Crappy robots battle this Saturday at PS1!

Update — that was pretty epic:

Hebocon is a contest that pits tiny, crappy robots against one another in miniature sumo battles. Whichever crappy robot falls over or exits the ring first, loses. But the important thing is, the robots must be crappy.

PS1 will be hosting its first-ever micro-Hebocon this Saturday, October 20. A micro-Hebocon is like a regular Hebocon, but even crappier: all robots will be powered by a wind-up motor that provides about four seconds of energy.

PS1 is providing the motors free of charge. Also beer, free of charge. Bring whatever other parts you desire, or see what is available in the micro-junkyard of odd robot parts that PS1 will make available at the event.

The micro-junkyard will include an Iron Chef-style surprise ingredient. Probably not octopus, and probably not uranium…but maybe!

Worried you won’t be able to create a functioning robot? No worries, there is also an aesthetics award to be given out to the fanciest robot on the strip.

The event takes place from 7pm to 10pm, this Saturday, October 20. 21 and over only, please. No entrance fee, but please email Kathryn Born if you plan to participate. [email protected]

Oh, one other thing: if you do happen to be a skilled roboticist, don’t despair! Just challenge yourself by adding a handicap:

  • Try combinations that you would never do at work, like making a propeller with dried squid rather than plastic or metal;
  • Avoid technology that you’re familiar with. Do not use a soldering iron, or other tools;
  • Make it with your left hand (if you are right-handed);
  • Make it with your feet;
  • Leave the most important part to a 5-year-old child to make it for you.
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Join us at Locktoberfest!

Locktoberfest is coming back to PS1 on Sunday, October 14 from 11am to 5pm. The event is fun and free (although you should register if you plan to attend). Come learn how to pick locks, marvel at the skills of experienced lockpickers, eat food, and drink exciting beverages:

Locktoberfest is a party! First things first, we’re here to have fun. What’s fun for us? Lockpicking! Also: beer and brats and…. you! Locktoberfest is open to everyone, from world class lockpickers to those interested in learning for the first time.

More details here.

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Open House Chicago: volunteers needed

Open House Chicago is a great annual event. On the weekend of October 13 – 14, 250 locations across Chicago open their doors to the public to give them a glimpse, for free, of what goes on inside.

PS:1 is one of those 250 locations. This is our second year of participation, and it is not only an honor to be included, it is a rare opportunity for us to show ourselves off to a much wider swathe of the public than we normally interact with.

This is more than just a vanity exercise. We are trying to use OHC to drive new memberships. New memberships are critical to our finances and bear heavily on issues like how we will navigate the building sale. It’s an important weekend for us.

So we need your help. I am looking for three types of volunteer:

  1. Tour guides. Open House Chicago tours are not the same thing as our regular Tuesday tours. They need to be shorter and, for lack of a better term, more interesting. That is, OHC visitors don’t care about the authorization process or Tidy Space policy. Tours should be quick and more focused on the big picture of PS:1. What is a makerspace? What is the maker movement? What do people do here? Etc.
  2. Demo monkeys. Staring at an unused CNC plasma cutter isn’t that exciting. Watching a CNC plasma cutter carve up plate steel is cool. For the OHC weekend, ideally we will have our tools in operation, so that people can witness the act of making firsthand. Lathes, lasers, mills, printers, you name it. If you can operate it, please come help us show it off.
  3. Personal projects. Do you make your own musical instruments? Your own telescopes? Your own costumes? Consider dropping by during OHC to show off some of the great stuff you’ve made at PS1 to the public, even just for a few hours.
  4. Organizers. Beyond the work on the weekend itself, we need to get ready for the event. Even if you’re not available on October 13 – 14, perhaps you’re interested in laying groundwork for the event.

If you think you might be interested, please submit your name here.  Signing up isn’t a commitment — even if you just think you possibly could want to help, get in touch.

By the way, Chicago Architecture Center, the organizer of the event, offers training for tour guides that includes free swag and other fun perks. Training with the OHC isn’t required, but if you want to participate in the OHC training, please register your interest now — we will schedule the training session soon.



