Day 103: Food, Love and Robots

I’m on breakfast duty this morning, so it’s cinnamon french toast. Christine’s got some strawberries, which don’t hurt the situation at all.


The name of our home on the Playa is Open Kitchen Camp. The plan is to make a lot of very excellent food, and share it with anyone who wants to stop by. This is a lot like what these two do at home, so they’re natural at it. No one ever turns down Christine’s cooking.

We’ve got extra french toast, so we bring it around to our neighbors. It’s so easy to make friends here.


Shannon’s actually in the final stages of (hopefully) becoming a BRC Ranger. The Rangers are here to keep the peace, so the police don’t usually have to. He’s the kind of guy they’re looking for, big, smart and friendly.

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Everyone here is ready for a perfect day, and today is perfect. I hear someone got good pictures yesterday of a huge dust devil with a tent stuck in it, way off the ground.

It’s time to get on a bike and disappear into all of this.


Here’s what Open Kitchen Camp looks like from the top pf a nearby structure (after the storm clean-up):


Burning man is different things to different people. I’m discovering what it is to me.

  • A place where people can be as expressive as they want to, in any way. It’s fun to watch, but talking to or joining them is better. Jump into the chicken-shaped car. Teach someone a new trampoline move. Ask about the flaming hula-hoop.
  • A place where people fix things for each other, just because they notice something broken. And clean up random trash just because they see it. (You try to be careful, but sometimes the wind takes something.)
  • …but most of all, it’s a place where you can do handstands several stories off the ground without anyone calling the police.


Many of the art structures can be climbed on. Most of them don’t have handrails. Shannon and I spend the better part of the day out on the Playa, finding random fun everywhere.

Sometimes we wish we had brought a camera, and sometimes we’re glad we didn’t. Anyway, someone’s usually got one.

Robotics is a funny thing. In order to make one work, you need to take into account everything you know about the environment it’s going to be facing.

By the time we get back, we’re ready for some shade-time, and I’ve got a full understanding of the environment in which this robot needs to survive.

It needs modification, or it won’t work. First, some serious dust shielding.

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Next, I add some extra electronics, pulled from a few small devices I thought to bring with me.

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What are these for? Well, there’s more to the environment than dust (though there is a whole lot of that). Everywhere you go, there’s the “m-Ch-m-Ch-m-Ch” sound of dance clubs. Robots need a way to work with that too.

…so now it’s ready. Just waiting for the sun to go down.


Besides running an open kitchen, Shannon and Christine have done an art project for the Playa. This year’s theme is the American Dream. C&S have made a structure out of flags, and attached markers, so people can write what the American Dream is to them.

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Cars aren’t typically allowed on this part of the Playa, but we got permission to use one to transport the project.

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Here’s my contribution to the artwork:

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Extra points if you recognize the image.

As soon as it’s done, we head straight back to run the kitchen! Christine’s made mushroom risotto, and she’s got slaves (including me) cutting up fruit for the sangria.

Again, it’s really easy to make friends. People we’ve never met before stop in to have dinner with us.

The smoke detector’s been disabled again, of course.

Partway through dinner Christine commands me to do a handstand on a camp chair.
I’m not your trained monkey!” I reply, and then do exactly as I’m told.

A strange thing about this crowd is that people are hungry for science. They like it. All these hobbies that made it impossible to get a date in high school have suddenly become valuable skills in the desert.

So another way I’ve been making friends is to have the telescope out when it’s dark. Jupiter is showing off, and you can see moons all around it.

I’ve had this red telescope since I was eleven.

If you’ve got a telescope, a lot of sangria and a friendly audience, here’s something useful to know: Nearly all of Jupiter’s moons are named after his… well, conquests. It’s a good thing he was so busy; it makes for excellent and lively conversation.

Tonight we also get to celebrate. Shannon’s passed his training and tests with flying colors.

We never doubted he would.

Once the food is gone and the kitchen closed, the three of us head out to play. One of the highlights is the sculpture by the Flaming Lotus Girls. There are levers all over it which let you control the flame jets.


It’s not all that safe, and I like it.


We head back around 11:30, and have some more tasty food, courtesy of Christine and my Muse. Then Shannon and I put the robot on the back of his bike and head out. Christine’s the smartest one. She’s going to sleep.


So it actually worked. The best thing about running the robot was just letting it wander off. People would cluster around it, and then jump back when it freaked out.

“Hey, and angry little ball!”
“He’s not angry… look, he’s lost.”
“Aw, he just wants to find his home.”

At one point, it rolls over and leans against a pair of legs in pink fishnets. Then it runs away, dodges the rest of us, and comes back to her.

“Hey, I think he’s in love with me. Cool.”
“I want one.”

I got a tiny clip of low-quality video, but mostly left the camera off and just enjoyed.

We met some very fun people over the robot’s antics.

When the robot gets sleepy, we put it back on the bike and start riding out into the desert. Just straight out, away from lights and sound.

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If you ever want to be alone, it’s really easy. And the stars are fantastic. That sand, however, can make for (WHAM! ow.) slow riding.

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If you’re wondering what all of this would looks like from far far above the ground, here you go:

Nothing’s allowed to be taller than the Man, but we’re really close at the moment.


