Carrousel Operators Contacted

Jeff Suess at SF Rec and Parks oversees the licensing of Parks properties to private operators, including the GGP Carrousel. (This unusual spelling is the official one, I’ve learned.)

He gave me contact info for the people who run the carousel, as well as the engineer who restored it back in 1998, and who is based in the area (Hayward).

I emailed the carousel operators in order to run the idea past them of getting an estimate for how much fixing the organ would cost, and then if it’s reasonable, doing a local community fundraising / crowdfunding campaign to make it happen. They like the idea, and we hope to meet in a few weeks to discuss. Yay, fun!

Debate Club SF: Change Your Mind

Meet Debate Club SF

Debate Club SF: Change Your Mind

Debate Club SF is where San Franciscans go to broaden their perspective, to discuss current and local topics with people who aren’t in their immediate social circles– all in a transit-accessible location that’s friendly, not too loud, and has a great beer selection.

It’s something that I’ve been meaning to organize for a while and still haven’t gotten to, but I hope to put on the first prototype event some time this spring. Stay tuned, or let me know if you are interested, email below.

Problem: All of the places where the public can witness live discussion of timely topics, such as lectures and author events, follow the “star system” model*, where chosen individuals present to a passive audience. Even when there’s a Q-and-A at the end, it’s still one-sided: audience asks, and expert answers.

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Digital Orrery Version


At last week’s Crowdfunding SF Meetup, I was talking about Celestyme with a designer who suggested that a round display rather than dot-matrix with glyphs– to make it more like a digital orrery. This is more like my original design conception for the clock, which is why I reserved the domain a while ago, before I got Hmm– which one? Both could presumably share a lot of the same back-end development, which is nice.

I think it would be totally lame to display the time in the middle with digits– you need hands. So I just searched around for optoelectronic components that might make good hands, but didn’t find anything good. No purpose-built analog clock-style displays. Some bar graph displays are curved such that you can make a circle with 12 of them, but the lines are so short. Others are long and thin, but you’d need a large and expensive number of them to make a clock face.

It seems easier, cheaper, and more elegant to go with a cheap electromechanical movement for the time in the middle, and then LEDs for the planetary positions. You can get clock movements for $3, and people have succeeded in controlling them from an Arduino.

Here’s a sketch of what this Digital Orrery version clock face might look like. The colored circles are LEDs (not exact colors) showing the same example time as the one used below, 12:30am GMT on January 25, 2014. They read outward starting from Mercury, just like the real solar system, and skipping Earth. Then an outer ring shows sun, moon, and rising/ascendant, without showing the phase of the moon like the dot-matrix version does.


Pi and Swiss Ephemeris vs. Arduino and DIY with JPL DE421?

Looking at the JPL DE421 ephemeris, and others from JPL, I’m intimidated at the prospect of figuring out how to calculate planetary positions from this data– it seems pretty complicated. Meanwhile, there’s a commercial software package called Swiss Ephemeris that’s based on the JPL DE406 ephemeris and purports to do exactly this. It seems to be written a couple of longtime dedicated astro geeks in Zurich, and informed by the Swiss national passion for accuracy and precision in timekeeping. It’s called the Swiss Ephemeris, and if you license it for your product, starting at around $680, you can also display their “Swiss Ephemeris Inside” logo.


If the planetary positions are indeed difficult to calculate, that suggests that my original idea of Arduino + SD card with JPL ephemeris might not have enough horsepower to do a good job. It might make more sense to go for a Raspberry Pi (or similar) running the Swiss Ephemeris. The whole software package fits on a CD-ROM (700MB), but I’m not sure how much of that is program code (which I think would need to fit into the Pi’s 512MB onboard) and how much is ephemeris tables that could easily on a 2GB SD card. Anyway, I’m gonna look into it. More expensive for sure, but it might be worth it to not re-invent the cosmic wheel and also have the #1 trusted name in planetary position calculation software.


8×8 Astro Glyphs

I had fun designing these 8×8 glyphs for the Celestyme clock. There are lots of 8×8 dot-matrix LED displays for these to shine on, with many different sizes and colors ranging from these 0.78″ square ones from LiteOn via Jameco to these 1.2″ and 1.5″ square ones from Betlux. Judging by online prices, these components should cost at most $2 each in bulk, likely much less.