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NOMCOM blogging: Google will give PS1 $10,000 per month

Google has a program called Google Ad Grants that gives any qualifying nonprofit — and PS1 certainly qualifies — $10,000 per month in free search advertising. It’s not cash, but it’s still a pretty sweet deal. We just have to go claim it.

The bag of free money comes, of course, with a catch: it takes a lot of work to spend $10,000 a month on search advertising, and even more work to spend it well. This was by far the most nitty gritty and practical talk I attended at NOMCON, much of it focused on the mechanics of running a successful search advertising campaign.

If you’ve never had the misfortune of managing an ad campaign on Google, here is a vastly oversimplified rundown:

  1. You, the advertiser, bid on search terms in an open auction.
  2. When someone enters your search term into Google, your ad may be displayed on the search results page if you have a winning bid.
  3. You only pay if the searcher clicks on your ad.

Google Ad Grants recipients don’t really pay anything at all, because they are playing with house money. You get $10,000 of funny money to burn through each month (technically, $329 each day).

Importantly, Google caps the amount that recipients of Google Ad Grants money can bid at $3, which is low enough to put popular search terms entirely out of reach. The trick to a successful ad campaign is finding search terms that are both relevant to the audience you are trying to reach and also priced affordably enough that it makes sense to bid on them.

But there’s much more to a campaign than just choosing keywords. The purpose of displaying advertising is to drive traffic to a specific page on a website. That page should be relevant to the specific search term. For example, if someone searches for “Arduino hacking,” sending them to the PS1 home page would be somewhat pointless. Sure, there’s a small chance the visitor will carefully explore the site to figure out what PS1 has to offer electronics hobbyists. Haha, just kidding: she will immediately slam on the back button. $3 of funny money flushed down the toilet.

What you want to do instead is send the visitor to a page on our website with a headline like, “Interested in joining a community of Arduino hackers?” And then show the NERP schedule and invite her to sign up for a Meetup. Or something along those lines.

People who take this stuff seriously tend to bid on lots of search terms. In this case, a lot means 250,000 or more. (Automation can help a bit: there are sites with names like KeywordShitter that, well, what it says.) The pros tweak and optimize their landing pages. They test out dozens of variants of ad copy out to see which ones perform the best.

In short, search advertising is specialized work that is often outsourced to agencies.

But it doesn’t have to be quite as bad as all that. Start small. Borrow keyword lists from other makerspaces that already advertise online. Set up a single landing page for each of the areas within PS1. Etc. It’s still a lot of work, but not necessarily an insane amount of work.

Which maybe brings up some questions: do we even want $10,000 per month in free search advertising? What would we do with it? The answers are: yes and a lot.

The most obvious use of the money is to grow membership. But there is a lot more than that you can do:

  • Attract people to one-time events, such as Fusion classes or the upcoming Chicago Open House that PS1 is participating in.
  • Engage in geographical market research by targeting campaigns to different Chicago ZIP codes to see where interest in makerspaces is highest.
  • Solicit volunteers for specific roles or events (lots of people are looking for volunteer opportunities online).
  • Target specific types of makers to bring new people to under-utilized areas of the space.
  • “Smoke test” new offerings like classes by advertising them and seeing what kind of response we get.

And so on. Basically, if there’s anything you want to try to spread the word about, Google Ad Grants gives you hose of cash to point at it.

Next steps: refreshing the website and enrolling in the program.

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Switch over your account — now easier than ever

Some important reminders:

  1. Please switch over the new member management system. We have streamlined the process further — see below. It’s easy. Just do it now.
  2. Seriously now. It takes, like, a minute.
  3. The target switchover date for the internal computer system is September 1. Get your files off PS1 computers now. More on that below as well.

Account switchover

As you no doubt know, we are changing out the old PS1 member management system for a shiny new one. Please set up an account in the new system, including billing information. Here’s how:

  1. Go to
  2. Choose whichever membership level you want: Starving Hacker or Full Membership
  3. Fill out the forms. They should be fairly self-explanatory. The “Active Directory Username” is the name you will use to log into the computer network at PS1.If you want, you can use the same username that you already do.

