Pasadena Alpha Muse Block Party

I appreciate being near Pasadena, California. It is a large enough community to have an organization like Innovate Pasadena, focused on spreading the word about some pretty interesting things in the area. A recent announcement on the mailing list was for an event titled Pasadena Alpha Muse Block Party. The title didn’t mean anything to me, and even after reading the Eventbrite page I only have a vague idea what to expect. But it is at a location I haven’t visited, and the event promised local companies, artists, and musicians. That was interesting enough to investigate.

The venue, CTRL Collective, appears to be a co-working facility along similar lines to WeWork or Cross Campus, except it seems to be more focused on creative companies versus technical. I’m sure there are other competitive differences that I failed to pick up, but it is generally along the lines of a facility that hosts multiple small companies who share a common infrastructure. There are offices upstairs, and downstairs is an open area for collaborative work or it can be opened up for events like today.

Pasadena Alpha Muse

Trying to learn about the companies represented by each table was difficult, because the musicians were playing at far too loud of a volume for conversation. Nevertheless, some interesting companies stood out. Top of the list is STEM World Pasadena. Their main focus is after-school STEM education for school age children, but they also advertise a maker space with laser cutter and CNC engraver, which is good motivation for me to go check out their facility.

Happily, there were more than enough interesting artists present, offering different styles for the audience to find something that speaks to them. Sometimes the different styles come from a single artist. Alicia Gorecki had many pieces featuring different topics like architecture, people, and a few others. Each of which had a different style. I loved the series with little just-hatched baby birds in black-and-white line art. I didn’t quite love them enough to buy an original (one of which Alicia is holding up here) but I did buy a greeting card of that series.

Alicia Gorecki

And no, I never did figure out what the event’s title “Alpha Muse” meant.

Pasadena Public Library STEAM Fair 2018

Pasadena Library STEAM fair

Yesterday, nearby Pasadena Public Library held their STEAM Fair, a celebration of a bunch of things that you could learn from a book alone… but it’s more fun when accompanied by hands-on activities. Though the event seemed to be mainly geared towards elementary school age children, there were smattering of other things appealing to other age brackets.

My primary interest in this event is that it marks the official opening of the library’s Innovation Lab. It’s a small room with several pieces of equipment with maker appeal. There are two 3D printers that appear to be LulzBot TAZ 6 which are more capable printers than what I have at home. There are two sewing/embroidery machines, a CNC engraver, and my primary interest: a laser cutter. Made by Full Spectrum Laser, this machine is from their hobby line.

I enjoyed playing with the laser cutter at Tux-Lab. Not quite enough for me to spend the considerable amount of money to buy my own, but enough for me to seek out alternate sources so I have options when Tux-Lab equipment is not available.

Overall it is encouraging to see libraries expand beyond a collection of books. I’ve read of libraries experimenting with how they can appeal to the maker audience, and it’s great to have a local library exploring this space. What happens next will depend on the kind of library patrons this facility would attract. Would people embark on interesting creations of their own? Or will these machines be fated to replicate designs downloaded from the internet? Time will tell.


LA Design Festival – Union Station

Union Station - Front Door

The final event in my LA Design Festival weekend was an art-and-architecture tour of Union Station, Los Angeles Metro’s downtown hub. Unlike the other events, this one turned out not to be exclusive to the design festival. It is actually a regularly occurring event, every second Sunday of the month, that just happens to overlap the LA Design Festival this weekend. Which is great because it was good enough for me to consider doing again sometime in the future.

Union Station - Ticketing Hall

Most of the tour went through areas that anyone traveling through Union Station can stop by and visit, with the notable exception of its ticketing hall. Long since made obsolete by automated ticketing machines, it is now an event venue that is usually closed to the traveling public. The tour does go into the area, though not very far into it and not very thoroughly. Still, it was a fun novelty.


Union Station - Crowd

The tour is given by volunteers wearing bright orange vests, mostly reciting from a script but the personal style of delivery matters. Given the overlap with LA Design Festival, today’s crowd was larger than usual so they split us up into two groups. I chose go to with the guide who was more verbally articulate.

The tour went from the front door, to the ticketing hall where I took the above picture. We then covered the adjacent space that was formerly a restaurant and is planned to become a brewery. There were two gardens that I never knew about, and the waiting area leather couches reserved for ticketed MetroLink and Amtrak passengers only.

Union Station - Gold Line

This was the first time Union Station was the destination rather than a transfer point. I usually arrive via Metro Gold Line and in a rush to transfer to something else. Which explained why, despite traveling through the Gold Line archway many times, I never noticed the tile mosaic artwork representing sunrise and sunset. This is only one of many Union Station features that I never stopped to notice until today.

Another piece of trivia came when we stopped off at an aquarium inside the station. It had a Garibaldi fish (just one because they are very territorial) and here is where I learned Garibaldi is California’s official state fish. I’ve lived on Garibaldi Ave. and never thought to ask what the name meant – I had always assumed it was named after a person whose significance was lost to California history, but today I learned otherwise.

The tour was over an hour long, the final stop was inside LA Metro’s headquarters building right off Union Station’s north plaza. There were several more pieces of art inside the building that I didn’t know was publicly accessible. These and other rotating exhibits inside the station makes me think I’ll have enough to keep me occupied the next time I have some time to kill waiting at Union Station. (Probably waiting for LAX FlyAway.)

If nothing else, I got some great pictures that will become new desktop backgrounds for my computer.

Union Station - North Canopy.jpg


LA Design Festival – ArtCenter South Campus

The ArtCenter College of Design is a private non-profit school whose focus is pretty clearly communicated in its name. The main campus is a bit removed, but their south campus is right near the heart of Pasadena and a venue for them to participate in LA Design Festival.

