Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Learning How to Become a Computer Tech in a Week

Lately, I've been on a mad search for a 'real' job. You know, the sort you get so that you can move out of your parents' basement and live in a cute condominium. My expertise mostly lies in the technology fields, so those are the jobs that I apply to. Recently, I've applied to a couple jobs at Intel for computer technician positions. Tearing apart computers and figuring out what's wrong with them isn't my specialty, but it's not something I'm unfamiliar with. I've upgraded hard drives and memory and have done some basic troubleshooting on motherboards. The level of expertise that the first position asked after informed me that the little bit of experience I did have was not sufficient. I suspect that my interviewer rolled his eyes a couple times while talking to me on the phone.

Obviously, working at Intel requires a lot of skill, so I set about to fix my lack of skill. My dad is a computer nerd. He was a computer nerd before computers were accessible to the normal person. He made himself a handheld computer when computers that took up entire floors of a building were still prevalent. This means that my dad has a lot of computers. A LOT of computers. I won't post a picture of our garage. One of the many benefits of this is that my dad can give me a computer practically on a whim. When I talked with him about my interview and what I felt I was lacking, he took me out to the garage and grabbed me the computer he's dubbed 'Flywheel.'

I got to have a lot of fun tearing the computer apart and looking at all it's components. I kept at least three books near me as references while I figured out what each part was, what it did, and why it wasn't working.

Now here's the technical section of this post for those of you that actually are computer techs:

I started the computer up to figure out what operating system is was running under, but it only brought up the BIOS and a 'cannot read disk' error, suggesting that I put a startup disk in the floppy drive. I dug around and found a Win98 boot disk and started the computer on that. I couldn't figure out how to make it take me to the  GUI, so I just plinked around with the DOS commands that I know. I found that I could see what was in the CD drive, the floppy drive, and the C: drive. I don't think that I was seeing the actual C: drive, though. I think it might have been something temporary that the startup disk setup so that I could install Win98.

My dad had seriously overclocked the Intel 80502 CPU to ~100MHz, which may not have normally been a big deal, but this whole computer is a frankenstein made out of frankensteins, with random parts assembled together into a system that works so long as you don't look at it funny. And when you  do look at it funny, the whole thing'll fly apart. Thus the name 'Flywheel.' I had to search around on the board and on the internet for a while, but I found out that there are some mechanical switches on the board to turn down the speed. I had originally looked in the BIOS, but there hadn't been any options for it there. (For those of you that are curious, the BIOS is AMIBIOS. )

I powered the computer back on after taking it down to 90MHz. That got rid of one of the POST code beeps, but brought on another. The beeps were telling me that there was something wrong with the external memory (1 long, 3 short), so I set about to checking each of the little memory sticks.

I still haven't figured out what's wrong with the computer, but I'm suspecting that one of the sticks of RAM is bad.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Learning InDesign

Recently, I had the good fortune to come across a blog post that described how to get Adobe Photoshop and other Adobe products for free, with out breaking the law. So I merrily followed the instructions on the blog and got myself everything that Adobe had to offer. The catch with this is that they only offer the older versions of the software, specifically CS2, I believe. But if you're not down with Adobe's new software cloud thing (I kinda think that's a scam), or if you're just looking to get an introduction to the software, this is definitely the place to go.

Since I do a lot of digital art, Photoshop has always looked appealing to me. The images you can find when you look on DeviantArt alone are enough to convince any artist. I've used Photoshop Elements 2.0, a version I got for free when I purchased my Wacom Bamboo Fun tablet. Beyond Photoshop, however, I've had no experience with the other Adobe products.

I decided that it would be a good idea to get my feet wet with Adobe InDesign for whatever reason. When I started using, I didn't realize it was for creating printable books. I kinda thought it was a graphic design/logo design program, and so that's what I used it as. I used it to create my new logo for the most recent redesign of my website. Every once in a while, I decide to give it a revamp.

