Thursday 27 September 2012

Hackspace Manchester - A new space for HAC-Man

HAC-Man who now prefer to be called Hackspace Manchester, have recently moved into a new space just a couple of doors down the road from their old stamping ground at Mad Lab in the Northern Quarter just a stones throw from the Ardale shopping centre.

Previously HAC-Man had a few square feet in the community based, technology and arts centre known as Mad Lab where they could at least work on electronics and store a few soldering irons and components. The move to an 800 square foot room on the 1st floor above a cafe is an infinite improvement. The hackers have divided the area up. One area with a long central communal table, electronics area, media PC with a huge TV screen and snackspace is the main area. This is shared with the DIY Bio lab that is being made in the same room. A DIY Bio group who share space with the Hackers, hope to set up an accredited lab though progress had been minimal on my visit. A fortuitous acquisition of JB Sports shop shelving from a local furniture salvage company has provided both a divide and great compartmentalised storage for all their bits and bobs from AV kit to kettle leads.

In the workshop or "woodwork hall" as it was grandly called, there is a good selections of power tools including a scroll saw, chop saw, table saw and pillar drill. centrally was a good size work table at a useful height. there projects are all over the entire space. In the "metalwork hall", a cupboard sized room off near the loo, they have a super little Myford lathe that at this time is minus it's chuck key. They hope also to make that room a dark room for developing film and other light sensitive projects.

At the moment Hackspace Manchester (as they shall now be known) have about 17 members. I forgot to ask what the cost of membership is. They have an open night every Wednesday at 7pm which is open and free to all.

Before my visit to the hackspace I decided to go and check out Fab Lab in New Islington. It occupies a unit on the ground floor of the Chips building by Urban Splash. At the time of visiting at about 12:00 on a Sunday it was closed. Pointless in my opinion. I know it's not trying to be a hackspace, but I would have thought most folks would want to use the place on a day they are doing traditional work? I suppose it costs too much to provide the technicians. Still I'll try and have a look at it the n ext time I go to Manchester whenever that is. I still got to see lots of nice architecture on my way over there which made it worthwhile.

Something that was open but was also a bit of a disapointment was the Lego store in the Arndale shopping centre. After the visit to Hackspace and being unable to get to the Lego Discovery Centre I thought a trip to the Lego shop would be good. Lego is too expensive which makes me sad :(

In all it was a great trip up to Manchester and I've recorded some stuff for the Hack ALL the Spaces which I hope to post before too long!  

Sunday 9 September 2012

A weekend of geekery in a field.

The Nottinghack village, a beacon in the night!

I’ve just returned from the long anticipated Electro Magenetic Field camp at Pineham Park, Milton Keynes. I’ll be honest and say that I was expecting chaos to rein at the camp but was massively surprised how organised and slick (in a good way) the whole operation was. I think I’d have benefited from a site visit prior to the camp to easy my mind about the site, as it really was much more pleasant than it looked on paper or even on Google Earth.

As I work for a government agency that has something to do with sewage and water, I was very aware of the huge sewage plant next to the site and the sorts of aroma such a place is capable of generating from time to time. Not only that, but childhood memories of growing up next to the busy A1 road made me wonder how noisy the M1 was going to be. As it turned out we had the wind in the right direction most of the time pushing the smell and the noise away a bit. Even so I thought the site was pleasant.

my van with Mythbusters paper on the bonnet

Nottingham Hackspace wanted to have a really good presence at the camp and I think this was achieved through achieving our ambitious plans. We had a large number of Gazebos that we could tag together fairly easily making a sort of semi-enclosed space. We had large amounts of hand tools in Martin, Ben’s and my tool boxes as well as soldering irons, lots of sockets to plug in, colouring books and knitting by Kate, the vinyl plotter and the laser cutter in the back of my van. In many ways we were better equipped than we ever were in Hackspace 1.0 and really had a bigger site, and all that in a field.

We made our living village around the back. Jame’s fire pit and 10 hay bales as seating surrounded by our tents. In the end that choice backfired on me as I hadn’t considered what a draw the fire would be to visitors, many of whom stay until 3 or 4 in the morning chatting laughing and having a good (but loud) time. The Hacking area of the village was often in use until just as late too. At one point Martin Raynsford was showing people how to make “Useless Machines” at gone 4am whilst Sam-the-techie and RepRap Matt thrashed out code for the TILDA camp badge.

laser setup in the back of my van

There were a load of talks scheduled across a couple of large tents with stages Ben Goldacre spoke about Big Pharma, it was a personable and well delivered talk but I felt he was preaching to the choir to some existent. Goldacre was trying a few ideas for a talk on Big Pharma and did get a few laughs, mostly when he said “this story doesn’t have a Gillian McKeith or to give her full medical title Gillian McKeith” though the talk had nothing to do with McKeith so was a bit like sticking with something that gets you a laugh in another talk, McKeith is (rightfully) finished as a serious entity much thanks to Goldacre for that but... be a little more magnanimous in victory? He also got a few laughs when he said fuck. I was pleased to see a big name like Goldacre at the event and hope to see similar luminaries at the next camp.

