Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Maker Faire NC recap

The first annual Maker Faire NC was April 25th, 2010, and it was quite a success, with over 2000 people coming to see more than 50 of us showcasing various things we've made.

I ran a display called LEGO DIY, which featured original creations from myself, BrickJournal editor Joe Meno, and Brickapolis. This was my first time running a display by myself and using my own models to anchor a display (generally I'm more active in group layouts instead). You can find information on all of the creations (and the modified set) I did on the NCLUG post I wrote for the event.

I believe that all the photos and videos you could possibly want (and plenty extra to spare) can be found in the official Maker Faire:NC 2010 flickr pool. I'm gratuitously over-represented in there, but for the purposes of this blog I guess that counts as less of a bug and more of a feature. I also have three photosets of my own (I only added a handful of photos to the group pool): Maker Faire NC setup, Maker Faire NC 2010, and Scrap Exchange. The Scrap Exchange hosted the exhibitor's party on Saturday night, which was also a great opportunity for me to see all the exciting things they do there. I picked up a variety of interesting things from their barrels that you can fill bags from - some of which I was actually able to use with my LEGO pneumatics to make a quick repair during the show.

The event was well-organized, especially considering that this was the first time out. It was a great show - my only regret is not getting to see more of the other displays. I'm not sure how long they'll keep the list of exhibitors from 2010 online, but there were quite a few displays that I'm interested in looking into further. Isn't that the point? That we all want to try out some of each other's hobbies afterwards?

Word when I left that night was that they'd start looking for another location in Durham for Maker Faire NC 2011 within the month. Since I will probably be involved again in some way or another (I might do a similar display again, might get a proper NCLUG group display going, or might opt to go the musical performance route with my Mindstorms band instead), I will keep you posted.

Friday, May 14, 2010

This Exists

This (an all silver Rubik's cube where the boxes are all different dimensions) exists. I need one, if only to make my little corner of the world a happier place.

That is all.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What I Was Doing Mother's Day Weekend

For a glimpse of how BrickMagic went on Mother's Day weekend, check out the BrickMagic flickr pool (all of my ~500 photos have been added here).

I'm also one of the 11 builders featured by name in this wrap-up at motherboard.tv.

I don't intend to do a full recap - since this was the first year this event was put on, the negative stuff will be sent to Joe sooner or later as feedback and chalked up as lessons learned. Many of the highlights aren't things we can share much of (set designers showing us prototypes, private info on the idea house, etc). I'm told that some video was taken for the BrickJournal website, but I have no what (if anything) will surface. Time will tell. I need to move on to the next thing now.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Neglecting this for a few days...

Just a head's up as to what's going on - I know I need to revisit a few topics from the past few weeks, but nothing additional will be done here until well after BrickMagic. Sorry for the inconvenience, but there are only so many hours in the day and I cannot prioritize this now.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

From the Maker of the Barrel Monster

Recap posts of the past few days are coming, but first, here's an exciting piece of art I accidentally saw on Saturday. This "Street Knight" was built by Joe Carnevale of Barrel Monster fame. Apparently it was installed Saturday morning as an Earth Day festivity (you have to love the recycled art tone of it). In any case, it's spectacular and you can appreciate it even with a quick drive by (it's on a street corner in the Cameron Village mall, and I was able to admire it for a minute while I was sitting at the red light on my way to Maker Faire NC from the NCLUG meeting).

Here are a few links to news coverage (with any luck at least one of them will keep the page live for a while):
News & Observer
Raleigh Telegram
Green Diary

This is apparently not a permanent exhibit, that last link indicates plans to sell it to a "local" (I'm assuming Raleigh-area) gallery in the next few weeks if a permanent location at Cameron Village cannot be found.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Maker Faire NC

Maker Faire NC is TODAY from 9 AM to 9 PM, in Durham, North Carolina. Additional details on my display at http://www.nclug.us/index.php/2010/04/maker-faire-nc-this-weekend/

Display set-up photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/dp3/sets/72157623802813275/

Friday, April 23, 2010

Minifig-scale Desk

Here's another small project I built fairly recently: a minifig-scale LEGO desk. Most of the parts for this were taken from a copy of the Crystal Skull temple Indiana Jones kit. The photos didn't come out well (I rushed photos of quite a few things so I'd have more links ready for Maker Faire NC), but the desk itself is a design I'm happy with. Note that the dark tan tiles are set back a tile's thickness from the frame of the desk. I'm also happy with the blotter and the drawer pulls. A great use of that small amount of dark brown and dark tan you can't build much with!

Pretty much everything done in this desk has been done elsewhere - the techniques aren't particularly complex, but they work well.

Modifying LEGO Set 8880

LEGO set 8880, the Technic Supercar, is one of the greatest LEGO sets of all time (you can argue otherwise, but you would be wrong). When I finally bought mine on eBay (you can buy used copies in decent shape there for roughly the original retail price), mine had a few parts that were incorrect. Since an incomplete set can't really hold up as a collectible, I went ahead and started modding mine. The obvious things to change were places where other parts are more appropriate, but didn't exist back in 1994. So I focused on a few changes, based on newer parts (and preserving the look and feel of the set as much as possible):

1. Allow the suspension to use more of the large springs' shafts.
2. Secure the steering to prevent half-bushings from falling off (a minor issue normally, exaggerated by change #1).
3. Expand the wheel wells so that the wheels never get stuck (this worked in the original it but change #1 broke it).
4. Add a Power Functions motor (motorizing this kit is generally considered impossible).