I'll admit that this logo isn't the greatest. Still, it fulfills my needs and makes for an interesting design. While InDesign wasn't made to create logos, I managed to badger it into succumbing to my will. The most complicated part of making my logo with InDesign was getting the logo saved as a .png file. Since InDesign is for making books, it doesn't give you an option to save in any image format. I side-stepped this by copying the logo, then pasting it into Photoshop. This is a little indirect, but it worked better than taking a screenshot of the logo. When you copy and paste it into Photoshop, PS still recognizes it as several distinct objects, and so let's you adjust each one without going around with the magic wand and painstakingly selecting each character so you can move it around. And even that wouldn't work, because it would leave a nasty white hole where your element used to be.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Prismacolor Markers: Life Changing Experiences

Scared Girl
So my wonderful baby sister got me some Prismacolor markers that I've been eyeballing for a couple years now, but could never justify buying for myself. I kind of feel like I'm doing a sponsored ad for them, because I've been raving about them all week.

It's really nice to have some legitimate artist markers, rather than trying to limp along with Crayola. In Crayola's defense, they make a lot of art supplies available to artists that would otherwise be too poor to get them. Also, they give a basis for getting familiar with the tools and for fully appreciating the real thing.

My first experiment with the markers was my Scared Girl piece. She's a character I've been using since last year. She's loosely based on Jhonen Vasquez's art style, which makes her easy to draw. Also, she's great for action poses, which is kind of what I designed her to be for. She's kinda like Scoobie Doo and Shaggy: always running into scary horror-film monsters that she can do nothing about. Not that I've drawn a lot of pictures like that for her. I'm hoping to do a simple animation with her at some point.

Bug Eyes
My next piece was a character with a better design. I've got no real name for her, so I'll just refer to her as Bug Eyes. I drew her in about half an hour, then colored her in. I'll admit that I was watching Invader Zim while working on it, so the look has probably been influenced by that.

All in all, I've had a wonderful time learning how to use my new markers, my grandest piece thus far being my Snow White piece. My biggest complaint is that the set that I've got doesn't have much in the way of skin tones or grays. I've had to buy my own gray, but won't be able to afford more markers for a little while yet.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Relearning to Mad Science

As of about six months ago, I had to put aside my mad science equipment. My robotics, my microcontrollers, and my welding gear all went into the closet. The reason? I had transferred from a two year college to a full university. To pursue art.

Yes. You heard me right.


If you've ready my previous articles, this probably isn't super weird. I've always prided myself on the diverse nature of my various talents, technology only being one of them. I eventually want to be a computer animator. (You know, for my cover story.) So art is the logical degree to pursue. 

This was a bit of a sad transition, since I'd pull my MC stuff out at least a couple times a month. Since I was making a four hour round-trip to and from college, my time got sparse. So I got to do homework. And homework. Oh, and did I mention sleeping? Waking up at 4 am will do that to you. Not that I begrudge it. I learned a lot at college. I mostly took art history classes, so that was pretty easy homework-wise; there was just a lot of it.

Moving on...

I finally got my mad scientist kit out of the closet last week and have been playing around with the stuff in it almost every day. I started out relearning how to connect an LED to a Parallax Propeller MC and make it blink. I kid you not. This took me two hours to figure out. I wouldn't have had as much trouble with the BS2, since I used it a lot more before I had to put my stuff aside and eventually pack it away.

After I overcame that initial hurtle, things started coming back to me at a logarithmic pace. I started out with Programming and Customizing the Multicore Propeller Microcontroller: The Official Guide, which goes over the basics of the Propeller, the cores, and the LED blinking program. Ideas started flooding into my head faster than I could keep up with, so I started jumping between books and projects. With the LEDs working, I wanted to check to see if any of the RevA PIR sensors I'd gotten three years back actually worked or not. This took me to my other Parallax book: Microcontroller Kickstarts

Microcontroller Kickstarts is a must-have for any Parallax enthusiast. It's not super detail in the program descriptions, but it comments the code liberally and starts out with a strong description of the module to be used. Also, if you're not into the Parallax BS2 or Propeller, it also has sample code for the Arduino. It covers a wide variety of the modules and give you a few ideas and just enough code to get your brain cranking away. Which is exactly what happened for me.

detecto bots: revA and revBI tested my PIR sensors and found out that they do indeed work. I also relearned how to hook up a piezo speaker and control it. So I now have the working knowledge to operate and utilize LEDs, PIR sensors, and piezo speakers. If this doesn't say Evil Detecto Bots to you, than you aren't a mad scientist.

