Friday, June 9, 2017

If [insert technical person’s name here] Can Do it, It Must Be Easy

One of the many entertaining aspects of a technical career is that the many mismanagement, sales, and marketing numskulls who consider themselves to be “visionary” and who couldn’t turn on a water tap without assistance are convinced that we are a dime a dozen. Society, in fact, makes that same general assumption; that there will always be technical people available to make things work so that they can go about their mindless lives thoughtlessly and without a clue of how or why anything they depend on works.

The United States, in its rush to create a royalty class, is demonstrating this in every election, in every corporate takeover, in its tax policy, and in almost ever office in the country. One of many consequences for this is that more than 50% of our university STEM graduates are non-US citizens and the overwhelming majority of those graduates plan to return to their country of origin with the skills they have attained. The US, on the other hand is cranking MBA and Finance degrees like those “skills” are actually going to be useful in some mythical, non-productive future. Better hurry, kiddies. Once the current batch of banksters have sold off the nation’s assets, there won’t be much demand for people to mismanage the country’s remaining spare change.

phdsElecting a collection of trust fund brats and hedge fund banksters guarantees at least one more generation of our best and brightest being sucked out of useful work and into “finance” and other criminal activities. Since Reagan, the country has steadily lost technical and scientific capacity and time, science, and progress wait for no one.

Looking up references for some of the points I wanted to make in this essay, I ran into a collection of alternative Google searches and links such as “STEM graduates are SOOOO arrogant” and “STEM graduates aren’t as smart as they think they are.” [Look at the chart on the left and, if you have the math skills necessary to read it, try to justify that argument.] All pretty funny, since it’s pretty well established that STEM programs are dramatically more difficult and relevant than liberal arts and STEM graduates are consistently more employable. The skills and disipline necessary to get through a typical STEM degree isn’t something you can just “pick up when I need it,” like management, accounting, or philosphy. The difference between the usual party animal degree (anything from Business to Law Enforcement to any of the dozens of programs that do not require mathematics, science, and technology as core to the degree) and a STEM degree is not just a matter of intelligence, but of time and energy committment and competition. The rest of the world is pretty clear on this, along with US immigration policy. Try to immigrate to Canada, Austrailia, Europe, or any other 1st world country with your liberal arts degree as a credential: you might as well argue that your hair color matters. Offer any of those countries your technical expertise as an experienced engineer, scientist, medical doctor, or a mathematician and doors fly open.

Of course, there are “engineers” and there are engineers. When I read or hear about a 20-something electrical or mechanical engineer who can’t find employment in his/her field, my first though is “Make something, dumbass.” The whole point in becoming an engineer is obtaining the background to become inventive, creative, and self-sufficient. Simply getting through a degree program isn’t even a serious first step in a technical life. I know of at least a half-dozen engineers who are not college graduates, even though they have made excellent incomes for a long portion of their lives employeed as “engineers.” I was one, in fact.

The funniest comments on “useless” STEM degrees comes from examples of computer science grads who can’t find work. I worked for a biomed company in the 1990’s and their biggest engineering hiring problem was finding competent software/firmware engineers. I’d just come from a company that had made some pretty large strides in audio communications software, but that company had a secret weapon: only hire programmers who can slow evidence of their accomplishments (The Microsoft Rule.) and don’t worry about their pedigree. That wasn’t an option for the medical devices company because they received some federal corporate welfare based on the “credentials” of their “research” departments. Of course, any software developer with a lick of ability would be off designing software and getting rich long before wasting time acquiring a Masters or PhD in software engineering, which left the credential addicts with slim pickin’s, in the talent territory. As you’d expect, the company’s software was buggy, slow, and insecure and those weaknesses were regularly exposed in the field. (If you think Diebold’s electronic voting machines are easy to hack, you don’t even want to think about how easy it is to blow up a pacemaker or implantable defibrillator.)

None of that changes the point of this rant, however. The goofy inept characters who populate business and liberal arts programs too often gravitate to the head of corporations because nothing measurable ever gets in their way. If you can’t do anything useful, it’s hard to make a mistake anyone will notice. Since crawling to the head of the class, leaving a trail of bodies and betrayal, was so easy for them, how hard can any other activity be?

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Because?

The explaination that I have disliked the most for 99% of my life is, “Because everyone else does it this way.” An adopted (from Bertrand Russell) mantra of my life has been, “The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more often likely to be foolish than sensible." I absolutely believe that statement: regarding subjects from technology to economics to politics to community/religion. I will always assume that “everyone else” is probably a moron, especially if the thing we’re talking about has any aspect of opinion involved. Often, it turns out that I’m wrong. Sometimes the reason people have done something the same way for a long time is that it is the most efficient, practical, easiest, and even effective way to do that thing. Sometimes I’m right and the reason people have been doing something the same way for a 1,000 years is because they are lazy, superstitious, ignorant, timid/conservative, and/or mentally challenged. With only one life to live and a limited amount of time, energy, and patience with which to live it, I am often uninspired to spend much effort worrying about why things “have always beend one this way.” That is not always (or even often) a strength, it’s just a thing, a personality glitch.

IMG_8123So, when it came time to design an electric guitar (a bass, in my case), I decided to blow off a lot of convention and explore my inner designer. Andf I learned a few things: some useful, some I could have spared myself by going with “conventional wiseom,” and some were outright surprises.

