Category Archives: rambles

Fare thee well, Tardis, until we meet again

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I first noticed PS:1 because of the sign on the door – the, “Yes we have a Tardis” message. I was intrigued enough to cross the street, look up and see, yep, there’s a Tardis up there. A freaking Tardis!

‘Clearly, this is the place for me,’ I thought.

Fast forward several years.  PS:1 has changed and grown, getting bigger and better, but sadly, the Tardis, has not weathered (pun intended) the years well. I have been on the roof several times over the years.  Each time I stopped to take a look at the Tardis, noting that maybe with some TLC, it could be restored to its former glory as a beacon for folks who wanted to find a place to be whimsical, playful, and creative.

Over the past year particularly, it became extremely obvious that it was suffering real damage, and if there was going to be any chance of saving it, the time had come to try. At best, I figured we could disassemble and rebuild it, and even possibly use it to hide the new dust collector. Upon investigation, we determined that the wood was rotted through, and that it was a real hazard to everyone and everything on Elston Ave. below.  A bad storm would likely have ripped off large chunks, sending them flying straight into a law suit.

So Ken, Andy, and I, with assistance from Kyle who happened to have a pickup truck with an empty bed, the disassembly and lowered the pieces to the street below. Most were lowered by some rope Andy just happened to have; some pieces we simply chucked overboard (always timed so nobody was anywhere near PS:1). Given how heavy some of the parts were, I’m quite impressed with the folks who got it up there in the first place!

After the large pieces came down, Kyle sent up some garbage bags and we cleaned up the rest, leaving little to indicate that anything had ever been up there. Mike Skilton was on hand to help unload Kyle’s truck and cut the chunks down to dumpster size.  As I write this, a fair number of the pieces are sitting on a pallet on the loading dock, waiting for the dumpster to be emptied so they can be thrown away.

This makes me sad.

The Tardis has been around since very early days. It can be seen on PS:1’s Flickr pool going back to the original space. The Tardis is an emblem of the spirit of the space, and demonstrates what can be done by a group of individuals with a common purpose: to make something awesome that makes others happy. Personally, I think of PS:1 not as a collection of tools and equipment, but of interesting people who want to make and do interesting things – and who can and do come together from time to time to make PS:1 itself better. PS:1 is the place it is because of people helping each other. To anyone who has installed something, volunteered for a committee, fixed equipment, or shared an idea to make the place better for everyone, I say this: you have made PS:1 more than just a random collection of tools. You have made it a community.
I propose that it is time for the community to come together once again to build Tardis 2.0. I whipped up a rough design that would use a steel skeleton clad in weatherproof paneling.  In addition to having its windows lit up, it could enclose a weather station and even a webcam.

 

I believe the PS:1 folks can bring their skills to replace the empty space on the roof with a better, more durable Tardis that will continue to elicit smiles and curiosity from passers-by (I can think of three separate times when people have shown up for the open house because they wanted to know what PS:1 was solely because they saw the Tardis on the roof) and hopefully will see it like I did: as an sign that this small beige building is a great community and space for people to have fun and be creative.


Last chance to see:

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A Light Diversion

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In the last days of Radio Shack, I was in a store on Michigan Avenue when I spotted, buried amongst the disassembled shelving units and discarded phone cases, a small red box that turned out to be an Arduino-based soldering project, the 2770158 LED Cube (https://github.com/RadioShackCorp/2770158-LED-Cube). I bought it for something like $5, took it home, and promptly put it on the shelf as a project I’ll ‘get to’ at some point.

The honest truth is that I was somewhat intimidated by the soldering; it’s a 3x3x3 cube of LEDs that are soldered together and the lights were smaller than i was expecting, and looking at some pics of the final result, I resigned myself to likely screwing it up and at best hoping that I might learn something from what I assumed would be a complete failure. So I somehow justified to myself that, in order to not waste my $5, I shouldn’t actually try to make the thing I spent $5 on.

At some point I hit myself with a clue-by-four and realized the stupidity of my situation; accept the possible loss of the $5 and actually try instead of fretting about what-ifs. So I took the kit to PS:1, sat down in the Electronics area, got out the soldering iron, magnifying glass, and went to work. It took a couple of hours, and I was certain, absolutely positively certain, that, even though it looked right, there was no chance that I had actually gotten the leads all wired together correctly, especially the ones in the middle that were extremely hard to reach with the big tip of the soldering iron. Okay, well, only thing left was to actually plug it into the Arduino Uno I had, load up the sample sketch (available in the RS GitHub repo above), and see what happens.

I fired up the Arduino IDE, loaded the sample sketch, hit upload, and all of a sudden all the lights came on as it started through the canned routines. I was initially skeptical, checking every single light to see which one was never lighting up, and all of a sudden it dawned on me that I had actually done it, all the lights actually lit up as part of the demo routine, and HOLY CRAP I MADE A THING AND IT WORKED!!!!1111

And then in my excitement I dropped it, ripping the USB cord from the Arduino, and landed lights-down on the floor. Well, of course I did. Of course I broke it, right? But as I checked the connections, nothing had come loose, there were no broken connections. I plugged the Arduino back in, and sure enough, it happily came back to life and started going through the routine. Whew!

 

So I resolved to make this truly my own; running a demo program that I didn’t write was not ‘finishing the job’. I remembered the QBasic ‘Snake’ program that drew a line bouncing around the screen, hitting the edge and then randomly turning and going off into another direction. Ah, but this is a cube, in threeeee deeeeeeee, so the challenge would be that more interesting, especially as I resolved to sit down and actually try to implement it without any help from the Internet; a three-dimensional matrix of lights, translated into C++.

