LCD Sound System Noir-ish

LCD Sound System

A shot from LCDS’ Atlanta set.

On Failure

I attended ISAM 2017 recently and was reminded, forcefully, of the maker community’s attitude to failure: It’s not just okay, it’s required. “Fail early, fail often”, “failure is an opportunity”, “failure is only failure if you don’t learn from it”, that sort of thing. All those statements rest, to a greater or lesser degree, on the foundation of a central truth: You can’t let fear of failure keep you from trying.

That central truth is foundational to the experience of higher education as well. All education, particularly at the college and university  level, relies heavily on a spirit of uninhibited inquiry. (I realize that I’m idealizing here…work with me.) Part of “uninhibited inquiry” is the freedom and willingness to pursue avenues of research that go nowhere, to ask questions that can’t be answered. Again, in this environment failure is a data point, not a brick wall (here you may assume I’ve quoted Edison on 10,000 nonfunctional light bulbs).

There’s something in all this that gets overlooked sometimes, though, and all the focus on the “okayness” of failing drives me to highlight it.

Yes, failure is okay. Yes, you should expect to fail (especially in a learning environment). Yes to all that. Yet underlying all that “yes” is a bedrock layer of “however”. Yes, failure is okay. However, you should not waste time replicating someone else’s failure (unless that’s your specific intent). Yes, you should expect to fail. However, you save yourself a great deal of headache, heartache, and just plain time by performing due diligence. Yes, failure is a chance to learn. However, you should still see  where others have failed before you.

Nobody would think Edison nearly so pithy or wise if he’d spent years replicating previous failed attempts to make the light bulb. We learn not only from our own failure, but from the failure of others (and there’s where maker culture’s emphasis on sharing is so critical). Ideally, we don’t start a project blind, but with educated guesses about what is likely to succeed.

Scale matters, too. It’s one thing to rush willy-nilly into a project build that collapses and takes $100 worth of minor parts with it. It’s quite another to invest several thousand or tens of thousands of dollars in a small business that fails because you didn’t do your homework. And, of course, it’s yet another thing to architect an enterprise-level project that fails for reasons you should’ve seen coming. As the risks and consequences of failure scale, so does the responsibility to prepare.

None of this is to say that you can’t succeed where others have failed, just that you should know why and how they failed before you set out. Never fear failure, but recognize that the best bulwark against it is adequate preparation.

(Image by Gratisography via Pexels.)

Thoughts on Amazon and Whole Foods

I had occasion to engage in what could charitably be called a discussion of the Amazon/Whole Foods situation on Twitter recently, Predictably, for such a limited forum and a complicated topic, it turned acrimonious and ended in blocks. Given that, I figured it was worth a longer examination.

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The road is long, and possibly winding, but has nothing to do with the Beatles

What catapulted you onto the professional path you’re on now?”

That’s the question posed by a coworker. After some consideration, I can say with confidence that (a) no catapults were involved, and (b) being a huge nerd got me where I am.

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A Maker Project Rubric

UPDATE: New version added 5 JUL 17. Improved verbiage, CC license added. Also, answering a specific question, the picture is a stainless steel car…we all want our projects to be polished, right?

I get lots of questions about incorporating making into classes here at Davidson, but probably the most frequently-asked is “How do I grade this stuff?” I probably don’t help matters when I emphasize considering process over product, meaning that the most important part of the project is, in some ways, the least tangible. So I started looking around for a maker rubric.

Aside: If, like me, you hate the word “rubric”, “schema”, “scheme”, and plain old “criteria” are fine, too. This is a set of criteria against which to evaluate maker projects.

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Maker Faire Bay Area 2017: Day Three

Major Takeaways
  • Consumer-level fabrication tools have matured to the point where it’s helpful to have guidance in choosing. That says volumes about the scope of this market.
  • AR still looks primitive, but is already hackable by hobbyists. Watch this space over the next 24 months, and invest wisely.
  • IoT again. That the toolchain is maturing is indicated not just by polished products, but by a shift from single-purpose widgets to general-purpose sensors back by sophisticated analytical software. The shift is on from “doing stuff” to “doing stuff on the basis of data-backed intelligence”, even at the lower levels, and from new hardware to how to create actual value from data.
  • “Wearables are dead.” — Zach Supalla
  • IoT devices desperately need robust security (duh).

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Maker Faire Bay Area 2017: Day Two

      Major Takeaways
  • The Bay Area has a relatively enormous food/kitchen-hacking community.
  • No matter what you want to do, there’s a board for it.
  • Arduino has a ton of users. No, really, the numbers are shocking.
  • Maker Faire never fails to have a large number of “Okay, cool, but…why?” projects. Bay Area doubly so.
  • Grant Imahara is very nice. And short.


