Gulf Coast Stuff

I got to see where they make planes and boats in Mobile, a couple fun things in Pensacola, and I managed to stop in Tallahassee to pay a little homage to Dr. Paul Dirac.

Gainesville was a great stop, too. Skillhouse is a great makerspace, they aren’t shy of giving first-time visitors computer help, for one. Tuesday night open houses can go super late, so it’s handy they have such a great break room!  Of what I saw, they’re more of a coding/electronics type of group, but to be fair, I only saw their “clean” space, in a downtown stripmall basement — the group also runs a woodworking shed across town.  The projects folks brought in ranged from an automatic plant waterer, to a bike rigged up to float a ping-pong ball in a tube.

Gainesville has an “innovation corridor” that runs from the University of Florida campus through downtown. One of these startups is a place called Fractureme, a service where they turn a piece of glass into a Kodakchrome piece of art. No need to frame – the back is foam-padded with cutouts, ready to hang on the wall! They come in padded mailers, and naturally they do replace the rare one the breaks.

Less blog more tweets!

My scheduling being what it is, it will be difficult to do full-length posts and make the most of the time remaining in the trip. So to throw up my hands, I’ll be basically doing a postcard/twitblog approach for the rest of the month, perhaps some short posts when appropriate.

Except for a lecture write-up I’m working on from Augusta, Georgia, which may come out in the middle of this photodump, everything should be able to stay in chronological order.  The next post in the vein of the trip is going to be about some things on the Gulf Coast but mainly SkillHouse in Gainesville, Florida.

Also, I will not be able to visit the Charlottesville Mini Maker Faire at the end of this month. Instead, I’ll be visiting some places in Ohio, Michigan, and potentially Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

The end of the trip is still going according to plan: Washington, DC in April, though the postings may stretch into May.  Also during that time, I’ll beef up the older posts as appropriate, and really start digging into the teensy minutiae like the best Hacker Heraldry.

Thanks again for your eyeballs! -j5

IDIYA in New Orléans, LA

idiyatablesIDIYA sits at Broad and Washington in the middle of the Broadmoor neighbourhood, in the heart of New Orléans. Sandwiched between Central and Mid-City, it’s dead-centre for the entire region – good, because the patience of NOLA commuters is not infinite. That was one factor behind the disappearance of the older space, GumboLabs.

The big glass storefront has the gallery on the one side, by the entrance, and the office desk far to the other wall. Between them, the black piping and lacquered wood of the central workbenches, clean, mostly clear, and ready for any of the 60 or so members to use!

idiyawoodshopWith the benefit of a generous landlord, the environs of IDIYA are prime expansion room, and already the backyard has been turned into a bit of a sculpture garden. In addition to the original shop space, they’re also setting up the building next door as a woodshop (which was freshly painted right before my visit), and then they’re putting up a metal shop behind that, in a quintessential Louisiana steel shed that looks to need some cleaning first.

idiyascannerIn the main building, there’s the obligatory general-purpose laser cutter and 3D printer bank (including a CubePro Trio that has never worked), but the most fascinating piece of equipment they have is a huge cartesian 3D scanner which can do a full-body scan in just 20 seconds, perfect for fashion designs!

idiyacentralThe central workshop is open, dominated by long, standing-height desks with gantries holding lights and equipment. Stage lighting bounces off the walls and ceilings, giving it a hip, studio feel. Scattered in the centre of the space are various projects, like the quadcopter hanging up on a post. There’s a CNC mill that’s totally encapsulated in an anti-dust tomb, freshly blackened from a session with a block of graphite. A 40-watt laser cutter sits at the heart of the main workshop, ready to chew up custom swatches of fabric. A pair of classic sewing machines and mannequins sit next to the vinyl cutter, rounding out the machinery for bespoke clothes.

idiyaschoolIDIYA is not shy of commerce, being a for-profit shop. It’s been a launchpad for entrepreneurs, and has itself managed to net a few design and modelling jobs away from the professionals at places like Entrescan. The other thing that sets IDIYA apart is that it’s a real school! A homeschool alliance meets at the space, with a sui generis STEAM curriculum. I can just hear the Phoebes now: “At my old school, we would make own own on the computer…” What an engaging, fun place to be able to learn!

Toward a Key West Dial Guide

cubanstation

Green: Reception. Blue: Reception with severe interference Purple: Negative reception but should have picked it up Grey: May be have been US station same channel Yellow or Black: negative pickup (black too weak)

the-blimp-is-out-there

I’ll have a Venti Propaganda.

I had the chance to visit the Florida Keys recently, and you can guess what I was up to – hitting the beach to avoid AM interference from local electronics, so I could listen to Cuban radio stations!

I did a dial scan for both AM and FM sides, each with its own issues.

