Category: Electronics

Home Automation: Phase 1 (by )

I've always had a nerdish fascination with home automation.

There's been a recent trend towards the "Internet of Things" (a.k.a. "IoT"), which is related, but different. The IoT seems to focus more on home devices talking to centralised Web services, which is a hateful model (we all know why: those central services are outside of your control, so unless you're paying a subscription, you are the product rather than the customer; and if they're shut down, your devices become useless; and they can leak your private information whenever they want; and they can take control of your home; and it all falls apart if your Internet connection goes down; and I'm sure there's others).

No, I want to have my house under computer control - but with those computers under MY control. This is something I've planned for for ages, but as with all hardware projects, getting started is tricky; I need to commit to a final design and then afford to buy the parts, and that's scary because I might find out that the parts don't quite work together in the way I wanted. Unlike with software, hardware hacking requires up-front commitment of resources, that can't be backed out of. Scary!

So the trick is to split the thing into small parts, with flexible interconnections, so I can iteratively prototype parts and then connect them up in due course. And this last week I took the first step - building an announcement system in the living room.

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Father and Daughter Soldering (by )

dad and daughter activity a soldering kit

Jeany got an electronics kit for Christmas - her and Al had a great time building it. It was a little musical instrument which she now keeps making me play! I got a different musical thing which Al is going to help me with. I believe this is all his cunning plan to get us both good at soldering as there are now off the shelf units to do the kind of LED lighting I wanted to put in at The Bakery. We've been eyeing up our living room 😉

Plans are to give her a bit more formal programming training now too.

p.s she did do most of the soldering herself but this bit was tricky and she was helping hold things in place.

Ada Lovelace Day 2013 (by )

Ada Lovelace Day is a celebration of women in technology and science - it was started a few years ago by the lovely Suw, and me and Al have taken part in it every year so far! One day we might even make it to London for some of the talks and things that happen (this year they even had Neil Gaiman though we saw him at the weekend anyway but still!) - sadly (or happily) I have college this week so that was another year of no Ada events boo hiss.

This year we have chosen the designer of... Sugru!

Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh - she is an extra special inspiration to me, as not only has she had the idea for and then developed and sold sugru, a funky silicon rubber you can fix things or improve things with, but she shows that art and science together can drive innovation to make the world better! (I've already blogged about that here).

The story goes that she had the idea whilst doing her MA in design production in London, the first attempts were smelly and ugly and then they weren't but they didn't stick to enough things. She knew what she wanted it to do and she teamed up with scientists but didn't just hand the job over.

Alaric told me about the sugru before you could actually buy the stuff - I was sad as I was being told that I was never going to achieve anything being a scientific artist or artistic scientist, his words were something like, 'but there's this new stuff that's amazing sort of like air dry putty but is still flexible and strong and stuff and it was invented by an artist who knew wanted a substance that didn't exist for her designs so she went and learnt about the chemistry of rubber and silicon!'

The story of sugru and the company built up around it is fascinating and can be found here.

It is not just about the sugru or the science behind it - it is about determination and following your dream, of keeping going even when it looks like you are set to fail. They have run out of money and risen from the ashes. Their mottos are 'The Future Needs Fixing' and 'Hack Things Better' which goes straight back to Jane's core idea - she didn't want to keep buying new things all the time - she wanted to fix the broken things or upgrade what she already had. This is perfect for upcyclers and reusing recyclers like me and Alaric and as it turns out many many other people.

She has given the world a new way to make things, to fix things! It is technology and engineering, it is art and science and it is wonderful.

The word sugru means to play - it is a corruption of an irish word and we have taken it at its base meaning - so far we have made/fixed:

Purely arty objects:

My first sugru project of a flower and metal bracelet

Little creatures for the visually impaired and blind to touch and explore

Fixed things:

knives with manky split handles

Broken mugs that have sentimental value as our little ones have decorated them

The sink - in several ways!

Made things better:

My crutches needed a bit of handle alteration to stop my little finger going numb when I used them

Little feet on phones and lap tops to stop them over heating

Decorations for boring welly slippers (this came out of a failed project to fix shoes with the stuff)

Improved the hooks in the kitchen so things don't fall off anymore

Embedded electronics into head dresses

Embedded magnets onto things like our phones so they are easily mountable in the car

And these are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head!

It has been to the poles, to the desert, under the sea and even in space!

So thankyou Jane for being an inspiration and our Ada Lovelace Day hero of 2013 🙂

Mars Curiosity and *the* Space Book for Kids (by )

I spent last week working at the Times Cheltenham Science Festival and as part of it I got to go and see a few of the talks which was brilliant. The first one I selected was Mars Curiosity as I spotted it had my old personal tutor Sanjeev Gupta in it. I also got a ticket for Jeany even though at 7 I thought she might be a bit young but she would never have forgiven me if I had gone to see such a talk with out her!

