Proto Makerspace in Spring, TX

protomx-0In Spring, Texas, just off the I-45 “North Freeway”, there’s a small business park that’s kinda hard to turn into. Sandwiched by chain link fences and between two other places, it’s hard to spot at night. If you miss it the first time, it’s maybe two clicks and a U-turn to get around to the same one-way frontage that approaches the correct driveway. But when you reach the fenced, corrugated-steel complex, you’ll find the Proto Makerspace on the front side of the second building. It’s labelled “2D” but it’s hardly flat – this facility has two stories!

protomx-4Inside the front door, you’ll be greeted by a chime, the gallery, and a guestbook. Down the hall off to your left is the electronics workbench, where there’s a new RepRap waiting to be calibrated. Past this is the main workshop; its large bay door rolls open to the tarmac to move the big stuff in and out, and keep the space free of welding fumes. A new donation, a sheet-metal cutter, swims against the current into the corner, just as much-needed space is being found by hauling other equipment away. The floor is dominated by a BigOx CNC, with a new 3-in-1 laser/mill/extrusion unit due to go up right beside it. The pegboards and shelves host various saws and hand tools, and several cleaning implements; keeping the space free of sawdust is an uphill battle. Also laying around are the latest projects, including a PVC skeleton that will be the core of an articulated First Order Electro-Baton, like the one from Star Wars VII. (Cosplay is kind of a big deal here; one member figures highly in the local Ren Faire circuit!)

protomx-29The more spacious upstairs is where everyone hangs out. There’s a laser cutting station that overlooks the parking lot, with a homebuilt SDR flight tracker perched on the windowsill. Behind this is the main area, the combination classroom/theatre/gaming lounge. This is where the kids come to learn – the space runs day and weekend classes, and better-than-summer-school week projects. One upcoming course is on how to program, with the help of Scratch, Minecraft, and a real live NASA engineer! In addition to the structured approach, ProtoMX has a junior maker club option for aspiring digital artists, that keeps the clean-room tools open for exploration. It’s not every space that strives to be this inclusive!

Past the motion equations scrawled on the whiteboard, the theatre/gaming nexus is dominated by a PlayStation 4, a stack of games ready to play, or perhaps spool up Netflix and step over to the kitchen and fire up the popcorn machine! Thirsty? The beverage of choice is Coke Classic, often with Barq’s or Dr Pepper in the fridge too for a half-dollar donation. Open house night might just occasion an order of Papa John’s Pizza, with the brownie, or if you’re hours-long into your woodworking, it’s not hard to fix something simple between the microwave, keurig, and electric kettle. Among the more fascinating additions to the food arsenal is the multi-syringed PancakeBot, complete with griddle, coming to a fundraiser near you!

protomx-11Rounding it all out is the studio space for photography and screen printing. There’s a computer set in the middle side room, also host to the comfiest couch in the space, and 25 member storage cubbyholes. The last room, tucked into the corner, hosts the 3D printers: fast MakerBot clones, churning away, plus a marginally functional Black Devil Delta. They’re in the middle of printing iPhone adapters for the reflector telescope.

protomx-2The telescope (salvaged – you wouldn’t believe what people just throw away!) is observing the waxing gibbous moon. The aim of its laser-cut stand has to be adjusted every other minute as the moon crosses the sky. Two versions of the adapter come out of the printers, one for each kind of iPhone the members have in hand. Amazing photos come out until the first adapter snaps, then the other phone comes in with the other adapter, working even better with its HDR capability. Between an unsteady hand and immutable autofocus in the camera app, my own phone fails to capture anything useful through the objective. But in principle, given an hour or so and a set of calipers, suitable precision mount could be had for anything with a lens!

If you’re worried about traffic – and practically everyone in Houston is – Proto is a great bet if you live on the north side. I’d give ProtoMX the edge over all of the others on gregariousness, along with being a little more artsy and definitely more STEM-outreach focused than average in the Metro. It’s also open more and better-equipped than the other small spaces. They’re the first and last space I visited in the Houston area. All in all, a solid shop!

Growing pains

I think I’ve gotten over most of the growing pains with the new set.  The Coolpad Rogue ships with two ways to get online, WiFi hotspot or USB tethering.  WiFi is working fine, at least in an isolated spot, but I hate crowding the 2.4GHz spectrum with a high-power signal.  USB tethering also pushes bits just fine, but I basically need to do an electronics project to keep it from draining my laptop and overfilling my handset battery.  What I really miss is Bluetooth tethering, maybe there’s an app for that.

As far as the throttling goes, I changed a few settings and found a better spot for coverage, apparently I was stuck on a 2G data channel when I started out.  24 kbps is actually pleasing news in that context.  Right now, I’m doing much better on 4G.