So this will probably be my first project to complete this year! A motion detector that lights up an LED and buzzes at anyone foolish enough to approach my evil lab/studio apartment.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Parallax, Microcontrollers, and Mad Science

I've loved computers for as long as I can remember. I've always had a good time programming them, disassembling them, and, sometimes, even reassembling them. My dad got me hooked on computers and electronics at a young age. Such a young age that I go through withdrawls if I don't do something computer related. And I don't mean video games or Facebook. I mean coding and hardware assembly.

When I was a young teenager (either 14 or 15), my dad gave my baby sister a microcontroller. And not just any microcontroller, but a Parallax Basic Stamp 2 as part of their Boe-Bot robotics kit. I was so jealous. I tried bargaining with my sister to let me use her kit. She would have none of it, so I had to watch wistfully as she buzzed it around the house. After what seemed like years, but was more likely a few months, my dad got me a microcontroller kit from Parallax, too. Specifically the 'What's a Microcontroller?' kit. I was ecstatic. It didn't take me long to start writing my own programs, rather than just copying the code from the book. I had my own evil plans to develop. After all the success I was having, my dad decided to get me a Boe-Bot kit, too.

Around the time I was graduating high school, my sister gave me her Boe-Bot kit. So I had not one, but two robots. My plans for world domination were gaining speed. Sadly, that was also the year that I started college. Anyone that has been to college can understand why. I already felt bad because my sister's Bot had been collecting dust, so I had desperately wanted to brush that dust off.

After my first semester, my time opened up again. I also started working at a local telescope shop. Stellarvue Telescopes, to be precise. (See their awesome stuff!) Every summer, they host a week-long astronomy event for Stellarvue telescope owners and Stellarvue employees. My dad and I decided to go to this, since astronomy is one of the many hobbies we share. That turned out to be a very good plan to further my plans for world domination. I met a fellow mad scientist youngster, Big Tony. We immediately formed an evil team-up.

A couple times a year, we have a Mad Science Day, where we blow the dust off of our evil implements of destruction and start playing with microcontrollers. After going to an event hosted by Parallax at their location, I brought back some evil loot for use in our evil, evil plans.

The cool thing about living near Parallax is having easy access to them and to their freebie table. At the event, I got most of what constitutes my mad scientist kit:

  • Erector set and box
  • 2 Javelin MCs
  • Several proto and bread boards
  • A bunch of the RevA PIR sensors
  • And a broad collection of loose components
This kit also includes everything from my two Boe-Bot kits, my 'What's a Microcontroller?' kit, and my Propeller Quickstart board. (My dad also got me a QuickProto board from Gadget Gangster.) I also have a bunch of other stuff that this blog article is too short to go into. Suffice it to say that I could dominate the world with killer robots with what I own.

As if all that wasn't enough, I went in to Parallax yesterday with a resume and to pick up a XBee Wireless Pack. (Don't ask. It's a secret evil plan.) Unfortunately, I didn't get the job, but I got a quick tour of the joint when I asked after the freebie table. A very nice gentleman, Chris, I believe, escorted me to what I have dubbed the 'freebie lair.' In short, they consolidated and rented out the extra space. The space that they used to have the freebie table was in the space they rented, and so the freebie stuff was all relocated to a little, abandoned work space in the back. To a normal viewer, I'm sure the room looked like an elephant barfed, presuming said elephant barfed Parallax stuff. For me, it was like home.

Chris was all too pleased to send me home with a large pile of stuff. And I was all too pleased to talk to him about my various evil projects (although I didn't project them as evil). He kept handing me stuff, which thrilled me to no end. I would have squealed like a little girl, but I was wearing my grown-up clothes.

I am now the proud owner of not one, not two, but three! Three beautiful Boe-Bot kits! I also have a bunch of other modules to dink around with, a box of servo motors, and 2 DC motors.

I guess I need to post my evil exploits, now that I have so much amazing stuff. And, in the not-too-distant future, I might be able to proclaim proudly, "Amaryllis-bots! Attack!"