Older blog entries for steve (starting at number 191)

Robots and Found Objects

I've been welding on Thursday nights for a while now, since I took a welding class several months ago. So far it's all been practice welds of random steel scraps. I've been thinking about trying my hand at something a bit more artistic. Sculpture from found objects has always interested me. Robots have always interested me. Why not combined all this into something like a robot sculpture from found objects? It's been done before by artists like Gordon Bennett and Clayton Bailey.

The first challenge I'm facing is figuring out how one goes about finding these so-called found objects that artists are always talking about. In my case, I'm particularly interested in steel objects. Susan and I have been going to estate sales on the weekends and I've visited numerous thrift shops around town. It seems like the best source would be something like a wrecking yard. There are plenty of them around but very little info about them online. Apparently not all of them let you wander around with tools pulling interesting parts you find. Maybe there are some in the smaller towns surround the Dallas area. I'm surprise there aren't any web sites that review wrecking yards (at least that I've found yet).

New Camera

Well, I finally did it. I bought a new Canon 40D with a 17-55mm f2.8 zoom. I also picked up an EOS to FD adapter on eBay so I could get at least some use out of my existing FD lenses. This is the third Canon I've owned. My first was a Canon A1, my second was the T90, which I still have. I thought some other old-timers might be interested in a comparison of the Canon T90 film camera with the new Canon 40D digital, so I put a few photos and comments of the two bodies up on flickr.

I should be uploading some photos taken with the new camera soon. Stay tuned to my flickr account if you're curious.

My old FD equipment is destined for eBay soon, starting with my Canon FD 2X extender Type A.

Work and Photography

Wow, I've been so busy lately. Has it really been over two months since I posted any sort of an update here? Well, work has mostly been a blur of SQL, Perl DBI, and RETS. I've been shooting lots of photos in what little time off I could manage: there was the Deep Ellum Arts Festival in April, followed by a little art exhibit by local roller derby girls called Derby Does Art, then Scarborough Fair, and the Continental Gin art collective's open house.

May was more of the same with 90% work and 10% hitting unusual local events to photograph people and things. I caught the Dallas Asian Festival and the Flesh and Bone Erotic Arts Show (warning, some photos not work safe - but I think flickr defaults to safe mode these days, so unless you're logged in and have safe mode off maybe ok?).

We did manage to take a weekend off in May to go to the Houston Art Car Parade. We saw lots of crazy people and cars as always. We drove down to the Orange Show art structure but it was closed during the art car events, so we weren't able to go inside. Maybe we'll get to see it next time we visit Houston.

Another interesting May event was the Great Texas B9 Build-Off where Lost-in-Space B9 builders and Star Wars R2-D2 builders from all over the US showed up for a day of robot construction. A lot of local robot builders including several DPRG members showed up as well. Some of the photos I took at this event will show up exclusively in the next issue of Robot Magazine, which should hit the stands in another month or so.

All this photography has got me interested in finally upgrading from my Fuji sf6000d to a true digital SLR. I really miss using my old Canon T90 35mm film camera and I've slowly convinced myself I need to buy the Canon 40D. Canon is doing their part by offering significant instant rebates this month, so it may actually happen this time.

A Few Fun Things

It's way past time to catch up my readers on what we've been up to lately. Since my last post we went to the La Reunion winner announcement party for their Make Space for Art architecture contest. While there we heard a really cool music ensemble that called themselves the Escalator Maintenance Society. In addition to a cello and bass, they played an amplified mechanical typewriter and a child's toy piano. It was some fun, minimalist-sounding music. After the event, I ran into the manager of Club DaDa outside and she said the group would be playing there soon. We'll probably go hear them again if we can work it out.

We also went to the Dallas House of Blues for the first time to hear They Might be Giants and Oppenheimer play. I'd previously been to the Las Vegas HoB and spent a lot of time in the Foundation Room there hanging out with bizarre local characters. We weren't lucky enough to know anyone with Foundation Room access here but still had a good time. It's an interesting place and a pretty good mid-sized music venue. We got the cheap tickets for the standing-only area near the stage but it turned out there are a couple of bars near the back and we managed to snag some bar stools there. It was further away from the stage but the view wasn't too bad. As is frequently the case, the audio was mixed so that the instruments were 10 times louder than the vocals so you couldn't make out any words. For some bands that's not a problem but TMbG's music is largely about the humor of the lyrics so it was a bit disappointing.

Last weekend, I went to All-Con 2008. The Dallas Personal Robotics Group was invited to display and do some demos so I went along to take photos. This was the first science fiction convention I've been to in many years and it was a lot of fun. There were all sorts of robots to be seen. Aaron Douglas (Chief Tyrol of Battlestar Galactica) was one of the guests, and I suppose we can count his character as a robot too. There was a fun demo by the Assassination City roller derby girls, a local group that does flat-track roller derby. I was also surprised to see the Lollie Bombs there. The Lollie Bombs are a Deep Ellum burlesque troop and this was the first time I'd seen them. Also a lot of fun. I met lots of other interesting people and posted a flickr set of All-Con photos. I stayed out way too late and ended up coming down with a cold the following week, probably from some alien bug I caught at All-Con.