Testing T-Mobile

p-coolWell, staying under 500MB of mobile data has done a lot of hobbling to what I can do blogwise, let alone wade into the tweeterverses.

So I went out and got this cheapo phone from T-Mobile Prepaid to put their $30 5GB/mo offering to the test.  Actually, the claim is “unlimited” data, throttled after 5GB, but come on, this is wireless, that’s lie number one in this industry.

Just messing around here and there so far, the data is not all that lickety-split.  Full bars of 4G, so so the thing claims (It’s a Coolpad Rogue), but the data only trickles in, even for T-Mobile internal sites.  Yeah, it’s Houston rush hour out there, but I just get this big whiff of throttle coming off my tethering test (I’m not even trying to actually download anything, it’s artificial pain at the level where it’s making me regret no-graphics pageloads).  I already know that T-Mobile’s DNS servers are twigged, they can’t even find my website!

I’m wary of John Legere’s feud with the EFF, among other things, but Project Fi requires a double-jointed Google handset well beyond my budget.  The other darling of the industry is ting.  If they were competing in 2016 and not 2012, I wouldn’t be having this problem in the first place!  Hey ting, I’ll come back to your data offerings when you have a 5GB GSM tier that costs $24.

5GB of data is not a huge number, but it’s enough to work with.  It’s enough to do what I need to do.  Plus, as an experiment, I might actually try out more of these crazy cell phone apps that people use to stay in touch.

10BitWorks in San Antonio

tenbits-0San Antonio de Bexar is the nexus of Texas history.  The original Texian Flag flew over the Alamo – not much more than “COME AND TAKE IT” scrawled on some linen.  The intersection of Roosevelt and McKinley sounds straight out of another era entirely, but you turn a different century walking into this white building with glass doors and white-painted pattern brick.  A modern phrase might be “Come and Make It”  – 10BitWorks’ motto.  This old Harley-Davidson chopper shop, from the bare concrete floor to the tar-paper roof, is bustling with the grits of the 21st Century, a digital factory replete with robotics and aquaculture expertise.

Walk in the door facing McKinley, and you’re already in the woodshop.  Though all the limited parking is on the far side of McKinley, it’s a bit of a short circuit to start out; the main entrance is still on Roosevelt, which opens directly to the 3D Printing and Laser area – where everyone hangs out. The tour commences from this door, running past the gallery, the storage space, roaming from the clean machines to the dusty woodshop, then into the classroom, which doubles as the arcade and kitchen.

tenbits-91Already, there’s great history here at 10BitWorks.  Aside from offering the first 3D-Printed Fiesta Medal to San Antonians, or assisting local groups that laser-print portraits on tortillas for February’s Luminaria, they once got an OLPC XO-1 from Josef Průša himself, following an education conference in town.  Starting as a club of just 8 members, 10Bit (always numeralled, never spelled) has grown to around 30, and there’s plenty of room still. The new President of 10BW is interested in cultivating a larger, more active membership, even pondering a mini-tour of Texas Makerspaces to figure on best practices.

Laser Cutting is always a big draw.  Right now 10BW is still trying to nail down just how they want to do the accounting.  Technically, the Laser Cutter is still more of a partnership between a few members.  $1.75 a minute is up there, but most spaces aren’t offering an 80W laser, either.  Eventually that gas tube is going to break, so the rate needs to be self-sustaining.  Finding that happy medium, that keeps it busy and paid for, is a challenge.

tenbits-44Growth is also part of the plan with the brand-new 150-gallon aquaculture system.  It’s stocked with culture medium, earthworms, and tilapia fingerlings, and is just about ready for a first crop of heritage vegetables.  Amazing what you can do with a little elbow grease, a pump, an aquarium heater, and 5000K LED lightbulbs!

There’s a few set days of tradition for the space, apart from the student robotics groups constantly darting in and out of the space’s classroom with half-built 3D printers or killbots:

tenbits-43Tuesday is the day for expert advice on 3D Printers.  Quite a few folks are working on a build or tweaks, most of them are cartesians based on “GRAMPS”, the first fully-functional model the space bootstrapped.  Someone’s next printer, plus or minus some refinements in Unigraphics, is coming out on a bed already, while one of those fancy “digital sundial” models is coming out on another unit.  The extruders must be pretty good here, I see a lot of ABS running with just a heated bed and no walls.  My rig struggles to keep up.  I’m also still using Painter’s tape on my bed; here the conventional way is a little hairspray on a PLA printbed, or a spritz of ABS “goop” made with strings of your filament and a little nail polish, to get a good level stick to the print bed.

