SparkleCon Day 2

A great part of SparkCon is its atmosphere. It is basically a block party held by 23b Shop and friends in the same business park. Located in Fullerton, CA, the venue’s neighborhood is a mix of residential, retail, and commercial properties. As a practical matter, this meant good eats like Don Carlos Mexican Restaurant and Monkey Business Cafe were in easy walking distance.

Originally my Day 2 was going to start bright and (too) early for me at 9AM with the KISS Tindies presentation, but the relaxed easygoing nature of the event meant a schedule change was possible and we did it at noon instead. I loved talking to all my fellow people who thought my circuit sculptures were more interesting than a certain football game taking place around the same time.

Roger presenting at Sparklecon - Drew Fustini
Photo by Drew Fustini
Roger presenting at Sparklecon
Photo by Jaren Havell

It was another great opportunity to practice public speaking. I think it went well and some people let me know afterwards that they enjoyed the talk. Success!

The table and couches of NUCC once again hosted various hacks. Emily’s little green-tinted CRT attracted immediate attention.

Emily green tinted LED on NUCC table at Sparklecon

It wasn’t long before it hosted a Matrix waterfall of characters.

Emily wants to host a version of Adafruit Hallowing’s default eyeball program on her tiny round CRT. To see how it would look, Emily and Jaren took a video of the Hallowing eyeball and played it back on a Raspberry Pi.

While this was underway, I was unwinding by playing with my copper wires. Yesterday I made a crude taco truck, today I tried to make an abstract steam locomotive out of a single wire. There was no planning involved, so it was no surprise I ran out of wire before I could finish.

Single wire steam engine

Elsewhere on the table were electronic noisemakers to play with. To the left is a “Dronie” assembled by @hackabax this weekend, next to another of his noisemaker devices whose name I forgot. Inside the metal case in the right is one of Emily’s earlier projects, a simple sequencer powered by a pair of 555 timers.

Noisemakers Unite.jpg

One casualty of the pouring rain were the robot competitions, but the Hebocon boxes were still set out for people to play with. Maybe we won’t have robots this time, but we can still have other interesting contraptions.

Hebocon boxes at Sparklecon

Sometimes “interesting” veered into “unsettling”…

Barbie head baseball flag thing

It was a great weekend, rain or no rain. I had the opportunity to present one of my projects and saw it was well-received. I got to see people I’ve met before at other events, and met some new people too. And it was a great way to learn about spaces I’ve only heard about before. Chances are good I’ll be back at 23b Shop and/or NUCC before next Sparklecon rolls around.

SparkleCon Day 1

I have arrived at SparkleCon! I had thought this event was just at the hackerspace 23b Shop, but it is actually spread across several venues in the same business park. The original plan also included activity in the parking lot between these venues, but a powerful storm ruined those plans. Given this was in Southern California the locals are not very well equipped to handle any amount rain, never mind the amount that came pouring from the sky today. So people packed into the indoor venues where it was warm and dry. STAGESTheatre is where some talks were held, like Helen Leigh‘s talk From Music Tech Make to Manufacture demonstrating her Mini Mu.

Sparklecon Day 1 mini mu

The doors of Plasmatorium was also open and primary source of music. And finally the National Upcycling Computer Collective which had this festive sign displayed.

Sparklecon Day 1 sign

One corner of NUCC was set up with a pair of couches and a table, which grew into KISS Tindie headquarters. The original plan was to set up an inflatable couch and table someplace in the outdoor region, but the rain cancelled those plans and we took over this space instead.

Sparklecon Day 1 NUCC CouchThe table started the day empty, and there was a time when it was populated by scattered stickers, but towards the evening it became an electronics workshop. Here we can see multiple simultaneous projects underway.

Sparklecon Day 1 Workbench

I had a few taco, fries, and octopus kits to give out. While talking about tacos and KISS Tindie sculptures, it was suggested that I use my newfound circuit sculpture skills to build a taco truck. So I did!

Sparklecon Day 1 taco truck

KISS Tindies will be at SparkleCon

SparckleCon IV, the annual event held by 23b Shop, will be this upcoming weekend. It will be my first opportunity to attend and it looks like I’ll be jumping in with both feet and presenting part of a talk. Currently scheduled for Sunday morning at 9AM, the topic is Hackaday and Tindie, with focus on the recently concluded circuit sculpture project.

