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Primed For A Scream (In a manly baritone)

Last night, whilst stumbling, tripping, crashing through the pitch dark garage on my way to the broken breaker box, I encountered a flashlight-lit terror that evoked a (manly baritone) scream, and flashed me back to my most frightening Doom3 nightmares.  It was just a flash, a brief peripheral glance at an odd something that pulled my Maglite back for a second look. And then, “YAAaaa!!”

Under normal circumstances the average person gets one or two really good scares a year.  I don’t mean forgetting your wife’s birthday, or that brief windup before your wet dog lets loose with a room-showering shake.  I’m talking about the type of scare that punches you right in the chest and laughs.  Stripped of reason, your humanity dives for cover as feral you screams (in a manly baritone), and for a split second you’re stuck in a latent subroutine that was originally written to prevent your ancient ancestors from getting squished by Woolly Mammoth.

White House Department Store - New Albany, Indiana

Twice in as many months I’ve experienced that level of scare.  This was the second. The first occurred soon after a troupe of antique canvas mannequins came home from an auction to live with us.  They’re six original occupants of “The White House” department store in New Albany, closed some thirty years now.

The mannequin “Dad”, possibly angered over what may have appeared to him as an indiscretion shared by his wife and I as I brought her in off the truck, but was in fact purely innocent and the result of me attempting to juggle too many 40lb antique mannequins at once, lay in wait behind the living room recliner.

Being something of a night owl, it’s not uncommon to find me rummaging through the pantry at 4:00am in search of a monster chomp.  I was on just such an expedition, and in the throes of rummaging, when I noticed out of the corner of my eye someone leering from behind the recliner.  Now, I had seen my wife put that mannequin there not 12 hours earlier, but that didn’t silence my (manly baritone) shriek, nor did it prevent my sideways leap directly into the pantry. The crash of collapsing shelves and foodstuffs set off a collateral panic through the rest of the household.

All members of the Mannequin family now live in the basement where they have lately formed a jazz group and seem to be happy.  Especially the “Dad” who I swear appears smug, as if to say, “Touch my wife again, pal, and I’ll rip my arm off and beat you with it.”

In any case, below is the essential tableau that sent me vaulting sideways over the lawnmower in my garage last night.

If you’ve never played Doom3 before, then you should get a copy and set aside a Saturday very soon to have some really scary fun.

SPZBGV2.0 Sneak Peek – Simple, Realistic Skeletal Fingers

Spookyblue Groundbreaker“When will the SPZBGV2.0 be posted?” We’ve fielded this question a dozen or so times (this week), and the simple answer is, “when it’s done.”

In all honesty, it turns out that we either forgot how to take pictures last year, or we misplaced the memory card that held all the good photographs that were intended for the new guide. You would think that, out of 200 odd images, someone would have noticed that the auto-focus was having a bad week.

In any case, and being the do-it-yourself types, manual focus is SOP these days. We’re slowly rebuilding the ZBG media library, and even toying with adding video clips. So, thanks go out to the die-hards for reminding us (often) that time keeps on slippin’ slippin’ slippin’ into the future. We’re on it, and confidence is high that the SPZBGV2.0 will almost certainly be finished at some point.

An addition that wasn’t in our original version is the evolution of realistic skeleton hands. These are made of individual wrist and finger bones, constructed from -what else- newspaper and duct tape. Here’s a sneak peek.

How do flashing LEDs work?

In a comfortably cobwebby place there hangs a cork-board. And pinned to it, amidst a camp of construction-paper bats, Count Chocula’s signed mini-poster, and a drawing of the Mach 5, is a crumpled piece of notebook paper. Smudged pencil scribblings cover both sides in an apparently continuous scrawl, but look closer and you’ll see it’s a list; a catalog of sorts.

It’s late August, Labor Day is coming, and I’m staring at a project list that has burst out the garage door and plowed through the overgrown hedge at the end of the driveway. As I stand here watching, it’s roughing up a rabbit in the neighbor’s yard.

Still, if I’ve learned anything from Kristy McNichol and a herd of ABC After School Specials, it’s that you have to stand up to a bully. Don’t let him spoil your fun because the only real power he has over you is what you give him. Oh, and never ever let the ranger dart the baby deer you’re nursing back to health.