The math for daytime AM is pretty straightforward, it’s all groundwave so you can model power divided by distance squared.  A rich vein of data is the FCC AM Query page.  I pulled every AM signal within 450km of Key West and start whittling down against my notes.  The main difficulty in going up against the FCC records is that…  the FCC records are notoriously bad for international listings.  They get Canada wrong on a regular basis (at least two times in recent memory, they completely dropped the ball watching out for Industry Canada assignments that impacted NPR signals in North Dakota), and Cuba is another story entirely.  I’m pretty sure Cuba gives about zero flips for frequency coordinating with the US when we’ve still got blimp blasters in the Keys.

Some other radio fans managed to snag some data off of EcuRed and turn it into a semi-manageable transmitter site list, which I can also crossreference after updating the list with some distance data.

Another handicap is that I don’t speak Spanish, so I couldn’t glean much about those programs (though advertising seems exclusively American).  The easy part is I don’t have to worry about skywave from Mexico or the Dominican Republic, or wherever.  Since I couldn’t wait around to confirm callsigns, I’ll be poking around trying to confirm certain US stations in my model had Spanish programming around 1pm on the 25th.  Once I have accounted for all the Florida-based Spanish-language stations, the remainder must be Cuban!

My radio rig is a 1994-era car stereo that’s in my Geo Metro, I’m not hauling any fancy Grundig or what have you.  One thing about this radio is that, especially on AM, it tends to bleed on either side of a strong signal, so when I was taking my notes I ignored a lot of nearby stations that sounded the same.  Yet, if what I’m reading now about the Cuban radio networks is right, there might have been more separate stations than I thought.

25feb-hepburnThe FM scan is more problematic.  Applying the same method as the AM scan, oddly, is not as sound of a model.  VHF signals are much more line-of-sight than AM, true, but at longer distances, especially over warm water, they are also subject to anomalous propagation through the atmosphere.  Tropospheric Propagation has a big fanbase in the ham radio community, it’s the main way uber-nerds snag a TV signal from 300 miles away.

According to the Tropo reports for noon on the 25th, there may have been a weak opening between the Keys and Cuba, and perhaps a hint more in the direction of Miami and the Bahamas.

Trying to sort out all the stations that might contribute to the FM dial readout will be tough, I’ll look at it more down the road.  Still, I’m pretty happy to have confirmed I caught at least two or three of the main Cuban radio networks.

Katy Makerspace

thekaty-18Starting west from downtown at 4pm, Katy may as well be in New Mexico. It’s about as exurban as you can get, complete with that malfunctional artery, IH10, for which no combination of lanes, tolling and HOV seems to abate the 5pm infarction. Traffic is terrible all over Houston, but this is plainly the worst of it, with too much distance to cover and hardly any parallel surface streets. Rather than dash way into town all the time, the creative types around here need a place of their own. Hence, Katy Makerspace.

thekaty-11Today, they’re turning up their new plastic extruder, made in the Lyman/Mulier [link] fashion, with an old RAMPS board inside. The beads of natural PLA come out clear to slightly brownish from the nozzle, making cobra-like swirls on the desk. A little leaks out the sides, smelling vaguely sweet as it caramelizes on the exposed brass. They’ve fixed all but two main problems: The diameter sensor wigs out in the harsh sunlight streaming in through the open garage door; Okay, run it in the shade instead. The thermistor is also under-reading, which makes the heater coil melt the plastic well above the semi-solid temperature where it could be pulled sideways and wound onto the spool. Just setting the temperature lower doesn’t work because of the stock RAMPS software, which kills the extruder motor below a certain temperature (in a 3D printer, the motor can burn out trying to push jammed plastic). So the next step is to drill another hole in the project case so they can plug in the USB port and change that setting or the thermistor settings.

thekaty-13One member, a gemological expert, who fills me in a little on how the ancients cut sharp facets in gems using little more than spinning discs and sticks, plans to use another similar extruder to spin over a tonne of glittering clear plastic beads, half PLA, half ABS, into print-quality spools costing about half what you’d pay at MicroCenter, perhaps with an additional discount for the non-profit spaces. The work stretches late into the evening; takeout is Domino’s, and the preferred beverage is beer – did you know Shiner Bock comes from Texas?

thekaty-8KatyMS has about 30 members, the most active of which are in just about each weekend. Those usual suspects include one one of the folks responsible for making the BuildYourCNC kits, which are beautifully custom-milled out of sturdy, water-resistant sheets of MDO – one such unit sits in the back of this shop! Another member runs back and forth trying to fix up the power supply on the FlashForge 3D Printer, swapping it out with a nearly identical unit from home for the time being. The leader of the space is a computer jockey, who brought in spare equipment like the rackmount and copier. Datawise this place is rigged out better than any place I’ve seen since Dallas, each wall lined with computer workstations; Internet by cable modem at the moment. A custom website checks members in and out.