The suspension and steering came out well. The motor only works in second gear, and even then I had to keep the trunk open for it and sturdy up an axle (the chain for the engine is the weak link). Change #3 does make the front of the car visibly less smooth, but functionally is fine. Long story short: I need to design my own supercar from scratch one of these days.

More details on flickr, along with a display idea (put the car "up on blocks" and use a mirror underneath to make more of the internals visible).

Thursday, April 22, 2010

9V Thomas the Tank Engine

My 9V Thomas the Tank Engine model has gone unblogged for no apparent reason. The photos sort of speak for themselves in this case, but here's a blog post for it. The photos are on flickr (with an outdated tongue-in-cheek description), and yes, this model will be at Maker Faire NC this weekend.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Test Post

Testing out some layout changes...

Looks like the new layout is loading reasonably well in IE 8, Firefox 3.6.3, and Chrome (in spite of a typo I had earlier that broke it in Firefox). Time to stop messing with it.

I'm planning on dumping some additional content on here this week so that I'll be able to direct people here to see more about various models I'm bringing to Maker Faire NC.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Link Dump / Robotics Inspiration

I recently attended most of a (telecast) lecture by Andrew Ng. The lecture was primarily about various algorithms used to control STAIR. STAIR uses ROS with various software stacks and low-level programs that are piped, linux style. There were some pretty spectacular things here to look into further, and I've barely started going through the information in these links. I was impressed by the ability to identify and manipulate unseen objects the most. Speaking of which, it looks like they have a downloadable STAIR Vision Library that works with OpenCV, which I've also been meaning to try out (I suspect that once I'm past my current run of events, I will focus on building a robot with some sort of computer vision).

There's a very good chance that I will be building a simple robot to monitor the "lab" at work. Since we're not moving the office to a new location before the summer, we've started renting out a second office in the same building for our lab. The lab gets very hot - we're running large amounts of computers and networking gear in there. Having it in a second office means that it can use a separate air conditioning system instead of overworking the AC system that we need to keep people like myself from overheating (as it is, we have fans set up outside of cubicles in a few places). When I heard that we had a need for something that could remotely tell us the temperature over the internet, the part of my brain that remembers "crazy things people have used Arduino and Twitter for" leaped into action.

First, I found out that homebrew RCX temperature sensors are easy enough for someone with my level of electronics skill to build. Then I realized I could get away with tethering a simple RCX-based 'bot to a random Linux PC (need to check on serial ports yet, but I don't expect much of an issue there), and set to figuring out if I needed additional drivers to run an old serial port IR tower on Linux. It turns out that running the LEGO hardware on Linux is easy, complete child's play, and that there's even a perl module for it. If that's too easy, there's also a command-line interface for NQC that I had completely forgotten about. The remaining issue now is just buying the resistors necessary to build the homebrew sensor (the one described here can't be found easily online, but I will try a RadioShack tomorrow)- the rest of this can be done at work. Of course, once you have an RCX on the loose already, it's not hard to imagine us finding ways to expand on the idea...

On Data Lock

Since I've had a few nitpicks over my description of Facebook as a closed service, let's talk a bit about open data. This is hugely important in the social media realm and in politics, and I'm passionate about it in both fields. Fortunately, enough other people are at least as passionate about this as I am and have already put in the time to put some clear information on the matter "out there" on "teh intarwebs".

While I would have preferred a more complete checklist of "social media" services, the article Wired posted a few months back entitled What Do We Want? Our Data. When Do We Want It? Now! does a pretty good job of summing up one of the biggest issues with social media sites - some of them let you take your data off the site, while others try to trap you in. The issue is actually a bit more complex in some cases - Flickr's policy, for example, is that only Pro users can use the bulk export tool to download all of their photos at once. For an initial overview, though, Wired's got the bases covered.

The world of open data in government has hit similar snags. Although this was one of the big things in Obama's favor last election (and the other side expressed interest in the topic as well), the current administration is still having trouble getting this right. Sunlight Labs has been tracking the progress on this front, criticizing fairly but lightly in the way that a group lobbying for openness must (Although a volunteer effort and something of a watchdog group, they are still essentially lobbying at some level). One of the biggest issues has been Adobe's lobbying efforts holding sway with many government offices even though Adobe formats aren't truly open. In most cases, a PDF file is more like a picture of a document instead of an actual useful document.

There are, of course, many other issues related to all of these - for government data, we want to be able to write programs that can parse and re-use the data, and with social network data, the ideal would be to make it possible to share between networks and directly download (and/or remove) all data and directly upload large amounts of data on any given site. I have a laundry list of issues with Facebook (expect me to post that here sooner or later - I actually logged on to that site once last week and saw it's as bad as it was two years ago when I previously logged on. Since I do not put any content on there, I will not be adding it to my "Stalk Me!" list on the sidebar here), but data lock seems to be one of the bigger problems and one of the few that most of us can agree on.

(In case you couldn't tell, this is one of a number of older "drafts" I've recently decided to clean up and post. Data lock is an important topic and while this is clearly just a start, I can always revisit this - so here's this much to get things started.)

