CMOY portable headphone amplifier

This little gizmo was the most frustrating thing I’ve built so far. It was missing a part (the red LED, not a biggie) and the diagram (the only instructions it came with) was wrong, leaving out a couple of major components. It took four altoids tins to get one drilled reasonably right.

But, in the end the little bugger (about$15 on ebay, as I recall) sounds pretty damn good.

Bottlehead Quickie

Finished another little tube toy. This time, a battery powered preamplifier (also from Bottlehead). I screwed up the alder wood base I ordered from them, so I built a new one from scratch in hard maple. It turned out nicely, and I think the maple goes with the blue plastic top plate.

It was pretty microphonic when I first powered it up (loud noises when tapping on the top plate), but it has settled down now. It was a cheap kit, and mostly I just wanted it so that I could switch in between the airport express (white block to the rear of the photo) that supplies the music in my office and the computer.

I like making things. It’s such a radical change from all the reading-writing stuff down that I’ve been doing for the last decade or so.

Binocular viewing


Loren’s comment yesterday put some issues in relief for me. He responded to an aspect of what I wrote that I had thought of as a background bit– considerations of the past as narrated vs, experienced. Writing on the internet for many years now, I have come to appreciate that every reading of someone else’s words is truly unique. The person you’re reading isn’t you. In fact, part of the fun of putting all my old crap back online is that my old writings aren’t me either. The me that wrote those things doesn’t exist anymore. There are similarities between him and the person typing today, but we aren’t the same. In some ways, as I go back to keyword them I might not like that person at all.

That post seems very chaotic to me now. I thought I had a point, but it took a long time to find it. It actually began when I was thinking about tubes and writing about why I really want to build more gear that uses them. One reason why is that they are easier than solid state circuits in terms of complexity and fussiness. I have a little IC amp I want to build, and one look at the PC board told me that I had better get a binocular microscope to check my soldering since my eyes are not as good as they once were at picking out tiny details.

Particularly with “comprehensive usage” (sic), technology does increase our knowledge of the world. The correlative point, however, is that  it often stands as a barrier which isolates us from the things we’d like to know. Technology facilitates gaps and distortions, particularly when applied to the problems of memory. Language is a technology. Translation is a complex affair, and it is naive to think of a static “message” (or point) moving from place to place. The places it leaves from, as well as the destinations it arrives at, are always moving. The world (and ourselves) are not the same across time.

The primary lesson of tube technology is that lower distortion isn’t always better. Tubes are frequently far more engaging to listen to than solid state. The distortion with solid state devices are orders of magnitude lower, but music often just sounds better through glowing tubes. Ask any electric guitar player. The sound is quite different, and though you can always chalk it up to “taste” there are reasons why a technology over a hundred years old persists — the sound is involving and fun.

Some distortions are more euphonious than others. Loren’s reading of what I had written so clumsily was a case in point. I have no problem with it. I have been less lucky in the past. The cacophony of the internet often drowns out the slightest kernel of civility with echoed distortions considered by their contributors as “feedback.”

If we accept that all communication is distorted and that all technologies used to further/preserve that communication are flawed, where does that leave us? I think it leaves us searching for the most pleasing forms of distortion, such as tidy stories with easily digested morals.

But, with binocular vision we can see more depth in those things we choose to examine.

Second childhood

Building things

Lately, I’ve been trying to learn more about electronics lately, getting genuinely excited about soldering and such. With the state of the economy, it seems like the best thing I can do is just sit still and try not to spend much money. When I was a kid, perhaps my fondest memories were of little project kits like electric motors and magnet kits that my oldest brother David bought for me for Christmas. Before traveling this summer I bought this kit and am now finally getting around to working on it.

The freakiest thing is that I’ve been soldering while listening to Merle Haggard (a Bakersfield phenomenon) and really enjoying it this time around. It reminds me of those times at the kitchen table way too many years ago, only this time I’m not bitching a blue streak about the crappy country music my dad used to listen to. I never wanted to be like my dad then, as far as I can remember, so why am I interested in embracing him now?

Photo 5.jpg

My dad had nothing to do with my interest in electronics, of course— he was not interested in them at all beyond being able to keep the music going in the house an the old style console stereo. But thinking about just what I would like to remember the most, I think the most about his attempts to make things. He wasn’t particularly good at making (though he was really excellent at fixing. There’s a significant distinction here, explored amply in Shop Class as Soul Craft (the book, not this teaser article). I always wanted to make, and my dad often ended up fixing my attempts. He wouldn’t go anywhere near electronics though— if it couldn’t be fixed with a belt sander or a welding torch he left it alone.

Like most kids, I didn’t like my dad (or my home town) most of the time. It took a long time to get over that.