It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life: Pinoccio!

pinstructio cropped

Two months since my last blog post! Two months, and two new gigs. That’s my excuse…

This is gonna be about Pinoccio, where I’m rolling into my third month as Hacker in Residence — a magnificent offer that swept me off my feet and ended my term at Sauce Labs. (Next time’s ramblings will be about a residency with Instructables!)

I still love Sauce dearly, but Sally and Eric held the keys to my little hardware-hacker heart: a half-time gig, working from anywhere (mainly TechShop), making strange things and talking to people and writing docs for an open-source-tastic company. We make a microcontroller that’s compatible with the Arduino DIY project platform, but which comes with its own battery (!!!) and does mesh-networking out of the box. That means that all your bits of hardware can talk to each other, and to the internet, within about five minutes of opening your kit! (This is me doing my best to explain what I do without getting commercial, but SERIOUSLY GUYS this thing is AWESOME and I am SO EXCITED to work on it.)

instructable 1: nose tickler

Photo on 2-25-14 at 4.35 PM #2

 Exclusive glamour shot! Available here only!

One of my first actions with Pinoccio was to give a demo at Rachel Kalmar’s Sensored meetup. In order to demonstrate the board’s ability to tie together smartphones, WiFi, and radio, I built the Sneeze-Ray Remote-Controlled Nose Tickler! It’s the latest in human-computer-interface (short for “humans with computers in, on, or about the face”) technology. :) This little assembly (including glasses, controller pendant, and nose-feather) enables anyone, anywhere, to tickle your nose with the push of an Internet button.

Every time I see “Sneeze-Ray”, Dr. Horrible starts playing in my head…

I think this was much more successful as an instructable than a presentation: although the audience really dug it (and everybody wanted to give it a try), it was pretty tough for them to tell what was going on, since the nose-tickling motion isn’t obvious from a distance.

instructable 2: PONG!

alexglow side scout

Oh, right: this is what a Pinoccio Scout looks like (with a couple of LEDs on it). :)

So, for Nick Pinkston’s Hardware Startup Meetup, I planned something a bit more flashy. It turned into a demonstration of one of my most precious acquired skills: pulling together something cool at the last minute. If you’re pressed for time, you’ve got to push aside any feelings of hopelessness, reassess the situation constantly, consider what minimal investment will get you the maximum effect, and take stock of all materials available to you. Don’t be afraid to discard plans! There’ll be time to build them later.

In this case, we started shipping to our IndieGogo backers the same day I’d been planning to spend building my demo. So, I spent the afternoon polishing documentation and sending updates to our backers and friends, and by the time that was done, I had only an hour or so left to build. The worktable held a number of cheap light-up yo-yos, some clear HexBug packaging spheres, and an array of microcontrollers. 30 minutes later, my grand scheme clearly wasn’t going to happen. I socketed bright white LEDs into a couple of Scouts and packed everything up, resolving to come up with something on the Caltrain down to South San Francisco.

On the train, I modified the Sneeze-Ray’s code slightly to include an extra output pin and pointed the LEDs in different directions. Now, when I typed “blaze” into the console on my computer, a message would be sent via WiFi to one board (“Leonardo”), and relayed via radio from there to another board (“Michelangelo”). This would enable us to live-demo the radio communication range, which is one of the things people ask about most frequently.

A number of things were less than ideal: I’d have to set up WiFi access once I got there, I wouldn’t have a chance to test before running the demo, and dammit, I was tired. But Cédric helped bolster my spirits, and our gracious hosts at Counsyl got me last-minute network access. So, when my turn came, I picked on Drix to help me. When I entered the “blaze” command, I shouted “PING!”, and he moved steadily away from me, shouting “PONG!” when his board lit up. Soon, the whole room was shouting “PONG!” as he held the beacon aloft; when we finally lost the signal, it was certainly near the 100m quoted range for the radio chip, and around a corner. Also, two minutes over the allotted time — Nick had decided to let us go double because of the crowd’s interest.