Monday, April 5, 2010

Pneumatic Walker From Only LEGO Set 8049

When I realized I'd have only one week between LEGOPalooza and Robot Rumble in which to build a new robot, I decided I needed to pick a small project to do. Having already sized up the 2010 LEGO TECHNIC Log Loader (8049) kit to determine that it included the necessary pneumatic elements to build a simple pneumatic walker, I decided to try building a walker with that set. So with one week on the clock, the challenge was set: build a functional walker, controlled by a pneumatic circuit, without cutting tubes, and without using any parts that aren't found in that set's box (and at the same time, leaving most of the set's parts still available).

The version brought to Robot Rumble was a bit rough, strained a few parts, and squeaked when certain parts rubbed together (this came in at 100 pieces). A revision was needed (this came in at 109 pieces). I made instructions for both versions (1, 2). I only recommend the second version, which features my later performance improvements. You might be able to make another walker that runs even more smoothly using the parts from this kit, but as far as I am concerned this challenge has been met.

The easiest way to browse the photos that make up the instructions is via flickr. You can come back and read the description of what's going on in this model after you've tried building it (it's alright, it'll still be here).

Pneumatic logic works in much the same way that electronic logic works, but instead of electricity controlling the flow of electricity, pressurized air is controlling the flow of pressurized air. You can actually use LEGO pneumatics parts to build a variety of logic gates. There's nothing stopping you (in theory) from building an entire computer out of nothing but pneumatic logic gates. Personally, I like the pneumatic circuit I used in this model as an extremely primitive example of a two-bit pneumatic counter with no carry-over digit (yes, I'm just that nerdy). When you're limited to this few valves and pistons, though, it's hard to do much in the way of complex circuitry - so you don't really need to understand logic gates to follow what's happening here. Eric Brok documented this sort of pneumatic control system some years ago, and did it in a clear, less nerdy way, complete with color-coded schematics. In my model, the white parts show you where a piston is connected to a valve, and the pistons control each other's valves like in Eric's first illustration.

Pneumatic walkers were once considered something of a fad and a classic project among LEGO Technic fans. Pneuma-Ped is a good example of a somewhat more complex model, but some of the ones on LUGNET's list are much more ambitious (also, expensive and parts-intensive - the difficulty of getting pneumatic elements at a good price is part of why I set this challenge to myself to use only parts from one kit that's currently widely available).

I highly recommend buying this set from one of these two links (I receive a small commission for each kit bought through these links):
Buy LEGO TECHNIC Log Loader (8049) via LEGO Shop-at-Home
Buy LEGO TECHNIC Log Loader (8049) via Amazon

If you want to try something similar without this kit, or buy additional parts to build a more complex machine like this one, you can order parts online. Some LEGO pneumatic elements are currently available (in some cases, exclusively available) through LEGO Education. All manner of LEGO elements can be bought individually through various sellers on BrickLink.

Instructions style and the "take photos as you take it apart" technique blatantly ripped off of http://nxtprograms.com/

My design is fairly similar to one I've blogged previously for LMOTD. Since that builder was working towards a different challenge (building the smallest possible walker), the end result is actually quite different. The similarities come from using it as inspiration - I'm having a hard time recalling if I was inspired by any other two valve / two piston walkers, but I liked the hexapod mechanism here and can't seem to locate other simple walker links offhand (if you have links I should share or cite here, feel free to drop me a line at 316danny@gmail.com)

EDIT 4/28/2010: There's now a video of this in action (thanks to Jesse Bikman, who took this video at Maker Faire NC and has added it to that show's flickr pool).

Interesting Links

Time for a new link dump. Are you enjoying these?

The Internet Archive recently announced a new project called OpenLibrary. It's essentially Wikipedia for books. That's still needed, since LibraryThing lacks a good way of summarizing things for people interested in discovering books in a non-social manner (not that there's anything wrong with using social networking to discover interesting books - if you ask me, LibraryThing is an example of social networking done right because it actually uses the social model to purposefully manage meaningful data).

For April Fool's Day, XKCD decided to change the site's format to a command line interface. In addition to commands that were functional (and a few that just appeared to be), there were also jokes and games. That interface is still available for those of you who missed the joke or want to relive it (more than I can say for YouTube's TEXTp feature by the time I blogged about it at LMOTD). Most of the source code (some last minute changes were made during the day) is available on github. Naturally, the next step would be to build a version of this that can be used with YubNub - then you will have a true command line for the web (I'm not up for coding this myself due to lack of time, but I'm definitely excited about the idea).

YubNub is worth trying out anyway, if you're not familiar with it. The description of it on it's website probably isn't appealing to most, but trust me, it's worth it (I intend to revisit the topic in a future post and describe why I think all LEGO fans should use it - type "ls lego" into it if you want a taste of that).

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Recent Photos

I've recently uploaded several bunches of photos on flickr. I decided to give up and go pro. That gives me two years before I need to come up with a better photo solution (although notes and the social aspects of flickr do appeal to me, the thought of needing to pay Flickr/Yahoo! ~$2 a month until the end of time does not).

I'm particularly interested in feedback on the instructions for the pneumatic walker. A finalized version of those will appear soon, and I'd like to see that version be more user friendly in addition to the model itself being more functional.

Here are the new photo sets:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

NXT Holonomic Drive Idea

Holonomic drive systems are difficult to build with LEGO. I've never successfully built one myself, but I started to try once and I see it as something that will be increasingly easy to do in the future. You can already see more three-sided elements showing up in current sets that will make this an easier thing to do. I'm hoping that someone with more time to work on this will take it up and be able to use my attempt as a starting point. If you do, let me know and I'll let my readers know.

