From broken laptop to cool utility monitor

Art, Atoms, Electrons

Broken things are solutions looking for problems. They hold magic undiscovered potential. I hate throwing away broken things because I’m never sure I won’t be able to later re-purpose some part of them into something else. On a seemingly unrelated note, I’m often in need of plugging some random computer or video device in to a screen for testing and, up until now, I have had to swap cables on my desktop monitors or pull out some bulky crappy old monitor from the garage and find some temporary place for it while I use it. What I really want is a small lightweight monitor I can easily access and occasionally plug a Raspberry Pi or my linux server into, something that’s closer in size to a laptop screen than a big bulky desktop monitor and that will not take up desk space.

Cue in broken hardware

As luck would have it, my stupid cat likes to sleep on laptops. They provide a nice warm place and a soothing fan sound. Usually, the only repercussion of this fact is that I sometimes wake up in the morning with hair on the keyboard and the Google helpfully informing me that
thanks_google
In one particular instance however, I was using a hackintoshed Asus 1201N that was clearly not designed to support the weight of a house cat; I know because it never woke up from its night of feline suffocation. I took it apart to see what I could find but never did find the needle in that haystack; probably a shorted motherboard… In the closet of broken stuff it went.

A killer and his victim

Displays

I’m always thinking about creating different displays. I’m pretty bored with the standard monitor design and I’m always interested in challenges to the rectangle-in-a-sleek-shiny-enclosure status-quo which led me to learn that I could probably find hardware compatible with my broken laptop’s LCD panel. I took the laptop apart, got the part number of the LCD panel and eventually found the right board on ebay for about $30 (I searched for “HSD121PHW1 controller”, HSD121PHW1 being the panel’s model number). Two weeks later, the padded envelope with the telltale Chinese characters on it showed up in my mail mailbox and I immediately plugged it in to test it. Lo and behold, it worked!

From parts to a thing

Okay, so now, I actually have the parts I need to make that small monitor I’ve been wanting: a small LCD panel and a driver board I can plug any HDMI or DVI display into. The next step is putting it together in a cool, cheap and convenient way. I had been peripherally interested by Plexiglas for another project so I decided to try it as a mounting surface for this. I measured the width of the screen and driver board, as well as the height of the screen with and without the adjustment buttons, and got a couple pieces cut at my local plastic store (Santa Monica Plastics). I drilled some holes, mounted the various parts on the back using standoffs, and sandwiched them by screwing in the smaller piece of plexi in the front using longer standoffs.

Self Illuminating Responsive Tintype Frame

Art, Atoms, Electrons

The area of a tintype image that gets exposed to the most light essentially becomes a pure silver coating. While the reflective properties of silver make the final image a bit darker than traditional photographic prints, it also gives it a really compelling silvery metallic reflective feel. As a way to highlight those unique qualities, I decided to experiment with hiding LEDs in a box frame to illuminate the image from inside. I also wanted to find a way to intensify the lighting and make the image come alive as viewers got close to it.

Framed!

I inherited some antique oak wood floor pieces and made quick work of it on the old chop saw.

I built some walls behind the front of the frame and attached some LED string lights on it.

I mounted an 8×10 tintype on a black backing board cut to fit at the bottom of the frame’s walls.

Lights OFF / Lights ON

Controls

The next step was to figure out the kind of sensor needed to make the lights come on as a viewer approached the frame. I figured the sensor required would need a range of at least a few meters and be able to return the specific distance to the closest obstructing object. I am not a distance sensor expert so I used the internet to help. In the end, I settled for a Maxsonar EZ0 LV. It’s cheap, it’s got a range of a few meters and it’s got both serial, analog and PWM outputs. I hooked it up to a teensy board and confirmed the sensor was returning appropriate distance values. On the lighting front, I was planning on controlling the brightness of the LED string with the teensy, but since the LED string requires a 12V supply and the teensy outputs only 5V, I used a MOSFET driven by the teensy’s output to modulate the LED’s power supply.

The electronically savvy amongst you will notice that I’m currently using 2 power plugs: a 12V one for the LED and a 5V USB supply for the teensy, which is stupid. I tried to use a voltage regulator to convert the 12V to a 5V supply but somehow it created much noisier reading on the distance sensor… I must have missed a capacitor somewhere. I will try using an Arduino Nano which can take a 12V supply directly.

Code

God, I love the internet!!! I read somewhere that the sensor’s PWM signal was much cleaner so I started with that but I eventually found out that it also is much much slower and wasn’t able to keep up with the rate of change I was looking for. In the end, I used the analog signal and tried to filter it as best I could.