Jean in her Question everything tee

Sanjeev taught one of my favourite subjects at uni Earth Surface Processes so I was very excited to see how Mars research was going especially after seeing the prototype with Jeany earlier in the week. He looked basically the same but has grey hair! He still moves around far too much for a decent photo but that is what energises his talks (of course he didn't recognise me when I said hello - boo hiss but it has been ten years).

Sanjeev Gupta talking Martian landscapes at the Cheltenham Science Festival

The other talker was Lewis Dartnell who was very engaging and handled the childrens' questions brilliantly at the end including the sad, 'When is it coming home?' Jean has been going on about forever vacations on Mars ever since!

Lewis Dartnell talking Mars rovers at the Cheltenham Science Festival

Jean did get a bit confused about the fact the robot is ingesting Mars and yet needed batteries! I explained in whispers that it was eating the rock to see what it was made off and not as food. I was impressed she knew what ingesting ment to be honest. They went through the grissly details of man missions and radiation sickness and stuff Jean is still determined to go to Mars if she can or failing that she asked me if she could build a robot to go and then worked out that the 2030 mission would be a good one for her (she'll be 24).

After the talk I had to head over for a meeting but took Jean to Alaric and Mum and Dad to get the book she wanted signed. My meeting ended really quickly and just as well as I received a phone call from Al saying they couldn't find the book! I asked and was told it had sold out but then I saw a copy on the signing table and ended up talking to a lady who turned out to be the authors wife! It was the last copy!

Jean getting her book signed by Lewis Dartnell

Jean went and got it signed and I felt an ache of sadness for my impact lithologies and endolithic organisms and a moment of doubt about science communication instead of trying to go back but I missed that boat a long time ago. Jean was instantly obsessed by the book and Alaric and Lewis had a conversation involving lots of hands about space ship design. We had to drag the still reading Jean away from the table so that he could go home!

Alaric and Lewis Dartnell excitedly talking spaceship design at the Cheltenham Science Festival

Jean has had her noise in the book ever since, it is a good childrens' book, informative, fun and easy to read but also it is gamified - the kids get to choose where they go on a stella holiday - Jean has always loved books like You Choose so this is right up her street. The illustrations are lovely and colourful, some simple and some intricate giving it a wide appeal to kids as it has different levels you can appreciate it on. It is one of the best I have seen recently and Jean took it into show and tell at school this week along with her cave man stickers and her t-shirt saying Question Everything. She proudly showed the other kids that it was signed with her name in as well 🙂

Jeany was very excited that they had mentioned Liecester as we had spent the previous week going around the space centre there etc... with my friend Becca 🙂 (still need to process the photos and blog about all of that!)

Here is me and Jeany in our festival t-shirts - I'm hiding it at the end as it isn't that flattering of me! hee hee!

Mummy and Jean at the Cheltenham Science Festival in our t-shirts

We Love Sugru (by )

We love Sugru which is a putty like stuff that you can form into shapes, sticks to just about everything and is flexible - it is basically a funky silicon rubber from my understanding. When we first heard about it we couldn't get hold of any and so had to wait as they had sold out but the wait was worth it!

Since then we have used it for tonnes of things from embedding electronics in hair pieces, making creatures for the visually impaired, fixing fridges, shoes, adding little feet and buffers to all things electronic, fixing broken mugs and making jewellery. I plan to fix my electric guitar with it though need to see how it reacts to having glitter added to it!

sugru flower bracelet

But it is more important to me than it's usefulness. To me Sugru represented something more, when it appeared I was struggling with both scientists and artists telling me that there was no cross over between the two areas. My tag line o twitter is that I am The Artist Scientist or Artistic Scientist and to see this product - the result of something an artist (ok design student) had produced, being so wonderful for science/tech and artistic endevours.

This was the sort of fusion of art and science that I was sure should exist but was being told didn't and my examples of how the modle builders of film dinosaurs had ended up solving the mystery of joints and movement that paleaontologists has been struggling with was falling on deaf ears.

So I turned up at The Cheltenham Science Festival debate on science verses art that year with my sugru bracelet and my ESA t-shirt I'd won for Celestial Montage and found that people didn't seem to really cae on either side of the divide, they have their opinions of the others and that is that. Stuck in the middle as all ways I gritted my teeth and looked for more science-art related things and found it under the title science communication.

Recently Sugru posted their life story so far and asked what inspired others, so I told them - they inspired me! They provided the evidence I needed that science and art can create wonderful productive and helpful things by learning from each other, they are an example of a dream that was followed and they provided the very material I had been trying to work out how to make myself - I was mucking around with resins casting, silicon mould making and fimo in order to get something like sugru and I was failing and could not make the projects I wanted. I hadn't even thought of applications beyond my own ends and there WOP! appeared sugru ready to go and so I went and so did Al and he has even written up one of his repairs/hacks for their website!

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