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To My Engineer Cousins…

An open letter to my technical siblings

Hi Engineers,

Does reading the technical prose in this blog enrage your orderly EE sensibilities?

If so, I will offer this modest (but not succinct) explication and then…. I bow-out quietly.

I’ve loved the glint and gleam  of hardware all my life. As a boy,  NASA was a more romantic concept  to me than anything literature had to offer.

I obtained my ham call letters at age 13 I dived into homebrew gear headfirst and have never really come up for air since. (Some engineers have interpreted this to mean that oxygen deprivation is the explanation for the ‘idiosyncrasies’ of my circuits)

I pursued an EE degree in college. This was back when it was only possible to dream of obtaining a 5532 if you had a government subsidy! I was diverted from the EE curriculum by a very forward thinking adviser who mentioned that  “These ‘computer’ things are lookin’ like they might be a going concern someday”  On this advice I veered from the soldering iron to the keypad, and for good and ill, I still manage to get paid, three decades hence.

I have formal training and I know the fundamentals.  More importantly a lifetime in real-world,  applied technical design has given me the ability to think like an engineer….. when I WANT to.

Again harking back to my boyhood, I remember distinctly that at age 9, I made no distinction between great science and great art. I now realize that all the subsequent education I got imposed a distinction on the two that is artificial and unsupported by my life experience.

I find the practice of free improvisation in music or poetry can be applied to making a circuit without a ‘plan’ .  I’m not flailing randomly* , but neither am I proscribing the outcomes of my invention with a premeditated objective. I often examine what I’ve just created on my whiteboard and realize that ‘oops, That’s wrong!’ …and then I leave it just as it is,  if the results are consistently amusing me.

A couple of early, very painful  ‘ones that got away’-experiences resulting from ‘corrections’ I made, taught me more about linear analog design than ANY course I took in college. (They also made me a relentless documenter)  I learned that the march of progress toward the ‘state of the art’ is a pleasant illusion. As an example I cite the fact that components like vacuum-tubes and germanium diodes have been dismissed as ‘obsolete’ for decades.  Yet, nothing  using the superseding technology yields results that are universally accepted as comparable by the users of those technologies. The truth of the matter about ‘progress’ in electronics is that its ‘march’ is more of melee of sideways leaps  (I always picture a mass escape from a flea circus!) that abruptly abandons potentially sublime discoveries in a scatterbrained pursuit of expediency , cheapness, and convenience. The result is that a LOT of really useful and beautiful applications are still out there to be discovered or refined.

Furthermore , while the processes and practice of science and art may be very closely related, artistic and scientific  goals couldn’t be more divergent. The former is founded on subjectivity while the latter is profoundly dependent on objectivity. This makes the pursuit of superlative art using the practices of technological development a very unwieldy hybrid.

My designs are, almost always, poster-children of this unwieldiness. If that bothers you then I have the following responses:

–          I understand! I really do! … and I can empathize with you. Some of the goofy things I’ve implemented still irritate the engineer in me. But the artist in me trumps that irritation when these goofy gadgets deliver the aesthetic goods.

–          Look away! Seriously, exit this website! It is a cesspool of inexact terminology, seat-of-the-pants aeronautics, irresponsible oversimplifications , inappropriate analogies, semantic quicksand, and unspeakable engineering heresies.

–          If you are still here, and you can see an improvement (especially in durability or robustness) that does not compromise the output of these odd mutants. Please know that I’d LOVE to consider what you propose and welcome all well-meant suggestions with genuine collegial gratitude.

And in closing. If you are still reading this, I salute your sacred curiosity. It will reward you in many ways.

Perhaps you are new to the enterprise of using electronics to make art. If so, let me point you to one of my major inspirations. Research the biography, music, and work of the late David Tudor. He is too easily overlooked nowadays. His genius was in using electronics in unconventional ,  and ‘crude’ but remarkably fertile and imaginative ways. The result was art that startled me. It is as fresh, sophisticated and visionary as his approach to technology by which it was created.  Happy hunting!




*as in circuit-bending