ArtCenter wind tunnel

Three buildings make up the ArtCenter south campus. The one hosting Design Slam 2018: Prototyping the Future Saturday evening used to be a wind tunnel facility for several aerospace firms that formerly worked in the area. The actual wind tunnel volume is now subdivided into cubicles that appear to be graduate student offices, and many of its its former support spaces are now classrooms. My favorite part of the building is Archetype Press, a letterpress facility where the old fashioned art of typesetting is kept alive for students to experience firsthand.

ArtCenter rooftop

The roof of this building has a space that will host student projects this evening. Beyond that rooftop patio, there was an installation that may or may not serve some practical purpose in addition to being rooftop art, and nestled between these elements is a garden that I did not expect to find on the roof of a (formerly) industrial building.

Since I have a personal interest in the developing field of virtual reality technologies, I was drawn to student projects exploring the same. It’s encouraging to see ArtCenter found the means to provide students access to leading edge technologies like VR. There were multiple HTC Vive VR headsets. Student projects on display were created in Unreal Engine so they don’t have to build VR experiences from scratch.

ArtCenter dual VR

One criticism of today’s VR technology is that it’s very isolating. Once a person straps up a headset they’re visually cut off from everybody else in the room. One project explored experiences designed around multiple VR users in the room interacting with each other. By default each user can move around in their own world, but what they could see was very limited on their own. But when the two users look directly at each other, their perspectives open up to see more of their own world as well as seeing the other person’s world. Fully exploring both of these worlds require the two users to communicate and coordinate, making this VR experience a group activity.

ArtCenter tactile VR

The other VR project present explored a different shortcoming of VR, which is the fact the current technology only conveys the visual and aural representation of a different reality. This student project seeks to add tactile feedback to the experience by building some tactile feedback – in this case vibration motors originally designed for cell phones – into their VR experiences. They are built into small battery-powered, WiFi-controlled devices strapped on to various parts of your body and vibrate on command from the core VR program. The project included a few different experiences, the one they tried to get up and running was standing in the middle of a desert and the user can hear and feel the wind blowing by. Sadly there were some technical difficulties and I did not have the chance to experience this project firsthand.

LA Design Festival – Supplyframe DesignLab

The Supplyframe DesignLab is a facility I’ve visited many times in the context of different events, and LA Design Festival gave me yet another view into what happens there. Unlike my usual experience through Hackaday LA or the Pasadena 3D Printing meetups, these events placed more focus on the “design” of DesignLab.

DesignLab Gallery

On Friday, an exhibit titled Intuitive Objects: When Interaction Becomes Second-Nature was opened at the DesignLab, utilizing the space facing the street which is sort of fitting as it is shiny and white like many galleries. A collection of items were on display, every one the result of a designer putting time and thought into making the user experience intuitive and seamless. The presentation as a gallery put focus on these items, but there were a few downsides of the format. An art gallery wasn’t an environment where visitors could just pick up and experience the interaction in actual usage, and there was limited information on site to satisfy curiosity for more details. Still, seeing them firsthand was a better exposure to these works than scrolling through pictures.

DesignLab Panel

On Saturday, a panel of women in design were assembled to speak on Designed Interactions: Diverse Perspectives. Before the panel even began I knew it was going to be an interesting mix. The event itself was a cooperation of ArtCenter College of Design who have a campus nearby, Pasadena Women in Tech, and NELAUX. (Northeast Los Angeles User Experience.) And the panelists themselves were drawn from a wide spectrum of experiences.

The intersection of all these different interests and experiences, though, did not result in a jumbled mix of concepts like it could have easily become. The panelists focused on the recurring themes that repeat themselves under different contexts, and the challenges designers would have to overcome to address them. Several times a panelist would give an answer that’s a brief summary followed by “… and we can easily have an hour-long panel on that topic alone.” Which, given the size of the interested crowd present at this event, may very well happen.

LA Design Festival – Modernica

The LA Design Festival was this weekend and I had the opportunity to check out some neat events. First on the calendar is tremendously informative tour of Modernica, a furniture (& more) maker whose factory is in Vernon. (An industrial city south of downtown Los Angeles.) Our tour guide was Frank Novak, one of the founders and owners of the company, who started the tour with a quick overview of what we’ll be seeing.

Modernica 10 - Frank Novak

One of their major products is their line of fiberglass shell chairs. A category that is closely identified with mid 20th-century, it has mostly been replaced by cheap injection molded chairs. But there are still people who are willing to pay the premium for thinner, lighter, stronger fiberglass chairs. Modernica keeps the designs fresh by leveraging one advantage they have over the cheap plastic chairs: they can mold complex patterns permanently into the shell. Unlike injection-molded plastic, which could only print on top of the plastic in a way that would wear out with time. By collaborating with different artists they can continually deliver fresh variants on the classic chair.

Modernica 20 - Fiberglass Shell Chairs

The magic starts with spools of fiberglass that is shredded by this machine.

Modernica 30 - Fiberglass strands

The shredded fiberglass is blown on top of a piece of perforated steel approximately the shape of the chair. To my eye this seems to be quite an inexact process: a lot of shredded strands never make it onto the form and are scattered throughout this building. Workers are constantly sweeping to keep the floor clear. I suppose fiberglass is cheap enough it isn’t terribly important to make sure they don’t end up on the ground.

Modernica 40 - Fiberglass to mat

When the first machine has completed its task, out pops a loose fiberglass mat in the general shape of a chair.

