Saturday, August 20, 2011

From 11's to 10's

Big fat analogy coming. Closing this window is for quitters. And I know you ain't a quitter.


The other day, I was talking to a friend that I hadn't spoken to in a while. She asked a pointed question:

"What's new?"

My answer was less pointed: 

"Work's getting busier. Ankle still on the mend. Oh, and I switched from 11's to 10's on my guitar. This is a momentous occasion."

That last bit was a little cryptic. Not being of the musical type, much less of the guitar type, she didn't have a proper response. Indeed, it was a momentous occasion when I made the decision to go from 11's to 10's, but she had no idea why it was so momentous. 

A little background: "11's" or "10's" (or "9's" or "12's" or…) refer to the size of the strings on a guitar in units of one-thousandths of an inch (i.e., "11's" = 0.011 inches). Saying the one number like "11's" or "10's" on its own doesn't tell you full the story because there are, of course, five other strings for a standard 6-string guitar whose sizes haven't been named. Saying "11's" or "10's" refers only to the first string. However, it still gives you a good approximation of a guitarist's preference. Usually, "11's" means "medium size", and your strings range in size somewhat nonlinearly up to 0.048 inches; we say "11 to 48's" for shorthand. For "10's", or "lights," the usual range is from 0.010 to 0.046 — "10 to 46's". (I say "usually" as there many exceptions to the standard.)

Get it? Got it? Good. Bear with me.

10's (ahem, 10-46's) are the norm for guitarists. I'd bet you a good sum of money that when you walk into a Guitar Center and start playing a guitar, the strings on it are 10's. On the other hand, 11's are considered heavy, even though they are called "medium" as if to suggest that they are "average" in size. 11's are popular with rhythm guitarists, as they carry a little bit more oomph and sustain. As a consequence of their larger size, they require a little more finger strength to play. You can, however, "hide" under the heaps of additional tone that you're getting with them.

When I started playing the guitar in the 9th grade, I was playing with the standard 10's. In my senior year, I managed to build a rather unhealthy obsession with Stevie Ray Vaughan. He continues to be one of the most prominent inspirations in my guitar playing. What's important to know about SRV, other than he was an unequivocal god on the guitar, is that he played super heavy strings: 13's to 62's.

That's heavy. Really heavy. 

It's damn near impossible to play a guitar with 13's. Funny stories of SRV on the road tell us that he super-glued his fingertips because he played so hard on such heavy strings. (To be fair, he also had to tune the strings down a bit to loosen the tension.) If you catch a video of him in just the right light, you'll see stuff flying off the neck of his guitar: it's either skin or super glue. 


SRV used his guitar as a percussive instrument. It is difficult to make this sound good with light strings because light strings have less bottom-end, less bass, less tone, and when hit viciously hard they break or sound like brassy junk. (You can hide the crappy tone under a Marshall head and cab, making it sound like NASA built your rig.) Because his strings were so heavy, his percussive playing added depths and layers and tones heretofore unknown. It just sounded big. He could also play pretty damned fast, but let's remember that Texas blues ain't about that. Texas blues are about big, sloppy, heavey, percussive, toned, steroidal lead guitar, about blues taken up to 11.

Figure 1: But these all go to 11.

"Sloppy" is the appropriate term here because, like I said, you can "hide" under the percussiveness. You can have a little bit of error in your playing because you aren't trying to play at lightning speed and you certainly don't give a damn about missing a note here and there. You're earning your notes, but in these big huge batches, not one-by-one. It's a macroscopic accumulation only visible with a wide lens. The nitty-gritty don't matter. It don't matter one bit. (Ya'll.)

During my SRV obsession some seven years ago, I took my beat-up and used American Stratocaster and beefed her up with 12's — 12 to 56's, to be precise. The 13's were too much. After I had saved enough money, I bought myself a Gibson Les Paul:

Figure 2: Me and Miss Paul

The Les Paul is not a guitar that's used to having anything more than 10's on it. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin used a Les Paul, and his only advice to young guitarists was, "Use light strings." My SRV obsession still hung over my head as I made the purchase, so I was compelled to make a compromise. I settled on 11's — 11 to 52's, actually, not 11 to 48's — giving me that classic "regular-top-heavy-bottom" sound. Lots of boom on the backside with enough shaved off the lighter strings to give me some breathing room when I'm playing those face-melters high on the neck.