Normally a huge flash of fire in the distance means paperwork for someone. Not here.

We get back after 3, and go to sleep. Outside the window there’s a quiet-ish dance club and an excellent moon.


Random assertion: Food and Love are two of the universal languages. Sometimes, they’re one.

Steganographic data: 1824/3.5/18.5

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 7
(Note: As I’m posting this, I’m already at the end of SP158, and about 30 minutes from heading back to work. Don’t worry, I’ll finish the other posts.)

Published in: on September 2, 2008 at 7:03 am  Comments (1)  
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Day 101: Baskets of Glass

So you already know some of what happens today, but not all.

I wake up to her eyes, but also to the realization that the fire wasn’t a dream, and even if I could repair the damage to the robot, I’d never have time to troubleshoot the problem today.

About half an hour later, she had done what a muse does. I still can’t remember exactly what she said, but without even looking at it I knew the cause of the failure, and how to fix it.

Geek Details: The drive power circuit is basically an H-bridge, with power transistors instead of switches or relays. So if your control logic is (ahem) backwards, then the “all motors off” resting state turns into “hold the motors still but heat up the high-power resistors as fast as you can and see what catches on fire first” mode.

A quick look at the injured robot verifies that this is what happened, and I should be able to fix it. So I set it aside and we go out to play at another excellent museum.

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This is the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. They’ve got a huge exhibit of Dale Chihuly’s glass work now. Unlike many exhibits, non-flash photography is allowed in this one.


If you’ve seen Chihuly’s work before, then you know to expect a lot of really huge, cool, brightly-colored pieces that resemble sea creatures. The techniques he and his assistants use to make these things are extraordinary.

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So I’m drawn to the one that looks like an urchin. So what.
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All of these bright forms are beautiful, and pretty much what I expected to see. The part of the exhibit that took me by total surprise was the Baskets series. These are made (from glass) to look like Native American basket work. I love them.

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There’s a lot of great work in this exhibit, and none of it is safe to climb on.

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Quick aside #1:
Shannon and Christine are leaving for Burning Man today. They’re all packed up and ready to go. I’ve never been there, but it sounds like a lot of crazy fun.

They strongly encouraged me to come with them, but I had to decline. It’s the last few days of my vacation, after all.

Shannon’s bike plays the William Tell Overture as he rides.

Quick aside #2:
One of my muse’s superpowers is that she can hear 4-leaf clovers. Walking outside the museum with me today she stopped, leaned down, and handed one to me.

I’ve pasted this one into the book I’m about to read.

Back at home, we’re relaxing and working on projects again.

I get the repairs all done on the robot’s power circuit, and the motors still won’t move. Just as I’m starting to think it’s not going to work, the house starts to smell really good.

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The smell of fresh scones kicks something in my brain, and I get it.

The motor power’s not connected. Yeah, so I, um, plug it in, and the motors leap to life, making me cheer and dance in a less-than-dignified manner.

Quick aside #3:
In case you still had any doubt about knitters being good at math and logic, check this out. I snuck a picture of her notes:
My muse is planning something involving purple yarn and possibly a blowtorch.

I get the robot all closed up and do the first real operational tests.

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…so that’s it. You’re all caught up now.

Random assertion: Once a decision
> HEY WAIT! That can’t be all! What about the sandstorm? What about the smoke detector and the fuzzy pink hat?

Oh right, that. Okay, so I actually called Shannon back a few days ago, and left a message:

“Hey sir. When I said I no, I was clearly malfunctioning. If the couch is still available, I’m in. And I’ll build something to bring. Maybe a robot, we’ll see.”

…and so I’m all packed up too.

In the back seat, you can see the yellow robot (not yet desert-proof, but there’s time) and yes, the Captain Goldfish hat. There’s a telescope in there somewhere too.

…and my muse made fresh scones for me to bring, as well as spicy Indian chicken and other great food-love. She knows what I’m going to need, always.

At 7:30pm, we start the drive.

As it turns out, there will be no dividing line (sleep) to separate today from tomorrow. So I’ll draw the line here, at 7:30. Tomorrow things get a little interesting.

Random assertion: Given the choice, pick the thing you’ve never done before.

Steganographic data: 1818/4.4

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 8

Published in: on August 30, 2008 at 10:08 am  Comments (1)  
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Day 100: Day One Hundred!

Speaking of the Castro Theatre, check this out.

West Side Story
, The Godfather, and sing-along The Little Mermaid. All on one marquee. How awesome is that?

I’m leaving town tomorrow afternoon, and my muse can’t come with me this time, so we’re spending today and tomorrow playing in museums and working on fun projects.


This is SFMOMA, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. They’ve got an exhibit of Frieda Kahlo‘s work currently. We spend a long time enjoying that, as well as some fantastic Chinese contemporary art. There’s one piece by Sui Jianguo of Chairman Mao sleeping on a field of plastic dinosaurs.


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SFMOMA also has an excellent café. We spend most of the nice sunny day at the museum and the surrounding area.

Back at home, the muse is knitting (remember what I said about knitting? Be on your guard), while the cats keep her pinned in place.