tenbits-105tenbits-75Wednesday is the art day.  The big project is laser-cut jigsaw puzzles, which run into a few snags along the way.  On Saturday, an early batch caught fire on the 80W Rabbit.  Thankfully the worst of it tonight is that they smell a little, between the burnt fiberboard and cinder-edged photopaper.  The end result is a smart-looking 6 piece puzzle, enough to show off, maybe get someone interested in the technique, or at least admire the artwork.  The photos for the next batch pop out fast from 10BW’s HP OfficeJet Pro 8610, and don’t look half bad at all!   Another notable art piece is from last year’s President, an engineer and part-time artist, who has for the last few years mailed a Constructable Ornament as a Christmas Card, adorned with six self-made original paintings, printed into a flat that can be folded into a cube, taped down, and hung on the tree!  This year’s version has a handy folding 3D-printed plastic backing cube to make it nice and study.

tenbits-45Thursday is mechatronics night, where bit by bit, the space’s InMoov Android is being printed and put together.  It looks like a harlequin quilt of 1990s aspiration, rising out of the gallery table slowly, each piece a random colour.  Eventually the whole thing will stand and be motorized; as a demo, there’s a red finger printed out to greet guests at the entryway to the space, but it’s a bit wonky, albeit in a fun way, and hardly ever plugged in these days.  A few of the operational InMoov units are done up specifically in one colour, but why not do something that pops out?

tenbits-19Saturdays are the official Open House Day, and the members tend to get an early start, though nominally it begins at 1pm.  With all day to dedicate to the cause, you’ll find everything from DIY aluminum casting with lost PLA, bentonite-sand, and a wooden form box, to delicious frosted sugar cookies made with a 3D printed cookie cutter, with yet more cookie shapes coming down the pipeline for next week, along with general 3D printing and the occasional visitor stopping by to try out the laser.

tenbits-79Now, Sunday afternoons are never guaranteed, but around about 2pm, a few folks usually come to 10BitWorks to play tabletop games, mainly the latest in card and board games, though if need be, every kind of Settlers of Catan is ready to go on the corner shelf. In exchange for a few pretzels, I’m introduced to the shifty paranoia of Noir, the ridiculous contraptions of Steam Works, and the desperate frustration that is Shadow of the Elder Gods  The same crowd has been known to while away their Thursday nights at Alien Worlds up on San Pedro, kinda by the River City Donut shop.[Phonetically, 10Bit can sound a little like ‘Timbit’, which got really me pastry-hungry.]

San Antonio is, to put it lightly, not a bad place to eat.  A maelstrom of menu choices surround the space; the top of the list is Whataburger, located barely a block away (just watch out for cars speeding around the blind corner).  Another popular choice is Bill Miller BBQ, a bit farther down the way.  And there’s taco trucks everywhere!  Of course, I’m a sucker for nostalgia, so I make a special trip across town to the neon fifties of the In-N-Out Burger, the last one I’ll see on this trip after passing it up in Dallas and Austin.  I have friends in Vegas who still are shocked that they’d ever open a second distribution centre.  Ah, but this is getting a bit off the beat, now!  Basically, if you like robots, if you like laser cutting, if you like burgers, you’ll love 10BitWorks.

TechShop Austin-Round Rock

tsarr-1At a glance, it lives up to its reputation. It’s staffed by hipsterish folk and has everything you need to build stuff, and staff to assist. During the 2015 holidays memberships are discounted to $100 from $150 a month. For the most part, a sustainable membership fee for a space is something like half of this or less, but TechShop has that extra component of convenience, help and education that accounts for the gap.

I didn’t get too far past the lobby, but then, they hardly need introduction. TechShop isn’t exactly shy about telling you all about itself on the website. It’s also nothing like “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” either – the Detroit TechShop is legendary for its scale, whereas the Austin edition is large, but not totally ostentatious. This one is also attached to a Lowe’s in case you’ve run out of substrate.

tsarr-3A single class here can cost more than a month’s membership at a co-op space, but classes here are also expected to supply you with all your materials. The exhibits of featured inventions from TechShop members are self-aggrandizing and inspirational in equal measure, but I’d say its heart is more or less in the right place. You can grab a copy of the Austin Chronicle to keep up on the local arts scene. Yes, this is the high-maintenance version of a makerspace. Someone’s gotta pay for the help’s hairstyling.

tsarr-4Despite the sticker shock, it’s still cheaper than going to a tech school to build up your confidence on the machines. A decent match for a newbie who needs to learn the ropes, or for the time-pressed maker, who doesn’t like hauling miles back and forth to the hardware store, or guessing when a second set of hands might show up for the big projects.

