Thursday, September 26, 2013

Is My House Haunted?

For whatever reason this question seems to pop up from time to time, no matter what home I seem to dwell in. Creeks, clicks, and doors swinging open aside, I think that the genesis of this common inquiry is squarely blamed upon, being in a family that has remnants of a guilt laden Catholic upbringing. This coupled with the often odd history of an already “lived in” home, that has from time to time presented us with a gift of some eerie reliquary. Notwithstanding any real logic, I have often questioned the metaphysical properties of what can only be termed as a strange occurrence.

The house I currently live in cannot be deemed as authentically “old”, at least by my definition. It was built in 1959, on some neglected farm land near a creek and a few old Indian trails. My house and about forty others were built by one contractor and supplied a cheap, reliable place to live in the suburbs so folks could move out of the city. It has up until this point held five families, and the layers of tacky wallpaper and shoddy home repairs spell out a detailed history of the place. However there are a few things that have cropped up from time to time that leave a sort of eerie feeling in my stomach, the first of which I encountered while replacing ductwork in the crawlspace.

My home was built at a time before central air conditioning was a standard necessity and as such all the ductwork was metal for the gas heater that supplied it. Once a central air conditioning unit was installed no one ever thought to insulate much less, remove and replace the old ductwork. This resulted in condensation moisture that would collect on the ducts and then drip into the crawlspace. In the laundry room it would drip onto the drop ceiling and create mold. So I had to remove all of this and replace it with something insulated and new.

As I took task to removing the ductwork, I noticed that old newspaper was used to pack around the duct as it passed through a concrete divider. I removed all of this and took it out to review. The paper was old editions of “The Bulletin” that ranged from 1971 to 1973. This by itself was not that odd. In my time I have seen much stranger things used as insulation.  The one thing that put me off and gave me an eerie feeling was that these were not complete editions of the paper; there were only obituaries, and stories about violent crime. The most shocking was a few articles concerning a serial killer on the loose in Philadelphia in 1972. To the best of my knowledge I know of no serial killer in the city around that time. The papers were very brittle, old and spent the majority of their life absorbing water and moving through temperature extremes so I just shrugged it off and threw everything away.

The next incident where my home offered up some ghosts from the past was the year when my basement repeatedly flooded. Despite the fact that my home is more than thirty-five feet above the older homes, it is still twenty feet BELOW the homes along the main road, and as such when there is an excess of rain or the ground is heavily saturated, the water moves slowly through the New Jersey clay working its way down to the creek. When this water encounters something nice and hollow, like my basement, the hydrostatic pressure literally forces water into it. This caused me a great deal of stress, and emptied my wallet to the tune of five grand to get French drains installed. To keep the cost low I decided to demolish the basement myself and finish it once the drains and pumps had been installed. I was so distraught and angry about this that I immediately started on the demolition to take my frustrations out on SOMETHING.

Everything had to come out. The walls, the floor, even the ceiling. Anything that could have had moisture damage needed to be removed. It was my guess that similar flooding had happened in the past so the carpet and drywall also needed to be trashed. Luckily I work for a company that sells mold remediation products so I was able to be proactive and clean everything up nicely. This endeavor produced two items that I considered to be eerie.

While removing one of the walls a small clear plastic pill container, not the standard kind but the kind one would see in the earlier 70’s fell out and onto the ground. Inside was a small doll of a little girl. It appeared to be a school girl with books molded out of blue plastic. This was a true WTF moment. Why would this be stuck in my wall for nearly forty years and why would someone place a small figure of a school girl inside an airtight container. It was baffling if not weird and to this day I never dared to open the container for fear that something might be unleashed upon this world.