My favourite talk was probably Tom Scott’s Science Fiction monolog done before a 5 minute and 18 second video presentation. If he posts it up I’ll put a link. This short story was delivered to the Beta Stage audience immediately following Tom and Charles talk about their experiences on Gadget Geeks last year. It was very funny and very interesting.

We were delighted to see our friends from TOG Dublin (Rob, Jeffery and Conner) as well as Richard from Bristol Hackspace who showed a number of us how to make Sporks from sheet metal. Bob from HacMan also stayed with us at the Nottinghack village as did Build Brightons Andrew, Toby and Mike. Also loads of friends from the London Hackspace dropped by, Heather and Sulli, SamLR, Sam-The-Techie, Ken, Jonty, Russ and all the others.

Hay Henge on the last day pack up

The whole thing was very well organised. I'd half expected it to be chaos and totally disorganised. On paper it shouldn't have worked. The organisers did a brilliant job, the power and data was spot on! The showers were good, the toilets were clean. There was food drink and a great atmosphere. It really was the highlight of what has been a truly great summer of hacking for me. I simply can't wait for 2014 and the next camp. Thank you to the EMF team. Amazing hard work and an amazing event.

Monday 6 August 2012

OpenShed need money

Upstairs at the 200m Sq OpenShed in Penzance
 OPENSHED the Penzance Hackspace

I wasn't sure about OpenShed the Penzance Hackspace when I first heard about it. But I've seen so many Hackerspaces grow in so many different ways that anything that is progressing the movement should be encouraged I'm sure. There web pages give the OpenShed quite an arts collective in a coffee shop feel but...okay... it's okay. We need a nice Hackspace in Cornwall for our holidays, and goodness knows it must be difficult to set one up there without this sort of structure.

They have listed their project on and at the time of writing are £70 into a target of £3500. You can see the details for the listing below

I'll be trying to get an interview with them on my podcast too. Wishing them best of luck.

Saturday 21 July 2012

Dublin Mini Maker Faire

When I saw how plausible a trip to Ireland by air was from Bristol I knew that I’d take advantage sooner or later. When the opportunity arose to visit Ireland’s first Maker Faire how could I say no and a trip to Dublin Mini Maker Faire ensued. Trying to keep costs low I opted to travel on Saturday morning 14th July leaving the boat at about 5:30am for a 6am bus.

me looking angry drinking Club Mate and pointing

 Finding the Mini Maker Faire was fairly easy. It was held outside in the grounds of Trinity College on what they call the Physics Lawn… seems appropriate to me. They also used the Science Gallery as a venue too and this inside/outside approach worked well though we were lucky it didn’t rain.

There were about 30 makers tables in total and a few familiar faces including Martin with his Underwater Autonomous Vehicles, Build Brighton where Mike P brought pedal powered Scalextric grandly constructed of KNEX and Matt Edwards had brought along the latest variant of Robo-xylo (he tells me there will be 2 Robo-xylo at the Manchester Mini Maker Faire). There were also a table for old friends Sugru (James, Jane and Suki) and Beta Layouts (Siobhán). The Irish Hackspaces had a large banner with the names of all the spaces on, great idea! There was also a table for TOG and for 091Labs from Galway.

Irish Hackerspaces promote each other... great idea! 

TOG co-founder Rob “Partfusion” Fitzsimmon and myself were setup on the “Learn to Solder” tables. Rob had made up a classic flashy badge with “I can solder” on the front. We taught about 200 folk to solder the youngest must have been about 5 and the oldest about 80 so Rob and I reckoned later on.

The makers were well looked after with a minion bringing us lunch (a very nice ham and cheese sandwich and a home made flapjack). This was a nice touch. The volunteer minions also happily looked after my bag all day and insisted I have a free Tshirt before I left. One big difference to other Mini Maker Faires I’ve been too was that they had arranged for talks to be given throughout the day in the theatre of the Science Gallery.