They’re really keen on getting more of the region’s makerspace leaders together for some sort of council or convention, and like 10BitWorks, interested in doing a tour among nearby spaces. Katy Makerspace is definitely an active, industrious shop, punching well above its size. Well worth the trip!

TX/RX Labs in Houston

txrx-0The oldest, largest space in Houston is a sprawling complex in an industrial area. It’s a bit northeast of downtown, with plenty of street parking, just down the way from the Champ Burger. TX/RX Labs hosts numerous classes and events, on top of two weekly open houses.

txrx-11With a lot of ground to cover, the tour takes about an hour now, depending on the curiosity of the visitors. Friday night is clearly the bigger night for tours, as the toqued tour guide shows off the 3D Printers (FDM and Resin!), Laser Cutters (3 of them!), Electronics Lab (including a pick-and-place!), Metal Shop (Plasma and Water Cutters! 5-Axis Mill!), Ceramics Studio, the Artist Space, and the Classroom/Computer Lab. The Woodshop is in use, a gaggle of folks all learning how to make the same thing; walking past, we get a timely plug for the TX/RX classes – in exchange for the course fee, you get something cool to take home, and signed off on using the equipment.

Anyone can take a class here, though Members get a slight discount. You can also “test out” on the machines, when the staff shop managers set aside time for that. The space has a real focus on safety and certification; the space has a badge system to keep track of who is trained on what, and there’s a monthly shop meeting where they focus on safety and what else is up.

txrx-102You can hardly see the whole thing in one go; with full daylight on Sunday morning, you can see the courtyard (stocked with project motorbikes and ISO Storage Containers), a newer building (under construction, but already being used as a podcasting studio), plus a glimpse at the Woodshop, which has a massive ventilation fan at the ready, along with a SawStop Table Saw and a CNC mill that could easily take a full sheet of plywood, and vacuum up after itself in the process. Up close, the plastic Vacuum Former looks ready to outfit an army of Stormtroopers with body armour!

txrx-48The real heart of the whole space is the full kitchen, featuring water-cut granite tops with matching black refrigerator, an ensemble that looks right out of a model unit from the home improvement store, with some parts made in-house! Meals are timed along with the Open Houses; Friday Dinner happened shortly before my visit; by the end of the tour, its remains are down to a bit of salad and tortilla chips, though the main course was clearly fried in the wok on the gas-fired stovetop.

txrx-81The $5 Sunday Breakfast at TX/RX proves to be scrambled eggs, American fries, strips of side bacon, Belgian waffles with butter and syrup, a pick through a plastic-binned fruit platter of cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple, and red grapes, plus whole and juiced oranges. The coffee station is tucked away in the kitchen, behind the busy wafflemaker. The members grab quick plates and get to work, leaving the talkative visitors with the occasional blind-leading-the-blind experience as different new folks saunter up in small groups. With the diverse characters and varied conversation – it’s like an old-school hotel parlour!

txrx-77The dinner table itself is constructed of matte-black steel and smooth-formed concrete, all fashioned right here – the same type of shelving that you can rent by the half-or-full bench, if you want to take the step up from your basic monthly membership. Those benches now fill the north side of the main building, and a few are trickling into the side buildings now. The artist building’s tables are built at nearly the same height, but built out of mercifully softer 2x4s and laminated plywood.

txrx-50Wherever possible, TX/RX does it itself. The space is almost entirely member-funded, but it does have some paid staff, mainly to keep the machines running. The dues end up being a little more than average, but it’s still cheaper than TechShop on its best month. All the other shops in Houston have a little of this and that, but TX/RX is the only one that has this huge breadth of tooling. If nothing else, come for the food and chatter!

CreatorSpace in Webster, TX

webstercreatorspace-0CreatorSpace is on the southeast side of Houston – Webster, to be specific, the same side of town the Johnson Space Center, and the big museum where they just opened the static display of the fake Shuttle Independence atop a real 747 Shuttle Carrier.  If you’re inclined to brave the traffic on the Gulf Freeway to rubberneck at all the NASA or just want to work around a fun crew of talented creators and engineers, swing by and pay a visit one of these Tuesdays!

With a signed waiver, the short tour winds through the rest of the three-chambered slice of business park, pointing out the cool tools, almost all of which is in flux!  The vinyl cutter is finally getting a dedicated console computer, the Laser is getting upgraded soon, and there’s more than a couple 3D Printers in various stages of development, but the sturdiest-looking one is set aside behind today’s big project, the CNC mill.

webstercreatorspace-25This is a CNC with some history to it.  It’s a donation, originally built from an old 90s kit – it’s not even running on steppers, it’s servo-based.  The whole controller has long since become obsolete [the previous console bore the Packard Bell brand].  Swirls of cabling underneath have been rerouted to a more modern system running LinuxCNC.  It’s been a long haul, but the beast is finally moving on two out of three axes.  Both ends of each axis have switched endstops, which is getting to be less common with light-duty mills these days.  What’s really different is that both switches on the same axis trigger the same fault input on the mill.  On your average RAMPS board, the one-size-fits-all of modern computer stepper control, if you even bothered with double-endstops, you’d have six switches running to six different inputs.

