Wires, wires, miles of wires…

So I’m currently sat in a Outside Broadcast truck, for those of you who don’t know what one is, think of a articulated lorry with expanding sides that holds a television production suite, vision engineering areas, sound areas and edit bays…
Theres monitors everywhere, and more fancy buttons and doodads than a space shuttle, all of the video signals go into and out of a master routing matrix.
Now these are powerful beasts, capable of taking up to 256 different video signals in and connecting them to any of 256 lines out..
Bearing in mind that the broadcast standard of video is completely uncompressed, is a serial connection and can contain up to 16 channels of audio on each line, there is a lot of data wizzing about.
More than a lot… Each signal is 1.485Gb/s……

Throughout the truck run bundles of bnc cables about as thick as your arm, I always like to imagine the sheer amount of bits flipping up and down in all of those cables, its astounding really.

The cameras themselves are connected by fibre optic cables, the core of which is only 9 micrometres wide, which is thinner than a human hair, and signals down these glass hairs can happily travel 30km.
Once the show has been edited together live, it usually passes to a satellite uplink truck, which has the mother of all dishes on the roof, from where the program is modulated onto a carrier somewhare around 10GHz, then beamed around 26000 miles into space, bounced off a satellite to travel 26000 miles back again..

All this magical engineering just so someone can get drunk and scream at the tv when their team loses…..

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The Last Taboo?

Hello, my names Simon and I’m a Geek…

No, I don’t mean like “OMG I JUST WATCHED BIGBANG THEORY, I’M SUCH A GEEK LOLZ”..

Or “Yeah man I’ve got the new iSheep, I’m a total geek”..

It seems nowadays, certain levels of geekiness are accepted, can even be cool(who’da thunk it?).. Playing computer games, once derided, is now one of the biggest media industries, writing computer games? You’re a rock ninja!  The new superhero films? Awesome! having the latest phone/tablet/mp3 player? You rock..

But where is the line drawn between worship and derision?

I’m into electronics (solder fume inhalation, not iStuff), most people don’t understand the idea, its still shaky ground(unless they need something repairing….)

Graphic Novels? Still dubious (You’re a grown man? Reading comics?)

Programming? Mixed response, Games? Hell Yeah.. Websites? Awesome! Embedded system to generate Test Patterns? Urrr…..

But the thing I’m really into, have been for years, is tabletop wargaming…….

Now this is not something I’d admit in polite company, the few non-geeks I’ve told looked at me like I’d asked for the best recipe for a beagle puppy…

So what is it I hear you ask? Well the biggest player(pun intended) is Games Workshop.  I’m sure you’ve seen the shops in the high street, and seen some strange folks lurking in the corners talking about Armour Saves and Weapon Skills. Basically each game is set in either a Fantasy or Science Fiction universe, and as the name suggests is played on a table top and is a wargame.  You collect, assemble and paint models (think Airfix but more awesome) to form an army, and using these, kick your friends armies in the teeth using cunning tactics, dodgy dice rolls and distracting pies..

Heres a nice pic to demonstrate:

Now games like this are seen as being on the unacceptable side of geekdom, most people can’t understand why you’d play, isn’t it for kids? Well yes and no, I started when I was a wee ‘un, at the tender age of 11, 20 years ago.(Blimey..)   I have to say, its been nothing but good for me, it teaches everything from social skills (how to abuse your opponent) and maths (whats the probability of this dude destroying a tank with his teeth?) to patience and fine motor skills. Painting the eyes on a chap 28mm high is great training for soldering 0402 resistors I can tell you.  Playing the game itself is a lesson in memory(rules), tactics, forward planning and surviving under pressure(argh my last tanks exploded).. Plus having the game hang on the last dice roll is fantastic (is it a six? No? Gahhhhhhhhhh…)

I’d say for anyone with kids who are interested in wargaming, encourage them, they’ll turn out better than you’d expect….

For the past few years, Games Workshop have licensed their IP to companies to develop video games, for instance Space Marine on the PS3 and Xbox 360.  So I guess this now becomes cool, just dont mention the origins of it at all… I suppose it would be the same with the ace new Batman film vs Batman comics. Theres an interesting point at which something totally uncool becomes blisteringly cold by changing the media its presented in.

Sadly over here in the UK, you only seem to be a normal chap if you like football (soccer to any Yanks out there). I’ve always detested this sport, and ironically due to my job have probably attended more live matches than most fans (especially Man U fans…..) it seems to be nothing more than gang warfare and an excuse to get hammered and shout abuse at people.  Last week at a certain Man City/Man U match, I was watching the crowd(from a remote truck I hasten to add) as a ten year old boy was copying grown men in shouting and gesticulating at the opposing fans. I suppose when the majority of folks like one thing, it becomes the accepted version of normality.

I’d take skillful intelligent gaming over drunken shouting at 11 men any day…

As I’m getting older (Old? I’m a sprightly 31..) I’m starting to give less of a stuff what people think about me and am totally embracing my inner Geek.

So what geekiness are you into if any? (If not, why the hell not?) Is it on the cool side of the fence and do you tell people?

Apologies if you sweaty-handedly followed the title expecting a post involving goats, vasaline, a sink plunger and a bucket of custard…..