Ironically, there won’t be any actual contest entries at the presentation, because staff members like myself were not eligible to enter. So I’m bringing the next best thing: my KISS Tindies band which I built because I thought circuit sculptures looked like fun.

kiss tindie band on stage

The talk will be a condensed summary of my circuit sculpturing adventures documented on this blog. From my initial Tindie puppy, to my wire straightening tool, to the four members of the band and finally the drum set. The topic will neatly tie into both Hackaday and Tindie and it’s my way of making sure I hit the standard points without being too much of a corporate commercial.

We’ll see how successful the venture will be… my brain isn’t typically working at its best Sunday mornings at 9AM, and some fraction of the conference attendees will be hungover in bed. I choose to see this as a positive thing: it’s good practice for my public speaking skills, and any goofs would likely go unnoticed (or at least forgiven) by an equally night-owl-heavy crowd.

Sawppy Presented at January 2019 RSSC Meeting

Today I introduced my rover project Sawppy to members of Robotics Society of Southern California. Before the presentations started, Sawppy sat on a table so interested people can come by for a closer look. My visual aid PowerPoint slide deck is available here.

sawppy at rssc

My presentation is an extended version of what I gave at Downtown LA Mini Maker Faire. Some of the addition came at the beginning: this time I’m not following a JPL Open Source Rover presentation, so I had to give people the background story on ROV-E, JPL OSR, and SGVHAK rover to properly explain Sawppy’s inspiration. Some of the addition came at the end: there were some technical details that I was able to discuss with a technical audience. (I’ll expand on them in future blog posts.)

I was very happy at the positive reception I received for Sawppy. The first talk of the morning covered autonomous robots, so I was afraid the audience would look down at Sawppy’s lack of autonomy. Thankfully that did not turn out to be a big deal. Many were impressed by the mechanical design and construction. Quite a few were also appreciative when I stressed my emphasis on keeping Sawppy affordable and accessible. In the Q&A session we covered a few issues that had easy solutions… if one had a metalworking machine shop. I insisted that Sawppy could be built without a machine shop, and that’s why I made some of the design decisions I did.

A few people were not aware of Onshape and my presentation stirred their interest to look into it. There was also a surprising level of interest in my mention of Monoprice Maker Select v2 as an affordable entry level 3D printer, enough hands were raised that I signed up to give a future talk about my experience.

(Cross-posted to

Sawppy Post-Faire Cleanup

When I work on Sawppy, I test and run indoors. At DTLA Maker Faire Sawppy ran all over, both indoors and out. Most of the time people were playing with Sawppy on a piece of artificial turf at Maguire Gardens. This is an outdoor space where people would walk their dogs, raising obvious sanitation concerns running Sawppy on my home carpet after the event.

Well, after a long day of work, who doesn’t enjoy kicking off their shoes and soaking their feet? I could give Sawppy the same royal treatment. All six wheels were removed and soaked in a tub filled with a mixture of water and household bleach. A retired toothbrush was used to scrub off dirt particles clinging to the wheel. Hopefully this removed most of the contaminants Sawppy might have picked up during the event.

Sawppy kicks off shoes

It was also a good time to perform an inspection to see how Sawppy held up mechanically. In addition to the set screw mentioned yesterday, a few chassis mounting screws have fallen out and need to be replaced. I designed plenty of redundancy in these mounts so there was little risk of Sawppy falling apart.

Sawppy lost fasteners

After a few hours of soaking, the wheels were hung up to dry like old socks. What has six rover wheels but is not a rover? This laundry rack.

Sawppy laundry

(Cross-posted to

Sawppy at DTLA Mini Maker Faire

Yesterday Sawppy went on an adventure to the downtown Los Angeles Mini Maker Faire. There Sawppy found a receptive and appreciative audience. There were a lot of enchanted kids, interested parents, and other makers who might be building their own Sawppy rovers.

The morning started out with Sawppy sitting on a table alongside a few different builds of JPL open source rover. Eric’s build is on the left in black and white, Santa Susana High School build is on the right with purple printed parts.

