Here's a blast from the past soldersesh from last year with our special guest, Mark Smith! Mark is a software developer by profession, an amateur radio expert by choice, and a nerd by fate. Mark is passionate about all things HAM radio and in the first highlight video, he goes over just what exactly ham/amateur radio is and is used for. He grew up with the old school TRS-80 and PC Jr. computers and was encouraged from a young age to build, code, and tinker! After college, Mark became involved in a local security and hacking club, SLOwhiterabbit, which hosted fun scavenger hunts with QR codes and private keys! He was also an avid and frequent attendee at DEFCON (the largest hacking and security conference), where he participated in the birth of the #badgelife and even has the first badge from DEFCON 14!
You can find Mark on Twitter and YouTube to keep up with him and find out what he's working now!
(2:06 – 9:36) What is HAM Radio?
Carrie: I know pretty much nothing about ham radio. So, I have so many questions about it. First of all, tell us about how you got into ham radio.
Mark: That is an interesting one.
Carrie: I guess maybe we should actually back up and do a brief overview of what ham radio is.
Mark: So, amateur radio, ham is– it's not a derogatory term, but it is an unofficial term. The proper term [is amateur radio] we're going to be proper, stick your pinky up.
Carrie: Hang on, I'll drink my tea because I'm double fisting with tea and beer because that’s how you do it.
Mark: Uppers and downers.
Mark: Amateur radio is a way for non-commercial entities, individuals, people like me, to be able to experiment with radio. There are a billion and a half different things you can do in ham radio. So, when people say, what do you do with ham radio? One of our favorite phrases is that it is a hobby of a thousand hobbies because there are so many different things that you can do with it. Anything from short range, and by short range I mean miles to tens of miles to hundreds of miles in the absolute best case. If you think of an FRS radio, like you see kids running around the neighborhood with, like that, but on steroids. To the longer-range stuff, which is the lower frequencies ironically called high-frequency, HF. So, the HF range are longer wave lengths and bigger antennas, lower frequencies. And they are the kinds of waves that can bounce around the world, literally.
Carrie: It can like bounce off the atmosphere.
Mark: Yeah, and come back down again, thousands of miles away.
Carrie: Which is just super cool. And you actually can talk to people who are outside of line of sight of the antennas.
Mark: The VHF/UHF [very high frequency and ultra-high frequency] stuff is mostly line of sight and there's asterisks there because there are asterisks on all of this. There are exceptions to everything I'm about to tell you. But for the most part, the VHF/UHF stuff is short range line of sight. Typically, we'll use a what's called a repeater. It's a radio that you stick on a mountain top or on top of a building that receives a signal and then rebroadcasts it. So, the obligatory drawing is, think of a mountain and you got a person over here with a radio and a person over here with a radio. They can't talk directly to each other, but they can both talk to the top. So, repeaters are useful. HF is the direct person to person stuff. That's the long-range stuff. I do all of it. Both of those. Some people only do one, some people only do the other. These are just the two kinds of entry, simple to explain things, there are a jillion other things you can do with ham radio. So, what is ham radio? It is a kind of an internationally defined thing. The rules are not exactly the same in all the different countries, but most countries have something that is called amateur radio with the intention of being able to talk to other amateurs, either in the same country and/or other countries as well.
Mark: The whole point of amateur radio, the reason the governments still do it is because we… I'm going to get this wrong and I'm sure people are going to correct me… but the idea is, we are supposed to be experimenting. In the early days of radio in the early to mid-20th century, a lot of the new advancements in radio technology came out of amateurs, just playing around with stuff. Single side band and even AHAB [all hazardous alert broadcasting], all that kind of stuff came out of amateurs experimenting with it. Even now, a lot of new technology comes out of the amateur radio community. CDMA [code-division multiple access], some of the early cell phone technology wasn't actually experimented with in amateur radio, but an amateur radio operator is the one who developed it and used his knowledge from amateur radio to develop that. I can't remember the guy's name, but he's a very active ham. Fun story, he's also the guy who wrote ProComm, if any of you from the old BBS [bulletin board systems] days in the 80’s and 90’s, ProComm was a DOS terminal emulator – same guy. Anyway, experimentation to come up with new technologies.
