like accidental moments of melodic beauty
Sunday, March 3 2013
I have an interest in old eight-bit microprocessors that can best be described as fetishistic. I like the encapsulated macroscopic simplicity of forty pin ceramic or epoxy packages. Compared to modern processors, they're almost like pure Turing machines, the simplest devices that can be programmed to do anything computationally possible. I started out using 6502-based computers, so I will always have a fondness for this scrappy upstart, but my favorite is probably the Z80, which was also something of a scrappy upstart. I probably have a dozen Z80s in my blue box of 80s-era integrated circuits that I do not have the heart to throw away. Despite their eight-bit simplicity, building anything useful with such processors is difficult; one needs to wire up memory using parallel buses of 20 or more wires, and address spaces needs to be decoded. To communicate with modern computers, additional I/O devices must be added. Happily, I get most of my old digital electronics fix from modern Atmel AVR microcontrollers, which, though they come in familiar 28 pin DIP packages, feature modern and versatile I/O hardware, are pre-populated non-volatile program spaces on-chip, and run at speeds comparable to workstations from the early 1990s. To get them up and running in a way that interfaces with a modern computer requires an hour or two of work. And when working with an Arduino (which comes with basic support electronics) it's all ready to go right away.
This morning over coffee, I found myself nostalgically looking at Wikipedia entries for old processors (but I've never been a fan of the kludgy 8088!), and then the specifications for modern Atmel AVR (Atmega) chips. Did, for example, they have hardware to perform multiplication? I realized that I hadn't actually ever needed to know this, since my connection to the Atmega hardware has always been through the abstraction of a C-based compiler. (It turns out that the Atmega chips used in Arduino and in my projects do have hardware multiply.)
At some point today I found myself watching yet another of the many shows related to the Gold Rush franchise. It's such a popular Discovery Channel series and the audience is so hungry for more that it's gotten to the point where every third or episode is a "behind the scenes" show, one where we learn about the British production crew and the hijinks of the characters that didn't contribute to the storytelling in the actual program. At this point the producers know that there will be behind-the-scenes shows, and so they no longer have to be cobbled together from scraps; evidently there are people in the production who have the job of filming the cameramen.
I'm a fan of Gold Rush, and perhaps this is why I feel a little ripped-off when the DVR records a new episode that turns out to be one filled with Todd Hoffman telling cameramen to get out of his face and Parker Schnabel wrestling with producers. But occasionally the snippets of stories told in these behind-the-scenes shows provide insights into the mindsets and interpersonal politics that the producers have missed. They're like accidental moments of melodic beauty in a Niagara of Black Metal guitar. One such moment happened in the show I watched today, which was a "behind the scenes" look at the final episode of this season, one in which all the miners either exceeded or approached the mining goals they had set for themselves.
The moment happened at the Big Nugget Mine in southeast Alaska, which is owned by the affable 93 year old John Schnabel but is being run this year by his hard-working and surprisingly-articulate 18 year old grandson Parker. Everything about their story has you rooting for them. You want Parker to impress his grandfather with a huge pile of gold before the old man dies. It's how Hollywood would script it (and it might be how the Discovery Channel would script it too if they thought they could get away with it). The moment I'm referring to featured six guys. Three of them were members of the British production crew, and three of them were miners: Parker Schnabel, Rick Ness, and one other. They're all freaking out excitedly about something they have evidently never seen before: a large, colorful wasp laying eggs in a log. Everyone is acting like it's a freak of nature, though attitudes differ as we're about to find out. Parker holds a vote on whether or not he should kill it. The three British producers vote to keep it alive, while Parker and the other miners vote that it should die. Though the vote is a tie, it's Parker's mine, so he squishes the wasp with a rock. Naturally, for someone like me who rescues spiders from the bathtub before taking a bath, this was not a moment that endured me to Parker. It allowed me to see, for the first time, real malevolence in his character, and this informed a number of other more-ambiguous impressions I've gathered about him in the past. As for holding a vote on the life of a creature that wasn't bothering anyone, it might seem like a small thing, but it reflects a casual cruelty of the sort that humans will hopefully some day evolve away from. I wasn't all that surprised that the other miners joined him in voting for death; he is their boss, commands their respect, and is the peer pushing with the most pressure. Still, I would have thought better of Rick Ness, who is covered with tattoos and plays an upright bass. He seems like a cool guy. Then again, I suppose I shouldn't expect much reverence for nature from people who work all day converting acres of nature into vast mud pits in hopes of gathering small jars of metal. It's telling that it was the producers who voted for the wasp to be left alone. Their job is to be open to the world and to find beauty (or at least a story) wherever they can.
This evening Gretchen made a pasta using my freshly-completed fava bean tempeh as the protein. I'd left the leathery skins on the beans, and I was delighted to discover that it didn't detract from the tempeh in any way. More problematic was the fact that I hadn't sufficiently food-processed the beans, some of which survived processing completely intact. The main effect of this was that the tempeh fungus was unable to penetrate into the material as deeply and thoroughly as it should have, and the flavor ended up being a bit weak. The starter I'd used had grown more vigorously than the recalled starter from that Indonesian music retailer, and for this reason I might have aborted incubation prematurely. (I'd only let it go for 36 hours.) For the next batch I will chop up the fava beans more thoroughly and let the tempeh incubate for at least 48 hours.
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