehow builds up in speed and adds to recorded samples (played from the Adafruit Wave Shield).

Finally, it will end in a tihai figure, based again, on this ostinato.

A while ago I wrote a tabla beat that goes - if you understand this stuff,

Dha ti dha ge na dha ti dha ge na
ga dha ti dha ge na ga dha ti dha ge na
na ke na

There's a lot of variations to go with it, but that's the basic beat. This is in 25 beats, and I've divided into 5 / 5 / 6 / 6 / 3. The 25 beat structure means the tihai - if seen as 3 repetitions of a 33 beat variation on the main ostinato, will land back on the 100th - i.e back at the beginning of the next beat.

I've been trying to decide how much of hindustani classical and world music tradition to bring in to this though. Because then the symbiotic creature might become too much a reflection of my own interpretation than a true reflection of the readings it gathers. But as a mathematician friend remarked when I told him about this project, there are an infinite amount of ways to apply maths to numbers so as to extract sound, so maybe I should stop being so precious about it.

Many cultures ancient and new have music and songs reflecting or seeking to affect the seasons or time of day however, and I think there is a lot to learn from from that in this project.

Meanwhile though, here is a sound grab of the piezo portion of the symbiot, amplified using a small bodhran drum and using a prototype clay model I've now made as a container, and as a sound box. More to come soon!

Symbiotic Readings  by  alefernandez


Maker Faire Exhibit - Weeks 1 and 2

It's not very often you get a chance to work on such a varied project. The brief for the project in the previous post on this blog, but I thought it useful to put down some thoughts at this stage in it's preparation. Especially in case I get lost later on.

Last week I did the first parts: I wired together light sensor, piezo buzzer and an electromagnetic field detector and they are sending data back to an arduino that is now capable of "sleeping" - i.e. switching to a lower power mode.

There are lots of ways of getting it to fall asleep though, and I prefer no power to lo-power as Newcastle is not known for it's warm bright weather (for example - this week, according to the newspaper, sunset came to Newcastle at 4.40pm, and the average temperature is of about 4-5 degrees with showers half the time, leading me to think rain power may have been a better choice than solar).

To amplify all the recorded and generated sounds this device is beginning to produce, I got a plant pot, and an old bohdran drum, into which I put the speakers and sound emitting bits. It helped the sound be fuller and a bit louder. I'm not aiming for a very noisy device, but something that's sonically fragile and can interplay with other noises in it's area.

Here is a video of the state of play last Wednesday:

Since then I've put together lots of solar cells of various different shapes and sizes, and I tried to test their voltage and current, and wire them up to a small circuit I got from here and here.

I'm planning on using some rechargeable coin cell batteries to do this. I tested the battery by putting it inside a little set of solar lights and seeing if it charged them. The lights were powered by a 3.2v, 250mAh battery, but they seem to work fine on a 3.7v 200mAh one too, all of which led me to wish I'd paid more attention in physics class at high school...

I also added the capability to detect temperature to the bit with all the sensors (the Seeduino seen in the video, which at the moment will only run sensors, before I put the whole contraption together and get it to play sounds as well).

And I've investigated a lot about clay, based on a long discussion with Mat Dalgleish. Clay and pottery is local to just about every place and culture in the world. It is strong, resistant to the outdoors (if fired at high temperatures), and above all it looks natural and earthy, and very fitting for housing all my electronic stuff, which may be functional, but it doesn't look very visually appealing!

So at the weekend, I got the (regular "das") clay out and spent a morning in the library, reading about pottery so I could get some handle on the basics. Then I started making (the children got involved too!). The result was this nice little ocarina, which actually plays a note when blown!

From my discussion with Mat, and from chatting today with Hilda Bligh, a local and very experienced potter, who will let me use her kiln, we went for Raku. This is a 16th century Japanese/Korean technique which produces nice and very random colours, and can be fired at high temperatures. Hilda was very generous and treated me to some lovely soup and gave me some cheesewire, lent me a clay roller, and got me lots of nice oxides(iron, yellow iron, copper and some iron filings), as well as a big heavy pack of raku clay!

