Bringing a little bit of Right Brain to this website…

Finally, Emily has learned how to post updates to the website!  Once in a while you’ll get the female point of view on our radically exciting lives (seriously…there is a picture of bacon on the front page of our website…and it’s not even cooked all the way).  Maybe it’s a way of softening the “all-geek-all-the-time” perspective that you’ve grown to know and love over the past eight years, or maybe it’s a way of breaking free of the snobby-snob restraints of the art world.  Regardless, I’m looking forward to having a little fun with this.  And in honor of my inaugural post, I give you this:

Because everyone should start off with a pair of “killer shoes”.

And really…who wants to see more bacon?

In celebration of bacon of the month

In celebration of the Indiana Bacon of the Month Club, here’s a tasteful backdrop for your mobile phone.

This month’s bacon was cured with sea salt and coated with toasted cloves and honey from local Brendle Honey Farm before being smoked over apple and hickory wood. And it was delicious. Can’t wait until next month!

Why it rules being an engineer

I’m told that I had a fascination with stop lights when I was little, watching them intently from my car seat in the back of our yellow Vista Cruiser station wagon. My dad decided that I should have one of my own, so he somehow obtained an old decommissioned unit from the Illinois highway department. I have no idea how exactly this was arranged, and I have purposely never asked to hear that specific story. I guess the transaction was legitimate, since there are plenty of stop lights for sale on eBay.  I have a very sketchy memory of backing the car up to a warehouse early on a grey Saturday and returning home with a beat up 100 lb stop light in the trunk. This was a very long time ago, so this memory could even be a fabrication. I also have vague memories of my dad in the basement refurbishing and painting it, fabricating shrouds to replace the mismatched, broken, and missing ones, and replacing broken lenses.

It has always been a goal of mine to give it an upgrade. There were any number of things that could be done, whether turning it into some kind of game, automating it, putting it on a timer, replacing the individual pushbutton switches with something fancier… this was a big project just waiting to happen and begging to have something done to it.

At some point last year I happened to learn about a project someone did, and it provided a spark of inspiration. This person had modified his Rancilio Silvia espresso machine, the same model we have, outfitting it with an LCD display, microcontroller that automated the brewing process and precisely controlled the boiler temperature, all controlled from a repurposed Wii Nunchuck. This was the project that led me to discover the Arduino community.

(I’d love to do the same thing to our espresso machine, but I don’t want to become the kind of person who requires my espresso to be brewed precisely at 196 degrees and at a pressure of 8 bars, and so forth. But it sure would be fun project to take on!)

On a more personal level, learning about other people’s Arduino projects assured me that this was the time to fix up that stop light and start having some fun! I learned about a handful of outfits on the web that cater to hobbyists and found some great arcade-style buttons, missile switches, and distance sensors, as well as a source for fabricating single copies of printed circuit boards. My dad, who originally indulged this whole stop light thing three decades ago, gave me an Arduino board for my last birthday, and so restarted the snowball.

After some initial tinkering with the Arduino to learn about how it all works, it was time to build a printed circuit board that would interface between the Arduino microcontroller and the stop light. I produced a schematic and PCB layout in Altium Designer, which is admittedly overkill, but if the tool is available, why not use it?

After an agonizingly long wait for BatchPCB to return the bare board (as they say, cheap and fast do not go together), I assembled the board and tweaked the microcontroller code that flashed the lights in sequence. The relays make a satisfying clicking sound when switching.

Currently, the controller implements six modes.

  1. The sequence mode turns the two sets of lights in a timed pattern, just as if at a regular intersection. The dwell time of each state is not currently programmable, but it will be eventually.
  2. A random flashing mode
  3. A railroad crossing mode that alternately flashes the left and right red lights
  4. A manual mode that is controlled via my MacBook’s serial console through the Arduino’s USB port. What’s the next logical step, a web interface? Emily will be thrilled!
  5. A parking mode that turns the lights from green to yellow to red as either of our two cars approaches its parking spot in the garage. The ultrasonic distance sensors are sensitive to about half an inch, and the current code allows the thresholds to be saved. Soon the cars can be parked farther back in the garage so as to maximize available space in the front of the garage. The parking mode is entered when the garage door is opened, tripping a magnetic switch attached to the garage door frame. No more hanging tennis balls from the ceiling!

Inspired by a “busy box” that my grandfather built out of dangerous old light bulbs, switches, buzzers, and motors, the brains of the stop light controller are visible through a Lexan cover. Connections to the button box, sensors, and indoor garage door open indicator are all color coded cat‑5 cables. There’s still more work yet to do, but it’s exciting to see progress on a project that has been 30 years in the making. Who knows, perhaps this old stop light was the toy that predisposed me to become an engineer?