Sun, 22 Mar 2020

Postcards to Voters

— SjG @ 1:49 pm

To get people out to the polls, the numbers are pretty clear. Canvassing is the most effective technique to get people engaged. After that it’s not exactly clear whether texting, phone banking, or sending post-cards is next best.

But hey, Covid-19 means no canvassing right now. I hate telephones, so postcarding seems like a next-best approach. A lot of campaigns have their own systems set up, or you can contact Postcards to Voters and join up with their efforts.

You can get a lot of nice designs through a cooperation between Postcards to Voters and My Postcards. I wanted to come up with a few designs of my own. The individual files can be sent to a printing service and printed on 4″x6″ postcards, or you can download the combined version where they were squished to fit on a single sheet if you want to try printing them yourself.

Click on any of the images below to download a 300dpi PDF version.

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Mon, 16 Dec 2019

Maccabeam™ Part 6: Final Project Gallery

— SjG @ 9:38 pm

Part 1: Simulating candle-light with pseudo-random sequences
Part 2: Some physical structure
Part 3: When Exactly is Hanukkah?
Part 4: A Typical Programming Problem
Part 5: Oil and Lasers

So here we are, six days away from Hanukkah, and the first build of the Maccabeam™ is complete!

Below is video of it running, and a general build gallery. But before that, here are some thoughts and lessons that will go into Version 2 (and/or a kit, if that ever happens).

I build things the old-fashioned way. Everything’s soldered onto a breadboard with finicky little wires (I used wire-wrap wire, since it’s fine and easy to twist around). While this is fine for prototyping, it’s not great for a finished product. I need to learn to use a design app, and have printed circuit boards made.

A printed circuit board would make the positioning of the LEDs better, too. I bought the LEDs on a long strip, which I then cut and wired together. If I used surface-mount LEDs, I wouldn’t have to worry about the width of the strip and making each little segment fit in the channel. It sounds simple, but in the corner areas, it got congested.

The next design won’t just use a printed circuit board. It will also use standard connectors so the disparate parts may be added and removed easily while building.

Back to the LEDs. The decision to put the LEDs behind a layer of frosted acrylic to make the light more diffuse may not have been the right one either. When the “marching ants” animation is running to indicate the shamos lighting the other candles, the diffuse light bleeds over into the neighboring star-shaped windows, disrupting the flow of the animation a little.

The physical hanukkiah, all the laser-cut wood, works well, but it makes access to the internal components very difficult. The screws hold it together, but there’s enough play in the screw-holes that I supplemented with hot glue. When I had to replace one of the laser diodes that burned out, I had to tear the whole thing down. The next design should be more maintainable.

Speaking of lasers, the inexpensive laser diodes I purchased online are not really very good. The brightness varies dramatically! Now, they’re representing candles, so the variation is not a show-stopper, but the dimmer lasers are not bright enough for a well-lit room. You can see this in the video below.

I didn’t write about how I programmed the “music.” To make a long story short, I found sheet music of “Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah” online. Using the Wikipedia article on reading music, I translated the sheet music into the notes. The LCD display has a small piezo-electric speaker on it, and you can play notes by sending special codes on the serial lines to the display. So I took the notes, and translated them into those codes. It’s what the kids call chip-tunes, but perhaps next time I’ll go for the Teensy audio board, and play a stereophonic MP3 off of a memory card.

Another thing I didn’t write about was simulation mode. When the silver switch on the left is thrown to the left, the circuit gets time and date from the GPS unit. But I couldn’t wait for Hanukkah to test my code! Given the number of bugs found and fixed during development, it would have taken me several centuries worth of Hanukkahs to get it right. Therefore, I implemented a simulation mode. When the switch is to the right, we magically locate ourselves in Jerusalem, and set the time just before sundown on the 24th of Kislev. This allowed me to endlessly watch Hannukah arrive, and get the animated displays to my satisfaction.