  • The biggest competition for mobile apps? Pen and paper. Keep this in the back of your mind as you design.
  • Makers who buy only off-the-shelf tools will find their creations circumscribed by the tool’s limitations. Never be afraid to build your own tools! (h/t Jeremy Ashley of Oracle for that tidbit)

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We need better filters

What’s the opposite of censorship?

Certainly I was always taught that it was free speech. But I’ve watched online communication grow from BBS systems to the modern web, and I’m not sure I believe those are the true endpoints of the pendular swing. I think there’s a point where you go clear through free speech and come out the other side. There you emerge into a landscape absolutely awash in information…true, false, and in between…spewed from a monster firehose pressurized by the internet.

That firehose is the opposite of censorship: A flow of data devoid of meaningful filters, where truth doesn’t need to be actively suppressed. Instead, it can be buried under an avalanche of meaningless news-cycle filler. In its way, I think this may be worse than active censorship, because it produces not just mis- and disinformation, but distrust of democratic institutions. At least with censorship you can figure out what the government is trying to suppress and why. In the current circumstance, it’s at best difficult to ascribe motive and intent, even if you can drag up the story you want.

For years we’ve been promised that the free-speech paradise of the internet would be our salvation, but I fear it’s going to be exactly the opposite…the horde of ducks that ends up pecking our democracy to death. We lost trust in media gatekeepers, and replaced them with something even more cynical and crassly commercial. We need to find a way back to a system of trusted gatekeeping, to replace the algorithm with human judgment, or we are going to end up just another balkanized banana republic.

Maker Faire Bay Area 2017: Day One

Go to updates!

Time once again for that magical melange of music, mayhem, and making. Step right this way for Maker Faire Bay Area 2017! (I wanted to be a carnival barker when I was a kid. Sue me.)

The Faire’s soft open was today, with a Friday special ticket promising limited attendance. By which they clearly meant “limited to you and every school-age child in Northern California”. They also neglected to note the $25 parking fee. But no matter…we press on!

General Impressions

I thought World Maker Faire NYC was big, but it’s peanuts compared to this. There are something like 11 different zones, and today I got through two. Two.

Based on what I saw today, there are two things to watch: Internet of Things, and small-scale CNC machining. Not that either is new to the Faire, but their footprint here was substantial. The technology around IoT has matured to the point that “entry level” now means not just hobbyist gear, but polished, well-document dev kits and tools from The Sense of Things, Particle, and others.

Also, desktop milling is everywhere at every level, from homebrew kits to standalone Tormach mills. A space once dominated by Othermill has developed quite a bit in the last couple of years. The products are mature, capable, and if not cheap, then at least affordable.

Just as an aside, the number of single-board computers has absolutely exploded in recent years. No matter what you want to do, I can about guarantee you there’s a board for it.



Random things as I came across them. There’s the usual ton of kinetic sculpture, including Mechateuthis, a digitally and manually-controlled mechanical squid, and Vortical, an enormous steel-and-fire zoetrope. STEAM students from the Oakwood School built a cool bubble extruder. It was still being set up, so I couldn’t really get details yet, but the general efffect was great.

The entire affair was top-to-bottom with mobile/motorized art, from a troupe of cupcake cars to this rideable dragonfly with moving wing. These look like toys or fancies, but require tremendous breadth and depth of skills to assemble and operate.

The first of today’s crop of CNC tools was Buildbotics’ Raspberry Pi-based CNC controller. This is unique in that it allows you to add your own spindle, and runs on software served via a Web interface from the RPi, including a simulator mode for easy testing. Clocking in at just under $2000 complete with spindle, the kit looks promising for Studio M. The developers hope to launch a Kickstarter soon.

Also featured were Nomad Pro and Shapeoko units from Carbide3D. At $2499 and $1099 respectively, these can easily fit the budget of a hobbyist or small business. (Or ::coughmakerspacecough::.)


Alchema was showing their all-in-one cider-maker. It’s a neat idea, but at $500…let’s just say I can buy a lot of cider for that, or get a traditional kit for <1/5th the price.

Stephanice Vince’s Invented Art was the first of a number of art-oriented vendors I saw, and was definitely a favorite. The Laminar Flow Fountain was one of the coolest things I saw all day. Note the small laser dot in the leftmost stream. The laser is actually being bent through the laminar stream. A pair of mechanical sculptures. Invented Art‘s pieces aren’t just creative. They show a solid understanding of basic mechanics, and leverage that into a uniquely playful sensibility.

