October 23, 2014


It's official! My new DIY book—Junkyard Jam Band: DIY Musical Instruments and Noisemakers—will be in stores early next year. This is what I've been working on over the past couple years, as a follow-up to Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred: Seriously Geeky Stuff to Make with Your Kids, and offers a whole new slew of musical instruments and noise toys:

Junkyard Jam Band is a step-by-step guide to making a full array of complete musical projects on the cheap, no previous carpentry or electronics experience required. Each build includes tips on how to coax the best sounds out of the instrument and encourages you to mod the project to fit your own style.

Wanna Sneak-Peak?

Here are a few of the videos I shot while prototyping projects (FUN FACT: While I live in Michigan, where my DIY books are actually physically printed, my publisher is in San Francisco, and I've only ever met one person in the company—and I knew her from back in knucklehead days. So, these books are entirely developed and executed as a series of disjoint emails, YouTube videos, Dropbox uploads, and disorientingly time-delayed VoIP calls.)

First off is the Elephant Trumpet, which is one of the bone-simplest projects in the book, a quick goofy-fun build (that's my nephew tooting that rubber shofar, FYI):

And here's the prototype of the core of what ultimately became the Twin-T Phaser/Wah, one of the more complicated builds (although still pretty accessible, even to folks new to hobby electronics—one of the things we've done in this book with the more complex projects is broken them into modular components that can be combined flexibly, so you can level them up into more complicated instruments and effects):

We're also including a section on improvised percussion, which I wrote based on interviews and chats with Vince Russo, who's featured on lead vocals and washboard with the Appleseed Collective in this video (their shows are tons o' fun; definitely check them out if they tour through your town):

Wanna Pre-Order?

In all honesty, I'm flattered—'cause it's a remarkable leap of faith on your part, as I'm actually still drafting the copy for the last several projects (if you caught my recent tweet-of-existential-relief when I discovered that a critical failure in a circuit was just a bum switch, that was in reference to the finalized production version of the Twin-T Phaser/Wah circuit demoed above). But, for reals, there'll be a book come my baby girl's third birthday in 2015, so order away!

PRO-TIP: The publisher, No Starch Press, is mos def offering the sweetest pre-order deal: 30% off plus free DRM-free ebooks (the PDFs of these books are *sweet-ass*! It's the PDF of my first book that I use as a reference when I'm building projects and doing demos.)

  • Pre-order Junkyard Jam Band: DIY Musical Instruments and Noisemakers from No Starch Press and save!

    And, of course, Amazon will hook you up:

  • October 22, 2014

    "Mongolian Throat Singing" for Dummies

    This is a pretty stunningly adroit demonstration of polyphonic overtone singing (which is often called "Mongolian throat singing," although I'm told "Tuvan throat singing" is the preferred nomenclature). Just some inside baseball on throat-singing here: The fact that she can move the fundamental (i.e., the lower tone) while keeping the higher tone steady is goddamned *amazing.* #FACT

    As Anna-Maria explains, "polyphonic overtone singing" basically means singing two notes simultaneously. This is accomplished by using your mouth as a sort of tuned resonating chamber: You generate the low note with your larynx (as per usual), but also use that vibration to excite the air in your mouth, creating the higher whistling overtone, which you can then control by changing your mouth shape (as you can see her doing).


    In my early- and mid-20s I was obsessed with overtone singing, which was much more obscure then (in large part because there was also less Internet then, and far narrower distribution of multi-media files on that much slower Internet). If Anna-Maria's performance is sparking something in your ear, most definitely check out Hun Huur Tu (who do very traditional Tuvan compositions and performances) and Kongar-ol Ondar (who toured extensively during his lifetime, performing both traditional tunes and working in contemporary music, most notably with bluesman Paul Pena, whose documentary Genghis Blues is about Ondar and available through Netflix). Here's a great Ondar-Pena track (I'm also enduringly fond of his very traditional "Shamanic Prayer for Richard Feynman"):

    As for Hun Huur Tu, this is an *amazing* 90 minute compilation of lots of their recordings:

    My son, who is now 8, quickened at a Hun Huur Tu performance in Ann Arbor, MI. They came back the next year, and so my wife and I took him to the show, and once they began singing he was so rapt that we momentarily thought he was having a seizure, and sorta kinda flipped out (as new parents are wont to do). He was not having a seizure; he was just really digging the sound, and to this day, has sort of a tendency to fall into the things that fascinate him.