From my one given-up-on attempt, here's my contribution to this:
The idea: use 3 of these modules (of which I only ever built this one - I doubt that this exact design would actually be able to hold the weight of a frame and a battery box to power it), and only power the ones you need to go a particular direction. The ball will function as an unpowered caster until a motor is turned on in either direction. When the motor turns on, the geared bar swings down and the wheel in the middle will power the ball. This is an extreme take on the poor man's directional transmission concept, and I suspect that it won't work so well once there's more weight on it - but it's an idea. Omni wheels would probably be harder to build but function more smoothly. Personally, I really like the idea of a wheel that can be powered selectively, but I think it would need to be much sturdier and more firmly powered than this.

More photos are on flickr (I finally went pro and started cleaning up my account, which is how I remembered I never did blog these photos) at http://www.flickr.com/photos/dp3/sets/72157623684905594/

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

(Recently Used) Programming Resources

I've been stashing bunches of URLs at work that I've found useful. Some of these I might want to refer to in a non-work context, but they're all based on stuff I've been working with lately (perl, Git, Bash, Cacti, Linux, etc). Nothing too earth-shattering, but very handy. Here's the current list:

Git - SVN Crash Course
Git Cheat Sheet

Pointers in Perl
Perl Regular Expressions
Perl Tutorial - Arrays
Perl File IO
Yubnub commands: perldoc, cpandoc

Vi (Don't use this often but frequently find myself in there and needto escape):
Vi Cheat Sheet
Simple Guide To VI / VIM

The .ssh/known_hosts file
Linux / Unix grep command help
Regular Expressions in grep
Show all running processes

How to Write a Shell Script
Bash Self-Extracting Script

Cacti Manual - CLI Scripts
Cacti Documentation

Monday, March 22, 2010

Robot Rumble 2010 Recap

A brief recap from yesterday's show:

Robot Rumble 2010 was a great show. As a LEGO-only person (this time out, anyway) with Triangle Amateur Robotics, I ended up being a bit of a point person for various AFOL-related topics. Although there was a group from IBM calling itself "Lego and Dancing Robotics" (long story short: they build generic 'bots from the NXT Education edition booklet and make them "dance" around. It's an outgrowth of an older educational program that they started a few years back), and there were several FIRST LEGO League teams on hand, I ended up fielding questions about LEGO, NCLUG, LEGOPalooza, and BrickMagic, alongside the more expected TAR, Maker Faire NC, TechShop, pneumatics, programming, and robotics questions. Some of it was influenced by the fact that we were so close to the front of the museum, but overall I feel like it was a good idea to have a dedicated LEGO robotics adult there (no offense - but there's a decided shortage of active LEGO hobbyists in this area who are into the robotics side of things).

The other groups displaying (listed at the official event link above) were alright, although a few were a little anticlimactic - Carolina Combat Robotics spent the day playing robot hockey instead of battle bots (maybe I got the wrong impression from their name...) and iRobot brought out almost the exact same display that they had at the NCSU career fair last year. The IBM group was helpful, since I could refer requests to see my NXT kit in action to their group. One of the IBMers also clued me in to OpenCV, which looks like something I can use with all those Logitech cameras I've been stashing around the house (back when LEGO had a branded version of the Logitech QuickCam and Logitech was still supporting the programming API for the QuickCam, I got excited about the idea of building a serious robot with them and started buying up every one I could find cheap).

My pneumatic walker spent most of the day between a completely homebrew line-follower and a Zhu-zhu pet, which is actually a pretty good metaphor for the range of robots you'll see at TAR. It was fun blowing people's minds with an entirely pneumatic robot - although pneumatic logic is old-hat by the standards of the LEGO fan community (in the late '90's/early '00's, it was something of a classic project and a fad), most people still have never seen a pneumatic walker or heard of a pneumatic logic control circuit. The idea of a system that doesn't need any software is apparently pretty far out of the mainstream of robotics now. Parents and kids, on the other hand, were pretty thrilled with this - here's something you can build and design yourself, with a little thought and less than $60 down into the hobby. A simple $60 walking robot (with almost 500 spare parts afterward) is understandably more appealing than spending ~$250 for an NXT kit and then not knowing quite how to use it and program it (which, of course, is why I intend to post instructions and encourage today's kids and parents to take this project up). Another fun thing I noticed was that kids really loved the pneumatic hand pump. Sure, it was annoying spending ~4 hours of my Saturday pumping up air pressure for my walker, but it was kind of fun to hand it over when kids asked "Can I try?", and then watch as every kid near the booth had a chance to "control" it for a minute or two. During the few times when the walker was unattended, kids were able to figure out how to use the pump and run the 'bot on their own. Next few LEGO shows, I'll have to make a point to have an interactive element controlled by a pump.

I will, as promised, deliver instructions for my pneumatic walker shortly. I've been making some revisions to allow it to run more smoothly, and I'm not entirely sure at the moment when/where I'll be putting photos and instructions online. I may test further - I had taken all the photos I needed to post instructions in the style of nxtprograms.com before, but then I realized I needed to work on reliability so that this would be ready for hours of use. I'll probably put off doing another round of instruction photos until I've worked out those kinks.