Modernica 50 - Fiberglass mat

This general shape is reinforced with patches at strategic locations before visiting the heated hydraulic press. A sheet of the chair’s surface design is placed on the bottom of the press. Then the chair-shaped mat of loose fiberglass strands is placed on top of the sheet, and resin poured over the mat. Finally another sheet of the surface design is placed on top of the mat + resin combination before the machine goes to work pressing everything together.

Modernica 60 - Hydraulic press

Several minutes later, the shell is removed from the press and its edges trimmed.

Modernica 70 - Hot off the press

In an adjacent room, we watched chair base mounts get installed.

Modernica 80 - Chair mounts

With the fiberglass workshop tour complete, the tour group walked over to the wood shop.

Modernica 90 - To woodworkers

Due to the layout of the building, we saw the process in reverse order. The first thing we saw were the workers sanding and finishing wooden parts. This was a surprisingly labor intensive process in our automation heavy world. But this kind of fine surface polish is something people can still do better than machines. As long as there is enough of a market for hand crafted quality, there will be companies like Modernica to supply it.

Modernica 92 - Manual finishing

In contrast to fine surface finish sanding, machines are better at holding big heavy cutting tools and running them on a consistent path. These 5-axis CNC machine take in molded plywood forms and carves out the shape of the product.

Modernica 93 - 5 Axis CNC

To hold molded plywood forms in place, these machines have a vacuum hold-down system using wooden tooling designed specifically for each project.

Modernica 94 - Vacuum fixture

But where did these molded plywood objects come from? That’s the next section, where we see many stacks of thin wood veneer and big vats of glue.

Modernica 95 - Thin veneer sheets

They are glued together into desired shapes by this machine, employing a high-frequency gluing process. I had hoped to learn more details, but sadly Frank is not familiar with the nuts & bolts and the experts who operate this machine is not present today.

Modernica 96 - Veneer press

Behind the machine is a storage area filled with multi-part molds which are loaded into that gluing machine to form each of the molded plywood products made by Modernica. Knowing how to design these molds – where they meet, what order they apply forces on the wood, knowing how much stress wood veneer can take before breaking, are all interesting to me as engineering problems. Frank said they have a piece of software that handles it… and that’s all the detail he was able (or willing) to share. Oh well, something to research later!

Modernica 97 - Multipart molds

After the tour there was a question-and-answer session. One item that caught my interest was about the grounds. Modernica bought it from a glass products company who had built a concrete bunker for their X-Ray inspection equipment. Modernica has no specific need for a concrete bunker, but it does provide a great background for many of their product photos and it seems a natural place to store their chemicals on site. After the Q&A session I went back to take pictures of this bunker.

Modernica 98 - Bunker

How heavy is the bunker door? They don’t know, but it rolls on train tracks and wheels.

Modernica 99 - Bunker door

I attended the tour because I was interested in manufacturing and engineering sides of the operation. Others came to the tour because they are fans of the company’s products. For these fans, Modernica held a little flash sale on select products which made some people very happy. I was here to learn and not to shop, so I passed on the sale.

Modernica 99a - Sale

Another item in the Q&A was that Modernica has a division catering to show business. Film productions that desire a particular look can rent furniture from Modernica Props, and it sounds like they also occasionally custom build furniture for use on set. Frank’s favorite anecdotes around this collection are mostly around pieces that are memorable in a “it was so hideous I had to buy it” way. The stories were fun and while I don’t intend to rent anything for filming, the Modernica Props showroom is open 6 days a week and it might be fun to browse through.

Spring 2018 Brewery Art Walk

This weekend’s Brewery Art Walk was my first visit to the facility. I arrived to find a larger than expected campus of artist lofts, roughly half of which were open for event visitors. I aimed to find artworks that are beyond the typical flat two-dimension works so in the interest of time I skipped most studios of painters and photographers.

The reason I even knew about the event was because a member of Two Bit Circus advertised the event (and their participation in it) during lightning talk segment of Hackaday LA’s March meet. So my first stop was the exhibit room for Two Bit Circus.

Their subtitle was “Engineering Entertainment” and all exhibits certainly fit the bill. Here’s one installation called the Ledge, where the customer dons an Oculus Rift headset showing footage of riding a window-cleaner’s platform up the side of a high-rise building. The illusion is enhanced by the platform, which was motorized to give a wobbly sensation. As far as I can determine the wobbling pattern is fixed and has no correlation to the visual motion but it is still cool.

Two Bit Circus - Ledge

I had hoped to get a view of the workshop area as well, but that was not open for visitors. All we got to see was the nifty entrance. The hand crank to the right of the door turns the gears and chains of the sign over the doorway.

Two Bit Circus - Workshop

Facing this door is a cellular radio tower wearing a palm tree disguise.

Cell tower palm tree

Walking into the loft of Dystopian Studios will transport you into a space fully implementing the aesthetic of a dystopian future. The space itself was as much a work as the individual pieces on display. The area which caught my attention was a collection of Nerf guns (some of which overlap with my collection) modified to fit with the Dystopian Studio theme.

Dystopian Studios Nerf.jpg

On the theme of artists applying their art to their space, Bruce Gray‘s studio was not open for visitors but there was enough visible for me to see he’s given his air compressor the Charlie Brown treatment.

Bruce Gray air compressor

One of the studios had a machine outside blowing soap bubbles filled with smoke. The space appears to be full of clothing creations. Personally I would have found it far more interesting if the whole space were dedicated to novel mechanical contraptions like smoke bubble machines.

Smoke Bubbles

I had expected to find a few kinetic art studios and was not disappointed when I found William Sandell’s Kinetic Assemblage.