ATX Hackerspace in Austin, Texas

picsatxhs-c-41It’s a slow Tuesday night in December when I visit the ATX Hackerspace.  Across town, MakeATX is packed away for the holidays, so this is the sum of the diehards in the Texan capital city. The guests bring a dash of flavour; one passerby had been through the Toronto spaces, and really just stopped by to get some nuts tightened on his Kawasaki as he keeps on keeping on from Los Angeles. So you can fix your vehicle here! Another newcomer, a bit of a body-modder, is looking carefully for any signs of madness that he found at his old space in Portland, whilst regaling the crew with talk of his time in Tucson. So there’s a biohacking community here!

picsatxhs-a-39That week’s other meetups (Linux Wednesdays, Microcontroller Mondays, etc) are about as slow, though not without a lively debate over the finer points of the cellular network. One thing’s for sure, it’s so much better in Europe. These guys aren’t shy about ordering from AliExpress, which still is a hair-raising experience for the uninitiated. A maze of odd international trade principles, and row after row of scummy operators, are involved in AliBaba, only most of which are cut out by AliExpress. The key to staying happy with the system is embracing the hassle of complaining when your order results in AliBaba’s not-atypical delay and inaccuracy. The bottom line here: 800 tiny stepper motors for 80 dollars – a deal that just might be worth chasing.

picsatxhs-b-1In my quick breeze-though of the workshop tooling, what pops out is the engine stand and engine lift – they’re serious about their car work here – and a massive 1.6×2.8 meter CNC mill, sized to work on “Russian” plywood boards, some of which have been turned into wavy topograms on display in the gallery up front. It’s the first space I’ve been to with co-working cubicles, about a dozen of them in a keyfobbed side room ready to go, for $250 on top of the $60 membership. Plus there’s a chemistry lab, complete with working fume hood!

picsatxhs-b-26You could get some definite mad science going on here – and what better for a logo than a tricked-out flying bat? Definitely the most oblong entry I have in my hacker heraldry collection so far, most of which confine themselves to squares or cogwheels. Bats are kind of a big deal around Austin, the Texas “Hill Country” being of Karst topography. Among other things, the ATX Bat adorns their fully-functional MAME arcade machine, which is right alongside a motion-control ride machine! This place is clearly happening – I’ll have to pay a visit again sometime, when I can sit down for the stories and really catch the spirit of the place.

Tangling with Secure Boot and UEFI in Ubuntu

Folks in Dallas, among other places, were wondering why in the world I would run Windows 8 as my primary system.  Well, I run ubuntu as much as I can, just off a stick. I have three USB sticks tied up as ubuntu LiveCDs for ages, hopping installs between them, attempting to find the secret sauce that will get me a fully-fledged, mutable, bootable system.

I’d certainly prefer to have an environment where audacity, kdenlive, vlc, inkscape, gimp, and my favourite fonts are already preinstalled. Old solutions like the Ubuntu Customization Kit used to do this easily, but were never well-supported, even back in the day when they still worked.

Why not just run ubuntu side-by-side with Windows?  Two issues.  I’m down all those USB sticks just now and I don’t really want to mess with my hard drive partitions whatsoever, without having a backup of my System Restore partition around.  I rather dislike the notion of a software problem ballooning into a $12-$50 how-much-backup-space can-you-buy issue.  This whole deal is supposed to be plug-and-chug!

It’s all tied into UEFI Secure Boot.  The LiveCD takes right away, no problems. As soon as I “install” onto a USB drive, though… it stops showing up in the boot menu.  I can get the install to work if I re-enable “Legacy” boot.  But that’s two runs to the BIOS during every reboot, super annoying.

So far the best I can do to work around is this: There’s a daily build of Ubuntu that in theory has all the latest security packages to start out with.  On the days I update my boot stick, I burn that to a secondary jump drive, and boot from it.  Then I take out my primary 16GB jump drive, and clone the new build to the primary stick with dd, onto the 1600MB of space I have reserved for Xenial at the moment.

All the  .deb files for my programs have been ferreted away on a second partition on that jump drive (copied over from /var/cache/apt following the usual sudo apt-get dance), since I’m not scared to use dpkg -i -R .

The jump drive is also rounded out with 8GB of swap space, because ubuntu runs out of RAM in a hurry when you install packages on the LiveCD environment.  There’s also this other odd issue, where it will halt, seemingly for no reason, even with all that swap, so maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree with that.

What I might do next is make a custom Debian disc, since that’s actually a half-decently supported toolchain, versus ubuntu where you’re just rolling the dice.  Now, keeping that updated is bound to be a real chore…

Part 2 of Let’s Encrypt will be delayed.