Here are the glyphs. Some may change a bit, but I think most work quite well:


Mercury Venus Mars Jupiter
mercury venus mars jupiter
Saturn Uranus Neptune Pluto
saturn uranus neptune pluto

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Minimum Enjoyable Product (MEP) Methodology


Tech startups often introduce to market with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), the cheapest and easiest-to-build version of a new product that carves out its functional niche without crashing. If people find this first release useful, then the company, investors, and the market know that the product should probably be developed further. The early real-world market feedback reduces risk.

For the entertainment industry, storytelling division, the analog to MVP is the Minimum Enjoyable Product (MEP). This is the cheapest and easiest-to-create version of the story that people will find worthwhile.

For many stories, the MEP is a graphic novel or other illustrated narrative. This inexpensive format lends itself best to screen adaptation because it tells the story in a visual manner, and can be easily translated into a production storyboard. (Or even basically be a production storyboard.) That’s why so many movies are now adapted from comic books, and why the annual ComicCon has become not just a fan event, but a story scouting trip and testbed for Hollywood.

Treatment and screenplay formats do not work for MEPs, despite their importance under the old Hollywood paradigm, because they are not fun to read. Especially treatments– as short as they are, they demand too much concentration. And full-length screenplays (like novels) are too long to work as “minimum.” People generally don’t read in either format unless it’s part of their job.

With stories that are “talky” and less visually-oriented, you can also employ MEP methodology via short (written) stories, articles, podcasts, and presentations. But illustrated forms are better bets for demonstrating screen potential.

20th Century Stories has started contacting authors about helping to adapt their great stories into graphic novels with screen potential. Stay tuned, and please email any suggestions to: suggest [at] 20thcenturystories [dot] net.


Celestyme: A Digital Clock That Shows Where All the Planets Are


Timepieces are fascinating, especially when they give you extra information, like the current phase of the moon or sunrise/sunset times. And whether you’re into astronomy, astrology, or both, it’s fun to know where the planets are currently in the sky.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a clock that shows you not just the time, date, and moon phase, but also the zodiac locations of the sun, moon, and all planets, plus the rising sign and Mercury and Venus retrograde status?

And wouldn’t it be even more interesting and cool if the clock displayed this information digitally via a dot-matrix LED array, with all astrological symbols represented as 8×8 glyphs?

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Sub Ramp logo sketch

Sub Ramp: a WordPress plugin for time-function subscription pricing


News-gathering companies have been floundering for years, looking for ways to monetize their timely digital content. Micropayment schemes have failed, so now various combinations of advertising, donations, grants, and paywalls typically generate the revenue that keeps them afloat. But it’s a trickle compared to the old days. Professional journalism is important, so this is a problem for us all, and some foresee the industry’s extinction.

As of last October, over 430 newspapers in North America use some form of paywall. But paywalls drastically reduce readership, because readers can usually find what they want for free. “Leaky paywalls,” which allow limited free access to content, are an improvement– but as with micropayments, they’re ultimately rooted in the print-era assumption that the price of delivered content needs to be static. And that’s a mistake.

If published information has some time value, why can’t publishers charge for it accordingly? If you learn some valuable information before others do, that translates to greater opportunities and higher status– that’s a universal. So why aren’t our subscription mechanisms designed to reflect this? Why can’t you say, “The more you pay, the sooner you get it.”?

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Photo courtesy Ted Van Huisen, Flickr, per CC BY-NC 2.0 license

Basic info from SF Rec & Park

Photo courtesy Ted Van Huisen, Flickr, per CC BY-NC 2.0 license

Photo courtesy Ted Van Huisen, Flickr, per CC BY-NC 2.0 license

I spoke with Jeff Suess, the Property Manager at the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks. He’s the one who manages their contractor-run properties, including the carousel. He said that the organ had been restored 1997-1998, as part of a restoration of the entire carousel, and the engineer who did it had changed it from a card-based player system to a retrofitted paper-roll based system. This was before Jeff’s time at the department, but he heard that the organ had worked after that for about one year, but then it broke somehow, and it hasn’t played since.

I don’t want to reveal too much at this point, but he told me who has the contract to run the carousel, and also who had gotten the organ running back in 1998. They’re both in the area and seem reachable. He also agreed that it would be a win for all concerned if we found a way to raise the money to get the carousel organ running again. The 1998 restoration was funded by a few organizations, but I’m thinking that this time around, it should be some local crowdfunding.

He also told me that the GGP carousel, which was built in 1912 by the Herschell-Spillman Company, is almost identical to the one in Tilden Park, Berkeley, and that there are trade journals dedicated to the vintage carousel industry– so the expertise is out there.