Anyway, the results are below! We’ll see if it’s satisfactory in just a few days…

View of the LCD Display (Simulation mode)
Start of Day 6 (Simulation mode)

Thu, 12 Dec 2019

Maccabeam™ Part 5: Oil and Lasers

— SjG @ 1:00 am

Part 1: Simulating candle-light with pseudo-random sequences
Part 2: Some physical structure
Part 3: When Exactly is Hanukkah?
Part 4: A Typical Programming Problem

So, remember how the one of the original requirements was that the lasers would illuminate vials of olive oil? Now that I’m at the point where I have the lasers working, I’ve discovered that olive oil is more transparent than I anticipated. In my mind, I kind of saw the oil illuminating evenly from the laser light when, in fact, it just creates a single faint beam like this:

Laser illuminating a full vial of oil

So, I could see that I got nice reflection and illumination off of the air-oil boundary up top, so the next thing I tried was filling the vial only partially:

Laser illuminating a partially full vial of oil

That’s better, but still lacks something. The next idea was to mix some very fine glitter into the oil:

Laser illuminating a partially full vial of oil with glitter

I like this! I think it looks really nice, but there’s still a problem. The glitter lamps and lava lamps that inspired this approach use convective forces to keep the glitter or wax moving inside the lamp. In my system, the laser light doesn’t transfer any measurable thermal energy to the oil, which means that there is no convection or other currents in the oil. So it looks good for a while, but as the next video shows, after ten minutes, we’re pretty much back to just a vial of oil — but with a clump of glitter on the bottom occluding the light.

Ten minutes later: Laser illuminating a partially full vial of oil with glitter

So how do you make it so glitter doesn’t sink to the bottom of the oil? Introduce thickeners! In this case, I blended in some corn starch, carefully heating it for maximum absorbtion. Now, not only is this getting way away from the original idea of illuminated oil (corn starch in the menorah probably violates halacha somehow), but I was unable to do it in a way that didn’t just cloud up and look icky.

Laser illuminating a partially full vial of oil, corn starch, and glitter

Not only does that look like a distressing medical sample, it still suffers from the same problem. The thickener slows the sinking of the glitter, but doesn’t prevent it entirely. After half an hour, it’s just murky soup:

Half an hour later: laser illuminating icky blend of corn starch and oil.

Going back to the observation from the beginning, I’d got nice scattering from the interface of the oil and the air. Maybe I’d get the same nice scattering from an interface between crystal and the oil. So I filled the vial with a few faceted bits of crystal to see:

Laser illuminating a vial containing oil and crystal beads

It’s a lot nicer than the oil/corn starch blend, but still not spectacular. Still, it fels like moving in the right direction. The last experiment was to fill up the vial with small beads made of ordinary glass and the oil. I chose 11/0 (2.2 mm) beads, thinking smaller beads meant more interfaces for scattering:

Laser illuminating a vial of glass beads and oil

Finally! While it’s not perfect, I like this look, and the source of the light scattering will not sink into oblivion any time soon. Coming up with an explanation is a little harder. Do the beads represent the sands of the Judean desert? Shattered windows of the Second Temple? Did they even have glass windows at that time? Well, regardless of explanation, this is what I will use for the final version.

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Mon, 9 Dec 2019

Maccabeam™ Part 4: A Typical Code Problem

— SjG @ 8:43 pm

Part 1: Simulating candle-light with pseudo-random sequences
Part 2: Some physical structure
Part 3: When Exactly is Hanukkah?

The build is coming together.

One discovery was a sneaky bug in the date conversion code. originally, the code had used standard C library for doing some time manipulations. These functions like mktime are used to convert from a structure containing year, month, day, hour, minute, and second to a single large number of seconds. Similarly, there’s gmtime which does the reverse. One nice thing about these functions is that you can use them for arithmetic, e.g., pass mktime all the regular values but a negative value for the hour, then convert back with gmtime to get the computed time. If you want to do the arithmetic yourself, you have to handle all of the boundaries (e.g., if you’ve rolled back into the past hour … or day … etc.)

Under the hood, mktime is doing something like what was described in the last posting about date conversions: it computes a number of seconds from the epoch given the year, month, day, hour etc. The epoch is an arbitrarily defined date and time standard. In most C / Unix environments, it’s the midnight of 1 January 1970 (e.g., the 0th second of 1970). The gmtime function does the reverse, converting a number of seconds from that epoch into a date and time.