William Sandell Kinetic Assemblage

On a larger scale, Richard Wilks studio had a few items on display. Inside the studio is a work in progress making a spinning metallic sculpture that aims to evoke the fluid motion of a jellyfish. The white wheel on the right is a prototype for visualizing motion before they are built out of metal.

Richard Wilks jellyfish

Parked outside their studio entrance is the Aquatrope. It is the type of work I expect to find at Burning Man and several pictures shown adjacent to the piece imply that’s exactly where it has gone.

Richard Wilks Aquatrope

The highlight of today’s visit was finding Sean Sobczak’s Sandman Creations studio. These sculptures made of welded segments of wire is an impressive level of sculpting beyond working in solid media. It’s not simply a wire mesh like the 3D data in a computer: the wires serve an aesthetic purpose in addition to their structural requirement. Sometimes they trace out surface features of the subject, sometimes they flow and move on their own path.

Sobczak Sandman Creations dreams

Many of the pieces on display feature strings of lights inside the skeleton and a fabric wrapping the metal on the outside.

Sobczak Sandman Creations octopus

Sadly photographs do not do these pieces justice, so full appreciation requires enjoying the work in person. Which I plan to do again in about six months! (Assuming the studio is open for Fall 2018 Brewery Artwalk.)


SCaLE 16X Day 4: CTF Security Competition

The fourth and final day of Southern California Linux Expo (SCaLE) is a slower-paced and less intense day. Some attendees from out-of-town need to leave earlier to return to work Monday morning, and much of the rest are tired out by the preceding days. The E-ALE people are all gone, presumably to Portland, OR for their next training session at Embedded Linux Conference.

My personal education goal for the day is to understand more about “Capture the Flag” events that have been going on. I understand the idea is to make a fun competition for people to practice computer security concepts in a game arena, but the concrete details are still fuzzy. I’ve known that security CTF isn’t one thing – it’s a category that covers different implementations. And since it takes place on a computer, algorithms have joined the party. The highest profile event I knew about was a DARPA “Cyber Grand Challenge” where, instead of teams of people competing directly against each other, the teams compete indirectly by building AI software to compete against software written by other teams.

Penguin Red Flag2But the focus for SCaLE are about people, and not AI algorithms. The conference held three rounds of CTF hosting beginners, intermediate, and advanced competitors. Sadly I had a time mixup of my own fault and missed the beginner round that would have been the best fit. (SCaLE weekend happened to also be the weekend when daylight savings time switched over and not all clocks automatically adjusted.) The beginner and intermediate rounds were hosted using Facebook’s CTF platform. I wished I could have seen it in action and maybe even got some hands-on participation time, but at least I now know about Facebook’s CTF platform and can look into it later on Github.

As an alternate activity, I attended a talk titled “Gamify Security Training with Developer CTFs.” The subject of this talk was yet another variant on the CTF concept. Instead of an abstract competition arena and all teams competing with the same code, this particular competition was designed to be immediately relevant to the developer team by using their own product code. In effect, they were holding a CTF competition where they were trying to compromise their own commercial products. This particular event took a lot more effort to set up than run than something like the Facebook platform, but it was far more engaging to the participants and they found real product bugs to fix. It’s a great concept that can be well worth the higher up-front setup cost.

SCaLE 16X Day 3: Microsoft Was Not Boo-ed Out Of The Room

Well, I never thought I would see this – an engineer from Microsoft presents a keynote to open the third day of SCaLE and the crowd was completely civil about it. John Gossman of Microsoft Azure told the story of Microsoft’s evolving attitude to open-source software, in response to both external market forces and internal cultural change.

Gossman Keynote

John emphasized that open source advocates need not to take his word for Microsoft’s changing attitude towards open source. Judge Microsoft by its actions and, by the attitude of the crowd present, the attitude of open source advocates towards Microsoft has changed as well. (Though John asks people to skip their “hell has frozen over” jokes… he’s already heard them all.)

Personally I’ve seen a reduction in the religious zealotry that used to permeate these discussions. Many developers in the open source world now approach Microsoft in a strictly merit-based manner. The old instinctive animosity is gone… but the Microsoft brand itself isn’t a plus, either. If a Microsoft open-source offering can’t stand on its own merits, the pragmatic developer moves on. It’ll take a lot more work to earn admiration from this crowd.

Don’t discount the progress, though. Having seen some of the attitudes firsthand in the past (and still present in some of the graybeard of the crowd) there’s been a lot. In this context, going from animosity to apathy is a big and healthy step. Will Microsoft work its way up to admiration? We’ll have to stay tuned.

SCaLE 16X Day 2: More Fun With BaconBits Cape for PocketBeagle

The hardware component for Embedded Apprentice Linux Engineer (E-ALE) program is a PocketBeagle board paired with an accessory board named BaconBits. The PocketBeagle was released a few months ago and is now available for purchase from the usual retailers that cater to the electronic hobbyist & engineer market. BaconBits is more rare – this project was only recently completed to turn the PocketBeagle (which does very little by itself) into a development board for easy experimentation.

When we power up the PocketBeagle for this course, we are presented with an introductory screen offering to take us through a few tutorials that serve as an introduction to the world of physical world programming. In the interest of size and cost, the PocketBeagle  itself has very few physical peripherals, so interaction with the physical world requires wiring up external components.

BaconBits consolidates components required for many examples into a single circuit board so we won’t have to worry about breadboard wiring for the relevant exercises. From simple LED and potentiometer to peripherals beyond the basics. There’s an accelerometer available to practice I2C communication, and a 2-digit 7-segment LED to practice SPI communication.