Expect event photos to show up online around the same time.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Behind the Scenes Work

Not too much is happening here - last week's show was a bit of a bust for me but went surprisingly well overall in spite of some drama within NCLUG (in spite of months of work, the project I wanted to display at this event was not yet presentable). While I'm not used to having a supporting role at a LEGO show, things seem to have gone off well. The extra time came in handy - I ended up having some "work work" to do over the weekend, and I managed to squeeze in a concert on Saturday night. I've barely started attempting to clean up or post photos yet. I am now prepping for Robot Rumble this upcoming weekend. The next few weeks will involve more tidying up (my build area is currently absolutely unsafe) and preparing various things I'm planning on bringing to Maker Faire.

It looks like I'll be on my own for Maker Faire this year. Speaking of NCLUG drama...everyone wants to do more shows, but when we have one that's ours for the taking, nobody else wants to participate. There are some issues involved with coordinating a large group for a one day show, but I'd definitely say it's worth it to engage the larger hobbyist/DIY community and not just the families that tend to go to LEGO-only shows. Their loss - I'll be there and we'll have a great time. My only concern is that I might not have enough time to see the various other exhibits at the Faire.

Speaking of not having time, I'm stalling my wheels on pretty much all of my projects lately. In the interest of making it look like there is some progress on the fix-the-blog front, I've played around with the new Blogger Template Designer for a few minutes today (personally, I'm not happy with this tool but it's a slight improvement on their previous WYSIWYG GUI). I'm still not happy with the layout here, but I think it's a step in the right direction. I'm still interested in wasting much less space on the sides of the screen - and I'll probably switch to a 3-column set-up with a proper profile and contact info at some point - but this will have to do until I have more time available.

With any luck, my little pneumatic walker built entirely from the current LEGO Pneumatic Log Loader set will be working well enough for me to work out instructions soon - the current goal is to have that project finished and on display by Saturday. It seems like I can get simple walking mechanisms working, and I can get the binary adder control circuit working (don't worry, I'll explain this when I post instructions), but I can't seem to get everything working well together. As of this writing, the legs slip to the side more than they actually walk forward.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Rubik's Cubes

If you know me, you probably know I'm a big fan of Rubik's cubes. That's my excuse for featuring two awesome cube solving robots on LMOTD just two weeks apart.

While finding links to round out those posts, I found out that my collection is incomplete. First of all, this section of Wikipedia actually exists - which is exciting in more ways than I should think about. I apparently need to get my hands on 5x5x5, 6x6x6, and 7x7x7 cubes ASAP!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

More Upcoming Events

While I'm still hesitant to share most of the details, I should let my readers know that I'm planning on being at a few other events that are coming up. Here's the full list of possible "tour dates" coming up in 2010 (list was updated March first to reflect events that have been confirmed):

March 13th-14th, Chapel Hill, NC: LEGOPalooza 2010 (look for my GBC factorysets and other buildings in the town display)
March 20th, Durham, NC: Robot Rumble (I'll be the guy with the LEGO)
April 25th, Durham, NC: Maker Faire NC (previously blogged as well - my exhibit has been approved. I'm told that similar exhibits will be lumped together - look for me near the LEGO)

May 6th-9th, Raleigh, NC: BrickMagic
August 5th-8th, Chantilly, VA (just outside Washington DC): BrickFair

The LEGO conventions included in the above list have public hours that do not run for the full length of the event. Make sure that the dates you plan to attend are really available - full info is at the links above. What I bring to show will vary fairly widely between events. I will post more information about these as we get closer to the events - I'm hoping to get to the point where I can point people to this blog when they ask for more details about how things were done.

There was also some chatter about a possible LEGO-related children's class to be offered at a local library here in NC, but at the moment that idea is on the back burner.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Early Robots

It feels wrong to share something from Cracked on here as inspiration, but this article includes several interesting items that are worth reading about (and warrant further research on my part). I find it disturbing how often I actually learn something while reading satirical "time waster" sites.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Upcoming Event: Maker Faire NC

EDIT 4/23: While the motorized compressor and some of the car bits I was planning on bringing aren't currently ready to go, we do have enough other exciting things to fill the space packed already. I'm compiling a list of the projects that are packed for Maker Faire NC at the Maker Faire NC post on the NCLUG blog. Please refer to that list if you are looking for more information about anything included at the LEGO DIY display.

The date and location for Maker Faire NC have finally been announced. Generally speaking, I'm not posting too much in advance about events (I'm trying to keep some things as surprises, and I don't want to hype something up if I'm not sure I can finish it in time). However, the application page asks for information about projects we will be bringing, and I thought airing a list publicly would be a good way of summing things up. I have a few creations I've shown off before that I thought would appeal to the more DIY crowd of a Maker Faire. Regrettably, I haven't documented most of them on here yet, but I intend to share more about each of these online eventually and those additional details will appear on this blog.

I intend to bring the following projects (all LEGO-based) to this event:
Lamp - my lamp made primarily out of LEGO, with a socket cord inside. In the spirit of the event, I'll have an extra socket cord out so people can more easily see how to do it themselves.

Magnets - I have a set of LEGO magnets I have built using old DUPLO letter tiles on LEGO magnets. They're a big hit at the office.

Coasters - Yes, you can build coasters out of LEGO.

CD Holder - I have built a few CD holders out of LEGO. I will be showing off the one that is 10" wide.

Robot Band - I have been working on building a LEGO Mindstorms based robotic band. Although I am planning on having enough material programmed to do a show by the end of the year, at this event I intend to demonstrate some of the smaller mechanisms I use for making robots play instruments.

