Another Project – TDCS Controller

CAVEAT: The design described here has fatal flaws. I’ve since re-designed it, and have left this here as a way to document the process and share the realities associated with designing even relatively simple things with whoever might read it. The current design is available here.

I don’t seem to be able to function well without some kind of project. Usually I have several waiting patiently for my attention. However, at the moment all my current ones require either time, money, or energy I just can’t afford to give. I have a coding project to finish the user interface for the antenna analyzer I designed and built. But that’s at a point where the interesting work is done, I’m stuck on something that should be easy, but there’s something I’m missing. I’ve been using the project to get better at C++, and have run into issues that probably stem from my poor understanding of class objects and their use in my implementation. I’m out of ideas, frustrated at my inability to figure it out, and just can’t convince myself to re-attack it. I’ll tackle it again, but not until I’ve quit being frustrated with it.

Many of the other projects require large enough chunks of money to move to the next step that they have to sit and wait for that arbitrary future when I’ll have enough cash to make more progress. Sometimes incremental progress isn’t really viable, so things just sit and collect dust. The rest (like my writing projects) require motivation and energy I just don’t have at the moment. I don’t have a good excuse other than I’m burned out on them. They’ll sit until I change how I feel about them.

I needed a project I could work on that didn’t take much creative energy, would keep my mind active, and that I could reasonably finish with the small budget I get to spend without having to impact the household finances. Thinking about it, I decided I’d try designing and building a Transcranial Direct Current Stimulator (TDCS). I’ve been seeing reports on the technology for years, and have watched agencies from DARPA to the Air Force research lab study it and demonstrate measurable effects. I’ve been curious to try it, but the controllers are either expensive, or I question the safety features in the slip-shod designs of products coming from places like China or fly-by-night hobby shops just trying to make a quick buck.

The basic concept behind the devices is really simple. The circuit applies a voltage just large enough to induce a small current through the head. Done right, the current is way below the threshold for causing any physiological damage. It can tingle or sting some, will probably leave a metallic taste in your mouth, and might cause a perception of a brief flash of light, but that’s about it. The theory behind its effect is that the small current creates a marginal potential in the brain that modulates the much stronger natural electrical signals already there. That modulation is thought to help selectively dampen or enhance those natural signals.

TDCS has shown clinical significance treating some forms of depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. It had been shown to increase user focus and accelerate learning. There are claims all over the place that it does everything sort of washing the dinner dishes for you. Some claims are backed up by robust research, others are anecdotal or even outright crap. I’m mostly interested in trying the more researched claims associated with depression and focus.

In particular, I’m interested in seeing how effective it would be against my particular variety of mood disorder. However, I’m not interested enough to buy a good device and not willing to risk attaching electrodes to my head driven by a device built and sold by Fast Eddy in his garage. I trust myself and the things I build in my garage. Not so much things built in other people’s garages.

So, with that in mind, I’m going to design my own. Over the next few posts, I’ll share the process and details. So without further adieu, on to Part 1 – Design.

Don’t Ask

How often do we casually ask someone we encounter how they are? Passing a casual acquaintance in the grocery store isle, the nearly universal greeting is to ask how they’re doing. Run into an old classmate you haven’t seen in a few decades who has their arms full of kids and is clearly on their way somewhere, and we ask how they’ve been. I know I’m guilty of it, and I’m pretty sure almost everyone else is too. This kind of callous or ignorant questioning needs to stop. We don’t really want to hear about our former classmate’s recent divorce and the ensuing financial difficulty. We don’t really want to know about how our co-worker is beside himself trying to figure out how to help a suicidal teenage daughter. They don’t want to hear our side of the story either.

Nobody’s life is boring enough to answer that question in a few syllables; and in reality, nobody really wants to answer it regardless of how much time you have to talk. The truth is, nobody can honestly say “fine” or “good” without perjuring themselves. Life is complicated. Those answers are not. However, those answers are the only socially acceptable variety.

When someone asks me that question, they aren’t really interested in hearing about how much I hate my job. They don’t have time to hear about the struggles I’m having raising my kids. They aren’t really interested in the difficulty I’m having with various medical issues. They don’t want to be faced with the reality of a midlife crisis in the makings. In short, they don’t really want to know how I’m doing. It would take too much time and emotional capital to listen, and then they would feel bad about being powerless to help. All people really want is to hear that you’re “fine” and then move along in their bubble of blissful ignorance.