PocketBeagle with BaconBits

What turned out to be the most important, at least in several E-ALE sessions, is the FTDI serial to USB bridge on board the cape. Serial console to the PocketBeagle is a lower-level interface and absolutely required when we got into the USB Gadget unit of the training. Configuring PocketBeagle’s USB behavior requires taking the existing USB functionality (network connection and mass storage) offline and replacing them with the interfaces in the labs. This means PocketBeagle’s HTTP-based Cloud9 IDE and other network-dependent connections like SSH won’t work. Low level serial is all we have left to communicate with PocketBeagle and work through exercises.

SCaLE 16X Day 1: Stumbled Into E-ALE Training

The 16th Southern California Linux Expo (SCaLE 16X) is underway. I attended SCaLE 15X last year but frankly I was too new to Linux to get very much out of it. With a year’s worth of Linux fiddling under my belt, I hope to learn more this time. At the very least, I know more of the words used in the session descriptions!

e-ale-logo-belly2-200xI had planned out a tentative schedule and the first session was a walk through of the PocketBeagle device. This turned out to be the start of a three-day course titled Embedded Apprentice Linux Engineer (E-ALE) that was an additional, separate $75 charge on top of the conference fee, which I was unaware of. Most of that additional charge goes towards the included hardware:

  • PocketBeagle with headers already soldered to its I/O pins.
  • BaconBits assembled and ready to plug into a PocketBeagle
  • MicroCenter-branded 16GB microSD card flashed with BeagleBone’s Debian distribution.
  • Two micro-USB cables.
  • One USB microSD card reader/writer

The parts and labor involved doesn’t quite add up to $75, but it’s close enough for me to decide to register on the spot. (Taking the final available slot.) This way I learn about embedded Linux and I’ll have a little pocket Linux computer to experiment and learn on.

I had thought the two micro-USB cables were redundant but they actually serve different purposes. One part of BaconBits is a serial over USB capability, and plugging in one cable to this port allows low-level serial communication to the PocketBeagle. The other micro USB port is on the PocketBeagle itself, where it presents its normal high-level network and mass storage device interfaces. Some of the exercises were made much easier by having both interfaces available.

PocketBeagle’s high-level web and mass-storage interfaces were straightforward, but I had little prior experience with low-level serial and stumbled a bit. The first (of many potential) solution that worked for me was to use minicom and configure it (minicom -s) to talk to the serial port /dev/ttyUSB0 at 115200 baud, 8/N/1. This was enough to read the output, but in order for my keyboard input to be acknowledged, I also had to turn OFF hardware flow control. Otherwise it would act as read-only without the ability to interact with serial prompt. Can’t follow along with the exercises that way!

I Should Have Bought a Real Wire Stripping Tool a Long Time Ago

A lot of the talks at Hackaday Superconference 2017 were inspiring, informative, entertaining, or a combination of the above. But one of them is the first to have a significant impact on my hands-on projects and that honor goes to the Wiring Bootcamp talk by Bradley Gawthrop.

Your first reaction is probably the same as mine: “wiring? really?” Yes, really. At first glance a boring subject, Bradley turned it into an engaging presentation. One portion of the talk preached the wonders of having an actual wire-stripping tool. After the talk I felt motivated enough to try the Knipex tool he recommended.


After using it in a few projects, I found myself really enjoying the luxury of stripping wire insulation with a single motion. This purchase has thus been categorized under “Where have you been all my life?

Knipex Jaw.jpg

Key to the magic is the relationship between the handle, the front jaw (black plastic) and the cutting blade (shiny metal.) When the handle is first pulled, the motion goes towards closing this assembly. When jaw closes on the wire insulation, the blade closes a little bit further to cut into the insulation. Beyond this point, motion on the handle is translated into horizontal movement so the blade pulls the insulation away from the conductor.

There’s no obvious way to adjust the distance between the jaw and the blade. It is either fixed or inferred from some spring tension. This works fairly well, the only problem surfaces when cutting wires with very thin insulation. In these cases the blade bites too deeply and nicks the conductor.

But that is a minor nitpick. I certainly nick conductors at a far higher rate when using my previous wire strippers. Which have been assigned the job of collecting dust while waiting as backup in case the Knipex breaks.


I got myself a real wire stripping tool and loved it. You should do it, too.

Here’s the wiring talk posted on the Hackaday YouTube channel:

Mazda Vision Coupe: Design Highlights

Different people go to an auto show to see different things. My personal target for the LA Auto Show was a concept car in the Mazda pavilion: the Vision Coupe. Mazda unveiled it at the Tokyo Auto Show a little over a month ago and it has been pretty well received. When I found out Mazda would bring it to Los Angeles I had to go see it for myself.

Front three quarter

A significant aspect of the design is the evolution away from creases in the sheet metal. About ten years ago the Mazda Nagare concept car illustrated the use of creases, and the idea spread through the Mazda line. I thought the show car was novel but I am not a fan of the translation into production cars. While some of the creases do illustrate a story flowing from one design element to another, too many of the creases feel forced. They form from seemingly nowhere and fade out to nothing, contributing little (or distracting from) the story told by the overall shape of the car.

With the Vision Coupe (and the RX-Vision before it) Mazda design declared sharp creases are played out. Moving on to the smooth sculpted surfaces has a risk – they do not show up on photographs as well as creases. So Mazda risks losing sales with people who car-shop by looking at pictures. Photos miss the full impact of the design that can only be appreciate by seeing how lights reflect and move around the body. I look forward to seeing how these ideas translate to Mazda showrooms.