Taking Sawppy around and talking to individuals about Sawppy was a lot of fun and something I’ve done in other contexts before. I have hopes for a few of the contacts to develop into something cool for Sawppy’s future. What’s new this time was that I also signed up to give a short 15-minute presentation about Sawppy and that took more work and preparation. Thanks to the 2-minute “lightning talk” opportunities at Hackaday LA the past few months I’m less nervous about public speaking than I used to be, but I still got pretty stressed about it. I’m sure it’s a matter of practice and the more I can take advantage of such opportunities the better I’ll get.

Roger Sawppy

Outside of the presentation, Sawppy and I spent most of our time on the astroturf across the walkway from the officially assigned display area. It was a hilly part of the park which meant there were no tables or booths set up there, and it was a good place to demonstrate rover suspension in action. I had a spare phone set up to be Sawppy control and handed the control to anyone who wanted to pilot Sawppy for a bit.

Sawppy on lawn.jpg

Most were content to run around the turf. Some of the little ones tried to run Sawppy into their siblings. A few ran into the bushes beyond the turf for a more rugged demonstration of Sawppy chassis. A perpetual favorite is to have Sawppy climb over shoes.

Sawppy running over feet

Thanks to refinements to improve robustness over the past few months, Sawppy came out of the experience with only a slightly wobbly left rear wheel that was easily repaired by tightening the set screw on the left rear steering servo coupler. A great improvement over earlier outings!

(Cross-posted to

Sawppy Will Be At DTLA Mini Maker Faire

The Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) Mini Maker Faire, hosted at the Los Angeles Public Library central location, is coming up this weekend and my rover Sawppy will be among the many maker projects at the event.

DTLA Mini Maker Faire Website

Sawppy will be one of several rovers present. JPL’s Open Source Rover team should be there with their original build, SGVHAK will be there with the beta build rover I contributed to, which inspired my Sawppy and they’ll all be hanging out together.

The JPL team will also be giving a brief presentation in the KLOS Children’s Theater upstairs about their rover project, followed by an even briefer presentation by me on building Sawppy. Both of these talks are listed on the workshop schedule though (as far as I know) there is no hands-on workshop activity planned. Sawppy will be present and running for people to see up close, but no assembly (and certainly no disassembly!) is planned. I may bring an extra corner steering unit for people to play with, and they’ll be welcome to take that apart and put it back together, but not much beyond that.

(Cross-posted to

Highland Park Railroad Open House

HPRR01 - WelcomeHighland Park Society of Model Railroad Engineers is my local railroad club. I appreciate the detailed work that goes into a model railroad layout but I haven’t decided to spend the time and money required to do a good job at it myself. Still, when they hold an open house, I go and admire the work they’ve put in. This is a train layout that has been worked on by club members for most of the last seven decades!

The club house appears to be literally a house – a former residential building that has now been completely taken over by the club. Roughly half of the available square footage inside are train tracks, with the remainder used for support equipment, workshops, and general club space.

HPRR02 - Layout Partial

“Does your train of thought have a caboose?” Generally speaking… mine do not.

HPRR03 - Safety and Caboose

The general theme is 1940s-1950s America, conveniently covering the final transition period from steam locomotives to modern diesel electric and all electric trains. Since this club is in the Los Angeles area, there are trains inspired by local history, like some Red Cars.

HPRR04 - Red car

A scratch built reproduction of Angel’s Flight climbs the side of a mountain rather being in the middle of a city like the real thing.

HPRR07 - Angel's Flight

A steam locomotive was set up as if it’s on museum display.

HPRR08 - Highland Pacific locomotive display

And behind the museum piece, an impressive train station.

HPRR09 - Union Station

One of several train yards in the layout, anchored by a big turntable.

HPRR11 - Turntable

Another train yard featured a group of train enthusiasts taking pictures. I wonder if the figurines are modeled after specific members of the club who would go on such trips.

HPRR15 - Train phtographers

Many little towns dot the layout.

HPRR16 - Town

Some of the town buildings have storefronts inside.

HPRR17 - Town detail

This bridge painting crew is having a bad day.

HPRR12 - Bridge painters

Locomotives running on the layout are under command of train engineers at these stations, coordinated by a dispatcher.

HPRR10 - Train engineers

Behind the scenes, a massive panel of relays manage the layout.

HPRR05 - Relay panel

Wire-wrapping was already a technology on its way out when I started learning electronics, but given the age of the club, it’s not surprising that some wire wrapping is still present.