As well as this, she gave me a quick class on simple raku pottery. I'm planning to cut a slab of clay, and roll it into a cylinder. Then I'll try and shape it and glaze it. This first experiment will probably fail(she suggested I make 3 experiments to begin with), but I'll try and add a sketch of what it should look like so that it can house the arduinos, allow for leakage, provide a simple way to place all the sensors around it, and hold the solar panels high up. Also, I might add some cones or tubes to it (as I did with the first clay experiment) to make it look more like a tree...

Later this week I plan to experiment more with the thermistor (for which I'll need a thermometer...), and with all the readings on the piezo circuit. I'll also try the first step of the raku process.

The solar panels also will need to be wired together some more and tested/ experimented with for readings. Next week, I hope to finally get to the musical bit!



An outdoors low consumption, self powering musical installation.

This blog post is about the design and creative process around the concept of an art object I'm making, to be displayed at the UK Maker Faire in Newcastle in March.

The intent is to install in an outdoors area, various sensors and various sound sources - mostly amplified piezos as well as a wave shield. These will be guided by an arduino which is powered in turn by various solar panels. The device will capture sunlight during the day (I'm also considering windmill or crank power), and gathers readings through the day and night to play a short "concert" at dawn and dusk.

The readings are light, temperature, sounds, humidity and, I hope, some simple electrode type readings, for which I'm currently experimenting with EMF, which I hope to couple with a second one, so as to have a sort of electrode.

When light reaches a threshold, the device plays a melody based on readings gathered, fires off a recorded sound according to the amount of energy it has stored with which to play it, and plays the piezo melody over the wave background. I would hope speed would slowly increase, and it remains to see if further ongoing readings would influence the performance also.

I first wanted to do something of this type years ago, as the value of printed CDs decreased, and they lost value in my mind as well as monetarily as a way of distributing or experiencing music due to them being ripped almost immediately, and due to the songs then living on various media in large libraries.

How could I separate a musical composition and it's experience from this media environment, I wondered, and I thought it would be interesting to embed recordings inside an object, in such a way as to make the sound a part, not the result, of a full experience. I hope there will still be regular media on this creation, but that this will be a derivative, a copy, not the original.

I imagine one day walking up a hill or to a remote spot, and only then, by knowing the times of dusk and dawn, hearing the sounds of the creation. Or as the composer and maker of the device, I would get to travel to it, and fix it, dry it out or re tune it every so often.

Areas of work
In designing this device, I'm trying to keep to the idea that simple is good and that all parts need not be connected so as to sound or result in a coherent experience. I want the sound to reflect the time of year and type of day, in the sense that in a cold, dark, still day, only a couple of notes might play, whereas on a hot or windy day, there would be a symphony of noise lasting several hours. In the style of the Morning and Evening Raga in Indian Classical music, the musical style is different also according to the time of day, and this should be reflected in the way sensor data is interpreted and played back. For example, in a morning raga, the sound starts very gradually, and builds up in speed and volume only towards the end. An evening raga is much more of a performance than a meditation in this sense.

Thermistor for the temperature sensing: test and review the one I have, connect to second life. Temperature should change gradually, not more than 12 degrees in a day I am hoping... so this is rhythm, and will dictate the activities of the avatar that will be connected to it.

A light sensor (or 2?) - test should be working - just got a better resistor and connected a piezo to it. It works. Light readings will be connected to the interrupt, so when it wakes, it will measure all the sensors, write them to eeprom, and then based on the light sensor value and it's change from the previous reading, decides whether to wake up and play.

A battery charge sensor: Very simple to make... the tutorial is online somewhere. Based on this it decides for how long it can play a piece, and wether to play a long sound via the wave shield or just a piezo based generative melody using various smaller, individual wave sounds only towards the end.

thermistor - temperature sensing: Trying with a small bead thermistor, out of 3 bought from maplins. Circuit is almost done.

Plant monitor: Built, working a bit randomly... I plan to show this to Marcus Valentine, get it working properly, measure the resistance on a multimeter (borrow one!), and connect it up to the rest of the device.

EMF detector: Built, and giving very random data. Almost a random seed. Need to add smoothing function. Need to disconnect this from the music emission if Serial.available().

Boards and Power Architecture
An Arduino Duemilanove to connect to a Lady Ada wave shield. (I will have spare arduino from Mat, and a Seeeduino). Currently developing the sensors on the seeduino and working on the wave shield on the duemila: will have to put it all together at some point!