The other current development is a new Raspberry Pi-based security camera, running off a custom Pi distribution, which uses the RPi add-on camera and a web interface to provide all your checkboxes for a monitoring solution – motion detect, recordings, and remote access.  The framerate is pretty good, even for streaming over wireless.  It’s just a board-level hack at this point, not so much as a board and zipties holding all the moving bits of the project into a unified mass. When everything’s finally tapped down, it’ll probably be connected by Ethernet to the space’s network switch, so bandwidth or interference won’t be any worry.

They’re not afraid to jury-rig;  Cutting the wall open isn’t an option, so a window-mount air-conditioner sits in the middle of the space, the back side of it connected to the outside air with a tape-and-polyfoam duct.  It’s nifty, but it also doesn’t quite work right.  Another hack: one member’s radio-controlled hex-rover, locally re-engineered from online plans.  As long as you’re messing around, why not do six wheels instead of four?  Oh, and did I mention they’re building a blimp?  The resident quadcopter expert has a two-fan gondola ready to go!

webstercreatorspace-11Many of the machines and tooling in the space are on loan from a particular member, typically mentioned by sharpie on masking tape.  CS also uses a handy colour-coded system of electrical tape X-marks, that lets you know whether a particular thing is in good repair and whether it’s free to use or not.  The same codes of tape apply to stored items, and disused machinery.  It’s intuitive; you can guess what a red X would mean if you suddenly found it on your giant killbot from last year.  The next thing on the way out is a big ceramic kiln, they could only power two or the three heater coils off the current power system anyway.

webstercreatorspace-34Not to be overlooked, the space does a little bit of educational outreach, they wipe and rejigger old, donated computers and put them to use again at schools and other worthy recipients.  At least one teacher has paid a visit to get some ideas on integrating the digital manufacturing revolution into the curriculum.

Rare! Canadian!

Rare! Canadian!

The first and last thing you see walking in is the big front desk, also host to the weekly membership meetings (latest news: the space’s favourite colour is blue!), and conveniently near the beer fridge!  The big story today, stretching late into the night, is one member’s vacation to the farthest reaches of the Al-Can Highway, tracking ice roads up in an all-wheel-drive Subaru, wild!  The CreatorSpace banner has officially been waved everywhere from the Gulf to the Arctic.  Next stop: OuterSpace?

Houston Makerspace

pichoums-47Houston Makerspace has about three regular events each month. Without many windows to look into this universe of greenery and applied art, Maker Market Saturday seemed a good way to spend an afternoon and see what they’re all about.

pichoums-46The yard is filled with pop-up stands, full of craft jewelry for sale and artisan coffee brewed with water heated to a precision 90 degrees. The fenced area includes a greenhouse, a miniature botanical garden, plus a small herb garden and composing centre. Way behind the side of the building is a beehive, where Houston Makerspace’s honey comes in from a 3 mile radius or so (when the last batch was last available, it sold out within a single day).
The building itself is an old warehouse, with I-bar ribs and canvas lining the roof. Right inside the bay door, a DJ station pumps out grunge and indie hits. Just ahead is the office, where you can get your very own $20 HMS T-shirt, and past that, the classroom with its colour-matched chairs, festooned with ancient maps.

pichoums-0A break room is set up between the classroom and printing shop, with a mini-fridge and an urge to label your items inside, lest they get tossed or composted. The print-shop is huge, with screens on articulated merry-go-rounds, a large vinyl cutter, and a massive conveyer-belt heater to get those patterns set fast!

pichoums-22Another corner and you’re in the jewelry shop – the first one I’ve seen in this tour – with workstations set around lenses and fine-motor skill tools and tweezers. It’s fully equipped – there’s even a rock tumbler on hand, if you want to turn any random stone into a thing of beauty!

pichoums-80Getting out onto the main floor, there’s huge areas dedicated to woodworking and metalworking, plus the ceramics studio, right by the other side of the office. Some lined-off areas in the corner are studios, rented out by the space to particular artists, who toil in secrecy, trucking in sculptures and the like. The space also rents out co-working desks in the loft over the downstairs craft rooms. Many a cottage industry has started here, after a class or two on making-your-own crafts.

pichoums-86HMS is centrally located within the Metro, and most of the regular events are conveniently away from the peak traffic times. Of the two big spaces in Houston, this is definitely the one with the artistic crown. If you like working with your hands and having good vegetables, coffee, or beer, this is the chill place to do it.

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.