HPRR06 - Wire wrapping

The power conversion and distribution panel.

HPRR14 - Power supply

Venturing underneath the train tracks is not for the faint of heart or the easily confused, but it’s far more spacious and less cluttered than I had expected.

HPRR13 - Underneath

One of the many objectives of the open house is to recruit new members to the club. While I’m very appreciate the work, I think I’ll stick with software and robots rather than get into model trains.

Still, I’ll probably stop by on the next open house.

Eyes At Supercon: Adafruit HalloWing

Another key attraction in the Supercon swag bag was a HalloWing from Adafruit. Not just the module, a complete package: in order to make sure Supercon attendees can immediately start playing with it, a battery is included. Plus a lanyard to make sure we can wear it for others to see and start conversations about this Adafruit product. It’s exactly the kind of thing we’d expect as a sponsorship item in the swag bag. Adafruit has produced a lot of products that appeal to this exact audience, along with a ton of tutorials and useful reference information that have helped me in my own explorations.

The Supercon edition of HalloWing came with a custom firmware running through a simple slide show. It cycles through a few bitmap images of event sponsor logos: Adafruit logo, Hackaday logo, Digi-Key, etc. But that barely scratches the capability of this module.

Reading Adafruit’s product information page, it looks like one signature attraction of the HalloWing is that it’s one of the boards with support for CircuitPython. A recent addition to Adafruit’s grand plan to make electronics more approachable to more people, it is hoped that Python would be even easier for beginners to pick up than Arduino.

As my first experiment, I tried to modify the slide show. I translated each animation frame of Nyan Cat into 128×128 bitmap files and loaded them onto my HalloWing. By editing slide show parameters like removing transition effects and shortening time between slides, I had hoped that I can turn the slide show into a crude animation of Nyan Cat in action. Sadly I took a wrong turn somewhere, and my HalloWing no longer boots up. I suspect I skipped a critical step for updating slide show program’s CircuitPython source code and managed to corrupt storage.

Fortunately it was easy to reset the HalloWing with a fresh copy of its firmware. Standard (non-Supercon) HalloWing purchased from Adafruit comes with “spooky eyes” firmware that displays an eyeball that randomly looks around. I followed instructions and my HalloWing is back up and running with an eyeball. Side bonus, it looked cooler than a slide show.

This is just a start. I look forward to digging more into this board’s possibilities in the near future. CircuitPython, Arduino, and at the center of it all? A SAM D21 chip, part of the line I just learned about at Supercon.

I foresee a lot of fun with this new toy.

[UPDATE: I started simple with a cardboard companion minion.]

Gifts At Supercon: Sponsorship Swag Bag

When I checked in to Supercon Saturday morning, I was given the items given to every Supercon attendee. A T-shirt, of course. A magazine (pamphlet? flyer?) titled Supplyframe RealTalk Electronics. A small water bottle, and a reusable tote bag filled with stuff.

Supercon2018 Goodie Bag

In the background of this picture is the tote bag. All the stickers in the bag were laid out to the lower left: two Tindie stickers and many more Hackaday stickers of all types. On the top is a Hackaday postcard. All fun stuff, but what excites Supercon attendees are the electronics.

The orange item in the upper left is the enigmatic Supplyframe cube. A 3D realization of their company logo, it has electronics inside for a purpose mysterious to Supercon attendees (at least at first.)

Next to the cube, sitting on top of its antistatic bag and nearly invisible due to its size, is a Tomu. A complete ARM powered computer on a circuit board the size of a USB plug, it is remarkable here because it was still in development at last year’s Supercon. At the time its creator had solved most hardware issues and was recruiting people to help write the supporting software. I heard the recruiting pitch but sadly my programming skills were not aligned with the project’s needs. It’s great to see that others have pitched in and made Tomu a reality.

Next to Tomu is a LED circuit board in the shape of Hackaday’s Jolly Wrencher logo alongside a Tindie LED badge of similar function. Many attendees soldered these up through the weekend for a little bright wear.

Below the Tindie badge is a Sparkfun Roshamglo board. I read the product description saying it was an electronic way to play rock-paper-scissors over infrared signals, but I knew that couldn’t be the whole story because there’s obviously a USB connector at the end and you don’t need that for a silly little game. And further reading confirmed the rock-paper-scissors was only the default firmware – users can use the Arduino IDE to program the onboard ATTiny84 chip to do something else. This might be a fun exploration.

