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2017 April 29

Santa Cruz Mini Maker Faire 2017

Today I spent about 10 hours on the 2017 Santa Cruz Mini Maker Faire.  The hours for the Faire were 10–5, but I spent some time setting up and tearing down afterwards, so I left the house around 8:30 a.m. and had the bike trailer unpacked and everything back in the house by about 6:30 p.m.  I figure that I spent only about 10 hours earlier on setup for this Faire: applying for the Faire, setting out all the displays and testing them at home, preparing new blurbs for my book and blog, making table signs telling people how to use the interactive parts of the display, blogging about the Faire, and doing load-in last night.  That is a lot less than last year, as I was able to reuse a lot of the design from last year.

Here is the table display I ended up with:

The bare corner at the front left was reserved for the students in my freshman design course who were coming to display their muscle-controlled robot arm, but they decided to set up in back (you can see one of the lead students in the background).

I had four interactive displays (from left to right):

  • A pair of function generators and an oscilloscope showing Lissajous figures.  I changed this from last year, as I did not use the FG085 function generator this year, but one of the function generators from the Analog Discovery 2.  I still used the Elenco FG500, despite the very low quality of its waveforms, because it has a knob that is easy for kids to turn, and is easy to reset if they mess it up (unlike the jamming buttons on the FG085).  I did not use the second function generator on the Analog Discovery 2, as I did not want kids playing with just a software interface (and a rather complicated one at that).  It might even be worthwhile for me to build a simple audio sine-wave oscillator with a single big knob over the summer, so that I can have something for kids to play with that is fairly robust and that can’t be easily set into a weird state.  I could even do two, just for Lissajous figures, though having one fixed oscillator worked well this time.  I had the Analog Discovery 2 oscilloscope showing on the laptop next to the old Kikusui CRT oscilloscope, showing both the waveforms and the XY plot, so that I could explain to adults what was happening with the Lissajous figures and about the differences between classic oscilloscopes and modern USB-based ones.
    A lot of people asked me about the Analog Discovery 2, which I was very enthusiastic about—Digilent should be giving me a commission! (They aren’t, although I’m sure I’m responsible for at least half a dozen sales for them, and a lot more if we go ahead with our plan to use them in place of bench equipment in my class next year.)
  • In front of the laptop showing the Lissajous figures, I had a standalone optical pulse monitor using the log-transimpedance amplifier and the TFT LCD display.  Using the log-transimpedance amplifier worked well, as did using a lego brick to block light to the sides and back of the phototransistor.  A lot of people have trouble holding their hands still enough to get good readings (particularly children), so it would be good to have some sort of clip instead of resting a finger over the phototransistor.  I’ve tried making clips in the past, but I’m not good at mechanical design, and I’ve always ended up with either a clamp that is too tight (cutting off circulation and getting no reading) or too loose (falling off).  Ideally, I’d want a pressure between systolic and diastolic pressure, so about 12kPa (90mmHg).  People did like the use of Lego as a support, though—it provided a familiar element in the strange world of electronics.
  • To the right of the pulse monitor was a pressure sensor.  I had a mechanical gauge and the electronic sensor both connected to a piece of soft silicone tubing taped to the table top.  Kids pressed on the tubing to get an increase in pressure, visible on the gauge (about 20–60 mmHg) and on graph PteroDAQ was running on the little laptop (which we refer to as the “Barbie” laptop, because of its color and small size).  I explained to kids that the tubing was like the tubing stretched across roads sometimes to count cars, with a pressure sensor that recorded each pulse as wheels compressed the tubing.  (For some of the old-timers, I reminded them of when gas stations used to use a similar system.)
    PteroDAQ worked well for this setup, running all day at 20 samples per second without a glitch.  The only problem was occasional display sleep from the laptop, fixable by touching the touch pad.
  • At the far right end of the table, I had a phototransistor which kids could shadow with their hands, with the result visible on another channel on PteroDAQ.  This was a last-minute change, as I was getting very unreliable results from the capacitive touch sensor when I tested it out last night.  The capacitive touch sensor worked fine at my house, but in the kindergarten room at Gateway I has a different electrical environment, and it would not work unless I grounded myself. Rather than fuss with the touch sensor, I made a new table sign and put in a light sensor instead.
    I might want to experiment this summer with different ways of making touch plates—trying to get one that doesn’t rely on the toucher being grounded.  My initial thought is that if I have two conductors that are not too close together, but which would both be close to a finger if the touch plate is touched, then I may be able to get more reliable sensing.  I could try some wire-and-tape prototypes and maybe make PC boards with different conductor layouts.  (OSH Park‘s pricing scheme would be good for such tiny boards).