Another idea I want to see translated to production are the lights. We’ve had big round headlights for most of the history of the automobile. With the introduction of compact LEDs bright enough to be headlights, designers now have new flexibility and explored different styles of LED illumination. Some designs weren’t very bold and laid out the LED in a straightforward grid. Some tried to spread them in a creative pattern, but an array of LEDs can easily make people think of arthropod eyes which can be unsettling. Some of those designs have been quite polarizing.

The solution presented on the Vision Coupe concept is to take the LEDs and form them into a circle so our human anthropomorphic brains can see an eye. But not limit it to a circle – the design plays with a line of light that carries through the eye (but doesn’t cut into the ‘eyeball’) and also with the shadows cast by the sculpted surround that evokes eyelids. Futuristic yet familiar. I like this design though I’m not sure it’ll survive translation to production. There are a lot of legal requirements on headlights that are difficult to satisfy and so are usually ignored in show cars.


On the opposite end, the taillights use a similar theme of a line of light through a circle. But now, rendered in red, the circles look like rocket engine exhausts instead of eyeballs. There are far fewer legal requirements around taillights so I hope this translates intact to some future showroom Mazda.

Sharp nose

The final detail that really attracted me is the staggered levels of the nose, led by the hood that ends in a sharp beak. Sleek and full of personality, it sadly has no chance of surviving translation to production. Real production cars need front bumpers, license plate holders, and are not allowed to cut pedestrian legs off at the knee.

But it does look awesome.

Technology for Promotion at the Los Angeles Auto Show

The 2017 Los Angeles Auto Show is underway this week. The cars are the stars, but you can read about them elsewhere. Instead, here are some of the interesting technology installed on the show floor.

There were two venues that featured the Microsoft HoloLens. I had been interested by this augmented reality headset and was happy this was a chance to try them myself.

Hololens 1 - Nissan

Nissan chose to use HoloLens to showcase their driving assist technologies. Up to six people (three front, three rear) can put on a HoloLens and look at the little toy Nissan on the table. Each of wearer sees an interactive environment projected around the toy car to illustrate how various features assist the driver. It’s possible to walk a bit to check different perspectives, but movement was limited because the HoloLens units were tethered to the table.

I felt this presentation underutilized HoloLens. It didn’t feel significantly superior to what you can accomplish with a cell phone, Pokemon-Go style.

Hololens 2 - Petersen

The other HoloLens exhibit was actually an exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum that they’ve brought to the auto show floor. The program is not interactive, but the user can walk around and check out views from different perspectives as the narrated presentation proceeded.

The best part was when they started illustrating airflow over and through the insides of the physical 2017 Ford GT in front of us. It’s quite informative to be able to move your head around to get a better feel of where the airflow is moving. Especially the X-Ray view of airflow through and under the car.

This was a much better demonstration of what’s possible with the superior precision and response rate of HoloLens tracking.

Several booth displays had some sort of virtual reality equipment. It is interesting that none of them were used to showcase any kind of driving. Just the opposite – most of them were there to showcase autonomous vehicle technology, a.k.a. the lack of driving.

VR 1 - Ford motion couch

Ford brought this motion-controlled couch with four seats, each of which can seat somebody with a Google Cardboard-style headset to experience riding in a Ford autonomous vehicle.

VR 2 - Volvo

Volvo brought in four Vive headsets to illustrate their safety technologies, much as Nissan did with Hololens. One random technical point of interest: I only found a single location beacon in the installation. Vive usually needs two beacons. I wonder where the other beacon was or if they’ve managed to do without the second.

VR 3 - Infiniti

Infiniti’s VR experience takes the guest on a virtual ride in the QX50. The most novel part of the program was the beginning, where parts of the SUV flew through space and assembled themselves around the viewer into a QX50.

VR 4 - VW

In contrast to the compact seating of the Volvo booth, VW put up this huge glass ring to give their I.D. Crozz VR ride plenty of elbow room. The guest seemed to stay seated through the whole experience so it’s not clear why this amount of room was necessary.

VR 5 - Nissan

I’m sure Nissan paid a lot of money for their Star Wars license for car promotion. And they were not afraid to use it! Liberally customized Nissans modeled after various Star Wars properties were on display. Their pavilion included this “Droid Repair Bay” VR activity. It looked so cool I almost didn’t wonder what it had to do with cars.

None of the AR or VR experiences featured any actual driving. For that, there were plenty of old-fashioned driving simulators on display.

Driving Sim 1 - Forza

Forza Motorsports are here to promote… themselves! I have Forza at home so didn’t bother to spend time playing it here.

Driving Sim 2 - Hyundai

Hyundai Racing had a four-seat configuration. What caught my eye is that they’re using Forza for the driving experience but the race car is sponsored by Gran Turismo. (See banner on top of the windshield.) Hmm…

Driving Sim 3 - Demon

Not all the driving sims were about the race track; the simulator set up in the Dodge pavilion lets people try their hands at drag racing. A fitting way to promote their drag strip focused Dodge Demon.

Driving Sim 4 - Ford

Ford brought in a full-motion driving simulator to promote the off-road focused F-150 Raptor. The hydraulic cylinders simulate the rough and tumble of racing head-to-head (back-to-back?) through a dirt track.

All good marketing companies have worked to think up ways to build customer connection through social media. There were plenty of photo booths present for people to post company-sponsored images to their social media. Two stood out for their novelty.

Selfie 1 - Honda

Honda’s “Dream Machine” is a selfie cam mounted in a little pivoting pod at floor level. After the person takes the picture, they press a trigger and a smoke ring puffs out of the pod towards the big screen, “sending” the picture to be displayed on the big screen.

Selfie 2 - Toyota

Toyota brought an array of cameras that all takes a picture at the same time, so the guest receives an animated GIF of them in Matrix-style “bullet-time”.