/*
Using the Analog signal from a Maxsonar LV EZ0 to drive a 
12V LED strip through a MOSFET. 
Take 20 samples, sort and select the median value.
*/

const int anPin = 9;
int anVolt, cm;
const int samples = 20;
int ranges[samples];
int highestReading;

float time;
float previousIntensity;
float maxDist;
float minDist;
int minVal, maxVal;

int mosfetPin = 9;           // the pin that the MOSFET is attached to

void setup()  { 
  // declare pin 9 to be an output:
  pinMode(led, OUTPUT);
  Serial.begin(9600);
  time = 0;
  maxDist = 450;
  minDist = 10;
  minVal = 5;
  maxVal = 255;
  previousIntensity = 0;
} 

void loop(){
  // print time spent since last loop
  Serial.println(millis()-time);
  time = millis(); 
  
  // sample sensor value
  for(int i = 0; i < samples ; i++)
  {
    anVolt = analogRead(anPin)/2;
    ranges[i] = anVolt;
    delayMicroseconds(50);
  }
  isort(ranges,samples);
  
  // convert to centimeters
  Serial.println(samples/2);
  cm = 2.54 * ranges[samples/2];

  // shape the curve of the result
  float intensity = (cm - minDist)/(maxDist - minDist);
  intensity = 1-constrain(intensity,0,1);
  intensity = intensity*intensity;
  intensity = previousIntensity*.995 + intensity*.005;
  previousIntensity = intensity;

  // set the brightness of pin 9:
  float val= intensity*(maxVal-minVal)+minVal;
  analogWrite(mosfetPin, val);
}

//Sorting function
void isort(int *a, int n){
// *a is an array pointer function
  for (int i = 1; i < n; ++i)
  {
    int j = a[i];
    int k;
    for (k = i - 1; (k >= 0) && (j < a[k]); k--)
    {
      a[k + 1] = a[k];
    }
    a[k + 1] = j;
  }
}

Next Steps

Once I get my paws on that Arduino Nano board, I can rework my circuit and get the soldering iron out to make my electronics more permanent. I have also ordered a HC-SR04 Distance Sensor to see how it compares to the Maxsonar in terms of accuracy, speed and noise. Also, I need to make the frame a little bit deeper so the light can spread out a bit further across the image.

Which one is cooler?

The ominous cyclopean look or the cute and friendly Wall-E look?

Tintype Photography, Part 2

Art, Thoughts

Just like marks in the vinyl grooves of an LP record are the direct physical imprint of a measured pressure wave that one traveled through space, the presence of silver on a tintype plate is the mark left by all the photons that hit it. We shepherd a series of physical processes and transform matter to create a unique, tangible artifact that will stand as an independent physical record of our existence at that particular moment in time. In an era of increasing digital ubiquity, relentless inquisitors want to reflect not only on what has been gained but also on what has been lost.

Matter matters

There is something profoundly human in the drive to make a physical imprint on our environment. We are driven to manipulate the physical world around us and make it hold something of us. We integrate ourselves into the universe by making our experience a part of that matter. The rock is hard, it’s millions of years old, and it was carved by someone at some point. When we carve that rock, we transcend the constraints of the the laws of physics that rule our lives and we have finally become part of the big story. We can die but we still existed…
We ask the universe to be the guardian of our humanity, and by universe, I mean “atoms and particles and time that form what we perceive around us, that we’re not even sure what it is, where it starts or end, that we’re made of but somehow feeling separate from…” sense. We ask it to provide a surface for us and the process of transcribing this incorporeal mental construct into a physical manifestation bridges the gap between our experience and the physical world. Then, when someone else witnesses this mark we made, it creates a continuum which we need in order to function in the great mystery.

Bytes bite

An electronic record doesn’t support us in the way that a physical one does. By definition, it is not continuous. It systematically quantizes anything we feed it, regardless of its significance, and encodes it into endless streams of seemingly random on/off states from which we can perceive neither structure nor meaning. In order to consume a digitized version of something, we rely on a decoding process to reassemble the raw data in a way that creates the likeness of the original. Alternatively, we also rely on computing power and statistical algorithms to generate a signal that is altogehter artificial but that produces something we recognize as familiar. In either case, the stuff that holds the meaning is transient and immaterial; it reminds us of something but it is not that thing itself. As digital tools become more powerful, the illusion of similitude will become increasingly convincing but ultimately, it will never have the life of something physical. It may have a life of its own but it’s in an alien world of pure logic and without senses that we peer into through shiny devices and smooth interfaces; they lure us in with the illusory promise of infinite creative control but ultimately filter out all that is intangible in the world we actually inhabit. The machines aren’t able to transcode what they can’t quantify, the mysterious, the unexplained, the sacred. They digitize and represent the surface with methodical precision but they don’t capture the essence.

Especially if the power goes out…

Herding photons

Going back to the original question: why do I enjoy making tintypes? I love the fact that each exposure results in a single tangible artifact that frees you from the crazy-making tyranny of unlimited undos. You prepare the shot as best you can, you commit your actions to the plate, and you see the results of it. Then you move on… It takes purpose, vision, courage, and conviction, because you can’t “fix it in post”. It’s a truly magic process, too, specially when you dunk the developed image in the fixer and watch the positive result appear through a milky cloud. I call it the Harry Potter moment because it looks like a VFX element from those movies, except real. Also, the way we have been working, it’s a very social activity. It takes about twenty minutes from start to finish and people tend to gather around the booth chatting and observing the process, usually with smiles on their faces. We take our time, we experiment…

Cement, Succulents, and The Bliss of Stacking Stuff That’s Heavy

Art, Atoms

I can relate to the fundamental urge that stirred people to build Stonehenge. Also, I read somewhere that tiling has spiritual meaning in Islamic art because it allows the artist and the viewer to peer into infinity from a simple set of shapes and rules. As for me, these days, I am into designing stackable cement succulent pots. Putting things together, creating form, transforming space, exploring patterns and discovering shapes… The kind of play this website advocates is a sacred activity. No doubt in my mind…

Anyway, check out my latest project:

The Concept

It all starts with a unit.