Occasionally, someone actually does care, but then there is a different problem. Almost no one actually wants to talk about how they are doing. It’s depressing to think about it honestly. Even more than the people asking, I don’t want to think about how I’m doing. Life is easier when I can plug along mechanically without spending time thinking about things I can’t change. I’m happier when I don’t think about the things that make me unhappy. If you ask me how I’m doing, I have to ask myself; and the answer that returns isn’t often reassuring or comforting.

I suppose I could do the routine thing and mechanically answer “I’m fine,” but doing so makes me miserable because I know it’s at best a mischaracterisation, and more frequently an outright lie. Lying makes me even more miserable. I’d rather not do that.

I could tell the truth, but when you answer with any variant of “not good,” people instinctively ask why. Nobody (including myself) has the time or even the capacity to talk through complex and intractable problems then come out on the other end feeling better. In fact, it generally just makes everyone involved feel worse. Besides, the people asking are dealing with their own challenges, and life struggles shouldn’t be a competitive sport. They Don’t need to be weighed down with what I’m facing, and I don’t need to feel like you are trivializing my difficulty by sharing how much harder yours have been. You can’t compare pain and suffering, but that’s exactly what we tend to do when people start honestly talking about how they are doing.

So… After that rant… Can we please stop asking each other about how we are doing. It’s none of your damn business, and you don’t really want to know anyway.

First Rejection

I just received my first rejection letter from a queried literary agent.  Milestone achieved.  Now, the wait to see if there are any who think my attempt at a novel could possibly be profitable.

Update:  make that three, and the time has elapsed where I’m extremely unlikely to hear back from any of the others. Looks like a failed attempt all around. I guess I just overestimated my ability. 

Grandpa’s House

When I was young my parents would take us over to my maternal grandfather’s house almost every Sunday evening. I have a great many memories of that house and the people in it.

My Grandfather’s house was a small pale-green concrete-block structure built shortly after World War II in Kearns, UT. As originally constructed, it had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a small kitchen, a living room, a small family room, and not much else. I doubt it was much more than about 1200 square feet. Grandma and Grandpa occupied the master bedroom with its rather small attached bathroom. As you came through the door to their bedroom, the wall on the left was covered with a number of cabinets enclosed with sliding doors. On the right wall was a small walk-in closet and the bathroom. The far wall and almost all of the floor was full with the bed. A desk and some shelving took the remainder of the space on the wall with the door.

The front door of the house opened into the living room, but we never used that door — friends and family came in the back door without knocking. If you did walk through it, you came past a small closet and entered the room with a black wood/coal burning stove immediately to your right and backed up against the wall to the closet. Beyond the stove on the right was the hallway to the kids’ bedrooms and the small shared bathroom. Grandpa’s room was across the living room to the left. A pocket door (that I never saw closed) opened into the kitchen from the back left corner of the living room adjacent to Grandpa’s bedroom door. I remember a piano on the wall between the kitchen and living room, a couch and a chair or two, but mostly I remember the stove.

By the time my memories become more than shadows, all of Grandma’s nine kids had grown up and moved away, so nobody slept in the kids’ rooms. However, there were only a few months between the oldest of my cousins and my youngest aunt. There was never a time when there weren’t a gaggle of kids around Grandma’s house, so the toys never got put away. Whenever we visited, we would eventually gravitate to the girls’ room (the one on the right), open the closet, and start pulling out the toys. In particular, I remember an old Fisher Price parking garage, Lincoln Logs, and Tinker Toys. All well worn and polished smooth with use, and all considered far too dangerous for young children these days.

I have fewer memories of the boys’ room. However, I do remember an electric exercise bike that was in there. The thing was built like a tank, and had an electric motor on it that could have driven a car. When you turned it on, the pedals would turn and the seat and handle bars would oscillate up and down. I never understood how it was exercise to let the motor push you around, but it was fun (if dangerous) to get on it in any number of unintended ways and turn it on — especially when we turned the speed all the way up.

In the hallway before you reached the kids’ rooms there was a cabinet built into the wall where Grandma and Grandpa kept games. Board games and card games like Uno were a staple at their house, but never face-cards. I have many memories of playing the game “Memory” with Grandpa. We would lay the tiles out on the floor in the living room, and Grandpa would play with us. As we took turns flipping over tiles looking for a match, Grandpa would invariably take the lead. He would always apologize with a giggle when he made a match at our expense, and we could tell he wasn’t even remotely sorry. Grandpa liked to win.