This morning, Susan and I went to La Reunion's first annual tree carving and open house event. La Reunion is a new art collective in Dallas with 35 acres of land south of downtown. The land is near the La Reunion Fourierist utopian community that existed from 1855-1860 (thus the name they chose for their group). They plan to build an off-grid, green facility there at which artists can live and work. As part of the process of preparing the land, they need to remove dying and non-native trees. They chose to do it in a way that would be healthy for the ecosystem. The trees will be carved by artists in a way that causes them to decay slowly, turning into food and homes for a variety of life forms.

There were also several representatives of the Texas Discovery Gardens on site to conduct tours of native flora. We wandered around on our own, exploring the site and taking a few photos along the way.

A Programmer Learns to Weld

That's right, I'm taking a welding class. Some fellow DPRG members found the community education class and were getting a group together to take it. Granted, welding isn't a skill I generally need in my daily routine but it intrigued me enough to join the class. It might come in handy if I find the need to create a giant robot, or a big metal dinosaur for the front yard.

The first day of class was spent on the use of a fuelgas welding rig to cut and make holes in metal. Practical lesson #1: sparks fly everywhere and, while they're harmless if they hit your skin, they have deleterious effects on some types of clothing, like those cheap hoodies you find at Sam's Club that are covered with a thin later of fuzzy stuff. The sparks create mysterious little craters in the fuzz. Practical lesson #2: if you're wearing non-leather shoes, watch out for blobs of molten metal falling on your feet.

Moralizing about Free Software

Over on robots.net, I posted a link to an interesting Steven Pinker article about the human moral instinct. Aside from the obvious aspects of the article relevant to cognitive science and AI, it struck me today that the "moralizing trigger" Pinker describes may help explain the difference between the Open Source and Free Software movements. While they're both effectively doing the same thing, they're doing it for different reasons. Pinker uses vegetarians as an example:

The psychologist Paul Rozin has studied the toggle switch by comparing two kinds of people who engage in the same behavior but with different switch settings. Health vegetarians avoid meat for practical reasons, like lowering cholesterol and avoiding toxins. Moral vegetarians avoid meat for ethical reasons: to avoid complicity in the suffering of animals. By investigating their feelings about meat-eating, Rozin showed that the moral motive sets off a cascade of opinions. Moral vegetarians are more likely to treat meat as a contaminant — they refuse, for example, to eat a bowl of soup into which a drop of beef broth has fallen. They are more likely to think that other people ought to be vegetarians, and are more likely to imbue their dietary habits with other virtues, like believing that meat avoidance makes people less aggressive and bestial.
Substitute a binary blob in the Linux kernel for the drop of beef broth in the vegetarian soup and this sounds exactly like the difference between the Free vs Open camps. The article goes on to explain how mammal brains seem to have five "moral spheres" which appear to represent something akin to moral absolutes. The way different cultures and individuals map things to those five area creates the moral differences we see and leads to a lot of unfortunate conflict. Could it be that understanding the physiological basis of morality will help not only to solve big problems like Middle East vs West but also smaller ones like Open Source vs Free Software?

7 Nov 2007 (updated 8 Nov 2007 at 20:12 UTC) »

I went to the Austin Maker Faire October 19-21. I've been promising various people I'd write about it for a while but events have conspired to prevent it until now. The short version is that it was fun, interesting, worth the trip, and I'll be returning next year. It was interesting to compare this to my Marfa trip a couple of weeks ago for the Chinati Open House art festival. I'm even more convinced of a growing convergence between DIY/homebrew technology geeks and artists. I even ran into a guy in the Maker Store wearing a Chinati 2007 T-shirt, so there were at least two of us who attended both events and probably more.

I drove down to Austin from Dallas and stayed in a Holiday Inn Express. Despite having four lamps, my hotel room was strangely dim. Rather than complain, I tried to get into the spirit of the Maker Faire by driving to a nearby Home Depot and purchasing a box of 100 Watt light bulbs, which I used to upgrade all the lamps. While hanging around the hotel, I met a cat in the hotel parking lot. The hotel's main entrance had automatic doors which relied on motion sensors. The cat had learned that it could enter the hotel any time it wanted by walking up to the doors. It frequently walked into the lobby, where it caged treats off the hotel guests. The daytime hotel clerks chased the cat away but I noticed the nightshift guy feeding and playing with the little cat.

Susan wasn't able to go with me. Actually, I think she was afraid it was just going to be another boring robot event. She's patiently attended more than her share of robot-related events. It's always more interesting to view art and technology when you can share the experience with someone. Fortunately I met Alix, a local Austin blogger, and we hung out together during the Maker Faire. Hopefully she enjoyed it as much as I did.

