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Archive for November, 2011

Tourette Syndrome

Posted by Tom Benedict on 30/11/2011

This is going to sound like it’s coming out of left field, but I can’t come up with a good segue from the stuff I normally write about. So I’ll jump right in:

I have Tourette’s Syndrome. I also have OCD, which is a common comorbid condition with TS. I’ve had motor and vocal tics since I was about four or five years old, but I wasn’t diagnosed until my late twenties. It’s not that the tics weren’t present the whole time. They were. I just didn’t know what they were and didn’t know where to go for help.

Taking over twenty years to get a diagnosis for something as obvious as motor and vocal tics may sound odd, but keep in mind when all this was going on. My first tics showed up around 1973. There was almost no public awareness of TS in the 1970s. Even in medical circles it wasn’t widely known despite almost a hundred years of medical history since Gilles de la Tourette first documented it in 1885. In the 1970s there was no Internet. There was no Youtube. There were no blogs to read or Google searches to be done. Even with all these modern resources, it’s hard to find information about something you can’t name. It was ten times harder back then.

This didn’t stop my parents from trying, however. My mother took me to a couple of doctors, none of whom had any experience with TS. One went so far as to tell her that the best course of action would be to have me committed. She took my hand and walked out of the doctor’s office. That was the last time my parents looked to the medical community for answers about my tics.

Growing up with motor and vocal tics wasn’t easy. It didn’t help that I had no clue where they were coming from. I couldn’t even tell people I had TS because I didn’t know what it was. I got teased. The really sad part, though, is that most of it came from my teachers. There were two in particular who took real pleasure in pointing out my flaws to the entire class on a daily basis. I like to think some of the kids realized just how atrocious it really was, but most of them went right along with it. They were just kids. And our teacher, the role model, was the instigator.

The point to understand about teasing like this is that it isn’t the immediate impact of the words themselves that does the most damage. The real harm is the cumulative effect. This is what makes it so hard to ignore verbal bullying. If ten people tell you you’re worthless and only one says you’re doing ok, it’s hard not to believe the ten more than the one. After years of teachers and classmates seeing only your failures, you begin to doubt there were ever any successes.

Because of all the negative feedback I received over the years and because of some subconscious memory of that doctor telling my mother to have me committed, by the time I was twenty I was terrified of letting anyone see me tic, much less discussing them openly. I figured it was just a matter of time before someone made a phone call and had me taken away. I had no doubt they would do it for the very best of intentions. But I knew that I would never see light of day again. I knew this the way that you know when you turn on the tap, water will come out of the faucet. I never discussed it, so no one ever set me straight.

One of the lowest points in my life was when I developed a really noxious sub-vocal tic where I had to breathe in a particular pattern. Unfortunately the pattern had more exhales than inhales, so when that tic was hitting hard I would inevitably run out of breath. I could be on a bus, in a classroom, or lying in bed, and I would slowly turn purple as I ran out of air. The sensible thing, of course, would have been to take a deep breath. But taking a breath broke the pattern! It meant I had to start over! Even after I was married I would lie awake in bed, slowly running out of air, terrified that my wife would wake up, see what was going on, and for my own good make that phone call. [1]

It feels awful to admit all this. It smacks of paranoia. But that’s exactly what it was! I couldn’t stop the tics. I couldn’t control them. I didn’t even have a name for them. So I assumed the worst. It wasn’t until the late 90’s that I even heard the term Tourette’s Syndrome. It was some time later that I read about it and realized what it meant.

I remember very clearly walking into my doctor’s office and saying, “I think I may have Tourette’s Syndrome.” It was the first time I’d let down my guard and let my tics show. At the end of the interview they wrote 307.23 in my chart – the ICD9 code for TS – and gave me a referral to a specialist. It was the first of many visits to many doctors. The paranoia was over. Now that I knew what to look for, I was hunting answers.

I can understand when I read or see someone who rejects their diagnosis of TS. It’s not hard to put yourself in their shoes. But for me it was an epiphany. To me those simple words, “I think you’re right: you have TS,” meant no one would take me away. No one would ever make that phone call. I wasn’t really crazy. This was just how I was. For the first time since I was four years old, I was truly free.