In other words, sometimes you’ve just gotta chuck the plan and follow your nose. To illustrate the point, I present a note we received this morning.

Our friend Wlbrid writes, “I was looking at your SpookyFire flashing LED project and I was wondering, wouldn’t all the LEDs flash simultaneously (instead of being out of synch / semi-random) because they will all be turned on at the same time?”

What follows is an excellent example of dropping everything, tearing across the room, yelling “squirrel!”, and jumping out the window.

Dear Wlbrid,

Excellent question! A flashing LED contains a very tiny integrated circuit called a multivibrator. A multivibrator circuit is used in a variety of applications that require switching between two states, and there are three distinct types: astable, monostable, and bistable.

The astable multivibrator is stable in neither state (states are “on” and “off”) so it oscillates back and forth continuously. The period of oscillation (frequency of change) is determined by a built-in capacitor/resistor network. A monostable multivibrator, or “one-shot”, is only stable in one state for a period of time. After it is triggered, it will eventually return to its stable state, which makes it really handy as a programmable timing circuit. A bistable multivibrator, or “flip-flop” is equally stable in both states. When it’s triggered, it will flip states and stay there.

All of this can be accomplished in the astable circuit with a pair of transistors, two capacitors, and four resistors -discrete components that only the very very nerdy, old-style Radio Shack types (cough) have squirreled away in their garages and shops in neat rows of little plastic bins.

The first vacuum tube multivibrator circuit was completed in 1919 by radio and electronics pioneer William H. Eccles and his trusty side-kick Frank Jordan.1 Jordan had a side-business in thermogalvanometers2, but… well, he got really into the 20s, and no one ever saw him again.

But a flip-flop isn’t what’s inside a flashing LED, so once again Mr. Jordan is relegated to the mists of obscurity. Your garden variety Spookyfire Blob flashing LED has built into it a tiny little astable multivibrator circuit. The thing about these guys is that whether they’re constructed out of massive discrete components or microscopic little doo-hickeys, they’re not very accurate. I mentioned earlier that the duty cycle can be changed by varying the resistance and/or capacitance values in the circuit. If these components vary in the least bit from one circuit to another (or one LED to another), their frequency relative to one another will be slightly different.

Since these components (both big and little) often have 5%, 10%, and even 20% tolerances (the % difference between the stated and actual value of a component), you now have your answer.

Why don’t all the LEDs in a Spookyfire Blob just blink on and off together? Blame F.W. Jordan.

1 wikipedia – multivibrators
2 wikipedia – F.W. Jordan

Peace and quiet and ghosts

PeaceIt’s your old pal Spook here (Yep, I’m still around). I figured we’d take a short break to give the two readers that I still have some relief from the dull ache that has become the Blue Aliens saga.

Lightning struck a utility pole last night and plunged Snug Harbor into the 1700’s. It was right before sunset and the weather was still unsettled after a nice little thunderstorm.

Fingers of purple lightning chased each other across the sky, playing hide and seek among the low scudding clouds. Dark windows all up and down the street looked startled, black but for the occasional bobbing flicker of a flashlight or candle within.

Clumps of saturated leaves, tugged by a mischievous breeze at just the right moment, dumped buckets of cold rainwater on unsuspecting passersby. Laughter echoed across the hollow as neighbors stepped out onto front porches to smell the fresh, wet, wonderful air and greet one another like relatives at a family reunion.

Hurricane lamps were brought down from attics, hastily dusted off, and fitted with beeswax candles. The sharp acrid smell of burning hair lasted for just a moment while the cobwebs burned off.

The gathering gloom of night strode confidently into the open to fill every space inky black, but it was frustrated by these small glowing pockets of orange warmth. Elated shadows danced up walls, frolicked on ceilings, and played peek-a-boo from the window curtains. Long ignored, these creatures of imagination were suddenly, gloriously, hilariously brought back to life again.

Sitting at my desk, I breathed in the clean night air through the open window. The dogs were safely tucked in and the cat sat staring at me in her magisterial fashion, perched at the very edge of the desk like cats do. I opened a spiral notebook of crisp paper, slid one of the many candles a little closer, and picked up my Ticonderoga pencil.

It was time to write a ghost story.