And that’s pretty much it. You will be asked to submit payment information and your credit card will be charged. Do not worry: you are not paying double for the current month. Once you have created your new account, an admin will take care of the rest. Your Paypal payment will be cancelled automatically, and your renewal date will be updated so that none of your payments overlap.

Computer system update

As mentioned, on September 1 the internal computer systems will be updated and will begin using the new member management system for login. There are two things you should take care of before this changeover happens:

  1. First, set up an account in the new member management system (see above). This will allow you to continue to log into workstations in the space, including the computers the control the ShopBot, laser cutters, and other fancy tools.
  2. Second, back up any important files that you are keeping on computers in the space, because they will be wiped out when the changeover happens. Really you should never keep important files on workstations at the space, because there is no guarantee they will be preserved. But we really no-joke mean it: on September 1, files go bye bye.


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Announcing: PS1 Member Survey

We want to hear from you! The PS1 PR team (Adam Stein and Alisha Ciardi) is about to launch a survey of PS1 members to get a better understanding who we are as community, how we use PS1 as a space, and how we view the organization. Please read on for details about the survey and in particular about the steps we are taking to safeguard the confidentiality of your responses.

Why are we doing this?

We have surprisingly little data about who makes up the PS1 community. The feedback we do get is mostly anecdotal. We want to hear from all our members, especially those who do not regularly participate in member forums, both online and in person at the space itself.

Especially as we face some existential questions raised by the building sale, it’s hard to chart a course without a sense of who the membership is and what the membership wants.

While any survey has its limitations, a well-designed survey will provide valuable qualitative and quantitative data that will help round out our picture of PS1.

Confidentiality and anonymity

We want to ensure that you feel comfortable to share your thoughts free from judgment. To prevent anyone’s opinions or information being shared publicly, here are the steps we are taking:

  1. Survey responses are being collected anonymously, which means that no identifying information will captured about individual respondents.
  2. We have a hired a third-party to collect and process the raw survey responses for us and delete the source data.
  3. The third-party analyst will divide the data into two sets: demographics and other data. The PS1 PR team will only see the disaggregated data, to further ensure the anonymity of your responses.
  4. Only the PR team will view the full responses. We will prepare a summary report for wider dissemination.

If you have any questions or concerns about the survey, please reach out to [email protected].

What happens now?

You will receive an email with a link to the survey sometime in the next few days. (Again, even though the link is sent to you via email, no identifying information will be recorded with your response.)

If for some reason you don’t receive a survey invitation, request one at [email protected].

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NOMCOM: measuring impact

The question that nags me possibly more than any other at PS1 is: how do we know how we’re doing?

The short answer is, we don’t. PS1 makes no formal or really even informal attempt to gauge our success against our stated mission. We are drowning in anecdotes, but we are a near desert of actual data.

Well, not quite. One of the advantages we enjoy over a lot of makerspaces in this regard is that we are 100% member-supported. So at the very least, we know how fast we are growing, and we can treat membership numbers as a rough proxy for success. This sets us apart, for example, from a maker lab that is part of a public school and serves a fixed population.

Still, this isn’t much to go on. For starters, topline growth numbers mask some worrying underlying trends, such as a high churn rate. And while it is comforting that members find enough value in PS1 to continue to pay their dues, this isn’t quite the same thing as measuring impact. Are people actually making things at PS1? Can anyone be successful at PS1, or does the space only really serve certain members? Is the community at PS1 healthy? Are we getting better or worse over time?

So I was looking forward to the Measuring Impact session. Unfortunately, the session ended up being tilted fairly heavily toward grant-supported organizations, which in retrospect makes sense: they care about measuring impact because they need to prove their worth to funders. That public school maker lab wants to justify its existence by tracking the change in self-reported “STEM identity” of its student population. PS1 doesn’t share these concerns.

Still, there were useful takeaways from the session, and the session notes contain links to some helpful resources. (If you’re looking for a single overview article to read on measuring social impact, this one is a decent place to start. I also picked up this book.)