Whats the Time? Still not sure…

So, Blogging has done what I hoped, and inspired me to crack on with my Nixie Tube clock after a few month stagnation.. I’ve got the main board almost finished, after spending ages staring at wires of many colours, trying to figure out what the hell I’d done..

Designing and assembling PCBs is a hell of a lot easier than wiring copper stripboard!!

I’ve also got the main schematic done, rather than keeping it all in my head.

So, heres as far as I’ve got:

Image

Bottom side:

Image

And the schematic:Nixie Tube Clock v0_1

So I now need to test the board, start writing the code, build the Transistor switch board, and shell out for some Nixie tubes….

Every Chap needs a Cave..

Just thought I’d share a couple of pics of my current workshop at work, (Well I say work, we seem to spend most of our time hunting down the perfect pie or engaged in random debates)

We’ve been in our current locale for about a year now, it started out as a bare unit with a roller shutter, and having the great idea of doing it ourselves, we built a range of offices, edit suites, storage area and my workshop..  We’ve also recently added stairs and have been putting a chill-out area and gym on the second floor..

It took us a fair while, and involved a lot of blood sweat, tears and tea, but we’re pretty chuffed with the result.

So this is my man-cave, moderately tidy for once….

and also:

I’m thinking of not bothering doing much soldering at home any more, and just nipping into the office, its easier than balancing things on the kitchen table…

 

And this is the latest toy I’ve been working on, its a FPGA based test pattern generator for broadcast use, it can take up to 12 cards, each one seperately controllable, with onscreen text and a moving bar.

Education vs Experience?

So the question is, how vital is education and/or experience?

For my money, experience is the key factor in anything, I spent 5 years learning electronics, most of which was dry and theory based, which I found hard to remember or get enthusiastic about.

The upshot of which, when I left Uni, I never wanted to touch a soldering iron again.. (Actually I never touched a soldering iron in uni, it seemed to be beneath us to learn about circuit design, pcb fabrication, rules of thumb, how to read schematics, how to blow stuff up.. In short all the fun things about electronics).

So I spent a few years trying to figure out what the hell I wanted to do, tried my hand at a few different things, got depressed ’cause I never seemed to fit into office work, selling electricity to angry farmers, juggling cheese in factories etc. The closest I got was landscaping with a good friend of mine, designing gardens and working out how to build things really got me going.

By more luck than judgment I ended up in broadcast, where the most fun jobs were the ones where we had to make a show work using chewing gum, sweat, beer and lots of gaffa tape.

My first big job involved spending a few months in Spain, working on a sailing event. I ended up being the engineer in charge of repairing kit when it was collected off the boats at the end of each day, tipping the fish out, buying copious amounts of vaseline (theres a story…) and generally figuring out troubleshooting on the fly.    It has to be said, I learnt much more in those few months than in all the 5 years in education, theres nothing quite like staying up until 3am frantically soldering kit, fueled by beer and dubious vending machine sandwiches…..

Whenever I’ve moved into other aspects of broadcasting, I’ve found learning the theory is all well and good, and provides a good grounding, but its not until you’re running round with your hair on fire that you really learn things….

Most of my knowledge has come from trying things, asking questions, blowing things up and generally having to fix things within seconds.

Seeing how things actually work in reality has made me come back and enjoy learning, promote understanding and think of applications for theory in a way I never would all those years ago at Uni.

Although, I would say education is very important, as it gives a good grounding, in isolation I find it tends to not reflect the real world much, better surely is to gain experience first, learn what motivates you, then contemplate studying for something.  I’d be quite happy if my daughter wanted to take a couple of years out from education to travel, work and generally experience some of the world.

Beginning a Blog?

So I decided to start a blog….. Not sure where this is going to go, I suspect just a random collection of thoughts and rants, but I shall endeavour to at least point it at electronics, broadcast and  model making, areas I either work in or have an interest in.

So onto the projects.. I’ve been really boring and have been making a Nixie tube clock for a while now, due to work and lack of time, it stalled a few months ago.  My main problem is that, after spending the day in my man cave designing stuff, its hard to come home and be motivated to play with solder.  Kind of a bus-mans holiday.

I was originally going to give it to my parents for a Christmas present, this shows how far behind it is…….

I’m designing it in homage to my first ever product design, so its controlled by a good old PIC16F877A processor,  which drives 6 shift registers connected serially to give mucho lines to switch the transistors which drive the Nixie elements.  Also on there is a shiny Real Time Clock chip to provide the timing.

I bought the HV Nixie driver from Ebay, as I thought it would be simpler than building one, and for £8 who’s arguing?

I’m building it on Veroboard, to give it a nice home-made feel, and am going to put it in a perspex model display case, to show off my mad wiring skillz….. I also want to add a switch to the case, to disable the HV supply in case of sticky fingers poking where they shouldn’t.

So far I have part of the main control board built, I stalled in the process of running many wires around the board, I’m using DIP holders to allow the chips to be added afterwards/ replaced in case of a Magic Blue Smoke attack..( theres nothing quite like the smell of burning circuits… makes me nostalgic for my first abroad TV job where we were tipping seawater out of cameras…..)

(No thats not my Clock….. Think camera swimming with the fishes)