I use this feature when computing sunrise and sunset times. Paul Schylter’s suntime.c returns a number of hours and/or minutes to each event. If the sun has already risen on the day you’re computing, for example, you’ll get a negative hour and or minute for sunrise. If the sunrise has not yet happened, the values are positive. I assembling times by adding those offsets to the current hour and minute, and passing the values to mktime. I didn’t have to worry whether the value was still the same hour or day, because mktime sorts it all out for me.

Somewhere along the line, however, I switched from the standard C library for time to using Paul Stoffregen’s Time Library. I did this because it integrates nicely with the GPS. What I neglected was that in C’s standard library, the components of the time structure are integers but in Paul’s library they are unsigned 8-bit integers.

For simple 8-bit integers, the highest-order bit is used for the sign of the number. In other words, a binary value of 00000011 would represent 3, and 10000011 would represent -3. That way, an 8-bit integer can represent values from -127 to 127. An unsigned 8-bit integer, however, uses the highest-order bit like any other bit, so 00000011 would still represent 3, but 10000011 would represent 131!

All this to say, my trick of passing possibly-negative hours or minutes into the equivalent of mktime was not doing what I had thought! When I thought I was computing the time of sunrise that was 7 hours earlier by passing hour - 7, I was actually computing the time as hour + 135. It turns out that tweaking Paul’s library to supports signed integers was simple.

The moral of this particular story is pay attention when changing C libraries.

Sat, 26 Oct 2019

Maccabeam™ Part 3: When Exactly is Hanukkah?

— SjG @ 4:37 pm

Part 1: Simulating candle-light with pseudo-random sequences
Part 2: Some physical structure

I want the Maccabeam to automatically determine when to illuminate the lasers (“candles”). Specifically, they should light at the beginning of each night of Hanukkah, and burn for about an hour. So how will it know when the time comes?

One of the hardware components f the Maccabeam is a GPS receiver. The specific model I got is this now discontinued model, but there are many equivalents. They’re miraculous little circuits: they have an antenna with which they receive signals from a constellation of sophisticated satellites, and they spit out a stream of information. This specific model has a 9600 baud serial output that provides timestamp and coordinate information, along with a highly-precise pulse-per-second (PPS) signal. To oversimplify, my software running on the Teensy gets very accurate time, date, and location information.

So, I know what time and date it is. Problem solved, right? Not exactly. Hanukkah is a holiday that falls on the same day every year — on the Hebrew calendar that is: the 25th of Kislev. The GPS yields data on what’s the usual, every-day calendar in the US, also known as the Gregorian calendar. I can find December in the Gregorian calendar, but not Kislev! Still, given that both calendars are used to measure time, it should be pretty easy to convert between them, right? Once again, not exactly.

The Gregorian Calendar is a Solar calendar, meaning that the year is tied to the position of the earth relative to the sun; one revolution around the sun is one year. The solar year is divided into months by set numbers of days, so a given month will find Earth in the same orbital position every year. The Hebrew calendar, however, is a Lunar-Solar calendar. That means the year is based on the months, and months are tied to the phase of the moon. What makes a Lunar-Solar calendar complicated is that the Solar year is not evenly divisible by the moon phases. A lunation or lunar phase (meaning from full moon to full moon, or new moon to new moon) is roughly 29.5 days, while the solar year is close to 365.24 days. That gives us 12.38 lunar cycles per year. You can see how the Gregorian calendar adding an extra day every four years (with a few exceptions) keeps the year in sync with the seasons. The Hebrew calendar uses a similar approach, except it’s a leap month! This month gets added on a complicated schedule, which works out to roughly seven times every nineteen years. This ensures a given month will fall in a given season. Interestingly, not all calendars are concerned with having months correlated with specific seasons. For example, the Islamic calendar is purely lunar, which is why Islamic holidays are not tied to seasons and they drift relative to the Gregorian calendar.

In any case, for the Maccabeam to work, I need an algorithm to convert from the Gregorian calendar to the Hebrew calendar. The usual approach is to find a specific moment in time, figure out the date in both calendar systems, figure out how many days have passed since that specified moment, and then calculate months and days from that number. I relied upon the authoritative technical book on the subject, Calendrical Calculations by Nachum Dershowitz and Edward Reingold. They discuss this conversion problem in enormous detail, and provide LISP code [!] to convert between many different kinds of calendars (Gregorian, Julian, Coptic and Ethiopic, Islamic, Hebrew, Ecclesiastical, Old Hindu, Mayan, Balinese Pawukon, Persian, Baha’i, French Revolutionary, Chinese, modern Hindu, and Tibetan). They also provide some thought-provoking discussion of units of timekeeping (what does a “day” mean for a someone living above the Arctic Circle, for example, or why would someone who lived on the Equator care about solstices, or even what’s the purpose of units like the week?)