    Speaking of which, a healthy chunk of my 20s was spent trying to figure out how to throat sing, and through trial, error, and lots of online text-based research, I managed to get the tiniest toehold into the fundamentals. Wanna try it? Here are some pointers:


    1. LOOSEN YOUR JAW: Keep your jaw slack and pushed a bit forward. Your mouth should naturally hang open (as Anna-Maria's does), with your lower teeth a touch in front of your top.
    2. FLATTEN YOUR TONGUE INTO A BOWL: This is the part that takes the most experimentation. You want your tongue to be a flat, shallow U, with the tip of your tongue down, the bottom of the U resting on the floor of your mouth, and the edges of the U pressed against your molar. The idea is that you're making your mouth into a big, round resonator (like the jug played in jug band).
    3. GROAN LOW: Make a deep, low tone in your throat and chest (your larynx will really be buzzing).
    4. WORK YOUR LIPS: Experiment with drawing your lips together into a pucker, like you are going to whistle, and then relaxing them again to the starting position. Work through this slow, and listen for that high, ringing overtone, which will eventually start to quietly peek out of the low, buzzing fundamental. Once you find that overtone, it's just a matter of long, patient practice to refine and control the exact mouth-shape that brings it out.
    5. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE—IN PRIVATE!: You'll need to practice and experiment *a lot* to even start to get this done—which is going to annoy the living hell out of anyone you live with. That said, two great practice spaces: The bathroom (natural home to all manner of shameful singing) and while driving alone (the windshield bounces your voice back at you, making it easier to pick out those first, shaky-legged little overtones coming out to greet the world).

    October 17, 2014

    This Clip Very Much Gets to the Heart of What I Love about KEY & PEELE (thx @craftingmystyle!)

    i.e., that it is the funny, bi-racial TWILIGHT ZONE--which is kind of exactly the TWILIGHT ZONE reboot 21st Century America needs, in my humble.

    (via Aisha Harris at Slate)

    October 16, 2014

    Dept. of Halloween Decor: "Dark Night" Paper Doll Bats #diy @nostarch

    This past weekend my wife and son were making Halloween decorations (as I've mentioned before, my boy is somewhat enthusiastic about autumn) and demanded bat paper dolls.

    I'd struggled to make paper dolls as a kid (I'm not super visual), so I was pretty shocked when I managed to make these lil guys on the first try. Here are some pointers:

    1. FOLD THE PAPER: Cut a strip of paper (mine was 11 inches long--because it was loose-leaf writing paper--by ~2 inches tall). Accordion fold this strip an odd number of times. As you can see in Figure 1, this puts both your "open" ends on the same side of the little folded paper packet. That's sort of important, or you'll wind up with a trailing half-a-bat.
    2. CUT OUT HALF A BAT: Hold your paper packet with the "open" side to the left and the "fold side" to the right. Cut out the half-bat I've shown in Figure 2, noting that the tip of the wing (circled in red in both Figures 2 and 3) is blunt and goes off the edge of the packet. PRO-TIP: If you hold the packet wrong, with the "fold" side to the left, you end up with monstrous inverse-bats. If you hold it with the fold to the top or bottom, you get half-bat confetti.
    3. UNFOLD: Voila! You've got bat-swag! Note that the wingtip is blunt (circled in Figures 2 and 3), which is what makes it possible for all your bats to link together (highlighted by the dashed square in Figure 3).

    October 15, 2014

    See the "Southern Lights" from the Outside

    The thing getting hyped about this fantastic time-lapse footage from the International Space Station is the opportunity to see the Aurora Australis from above, but what gets me every time I watch this is how many freaking thunderstorms are happening on earth at any given time, and the breathtaking contrast between those chaotic blue lightning flashes and the static golden glow of human-made electrical networks.

    WATCH: A Camera Attached To The Space Station Captured This Rare Event Happening On Earth. [VIDEO]

    The last three auroras, the bright glows, are Aurora Austalis, going firstly over the Indian Ocean and approaching Australia, then over a wider space of the Indian Ocean, then somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. This project was featured on NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

    October 09, 2014

    If You Dug the Math of "The Traveling Salesman Solution," You'll Dig This ( #scifi @ccfinlay )

    This past summer The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction published my novelette "The Traveling Salesman Solution--which has generally been lauded for getting some hard math right[*] in the service of posing a totally non-mathematical ethical dilemma.

    If you're the sort of reader who dug that story--or would dig such a story--for the math, then you are gonna *love* this: A guy named Todd W. Schneider has put together a neat littler interactive web-app for solving instances of the Traveling Salesman Problem using simulated annealing.

    The Traveling Salesman with Simulated Annealing, R, and Shiny - Todd W. Schneider

    For folks who've read the story, you may wonder: Is this Todd guy gonna build a doomsday device now ('cause, naturally, that's what you do with computer hardware/software that solves the TSP). The answer is, "No," because his program doesn't *solve* the TSP, per se. The neat thing about simulated annealing is that it's a short cut for finding *good* solutions, not *optimum*, solutions. You save time by settling for something less than perfect (which, itself, is sort of a tidy lesson in trade-offs, ethical and otherwise). Very neat, but not the world-shaking all-purpose always-optimal TSP-solver that poor old Bryce built in the story.

    For more abut the story, you can check out this interview. Sadly, it's not available as an ebook yet (I've been busy), but you can order the print back issue directly from F&SF, or contact me directly and I'll see if I can hook you up with a PDF or something.