Mark: We're also very good in emergencies because none of the stuff that we do requires any infrastructure, right? It doesn't require a telephone line. It doesn't require internet. Again, asterisk, we're getting into things that does make use of that sort of stuff, but the basis of the technology doesn't require any infrastructure. So, when the shit hits the fan, I can swear on this live stream! I can't swear on my other ones, but she told me it was okay. So, when the shit hits the fan and your cell networks are down or the Internet's down, or you don't have power or whatever, amateur radio operators are there, and they can communicate. We'll get called out when there’s earthquakes, you know, we’re in California so earthquakes are our natural disaster. But Red Cross will call us out and have us do communications for them and stuff like that.
Carrie: Yeah. It's super interesting. So, growing up in the USVI, U.S. Virgin Islands territory, it is part of the United States. It's really interesting because the radio played a much bigger role in even just person to person communications and community communications than it necessarily does here, I would say. Even the FM stations, right? When there was a hurricane, everybody would be broadcasting for as long as they could kind of thing, just updates. People would call into the radio station if they still had telephone to report on what was going on, on different islands and on different parts of the island. It’s really weird to me that the radio here does not. There's never anything about if there's a local fire, there's just not even anything on the local radio stations about that. I probably have to go to AM and there's probably some AM band that's the emergency one that I don't know about, but it's just odd for me that it seems like here radio is just not used in that way.
Mark: Our broadcast radio, in this area especially, doesn't have a lot of local ownership; it's produced locally, but it's all owned by Clear Channel and whatever else. So, the programming is done elsewhere. There are a few exceptions to that, KVEC… I can't remember whether KVEC is local still or not.
(1:13:55 – 1:20:15) Badge Life and DEFCON
Mark: Badges, badge life. Alright!
Carrie: Badges are super cool. We like doing little badges around here. Our badges are typically very simple and more kind of beginning soldering kit focused and are just fun, little graphics.
Mark: “I Voted”. This is one of my favorites. Definitely.
Carrie: “I Voted” – that one was a good one. Definitely our best seller in November.
Mark: I believe I bought two of them. All right, so, badge life. I, for many years, went to an event called DEFCON. I haven't been in a couple of years just because my life is kind of going in other directions these days, but I was a regular at an event called DEFCON, which is a hacker's convention in Las Vegas. It happens every year and has been going since 1992, I think. So, DEFCON 14 changed the world of conventions forever and I'm not exaggerating. This is not hyperbole. Joe Grand of Grand Idea Studio – if you've ever seen the TV show Prototype This, do you remember that show? You would enjoy Prototype This; I recommend you look it up. I think it was on Discovery Channel 10-15 years ago or so. Anyway, Joe Grand was the guy who did all the electronics on Prototype This. Do you remember when a hacker group went to testify to Congress back in the 90’s?
Carrie: Yeah, I have a vague, fuzzy memory. Yeah.
Mark: So, they convinced Congress… this is like the best hack ever. They convinced Congress that they couldn't use their real names. They had to testify under their handles for anonymity reasons and whatever. So, they're sitting there and there's a picture of L0pht Heavy Industries guys in their suit and ties at the Congress. They're being totally respectful and everything else, but they've got “kingpin” and all their different hacker handles in front of them.
Mark: I can't remember the names of some of the other guys, but Joe Grand was one of those guys. Joe is a wonderful person. I love him to death. He and I kind of became friends since he started doing this DEFCON 14. Every year at DEFCON they had to come up with new ways of making the badge unique and hard to copy because in the early days they were just laminated cards and people would go out to Kinko's make literal copies of them, laminate them, and get into DEFCON for free. Right. I don't know why, it was $20 back in the days, guys. Come on, really? Anyway, I think it's more for doing it for the hack, right. Can you hack them?
Carrie: Can you hack the hackers?
Mark: Can you hack the badge? Right. At DEFCON 14, Joe and Jeff, so “kingpin” and “darktangent.” Darktangent is the guy who runs DEFCON, Jeff Moss is his name. They got together and they're like, “We want to do something new, something that's never been done before.” So, Joe designed a circuit board with a little tiny PIC microcontroller, a little six pin pic microcontroller, a few passives, a coin cell, and a button that you use to turn it on and off. Let’s see if this battery still any good.
Carrie: We’ve got more if it's not.
Mark: No. Yeah, it's not working.
Carrie: Thank you, Robyn will get us a battery.
Mark: Anyway, he created this batch and it started out as, as you know, it would turn on solid and it would blink. Then you had this little random pattern in there.
Carrie: I just love the giant LEDs, too. They're like the 10mm ones.
Mark: Yeah. And he put out a challenge. He's like “Hack the badge, do something cool with it. Just anything, no rules.” Just hack the badge and if you can impress Joe Grand, then you won the competition. So solid, then blinky, and then I reprogrammed it. Did the wigwag and then I reprogrammed mine to transmit DEFCON 14 in Morse code.
