December 12, 2009

Nascent Makerspace Emerging

This week I put aside my normal tinkering to help some friends organize a makerspace in Urbana. This is an organization dedicated to enabling the mashup of arts, humanities, hard and applied sciences and technology. Learning and collaboration are key goals here, so you know I'm all over that like white on rice. I figure every minute invested on making this idea into reality is well spent, since I realized the value of bringing together a community of artists, technologists, students, scientists, mathematicians, kids, tradesmen, tinkerers, dreamers. It is well spent because the collaborative nature of the effort should yeild more "eureka!" moments than if we all journeyed separately (as I've been doing in this blog). It also allows us to give back to and support each other in many more tangible ways than just sharing knowledge on a page. Additionally, I realized I may be able to reinforce my knowledge by actually putting together some ideas and presenting them to an audience, not to mention applying what I know to other interesting problems presented. All around, it's a very attractive idea, both from selfish and benevolent standpoints.

We have no name yet. We have a mission statement draft, some starting organizational designs, and several enthusiastic individuals who are willing to sacrifice time, talent, and treasure to make the idea a reality. We are on the verge of having a 500 sq ft. space nailed down. We have piggybacked our association such that we will start out of the chute with 501(c)3 nonprofit organization status. As I write, we are inventorying all of the tools we have already and all the stuff we need. So much yet to accomplish. I'll keep you all posted, so stay tuned.

Until then, keep your irons hot. A makerspace* may be coming to your town.

* NOTE: "Makerspace" is synonymous with "hackerspace" or "hackspace", but since the news media and government has taken the term "hacker" and projected it to the masses as lawlessness and destruction, to prevent confusion we will refer to our effort as a makerspace. We will however display the glider logo, as we truly do identify with the hacker culture as defined by ESR.

"Respect the Past, Examine the Present, Build the Future" (hackerspaces)
"Hack the Spaces"
"Building the MIlwaukee Makerspace" JSOnline, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Noisebridge Vision Statement

If you are around the Urbana-Champaign area and are interested in making stuff with us, message me, either through the comments or via DM on twitter.

Additionally, if you wish to help by donating or lending equipment such as a CNC mill, oscilloscope, drill press, lathe, MIG welder, or other maker gear, contact me either through the comments or via DM on twitter. 

December 6, 2009

Grokking Arduino

Now that I've constructed from scratch a testbed with a stable 5 VDC power supply, used it to power the ATMega168, added a rs232 interface, external timing, blinky blinky LED's an so forth, I decided perhaps I could now partially comprehend just what's going on with the all-inclusive Arduino platform. So I ordered an Arduino Duemilanove from Sparkfun to get a closer look. I set out to find out what all the hubbub was all about. After all, it's just a prebuilt AVR sled, right?

I first took a look at the hardware. If you look closely, you will see a lot of familiar stuff. Let's see, I see an AVR. I see a FTDI rs232 interface, with nifty SMD RX and TX LEDs. I see a power interface, voltage regulators with a couple electrolytics and a diode. I see a 16 Mhz crystal. I see a reset switch. I see some pin headers. So far, this thing has everything we built on our breadboard. Well, OK it has a few extra nifty hardware fetatures. Number one in my book is the USB interface. Notice two voltage regulators? Makes sense, we can power from our wall wart or alternately from the same USB interface we use to program. That is pretty nice. No more hacking 18ga wire spaghetti to the MOSI and MISO pins. Of course a biggy is the ATMega328 - It's a drop in replacement for the ATMega168, but with twice the program space. I also see some nice analog and digital I/O pinouts. I see an IC marked "358 G35A" - is that an op amp? It's over near the analog inputs, so I suspect that's the case. Let me know if I missed anything.

I spent some time readying my laptop to use all the Arduino environment goodness, and in doing so stumbled upon the why this thing is so cool. Sure the hardware is nice, but the Open Source Arduino development environment is the real jewel here. I had been spending my cycles manually driving avrdude and avr-gcc with my ATMega168/breadboard setup, which is fine for some with technical leanings, but what the Arduino folks did with their "sketch" programming environment was to abstract most programming tasks into something akin to snapping Legos together. And they open sourced the entire thing (I was on the verge of making my usual kneejerk dig on the Java programming language that Sketch was designed in, but it's so cool, I am going to let it be)! Now I haven't dug incredibly deep on this, but I get the idea. Of course this means they may have just successfully opened up a technology wide open for use by those who could care less about the inner workings, and more about creating cool shit. I may want to dig into C code, but now it seems that's a choice, not a requirement. Way cool. Way cool.

I was going to go into detail, explaining to you Internet readers all the crap I had to do to to get the environment working on my Ubuntu 8.10 (Intrepid) system, but it's late and probably largely irrelevant. Just a few notes before I part: Remember that you need avr-gcc 4.3.3 or better because 4.3.1 and older jacks up calculations with long ints on the 328. I solved my problems just by uninstalling all my AVR tools, logging into AVRFreaks and replacing them with the AVR tools DEB package supplied by them to address the issue. Or you could run Jaunty, or a Mac, or hell even Windows. However you do it, you have to check this out. Playing with Arduino is going to be excellent fun. In fact, I am going to show it to some of my artist pals to see what they do with it. I know what I'm going to do with it. Something big.

Arduino Development Environment ( (Sketch + tons of extra libs n stuff)