Barring some unexpected cooperation from my hosting provider, my HTTPS rollout will be delayed.  They have not rolled a management console for SSL certificates, and it’s not even on their radar for the basic hosting package.

My options going forward are to pay $20 a month for VPS with my current host or bolt, probably for Amazon Web Services, I’ll bet I can get under $20 easy.  Since everything is going to break either way, I’m leaning toward the latter.  If any webdev types have some other thoughts on good WordPress hosting companies that support SSL and multiple domains, I’m all ears.

Let’s Encrypt covers just one piece of the puzzle — getting a universally-recognized certificate.  Unfortunately, it can’t cover for everything else, especially if you have a web server stuck in 2008.

Ig Electron, an interesting concept in education

ig-1Ig Electron has an ambitious concept: Online Learning on common Maker topics, while also offering in-person training.  TheLab.ms got a sneak preview at the December membership meeting, where we went through the basic design process, and got the wheels turning about all the dimensions of a modern engineering project. It’s just a taste of what 2016 may hold.

It’s early on for the brand, but the hope is folks will be interested in a personal touch, in the form of an intensive boot camp, where the head engineer personally gives you the kind of hands-on training you need to get up to speed on various makerverse topics, like coding, circuit design, and so forth, over a short span of time. No need to bring your own Arduino, all the equipment you need will be provided, so you can hit the ground running.

iglogo Speaking of the brand, Ig Electron has a pretty fancy, Star Trek meets The Smith Chart logo, a fine example of what three days of design work can get you on the Hacker Heraldry front. Mad props for that! I look forward to seeing the site take shape in the coming year.

University of Texas – Arlington FabLab

utafablab-10The drive from Plano to Arlington is a bit daunting – they don’t call it a Metroplex for nothing – it proves to be a round-trip voyage of about 110 miles, past the original Six Flags theme park and the giant AT&T Stadium, home of the 4-and-11 Dallas Cowboys. The University of Texas as Arlington is located just south of downtown, where free 2-hour parking isn’t so hard to find. Still, it is a bit of a hoof deep into campus, past the Engineering Quad and the maze of other buildings to the central Library, the home of the UTA FabLab. Like in Tulsa or Oklahoma City, it’s open to the public, though have your Driver’s Licence ready; the library makes you stop at a check-in desk.

The creative space is tucked into the southwest corner of the first floor, just off to the right of the entrance. A large wheeled whiteboard serves as the OPEN/CLOSED sign for the space. It’s a little bit before noon, well into the swing of things; the board’s OPEN side is invitingly facing your way, between a few scattered study desks, though beyond a certain point off to the left, there’s just bare tile floor. Today, the entire south side of the building past the FabLab is ripped apart and cordoned off with black plastic sheeting, clearly for some impending renovation. Nearly a dozen people buzz about the well-used facility, the printers chugging away, and the vinyl and laser cutters are seeing steady use as well.

Daylight streams in abundance through the south-facing windows; so many shop floors are enclosed, and wholly lit by fluorescent tubes. This is easily the brightest space I’ve yet seen. Clever stickers and galleries of past works abound. Machined designs of all types, from building models to functional object lifts, printed as a whole piece. You even have your choice of material to ape that famous Vapourwave album cover from Macintosh Plus, “Floral Shoppe” — available in your choice of rustic wood veneer or wispy traces in glass. Welcome to the future!

utafablab-45The equipment is all the standard FabLab fare, though they have a sewing machine as a bonus, plus a little extra in the way of 3D scanning; There’s a static unit suitable for small objects, or a handheld 3D Sense “wand” that can capture human sized objects – like, say, a bust! You have to stay pretty still, and the optical pickup doesn’t quite deal with glasses. But there it is, 15MB of me!

Turns out, it’s actually a very auspicious time to visit this lab – over the next few weeks, half of the Library’s first floor will be renovated into the Fab Lab Expansion – home to all the woodworking and metalworking equipment they don’t yet have. Along with this, a second laser cutter is going into the southwest corner, right next to the existing one! As the lab grows, they’re contemplating adding a membership fee, but they have a commitment to keeping the space open to the public – the exchange of ideas is important to the health of any creative space, after all.

The FabLab isn’t just for making cool doodads, though. There’s serious research going on here, too! My tour host has actually been working on a Master’s Degree and is now starting on a Ph.D, all deeply related to the FabLab and its manufacturing technology. Of course, when you write your thesis and go straight into your dissertation, it’s not sent straight out, it’s on hold pending the rest of the work. So you’ll have to come back in a couple years to get the full white paper on the UTA FabLab, but you only have to wait until February to check out all the cool new stuff!