Find out how much power this shield draws(lady ada forums).
How much time do I want the musical object to play stuff? Half the day yes half no? And how loud? What to play? Current idea is mornings and evenings. But at night, will it be able to charge from small 3v windmills?!
Find out how much power the whole thing draws and if a second circuit can be built to wake it up.

Solar Setup
A solar panel capable of charging enough for power requirements. I looked on solarbotics as well as on Adafruit, but Farnell and other closer ones to the UK (i.e without a 3 week or so delivery time) are probably better.

Tom Bugs of nearby BugBrand has also given me about 4 of the more modern smaller solar cells, and some diodes, which I have still to test, so as to do a part of this. They are 2 szgd4026 cells (4v, 20mA) and 2 SZGD5020-A cells, around 2v. All together, they can give 12v, if only for a small about of time.

Maybe just the seeduino on it's own would be an accomplishment. I probably will need to get one of the other ones, and power some of it also maybe from the other solar panels I already have.

A way of reducing the power consumption during the night (having only a small battery powered circuit with a timer chip may be a way.

1 solar panel from a garden light set, that charges a 3.2v, 250mAh battery, which I have replaced with my rechargeable coin cell battery from coolcomponents (3.7v, 200mAh) , to see if it can deal with it. Stupid? Maybe, but fun!

I also have a variable one that does 3v easily during the entire day, but is quite big.
And finally, given to me by Tom Bugs. I'm guessing a regular AA 3.2v battery can probably charge itself through the day and take readings during the night. The idea with power is to make sure there is always enough of it.

Wave recordings
I built a lady ada wave shield with Marcus Valentine's Help.
It has been running "pi", and works fine with this first test program.
Convert a lot of sample music and backgrounds to the correct format from my external hard drive load up samples via SD card reader.
Get a feel for what sounds good alongside the piezos.
Make some ambient recordings also.

Arduino Sketch
Needs to incorporate interrupts and put arduino to sleep until light level changes. Depending on value of light level it chooses weather to play a melody.
Data logging needs to use EEPROM functions for read/write.
Needs to be able to select and play from wave shield. If easy, play also some shorter files in different speeds, perhaps for shorter concerts.

Cast an initial drone based on average temperature.
If connected to a computer, EMF signals are ignored and replaced perhaps by output from Opensimulator, coming back from Ironpython.
(one that slowly moves between averages of readings taken during the night)
duration = readBatterySensor

choose a wave file to play, or a structure using various shorter wav files if there is very little charge.
read from eeprom some sensor values
play values in descending order.
play a melody with beat, melody values, according to how many sensor readings made since last time.

Problem: what if it loses all it's charge while making readings?

IronPython/Open Simulator Code
This script takes serial readings from the arduino and then sends them to a virtual avatar running via LibOpenMetaverse in the 3d world Open Simulator which is an open source world similar to second life. At the moment, it will be easy to trigger a serial call in the form of a command, such as "get readings", or to play one of the sound sources directly.

This will allow for some form of online interaction with the device when connected to this code via the serial cable (and therefore without issues of battery capacity or song duration! ). The character's user name is Abies Alba, and mine is Nima Macchi on - please come by and say hi if you use these things!

Some amplification can be done using the shape and texture of clay, wood or plastic. Shape, size and colour will be important aspects.

A suggestion from Tom Bugs is to build it all inside a tube obtained from a hardware shop. Put the solar panel on top, then speaker at bottom and hang it from somewhere. Also there is someone on youtube who has made a balafon from plant pots by securing it in such a way as to allow it to vibrate. Am trying this with wave shield and a small platform with good effect. Plastic, transparent drum skin might be best for light sensor to poke through, and for piezos.

For the Clay part, which I think will be quite important, it is possible to make a DIY kiln, but I've also asked various people and best plan seems to be to go to the art college in clifton and ask to use theirs.


Stokes Croft 2017

Stokes Croft ruled by robots in 2017

Most people symbolically see birth of the robotic race as 2015, when those famous wikicars escaped from the race course, rode into their trainers, and escaped into the desert. They do not realise that the first large scale battles to use robotic killers was not just the well known oil wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, but this had begun far far before, in these few streets of Bristol UK known as Stokes Croft, where all the new electronics factories had come to converge.