Carrie: So, you had to learn Morse code for your HAM I’m assuming?
Mark: You don't anymore. So, my hack was that I reprogrammed the microcontroller to blink DEFCON 14 in Morse code. But the point being that when Joe created this, this became the standard by which all conference badges for the next decade or more were measured. Everyone started doing electronic badges for their conferences. This was the first, this is what started at all. And it says here, it says DEFCON; it doesn't actually say human in on this one anywhere, but the white ones were for humans, the attendees. Then there are goons who were the security that run it, green for the speakers. They all have different colors for the different types of badges that you have. That was on 14. I saw this and I fell in love with it. I'm super, super excited by it.
(1:20:15 – 1:26:27) Follow the White Rabbit
Mark: A few years later. @namniart on Twitter, his name is Austin. He came up to my desk one day and just handed me a sheet of paper. On this sheet of paper was a giant QR code and he just stuck it on my desk, and he walked away. Well, shit! Of course, I've got to scan that thing and figure out what it is. I got out my phone and I scanned it and decoded it and it turned out it was an RSA private key. His experiment, at that point, was to see whether I was intrigued enough just by a QR code to scan it, look at it, and try and figure out what to do. Of course I was, but I don't know what to do with it yet. He had this idea of starting a kind of scavenger hunt and using this as the Trailhead.
Mark: So, the two of us started thinking about this and we did an event at the local college; he was still a student. I had graduated at that point, 10 or 15 years earlier, but we did a little scavenger hunt thing where it started out with the QR code. The big one, this big single one was hard to decode so we cut it up into three blocks. You had one that had the begin RSA block and then a bunch of random characters, the one in the middle that just had a bunch of random characters, and then the third one, which was a bunch of random characters and the end key block. So, by scanning these 3 different QR codes, you could tell that this was a thing that you had to assemble and put together. On the flyers, we just wrote firstname.lastname@example.org and then we had a little ASCII art of a white rabbit on it. White rabbit, obviously you've got to chase it.
Carrie: Right, you have to follow it down the rabbit hole.
Mark: So, you have email@example.com and you have an RSA private key. What would you do if you saw that?
Carrie: I would go to the website and try to…
Mark: firstname.lastname@example.org as a website, I think it just had a picture of a rabbit on it and that was just it. Yeah.
Carrie: Oh well I would, I would email it. I would email it.
Mark: Yeah. You would get an automated response that says, “I like the way you think, but you're on the wrong path.”
Carrie: Interesting. So, it feels like it's credentials for something, right. It feels like it's a username and password combo essentially. So where would you use it to login?
Mark: Have you ever used SSH?
Mark: Okay, the RSA private key turned out to be a private key to an SSH server. And if you log in as Alice–
Carrie: So how would you know you where the server is?
Mark: You don’t, but the goal is to get people thinking about it and trying a bunch of different things. So, you log in using this RSA private key as your authenticator to email@example.com. For the first two weeks that we put this up, it had an ASCII art of a white rabbit, because of course it does, because we put white rabbits anywhere and everywhere to let you know that you're on the right track, then it printed out three numbers. The top one was static. It was a big nine-digit number. Then the next one was a slightly smaller number, but the same number of digits, and it was counting up once a second.
Mark: The third one was a little tiny number, the difference of those two. These are Unix time, the number of seconds since December 31st or January 1st, midnight, 1970. Right? So, any hacker will recognize these numbers as Unix time. The top one was the Unix time when an event was going to happen, the second one was the current Unix time, and the third one was just a countdown timer. So, you log in and you're like, oh, okay, something's going to happen. You take the top number, translate that, and figure out when the next thing is going to happen. We had a whole bunch of people logged in at the time when that happened. I can't remember all of the steps, but it was a lot of fun. I think what we did next was we just output a latitude and longitude.
Carrie: Oh boy, okay. So now maybe you have to be in a certain place at a certain time.
Mark: So, it became like a geocache, right? Here's a lat. and long., go there. It was a spot out in Poly Canyon where there was a tree, and Austin went out there and hung a laminated card with a picture of a white rabbit on it. We used this a lot, unfortunately; another QR code, but this one had another private key that was used to connect into our website. So, this one was a forum program and you had to use this private key in your browser to connect to this forum so that you knew that anybody else that was in this forum was also playing the game.
Carrie: Got it.
(2:21:50 – 2:27:37) Software and Hardware
Carrie: So, your day job has been software for a long time.