Jane from SUGRU did an excellent talk on the Maker movement. The talk was very well attended and well received. Jane spoke of a need to encourage making and fixing things and introduced the new branding of SUGRU with the tagline “the future needs fixing” and explained that mending stuff rather than buying new things wasn’t going to save the planet and we need to start applying the maker culture to every walk of life. Also Irish TV star Mary “Make & Do” Fitzgerald who some of the TOG guys got very nostalgic about but sadly I missed her talk.

TOG co-founder Jeffery Roe told me that they estimated they had had 6000 visitors through the Physics Lawn based on a couple of counts and a bit of fancy mathematics. The event was free so they didn’t have an entry point to keep an exact count. The event was part of a number for Hack the City a Dublinwide event lasting most of July.

I stayed in the Old Jameson distillery in Legal Quarter (or Smithfield) a very modern and well done hostel called Generator. It was very cheap about £12 per night. Obviously I was in a shared dorm but it was clean and the bed was simple and comfortable with plenty of power sockets for charging electronics and a good sized locker for my gear. The shower and toilet were clean and en suit too. I heard from a friend that the girls dorm (for 10) had a hot tub in it.. they wouldn’t let me stay in there though. Breakfast was €4 and consisted of coffee, toast, cereal and meat and fruit. Seeing as it was eat-what-you-like it was very good value indeed. Staff were helpful and courteous and helped me break the padlock off of my locker with a massive set of bolt croppers at 8am in the morning after I left my key at TOG. It barely woke my house mates either.

I’ll write about my visit to TOG in another blog post soon! I can’t wait to return toIreland and plan on going back before too long to visit the other Hackerspace inCork and Galway.

Thursday 19 July 2012

Leeds Hackspace - Doing it right!

On the 7th July 2012 Matt Little, James Hayward and myself ventured north to Leeds for the Leeds Hackspace Open Day. Having moved in on Star Wars day earlier in the year, Leeds felt ready to show off their Hackspace 2.0.

I’d been to visit the Leeds Hackspace v1 in February 2011 on their open night. It’d not be fair to say they were doing it wrong back then. But they were doing it wrong back then. They’d managed to find a space to rent right out on the ring road at the end of some back-to-backs adjacent to the Eland Road. I spent about 45 minutes on the street looking for the door, which I only found when I saw one blue LED shining out. When I got inside, there wasn’t really anywhere for me to sit. The regular members were already occupying all 6, 1-seat-desks. There was no milk for coffee and I had to introduce myself to people. It transpired sometime later that the Hackspace had run up large debts through unpaid bills for internet and other things.

To show that spaces can rise from the flames lets find out about Hackspace 2.0 behind trendyRegent Street, just minutes walk from the city and main bus station. Okay I have no idea ifRegent Street is trendy. But it’s a huge improvement on the old area the space v1 was in.

Finding Mabgate Green was pretty easy. Not only that they Hackers had made some really big clear signs for the entrance and side of their new space. No question where it was at all. I think it’s a very good idea to have good signage on the outside of a Hackspace. Lots of folks think this is an open invite to robbers though so the debate continues. I’d argue that there isn’t generally anything much worth nicking in a Hackspace unless there are members in it, then you could get laptops, money, phones and other shiny. However you can say the same about anywhere really.

The space is on the 1st floor. My first impression was that it is open, airy and well lit. The windows on 3 sides help a lot with this. The space itself is a fair size and is well laid out with workshop benches to the right of the door as well as electronics areas throughout and a big SNACKSPACE-TUCKSHOP area with fridges for both types of drinks. All the light in the day time makes the space very conducive to working on projects. The ceilings are a good height and have ironwork grid girders which are handy for hanging shiny and awesome off of. They also made good use of these gantries for extra lighting.

At the far end of the room is a comfy area with a chaise longue and other comfy seating. The comfort is somewhat offset by the looming presence of a drum kit… how I hate band practice. The Chaise longue adds a certain amount of class I suppose. I was delighted to see the “Chiltern Railways” digital clock being used as a matrix display repeating the last tweet mentioning @leedshackspace. This had been completed by Angus who was in fact himself made by a member of the Nottingham Hackspace so we’ll take credit for that here at Nottinghack too… (Angus’ Mum is an active member of the Nottingham Hackspace).

As we entered Jon who we know well from other stuff bobbed up and gave us the dime tour. I was very impressed with the central work table which had a large Leeds Hackspace sky blue H logo painted on it. The table was easily able to accommodate 6 or more hackers with kit. At the top end HACMan’s Bob Clough presided, he’d popped over by train to warm the space too. Other notable visitors were Jo from Edinburgh Hack Lab and me of course!