As if that wasn’t enough confusing fun to be had, the house had yet more strange and interesting things to offer up. The ceiling in the basement was simply painted drywall nailed onto the floor joists’ of the upper floor with no insulation. I had figured that since I was remodeling the basement that I might as well remove all of that to insulate and install recessed lighting. After a couple swings with the hammer the drywall started to fall. I took one mighty swing and ripped a three foot section of the ceiling down. In addition to the drywall there was an array of papers and folders that fell from the ceiling. Yet another WTF moment. I gathered all the papers up and started to file through them. Apparently this was an entire dossier of a Chinese woman that once lived in the house. The papers were dated from the late nineties to the early two-thousands. I arranged the paperwork in chronological order as best as I could and began reading. It appeared that the women lived in the home with her husband, and both emigrated from China. They both had very odd names with a lot of X’s in both the first and last name. I didn’t even attempt to pronounce them. As it turned out the women was being beaten and stalked by another man who had the exact same name as her husband, who also emigrated from the same province in China. This apparently went on for years and they could not get the problem resolved so they inevitably ended up moving. I am still not sure why these documents were hidden in my ceiling.

Now all of this is fine and well. One would expect an older home to have such strange trinkets lying about that beg to tell a story or two. None of this would seem to lend itself to trigger any sort of superstitious fears or annex any part of my better judgment. That is until we all started hearing disembodied voices around the house.

I like to think of myself as a pretty down to Earth and pragmatic guy. Usually when something happens that I do not understand I meet it first with curiosity and attempt to find a cause and affect relationship that produces the outcome that has baffled me. So when my wife told me that she started to hear noises in the basement while getting ready for work in the morning, I didn’t think too much of it. Of course older homes make noise. A few days later she then reported that she heard people talking in the basement while she was upstairs curling her hair, again in the morning when no one was home. I dismissed this and told her that she needed to get a better night’s sleep. I could tell that this creeped her out a little bit, but like me she tends to be pretty pragmatic as well.

A few weeks pass and we all but forget about the incident. One night while we all gathered for dinner, Mezzy (step daughter) looked a bit disheveled, nervous, and nearly bursting at the seams ready to tell us something. My wife asked her what it was all about. Apparently Mezzy was upstairs in the bathroom getting ready to shower in the morning when no one was home, and started to hear people talking downstairs in the basement. She knew no one was home, and thought some people had entered the house and were trying to burglarize it. She snuck down to the kitchen and grabbed a knife to inspect and when she went into the basement there of course was no one there. My wife had an understanding look in her eyes since she had experienced a similar incident. I immediately asked if she was sure there wasn’t a radio on somewhere or if her phone might have been on speaker or something along those lines. They both seem pretty convinced that something was going on and I could tell they did not feel entirely safe. But what could be done, I am not the type to call a shaman much less a priest about this business. I again dismissed all this by saying “We are too busy to deal with ghosts, and if they are going to live here I am going to charge them rent.”

Again a few weeks pass, and no one speaks of these incidents. I work remotely from home on Fridays, so from time to time I get the house to myself once everyone leaves for work and school. This is a time of quiet solitude that I do thoroughly enjoy. I will brew up a latte, start some laundry and click away at my keyboard until the early afternoon. On this particular Friday I did not have any laundry to process. I managed to get that out of the way the night before, so I was able to afford a nice slice of time with NOTHING or NO ONE making noise.  Or so I thought.

Now just to be clear, my Friday morning Latte is nearly 32 oz. It is a gigantic cup that I bought specifically for the purpose of my Friday morning routine. It is quite large and gives me enough pep to start me in on my weekend. Because, I consume such a large quantity of what is essentially a diuretic I have to make several trips to the bathroom once I consume the whole cup. So I make my way upstairs to the kitchen from the basement. There are two sets of stairs, one leading from the basement to the kitchen, and the other that leads from the living room to the upper level of my home where the bathrooms are. As I make my way through the kitchen and turn the corner into the living room, I hear a women’s voice. I could not make out what she said, but it sounded like it came from the steps that lead to the upper portion of my home. I did not think too much of this and wrote it off as I might have misheard a creek in the steps as I was walking towards them, this dismissal was further expedited by the discomfort posed by a rapidly expanding bladder.

About an hour passes and I am ready to head up stairs again for another bathroom trip. This time when I approach the steps I hear a steady dinging sound, and again a woman’s voice but this time much more clear. “Hello?”

I am taken back a bit. I look around and see nothing. All the while a steady dinging is heard from an origin of what appears to be my steps. I reply back, “Uh hello?”

“Yes, I know. It’s ok I will be there soon” says the disembodied voice. Ding, ding, ding still being heard in the background.