It would be great to say that my tics don’t bug me any more. I’d be lying, though. They do. I’m not bothered by the fact that I have them. They’re a part of me the same way being left handed is a part of me. But when they’re really going strong they’re exhausting and often painful. Since letting down my guard almost fifteen years ago, I’ve lost the ability to suppress them. These days when I tic, I tic. They’re a lot like the Energizer bunny. It doesn’t matter if I’ve pulled a muscle or have a cramp. They just keep going. And going. And going.

The tics were never the real issue, though. It was other people’s reactions. If I could change one thing, it wouldn’t be to get rid of my tics. It would be to change how other people see them. As it turns out, I’m not the only one with a desire to change the public perception of TS. I recently started looking for videos by people with TS about TS, and found some real gems. Unfortunately there’s also a lot of stereotyping out there as well. For someone who doesn’t know any better, it can be hard to tell them apart. So in an effort to set the record straight, these are some of the Youtube channels that really caught my eye:

  • Lena has TS. She also has a really lighthearted and honest delivery in her videos that make them a joy to watch. She covers the ups and the downs, coping in public, telling people about TS, and much much more.
  • Megan has TS and OCD (the same as me!) She has a number of videos about TS and OCD in which she discusses a lot of the day to day issues with TS and how she deals with them. Thanks, Megan!
  • Emma has a really great attitude about TS. When you go through her stream, keep an eye out for her Tic Project. It hit a little close to home for me.

I only listed three channels, but there are a lot of other good videos out there. I could get all maudlin and say how much I wish I had videos like these when I first started to tic. But the past is the past, the sky is blue, and there’s a fair wind blowing. Have fun watching the videos. Tic a little, laugh a lot, and for crying out loud get out and fly a kite.

– Tom

[1] My wife has assured me this was a really goofy assumption to make. She really is the best!

P.S. Thanks to Lena, Megan, and Emma for giving me permission to link to their channels. Keep making videos!

Posted in Tourette Syndrome | Leave a Comment »

Closer to a Viewfinder

Posted by Tom Benedict on 29/11/2011

I’m very very close to having a viewfinder for my KAP gear.


5.8GHz KAP Gear

The 5.8GHz gear arrived, and sure enough there was no FCC ID sticker on the transmitter. This just gave me more incentive to study for my radio license!

I also noticed the 900MHz gear I had built out also didn’t have an FCC ID sticker. So I can’t use it, either. Not until I have a license, anyway. Since the plan is to change over to 5.8GHz and since I can’t use the 900MHz gear anyway, I went ahead and pulled it out and boxed it up. While I’m waiting for the license exam, I plan to package the new gear and get it mounted to my transmitter.

The photo gives you a sense of scale for the stuff. It’s tiny! The video receiver is smaller than my monitor. If I can find all the right bits at Radio Shack, I’m considering mounting it to the back of the monitor, with all the cable connections housed in a little electronics enclosure next to it. This should keep everything neat and clean. Any time you use equipment in the field, “neat and clean” takes on more importance than just looking good. It means I’m less likely to snag something when I shove the radio into my bag. It means fewer sessions lost to disconnected cables or dirty connections. It means less chance of snagging my hand on a wire when I really do need to put the thing down and tend to the kite! “Neat and clean” is a good thing.

I’m excited about trying this out in the field. Even if I don’t wind up using it long term, it’s a good experiment.

– Tom

Posted in Electronics, Engineering, Kite Aerial Photography, Radio | Leave a Comment »

Thoughts on KAP and Viewfinders

Posted by Tom Benedict on 25/11/2011

I still haven’t flown a video downlink system on my KAP rig. The 900MHz system I have built has about a 100′ range to it, so it really would work for low altitude KAP. It’s a matter of opportunity rather than capability. And even once it arrives I won’t be able to use the 5.8GHz system I have on order. In that case it’s a matter of licensing. Each of these will resolve themselves in time.

But having a working video system hanging around the house has got me to thinking about KAP and photography in general, and viewfinders in particular. Because that’s essentially what a video downlink is: it’s a viewfinder for KAP.

I’ve done KAP since 2007 without a viewfinder. Every KAP image I’ve made to date has been aimed by look and feel. I’ve had some real stinkers, but I’ve had some real winners, too. So I can say first-hand that the blind KAP approach works. It works quite well. And the serendipity factor of coming home and eagerly opening up the images to see what you got has a lot of appeal.

