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 91: Sun vs. Fog… Fight!


It’s so foggy this morning that it looks like the sun’s never going to cut through.

It’s foggy and lazy, and the cats are good with that.

During our Plum Day jam-making activity, a couple of the jars didn’t gel. This happens sometimes, for a few different reasons. It’s still sealed and safe, just sloshy.

Some of them can be repaired, by re-boiling and adding some sugar and pectin. It’s a good foggy-morning thing to do when you don’t feel like typing.

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A few of them gel afterward, but those that don’t will be fantastic on ice cream.

Holy cow, By the time I’m done, the sun has actually started to poke through. I’m meeting with some very smart friends at the Presidio today to talk about the rules of telekinetic basketball, mostly just for fun.

By the time we’re done, the sun is victorious.

Alcatraz and the Palace of Fine Arts, as seen from the entrance to the Presidio Golf Course.

There’s time to play at the golf course, but as the afternoon gets late, the fog starts winning the battle again. Half an hour later, people are reaching for their jackets.


Random assertion: Cats know where the sunbeams are going to be, and what they’re for.

Steganographic data: 1814/4.1

Published in: on August 18, 2008 at 8:19 am  Leave a Comment  
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Day 14: Fog and Dangerous Music

So I’ve started collecting albums by “Musicians who have been denied entry to the United States.” I picked up Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse today, and I already have Cat Stevens… still need Axel Willner’s band… got any more? I’m looking for recommendations.

Why? Maybe it has to do with attraction to things you’re being protected from. Anyway, it’s fun, and the music’s good.

This morning’s sunrise was somewhat less brilliant than Wednesday’s

…but the funny thing about San Francisco weather is that a 10-minute drive in any direction (I chose North) will usually get you this:

Microclimates are awesome.

Had lunch with a good friend and talented acrobat in Mill Valley who wants to remain anonymous. (She’s an art dealer in the daytime.) I tell you, we’re everywhere.

(Hey wait, is that a picture of a golf course?)

Here’s something you didn’t expect me to say: Golf is fun.

Even though your feet are on the ground, and your life is hardly ever in danger, it’s fun anyway.

Running a probability analysis of this driving range would make you a nerd.

My muse taught me to play; you can clear your mind completely, or think about how unlikely it is that the ball could ever actually find its way to the hole by natural means. The courses in and around SF are excellent.

After stopping in at work to visit some friends, I found my muse at one of the best places in the city, Mission Beach Cafe.

You need to eat here. These guys run a fantastic restaurant, small and comfortable, with unbelievable food. She also likes it because she can flirt with the cute waiters.

Random assertion: If all women had voices like Jenna Mammina, men would be utterly defenseless.

Steganographic data: 1876/1.8

Day 1

I’m still technically “on call” for the next two weeks, and I will be called, but I’m starting the 3-month Secret Plan now, and bumping it to 3.5 months. That’s fair.

Morning: I spent the morning with my muse, and then put her on a plane to Hong Kong. I love HK. It’s like a spaceport; people from all over the world have found a sort of hyperproductive coexistence. There’s just something cool about major port cities (says the guy in San Francisco).

Afternoon: Captain McGee’s Birthday. Chris is one of those guys where the strength-of-character is built in so deep, you’d trust him with your life instantly. I’ve known him for many years, and worked within 20 feet of him for the past few. All this time, and I just found out he lives walking distance from my place. His neighborhood reminds me of Van Nuys, but in SF.


These guys all helped me stay sane when the project was in crunch.


Standing on Chris’ deck, looking toward my place, the fog looks unreal.

Night: The Castro Theatre is just a few blocks from my place, and it is one of the finest places on Earth to watch a movie. They’ve even got an organist who plays before the feature.

Tonight they’ve got a double feature: Moonraker and The Black Hole. I got home too late for the Bond flick, but Ran down like a 10-year-old and said “one please” and watched Vincent and Maximilian show that robots can start a pointless bar brawl just like the rest of us. Science fiction, without a lick of science anywhere. Check out the films they’ve got coming up. Seriously, this place rules.

Random assertion: Bad sci-fi is better than no sci-fi, always.
Lesson learned: If I’m really going to blog during Secret Plan 158, I need to get a lot faster at it.

Steganographic data: 1920/4.0

Published in: on May 18, 2008 at 6:15 pm  Comments (2)  
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