Mark: Yes, dev ops.
Carrie: But obviously you have a quite strong background in hardware as well., I know you kind of downplay yourself in this aspect, but I'm like, dude, you're making audio amplifier PCBs. You're making all of these other badges that are quite complicated. Don't downplay yourself.
Mark: The problem is I know professional EEs [Electrical Engineers], so I am advanced for a hobbyist, but I've never done this as a paying gig.
Carrie: Yeah, we can talk a lot about what qualifies you for different things, and experience is the majority.
Mark: Fair enough. I have a fair bit of experience.
Carrie: Yes. So, my question is, was there one or the other that like came first? You started doing the radio shack kits when you were in third grade and stuff like that. Were you also playing around with programming at that point or did programming like come second or did one lead into the other?
Mark: I was doomed to be a nerd from birth.
Carrie: And why did you choose software as the professional thing?
Mark: So, my dad worked for IBM for 32 years. My mom was a network administrator at the local high school. My oldest sister is 9 years older than me, and she bought our family's first computer when I was 3 years old. So, we had a TRS 80 model-I growing up. That's what I had growing up. You know, my dad brought home a PC junior. I think I was probably 8 or 9 years old. So that's when I got into PCs, right? I've been around computers literally, my entire life, and I've been encouraged to program them and use them. I got into BBS-ing when I was in 5th grade; I started running my own BBS when I was in 7th grade. At the same time, all of that was going on, I was doing a lot of Legos– a shit ton. My parents say that they spent a veritable fortune on Legos, and it was the best investment they ever made.
Carrie: I know a guy who's selling some Legos. If you need some Legos, I have a hook up. I'm just saying, Kevin is selling some of his Legos.
Mark: I got into the Technic Legos very quickly, pretty young. There are a lot of motors and I got little project boxes from Radio Shack and put in switches to make my own controllers. I was building robotic arms. I was doing amusement parks, all of these large scale technical/mechanical Lego kits with motors and lights that I wanted to control.
Mark: So, I was playing with electrics from a very young age, playing with lights and batteries and motors and switches and that kind of stuff from a very young age; early elementary school. So, I don't know that one really came before the other. I've been doing software, writing things in BASIC on the TRS 80 and on the PC Jr. I actually wrote my own BBS code for a while, but it sucks. I ended up going back to other people's software. I ran Asgard or Citadel, if anyone knows what those are, [I ran them] for many, many, many years. In fact, technically, I still am running it on Unix now, but because I've been a system operator since 1987, when I was 12 years old, that kind of led into when I got into college, and I found Unix and I found Linux. I was a very early adopter of Linux. My first kernel compile was version 0.99 patch level 13G.
Mark: I've been doing this for a long ass time. So that led into systems engineering and network engineering and running applications. I write code, but I'm not a software developer. I write a lot of code for microcontrollers. I can do a lot of shell scripting. Historically, I've done Pearl; nowadays, I do Python – that kind of thing, but I'm not an application developer. I've never done a mobile app. I've never done a big web application or anything like that. My programs typically top out around 1,000 lines. Like right now, my secret squirrel project is probably going to be the biggest single application I've written. Wild guess, probably 3,000 lines, maybe a little bit more than that. So, you say I do software and I do, but not like huge application-level software. I've been doing that kind of stuff pretty much my entire life since I was a kid, same with hardware.
We have the transcripts from last week's soldersesh with Kelly Heaton along with the highlight videos ready!! Read along as Carrie and Kelly dive into Kelly's path into STEM and learn about how she got started at MIT! Kelly also goes into detail about her oscillating songbird circuit and what inspired her to build it, but you'll have to watch Highlight Video #3 to hear the "birds" sing! Her printed bird circuits are used in her larger art piece, Circuit Garden, where the entire soundscape is created with the electric vibrations of analog circuits!
Check out Kelly's website with all the latest information! You can also find her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Vimeo!
(2:13 – 12:50) An Artist’s Path to STEM
Kelly: Okay, so how did I get into STEM? I have been an artist for as long as I remember, and I always ever identified as a visual artist and growing up, I had a real love of nature. Nature was a continuous source of fascination and I have pretty early memories of wanting to build, at the time, what seemed like magical things, like a bat or a squirrel that would fly along tracks on the roof of my bedroom. My whole family was big into nature. My mom used to take me on these trips with The Museum of Natural History called Amphibian Alert. We would go in the spring and the sound of the spring Peepers chirping; that sonic, immersive, visceral, experience had a huge impact on me. It was something that I just imagined, “How cool would it be if you could capture that, if you could recreate it?” But I didn't grow up in a family of engineers, so I had no language for anything STEM related. I did have a Commodore 64 computer, and my brother and I would play around with that, but I wasn't, frankly, that drawn to computers. They were just not visually or sculpturally appealing to me as objects. I just saw them as like a beige case.