In Bristol, in the valley of dilapidated houses swathed in graffiti between Montpelier and Kingsdown there was once an insurrection, and a great battle, with augmented free running kids fighting police, then the army, each other, and finally fire juggling armies of anarchist clowns as well as the more familiar modified urban fauna we know today (at first with abortive attempts to domesticate wild Foxes, followed by the now familiar Slug, Seagull and Crow, with effects we all remember with such apprehension and shock today).

We now have discovered data and remains from the depths of the hole in the ground where that part of the city once stood, in that valley, where we had once thought all to be obliterated, consumed by a plague of nanobots, which allows us to trace this insurrection even further before this series of urban revolts and confrontation at times of deep crisis. We have found that there was a question of data, surveillance and censorship, which led to a citizens mesh network to be created using hidden transfers between generic everyday electronics.

A sad robot dreams of flightAs times became harder it would become a matter of life and death for these humans to be able to zap the data out of a drone or destroy it at the right moment if it meant being able to access the right technology or data from the net, or if it meant being able to build the weapons that really mattered. Government drones were at first well built creatures with firearms and permission to kill the citizens of Bristol. But they were soon only one of many different types of small aerial solar robot. With solar cell prices going down drones were soon running around protecting gardens, walking children to school, but above all collecting and sending messages and data. Everywhere, umbrella frames became 6 legged walking mechanisms, bottles became batteries, bags were woven into skin and all the useless old desktop computer hardware from the dot com boom and bust across the valley of Stokes Croft was stripped of motors, cameras and sensors in small and prosperous factories that sprung up as the world demanded anti surveillance tools and Bristol answered that call.

Neighbourhoods set up monitoring and data carrying devices of their own and used these at first alongside and then against the drone evidence machine, often following directions from bored staff working overtime hunched over a workstation on a bonus pay system. At first they had been surveillance devices, frequently subject to attack by thieves, vandals and police alike, but soon benefiting from the hive mind of the internet as their owners and maintainers shared their knowledge and perfected their ability for speed and dominance of the skies and land. The energy sources and human uses multiplied with each code update. The source code and algorithms for life and behaviour that most people use today, are mostly re-elaborations and reconstructions of the scripts used back then.

But it was the anger of the people that finally equipped these first bots with guns, tazers and knives, and not least with a shared universal operating system that allowed different robots to work together for the first time, and semantic learning chips equipped with a distributed survival instinct which would enable them fight a large army. But it was not to be. The whole place was completely destroyed after increasingly desperate battles between the local factions of the time, long before that tired army ever got back to the valley of central Bristol. They had had enough on their hands in their foreign battles for resources abroad, and various police mutinies, and they soon split off into various militia, before eventually inspiring and pioneering the building of the domes and shared spaces which became that centre of living birth and creation that we know this city as today.

Ironically, it was an open source recipe for a nanobot, by around 2015 being made in many illegal factories across the world, which was the demise of the Stokes Croft rebellion, and the buildings around it, 250 metres into the ground.

If you'd like to make one, take one strip of carbon nanotube, which you will use to contain all the ingredients.

Into this, put in a nanomachine, some xor gates, some dust from a magnet and an energy sucker. Mix it well.

Don't try this incantation near your local parts supply area unless you want a gigantic crater in it though.

images from


Plant Electrodes

I've been doing more late night research on electrodes. This is a good way to create an interface between machine and plant, or machine and animal, and it's basically a wire on a living surface, like a plant or your skin somewhere, and another one close by going out to complete a circuit. It passes current through this non metallic surface, between anode and cathode, and then you measure the resistance you detect. Then the medical ones get much more complicated, and easy to apply or stick to someone.

I started thinking about electrodes when planning a slug detector project, which would use the electrode in order to detect (or cast and then measure discrepancies in) an electrical field. Casting and detecting changes in, or just detecting electrical fields is a form of animal communication used in very primitive underwater animals, mostly to hunt prey or detect possible predators. Because slugs tend to go out on rainy nights, this would work mostly when there was water around this machine. It would generate or detect an electric field the size of a slug and then fire off an action if it does (like take a photo or open a beer trap), but now I'm moving on from molluscs and applying it to plants, as a kind of home made EEG.