1x1_0

And then, there were two.

1x2_00

Any builder worth his salt will need stacking pieces.

And so now, we start composing shapes.

example_1

Going up.

example_2

Playing with possibilities.

example_2

The Application

Since they have holes, you can put stuff in them.

You can make many combinations with just a few pieces.

Playtime!!!
1x1_grass

The Buy Some

Why should I be the only one able to have fun around here? I know you can wait to get your paws on a few of these bad boys.

Well, lucky for you, a couple of local stores have agreed to spread the joy of succulent care and cool home made cement pots to our eager community and are making them available for purchase.

In Los Feliz:
http://www.pottedstore.com

On Abbott Kinney:
http://www.thejuicyleaf.com/

On the web at Etsy:
https://www.etsy.com/shop/RelentlessPlay

Act now! Supplies are limited! Since they’re a pain in the ass to make and I’ll be working super long weeks all summer at my other job, I won’t be cranking out many of these. It actually gives you the opportunity to be the only one on your block with one. Think of how envious your friends and neighbors will be when they find out there are no more left to buy!!!

The Making Of

I built the main pot shapes out of 1×3 oak lumber cut and glued together to make the shape.

blockpot_howto_01

Next, I built a box around the master shape


and made a mold out of rubber.

Here is the original shape and the mold.

blockpot_howto_04
All that is left to do is put the empty mold back into the box it was poured in, put some cement in and wait a couple of days…

blockpot_howto_05

There it is. It’s that simple…

Or is it? In fact, I learned quite a few things through the many mistakes I made along the way. First, the mold I document here actually has a major flaw in that it creates a visible seam along the main face of the pot. I ended up having to take a new approach and pour a new mold that had its seam located just around the bottom edge of the pot. Figuring out how to build the box and the process to take to get the two rubber pieces to come out the way they did involved a lot of visualizing 3 dimensional positive and negative shapes. Also, I made the box out of melamine which was yet another mistake because it has sucked up moisture and gotten warped. I think I will make a mother mold out of plaster for these at some point. Also, it can be pretty hard to get the cast out of the mold, specially the big rubber squares that end up shaping the holes. I need to find a way to make it easier, and while I’m at it, to make it so I can pour 10 pots at once rather than just one.

Epilog

Here it is, at home.
1x1_grass

Hacking, Creativity, Process

Art, Electrons, Giggles, Thoughts

PlaneSander

I had a great time today! I took apart my belt sander. It’s a basic Black and Decker model I got at Home Depot which I have been abusing for the past two years to sand and polish the cement pots I make. In the end, considering the time it took me and the fact that it only costs $50, the sensible thing would probably have been to go out and buy a new one. The thing is I am curious; I wanted to see how the pieces necessary for the tool to function all fit together into one design, I wanted to see how big the motor is, what kind of gears and pulleys it uses, and if there are any cool pieces I can use for something else or are just cool to look at. In the end, I took all its pieces apart, cleaned up all the cement and wood dust that were clogged up in there and, lo and behold, when I put it back together, it worked!

Hacking is a vital activity that subverts the opaque technological structures that exert increasing control over our lives. Extensive data collection empowers large corporate entities to profile how we fit into marketing models and allows them to decide what we should or shouldn’t have access to in order to maximize profits. Accompanying this are the prevailing consumerist attitudes which dictate that the broken item should be thrown away and a new one bought. This wasteful assumption is enabled by the orgy of cheap goods globalization provides us with.  It sucks!

Opening up that belt sander represents my refusal to accept this status quo.  Though I don’t particularly like the word “hacker” because it conjures up the image of a social recluse with questionable personal  hygiene, impressive technical abilities, and a broken moral compass, what I associate hacking with are the creative endeavors borne from the spirit of questioning, exploring, and rearranging the prevailing attitudes and objects of our world. It attempts to figure out how something works, and whether the designers of that “thing” put it together in a way that attempts to control my behavior, and it further seeks to put that thing back together differently. The reasons for doing so can be varied: artistic, political and utilitarian, but usually a bit of all of the above.

Ultimately, I think what really compels me to open up a broken belt sander just to see what’s inside it is that it makes me happy. It allows me to experience a child like sense of discovery and excitement at understanding how something works and the happiness of integrating it into my own creative process. When I get lost in this process of disassembling and reassembling, breaking and building, cool things usually come out and it puts me in harmony with the world. It restores my sense of my own humanity. That’s why the name of this blog is relentlessplay; it’s meant to convey the urgency of keeping the spirit of play alive and well.