Behind the master bedroom and just off of the kitchen was the family room. This, along with the kitchen, was the center of the home. They had a television and two comfortable recliners where they would sit and enjoy shows like The Laurence Welk Show. I don’t remember if there was any other furniture, but there was another wood/coal burning stove set in a corner with brick behind and under it. There were nooks in the brick where there were small trinkets, and Grandpa hid his matches there under the bad assumption that we wouldn’t notice them. This room would house the Christmas tree (set in the corner and blocking the back-door to the master bathroom), and was where we did all the Christmas rituals.

When I was about eight or so, Grandpa and Grandma decided they wanted a little more space in the kitchen and somewhere to put a regular washer and dryer instead of the small stacking unit they had in the already crowded kitchen. I remember standing in the family room looking out the sliding glass door watching while Grandpa, Dad, and several of my uncles poured the concrete foundation for a small addition. I had been under the impression that I would get to help, but that wasn’t the case.

Grandpa’s yard was among my favorite places. Grandpa had grown up poor during the depression, and as such he worked hard to be self-sufficient. As a result, he always had series of gardens around the yard that grew all manner of vegetables that Grandma would can. There were also many fruit trees including at least two apple trees, an enormous cherry tree, a few peach trees, an apricot tree, and a plum tree. In case that weren’t enough, all the fences and a several trellises were covered in grapes. Anywhere you looked in Grandpa’s back yard, he was working to make it both beautiful and practical.

Towards the back of the triangular shaped corner lot he had built a play house and heavy-duty swing set with a teeter-totter. Behind the play house, he had built a sort of merry-go-round out of the hub and break drum of an old car axle. The swing set had to have been almost 12 feet tall, and you knew you were swinging high enough when your feet started to hit the branches of the nearby cherry tree. On more than one occasion, the teeter-totter functioned more like a human catapult than anything else.

There was a front porch across the house that had a few steel chairs that were painted white and designed so that the legs of the chair were more like leaf springs so you could rock/bounce in them. The driveway was on the left-side of the property, and was really quite long. It was wide enough for two cars parked next to each other, and long enough for probably four cars before it made it’s way back to the one-car garage. This large expanse of concrete was frequently full of cars from my aunts and uncles. However, one space was always occupied by the pop-up camper that Grandma and Grandpa used when we had our annual family reunion camp-outs in the Uintah Mountains or at Payson Lake.

The garage only fit one car, but it was rather wide given that limitation. Grandpa had built the garage with room for a workbench all along the right side of it. Under that workbench was a collection of tools and equipment, a bin for scrap wood, and the trap-door to a root-cellar he had conned my uncles into digging as a fort before building the garage over the top of it. I remember going out to the scrap wood box and getting out random scraps to play with and Grandpa telling us about how he used to do things like that during the Depression when money was so tight there weren’t any real toys to play with. I also remember going down into the root cellar and bringing up slightly withered apples to snack on.

Another feature Grandpa had built into the garage were coal bins on the right side. He would periodically buy a load of coal and fill the bins so he could heat the house with the two stoves. I remember going out with him to get a few shovels of coal on a few cold visits. Finally, the back three or so feet of the garage was a storage room that was only accessible from outside the garage.

Now… For some of the memories. There was always a small bowl of dried prunes, apricots, and apples sitting on the kitchen table. We would pick out the apricots and prunes because there were fewer of them, and they were sweeter. It usually only took a minute for us to clean it out, so grandpa would go to wherever he had more stashed (often the cupboards on the wall in his bedroom) and come doll out small handfuls with a warning that eating too many would give us belly aches. He seemed to have an almost endless supply thanks to the hard work he put into raising the fruit and harvesting it.

I also remember frequently coming into the kitchen through the back sliding glass door to smell fresh bread cooking and find my grandma there working on something delicious. Often we would ask for a snack, and she would offer up crackers. Almost always she would pull out salteens and graham crackers, then act surprised when we only really wanted the graham crackers. She knew before she offered that salteens were only acceptable if there were no other options.

I was always fascinated by the wood burning stoves. Fire has always had an indescribable draw, and I remember sitting on the fender of the stove in the living room feeling the warmth while I watched the glowing embers. One day, while I was quite young, my brother and I watched Grandpa build a fire in one of the two stoves. We realized that there was a place like that in our house. A metal box with flame inside.

Not long after, my brother decided to test that theory by loading the gas furnace with wood, starting with a broom sick. The end caught fire on the pilot light, and he pulled the stick out in a panic. It was very dry wood, and so it burned quite well and was sporting a two to three inch flame. My brother immediately snuffed the flame in the piece of carpet my parents had laid over the concrete under the furnace. It burned a perfect round hole in that carpet that stayed there for years.