The reason I'm talking about these things is I've been trying to make a garden sound object (GSO), or a Musical Raga Automaton (MRA) or an Arduino Powered Renewable Energy Symbiot (APRES), but really I've not really found a good acronynm for the thing so far. It's entered into the Newcastle Maker Faire 2010, as an outdoors exhibit.

It will also have a plant monitor to detect soil humidity, a light sensor and a thermistor to detect temperature.

image by left_hand on flickr:
So back to electrodes. Various ways to spread the pain/effect - like with those electrodes, all more comfortable than a naked wire on your skin coming from some machine. It allows my musical automaton project to consider an even deeper symbiosis, whereby it could become the musical soundtrack for either a particular patch of land, or for a particular plant, a long lasting one, such as a bush or a tree.

This might be a more advanced one. This arduino page mentions simple electrodes.

Here is someone who has built a very simple windmill system. It could be good for a distributed windmill light or battery charging project. It's the simplest possible cardboard coil generator, which I'm sure could be attached to a rotor of some kind and made into a workshoppable item, using old hard disk magnets, LED lights and some old CD cases...

I thought more about green noise, and about going around and collecting some sounds from around bristol, maybe the water in the rivers and drains, the sound of the motorway at night, the air at the top of the hill... If I can get it sounding a bit like white noise, I'll know I'm close...

Today I got a step closer to a white noise circuit, but also built the Lady Ada Wave Shield, which I now hope to get working on my Seeeduino. Which brought me to consider once again the outdoor garden musical automaton(OGMA) and what sensors it should have, how it should interface with people and plants.

It should play each day differently through the year, so that in 30 degree heat you get more wave recordings and longer more intense sounds, using the higher amounts of energy collected by the solar panels and / or windmills on it. I don't know where to put a stop to it, but it will take a lot of testing - adding and removing piezos, wether sensing or buzzing, adding/removing light sensors, getting a temperature sensor and testing out a simple electrode or 10 on a plant (my poor aloe vera is wincing at the prospect).

In the winter, it will only play sparse sounds and try and calculate it's current remaining before attempting anything complex.

At night, the Noise Generating Automaton (NGA) will monitor certain readings, and go into a low power mode, still powered mostly by windmills charging some batteries. It will build a file with statistics based on these readings, and use that in the morning when it wakes up.

When light passes a certain threshold, it will generate a low frequency noise which increases as light does. When the sun is almost up, it will have got to being like a base tune, which jams following a pattern dictated by the temperature and humidity sensor's readings for the night.

Using Lady Ada's wave shield, some simple speaker housing, some piezo buzzers (here is an early test of one) and some natural resonant housing, I can produce enough amplification to create this hopefully inobtrusive garden soundtracker(HIGS). What is left to figure out is what to put it in that is both pleasing to look at and resistant to the humid newcastle climate... I'm considering Sugru and sealed glass or if all else fails, the typical plastic containers that you can buy at maplins again, for a few squid (Ah, another mollusc!).

The Garduino project will provide great help I think, as will Mike Skylar's experiments.

Second Life / Open Simulator Arduino Project Plan

Here is my thinking on this:

Devobot is an IronPython framework that allows you to trigger animations, movement and chatting to a Second Life or OpenSimulator based avatar using the open source libopenmetaverse library. I used this software in my bot work in a recent archive / 3d model of the Pompeii Court of the Sydenham Crystal Palace.

PySerial on the other hand, allows IronPython based serial comms. Serial comms can also be done via .net frameworks - example is in C#, but it should be a good reference for an ironpython version.

An arduino microprocessor can be hooked up using an adapted version of the light sensor tutorial on - but for example, triggering animations or chat responses according to the light level or to other sensors I might be able to think of. Maybe eventually growing in complexity until, naturally, a wiimote is added for IR tracking.

So the question is - will it work?