A lot of the advice around measuring impact has a common-sense aspect:

  • Start with the mission itself. Make sure you are clear on your objectives before you try to measure results.
  • Pick metrics that are relevant. How well do the metrics actually capture the outcome you are interested in?
  • Keep it simple. Data collection should be relatively easy and the results should also be easy to explain.
  • Iterate often. Trend lines are more valuable than individual data points.
  • Use the data. The data doesn’t matter if it doesn’t inform decision making.

This may be commonsensical, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easy. It’s trivial for us to track the number of members at PS1. Measuring PS1’s local economic impact, on the other hand? Good luck with that.

The truth is, though, that I don’t actually spend much time thinking about the local economic impact of PS1. It’s not really actionable information for me, nor does it seem central to our mission.

So what metrics and outcomes should we be focusing on? My short list would look something like this:

  1. Member growth
  2. Member churn
  3. Member satisfaction
  4. Space utilization
  5. Member engagement

The first two metrics, growth and churn, fall straight out of our member database, although the truth is that this data has been surprisingly hard to get at in the past. The changeover to Wild Apricot will help a lot.

Member satisfaction remains a mystery, one that I hope to address through an upcoming member survey. Plenty more on that to come.

The survey will also shed some light on space utilization, although there are lots of people in the broader maker community attacking this problem through tooling. RFID-based systems for unlocking tools is one source of such data. There are also passive — and anonymous — data collection approaches that rely on equipment monitoring or motion sensing to measure space utilization.

Of course, these techniques can throw off a lot of data, and it is important to loop back to the principles outlined above: what are the relevant metrics? How can they be made simple to explain? What decisions will they inform?

Member engagement is an interesting puzzle. There are data-driven approaches possible here, such as measuring activity on message boards and social media. Perhaps more important though is the question of volunteership and member participation in the process of running PS1. Conventional wisdom at PS1 is that our volunteer rates are low and that this is a problem. Some actual data here would be welcome.

Perhaps the most interesting question is what is missing from this list. In particular, it feels light on the topics of community health and the quality of actual making at PS1. One of our stated goals is to “foster a creative, collaborative environment for experimentation and development in technology and art.” How are we doing?

I don’t have an immediate answer, although there are resources out there that may be relevant to the question. For example, the Community Canvas is a framework for assessing and building meaningful communities. Traditionally we have treated the community at PS1 as something that just happens rather than something that needs to be tended. But we’ll never really know how well that approach is working unless we attempt to measure it.

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Upcoming tour: Salumi Chicago

Greg Laketek ran the acclaimed charcuterie West Loop Salumi until last April. He closed down the storefront and recently announced the opening of Salumi Chicago, a 20,000 square foot facility in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, near the former Union Stock Yards.

Greg has offered a tour and tasting to PS:1 members in the fall. Date and time are to be determined. If you are interested, please put your name on the list. Participants will be chosen by random lottery.

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Horween tour pics

A group of intrepid PS1 members took a tour of the Horween leather factory last month. Horween used to be one of many leather manufacturers clustered on the north branch of the Chicago River. It is the only one still remaining.

Horween has been able to keep its manufacturing plant located in Chicago by going upscale. Today, the company is primarily a provider of high-end shoe leather.

Oh, and they also make all the footballs. I will get back to this in a bit.

Below find some photos from the tour. One important note before the slideshow begins: we got hit with a ton of fascinating information on this tour, and I remember about 5% of it. I will pass along whatever tidbits I can, plus maybe a few things I made up. You’ve been warned! Click any picture for a larger version.

Horween has been on its present site for going on a century now, and the building is about as confusingly laid out as you might expect. Think Willy Wonka factory, except it smells disconcertingly like beef.

Also, given how nondescript the buildings facing Elston are, the alley sports a fair number of kick-ass murals:

Horween processes both horse hides and steer hides. I expected some strong scents in the factory, but I was mostly prepared for chemical smells. This room smells distinctly like meat. I believe the hides at this point are “pickled,” meaning packed in salt for preservation. They need to be shaved and soaked before the tanning process begins.