But it’s also where the disappointment really kicks in, too. I’ll give you two examples of this:

The first has to do with the Keahole Point Lighthouse. I photographed the lighthouse on three occasions, two during World Wide KAP Week 2009. The second of these was a tricky session from the standpoint of weather. There was a storm rolling in off the coast, and conditions were changing as the face of the storm approached. But the light was fantastic! It was hands-down the best session I’d had at the lighthouse, and one of my best KAP sessions to date. I got a number of really good photographs from that set. But upon review there were a couple of near-misses. I promised myself I’d go back out and give it another go. When the light was good. And the weather was right. Of course that never happened. Less than a year later the lighthouse was torn down because erosion of the coastline made it a safety hazard. Now I can never go back and get those images I almost had. The opportunity is gone.

More recently I had a session near Ookala on the Hamakua Coast. For most of the flight I couldn’t actually see my subject. So I aimed as best I could and shot eight gigs worth of photos. Fewer than 10% were keepers. The rest simply missed the mark.

This got me thinking about how I used to do photography when all there was was film. For a two week trip I’d bring fourteen rolls of Fuji Velvia and fifty sheets of Kodak TMax 100. Keep in mind that at the time this was considered to be a lot: 72 35mm color slides per day, and a little over four sheets of 4×5 B&W per day. The idea was simple: You already spent all this time and money to get there. Don’t skimp on your film. (Or your lenses, tripods, etc.) Why compromise your chances of coming home with good photographs?

This is where I am with KAP. I spend time and money building KAP rigs and learning to fly the kites. I spend time and money driving to a good location in order to do photography. I sometimes hike for hours to reach the subject I intend to photograph. And then I leave things to chance?

I still haven’t used the downlink in the field. I’m certain there are aspects to this I’m not thinking through. But one thing is clear to me: I want my viewfinder back.

– Tom

Posted in Kite Aerial Photography, Photography | 2 Comments »

“Ya gettin’ deep, man!”

Posted by Tom Benedict on 23/11/2011

There’s a frame from one of my favorite comics as a kid, Snarf Quest, where the main character, Snarf, realizes he’s in way way over his head. There’s a great picture of him with hand to head saying, “Ya gettin’ deep, man!”

After I realized my 900MHz video system would never do what I wanted in the air, I bought a 5.8GHz 200mW system from Hobby King that would. All the reviews I read both on and off of the Hobby King website confirmed it really did have about a 1km range. Wow! Perfect! It’s almost too good to be true!

Sure ’nuff, it was. Questions came up in the KAP forums, and finally I was asked directly by a fellow KAPer: “Do you have a ham radio license?” Er… no.

To be fair, by the time that question was put to me directly, I’d already realized I couldn’t use this without a license and had already begun to remedy the situation. I ordered the ARRL Amateur Radio Handbook, found out who the local VEC is, found the local radio club, and talked to one of the members about getting licensed. I want to do this right!

And a good thing, too. Requiring a ham radio license in order to use high powered radio gear isn’t unreasonable. The whole point of the licensing system is to make sure the people using this gear know what they’re doing and will act responsibly with it. No bad thing! But even better, the studying necessary to pass the licensing exam has answered soooo many questions I’ve had about radio, I’m asking myself why I didn’t do this sooner! Radio direction finding for locating a stratospheric balloon package? Answered. How to get telemetry from a balloon payload? Answered. How to do video from a KAP rig? Answered. What bands can I use inside the US? Answered. Can I hand my gear to another KAPer to use while I’m there? Answered. Can I give someone else my gear to take home with them and use, knowing they don’t have a license? Yeah, answered. Sometimes Google is your friend. Sometimes it helps to have all the information packed into one extremely dense book that you can read cover-to-cover. This is one where the book wins.

At the same time, though, I do find myself with head in hands thinking, “Ya gettin’ deep, man!” Back when I was an undergraduate, as we were filing out of the final exam for our Stellar Atmospheres course, one of my classmates turned to me and said, “I just wanted to look through a freaking telescope, man!” Amen, brotha. I just wanted to see what my camera was seeing when it’s on the kite.

But I can’t complain. Knowledge is like candy. It tastes great, but it can be overwhelming when you try to swallow too much. It’s an utter high when you’re sucking it down, and the crash at the end can be a killer. Occasionally you get some gawdawful bit like an orange strawberry nougat, but most of it is pretty darned sweet. Reading about radio technology? Pretty darned sweet if you ask me. One more week and I think I’ll be ready to take the exam.