3 possibilities: Hackspace Bristol, DMT and the Aquatrick

Today I had some important realisations and considerations about various projects I'm working on - Hackspace Bristol, the Green Noise Open Hardware Project, and the invention of the Aquatrick, a water based, sensor controlled, light projecting device. I don't know how related they are except for this snowy day in Bristol, but that's life, and here they are:

1. Hackspace Bristol

Here is a project plan/wish list of sorts for Bristol Hackspace, which is currently based at Coexist/Hamilton House in Bristol:

Bristol Hackspace will be a feature of Stokes Croft and active contributor to it's attractions as a local and international centre of alternative arts and culture, adding a technological aspect to the existing local autonomous spaces, and hopefully working with these and with the wider world-wide hackerspace or makerspace (and dorkbot?) movements as well as many others. To this I hope to be able to assist by curating events, co-ordinating workshop series' as well as one-off and off-site events featuring our members or invited guests, and co-ordinating arts/object production. I think one main use of the hackspace will be this last one. Supply, as well as in house production and sale of open hardware creations might take place, from simpler Arduino based devices to more complex or diverse projects such as the RepRap, Lifetrac or Hexayurt.

A lot of dorkbot/hackspace participants would like laser cutters, 3d printers and the like, so it just depends what we can get funded, donated, or made ourselves, but cheaply.

It would be great to also get to mess with other workshop environments, such as Chris Chalkley's planned kiln workshop some day, which he is planning for his Stokes Croft China sensation...

Also, there will certainly be the more artistic inventions by our own members or international or well known or common sense open licensed ideas. These can be worked on during electronics or arts related workshops, or simply made by hand or mass produced so as to sell in our (fingers crossed!) Stokes Croft shop front.

Members can pay several levels of monthly fee which contribute to the basic running costs and rent, but we could also go for various different types of funding on a project basis and hopefully sponsorship from creative, community based, educational and business related establishments around the city that might begin to also benefit from our classes and various types of open, participatory crafting events.

And now for something completely different:

2. I may have invented my own religion, or, DMT's important connections with Buddhist and other spiritual practices.

I realised also today that there is a link of some kind between the plant and animal chemical DMT and a more Buddha-like state of being. DMT is a powerful psychedelic drug also manufactured by the human brain (some say the pineal gland at the centre of the brain). Nam Myoho Renge Kyo on the other hand is the chant, rhythm and teaching at the centre of Nichiren Buddhism and it's various offshoots. In this, a Mahayana interpretation of Buddhist teachings, Buddhahood is a pervasive force inside every living being, an absolute force and potential for good in everything, which is said to have taken place whilst he sat by a Pipal tree - Ficus religiosa - for many days, eating only what fell from this tree.

A typical Nichiren Buddhist's personal practice might involve study, application of buddhist teachings in their daily lives, and chanting anything from 10 times a day to even so called "5 by 5s" - 5 hours a day for 5 days, to an inscription in a scroll called a Gohonzon.

In simple terms the purely Buddhist belief is that by doing this we make ourselves more in rhythm with this absolute, positive energy that pervades the universe, and that by doing so we are able to have the wisdom, fortune and timeliness to be in the right place in the right time so as to make a large difference in life for oneself and others - in essence, to be a hero, able to behave like a Buddha at all times.

The reason I make this probably blasphemous assertion about dimethyl-tryptamine is due to the Green Noise Experiment I put on as a performance art/mind hack experiment at the Arnolfini Arts Centre here in Bristol in December 2009 (see previous entry on this blog for links). Basically, I put ping pong balls over the eyes of around 38 participants in a darkened space, and gave them various types of continuous white noise, green noise or pink noise to listen to for either 5, 10 or 20 minutes each.

This experiment in sound and open hardware was more to do with a inducing an also mildly psychedelic, but more hypnagogic state similar to that encountered when falling asleep or possibly during sleep paralysis, but it led me to look up various wikipedia articles about DMT production and read about various other experiments to see if there was a known link between DMT and the ganzfeld procedure I had used.