Maker Faire was too full of interesting experiences to describe them all in a short blog entry. Maybe I can get across the general idea. Unlike most conferences, fairs, and similar events, people attending the Maker Faire are not idle spectators. Participation is allowed or even required for nearly everything there. If there's a ride, you can bet you'll have to pedal. If you buy an electronics kit, you'll be provided with tools, test equipment and space to assemble it. Stand too close to the girl building synth gear out of salvaged medical equipment and she'll put you to work disassembling equipment. If you go to the Swap-O-Rama to trade clothes, you'll be cutting, sewing, and silk-screening them yourself, with expert help if needed. Maker Faire is very much a DIY event in every sense.

There are a few exceptions. You'll have to keep your distance from noisy machines belching flame and sparks, for example. And while you may be asked to help turn the cranks to hoist the 4,000 lbs safe into the air during the execution of the Life-Size Mousetrap game, you'll have to stand behind the fence when it plummets to the ground with an impact that can be felt a hundred yards away.

Everywhere you look at Makers Faire you'll see interesting people who are always willing to stop and explain how their creation works, how they made it, why they made it, who did their tattoos, or answer any other question you might have for them.

I suppose I should at least give you a quick sampling of the things you might see at a Makers Faire: art cars, dirty art cars, biped robots, robots on wheels, robotic toys, robot art, robots that make art, cute girls who drive all the way from Iowa to show off the art-making robots they built, strange musical instruments, stranger musical instruments, tesla coils, tesla coils that are musical instruments, drummers who knit, free-roaming ferris wheels, working medeviel siege weapons, strange fire-breathing machines, homebrew supercomputers, stirling engines, fur-bearing dinosaurs, girls with tattoos, girls with hula hoops, girls with 5-inch plastic heels, the amazing mouse girl, the cigarette-smoking bee girl, scary insectoid robotic things, Dalek pumpkins, photovores, things that spin around until you get dizzy (unless it snaps your feet off like twigs first), things that I don't even know what they are but if you pump them full of gas, pressurize them, and apply high voltage, they glow purple. And I should point out that I hardly saw half of what was there. For more weird stuff, check out my Maker Faire flickr gallery.

Those who got tired of looking at mind-blowingly strange things could stop to listen to mind-blowingly strange music playing on any one of the three stages. There were also several talks and tutorials going on at any given time. Wendy Tremayne, the founder of the Swap-O-Rama, gave an interesting talk entitled The Maker as Revolutionary. For me that talk tied together some of the loose threads between art, DIY geeks, and the free software movement that I'd been pondering since my trip to Marfa.

Diehl Martin RIP

I knew Diehl Martin, or Marty, as one of the founders of the Free Hardware movement. Like many free software/hardware people I work with, I never met him in person and knew him only online. Almost single-handed, Marty created and maintained the FreeIO.org website, designed, built, and tested numerous GPL'd hardware designs ranging from ISA bus I/O boards to USB development boards. He somehow also found time to promote Linux and other free software, work a full time job, enjoy his Ham radio hobby, participate in competitive shooting, teach Sunday school, and assist his wife with her photography business. For the last several years, Marty has been fighting pancreatic cancer, a disease which has a 100% fatality rate. He beat the odds for a surprising amount of time and continued working and blogging daily until the very end. Marty passed away at 5am on the morning of the 27th. He wrote his final blog entry bidding the world farewell on the 25th. He will be missed.

29 Oct 2007 (updated 4 Nov 2007 at 23:41 UTC) »

On Friday night, I attended the Slashdot 10th anniversary party. Well, I attended the one in Dallas, anyway. There were others all over the world. It was a fairly uneventful event. For reasons known only to himself, the organizer chose to have it in a small, noisy bar despite many suggestions of better (i.e. bigger, quieter) alternatives. So for about an hour and half 20 to 30 geeks shared a cramped space and engaged in conversations that went something like:

"Hi, is this the Slashdot party?"
"What?"
"IS THIS THE SLASHDOT PARTY?"
"Yes"
"What?"
"YES!"

Most people either shouted into the ear of the person immediately next to them or just gave up on conversation as not worth the effort and just sat around staring at each other and waited for the organizer, who had the free T-Shirts. He eventually showed up shortly before the event was scheduled to end and passed out the shirts. A lot of people had given up and left already, so there were plenty to go around.

At a couple of points, the loud music stopped long enough to have some quick conversations and I learned that: 1) I was the only one there who ran Linux on my workstation or laptop 2) most people I talked to ran CentOS Linux on their servers 3) Everyone I talked to had tried Ubunutu and hated it 4) In ever case where I could get specifics about what they hated, it turned out to be something I do on Fedora all the time (I'm pretty sure most of what they wanted worked fine on Ubuntu as well, so I don't know why they were having troubles) and 5) I was the only person there who actually wrote code for Free Software or Open Source projects.

Once I got my free T-Shirt, I headed home. It was too dark to snap a photo inside with my phone (no flash) so I shot one of the exterior of the Inwood Theater. The dark, noisy bar is attached to the theater's lobby.

I haven't forgotten the Austin Makers Faire. Full account coming soon. Stay tuned.

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