– Tom

Posted in Radio | 2 Comments »

Science Fair Projects for Big People

Posted by Tom Benedict on 18/11/2011

I have three kids in school. All of them do science fair projects. Sometimes they’re enthusiastic about them, but most of the time they treat them as if they were homework assignments rather than fun opportunities to explore the universe around them. On several occasions they’ve told me about things they’re doing outside of school and I’ve mentioned that they would make good science fair projects. “But that’s not our assignment.” ??! Science fair projects shouldn’t BE assigned. They should stem from curiosity! Unfortunately I’ve had a rotten time communicating that to them.

But the truth is over half of what I do at work would qualify as a science fair project. So that’s how I’ve started describing my work to them. “Hey, I worked on my science fair project again today!” Since we’re hoping to present our most recent work at the SPIE Astronomical Instrumentation conference next year, and since my stuff is likely to be done with a paper and poster rather than a paper and presentation, the whole science fair analogy is actually quite close.

So here’s my science fair project this year:

We run a number of instruments at the place where I work. All of these are run under vacuum, and are kept cold to varying degrees. One of our instruments lives around 75K. Others live at a balmy 150K. None of them operate warmer than -120C. Our goal with all our instruments is to get them pumped, get them cold, and leave them that way for as long as possible. Thermally cycling electronics and mechanics is a great way to break stuff and wear them out. The fewer cycles, the better. So the longer things stay pumped and cooled, the happier we are.

Two problems come up:

The first is we need to be able to monitor things like temperature and vacuum. Temperature is easy. Vacuum is more difficult. Vacuum gauges that measure vacuum near atmosphere are pretty cheap, and pretty easy to use. Gauges that measure higher vacuums like the ones we use are more expensive. Worse, all of them emit light. Since we’re talking about instruments that measure very VERY dim light levels, having something inside the instrument that’s blasting light poses something of a problem. So we tried to use low range gauges for reasons of cost, complexity, and light level.

That’s when the second problem came up: We found out that the high range gauges we’d been using were acting as fairly efficient vacuum pumps. This is nothing new. The cold cathode vacuum gauge is basically an ion pump. Dedicated ion pumps are just bigger. So we wanted to find out what the pumping speeds are for various gauges. We tested a number of gauges, and found the cold cathode gauge won hands-down. (Yes, we have numbers to back this up. No, I won’t present them here. Yes, they’ll be in the SPIE paper in 2012.)

Which brought us back to the first problem: How do you make it so a cold cathode gauge doesn’t spill light into your camera?

To test this we outfitted a small vacuum system with a window so we could look down the throats of the gauges we were testing. To give you an idea of how bad this problem is, this is what a hot ion gauge looks like, hooked to our vacuum system:

Ion Gauge Emissions

And this is what it looks like when you look into the window:


Gauge View Hot Cathode (Ion Gauge)

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “But ion gauges are basically light bulbs! Cold cathode gauges don’t emit nearly as much light.” And you’d be right. They emit a lot less. (Again, we do have numbers to back this up. Look for them in the 2012 SPIE paper.) But they still emit light. And if your camera is doing an hour long exposure, every little bit matters. This is what a cold cathode gauge looks like when you poke your head inside:


Gauge View Cold Cathode (Cold Cathode Gauge)

Imagine putting one of these inside your camera, pointed at the chip or the film, and ask yourself if you’d be able to use it for photography. Then consider astronomical instruments sometimes make exposures that are minutes to hours long. All the while the detector is accumulating the photons being emitted by the gauge. You can see it’s a problem.

The problem is, light baffles for vacuum gauges really don’t exist as a commercial product. We looked. We did find a vacuum baffle, but it was really designed to keep crap like coating chamber gunk from getting into gauges, not to keep gauge light from getting into a detector. It dumped the light by a factor of ten, but that’s it. We were looking for factors of millions or more. Since nothing existed, we started designing.

This project is a collaboration between two people. One of us is an optical engineer, the other (me) is a mechanical guy. The optics guy is doing the design analysis, I’m making the prototypes, and we’re both pitching in on the testing and data analysis. The optics guy went through a number of design ideas we came up with while brainstorming one day. All of them panned out, but not all of them could be built. One of my ideas seemed simple at first, but by the time he’d tuned it to get us the attenuation we needed, the design would’ve called for annular slots of 0.2mm or less on a 25mm circle. No freakin’ way. In the end there was a clear winner design. So we built a prototype and tested it.