I also had my laptop displaying my book; some quarter-page blurbs with URLs for my book, PteroDAQ, and this blog; my 20-LED strobe; my desk lamp; and a PanaVise displaying one of the amplifier prototyping boards.

I’d like to think of a more exciting project for kids to play with next year—perhaps something I could build over the summer.  Readers, any suggestions?

In addition to my display, some of the freshmen from my freshman design seminar class demonstrated their EMG-controlled robot arm (which uses the MeArm kit):

The students built a MeArm from a kit, then programmed a Teensy board to respond to muscle signals amplified by amplifiers designed by other students in the class. The combined project had two channels: one for controlling the forward-backward position of the arm (using the biceps), the other for controlling the gripper (using muscles in the forearm). With practice, people could pick up a light object with the robot arm.

The scheduling of the Mini Maker Faire was not ideal this year, as it conflicted with the Tech Challenge, Santa Cruz County Math contest, the California Invention Convention, and the Gem and Mineral Show, all of which draw from the same audience as the Mini Maker Faire.

The Faire seemed to be reasonably well attended (rather slow for the first hour and half, but picking up considerably in the afternoon).  There was plenty of room for more exhibitors, so I think that organizers need to do a bit more outreach to encourage people to apply.  It would probably help if they were quicker responding to applicants (it took them over three months to respond to my application, and then only after I nudged them).

Some obvious holes in the lineup: The Museum of Art and History did not have a display, but I saw Nina Simons there, and she said that MAH definitely plans to do it next year, but the Abbott Square renovation is taking up all their time this year.   The fashionTEENS fashion show was April 21, just over a week ago, so it would have been good to get some of them to show their fashions again: either on mannequins or as a mini-show on the stage.  It might be good to get some of Santa Cruz’s luthiers or fine woodworkers to show—we have a lot of top-notch ones, and many do show stuff at Open Studios. The only displays from UCSC were mine and the Formula Slug electric race car team.

Of the local fab labs, Cabrillo College Fab Lab and Idea Fab Labs were present, but The Fábrica and the Bike Church were not.  I thought that Cabrillo did a great job of exhibiting, but Idea Fab Labs was a little too static—only the sand table was interactive.

It might be good to have Zun Zun present their Basura Batucada show (entirely on instruments made from recycled materials) and have a booth on making such instruments.  It might be hard to get Zun Zun to volunteer, but they used to be very cheap to hire (I hired them to give a show at my son’s kindergarten class 15 years ago—they were very cheap then, but I don’t know what their prices are now).

One problem my wife noted was the lack of signs on the outside of classrooms, so that people would know what was inside.  The tiny signs that the Faire provided (I think—I didn’t get one) were too small to be of any use.  It may be enough to tell makers to bring a poster-sized sign to mount.  I had my cloth banner behind my table, but a lot of the displays were hard to identify.  Instructions or information mounted on tables would also have been good—again these would have to be provided by the makers.  I did not see people carrying maps this year—they can also be helpful in getting people to find things that were tucked away in odd corners.  Not many people made it back to the second kindergarten room where FabMo and the Lace Museum activities were.

Update 2017 May 1: It turns out that there were some things I missed at the Faire.  The principal of Gateway sent me email:

… we did have 4 of the Fashion Teens exhibit their creations on the stage at 11:30—might be cool to have them put those on mannequins and have a booth next year. Also we had two more UCSC projects—Jim Whitehead and the Generative Art Studio, and Project AWEsome from the School of Engineering. We would LOVE to have more UCSC-related projects …

 

2016 November 2

Halloween 2016

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 16:47
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Halloween was a bit of an impromptu arrangement this year. I was at the iGEM Jamboree all weekend, and my wife and I only got home from Boston a little before 7 p.m. on Halloween, so we did not have time to carve a pumpkin this year.  Instead, I decided to improvise a very fast pumpkin surrogate:

First, I found a cardboard box large enough to hold the LED stroboscope that I had made for the mini Maker Faire.

First, I found a cardboard box large enough to hold the LED stroboscope that I had made for the mini Maker Faire.

Then I cut out a stencil pattern from a piece of heavy paper.

Then I cut out a stencil pattern from a piece of heavy paper.

I made one mistake when cutting the stencil, cutting away the opaque center for the lower part of the B. I just used blue painter’s tape on the back of the paper to stick the piece back on, and recut the B.