If I didn’t know any better it sounded like someone speaking in a conversation. But what the hell was all this dinging? I wasn’t sure if I should be scared or intrigued, but for whatever reason I was creeped out enough to head out my front door to regroup my thoughts. I walked outside all the way to the sidewalk near the street to think about this. It was a pleasant day. The air was cool and thin. It felt good when I inhaled. I took a deep breath and looked around a bit.

What did I see? Two houses down the street from me was a woman sitting in her car with the door open talking on a phone. I could not hear anything that was going on, but sure enough when I walked back inside and stood in the rough location of the bathroom or near the steps leading to it. I could hear the car dinging because the door was open and the key was in the ignition. Furthermore I could faintly hear the one-sided conversation of a woman on the phone.

OK, this is one gigantic WTF?!?!

So in conclusion I ask again, “Is my house haunted?”
In retrospect, it would appear that each time someone heard something was always in the morning, in a quiet house. Not a lot of noise outside. The AC or heater never run this time of year and I would suspect that the cool thin air allows sound to propagate enough until it hits my aluminum chimney which is essentially a big pipe that I would guess resonates around the same frequency of human speech. Hmmm a test with an oscillator might prove that.

Yes, yes it is. It is haunted with silly monkeys conjuring realities to explain away the confusion of what is clearly a beautiful example of acoustic physics at work in a quiet house. I couldn’t wait to tell everyone. My wife gave a little smile when I told her. It was the smile that said “Wow that’s awesome!” Mezzy on the other hand refuses to believe it. I suppose her world might always have witches being burned at the stake.

What can I say we’re all Jocko Homo.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Mike's Speech Synthesizer (Part II)

       My wife wanted to get me something for my birthday that I REALLY wanted, and the thought of getting an electronic component would make most folks scream out "BORING!", but to me it was the perfect gift that would give me hours of enjoyment, and here it is nearly a year later and I am still having fun with a $25 component. I say money well spent. Thank you SparkFun!

     I have always been a little afraid of playing with IC's. They easily frustrate me when what I think should be simply a logical on or off becomes frantic and random. Although I had Digital Electronics in high school, the part that was covered that discussed filtering capacitors and bounce free switching somehow got erased from my Pink Floyd addled cheap Mexican weed baked brain. Now that I am older, more bitter, and less intense I found that these things are more easily focused upon to where I would not make the same mistakes I made in the past. This time I choose to read through the extensive documentation of the Speakjet before it arrived in the mail.

Speakjet IC
      At first glance the IC does not seem very intimidating. Voltage supply and ground are clearly labeled. So are the Rx and Status pins. The only pins that arouse any sort of curiosity are the E0-E7 and the M0/M1 pins. As it turns out E0-E7 are event inputs to trigger different functions on the IC and M0/M1 are mode selectors  used to select between default and demo modes.

Demo Mode Diagram
     Ahh, "Demo Mode". This is what I can use to get a cheap, quick fix to make sure everything is operating properly while still getting the delightful feeling associated with making an obnoxious set of sounds. Because after all that is really the main drive behind these sorts of endeavors.

     As it appears there is not too much rocket science in wiring this IC up into Demo Mode. It looks like all the event triggers (E0-E7) are grounded, and both Mode Selects M0/M1 are pulled high along with the reset line which is an active low. The only part that had me scratching my head was the output going to a 120 ohm speaker. I did not currently have such a speaker on hand and my power supply would be providing 5 volts instead of 3. So any speaker I hooked up to the output had to pull no more than the rated 25ma at 5 volts. A little calculating with Ohm's law (R = E/I) gave me a rating of 200 ohms for the resistance needed to max out the output current of the IC.

Demo Mode
     I was able to get around this limitation by using a 1:1 1000 ohm  audio isolation transformer I had laying around. This had the added benefit of protecting any amplifier I might hook this circuit up to. The picture to the right illustrates the Speakjet wired up in Demo Mode with the output going to the transformer. Pay no attention to the orange capacitors on the board, they are used further down the road. The only other component worth mentioning is the 10uF capacitor used to filter the power supply a bit where the power enters the main board. Below is a small video I put together that illustrates the Speakjet executing its demonstration mode.

