Wizard’s Staff

Like many folks, I have that box in my closet filled with cables that I keep “just in case.” Today I decided to go through that box and toss out the stuff that I knew was obsolete or that I’d never use again.

Sure, there was the usual batch of BNC cables and excess power cords. But at the bottom of the box was something I’d forgotten: The electronics parts I purchased when I was building my Wizard’s staff.


Here I am holding staff back in 1990, when I came in costume to work at Halloween in 1990.

The staff is made from segments from Torchiere lamps; the metal rings are from scrap aluminum tubing. The bottom segment contains batteries (four D cells) and electronics. The remaining segments contain wiring running the length of the staff. At the top, just below the quartz crystal, is a Maglite bulb.

The way the circuit worked is that if you touched any adjacent pair of rings, the lamp under the crystal would turn on. It was an amazingly bright effect, especially indoors or at night.

The circuit was always finicky. The main problem was keeping electrical connectivity between those aluminum rings and copper wires. Soldering copper to aluminum is hard, because the aluminum conducts the heat away so rapidly. I’ve only seen it done by an experienced welder with a very hot torch.

I never found a way to keep that connection stable. I tried different kinds of tape and glues, including conducting epoxy. The copper wires would always come loose.

When I first built the staff, it was fairly reliable. A few years later I pulled it out to try to resurrect it, but even with fresh batteries it was hard to get it work again. A few times through the years I tried to get working again, usually for some costume party, but never fully succeeded.

Now that I’m wrapping up my first Maker project (I’ll continue the A/C saga soon), I might try to make the staff work again. It’s been almost 30 years, and there have been considerable advances in electronics and materials. I still have resistors, transistors, capacitors, and other miscellaneous parts from the bottom of that box.

I don’t have any particular events to bring the staff to, since LARPs and Ren Faires are in my past for now. But it would be nice if I could pick it up at a moment’s notice and use a crystal to light my way.


This newly-discovered disease refers to the inability to keep quiet when you see someone else using using a device with a speech interface.

What the device’s user says: “Note eight dollars for lunch.”

What Siri hears: “Note ten dollars for lunch wow is that an iphone I’ve thought about getting one but Apple products are so expensive does it really understand everything you say”

The only known cure is duct tape, applied orally.


Mountain Lion is the next version of the Mac OS. From the Mountain Lion press release:

“Gatekeeper is a revolutionary new security feature that gives you control over which apps can be downloaded and installed on your Mac. You can choose to install apps from any source, just as you do on a Mac today, or you can use the safer default setting to install apps from the Mac App Store, along with apps from developers that have a unique Developer ID from Apple. For maximum security, you can set Gatekeeper to only allow apps from the Mac App Store to be downloaded and installed.”

Get ready for the explosion.

Need microphone set-up for faint voice recording

OK, audio geeks, I need help and I need it fast.

In one week, I go to the Free Spirit Gathering. I hope to do some voice interviews. The set-up will probably be people sitting around in a circle, from 10 to 30 feet across (I have no idea). I want to make audio recordings of my questions and people’s responses. My original idea was to put a microphone in the center and let it pick up the voices.

My recording device will be my iPad. Note that this has no internal input amplifiers for its microphone; input volume cannot be adjusted. I purchased an external microphone (a CAD U1); it’s a USB microphone (any mic for the iPad must be USB). It has no amplifier either, just a mute button.

In my initial tests a few months ago, this mic seemed fine. I just ran a more realistic audio test, and to my horror I found that if the mic was more than a foot away from my mouth, the sound became almost too faint to hear. In an outdoor environment like FSG, I’m afraid everything will disappear into background noise.

Video cameras seem to capture sound from a long distance away, and with no special equipment. There must be something out there that will do what I want.

If I must, I’ll pass the mic around. But this is awkward, and will interfere with my ability to take notes while people speak.

I don’t have much time for shopping. If I have to, I’ll pay extra for overnight shipping from Amazon, but I have to know what to get.

So: What’s a good audio set-up for capturing voices speaking in a circle?