Model car parts - I will bring my modified 8880 kit and some additional model car bits (including manual and automatic transmissions and a gas/electric engine model).

Pneumatics - My electric pneumatic compressor is ready to go. I will bring something (either logic gates / walkers or an arm) to show off with it.

I might try to squeeze in some other goodies. I'm mainly interested in showing off some of the more DIY side of the LEGO hobby. I'm also hoping to arrange an NCLUG group layout of more traditional LEGO creations (assuming there are enough people in that group who can make it and that we can agree on a theme - as of this writing no one else from that group has expressed interest in Maker Faire NC, but I'm trying to change that).

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Interesting Links

I'm trying to get out of the habit of keeping links open for long periods of time and not really reading them. So I'm posting these here for my own later reference and for the benefit of anyone else who is intrigued by them as I am.

Isogawa Studio Model Gallery - original LEGO creations by the author of Tora no Maki. Tora no Maki is the fantastic book on mechanisms that everyone who thinks they don't know enough techniques to build with LEGO Technic and Mindstorms parts has been looking for. It's largely pictorial, so the language barrier is a non-issue.

Crowkillers is the website of the famed LEGO builder who designs original super cars that are at, near, or in some cases even beyond the level of quality of set 8880. I had previously only known about his Brickshelf page and sparsely-updated MOCpages account. Now that I've put in the time to provide more background for you, I've also discovered that he's on YouTube. Those of you who aren't supercar geeks can see an overview of his work at TechnicBricks. I fully intend to soak a few more months into the field of building fantastic functional cars at a scale of roughly 1:20. I'm modding my 8880 ever so slowly, trying to improve the suspension and add extra features...

I've been meaning to take some photos and post about the magnet set I made for my office recently. It's been surprisingly popular, and we wish we had a magnetic whiteboard to put them on. I found this how-to on making magnetic whiteboards to be a bit much to try at the office, but it's definitely an exciting idea. If I ever have kids, I'll definitely have to try to get that going in their play room. For now, I'm just sticking my magnets to the frame of the cubicle wall.

This last one I'm a bit less sure about, and frankly the "Featured sites" category looks a bit questionable to me. Supposedly Video Download Helper can work some magic with Flash-based streaming media to make files downloadable. I have no idea if this checks out, but if you try it let me know how it works for you.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Google AI Challenge

I know that I shouldn't have started this with all of the other things I have on my plate, but it's fun and not too difficult to get started on. The Google AI Challenge contest going on now (February 4th 2010 - February 26, 2010) is a simple contest to create the best AI that plays Tron. It's a fun, lightweight little bit of ASCII-art action that you can watch right at the command line. No word on prizes for winners yet. Full details at the link above.

You could probably beat the relatively simple approach I've used so far (after I finished my first two real entries, I realized both had been suggested on the strategy page). It's pretty exciting watching scores jump - each entry is graded and ranked against the other entries (the server hosting the challenge is set up to automatically play the bots against each other).

Another Option For Used Floppy Disks

What you're looking at in this picture is a painting by British artist Nick Gentry. He's a pretty skilled painter, and he shares my interest in reusing potentially discarded items instead of letting them rot in landfills. Nick Gentry paints directly on floppy disks (some bought, some donated) and creates surprisingly evocative work, frequently with parts of the disks forming or distorting parts of the image. More pictures of his work can be found on his website (where you can also buy some of his pieces).

It looks like we do have to pay shipping (to the UK at that) if we pass along our extra floppy disks by donating them to Nick Gentry, but this is definitely an exciting alternative use for old floppies that I had not thought of before.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

XKCD Comic (Stand Back - I Know Regular Expressions!)

I'm not sure why I didn't blog this earlier - it' s a bit overdue. Several months back, my boss started encouraging me to change up my office LEGO display a bit. I had brought in a set (a dump truck) and filled the back of it with a series of tubes (an obvious Ted Stevens joke that works that much better at a network company). Around Thanksgiving, I built a LEGO version of a favorite XKCD comic strip that mentioned some programming skills I'd learned on the job and enjoy using at work. The photos have been up on flickr for a bit, but I changed out my display again around Christmas break (yep, I'm still using college lingo for vacation days) and I've since brought in even more LEGO (a set of magnets that spell out a slogan). My coworkers are fairly split between people who like LEGO and people who aren't familiar with it, but nobody else is as crazy as I am. I mean, seriously, how devoted do you have to be to have this sort of working collection of sand blue bricks, Technic sets, and DUPLO parts on hand?

So anyway, here are the photos that I apparently uploaded in December but have neglected to post until now. For those of you unfamiliar with XKCD, the comic I used is Regular Expressions.

First, some link action (flickr tags are fun!) - you might find it easier to just browse these photos on flickr :
All photos from that office display
Just the XKCD photos

Or you can click on these photos below for more info (I wrote a description for each photo when I uploaded them):

It's a series of tubes!

The truck, inside the DUPLO "table" I built to let me show the truck and the comic at the same time (the Perl books in the background here and in the other photos just happens to enhance the theme - they're really in the office all the time):

Stand Back - I Know Regular Expressions!

The sufficiently panicked minifigures:

Here's how the whip and Indiana Jones' position works:

Here's a close-up of some LEGO trickery - levers positioned just right to make a sign stay in place. Oh, and I used Technic pins with studs on the end to flip the studs upside-down under the letter bricks.

Look! Coincidences!