Now that I was able to verify that the Speakjet was working properly it was time to read more of the excellent documentation provided for this IC and attempt to hook it directly up to my laptop.

Stay tuned.

Mike’s Speech Synthesizer (Part I)


 As a kid growing up in the early to mid-eighties, it would seem almost unnatural to NOT be thoroughly entrenched in the technological infancy that was the home computer industry at the time. Or at least that is what I told myself for lack of having friends and being socially awkward at the time, as well as today.

   My first home computer was the Texas Instruments TI 99/4a. It was a cumbersome machine as far as expandability and peripherals were concerned but none the less I had hours and hours of fun manning its keyboard. I was delighted to program it, since the TRS-80 Model III's they had at school had neither color nor sound. Texas Instruments was beginning to feel the squeeze in the home computer market and needed to pedal more of its wares out the door so I believe they offered the machine with a free speech synthesizer, which is how I got mine.

    This technology blew me away in 1983. An actual computer that could talk at my command. I think I played with that thing every day for a year. I even rigged up a device in my bedroom that would move a joystick when a door was opened and would trigger the computer to greet you upon entry.  It was like I was living the future and I was merely eleven years old.

    For all the short comings that the TI 99/4a computer had, I still held it dear within my heart. And this carried through when I picked up a used one for ten dollars at a flea market, spent another twelve on a speech synthesizer from eBay, and paid another ten dollars to get a Terminal Emulator II and Extended BASIC cartridge. The planets were aligning once again in 2012 for me to rekindle my interest in speech synthesizers. 


       Once all the pieces had arrived in the mail it was time to put them all together in my garage and make the past once again come alive with artificial voice. Above is a small program I cobbled together using TI Extended BASIC. It is not much but it did reignite my love of speech synthesizers, and further motivated me to press on in my tinkering of such things. I actually felt a bit giddy when I heard that robotic voice that I had not heard in nearly thirty years.

"E" is for ERROR!
      Suffice it to say I was not done playing with the TI 99/4a and it's speech capabilities. I set everything up in the living room and then wrote a small text to speech program using the Terminal Emulator II cartridge and it's many speech algorithms. This gave us all a few hours of enjoyment. I think the kids got the biggest kick out of it. Here is a photo of the little one teaching the other little one how to spell words that are spoken. This would have worked out rather well if it were not for the limitations of having to negotiate which words the program could phonically speak out when spelled correctly. None the less both kids were on the machine for no less then two hours straight. I found that rather amazing that in this day and age a few kids could be so engrossed with a piece of technology over thirty years old. In fact they used it for so long it actually burned out the VDC (Video Display Controller). I still need to fix that.

    So at this point I was left with no machine to fulfill my need for speech synthesis. The TI 99/4a was out of commission, and I hadn't picked up the Speak And Math in six months. I was not sure what I was going to do. 

    Luckily, it was around this time that a friend of mine had seen the TI Speaketh video and had asked me if I had ever played with a Speakjet speech synthesizer. I had no idea what this was and inquired further. It would appear that this Speakjet chip was a fully functional speech synthesizer that worked a lot like the old Votrax SC-01 speech synthesizer, in that they formed words out of allophones and diphthongs and such. You simply passed serial data to it and it would read the data out of it's buffer first in, first out. No more needed to be said. I had to have one of these.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Printer Based Marital Problems

For years now my wife has held a personal grudge against me. Sure we love each other and get along much like any other couple in our circumstance, but like other marriages there are small things that crop up from time to time that exist merely to erode relations in an otherwise blissful existence. For us that would be the family printer. Oh how I loathe the thought of someone in my household having to use the printer.

Now despite the fact that I work in the tech industry and make good money, I bought my home at the height of the real estate bubble, have two kids in college, and three cars. So this basically equates to me being broke ALL of the time, and having to exist on the trailing end of the tech curve as far as home electronics and appliances are concerned. This affords me many “opportunities” to fix/maintain equipment that has been falling apart for years.

So sometime back in the mid-90’s some ass hat in the printer industry decided to start milking the consumer for cash, by manufacturing cheap printers that they could basically GIVE away that use expensive ink cartridges that needed to be changed every 5 minutes, or so it would seem.