This is where I remembered a line from Top Gun that went something along the lines of “Our pilots had become dependent on missiles” as a reason for loss of dogfighting ability. (And then I got that Everly Brothers song stuck in my head). Well, writing C++ for years, I had become dependent on the containers provided by the Standard Template Library (map, vector, etc.). While the Arduino is programmed using C++, it’s really a pretty small subset of C++ (which sort-of-kinda-not-really makes sense) and the STL is not available; go ahead and #include <map> all you like, all the compiler’s gonna do is complain. So I knew I’d have to regain some amount of dogfighting capability and do all the array/matrix stuff in pure C. So I decided the best way to keep myself honest and regain some of the skills I think I used to have, I created a C file in Vim (using Emacs always made me angry, straight-up I hate this, whatever this is), wrote the program, saved, compiled and ran straight from the terminal prompt. Again and again and again.

One of the biggest problems was forcing myself to get past the ‘sheesh, this woulda been easy to use <insert some STL thing> here’ and just focus on getting the values in the right cells of the matrix. It took a few hours to get the algorithm right, but pretty soon I had it spitting out numbers that seemed right, but how was I gonna know that it was right?

This is where I decided to make a quick diversion and build a virtual version of the matrix in OpenSCAD:

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Using this model, I could walk through the output of the program and verify that the snake was truly moving correctly around the matrix. I rotated the model around, checking that the numbers were right and HOLY CRAP I MADE ANOTHER THING THAT WORKED!

 

The last thing to do was to actually get the program to work with the LEDs. This is where the spartan documentation of the original Radio Shack code became a problem; the sketch did a passable job of explaining how the lights were addressed, but the examples were all arrays of pre-baked values without having to do anything dynamic, and my program was all dynamic. I studied how the demo program worked, started fiddling with the values, and discovered how to set the bits in the right way to turn on individual lights, on specific levels. From there I modified my C program and added some code to translate my positioning, which turned out to be the mirror opposite of the way the lights are addressed; I solved the problem by physically turning the Arduino around so I was looking at the other side. Problem solved!)

I uploaded my sketch to the Arduino and it suddenly the lights were lighting up in what appeared to be a snake moving around the matrix. HOLY CRAP I GOT IT TO WORK!!!!!!11111

TL;DR:

This is a long post for what amounts to a small light toy, but whilst I was feeling rather verbose (a consequence of sitting and waiting for an unrelated program to finish), I can’t emphasize how foolish I feel for not starting all this earlier; fear of failure is a very, very powerful emotion and if there’s a TL;DR in here somewhere, it’s that it is always better to try and fail than to never try at all, which is something PS:1 has done a very good job of teaching me.

TL;DR(2):

The code is available at https://github.com/tachoknight/arduino-snakey.

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Just Fucking Do it, or: How a Little Bit of Anarchy Helped Me

Most of us have spent a significant amount of time throughout our lives asking for permission. From parents, teachers, supervisors, community leaders, peers and everyone else. It’s a normal, natural part of life, and if no one did it then things would likely be worse for it.

I’ve spent a lot of time doing things I probably should have asked for permission to do. In high school, I basically lived in our auditorium, doing technical theatre stuff. I drilled holes in walls, re-wired electrical devices, modified the structure to fit my needs and probably did a lot of stuff I don’t even remember. Some combination of the right level of oversight (thanks, Ken!) and a sense of independence granted by the venue inspired me (and my peers) to take the initiative. In college, I kept right on drilling holes in the walls and changing things to suit me. No one ever noticed, at least no one who would tell me to stop.

I’ve always known when I was doing something I should probably clear with someone, but I’ve often ignored it because it’s more expedient to ask for forgiveness, right?

I’m also someone who has a lot of projects. I have projects that some people like enough that I don’t even have to execute them any more. I have a project that’s a pretty significant piece of infrastructure at a hackerspace that is likely one of the busiest in the world by several metrics (I’ll give you three guesses for which one).

The thing I would point to as the number one contributor to my willingness to change things and press forward with an idea is my membership at Pumping Station: One. PS:One is the greatest place in the world. When I came to visit, I saw a place that was running because a few people wanted it to run. As I learned about the history, I heard a story of people who basically willed the organization into existence. People told me I should change things, that I shouldn’t always feel the need to ask for permission. Folks told me it was a ‘physical wiki’ and it was up to the membership to decide what content we would have. If it wasn’t for PS:One, I wouldn’t have done most of the projects I’m now proud of.

It took me a while to catch on (more time than it took me to start changing things at schools, where this kind of activity is usually frowned upon. That might say something about me.), it was a few months before I started changing things, alongside some of the folks who joined around the same time I did. I quickly fell into the rhythm. I continue to make  changes to the space, because that’s what our culture encourages (and that’s exactly what I encourage every new member to do). We’ve handed out more than one hundred RFID fobs to people, and they now get into the building with them using hardware I nailed to a door (I’m not kidding – come visit and see) that runs code I wrote. That baffles me sometimes, but it’s awesome.

PS:One has changed me as much as I’ve changed it. I now find myself casually contributing to open source software when I see the opportunity – the other day I absentmindedly submitted a pull request to fix a typo in a utility I used once (while trying to help solve a problem I reported in the Linux kernel). This kind of contribution should be more widespread, and if PS:One can accomplish one aspect of its goal, I hope it’s encouraging people everywhere to contribute however they can.

Some folks think it’s just a vulgar phrase on the wall, but ‘Just Fucking Do It’ is integral to what PS:One is, and it’s incredibly important to me and many other people. We radically and categorically reject the idea that you should ask for permission for most things, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

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