For example, I put a lot of thought and effort into creating the smallest body design possible and still retain “balance.” I started with thicker material than I expected to need and installed a 1/2” cap over the wiring routing holes, creating an instrument from which I expected to carve a lot from the back to create a slight “wrap-around” feel. As the body approached completion and the neck was finished enough to attach, I started fooling with finding the point where the strap pins could be installed to make the instrument hang in a neutral, balanced, position. To my mind, that sounded more comfortable than the body-heavy designs of most guitars.

2017-05-01 Bass (3)I was wrong. It turns out that a slight bias toward body-heavy is more comfortable, at least for my playing position. I tend to play with the instrument high and the neck much higher; probably due to short arms or some such handicapped characteristic.

It also turned out that the sculpting I intended to do was unnecessary. My body design conformed so well that additional wood-removal was pointless. It would, however, have been a good exercise. So, I might build another bass using the same general design but taking the body-shaping further.

I also blew off the trait most of my fellow students had for pickup selection. First, it’s a bass and, second, this instrument is one I built purely for my own enjoyment and playing. I’m not a particularly complicated bass player. I don’t solo, ever. I like being part of the rhythm section, in the background, just filling in the bottom. The pickup on my bass has a fairly simple task: provide as much fundamental as possible with as little noise as possible. I went for a Chinese knockoff of a Gibson humbucker design, primarily because the pickup came with individual coil wiring. When I received the pickup, I tested the two coils and found that one had slightly (10%) higher impedance and resistance. So, I unwrapped the coils and pulled wire off of that coil until it was very close to the other coil. I reassembled the pickup, soaking the winding in wax before retaping it, coated the pickup pocket and wiring channels in magnetic paint, and hooked up the pickup for series and parallel operation with a single DPDT switch. Add a volume control and a jack and that’s all I need; along with a mostly-midpoint pickup position. I never use the bridge pickup, so why install one?

You can see that my body shape is unconventional. It works beautifully, by the way. It is comfortable standing or sitting and the “handle” is a lot more useful than a horn.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

“I Have Heard It with My Own Ears”

One of many reasons the music business is being left to the spoiled children of the 1% is that there is so much non-stop bullshit in the marketing of audio and audio equipment. This month’s Prosound News ProAudio Review, contains one of many hillarious reviews of a grossly overpriced four channel microphone preamplifier with minimal features, maginal function (only 55dB of gain) and more bullshit marketing words that translate to no information whatsoever: “punchy, fat, rich and full of character” for example. “As [Bret] Teegarden himself offers, ‘The biggest feature is, it doesn't have a boat-load of features. Nothing gets in the way of the sound!’"

“Key features of the Magic Pre 4100 include 55 dB of gain, Sifam VU meters, -20 dB pad (complete bypass in off position), and +48v phantom power (decoupling completely from the transformer).” In other words, it couldn’t have been easier to “design” this product because it doesn’t achieve a single difficult engineering task. In the magazine’s sidebar, “Why No Polarity Switch,” Teegarden describes his miraculous capability to hear the distortion introduced by the polarity switch, although he probably doesn’t know how many places that task could be accomplished where the switch would be at a point where the signal voltage is significant and where it’s introduction would only marginally complicate the design. “There are many electronic engineers out there who will debate this idea of switches affecting audio quality, but I have heard it with my own ears. So, they can argue aboput it all they want; they can buyikld the features into their preamps for marketing’s sake. . . “  Blah, blah, blah. This is the high cost of working in a field where money only exists if you inherited it. Rich kids marketing bullshit to other rich kids and, obviously, no one cares enough to verify any aspect of this product’s claims.

Our ears are the blunt tool of senses. I have long since abandoned any hope that anyone over 20 has hearing capabilities and Teegarden has been making pop recordings for “more than 35 years,” according to his own propaganda page. The cool thing about a nutty claim like this one is the only way to verify or debunk Teegarden’s claim would be with an ABX test (which he would surely fail), but he can always claim the tester switching masked the phase switch distortion.

I have one question for everyone who claims golden ear status, “Do use a cellphone or a hard line phone?” If you can tolerate the godawful quality of a cellphone transmission, it’s obvious to me that your demanding criteria for an electric guitar microphone preamp is a poor joke.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Giving Up the Ghost

January 2017

A half-dozen years ago, during a 20-year long argument about practically everything in life, society, and our imaginations a good friend finished her email with “You are a natural born teacher chafing at the unnatural constraints & idiocy of the classroom.” Since, at the time I was seriously considering abandoning my teaching job and blowing off whatever demented thing in my head that makes me want to explore how people think and make decisions and intentionally avoid facing reality.

Oddly, I took what she’d said as sort of a compliment, even though I was convinced that teaching was a frustrating, painful, frustrating exercise in futility. Being in a classroom for 14 weeks was too often a demonstration of non-existence. Especially in the last couple of years, it felt (especially when I graded exams) that I’d been completely invisible. Looking at the experience logically, if I’d been talking about a subject, demonstrating concepts and principles, and supervising experiments about the subject for 14 weeks at at the end of that period of time the things I’d been attempting to teach were tested and many-to-most of the students’ answers were no more informed than if they’d shown up on test day as if it were the first day of class, it logically follows that I was either invisible and inaudible or non-existent altogether.

This week, I discovered this old and dear friend is dying and one of her tumors is causing her memory of our friendship to intermittently fail. So, in the end non-existence is my fate. One of the few people who recognized whatever it was that drove me to try and pass on hard-earned experience and whatever passes for knowledge I’ve aquired over the last 68 years is dying and that puts me one step closer to non-existence.

Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.