Hands-On Fun for Kids at DTLA Mini Maker Faire

Today was the DTLA Mini Maker Faire (DTLA = downtown Los Angeles) and I went to see who the event would draw. I know there’s plenty of maker activity in the greater Los Angeles area, but it’s such a big area hindered by world-famous traffic congestion that it’s rare for everyone with common interest to gather together in one place. Any group of like-minded people are likely to congregate within several local clusters versus one big Los Angeles group. A call out to gather should be interesting to see.


I was not disappointed! Groups came from all across Los Angeles basin and I saw many interesting things I didn’t know existed. The event took place in the downtown Los Angeles Public Library during regular hours. Maker Faire exhibits were tucked into various rooms scattered throughout the library adding a scavenger hunt into the experience.

My favorite part was seeing so many booths offering hands-on activity for young children to play with. I had expected grown-ups showing off their hobbies, since that’s what I had read about other Maker Faires in the past. I certainly got that, but I was more amused watching little kids engrossed in their own activities so this post is focused on the little ones.

The loudest booth in the courtyard is definitely the reDiscover Center booth. They had a basic woodworking shop set up and kids were building things with real woodworking tools (not plastic pretend tools) under adult supervision.


At the other end of the courtyard, SGVLUG (San Gabriel Valley Linux User’s Group) had multiple activities but the most popular was where kids were given old computer hard drives and the tools to take them apart. It looked like hard drive platters were being extracted to become Christmas tree ornaments.


MatterHackers is a 3D-printing retailer within driving distance, but not close enough for me to have made a visit yet. They had a Ultimaker 3 running, but more interestingly, they had two 3D-printing pens set up for kids to freehand their own plastic creations.


HexLab Makerspace came prepared with laser-cut wood kits of dinosaurs. But they didn’t just hand them out to kids for assembly – they also had paint set out for kids to color their dinosaurs and staffers offered encouragement to the children creating their own masterpieces.


The scattered nature of the event meant some attractions were harder to find than others, which is unfortunate. Getting to the auditorium required walking through a few uninviting-looking hallways that probably caused it to be overlooked by many. Those who entered could see robots for the FIRST robotics competition set up on stage. Kids could get in line to drive one of them on stage.

FIRST drivingOne of the robots is built to launch balls into the air, a task required in one particular competition. This robot gets all the attention whenever they demonstrated the ball launch mechanism.

FIRST firing

This event had fun for tinkers young and old alike. It has made me much more interested in attending more Maker Faires.

HaasTec = Machinists’ Amusement Park

A few weeks ago I walked through the exhibition floor of WESTEC and had a great time looking over all the displays. There were Haas machines on the show floor, but they’re CNC grinders from a German company. Not the Haas based in Oxnard, CA. I’m told the two companies were founded by different men with the same family name but not related.

Haas Automation – the home team based in Oxnard, CA – did not participate in the industry trade show. They opted to hold their own event instead. Called HaasTec, I went and as an aspiring machinist I had a great time.

Haas subcontracts out the metal casting operations around the world. Those castings are brought to Oxyard to be machined and assembled. The Haas manufacturing floor is an endless parade of highly automated machinery working on their assigned jobs with minimal human supervision. Many of which are Haas machines built in the very same factory.

Haas Factory 1

There were more people present on the assembly side of the factory floor, with machines in various stages of assembly. The manufacturing workflow is tracked in a computer database and we happened to catch a production manager with some time and he was enthusiastic enough about the system to walk us through a few of his everyday tasks that he can perform on his iPad. It was fascinating to see how high-tech the whole process has become.

After the factory tour we walked through the showroom and watched various sales representatives put machines large and small through their paces cutting metal. As a fun side bonus, we can take home some of these demo pieces as souvenirs.

It was well worth the >3 hours (round trip) drive to attend the event. I certainly enjoyed it much more than I would anything they could have set up on the WESTEC exhibition floor.



TechDay LA 2017 Notes

TechDayLA.PNGWESTEC 2017 ran for three days, but I only got my hands on the free registration towards the end of the second day. Unfortunately that third day overlaps with TechDay LA so I had to split my day between the two venues. Going from one to the other is like going to another planet. The atmosphere was decidedly different between the two venues.

TechDay LA had quite a few companies that follow the current trend of offering a web-based service – sometimes with or without a mobile app component – that purports to help solve problems that I didn’t even know existed. Many of these blended together after a while as one company offering free T-shirts hasn’t really differentiated themselves in my mind from another company offering free T-shirts.

I was pleasantly surprised to find 3Diligent present at TechDay LA. A rapid manufacturing company that is willing to deal with low-volumes of a startup was something I had expected to (and did) find at WESTEC. And these guys are just across town in El Segundo. When I asked about learning the ins and outs of each of the processes, so I can design to optimize for them, I was told I would be sent a “design guide” to help me get up to speed. I look forward to receiving it.

A name I was pleasantly surprised to see here was Arrow. They were present because in addition to being the electronic components dealer I know them for, they have gotten into the business of small volume assembly. So they were here to connect with hardware-based startups that might need a hand building the electronics guts of their product. One day I might count myself in that group.

One criticism I have for this and many similar tech meets is that more than 50% (maybe as high as 75%) of the presenters aren’t startups. They are marketing companies, direct-mail solutions, venture capital funding, legal offices, generally support infrastructure that want to sell a service to a startup. Even a “Party on Demand” service that pumped obnoxiously loud music the entire time I was there. I don’t want these companies to be excluded from the conversation (after all, my two highlights Arrow and 3Diligent were in this category) we have more “support crew” than innovators. The LA area start-ups actually trying to do something novel gets crowded out.