Initially, I tried taping the stencil over the opening in the box, but the light was not diffuse enough—the individual LEDs were visible and the stencil pattern unclear. I then tried taping the stencil to the cutting mat and taping the cutting mat to the front of the box. It wasn’t very secure (painter’s tape is not very sticky—by design), but it worked for the evening.

The final result looked much better in the window than a 20-minute project had any right to.

The final result looked much better in the window than a 20-minute project had any right to.

2016 April 4

First week’s grading done

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:44
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I spent all day Sunday grading the first set of lab reports.  I was expecting 24 reports of about 3 pages each, but I got 25 averaging about 5 pages each.  I think that the reports were a bit better this year than at corresponding times in previous years, but I did not get my grading done until almost midnight Sunday night, keeping me from getting much else done this weekend.

(I did manage to get my hair cut and to build a new strobe stand with room for 20 of my LED boards, which should give 1800 lumens during the flash. With a duty cycle of only 1/65, I don’t think that I need heat sinks on the boards for the strobe, as the average current should be only 40mA, though the peak current will be about 2.6A.)

In class on Monday, I gave students some group feedback on their writing, plus a couple of \LaTeX pointers, then took questions, some of which were about writing, but most were about the optimization of the fixed resistor in the voltage divider for the resistance-to-voltage converter in the thermistor lab.  I showed them how to set that up, but did not try to solve it in class.

After class, when I was making up the key (redoing all the problems—I don’t like just looking up results—refreshing my memory on how to solve the problems by resolving them is best), I ran into a little trouble doing the optimization. I used to be able to just ask Wolfram Alpha to solve the differential equation, but their newer parser seems to be much harder to convince to do anything.  I eventually gave up and used a cruder tool to just take the second derivative and solved for the resistance by hand.  That was faster than the time I wasted trying to get Wolfram Alpha to do anything useful.  (I suspect that they have deliberately crippled it, to make people pay for Mathematica.)

Monday afternoon and evening (from about 1:30 to 7:45) was spent grading the first pre-lab homework.  Again the results are a little better than previous years, but there were 9 prelabs fewer than I expected (3 students have dropped already and 6 did not do the prelab).  I hope that those who did not do the prelab were just confused about when it was due, and not starting a trend towards coming to class and lab unprepared. I also hope that no more students drop—this class is not a weed-out class, though it is a lot of work.

Back in January, Mike wanted to know where I ended up doing my grading. Sunday I did my grading in my breakfast room, with the laptop on the floor where I could get to it if I really needed to look something up, but where it was not a constant temptation to goof off.  On Monday, I worked in my office on campus, where the e-mail was a minor distraction that I checked between problems.  (For the prelabs, I graded the entire stack for problem 1, then the entire stack for problem 2, and so forth.  This makes for more consistent and faster grading than grading a student at a time, but it would be faster still if the students didn’t put their answers in random order on what they turned in.) I’ll probably continue with weekend grading in the breakfast room and prelab grading in my office until the distractions get to be too much—then I’ll look for a coffeeshop to grade in.

2016 March 30

Class topic not what was planned

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:27
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In my Applied Electronics for Bioengineers course, I had planned to spend the lecture time today talking about sampling and aliasing, but that is not what ended up happening.

I am making it a point to answer student questions (unless they are irrelevant) first, before doing whatever I prepared. The point of the lectures is to help students understand the reading and do the design work for the labs, and anything I have prepared is just a best guess at what the students need. Their questions address more directly what they perceive as their need.  Most of the prepared lecture material is in the book (I wrote the book based on what I have covered in lectures), so answering questions from students who have read the book and are still confused is going to be better than my repeating what is in the book.

Today students had some logistic questions about what to write up for Lab 1 (not much, it was just soldering headers onto the Teensy boards and setting up PteroDAQ—I just asked for a description of what they did, whether anything went wrong, and what they did to fix the problem) and about prelab homework for Lab 2 (do it, but don’t turn it in, it is just setting up gnuplot so that they can use it for the lab).  Those only took a couple of minutes.