Because of this, I simply refused to buy a printer for the longest time, and attempted to survive using an old reliable dot matrix printer. GOD! HOW I MISS USING THAT PRINTER! I would literally print books for pennies on the dollar. Printer ribbon and tractor feed paper flowed like water down the mighty Mississippi river! All was well with the Universe. That is until I started moving around and got rid of said printer.

It was like leaving a beautiful relationship. The wide eyed gravy days of my youth were now behind me. I made strange bedfellows of a cavalcade of cheap floozy printers seductively priced and enticing me with a sweet siren song of unheard of DPI. How could I resist, I was naive, alone, and print-less in a rapidly changing world of lithography. It was this experience that would ultimately lead to my current distaste for printers on the market.

Time marches on and lives change. Marriage, kids, gray hair, and sobriety settle in. If you’re in your mid-thirties or older, you know the routine. With kids in school, insurance policies, and family photographs, I had to overcome my hatred of modern printers and just dive into a purchase.

I have now lived with my wife for eleven years, and in that time I can count the amount of printers we have had on one hand. The amount of money spent on keeping ink in these things however seemed larger than the national debt (NOTE: Outstanding Public Debt as of 12 Sep 2013 at 11:55:13 AM GMT is :$16,741,636,224,312.04). So as a result I used to milk the ink cartridges for every last drop. This leads to my wife’s resentment of me.

My wife has never been afraid to dive, head first into paperwork. She forages ahead with a momentum that has always impressed me. I am quite the opposite, reserved, and move cautiously forward only when opportunity presents itself. My world is very much planned with seldom little change. This ultimately equates to me seldom printing anything that is not at the office while she prints whenever the opportunity arises for her. This oddly happens a lot when the printer is not functioning properly.

Because of the situation in my household and finances, I currently have a multi function Epson printer that is a fax machine, scanner, and printer. It is not networked; rather a USB interface is used. It is situated on my desk in a family room/basement so all can use it when they need it.

Now, my wife’s grudge against me. For whatever reason on this Earth, the printer never seems to function properly whenever she wishes to use it.

The first wave of problems encountered by her was that none of the computers in the house with the exception of the one I take to work every day had the printer driver on it. We will call this level one of resentment. This causes a downward pointing of her eyebrows towards her nose, a nasal enunciation of a bitter “HMPH”, and a trip to my parent’s house to print an important document out. Luckily my folks gave us beer so my ass was safe for the moment.

The second wave of problems came in the form of no ink in the printer. Because the printer industry has an iron grip on the consumer’s wallet, when one of my ink cartridges is getting too low it stops ALL printing. Again important documents hung in the balance. This is level two of resentment, in addition to all the elements of level one, there were looks of disgust that basically said “YOU are not maintaining these things the way you should.” Nothing needed to be said so there was a sort of heavy silence in the air. That of course was broken when we went to staples to get ink cartridges and I had no money. The act of her having to pay for the cartridges and then having to wait while I cleaned and charged the print heads solidified a very cold night that evening. Instead of cheerful talk that couples in love engage in, there were rather bland consumer report types of drooling that accented the ineptitude of my printer buying abilities.

To combat level two resentment, I decided to work proactively and take matters into my own hands. SCREW THE PRINTER INDUSTRY! Who the hell do they think they are soaking us for every last dime just so we can print out a permission slip, or a photograph of grandma slamming back hard liquor. THIS ENDS NOW! I managed to find a kit for my printer that included special, refillable cartridges that constantly tell the printer that it is full, with ink and syringes to fill things up nicely. I installed everything and printed merrily. I learned that it was once more possible to print for pennies on the dollar, and my marriage was now safe. My wife would no longer look down upon me as a man beaten down by a sadistically money hungry printer industry. I can now stand proud as a man who can print anything at anytime he wanted!

Or so I thought.

This morning the phone rang, and it was my wife. Apparently, because the modified printer cartridges constantly tell the printer that it is full, it simply does not know when it is empty. So this morning blank pages start to print. One of the girls needed to print something for school and nothing was being printed. I could tell there was an added strain in my wife’s voice that indeed let me know that we have entered stage three of resentment.

God have mercy on my soul.