    (I got wind of Todd W. Schneider's simulated annealing TSP web app via The Atlantic's City Lab)

    Continue reading "If You Dug the Math of "The Traveling Salesman Solution," You'll Dig This ( #scifi @ccfinlay )" »

    October 06, 2014

    FUN #FACT: Time-lapse Videos of Babies Being Born Totally Makes Flies Want to Retch

    (one assumes, on account of the principles of symmetry and the Commutative Property of Inter-Species Disgust)

    (via @DavidGrann: Time-Lapse Of A Maggot Becoming A Fly - Digg)

    October 03, 2014

    ICYMI: I Hung Out with a Pretty Rad Goat

    I was doing a book event at a farmer's market early last month, before I got insanely sick. I don't *blame* the goat for my illness, but I'm just sayin' . . . aw, hell, I can't stay mad at this lil guy! Goat, I can't quit you!

    September 29, 2014

    I Am Depressed, So I Made This Swing #DIY

    I am depressed.

    I've been depressed and anxious for a couple days, because this is how my brain is, especially as the seasons change toward the tail-end of the year. The angle of the sun early and late in the day becomes more acute, your shadow stretches out in front of you like a wendigo. It's a harbinger of the gloom that will dominate the clock once fall finishes falling, and the cloud ceiling feels like it's about seven feet over your head, waiting to crush you.

    Once the sun starts getting low and skulky like that I begin to constantly feel like I'm about to tip over backward in a chair, like there's someone just behind me about to punch me in the back of the neck. It's unnerving, and constant, and so I'm anxious, and so I'm depressed.

    Normally I'd treat this depression with alcohol or coffee, but it's 9am and my stomach has been off and there's a point where you Have to Talk to Someone About Thus, Dude, and I'd prefer that not be today.

    So I made a new swing for my kids. The old one broke the other day, and I didn't take it down immediately, and my 8-year-old has subsequently been sort of clinging to the remainder and dangling in a vain attempt to swing, which is pretty pathetic, and also sort of eerie looking, like a sophomore-year interpretive dance of a public hanging.

    The new swing is a jankety-ass hack made from some junk from the garage (a length of 2" PVC, a length of nylon runner I used to use for rock climbing, back in during the Clinton Administration), but I feel somewhat better. The sun was a little higher in the sky by the time I finished, and so I felt less like my shadow was waiting to stab me in the back, so that helped. Also, there's something to be said for a cylindrical swing seat--it's more like a trapeze, and easier on my old butt. I'm sure the kids will come up with some new and dangerous way to take advantage of this new design.

    Anyway, I want to suggest this same mode of treatment to you, Gentle Readers:

    If you are feeling depressed or anxious, and it is not yet at the Point Where You Have to Talk to Your Doctor, Dude, make your kids a new swing out of garage junk. Because here's the thing: You'll probably feel at least a little better--on account you will have exercised your rugged individualism or done something physical or reformed the world in your image or tikkun olamed a smidge, or however your worldview best frames voluntary unpaid manual labor in or near the home. But even if you don't feel a damn bit better after you're done building your swing, your kids will still get home at the end of the day, and there'll be a new swing, and they'll be happy about that.

    And that alone will help. And all day you'll know this one fundamental truth: At the end of the day your kids will be happy because there's a new swing. And since you've increased the net daily happiness in the world, you have also increased the mean happiness enjoyed by any single human, even if only a smidge. By the magic of division, you're *technically* happier already.

    And, shit, by Internet standards, being *technically* happier--like being *technically* more qualified or deserving or right--is even better than being *actually* better. I think you could get round one VC funding on the basis of that math alone.

    But whatever. One way or the other, your kids have a new swing--and you've got about six hours left in the day that you can use that swing all you want with no one trying to horn in on it.

    September 24, 2014

    This is Superrad, but I'm Basically Overrun with Sexbot Jokes Right Now #EmbarrassmentOfPuerileRiches

    The most foreboding sentence in the video embedded below--in terms of the obvious teledildonic applications of this tech--has to be: "Predicting the behavior of soft robotic devices is difficult." Yikes!

    For reals, though, there is *a lot* of legit awesome here (both in mainstream R&D and homebrew garage mad-science)--as well as the only legitimately feasibly use of 3D printing I've yet seen suggested[*]

    Harvard Makes Soft Robotics Open-Source | Motherboard

    Robots, the classic symbol of the techno-future, are now bopping around in the suburban garages of most anyone with $40 or so to spend on parts and with a bit of programming acumen, or at least the desire/ability to learn a bit of code.

    Thanks to a new toolkit released by researchers at Harvard University, those garage robot tinkerers can now expand into the realm of "soft" robots, e.g. robots made to squish and deform like mechanical slugs or eels.

    Here's a cool lil vid of a pretty evolved example of "soft robotics." I think this little fella was even programmed to feel pain, regret, and ennui!

    Continue reading "This is Superrad, but I'm Basically Overrun with Sexbot Jokes Right Now #EmbarrassmentOfPuerileRiches" »


    About the Author

    David Erik Nelson is an award-winning science-fiction author and essayist. His fiction has appeared in Asimov's, The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded.

  • Find him online at www.davideriknelson.com
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