I can confirm that Leeds Hackspace has the largest pizzas. These things were the size of mountain bike wheels. There was also cake, lots of cake. Excitingly there is another room right next door about double the size of the one they have. They are currently allowed to use this to break out into and had a lot of their junk stored inside. Below was a brand new unregistered Jag! They’ll have the option to rent this room in the future. At the moment they can’t secure it physically as they have to share access to the toilets with their neighbours (a bike co-operative also worth a visit).

High jinks were had with a small Mamod steam engine trying to generate electricity with it. We almost managed to run an LED with steam, but not quite. Matt Little had a lot of fun plying with some sensors and a pizo buzzer. We were very kindly given party favours of tubes of 555 timers and OpAmps to take back to Nottingham and Bristol too.

 I was keen to grab some audio for Hack ALL the Spaces but like a Muppet I forgot my mic and also my iRig mic for my iPhone. Leeds Hackspace didn’t have a good one unfortunately and we had left it too late to get one from Maplin though an interesting debate about there 9 hour delivery did ensue. Maplin is 2 minutes walk away but was shut. In the end we had to use the tiny mic in a broken headset. I’ve not yet been able to do anything with the audio files we captured because they need converting to a format I can edit. When that is done I will be posting the mini-podcast with myself Bob (of HacMan), Jon and Flig.

Overall I was very impressed with the place. Seems that they are doing it right.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

I made a titanium spork!

You could criticise Bristol Hackspace for being a little too focused on electronics, however it's not true to say they don't have the ambition to do more. One Hackspace member, Richard Sewell (, is a prolific maker. When he asked me if I'd like to be shown how to make a titanium spork I could not say no. 

Tools used for Spork
Making a spork isn't actually as difficult as I thought. If you have the right tools it's intuitive really. We started with a bit of cardboard onto which I drew my spork. I cut the cardboard out and placed it onto a sheet of titanium. A number of people seem surprised that you can get titanium. Richard buys it from one of two places which are Noggin End or Hempel Metals. The guy at Noggin End reportedly buys the off cuts from Airbus and touts them at model fairs.

Once I'd drawn around my card template onto the titanium sheet I took a set of Wiss Compound tin snips and cut the shape out. Some of the smaller off cuts are very sharp indeed and tend to fly all over the place so safety glasses are essential.

using a vice I clamped the spork shape and started the long process of filing down the edges. It's important to keep the file moving along the edge so as not to make one bit more filed than another. You should remove all the sharp parts and burs. Once the edges are filed they'll still feel rough. Take the file and file the edge at the flat sides. Using a Garryflex Blue Block which is a sort of block of rubber filled with grit, I rubbed all surfaces until they are smooth to touch. Any further smoothing was done with "Wet & Dry Paper" the 240 grit type.

After this essential prep work it was time to use hammers! Richard took a spade bit and drilled a hole in the top of a bit of wood. We placed the ends of the spork over the hole and hammered it with a Domeing Hammer to make the basic bowel shape at both ends.

The SPORK I made!
To add some strength to the handle and stop it folding whilst being used. To do this I used a creasing stake and a Delrin punch. Somewhat like the top of a cricket wicket the stake has a groove along the top which the punch, punches into.

To get a very smooth finish we use the Planishing Hammer and a lot of tapping at the spoon to make tiny dents all over. This adds the finish that you see in the pictures. To smooth out the flatter bits we used a Crosspein hammer. We did that onto a hockey puck.

I'm very pleased indeed with the spork I made. I'd like to run it as a workshop in the future. I'd also like to make a slightly slimmer one. Working with metal is very satisfying and not at all complex. I highly recommend getting stuck in!

Friday 6 July 2012

All about Heath-Robinson, Rube Goldberg and Pythagorean Switches.

Some years ago the "Nottinghack" made a Rube Goldberg Machine as well called it at the time and I made this blog post about it. These incredibly pointless machines can be very very difficult to make work. They also teach you more about physics in one day than you could learn from a book in a month. As mentioned in my previous blog post on the subject Adam Sadowsky engineered the OK GO Rube Goldberg Machine for the RGB version of "This too shall pass".

These machines do not have to be huge to be impressive. Look at these from the Japanese children's educational programme ピタゴラスイッチ Pitagora Suitchi  Pythagora Switch 

These simple machines use mostly grooved wood, cups, marbles, counterweights, baffles, gates, sew-saws, pulleys and so on. Marble runs are a great project for any age group and can be completed in a very small or a much larger area. 

One of my favourite Rube Goldberg Machines is this one called "Creme That Egg" which is dedicated to the "World's Most Tolerant House Mates. 30 hot melt glue sticks and 300 drawing pins".

and also this Star Wars themed machine just for it's pure geeky-ness. 

I have a new Rube Goldberg Machine type project in the offing. Watch this space!