Speaking of playful, check out SteamyTech’s geared top hat. This shows how far you can go with laser-cut gears, living hinges, and a few motors!


Let’s take a minute to talk about The Electric Seance, a Stranger Things-esque storytelling device built to develop a 1920s San Francisco mystery. “Encounter a ghost in this interactive, narrative-driven spirit board. Talk to spirits, ask them questions, and find out what ties them to this earthly realm. Ask the right questions, and you may uncover a mystery forgotten by time.” Developed by software engineer and linguist Laurel Hart, the Seance is built around the Pixel Christmas light controller, and powered by the PullString chatbot engine.

This is a really good example of how technology can be used to develop a narrative. The user asks questions via a computer interface, and receives answers via the Ouija-board-like lights. Future iterations will convert the interface to a manual typewriter, adding to the general air of mystery. The real power here, though, is in the chatbot, and PullString offers a free noncommercial license, if you’re inspired.


3D printers. This is a mature product sector, and most of the news seems to be in the way of pricing and features. Good-quality printers are clocking in well under $750, and critical features like automatic calibrating, once the domain of high-end consumer models like the MakerBot, are present throughout.

Monoprice showed an array of small-scale PLA printers, including a delta printer, all for under $700. The resolution and print quality were excellent, and theirs was the first delta I’ve seen in this price range. 3D printing may or may not power the next industrial revolution, but the hardware is definitely reaching home-use prices.

Speaking of which, NewMatter’s Mod-T is a perfect home-use or demonstrator. Great resolution, reasonable print volume, auto bed leveling, a minimum of moving parts, and a $300 price tag. I’m thinking we should put one on display and just let it run.



Workholding systems are a maker’s best friend. It goes without saying that Panavise was here, but what really caught my eye were Jotham McMillan’s RaptorLoc multi-arm, rail-mounted clip and strap bases for Panavise heads. These aren’t on the market yet, but take note of the name. [[UPDATE: They are. Linked to their store.]] They are to your old-fashioned helping hands what Doc Ock was to Otto Octavius (without the arms, I mean).


The ZarPlotter sketchbot is just plain cool. Then there’s the Monolith Synth, a collaborative musical instrument/sculpture built around the Arduino-compatible Teensy 3.6. Want to make your own? The board is $30, and the code is open source! Speaking of Arduino, I think there is now officially a board for every purpose.


Dave Schlitter’s Maker Pipe is a unique tool for large-scale prototyping. It’s a connector system for electric conduit. I’ve seen similar for PVC, and they’re great.


Davidson is a MATLAB campus, and MATLAB was on site showing off their Arduino and Pi control and programming with linebots and ultrasonic object detection. This should make every MATLAB user sit up and take notice. Student licensing is $50, home licensing is $150, and both cut-rate licenses are for full MATLAB, with the complete suite of controls for both Arduino and Raspberry Pi.


Oracle has jumped into the IoT game, and was showing off process control with a mini chocolate factory powered by RPi and Arduino, motors, sensors, and Oracle’s cloud processing.

Another big name on hand was Microsoft, demoing their Hololens AR system (we have one in Studio M if you’d like to try it), along with the new amped-up Adafruit Circuit Playground Express. If you miss online coding via Codebender, check out Makecode. They support the new Express, along with a handful of other boards.



It’s no secret that 3D printing can produce some amazingly sophisticated models, but was showing working models of a variety of gas/diesel engines with attached transmissions that were simply amazing, and all freely available.


Berkeley’s Critical Making program and Citris Invention Lab were on hand, showing their Uberrick, Farm-to-Label program, and more. If you’re looking to integrate making at the university level, this is a good place to start.

Meridian Maps produces 3D laser-cut topographic maps, something we’ve done in Studio M. Besides being a unique new way to approach topographic mapping, it can be turned into a profitable business.


Saving the best for (almost) last: IBM has announced public availability of their Q quantum computer! I’m not even going to try to explain quantum computing, because I barely understand any of it myself. But you can register for access to 5 qubits, with the possibility of increasing to 16 qubits. That’s pretty astounding all by itself.


Bits & Bobs

Brief bullet points of interest:

  • Carloop provides a hardware interface and software tools for writing apps for your car.
  • Audeme’s MOVI Arduino shield provides real-time, no-connectivity-required speech recognition and control for the popular microcontroller.
  • Glide Cruiser’s electric cycles are amazing. That is all.
  • If you sometimes have trouble getting your 3D prints to stick to blue tape, try BuildTak. If you have trouble getting BuildTake to release them after, try the new Flexplate system.