Seven years later, my SRV obsession has subsided. With that obsession has also gone that necessity to make a compromise between sounding like SRV on a Les Paul (incidentally, an impossible task for a Les Paul, much less for anyone besides SRV, who was not human) and having some fine-scale noodling capabilities on the high end. I settled on 10's to get some lightning speed, something of which I've had only inklings in the past. Pure speed with some gas behind it is hard to come by, and 11's sure ain't helping for a mere mortal like me.

I removed my skin-tainted and dirty set of 11-52's this morning so I could trap on the first set of 10's that my Les Paul has ever seen (well, since it's inception at the guitar shop in 2004). The transition to 10's has been tough: my vibrato is all out of whack; I'm over-bending; my percussive sloppiness, emulated from SRV and Joe Bonamassa, is coming to light and the veil has been lifted on my mistakes; I'm less nimble than I thought; I'm hitting and gripping way to hard, being used to having to work harder to play each note. It'll take a week or so to get back on track.

Get it? Got it? Good. Bear with me.


This past week in the world of MER-B, we had a few problems with our drives. Per the status update on the MER website:

On Sols 2683 and 2685 (Aug. 11 and 13, 2011), the rover performed a pair of drives to position herself for a close approach to the rock target. On Sol 2688 (Aug. 16, 2011), the planned approach drive stopped early because the rover's visual odometry could not measure progress accurately due to a lack of visual features in the camera field of view.

Our tactical meetings this week were also a little more… strained. These short drives require a much higher level of detail in the planning and we're mixing in some complex observations. The geometry is awkward, the terrain is deceptive, and the coffee isn't flowing at a high enough volumetric rate. Everyone from the RPs to the TUL to the TAP/SIE is feeling it. There are curveballs at every corner, waiting to be swung at — and missed.

That said, these challenges are well under our umbrella of capabilities. To call them "growing pains" would be inaccurate, as most of the tactical team has done this all before, complex drives and elaborate system-level sequencing alike. It would be more faithful to the current situation to call it "morning drowsiness." As I've explained before, I haven't seen such involved sequencing before because I joined the MER project when we were in the middle of nowhere.

When we were doing those big drives, there was a little bit more margin for error. The terrain wasn't dangerous and we were, most of the time, building plans around drives. Images were taken tens, if not hundreds, of meters apart. A botched plan meant a missed day over a timescale of months. It was pedal to the metal. It was go big or go home. It was macro. We could have a little bit of slop — within obvious limits — and we could "hide" some detailed, fine-scale errors because they didn't really matter for the Meridiani dune fields. We needed accuracy, not precision; macro, not micro.

Now, we're building drives around plans, the original focus of the mission. We didn't blast a couple rovers to Mars to drive them, we blasted them there to let them do science. Driving is a capability, a means and not an end. This is a crucial concept for the team to have in their head. I've never experienced it, so it's new to me — growing pains — but the team has experienced it, and it's not new to them — morning drowsiness. We're still waking up to the fact that, oh crap, we're at Cape York and it's time to do some science.

Figure 3: Science is required in this hizz-ouse (courtesy Mike the Mission Manager)

Brush the dust off the manuals. Have another cup of coffee. Limber up those engineering muscles. We've got some science to do.

The analogy is thus…

For the last several years, Oppy's been in cruise control. The sequencing detail has been at the fine scale only where it needed to be. Things were macro. Plans were focused on the large-scale picture of "get some mileage, then catch your breath." A botched plan can mean several missed days over a timescale of a few days. It was about accumulation of tracks, appreciation of distance, at the risk of system wear-and-tear. We were percussive, hiding the micro-level details in the noise of huge drives and well-pointed imagery. We were playing with 11's.

Now, we're at the Cape. We're about precision, not accuracy. We're about the micro, not the macro. We're about short, expertly-planned drives and precise, expertly-planned imaging. We're about near-term plans, not mileage. There is no "Pink Path" to which we must abide. We are now playing with 10's. And the adjustment is hitting us. It's taken about a week or so to get back on track.

We got lucky in two departments: 

1) The adjustment hit us while we were in Restricted planning sols. We were driving every other sol at most and planning every other day at most. There was time to catch our breath and think twice about our vibratos and bends and finger strength drives and imaging and systems engineering. 
2) The adjustment didn't really hit us that hard. We aren't frustrated or suffering. Just acclimating to a previously-known norm. We didn't put the rover in danger and lost, maybe, a sol or two due to the botched drives.

Monday, we hit Nominal planning. And it's not pedal to the metal, it's science to the… metal. (?)


For those that are interested: The "No Shave Noachian" chinstrap has made some progress. Composite photography and growth rate analysis suggest that the current appearance is as such (accuracy not guaranteed):

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