Carrie: I was just going to say, “A beige box was not appealing to you, with brown keys, why ever not?” I think Commodore 64 had a tiny rainbow on them, didn’t they?
Kelly: I mean it was like a novelty that you could play with them a little bit, but the video games back then were not that interesting. We had an Atari game console, but it never occurred to me that I could hack into it. Long story short, I was privileged to have technology in my life, but computers, to me, were synonymous with things that boys played with or something that I had to write my high school papers on. So that was pretty much it for me. I was not a STEM kid. With the exception that, given my love of nature, I did get interested in biological science and this was something running in tandem with art. Adults in my life were like, “Arts not… you don't make money as an artist you know that; you need some way to make money.” I railed against that, and I still do. But in college and then after college, I bounced around a lot because I hadn't– I couldn't find my voice. I wasn't a traditional artist. I mean, yes, I drew, I painted, I sculpted, but I wanted something more.
Kelly: There's this part of me that was always drawn back to science. I actually went to veterinary school for a while and then dropped out of that to go get my Master of Fine Arts, and then dropped out of that. Prior to dropping out, I had a fateful meeting with a neighbor in my studio complex, who was an MIT graduate. A man named Kevin Brown, who is the founder and owner of Brown Innovations. They're an audio engineering company in Boston. They were at the time [at least and] I assume they’re still there. Kevin saw that I was using a lot of scientific metaphor in my art. He said, “You should go to MIT.” I was like, “You are insane.”
Kelly: I had taken up to calculus in mathematics and I did have a lot of biological science in my background. I took it all to get into veterinary school, so that was okay. But you know, engineering and math and all the things you think of when you think of MIT, it's like, “Yeah, I had none of those qualifications.” One thing led to another, and it also happened to be at the end of the 90’s, the dot-com boom was happening, and a lot of money going was into creative, innovative, out-of-the-box, radical thinking. I met Michael Holly, who’s unfortunately now deceased, but Michael Holly was just an incredible creative; there are no limits, there isn't a problem I can't solve. He was really a wonderful thinker. He invited me to join his research group at the MIT media laboratory and three months later, I matriculated without ever having applied to MIT. I did later, I think I remember filling out the actual application forms, but I mean, how crazy is that? Right. So started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stranger than fiction, but that's what happened.
Carrie: I love it, I love the atypical way of matriculating, too.
Kelly: I mean, there was so many things that had to go right. It was a miracle really. It was a miracle of being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right people. Also, there was obviously something about me and my hybrid creativity that they were attracted to. I was definitely using a lot of chemistry and biochemistry metaphors in my artwork. I had that kind of thinking. Again, with the dot-com thing exploding and so much optimism happening in the late 90’s, I think Michael Holly and the media lab felt like, “Well, you know, why not give it a try?”
Kelly: Let's take an artist who obviously has a penchant for science and scientific thinking and put her in the media lab environment with computer scientists and electrical engineers and see what happens. And that's exactly what they did. Now what they didn't tell me was that I actually did have to take classes. I took John Maeda’s “Design by Numbers” courses. I will never forget, this is no joke, my first computer science class ever with John Maeda, it's like going to the moon for STEM. My first ever computer science assignment was John Maeda saying that I needed to write a Java app that would load in a photograph and a simple tool where I could draw on the photograph and then convert the photograph using a fast Fourier transform to whatever weird image that became and be able to draw on it again and do a reverse fast Fourier transform. Oh my God. What is an app? What is Java?
Carrie: How do you spell Fourier?
Kelly: So, what happened was this defined my entire career at the MIT media lab. I had no choice but to tell my story of, “Okay, I'm the token artist that Michael Holly invited to join his research group. I'm screwed because I don’t know anything so, please work with me. I'll buy you a pizza. I'll make you a drawing. I'll help you design your product casing or whatever, please help me do my homework.” I had just wonderful colleagues when I was there, who would give me snippets of code; they wouldn't do my homework for me, but they would give me snippets of code. For example, like the shell of an applet, so I was then able to go in and make some adjustments. There's a lot of collaboration, and it was supported; I mean, I don't think that we were plagiarizing or anything like that. It was understood that it was hard and that we had to help each other. I mean, I learned how to write code basically on the kindness of my colleagues – my friends at the media lab.