To make a long story short, I used their algorithms to implement a C version of the conversions between Hebrew and Gregorian calendars. So now I’m set, right? Well, still not quite. There are still a few problems.

First, we have to go back to the realization that measuring time is complicated, and even simple concepts like “days” are not simple. In the Gregorian calendar, the start of the day is at a point in time we call midnight, 12:00 AM. Historically, this was set a the halfway point between sunset and sunrise (or twelve hours from the Sun’s highest position in the sky), but now it’s more abstract. We have time zones loosely based on a geographic offset from Greenwich England. Seems … uh … simple. The Hebrew calendar, however, doesn’t use midnight as the point when the date changes — instead, the day begins at sundown. So even if I know the exact date on the Gregorian calendar, it’s one of two days in the Hebrew calendar depending on whether the sun has set or not.

Oh, and one other problem. The GPS gives me time and date, but not the time and date for my specific location. No, it’s giving me time in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is the time at 0º longitude1. To go from UTC to local time, you need to know your time zone. For example, if it’s midnight at UTC, it’s still the previous date in Los Angeles, but you can’t know that unless you have a map that tells you how many hours Los Angeles is offset from UTC. Similarly, if you’re east of the 0º longitude, for certain hours you will be a day ahead of UTC.

Time zones are quite a thing. If you want to know whether a programmer has ever had to deal with them, just say something like “my code works prefectly except in Nepal” and see if they start shedding tears and muttering about UTC + 5.75. Meanwhile, I’m in Los Angeles. Time for me is either 7 or 8 hours behind2 UTC depending on whether it’s Daylight Saving Time or Standard Time. Oh yes, another complication! When you mix Daylight Savings Time into the equation, you discover you need to know your political boundary down to the county level to know whether to shift an hour or not!

There are code libraries where you enter your latitude and longitude, and they will tell you the time zone and whether or not DST is in effect. These libraries get updated frequently, and they are not small. They will not fit in the memory of my Teensy. But all is not lost! Remember that the Hebrew day starts at sundown? So we don’t have to know the local clock time, we need to know the local sunset time. Given your coordinates and the time at UTC, you can compute sunrise and sunset times. Before we get too confident and start thinking this is perfectly straightforward, let’s note that there are multiple definitions of sunset. Technically, it’s defined as when the upper edge of the sun disk is behind the curve of the earth, but atmospheric refraction makes the sun visible even when it’s past that mark. When you see the sun set, it can actually be several degrees beyond that point. That’s why there are different definitions of civic, nautical, and astronomical twilight. Still, for simplicity’s sake, we’ll use geometric sunset.

Given the date and time at UTC and the sunrise/sunset time locally, you can figure out if it’s the same Hebrew day without needing to know anything about time zones or daylight savings time. With code that gives the sunrise and sunset times in UTC for your location, you can calculate sunrise and sunset times for for the current date, the previous date, and the next date. Then you can figure out which of those events have passed, and which are yet to occur. If it’s before sunset of the previous UTC date, you subtract one. If it’s after the sunset of the current UTC date, you add one.

In any case, I used Paul Schylter’s sunriseset.c library to compute the geometric sunset, and then figure out if I need to add or subtract from the date after converting. So now I can compute the correct Hebrew date, and I can also compute the number of hours and minutes to sundown. So if it’s the 24th of Kislev, I can count down the hours and minutes until the date clicks over to the 25th, and Hanukkah begins. Hooray! We now know when it’s Hannukah!

1 Strictly speaking, UTC is not exactly the time at 0º, but is kept within a second or so of it. For my purposes, I consider it the same.

2 This is often confusing, because UTC is 7 or 8 hours ahead of Los Angeles time, but the notation is UTC-7 or UTC-8, which might make you think Los Angeles is ahead. But it’s clearer when you look at the math, e.g., when it’s say 18:00 UTC, it’s 10:00 PST.