• ann arbor •

A little background on the Pinoccio linkage: They’re based in Ann Arbor (where I spent 6 years studying languages and getting into hackerspaces), and they were pointed at me by Dug Song, security rockstar / cofounder of Duo Security and a creative polymath. Looking forward to potential collaborations there as well! :D

I took a trip back, this January, to catch up with some old friends. AHA, the local hackerspace, is going stronger than ever. Since the last time I visited, they’ve really opened it up, and they’re still America’s friendliest hackerspace. Larry was running a group for an upcoming Coursera course, and Josh had rigged up a 3D scanning apparatus. I believe they’re using a PrimeSense scanning unit, from the company that was bought by Microsoft to create Kinect. May be wrong there. (Sadly, I’ve lost my photos from that trip — but rest assured, the space looks amazing!)

alexglow 3dscan top

Print your own teeny Merlin!

Also happy to see that Alex, my Norse Biker Fashion Legend friend, is actually creating new jobs (in Michigan!) with his chainmail business, Metal Artisan Studios. And I got to introduce him to Suby, a kickass composer whom I met through a short stint with the neuro-integrated MiND Ensemble at Michigan. (Those two make for one hell of a brunch!) I didn’t get a chance to check in on Maker Works, but from what I hear, they’re still tearing it up.

Continuing the sorta-thread, I think I’mma talk some about 3D modeling next, and then a bit about the Autodesk Artist in Residence thing… Woo!

Sketches now on Tumblr

scribble round 3

This is just a drive-by to say that I’m moving my sketches off of this site and onto a dedicated Tumblr, merlinscribbles. I may still add them here as posts, but it’s much easier to do them as individual Tumblr posts. Plus, I can throw stuff on there directly from my phone! Which means more sketches and more opportunity for others’ embarrassment.

I’m starting with a batch from a Sensored meetup in April 2013, and there’s a backlog of maybe ten events whose sketches have never seen the light of camera. The rest will percolate over from here eventually. And I’ll probably revive the tradition of tweeting ‘em to their unfortunate subjects. :)


Internet Wasteland

big hex party

Sometimes I crash other places on this our Information Superhighway. There’s some links and stuff over there… –>

…which may be useful or amusing to peruse. But you can also find me in a couple of other places, including GitHub! Here are a couple of my current projects over there.

• the aeiu society •

So, for the last eight-odd years, I’ve been pushing some ideas around in my head, and a bunch of them have coalesced into the Aeiu Society. If you’re interested in wandering around in my personal mythology for a little while, mosey over and check it out. There’s lots of pictures!

• cyglow •

I’m also working on a wiki for the Anti-Love Bike Lights, which I’ve developed into a workshop called CyGlow. The first few iterations have been at Noisebridge. Here’s a preview of what I’ve been up to with those lately, which I’ll be building out more on the wiki:




whiteboard diagrams

Remote-control bike lights!

cyglow with controller

That’s all for now. Happy upcoming new year! Be safe and make things!

We like to music music

Heya! Quick shout-out to my buddy Moldover, whose Kickstarter — an album on a USB stick, embedded into his “Voice Crusher” audio filter circuit – wraps up in five days. I would highly recommend picking up one of these things; the circuit is great fun to play with, and it’s built to resemble an old-school cassette tape… and oh, I guess it may also be filled with awesome music. Super cool!

On the subject, here’s a quick-and-dirty video experiment I did with a voice changer last summer. The second half is a lot easier to hear. (Guitar! Mutant Édith Piaf! Terrible sound quality! It’s everything you’ve dreamed of) (and you can do this stuff with the Voice Crusher as well!)


Also, my badass friend Ari – below, with belt sander — helped me over the weekend with a project that’s been on hiatus since January. I’m not allowed to have an acoustic guitar until I finish the Dark Star Carbon (Fiber) Guitar, which grew out of TechShop’s “6 Guitars in 6 Days” workshop. Mine will have a fiber soundboard as well, sandwiched around Nomex honeycomb and maple.

Here’s a beautiful instructable on the process, by the talented Seth! He added many of his own touches and created a really gorgeous instrument.

ari belt sander

It was Ari’s idea to use the belt sander for a much flatter top edge on the body. This is why I assume somebody pays her the big bucks.

merlin angle grinder

There will be more of the actual guitar process in a dedicated post. For now, you really should check out Seth’s instructable!