You say I block you from success,
That my needs cannot be met,
Without sacrificing what you need.

You have not listened to understand,
Nor given me time to teach,
What and why or discuss alternatives.

There is space in the ground between,
What you need and want aren't one,
Step back and then meet me in there.

We can do what needs doing together,
We can both find some room to withdraw,
And then forward together much stronger.


I don’t have a lot of patience for quitters. I’ve spent so much of my life pushing hard through difficulty and frustration to accomplish whatever it was I was working towards that it irritates me deeply when someone (especially someone close to me) gives up on something that is ostensibly important. To some degree, giving up feels like a moral weakness or failure. Setting something aside for a while is one thing… An inevitable thing in mortal existence… An uncomfortable but bearable thing… An acceptable thing. Giving up with no intention to circle back and try again later is quite another.

Given my feelings as just described, you would think that quitting wouldn’t be something I would seriously consider. However, if you believe that you would be wrong. I am seriously thinking about quitting something I’ve been working on for years. I’m thinking of giving up on writing anything with the intent of sharing it. I’m thinking of giving up my mostly unvoiced hope that what I write means much to anyone but me. I’m about ready to take all of what I’ve written out of the public sphere and quit my attempts to find someone to represent it, giving up hope that any of it will ever be published anywhere other than on this generally unread blog.

Why would I do that? I’ve spent years writing poetry, essays, a complete novel, and parts of three other books. I’ve spent countless hours polishing and piecing together stories, thoughts, and images. Usually I’ve done that just because I liked the outcome… Just because I wanted to do it for myself. The process and the result were the reward. If all I am looking for is self actualization, there could be no reason to quit. However, that idealistic view is only partly true, and only sometimes.

I have to admit that I want others to read and appreciate what I write. I believe that is true for every artist or author, but I wonder how they manage to not let the need for acceptance and an audience contaminate their work and take the joy out of it. As I got closer to finishing a novel, I started hoping (occasionally) that I could get it published. When I started assembling my poetry into a format to print for archival and my family, I allowed myself to hope for a wider audience. When I started a math textbook, it was the first time I actually intended a wider audience.

Over the last several months I’ve made attempts to get people to read the novel, and I’ve offered up my poetry collection. Both have been disappointments. Even among close friends and family, only a very select few have bothered reading the novel. It would seem it’s just not worth the time it would take to tell me what I need to do to make it better. None of the literary agents I queried thought it worth reading either — none requested more than the first few pages that I submitted with the initial query. Clearly I overestimate my ability. Combine that with the fact that I don’t constitute one of the “under represented voices” nearly 100% of the agents openly admit to heavily favoring, and my efforts are flatly futile from the start. A waste of time and hope.

Worse, in hoping for positive feedback (or any feedback for that matter), I’ve learned to almost hate the book. The failure of most people who initially expressed interest to ever get back to me with anything even as simple as “it was too boring to finish reading it” leaves me to conclude that it’s much worse than I had thought. In hoping for acceptance, I’ve become dissatisfied and unhappy with something of which I was once proud. The product that absorbed free time for several years appears worthless. My judgment and creativity seem to be worthless, or worse. It now looks to me like an utter waste. A waste of one of the most precious things i can call my own — free time. I liked my story better before it became a thief. I liked it better when it was just for me.

My poetry collection didn’t fare much better. In an effort to afford to print a few copies, I put it out in the public on Kickstarter. I shouldn’t have. It let me hope someone other than family would give a crap. Unfounded hope. In fact, a rather large part of my impressively large family opted not to participate. I shouldn’t be disappointed, but I definitely was. Even after printing and distributing the few copies that I could afford to print, I’ve watched as the copy on my bookshelf at home collects dust. Nobody lifts it from it’s testing place and peers inside. I liked my poetry better when it was just for me.

In fact, I like all of what I write better when I write it for myself. It’s really hard to keep that focus when there is even an unvoiced hope for something more, and this isn’t the first time I’ve come to this conclusion. Over a year ago, I temporarily took everything off of this blog that I had written since I pulled over posts Liz had done on a blogspot page. One of the three semi regular readers of this site asked what had happened, and I silently relented and made those posts public again. One reader was enough, I guess, but I really shouldn’t care if I even have that many.

I don’t think I’ll pull everything back again. That was an angry reaction while depressed, a condition I still frequently face, but those particular urges have faded since I quit looking at the site visit statistics and better embraced the fact that this blog is 100% for my own benefit. In fact, I might post more here instead of privately working on stuff with the hope I might eventually be able to sell it. But I won’t promise that.