spinning the disco ball
Friday, January 17 2003
In the process of reducing the clutter of my laboratory, I've been trying to come up with a way to hang the eighteen inch disco ball that Gretchen got me as a Christmas present. I didn't want to just hang it, of course, I wanted to hang it in such a way that it could be spun. But this presented all sorts of difficulties. What sort of pivot should I use? How should the pivot be motorized? Lucky for me, I have lots of assorted mechanical devices whose capabilities I could sample. The most likely candidates were old hard disk drives, which feature exceptionally robust platter motors that can be used as pivots. I couldn't actually drive something as heavy as a disco ball with a hard drive platter motor - it would spin far too quickly and would be too weak anyway. But I could drive the platter motor with another motor using a rubber band as a belt. Today I installed a system where the disco ball hung from a five and a quarter inch hard drive platter motor that was spun by a small DC tape deck motor. But I kept running into trouble with the alignment of the shafts (the belts tended to slip off after a couple hours) and the DC motor proved to be too weak and too fast, even with the gearing I was using). Eventually I added another spindle so I could gear the drive system down even more, but by this time the DC motor was starting to get gummed-up by a sticky black substance from the tape drive (it had evidently been applied to increase the friction between the drive shafts and the belts). I attributed part of my trouble to the lack of appropriate rubber bands. It might seem surprising to the reader that I could find virtually no rubber bands in the entire house. When I eventually asked Gretchen if she knew the whereabouts of any rubber bands, she rooted around and found a large cache of them. But they were all exactly the same size, a little too small.
Most of my day was taken up with a visit to Darren's house in "downtown" Kingston, the first of my tutoring sessions. Darren lives in a cozy neighborhood at the base of some spectacular Hudson River bluffs. Unlike in the Rondout area, here the buildings all appear to be in reasonably-good repair. Before we got started on computer stuff, Darren took me on a tour of the three-story house. Much of it was in a state of near-finish, with the absence of such niceties as moulding. Most of the rooms were in a cluttered state, with much of the clutter being comprised of toys from Darren's two pre-teen children. Our tour concluded up on the roof. Darren said that he had a plan to add another floor to his house so he could see the Hudson. In the meantime, he pointed out the houses of his various neighbors, most of whom were either related to each other or owned several other houses sprinkled here and there throughout the neighborhood. With real estate as cheap as it is in Kingston, no one who owns it is happy with just one house.
Though Darren had all the equipment he needed for a full and enriching computer experience (including Road Runner cable), he didn't know enough to get going. Compounding his trouble was the noisy clutter of his default Windows XP setup. I hadn't had the experience of using a non-lite version of KaZaA in many months, but when I saw the non-stop barrage of popups (and their offspring) that KaZaA fired at his tiny desktop, I could see why Darren had never been able to use it for anything. Between KaZaA and pop-up-happy Internet Explorer, his computer had been completely hijacked, a tawdry Las Vegas strip unleashed in his office. How could anyone find the library or post office amid such clamoring distraction? My first tasks were to replace his IE icon with a Mozilla equivalent and then KaZaA with the trojan-spyware-and-popup-free KaZaA Lite. Now that his computer could actually be used for something, I taught him how to search for replacement desktop wallpaper in Google. He'd never used Google before, mostly because there's no mention of this indispensible search engine on the Road Runner homepage (which he didn't even know he could replace as his default web location).
Meanwhile, Darren's kids and their various friends came noisily bubbling into and out of the house. Sometimes they could be heard off in the living room playing a monotonously-soundtracked video game. Other times they'd complain about being "bored" and come sit in Daddy's lap to see what cool things we were doing. Darren showed himself to be a calm and kindly father, though in contrast the kids' mother seemed unfriendly and insecure. Most of the things she said while I was there were took the form of demands lodged in a loud, angry voice.
After providing a crash course in Acid Pro and CoolEdit 2000, it was about dinner time, so I headed off to other things. Darren was most pleased with today's tutorial, saying he had learned "a lot."
On the way home, I stopped at Target and bought three $10 laser pointers for use in my disco ball light show.
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