Carrie: Well, you know, they don't tell you this, but that's how life goes after school. You learn from other people and from collaborating on projects and from other people teaching you things. It's funny how in a lot of school settings, that is not only not the norm, but specifically forbidden. It's kind of weird.
Kelly: Especially in technology. There is so much to know. Even if all you did was focus on fundamentals by the time you got your head out of your books. The world would have moved 20 or 30 years beyond and technology would be so different that your knowledge wouldn’t apply any longer, or at least not in the traditional way.
(21:00 – 28:53) Analog vs. Digital
Carrie: [reading the comments] David wants to know where he can get a cool cap cap.
Kelly: Oh, thanks for asking! yeah, my power cap. Right now, the answer is nowhere, but I am working on it. Not only do I want to make power caps, but I also want to… I don't have it, I should have brought it down, but I have this resistor backpack that I made; I want to make backpacks with many different stripes, like resistors of all values. I love fashion and I’d really like to make electronics inspired clothing. To empower everybody to take part in electronic culture. Engineering is so inaccessible to the vast majority of the population and yet technology is controlling everyone to a great degree. I find that disparity hurtful, alarming, and dangerous. I mean, there's so many things about it that are wrong. So anyway, one of the ways I plan to address that in the coming years is to make a line of really cool electronics inspired fashion to empower the people.
Carrie: Yes. I love it. I mean I feel pretty passionately about that, too. And part of the reason of doing livestreams and hanging out, is to just build circuits and learn stuff about circuits and get more information out there for people. The more people [that are] talking about electronics and explaining stuff in different ways, I feel like the better we are, even if it's the same circuit explained a hundred different times, a hundred different ways. Some of those ways are going to connect with some people in ways that those other 98 did not.
Kelly: I mean, I get it. Speaking of the astable multivibrator, I have a pretty solid, intuitive understanding of how that circuit works now; after working with it and building hundreds, if not thousands of them over more than a decade of my practice. Do I still completely understand how the electricity is moving in it? No. Am I continuously developing new insight about exactly how the circuit works? Yes. That's one of the things about analog electronics that is so cool and that's also why I want to get more people passionate about electronic hardware. There's tremendous potential in analog electronics that is underutilized because in the 60’s and 70’s, when electronic devices were miniaturized and the manufacturing processing was improved, they became more readily available.
Kelly: There was this brief period in human history when hobbyists could have pretty easy access to electronic supplies and build some amazing analog electronic circuits with them. But by the middle end of the 70’s that was already ending because you had digital integrated circuits coming out and everybody just left analog. “Oh, it's too hard.” “It's easier.” You know, you work with these chips and people move towards digital really fast. Now I get frustrated when I apply for art competitions or art grants and the categories are like, “You're either painting or sculpture or digital art.” I'm like, “That’s not fair, digital art is not synonymous with electronic art.”
Carrie: Yeah, that's a really interesting point. I hadn't thought of that before.
Kelly: It’s almost that bad. We need to get people back to thinking about hardware, working with hardware, and also looking at what analog circuits can do. That's why I developed my birdsong circuits – to show people, using a very small amount of hardware that I can get really interesting, complicated behavior. If you were to do this in a digital way, it would require thousand-fold, hundreds, maybe mill– I don't even know because for starters, you have to have the computing processor as your platform. With chip shortages in the world and everything already, just already getting that chip, that very basic computer, even an Arduino or whatever, you're already talking about tremendous manufacturing and sourcing complexity, right?
Kelly: Yeah. Right. So, what if you could build the same circuit with three discrete components? You know what I mean, people buy Arduinos to blink lights.
Carrie: They do indeed.
Kelly: But now you’re going to show them that they don't need to.
Carrie: It is true. I mean, I don't think I can necessarily pick a favorite because I do really enjoy embedded programming. It makes you think in much smaller, simpler terms. I mean, you really do have to think in 1s and 0s a lot and think about how many 1s and 0s are represented by this number that I am putting in my code and things like that. And like, “What happens if I “or” these two 1s and 0s together? What happens if I “and” them together?” I don't know, there’s something about that I really enjoy, but I also really love analog circuits, too. I don't know if it’s the retro-ness or the retro appeal, but it is really cool to have something that does a thing that you don't program, that just does that thing because of the nature of the components involved.
Kelly: I mean, you do program it in the sense that you are still building an intelligent architecture, you can't just throw a bunch of transistors at your breadboard and light magically.