But to end on a happy note: I did have a great chat with a small startup that, with its understated display, is evidently more focused on the product than on flashy show presence. We read about the oncoming era of drone deliveries, DASH is one of the companies working to make it happen. Staffed by SoCal aerospace industry veterans, using the open-source ArduPilot as a foundation, they build a turnkey delivery solution. I hope they find success.

WESTEC 2017 Notes

westeclogoCourtesy of Tux-Lab, I got a chance to attend WESTEC 2017 on a free exhibits-only pass. Sort of like how I got in SIGGRAPH 2017 exhibits. And just like SIGGRAPH, I was not the target audience and much of the show went over my head. Half of the time I would stare at a company’s booth and be at a complete loss as to what their product or business was. Fortunately, since I attended on the third and final day with tapering traffic, most of the exhibitors had spare time to explain what they do. The marketing manager for SW was even nice enough to chat about career and life advice on dealing with people in general. Well above and beyond the treatment I had expected for someone not remotely a prospective customer.

But it’s not all gawking. I had hoped to find a few businesses that might be interesting to work with, and fortunately there were some vendors present who are willing to work with small volumes and short production runs. In fact, a few places specifically cater to it. Roncelli is just down the street for machined plastic components, and Hilltop across town is similar for metal. If I’m willing to have the product shipped, there are smaller shops like Avid Product Development and large operations like Proto Labs.  Proto Labs feels like Shapeways, but instead of jewelry and trinkets, they cater to making precision parts for actual products and have the infrastructure (and price tag) to match.

But those were the exceptions. For the bulk of the vendors I’m just there to look at the nifty machines. The Vollmer Vgrind 360 caught my attention because it was “backwards”: The carbide cutting tool I saw wasn’t doing the cutting – it was being cut by precision grinding wheels. Another CNC grinder was made by a machine tool company named Haas, but it has no relation to the Haas machine tool company I knew of.  Fortunately I was assured I’m not the first person to get confused.

SIGGRAPH 2017 Exhibit Floor

And finally, a few words about the exhibit floor of SIGGRAPH 2017. After all, it is primarily what my exhibits-only pass is intended for. My first stop was a quick glance over the paper posters. It is interesting to see where researchers are focused today. Some of them are solving problems I didn’t even know were problems.

There were the mega-booths expected of a tech trade show, by the usual suspects. Intel, AMD, and NVIDIA were all present to proclaim each of them are the best for graphics. This year AMD has a pretty compelling story with their Ryzen CPUs and Vega GPUs and I wish the best for the underdog.

There were also many large booths offering VR experiences. Not the small consumer grade VR experiences like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive with two or three tracking devices. These are huge setups with tens of cameras offering freedom of movement over hundreds of square feet. I was impressed at all the technology and investment going into VR until I got a little smarter: They are actually motion capture companies that have configured their demonstration booths to show VR experiences because that’s what’s hot this year for getting people’s attention. Most of their revenue come from doing things other than virtual reality.

For trade show exhibits that are presumably trying to attract customers, some of these vendors are surprisingly cagey about the technology. Things that I thought were innocent beginner’s questions were met with “I’m sorry we can’t discuss that.” The friendliest representative I encountered was at the Motion Analysis booth.


He explained the booth – which had a line of people waiting to try the zombie apocalypse shooter VR experience on display – is a cooperation between his motion-capture company and one of their customers who operates VR arcades with the zombie shooter experience. The motion tracker system’s control computer was nearby and he walked me through the basics of how these systems track motion by correlating  the imagery across their many cameras. I learned that the price tag for a system like that used by the zombie VR arcade have six to seven digits after the dollar sign, which means I’m definitely not getting one in my home anytime soon.

I did not expect to see 3D printer companies on the exhibit floor. Makerbot, Formlabs, and several other names I didn’t know were present. I enjoyed getting a close look at all the finely detailed prints they can produce, I did not enjoy their associated price tags.

That is to be expected. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about computer equipment, VR systems, motion capture, or 3D printer. This is an industry trade show displaying professional-level equipment that can stand up to commercial use. Not the hobbyist-level equipment that I’m more familiar with.

It was fun to see them up close and personal on the SIGGRAPH exhibit floor.

SIGGRAPH 2017 Exhibitor Sessions

An exhibits-only pass holder like myself is barred from most of the interesting presentations and talks. However, we are thrown a bone in the form of the SIGGRAPH Exhibitor Sessions. I had expected these to be glorified sales pitches for the companies that exhibit at the convention, but they exceeded my expectations and turned out to be informative, educational, entertaining, and often combinations thereof.

OpenSubdivPixar had a few sessions centering around their open-source efforts. I realized I might have been out of my depth when the OpenSubdiv talk dove straight into adoption success and future road map of the product. They didn’t bother explaining what it was to ignorant people like myself – I guess if I didn’t know, I didn’t belong at that session.

Several software vendors offered sessions for their customers to talk about their work. Such sessions accomplish multiple objectives at once: The software product is seen in action as a production tool, the customer of the product advertise their service, and we learn a little of the nuts-and-bolts behind the scenes. I attended one such talk that broke down some of the work behind the animated household items of Beauty and the Beast (2017), and a different session (by a different vendor) talked about Rocket and Baby Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Much of the technical details went over my head. I wish I was a little more conversant on these topics, but I did catch a few things here and there and jotted down a few items to look up when I got home. One example was the Alembic interchange format used by these effects houses to collaborate on a film. Since each shop has different software tools and different ways of working with them, an open data interchange format like Alembic is essential for the ecosystem to function.