Here's an overview shot of the entire thing (Truck, table, comic, and some office miscellanea):

This final shot of the comic seems like a good one to zoom in on to look at the details (OK, so it's a fairly simple scene, but you can have another look):

Sadly, my perl/regex related day-saving does not involve a whip...yet.

For more on this topic, check out my LMOTD round-up of XKCD comic strips built in LEGO to minifig scale.

Gas Update

EDIT: Whew - I didn't realize this would be posting near the top. Leaving it here for now anyway even though it's already old and I thought it'd be buried in other posts. I probably won't post on the topic again until I've gotten a spreadsheet going.

It's been waaay too long since I've done this, but that's true of far too many things (including many things that ought to be blogged here - I believe my readers are familiar with the big transitions in my life that are slowing my to-do lists). My recent situation has changed the gas matter a bit - as one would expect, I'm now paying these expenses myself out-of-pocket (thus increasing my incentive to worry about mileage). Further, I'm now driving nearly twice as far for work as I did for school - requiring a fill-up roughly once a week instead of roughly once every two weeks. As crazy as it may sound, my employer is open to moving the job closer to where I live - apparently the tax situation for operating an office with x amount of employees in various towns (together with the rent for where the office is) has encouraged the company to pursue options for moving us in the near future (which has obvious implications: possible changes in the distance between work and where I live, and changes in convenience to going various places after work (including that LEGO store I've been visiting fairly regularly)).

This set of data is a bit scatterbrained, a reflection of how difficult it's been to stay organized these past few months.

March 31st: (invalid data, had not reset odometer - when the previous receipt is found, I should subtract it) 536.8 mi ($1.979)
May 19th: 495.4 ($2.249)
June 12th: 364.4 ($2.559)
June 26th: 235.1 ($2.589)
July 8th: 312.9 ($2.519)
July 17th: 318.7 ($2.429)
July 31st: 347.5 mi, 15.462 gallons at $2.399 each
August 9th: 219.3 mi, 10.698 gallons at $2.549 each

I'm leaning towards switching to some proper spreadsheet setup in the future to allow me to use the data in more meaningful ways (and also make it easier to read a wider variety of it at once, graph it, etc).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Clever "Page Not Found" Message

Saw this this morning and thought it was clever. Definitely a classy way to deal with an issue that drives people away from a site (personally, I went back once I realized it wasn't a more generic 404 message).

Speaking of websites - how long has the sidebar on LMOTD been pushed past the side of the page? It looks pretty awful right now and I'm worried about what caused it. I have, once before, been disappointed to see a Blogger code issue mess with my HTML on the site, but I've never seen them break a layout in this manner before. I'm also a little suspicious of my less code-savvy co-blogger, who had added a few features on the sidebar (some of which I'm removing now for the sake of keeping the site looking clean, others I intend to keep - sidenote, I've now gone back to only allowing LMOTD co-bloggers to have author privileges and not admin privileges. You can't be too careful). I'm hoping to fix the bug tonight. EDIT 7:19 PM EST: Turns out that this bug does not cause anything unusual in Firefox. Users of Chrome, IE8, and Opera aren't seeing it correctly. RSS feed is unaffected.
Nevermind about the apparent LMOTD issue, turns out that it was caused by a large graphic that caused issues on some sizes of monitor. I'm generally pretty good at leaving things open so that they can wrap wherever they will (CSS obsessions and Google's Browser Size need not apply), but a graphic left with dimensions larger than a 15" monitor will always be a graphic larger than a 15" monitor. It's fixed now and I guess I'll have to be more careful next time (that post was one of several recently that was clearly a bit rushed). The surprising thing is that no angry comments or e-mails came in about this one - usually if I do something wrong, I get called on it pretty quickly. I like to joke that that's how I know I'm famous - you know people are reading if there's enough people out there that someone will jump on you within a few hours if you get something wrong.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Well, I Guess We're Here Now

Following up yesterday's note about SparkFun's free day - the meeting was a non-issue. The SparkFun site was down for pretty much the entire time, and we had some 'net connectivity issues on our end as well (ensuring that even when the website was up, I still had a hard time getting any page to load). I guess I won't be making the jump to Arduino just yet (don't worry - I still love my NXT's and I'll keep using them - I just wanted to try out something new without the risk of being out $100+ if I couldn't get much done with it). A good recap of how free day went can be found at http://www.ubasics.com/sparkfun_freeday

I had a similar experience trying to get a Linux thumbdrive working on my Toshiba recently. Who the hell, in the '00's, thinks it's more appropriate to have a Floppy Disk Drive option on a BIOS than a USB thumbdrive option? Any sane person would assume (as I did) that that would be a good option for trying a new operating system, but apparently Toshiba thought otherwise (but thought the BIOS should account for FDD's, even though there ISN'T a floppy drive on the computer). I'm still putting off buying a new PC, but no one's making that easy for me.

In more exciting news, an 8880 Super Car (more descriptive links and photos can wait for another post) arrived at the house yesterday. I feel a great need to drop everything and build it (I was up until about 2 AM last night getting it started...)