The attenuation was better than we’d dreamed of. In case you’re wondering, those numbers will also be in the 2012 SPIE paper. (This is a really cheesy way of saying, “We’re still collecting data and don’t have an answer for you yet.”) In any case our problems with light leak are more or less done. We found which gauge we need in order to continue pumping our instruments once cold, and we now have a clear path forward for new instrument development. Yay!

See? Science fair projects are fun, even for big people.

– Tom

Posted in Astronomy, Engineering, Machining | Leave a Comment »

Video Downlink for KAP

Posted by Tom Benedict on 18/11/2011

Over a year ago I picked up a 900MHz video link system for doing elevated photography using a pole. I’ve been using the pole for years, but I’ve done my pointing blind, similar to how I’ve been doing KAP. I figured the video downlink would make pole work easier. To make a long and painful story short, I destroyed the board camera that came with the system, almost destroyed my Canon A650 IS, and let some of the magic smoke out of my gentLED-CHDK cable. In disgust, I boxed the whole @#$! thing up and put it on the shelf in my closet.

A recent discussion on the KAP forum provided a much-needed kick in the seat of the pants. Other people got theirs to work, so what was my problem?!

More specifically, the thread answered two of my outstanding questions: First, one of the members of the forum figured out you could power the video transmitter with a 9V battery. This is significantly lighter than the 8xAAA power supply I tested initially. Second, one of the members of the forum figured out you could power the receiver and video screen using the 12V power source for the RC transmitter that’s used to control the KAP rig. With this newfound knowledge in hand, I hacked the radio I use for doing pole elevated photography.
RC TX with Video DownlinkI’d been tossing around how to mount the monitor for ages, so the design didn’t come out of nowhere. I wanted it simple, easy to use, and easy to install. The Hobby King and Turborix 2.4GHz radios have a big empty spot in the case just below the antenna, so I knew it was safe to pop two holes there to attach the monitor mount. The mount itself was bandsaw and file work, finished with bead blasting. Not shown is a rubber pad, glued to the mount with E6000 adhesive. This keeps the monitor from skidding around. The monitor is one I picked up off of Ebay back when I purchased the 900MHz video gear. It has a 1/4″-20 hole in the back, which makes it a snap to mount.

Power taps off of the switched side of the power for the radio come out the back to power the video receiver and the monitor. When the radio is powered off, everything is off. When it’s powered on, RC Tx, video Rx, and monitor all come up at once. This worked out GREAT.

Unfortunately the range on the little 100mW video link just isn’t there. It’s fine for pole work, but it peters out past about a hundred feet. Bummers!

I went back to Hobby King and found this little gem. It’s a 200mW 5.8GHz video link for about the same price as the 900MHz link. I got one on order, and will test it as soon as it arrives. People use this setup for first person view (FPV) on RC airplanes, and claim a range of 1km (yes, that’s over 3000′!) unmodified. Others have replaced the antennas with base loaded cloverleaf helical antennas, and have bumped that range even further. 3000′ should be fine for KAP, so I don’t plan to make cloverleaf antennas for this.

Since the ground unit doesn’t have additional batteries on it, it’s really not that cumbersome to use. I still need to add a hood so I can use it in direct sunlight, but that’s a matter of bending some corrugated plastic (another idea from that same forum thread.)

The thread had one more gem to offer up: The video jack on the Canon Rebel T2i is a 9-pin mini USB. The wiring diagram for the video jack showed up in the thread, as well as a link for where to buy the mating plugs. I found one on Spark Fun that also includes a breakout board, making the wiring a real snap. I already needed one of these for another project I’m working on for someone else, and figured this was just what I needed for making a wiring harness for my KAP rig. Yahoo! I ordered three so I’d have a spare.

I don’t know if video is something I’ll want to do with KAP long term. But between the upgrade to the T2i and concerns about rig stability, I’m more than a little stuck. I haven’t done much KAP, and have been increasingly disappointed with the KAP I’ve done. Maybe giving myself a viewfinder is the way to go. Maybe pulling the T2i out of the rig and going full aut0-KAP with the A650 is the way to go. I honestly can’t say. But without trying all the options, I’ll never know.

– Tom

Posted in Electronics, Kite Aerial Photography, Photography | Leave a Comment »