Excellent! She’s got them distracted. Time to finish the robot.

Here’s the final sensor array. (The electrical tape is temporary, to protect the eyes, and to make it easier to test. Their cones of vision don’t overlap, so I can trigger just one at a time.)


…and then the wires from the array go to the main logic board…


…and then tap into the motor-control lines on the pre-existing circuit…


…but when I try it out, it’s not working. The toy’s radio control chip is overriding my circuit’s taps, holding the motors inactive. So, it’s got to go.

I’ve thought of all sorts of delicate ways to do this, but I’m a little tight for time. I grip the circuit board with my wire stripper, say out loud “This is a really bad idea,” and twist.



There, it’s done. No going back now. Time to close it up and give it a test.

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Why is there a knot in the wire? Strain relief, so that a tug on the wire won’t pull out the taps.
Why is the cat guarding my drill? It might move. If it does, it’s toast.

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All closed up and ready.                   Hey, screws! (sigh)

There’s a bunch more to do, and by the time it’s really ready, it’s after 2am, and the muse has gone to sleep. I’m sleepy too, but will be so happy to see it work.

So I switch it on, and the motors start working! There’s an odd noise when the motors should be stopped, but it’s basically functional.

Suddenly, “sssshhhhfffffffFFFFFFFFFFFFFT” there’s smoke jetting out of the case. It’s on fire.

  • No! No! Switch it off!
    • Pull the battery out (ouch, HOT! HOT!)
    • Blow a puff of air in through the wiring hole.
    • Open the case, see ashes flutter out, and smell burning plastic.

It’s not good. Wires across the power board are melted. Well, I did pull the control chip out with pliers. Who knows what that might have messed up.

I’m sad and grouchy and tired, so I go to sleep and dream about burning plastic and broken toys.

Random assertion: “Letting go” is vital in both art and engineering. The artist creates a vision, but does control what people will see. The engineer builds a thing sturdy and safe, but does not control the guy with pliers.

Steganographic data: 1828/3.1

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 9

Published in: on August 29, 2008 at 8:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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Day 99: Fupfupfupfup

After picking up the car from the shop, I stop to get the rest of the parts for SP187.


On the way back from the electronic component shop is a small airport. Right next to it, there’s a Burger King with a real (non-operational) helicopter instead of a jungle gym.

You can actually sit inside it and eat your lunch.


I would never do such a thing, of course. And if I did, I certainly would not make “fupfupfupfup” noises and mess around with the controls.

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The warning sign is important, though. About 300 feet away, I see what it’s talking about.

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I don’t think he’s eating lunch in there.

Back at home, it’s time to wire up the sensor circuit and then start writing code for the brain.

Since I’m tight on time, I’m going to use a Basic Stamp for the robot’s brain. I’ve never used one, but have heard it’s pretty straightforward.

The brain chip is small, tidy, and professional looking…


…sort of not really like the mess of wires that’s going to pass for a sensor array…


There’ll be more of this tomorrow, so I’ll leave it at that.

Random assertion: There are things you’re allowed to climb on, and things you’re not. I recommend trying both.

Steganographic data: 1818/0.8

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 10

Published in: on August 28, 2008 at 3:59 pm  Comments (1)  
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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 97: Placeholder

Note: I’m packing in a hurry, so this entry will get significantly expanded when I have time.

Here’s the 10-minute version of what’s going on:
Secret Plan 187 is well underway. I put everything else on hold for a couple of days in order to give it a try:

  • Found parts in the garage, including an old (broken) radio controlled toy, and bought some parts I couldn’t find.
  • Built a small yellow robot, and programmed it with a jumpy paranoid personality.
  • Took it apart, threw out some parts, built it again.
  • Used pliers to carefully crack the circuit board, removing the radio chip. Replaced the chip with my own. Now it’s fully autonomous.
  • Switched it on!
  • It caught fire.
    • Put fire out, opened case and try to figure out why it happened and how much damage there was.
    • Damage too extensive, cause unknown. Went to sleep at 3am, grumpy because robot had been destroyed.
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  • …then, the next morning…
    • Woke up grumpy, broken robot still smelled like burning plastic.
    • Muse said something (unclear what it was), and I suddenly understood why it happened, and how to repair the damage.
    • Repaired robot, fixed programming and wiring.
    • Switched it on!
    • Brain working, but no motors at all. (That makes it a computer, not a robot.)
      • Inspected everything, decided that last night’s fire melted the motor coils.
      • Grumpy.
      • Muse started baking fresh scones. Kitchen smelled fantastic.
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      • Realized that motor power was not hooked up.
      • Hooked it up.


    • Switched it on!
    • It’s actually kind of cute

(This is with its motors set to “inside the house” mode so it doesn’t break the furniture)

I’m going to spend Day 100 testing it in the desert.

As soon as I can get a web connection, I’ll resume posting. Until then, be well and try not to break the furniture.

Random assertion: A real muse won’t tell you her secret. And you won’t be able to guess.

Steganographic data: 1872/1.5

Days remaining in Secret Plan 158: 12

Published in: on August 24, 2008 at 3:18 pm  Comments (6)  
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