Carrie: Yeah. I wish you could, that’d be great!
Kelly: Another circuit that would be really cool to build, especially for you, is our transistor logic circuits. You can use transistors to “and” and “or” and “xor”.
Carrie: Oh, speaking of something that's kind of a cool crossover, I recently saw the latest Tindie newsletter. Somebody is putting together a core RAM board. I believe you have to wire the ferrites yourself and make the lattice yourself on the board. And I was just like, “Oooh, core memory.”
Kelly: Core memory is beautiful.
Carrie: Yeah, I'm excited. I think I'm going to pick up that kit and maybe that will be a future solder sesh.
(36:06 – 46:33) Kelly’s Birdsong Circuit
Carrie: Okay Kelly, tell us about this awesome looking circuit that’s on your bench and the birdsong circuit. I think it's super cool. I have a few questions about different parts of it, too. But I would love for you to do the overview first.
Kelly: Yeah. I have a couple of them sitting here. This one's easier to plug in cause this one's got a wonky connector. Well, I'll let you hear it first. Cause I think that's the easiest way to introduce it.
[Electronic bird chirping noises start!]
Carrie: That is super cool.
Kelly: I just turned the sound off for a minute. So, the sound that you were just hearing is being dynamically generated by the analog electronic circuit. Right now, the bird thinks it’s singing, I've just disabled the switch to the audio of the speaker. What I'll do next [is I’ll] start to twist some of the knobs, which are the base resistors of the astable multivibrators. You can hear all the oscillating circuit and therefore the birdsong changes with that, but I just wanted to play it for a minute without touching anything so you could see that the circuit makes remarkably complex sounds with only five astable multivibrators and a modified Hartley oscillator.
Carrie: Yeah, it was remarkably natural sounding in complexity.
Kelly: Right, and then the pauses in between and everything.
[More electronic bird chirping noises]
Kelly: So, you see it changes the song pattern, so you get different syntax.
[More electronic bird chirping noises]
Carrie: That is really interesting.
Kelly: Thank you!
Carrie: That is very, very cool. So that's actually a perfect lead in for some of my questions. Which is, I think that the most interesting part of this entire schematic… So, I'll show you this, I'm going to zoom in so that people can see it in a little bit more detail. This schematic is mostly these little sections, those are the astable multivibrators, and they basically work by alternating off and on, on these transistors and that is controlled by a little charge pump capacitor circuit.
Carrie: So, once one of the capacitors is relatively charged, then it opens up the base on this transistor, which opens the path from emitter to collector. Then you have this side of the circuit that's on, but then as soon as that happened, because they have this cross coupled feedback, then what happens is this side of the circuit starts charging. As soon as it gets above the base voltage, it turns on and the other one turns off, so you keep getting this, this back and forth.
Kelly: Exactly, they're pulling each other.
Carrie: Yeah, and then all of the characteristics, like the frequency and things like that can be adjusted by the different components in the circuit. You have five of these and they're all set up a little bit different. They have different capacitor values. And of course, you can change the resistors here. These guys are the potentiometers, the knobs.
Kelly: I have since made some changes to the circuit to try and get as much diversity of sound out of it as I possibly can. But the blue Jay that you just heard is exactly that circuit that you have. Point being this particular model has a lot of options for modification and expansion. The addition of more oscillators that are coupled to make even complex sound patterns. Essentially, the circuit can be thought of as five astable multivibrators whose purpose is to create syntax, meaning, a grammar. It's an architecture, a pattern architecture so to speak, for one modified Hartley oscillator, which comes from the classic electronic Canary Birdsong circuit you can find widely on the internet. By competitively coupling the five sort of syntax oscillators, if you will, to the one voice oscillator. That's where the connections are coming in.
Kelly: You can see that I've got the capacitors there, which then if you go up on the schematic, that's the point at which those five oscillators are connecting to the base of the transistor that's controlling the chirp of the audio transformer. So that's the voice mechanism of the bird so to speak, where the quality of the bird sound is from. In that part of the circuit, if you make modifications to those capacitor values, you can make the voice either higher or lower pitched. The values that I chose, are just, I think the most kind of generically bird sound like. But yeah, I mean, that's it, it's really simple. It's just five oscillators controlling one oscillator where the five are for pattern and the one is for the voice generation.
Carrie: I was curious about this mixing section.
Kelly: Oh yeah. That's another area where there were literally so many different ways, I could have designed the coupling that I just sort of picked one that I was like, okay, well, this one is cool, but there were so many other cool ones too.