In the words of some participants in a well known DMT study in the 90s by Doctor Rick Strassman of the book "The Spirit Molecule", when injected with doses of 0.2 to 0.4 mg/kg of this very simply structured derivative of the amino-acid tryptophan:

(in the beginning, volunteers would experience vibration and many colours would appear, and begin to form complex patterns, like a curtain, which Dr Strassman in this case encourages his subject to go beyond)

"At that point it opened, and I was very much somewhere else. I believe it was at that point that I went out, into the universe-being, dancing with, a star system.."
and a few days later, from the same subject
"I am changed. I will never be the same. To simply say this almost seems to lessen the experience..."
"The great power seemed to fill all possibilities. It was "amoral" but it was love, and it just was. There was no benevolent God, only this primordial power. All of my ideas and beliefs seemed absurdly ridiculous. I never wanted to forget this..."
"I had no idea how long I was in this confluence of pure energy, or whatever/however I might describe it. Finally, I felt myself tumbling gently and sliding backward away from this light"

There is lots more where this came from, and in my experiment I was reminded of this effect in particular by the green noise diffraction effect that participants in the Green Noise Experiment had, and how relevant it seemed then, that white noise in particular, is the sound of absolute randomness all at once, of every possible wavelength and noise put together, whereas green noise was just a more natural and accessible version of this same universal sound due to it's frequent existence in the natural as well as urban environment, and that it might somehow be linked to what we are trying to achieve in Buddhist practice.

I have still to figure out if there was any prevalance in mystical or spiritual experiences in the Green Noise experiment, but the event certainly felt imbued with a positive energy - so many people were so pleased and thankful to have had a chance to try the machine.

My point of view of death, as a Buddhist, is that in dying we fall back into a sea, like an individual wave rejoining a larger whole. In more practical terms, I'd say we visibly fall back into a shadow of our previous selves, the atoms that once made us function slowly merging with other organisms or environments and the changes we make slowly losing relevance.

Although our minds may be gone in death, the memories of those around us, the inspiration, ideas and lessons we may have taught or inspired in others, and the effects of our actions in life carry on.

These changes we make in life, in our families, and in wider society and the environment around us can still can be seen long before and after a single lifetime, as we are seeing day to day with the current environmental and economic situation. This concept seems to have such a huge similarity with what is seen in the space of around 5 minutes in Dr Strassman's DMT subjects.

This thought is very enlightening, and I feel very lucky to be in both the worlds of art oriented electronics and music, and a Buddhist, so as to be able to have this realisation. I don't know if it will lead to anything, or where if so, but it certainly seems important and life changing right now to look into how I might improve my Buddhist practice through creating and using these Ganzfeld devices and through the use of what I've myself called no more than mind hacks.

Doctor Strassman, I believe, has figured out a way to measure DMT in the blood, so it seems worth testing a link between this and the practice of chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, as well as many other Buddhist practices, not least Tientai, also known as Zhiyi, the founder of the Tendai, or Lotus School of Buddhism.

This was a chinese monk who around the year 575 declared the Lotus Sutra to be the highest teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha's sutras, intended for many generations after his time due to the time not being ripe for it to be spread widely when it was conceived.

The Lotus Sutra itself was probably compiled from oral teachings long after Shakyamuni's death.

Zhiyi added to existing meditative practices in year 600 China, the practice of "Great Concentration and Insight", (which I've also seen probably mis-translated as "Stopping and starting") - a complex system of self-cultivation practice that also incorporated devotional rituals and confession/repentance rites.

Nichiren Daishonin, in 13th century Japan, then simplified this practice into the Nam Myoho Renge Kyo chant heard today, taking inspiration from contemporary Buddhist schools offering simpler, more universally accessible practices, and from his own readings into Buddhist teachings. Nichiren's followers and practitioners today strive to make concrete changes in their lives through their practice.

I believe DMT is a vital ingredient in Buddhist practice - a fact which doesn't lessen it's beauty to me in the slightest, and as shown by Dr Strassman, is also present in many other spiritual practices worldwide, and I think this link urgently deserves further investigation.

The Aquatrick

The third truth I would like to tell you about, is that I just thought of an interesting device to make. It is a lamp, which includes an inverted LED in a reflective concave surface, shining onto a small pool of water, in a reflective container. This creates pleasant moving lights on the walls and roof around the device, so it is also a projector, or lava lamp-ish item. On the top of the device, as well as an "on" button are some sensors that allow a user to control the movement of some servo based or electromagnetic mechanisms that stir the water beneath, creating waves. This means passers by, or single / multiple users can influence the movement of the reflections around them. The water might also sound nice, but the shape of the object is probably crucial! And so ends another gathering of quite unrelated truths and future possibilities.

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