Day 98: Fog and Sparks

I’m back in town and oh, there’s so much to catch up on. Spending time with good friends, disabling a smoke detector, crashing face-first in a blinding sandstorm, giving the robot its first test run, and acquiring a fuzzy pink hat. So here we go.

Let’s wind the clock back a few days.


Woke up to crazy-thick fog. The car’s in the shop, so it’s a good day to wander out without one. I’ve got a few stops to make, and one of them is to get some parts for Secret Plan 187.

First, there’s time to kick the day off with a stop at the Chestnut Street Coffee Roastery.
There’s an excellent bar where you can sit and have breakfast and coffee. San (the owner) knows everyone here by name. He remembers what they like, and won’t hand you a drink unless it’s perfect.

By midday, it’s turned warm and sunny.

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This is the finished result from the demon stamp-o-matic machine. Walking across it makes your eyes go woogity, but that’ll probably get better over time as it gets grubby.

This product wins the “least appetizing packaging I’ve seen all week” award. Competition was tight, but the white syringe on the side pushed this one up for the win.

SP187 calls for four very small motion detectors. The Radio Shack on Market St. just happens to have exactly four, so the decision is made.

Back at home, it’s time to get to work.

Casual robot building goes a lot faster if you start with a working mechanical base, and then add sensors and a brain. Toys are usually the best place to start; they’re inexpensive and wacky.

The Motor Ball is a radio-controlled toy from the early 1990’s. This one doesn’t work. It broke 5 years ago, and I meant to throw it out, but forgot.

Opening it up, we get to see what’s inside. Surprise… wires and gears!

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The cat has decided that I’m ignoring her. She’s right.

She’s trying to hypnotize me and steal my robot parts.

…so with everything stripped off, here are the basic parts. There’s a radio circuit, some power electronics, a pair of motors at the bottom, and a bunch of gears.

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One of the gears is about to go skipping across the floor. (sigh)

If you like tinkering, but also enjoy being married, put newspaper between your project and the dining room table. Really.

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I’m not allowed to sit down until I give her something to play with.

The first thing to do is figure out how to drive the motors. I don’t know anything about this circuit, so some things need to be figured out by trial and error (and error). There’s one main logic chip, with a bunch of pins soldered into the main board. One of the pins is connected to the ground wire.


To find out more, I power up the circuit and touch the pins one at a time to ground, to see what happens. Nothing at all.

Now for the opposite (and more risky) test. With the circuit still powered up, I connect each pin to the 6-volt power source. This is just like figuring out how a watch works by hitting each tiny gear with a large hammer to see if the hands move.

The first pin I try sends sparks flying. Whoops.

Further down, I finally get a hit. One of the motors goes “rrrRRRRRrrr,” and the cat comes running over to watch.

It turns out that there are four pins which control the motors, so I make some notes.


I’m ignoring her again. Crunch crunch.

The new motion detectors I bought will be the robot’s “eyes” and need to be located close to each other. This circuit’s physically tricky to build, and is not going to work on the first try.

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She thinks the second attempt is the best one for batting around the room.

It’s time for a break, just in time to run down to the Castro Theatre. They’re showing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which I’ve never seen.
It’s excellent. I’ll bet some of the funniest parts probably weren’t quite as funny in 1953 as they are now. The audience is fun, and loves it from start to finish.

Random assertion: Lab assistants should be chosen carefully. Pick one you enjoy spending time with, and the rest will take care of itself.

Steganographic data: 1822/4.8

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 11

Published in: on August 28, 2008 at 2:47 pm  Comments (1)  
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Day 41: Red Sky and the Mystery Door

For the past three days, the sun has been a funky distant red color, and you can smell the wildfires nearby.

That won’t stop the week’s celebrations, though. The Castro neighborhood is all decked out and ready for an excellent weekend-long party.

A.G. Ferrari: Human respect and great food, all in one store.

I’ll tell you, the cat’s day is off to a great start.
Oh joy, it’s time for the vet.

The 18-year-old cat says: “I know where you live.”

The 2-year-old cat says: “Hey how’d you get in the box? Is that fun? I want one too.”

Our vet is a magician. Dr. Craig founded the Linda Mar pet hospital in Pacifica. Years ago, she and her colleagues helped me out with an orange kitten who had a broken leg and a malfunctioning heart. 18 years later, he’s still a troublemaker. I hope I look that good when I’m his age.

The other magician responsible for his longevity is Shelly. The cats love it when my muse and I pack a suitcase, because it means she’s coming over soon.

Speaking of magic, just down the street from our house there’s a trans-dimensional mystery door.

It’s just a door, right there in between the buildings. I’ve never seen anyone enter or leave.

Looking through the glass, you can see a garden and a brick path going straight back, but you can’t quite see where the path leads. I’ve been curious about that door for years.

Random assertion: Most doors lead to a place you’ve never been.

Steganographic data: 1856/3.5

Published in: on June 27, 2008 at 9:16 am  Leave a Comment  
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Day 33: Sorcery and G-Forces

I start the morning off by making us a huge stack of chocolate chip pancakes, and a few blueberry as well.

One great thing about Las Vegas, when you fill out a form (medical, apartment rental, whatever) you can put “Circus Performer” as your occupation and no one’s even surprised.

My muse, backstage with Kris on a recent visit

We spend part of the day planning a future act for him. He’s got some fantastic ideas. Any time Kris is performing, he’s also working on the next thing, because he’s smart.

During development of his current act, I got a call from mom: “Would you please call your brother and tell him 4 G’s is too much force?” She was right, of course. That’s what I love about my family. (The fact that he’s 30 feet above the stage doesn’t worry her. She and dad are used to that.)

Kris has two very lovely housemates, Michelle and Angela. They’ve been kind enough to let me use their room while they’re out of town.

There are also two black cats here, named David Hasselhoff and Kevin Bacon. (Really.)

It occurs to me that I haven’t actually seen those two actors in quite some time. Given the number of candles around, a likely explanation is that my brother is living with a pair of sorceresses who like to keep pets.

I’ll do what I can to stay on their good side.

Random assertion: Sorcery can only exist in a world where most people think it’s impossible.

Steganographic data: 1870/2.8

Published in: on June 19, 2008 at 10:06 am  Comments (4)  
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Day 31: Planets and Light Bulbs

Today I found out that you can have a cruddy day-where-nothing-goes-right even when you’re not at work.

I tried to do a bunch of things, and was thwarted in every single one. Grr. After a few hours, just to get back in control, I headed home and started fixing things. Just everything. Light bulbs, paint, garden sprinklers, bills, dishes, whatever looked unthwartable.

That was the turning point. After that, even things which had gone wrong earlier started resolving themselves.

I didn’t take any pictures hardware stores and light bulbs (you’re welcome), so here are some more telescope pictures.

The cat likes astronomy too, if it doesn’t interrupt his nap.

These were taken last year, with the same telescope (gift from my muse). They were shot from the middle of San Francisco on a clear night. This was my first attempt at capturing a planet:

…and then I refined & improved for the second attempt a few months later…

…and then the big guy.

Tomorrow: Off to Vegas.

Random assertion: You can do anything, as long as you choose the right thing.

Steganographic data: 1840/4.8

Published in: on June 17, 2008 at 8:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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