Don’t put steel strings on a cheap Mahalo ukulele. They’ll pull the bridge off. This started happening with the Punkulele, and I had to epoxy it back on:

epoxy bridge


Lastly, a paisley tie makes a pretty great strap for a mandolin. I’ve been using this strap for about six years now, and it’s never failed me. And I do stupid stuff like playing it while biking (which involves swinging the thing around my body into a playable position).

mando with strap

I hand-sewed this on, in what I thought would be the most durable fashion — basically, a million tiny stitches — and it’s not even showing signs of wear.

toby with strap

Haha, here you can see the scar on my finger from that quadcopter. Good times…

black grease, gold polish

I think it’s a look. :)

* for values of "invincible" wherein "vinc" == "render helpless via tiny evil pieces of glass"

Put kevlar tires on Tybalt tonight! I shall be INVINCIBLE*


Science Hack Day is rolling toward a close, and Cédric and I are building a robo-uke. (It) (sounds) (like) (this)!

Here‘s Drix’s code for the Teensyduino powering the four micro servos! I built most of the player, using servos, guitar picks, wooden dowels, and copper and steel wire. (There are also pennies between the servos, to space them correctly.)

punkulele header

Inspiration: Music and robots, of course :)

I recently acquired a new uke (a $40 Makala Dolphin) because this one’s action is too high, meaning that the strings are too high off the fingerboard. So, you can tune the strings to one another, but when you try to play other notes using the frets, it all goes sideways. The tension changes too much, and everything you play is sharp (but not in an even way, and the strings are still normally tuned). So, we use only a metal slide to change the pitch of the notes (as suggested by Ken, who was sitting in on the Science Box team).


  • Durability: I chose “thin” Fender picks, because the servos are small and I didn’t want to strip them out with too much physical resistance. This was good, because we have only a scratcher/engraver and not a Dremel to make holes in the picks; however, this also made them flimsy, and they’re cracking.
  • Stabilization: I used wooden dowels for much of the structure, because it doesn’t require specialized tools to work with. However, metal would have been much better for stability. The structure started moving away from the strings around 3:30am, and I decided to go to bed, so Cédric used some silver armature wire to secure it to the body as a whole. I added some more dowels and wire in the morning, and it seems stable for now…

Process notes:

We were originally going to 3d-print a robot hand (probably this one) and modify that to use picks for the fingernails. Drix wisely reminded me that for hackathons, simpler is better, and building stuff always takes longer than you expect. Thanks to this sage counsel, I’m sitting here writing this instead of frantically scrambling to finish before our deadline at 13:37.

I attached the servos to each other, and to the uke, before attaching the picks, so that I could position them well. Lots of learning here; the picks on one side seem slightly higher than the others, and that’s not factoring in the ones that have been crudely trimmed down with clippers so that they’ll play.

This process brought the power of iteration into full focus. My best solution secures the pick to the servo with wire around the little fastening screw, which is then wound around the servo arm and through these holes (made with a tungsten scratcher-engraver thingy).

2 picks


Let’s talk servos for a second!

A servo is like a rotary motor; however, instead of sending it on/off and power level information, you give it a heading in degrees. Most servos can only rotate 360º, then must stop or return the other way. They generally come with a variety of little heads; as you can see here, the rotating part itself is a little white plastic toothed nubbin that the heads fit onto. Here, we’re using a one-sided arm attachment. You can secure the heads on using a little screw that comes with the servo, and there may also be two or more larger screws, which can be used to fasten the servo to your support structure. (In this case, we’ve used wire instead.)


1 structure

And another side note: wire is a great structural material for prototyping because you can add tension easily at arbitrary points; just grab it with the pliers and give it a twist. I’ve just used this to pull one side of the servo bank closer to the strings, by adding a copper wire connection between a tension dowel and Drix’s silver structural wire. We turned it on, and I added twists to the wire until the pick sounded loud and clear. I also like this method because it adds cool little lightning bolt shapes to the project. :)

4 dowel wire

By the way, this is Cosmo Punk, the official mascot of the Space Team (Punkulele and ScienceBox):

3 cosmo-punk

Making us proud!

p.s. I SLEPT IN THE AQUARIUM (Drix did not sleep)

Special thanks to Nic Weidinger (for servos and more!) and Ken Fujimoto (for suggesting the slide method of playing).

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