On a more depressing LEGO-related note: the manager of the local LEGO store has apparently decided to start enforcing somewhat arbitrary rules of "family friendly" content on WITC displays. He's begun turning away spectacular models (and no, the one he turned down after it arrived for January was not unkosher in any way) and asking for photographs for pre-approval before anyone brings anything in. Way to turn what used to be a fun privilege into more of an obnoxious chore. Yes, it's the store manager's decision to make, but he clearly made the wrong decision here and I've never seen the company commit such an atrocious affront to the community before (and yes, I remember the grey/bley debacle). I had signed up to do a July display with fireworks in the background, but I'm not entirely sure that I'll follow through anymore - I have enough things I'm more excited about building for myself, and the last thing I want to do is work out a fantastic mosaic using tiny translucent parts only to be turned away for "endorsing explosives", or whatever other whim the manager has that day.

By the way, we were already getting the shaft on the WITC front. Most groups are allowed to use non-LEGO shelves to add height (say, a clear shelf to hold up a spaceship or display planes above a town) - but that's long been declared contraband at this location. I've also been told that minor discounts and payment have even been offered in some places to people contributing window displays. We, on the other hand, put in ridiculous amounts of effort to achieve heights on our models without using any non-LEGO parts, and are then "thanked" for it by these sorts of comments. Is it any wonder that there's trouble getting the fan community here excited about participating in events at the store? Heck, we can't even get our own group displays together 95% of the time. I'm becoming disillusioned with the whole process of group displays (just in time to plan LEGOPalooza next month!).

Enough of that, and the rest of the AFOL-community politics. I'm building myself an 8880, because I'm awesome (although not awesome enough to actually drive a car that nice...).

EDIT: The higher ups and LEGO Brand Retail have since done away with the Window Into The Community displays entirely. Which, given the mixed experiences with it and issues that have arisen in some stores, isn't entirely surprising.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Resolution Updates

Most of this falls under the category of "housekeeping", but here's what's new:

  • Blog layout: a "Stalk Me!" section has been added, featuring a few links on places you can, well, stalk me. Current locations include Last.fm (interactive radio and music chart social network), Twitter (overblown RSS-enabled status engine/social network), and flickr (image hosting site that's also - you guessed it - a social network). In case you haven't noticed the trend, I'm a sucker for open platforms that are RSS enabled and I'm not terribly perturbed by the social network fad.
  • Email catch-up: my main account is down to 50 e-mails, my spamblock account (which is practically a second regular account for me now) is fluctuating around 100 e-mails. My NCSU account was shut down suddenly during the Christmas break, and I never did finish back-up efforts started for it last summer. I wonder if they can still send me alumni e-mails.

    Another issue here is the high growth of social network spam. I'm now automatically dumping all variety of friend/contact/etc requests on networks I use in favor of evaluating them next time I'm logged in (the doubling - between in-service "inboxes" and my e-mail inboxes - did nothing more than create more work and problems with synching things up). Facebook remains unresolved, and Facebook requests that I don't intend to follow up on are now a full 20% of my main e-mail account's unresolved mail. I may have to bite the bullet and log in a second time yet, but I still have no intention of using that obnoxious closed service.
  • Interesting sidenote: Retr0bright. Retr0bright apparently can un-yellow ABS. If you've tried it, let me know your results. I'll just deal with the yellowing in the meantime.
  • Floppy Disks: My parents got wind of this resolution and took it up as well. They're now leaving me with their old disks (Dad can't be bothered to reuse/recycle them properly himself). I've begun research in the field of what to do with them next. Here are my findings thus far:
    • GreenDisk IT recycling can apparently recycle all sorts of things, for a fee. I'm not ruling it out, but I always feel silly paying money to give somebody something that's technically still useful (the lack of need for that size, decrease of drives available, and difficulty searching disks are my motivations for getting out of there). Interesting source for this suggestion: a webpage entitled Recycling More Obscure Materials.
    • ACT looks like it may be a charitable place to donate disks. Sadly, my experience with similar places requires me to do research to make sure this is fully legit and non-abusive, but I'm optimistic enough to list it here anyway. If you pursue it, let me know what you find out / how it goes.
    • Associated Content has an article on Uses for Old Floppy Disks. It has some interesting ideas, but none particularly inspire me.
    • Interested readers of this blog can let me know if they'd like some clean floppy disks. I have no idea what quantities are available, but I'm willing to hand some over in person or (if the quantity is great enough to justify the expense) mail some out.
    • "Key"s? I've become surprised recently by the popularity of "USB Keys", which are idiotically small contents for a USB thumbdrive. Sometimes they're nothing more than a graphic, and autorun tool, and a link to a website. Why do I mention this here? I could start using old floppies as business cards, using that same "key" concept. You can get a decent amount of pictures and web pages in 1.44 MB after all - why not give out a small portfolio of low-res .gif images and web pages, with links to get to things like this blog? Traditional contact information also fits easily on the label section of a 3.5" floppy disk, and the extra size makes them less likely to get lost. Yes, I know it's not a printed LEGO minifig with my phone number on it (some people really do use those), but it's something both clever and affordable. It'd be a fun in-joke for the other people maintaining floppy disk drives as well (or really anyone with a working older computer), and an interesting piece of kitsch for people who don't (hey look! A floppy disk business card! Can you believe it?). Of course, if they get thrown away by the people who receive them, then this whole exercise in not wasting anything has been moot.
More news later, perhaps. I'm looking to get more scheduled posts in at LMOTD soon, I haven't located my gift for my sister's birthday tomorrow yet, and I also still need to pick out what I want for the Sparkfun free day tomorrow as well (naturally, I have to be in a meeting at the time that starts - I may end up trying to get someone else to order some arduino goodies for me).