Monday, October 5, 2015

SeeMore: a kinetic sculpture that's also a cluster computer

SeeMore is more than just a kinetic sculpture. Each "leaf" here is a  Raspberry Pi computer node. A total of 255 computers can perform parallel computations. In this video, SeeMore is doing a map reduce search. 

As work is distributed to a leaf, it folds out. As it completes its computation, it folds back in. The farther away it folds out, the more intense the processing it's doing. The search results are read out of a monitor beside the sculpture (not shown in this video). 

It's mesmerizing to watch and listen to, as the nodes undulate in and out.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

What I learned at World Maker Faire 2015

I went to the World Maker Faire 2015 at the Hall of Science in Queens, New York. For two days, I drank in an intoxicating mix of 3D printers, robots, drones, quirky musical instruments, and other inventions. The Maker Faire brands itself as "The Greatest Show and Tell on Earth" -- a reference to PT Barnum's circus tagline. But beyond all these, one of the most important lessons I picked up was over late lunch in one of the show and tell tents where David Lang, co-inventor of OpenROV, gave a talk about how to start making. The lesson? Don't let your lack of knowledge and skills stop you -- just start making something.

David was promoting his book, Zero to Maker: Learn (Just Enough) to Make (Just About) Anything. The title piqued my curiosity, because I faced the same dilemma as David did -- he jumped into the OpenROV project (mission: build a robotic submarine) without possessing any of the skills needed to build a submarine.

The OpenROV v.2.8: A Thing of Beauty, ain't it?

So I sat at a nearby table and listened to David while devouring my sandwich. As I listened, I found out that David was actually in a worst starting point than me. He talked about having not built anything, not even in school. Compared to him, I had enjoyed my classes in woodworking, where I built a folding chair with the help of my father, created my own step-down transformer by soldering various parts together, and various other crafts whose skills I would sometimes put to use doing household repairs.

Listening to David made me realize that I had no excuse for procrastinating. Here was a man who had zero skills by his own admission, driven only by his desire to learn. And he did learn and even wrote a book about it. I liked the talk so much that I bought his book and asked him to sign it. He asked me whether I had a project in mind and I answered sheepishly that I've only been tinkering with Arduino stuff and vaguely told him about hoping to build a robot and a synthesizer.

Then he asked me if this was my first Faire. I told him, this was my second -- the first having been the Silver Spring Maker Faire, which happened only a week ago at Maryland. He said, that's good, and to keep on going to maker faires, particularly the Bay Area Maker Faire. It's even much bigger than this World Maker Faire, he said. I made a mental note to look it up.

Talking to David and then reading his book Zero to Maker got me excited to start doing things again. It revived my belief in that adage, learning by doing.

It had been years since I'd soldered anything. I would occasionally dust off my Arduino Uno and play around with it using a breadboard. I had a Blinky POV kit my wife gave me for Christmas two and a half years ago that remained unsoldered in its tin can. There was a 3-month old Tiny Tesla kit still in its original box. And I had a couple of unassembled components to build an Arduino robot and audio synthesizer.

That neglected kit, waiting to be soldered.

At the World Maker Faire, I lined up at the Google Learn to Solder booth and confirmed that I was too rusty for this. So I resolved that I would practice again. I bought a cheap soldering iron from eBay, a desolderer from Micro Center, and used both to take apart a discarded mouse which I then reassembled.

The Google solder badge features a blinking RGB LED at the tail of a rocket.

What I found out from desoldering and re-soldering the tiny components of the mouse was that my $10 eBay soldering iron wouldn't do. It's point was too big for small parts. There was obviously a loose contact inside (it took ages before it would melt the solder) and eventually it just broke apart.

I ordered a new soldering iron from Amazon, this time with different points which cost only $17. When it arrived, I started working on the Blinky POV kit and completed it in less than an hour. Most of the soldered points were rough. But I was happy.


I'm about to finish David's book and I've taken his other important advice -- visit the nearest maker space and learn how to use the machines available in it. It so happens that I found a Fab Lab at a nearby community college, so I signed up for a class ($99) which resulted in a small wooden keychain whose design was engraved by a laser cutter in the shop.

Going through that class has given me access to the Fab Lab ($5 per visit). They have several gadgets that I could use: 3D printers, a couple of laser cutters, a vinyl cutter, and a big shopbot (aka a CNC machine, which will take a separate lessons before I can use it).

So, thanks, David. It was a chance encounter, and you will probably not really remember it, but it's something that's inspired me to start making stuff again.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Convert your scanned documents to text files with free Google Drive OCR

Google Drive offers a free Optical Character Recognition service. If you have scanned documents that you've always wanted to convert into searchable text files, try this.

Here is what Google says in its help page:
Optical Character Recognition (OCR) lets you convert images with text into text documents using automated computer algorithms. Images can be processed individually (.jpg, .png, and .gif files) or in multi-page PDF documents (.pdf). These are some of the types of files suitable for OCR:
  • Image or PDF files obtained using flatbed scanners
  • Photos taken with digital cameras or mobile phones
To access this service, follow these steps:

  1. Sign in to Google Drive.
  2. Upload your scanned image or PDF.
  3. When the file is done uploading, right-click on its icon and choose Open with... > Google Docs.
  4. Wait a few seconds (longer, if you have a bigger document) as Google Drive processes the file. Your document will open in Google Docs with the converted text inside.

Note: There are limits, so please read the Google Drive OCS help page.