And last but not least, in the lower right peering back at the camera is an Adafruit Hallowing. It is shown assembled here because I couldn’t wait to take a picture before putting it together. More on this nifty little board shortly.

Shine At Supercon: Pixelblaze Cube

When I was working on my time-lapse camera badge hack for last year’s 2017 Superconference badge, I had the luck to meet Ben a.k.a Electromage, creator of Pixelblaze. He was sitting across the table from me and had to stare at the backside of my Luggable PC Mark II for most of the weekend. Our paths crossed again earlier in 2018 at the Bay Area Maker Faire, where I was working for Tindie‘s booth and he stopped by to drop off a sample Pixelblaze unit as he sells on Tindie. After my booth shift was over, I stopped by his booth set up to promote Pixelblaze and was impressed by what I saw.

I don’t recall anything demonstrating Pixelblaze at Supercon 2017, but Ben brought a nice attention-pulling demo for Supercon 2018: a sound-reactive LED cube controlled by Pixelblaze with optional sensor expansion board. It was sitting in front of him on the badge hacking bench as he worked most of the weekend on that ESP32 mesh network. Here’s a view of the cube looking down the length of the bench at all the other badge hackers.

Pixelblaze Cube

The cube’s five visible sides each had an 8×8 = 64 LED array, and they react to changes in sound volume. The microphone is part of the sensor expansion board and is paired with its own processor to dynamically adjust to local ambient noise level to pick out sharp changes. All that audio processing was required, Ben explained, because electronic microphones don’t react to sound the same way human hearing does. His algorithms make the sensor board act similarly to how a human being perceive sound. All this is necessary so a Pixelblaze program reacting to sound would “look right” to a human observer.

After seeing Pixelblaze in action at Bay Area Maker Faire, I added “play with Pixelblaze” to my electronic to-do list. Seeing this sound-reactive demo cube in action at Supercon 2018 promoted it higher on my list. And now, thanks to an unexpected series of events and Ben’s generosity, I now have one on hand I could play with.

My first challenge: I don’t have an individually-addressable LED strip/array to use with this Pixelblaze. Reading Pixelblaze documentation I learn the APA-102 series of LED modules are the best match for Pixelblaze capabilities, so I’ve ordered a meter long strip to start. I’m looking forward to seeing what I can do with it.

Miss At Supercon: ESP32 Mesh Network Demo

In the pre-Superconference badge hacking call to action, wireless badge communication was raised as a specific challenge laid out for attendees to tackle. One particularly ambitious effort was to build a mesh network for wireless communication using ESP32 modules mounted to the badge expansion header. The ESP32 mounting system is straightforward, it was the software that would prove to be tricky.

At the end of the weekend, Morgan and Ben got the network up and running with just over an hour to spare. They started recruiting people to join their IRC-style chat network for the final demo, and I signed up. In the test session I was able to see messages sent over the network, and send a few myself. But when it came time for the actual demo on stage, my badge was unable to connect! Fortunately they had enough other participants so my participation was not critical, but I was sad to have missed out. After the presentation (and winning a prize) the team told everyone on the network we could keep the ESP32 as a token of thanks.

After the conference I examined my ESP32 mount and found a few cracked solder joints. It looks like I had accidentally smashed my ESP32 module sometime between the test session and the presentation. Looking on the project page, I found the simple schematic and tested connections using my multimeter. Several connections were indeed severed between the badge header and the mounting circuit board. I tried the easy thing first by reheating all the solder to see if they could bridge the gaps. This helped, but two lines remain faulty and were patched with wires.

After this patch, I tested with [mle_makes] ESP32-equipped badge and we could not communicate, indicating further problems with my ESP32. The next step is to desolder it from the board to see if I could use the ESP32 as a standalone module. Once the module was removed from the carrier board, I saw a problem: three of the pads had separated from the module, one of them being the EN(able) pin critical to a healthy ESP32. The other two damaged pads (IO34 and IO35) I hope I could live without.

Is this the end of the road for my gifted ESP32? I thought it was, but [mle_makes] disagrees. The next experiment is to try soldering to the trace leading to EN pad, or the via further inboard. This will be a significant challenge – that via is smaller than the tip of my soldering iron! 

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.