Some real talk: horse butts are awesome. Or so I’ve come to understand. Leather from horse butts apparently has a very specific thickness and grain and set of calluses that make it an especially good material for extremely fancy shoes. Horween doesn’t traffic in horse hides so much as in horse butts. And butt liquor:

The process of turning hides into leather is essentially one of stripping out the natural fats and replacing them with ones that will remain stable over time. And of course adding color and finish to the product.

There are two types of tanning processes used at Horween: chrome tanning and vegetable tanning. Vegetable tanning involves soaking the hides for months in vats of liquid infused with various tree barks. These vats looks  shallow, but don’t be fooled! They are about seven feet deep:

That guy in the glasses is Nick Horween, by the way, our extremely gracious tour guide and nth-generation leather maker. His great-something-grandfather came over from the Ukraine after completing military service at the age of, like, fifteen and deciding that being a Jew in the Ukrainian army in the 18th century was maybe not such a hot career path. (TIL: there actually were Jewish Cossacks. I’m not saying Nick Horween’s ancestors were Cossacks. I’m just saying I learned this after spending some time on Wikipedia today.)

Great-something-grandpa Horween had been trained as an Old World leather tanner, and he continued plying the trade here in Chicago. Chicago was a good place for leather making, on account of the nearby stockyards.

The chrome tanning process involves chemicals and is not especially Instagram-worthy.

At the end of the tanning process, the hides still aren’t leather. In fact, the chrome-tanned hides are distinctly blue (referred to as wet blue). Below is a horse butt. You can see the grain:

And here is a stack of wet blue hides:

Leather is an organic product (duh), which means it doesn’t come in uniform thickness. This is a problem if you’re selling to shoemakers who want to sell a uniform product, so the next step is to feed the leather through a sort of horizontal bandsaw that shaves the leather to a consistent width.

Maybe you’re wondering, like me, how often you need to sharpen a saw blade that is used to shave tanned horse hides. And the answer is: always. There is a sharpener built into the machine that is constantly honing the blade as it passes through the hide.

Horween has versions of this machine that have been in operation for about 100 years. They just keep replacing the parts. In general, there is a lot of DIY going on at Horween. They have two carpenters on staff.

This is where they dye the leather, which is also the only part of the tour where Nick was cagey about me taking photographs. The chalkboards on the dye vats show a color recipe. Purchasers work with Horween to achieve a specific look.

High-end leather is processed again, and again, and again, always by hand, over a course of months. Here the leather is being carefully scraped by hand:

Oh, yeah, about the footballs. Horween makes them. All of them. As in, all the ones made out of leather that are officially used by the NFL and presumably by other teams that care about using real footballs. The balls are not made out of cows, not pigs.

The pattern on football leather is embossed by a very heavy press:

Towards the end of the process, the leather is sliced down for thickness yet again. This room actually smells delightful. It smells like Ricardo Montalban sounds.

The end of the process is, of course, not the end of the process. The finished leather is now ready to become an input in an entirely new manufacturing process.

The Horween guest book:

A huge thank you to Nick Horween for allowing us to tour his factory. Below are some fun historical footnotes to end the tour. Go Pats! Also, read the framed letters. They are awesome (remember, click to embiggen).

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158 awesome people have switched to new member system, can still access PS1 tools

The member management system changeover is well underway, with more than 25% of members setting up accounts at:

As a reminder! In about three weeks we will switch over PS1’s internal computer system to the new member management system, which means you will no longer be able to log into workstations with your old credentials. Which further means you will no longer be able to laser, or mill, or CNC plasma cut unless you have switched over.

The good news is switching over is easy. The better news is that it is both easy and fun, with 83% of participants reporting ASMR-style tingling in the backs of their knees. The best news is that we now have a super-cool video that walks you through the process in up to three dimensions:

Huge thank you to member Alisha Ciardi for putting this together!

People who prefer boring old words can find some written instructions here.

Do it now! Win with Wild Apricot!

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