Carrie: Why did you pick this particular one?
Kelly: Because I liked it.
Carrie: What'd you like about it?
Kelly: I mean, it's really, that's it. I'll show you my breadboard here for a sec. I don't really spend a lot of time planning my circuits. It doesn't mean I don't do research. I do, I'll have a concept and then I'll go scour around on the internet to see what existing schematics I can find that I can modify. Electronic Canary being one of them. But if you build that electronic canary circuit, as it is on the web, it just goes chirp, chirp, chirp, it's cool but annoying.
Carrie: Which is sometimes what you're going for, but sometimes not.
Kelly: Yeah, I wanted to give it, like I said, more syntax to make it more like a real birdsong. Once I got the basic architecture of the circuit in place, like the concept that there are five oscillators that make the syntax and one that makes the voice then how I coupled them and so forth, those component values, the capacitor values, or a diode or not a diode or put the diode somewhere else or swap out the wires. There's a lot of potential for expansion in the circuit. I'm working on those right now. I'm working on a product that I could sell so people can have one of these and play with it. I'm also in conversation with researchers who study bird neurology and birdsong, to look at ways that this circuit may support research and to understand. I really think it's the same model for essentially how a bird’s brain works to generate birdsong.
(1:13:52 – 1:19:59) Imitating Nature through Electronics
Carrie: So, question, have real birds responded to your deep fake birds?
Kelly: I love that question. The answer is sadly, I don't know. The reason is that in order for me to know, I need to set my birds up outside for a longer period of time and go away, meaning enough distance that I'm not interfering. And what's my excuse? Basically, my excuse is, well, number one, it would have to be a sunny day. That's not even an excuse because I can get that. I guess I've just been really busy.
Carrie: I would say, I think somebody should fund that study.
Kelly: Well, I think somebody should fund anything I do, anything. Because yes, that would, that would be nice. So yes, I will do that, and I will make eventually, with lots of money coming in my direction. Ha ha ha. But I'd like to make birds that talk to each other.
Carrie: Yeah. That’d be pretty cool.
Kelly: So, my birds in circuit garden all have wires that run back to the main controller panel, which is my tree of life circuit. For those of you who [don’t] know what I'm talking about, it's just basically relay switches that sequence the entire installation, so the birds aren't singing all of the time. But anyway, that particular switch doesn't necessarily need to be controlled by a relay it could be controlled by an infrared communication. It could be controlled by a radio. So, I'd like to develop a whole flock of birds that have some simple perceptual abilities, so that they can affect each other and even better if using the same analog principles when they communicate with each other; it actually affects the vibration syntax, so to speak, so it modulates their song.
Kelly: I have to say, though, for any of these outdoor bird experiments, if I find that real birds are getting upset, the fake birds are coming inside.
Carrie: That seems reasonable. I mean, I wouldn't see why real birds, as long as it was relatively close, I mean, real birds respond to the fake bird call things. So why wouldn't they respond to a computer making bird noises? Right.
Kelly: For sure Mockingbirds would definitely. I'm just saying that there is, in the back of my mind, this slight concern that when my fake birds are deployed on the world, I just hope that it benefits real birds not hurts real birds, that's all.
Carrie: Yeah. You don't want them to be the evil deep fake birds. We want benevolent deep fake birds.
Kelly: Definitely. I mean, in fact, one of my career goals is to generate enough profit from my electronics practice to donate a percentage to wildlife conservation because the circuits that I developed are inspired by nature because nature is so tremendously magnificent. While a bird circuit is cool, it's nothing compared to real birds. It's so critical that while we become increasingly engaged with technological media, we don't forget that the earth really needs our stewardship. We need to go outside and hug trees and love real birds and all of that. Important.
Carrie: Yeah, definitely. Have you ever done any other kind of analog sounds? I'm thinking something that would be super cool is to do something like this but try to make sounds of water running through pebbles on the beach, things like that
Kelly: I have done that. I use that technique in some of my soundscapes that were part of a show I did in 2012 called The Parallel Series. I did that using basically white noise generators where I slowed down the pace enough that you got kind of a wobble effect. I've also made the sound of crackling fire in a similar way. Again, white noise generators – very, very useful way to approach it. You can also just use a transistor for noise generation. In fact, if you look up my pretty bird schematic, I used a transistor for noise generation there. You could apply a similar principle for other types of sounds. I've made frogs, crickets, bees. What else? Moths… they don't make sound, but I have a big electrolier full of blinking moths.