The big question that diverted the entire flow of the lecture was a request for an explanation of the high-pass filter in Lab 2 that is used for recentering the function generator output at 1.65V. This lead to several things:

  • Description of block diagrams as functional blocks connected by interfaces, and why this was an important concept in engineering. Frequency and voltage information was put on the block diagram  connections.
  • Capacitor symbol and DC-blocking property of capacitors.
  • Resistor to Vref and why that would cause the output to become Vref, if there was no current through the output.
  • Back to the block diagram to add the constraint that the analog-to-digital converter on the Teensy board couldn’t take any current from its input.
  • Definition of “gain” as \frac{dV_{out}}{dV_{in}}.
  • Showing the high-pass filter Bode plot as two lines meeting at the corner frequency, and giving the corner frequency as \frac{1}{2\pi R C}, without derivation.  I promised the students that we would derive that result in a few weeks, once we’ve had complex impedance.
  • Replacing the resistor to Vref with a pair of resistors to 3.3V and Gnd.
  • Introduction of the triangular ground symbol, and rejection of the chassis ground and earth ground symbols as not relevant for the class.
  • Derivation of the voltage-divider formula from Ohm’s Law, using the important constraint that no current is taken from the output node of the voltage divider, so that the two resistors have identical currents. I had the students help with this, in order to elicit the most common mistake
  • Assertion, without derivation or explanation, that the RC time constant for the high-pass filter should treat the two resistors as being “2R” rather than “R”.

For the last couple of minutes of class, I finally got to do the demo with the homemade stroboscope and pendulum of aliasing, but it was not very effective. Even with the lights off in the classroom, there was enough light through the windows to wash out the strobe. I could not easily keep the pendulum swinging with one hand and adjust the strobe with the other.  If I do this again next year, I should make a panel with about 20 of the LED boards, for around 2.35A during the flash.  At 1.64ms for the longest flash, that’s 3.85mC, which would drain 8.2V from the 470µF capacitor, if the power supply weren’t capable of delivering that much current (but I have a 6A 9V supply, so there should be no problem delivering full power).  Hmm, maybe I should make up that panel for the Mini Maker Faire, instead of the wimpy 4-LED strobe I now have.

I’m actually pleased that I didn’t give the lecture I had planned—my book, which was based on my lectures, already covers the material adequately, and I’d much rather spend precious class time explaining the things that aren’t clear in the book.  The only way I can know what the students need to hear is for them to ask for clarification where they are confused.

2015 November 1

Tenth weight progress report an Halloween

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:21
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This post continues the series of weight progress reports from the previous one.

My weight has recovered from the spike on Sept 18, thanks to my returning to my weight-loss diet.  I was hoping by now to be able to go off the diet, but my occasional excesses have left me hovering around 158 lbs—2 lbs more than where I want my weight to be before I go off the diet.

I'm back in my target range, but I want to have a solid week below 157 lbs before I discontinue the weight-loss diet.

I’m back in my target range, but I want to have a solid week below 157 lbs before I discontinue the weight-loss diet.

I’m still on my strict raw-fruits-and-vegetables-for-lunch diet. I’ve not been very good this month about reducing my portion sizes for whatever we are having in the evening, but my wife has been preparing fairly non-fattening foods, so I’ve been holding steady on my weight, not packing on pounds. The leftover Halloween candy I ate today is probably going to put another spike in my weight, which is one reason for posting this blog post today, rather than waiting for tomorrow.

My exercise for October was relatively high (5.1 miles/day of bicycling), up from 2.9 miles/day in September and higher than my normal year-round average of just over 4 miles/day.

One good thing—I was able to wear a Halloween costume that I last wore when my son was in kindergarten, 14 years ago, and it fit better now than it did then. The costume consisted of parti-colored hose and a houppelande with dagged sleeves.  The houppelande has always fit me (it is not a tightly fitted garment), but the hose were made to fit snugly with non-stretch material around 33 years ago, and I don’t expect to ever be that skinny again—my weight was less than optimal then.

Actually, I’m not sure I could get the hose on 14 years ago—though I did wear the houppelande that year, since my son was a snowy owl, and we went out as “the prince and the owl” from a series of bedtime/walking stories that we made up. By coincidence, my wife used the same snowy owl costume for Halloween at school this year (pinning the wings she’d made for his kindergarten costume to a white linen jacket from the thrift store, and making a new mask by printing one off the web, since his kindergarten mask was too small for her face).

We had about 50 trick-or-treaters this year—way down from the glory days around fifteen years ago, when we would have 140 trick-or-treaters, but better than the rainy night last year.  Still we were prepared for more, which means that we have two or three bags of candy left over—I’ll have to take them in to work and leave them for the grad students.

We didn’t have time to decorate for Halloween this year—I carved a pumpkin rather hastily and stuck an LED strobe light in it (using the same LED boards and controller that I designed for the desk lamps, but with different software in the controller, so that the potentiometer controlled the strobe rate rather than brightness).  I could have run the whole thing off a 9V battery, but I decided to run some long wires instead, and leave the control and 9V power supply inside the house.

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