The STEMpunk Project: Literally Reducing a (Black) Box

I have described The STEMpunk Project as “an exercise in black box reduction”, by which I mean the project’s bread and butter is making sense of the previously mysterious inner workings of the objects which make up daily life.

Recently I took this phrase more literally by ripping apart a malfunctioning box fan. As it had sputtered to a stop in the heat of a June day I thought I might try my hand at fixing it, or at least divining how it worked. After pulling the coverings off the motor I took one look at its components and, not seeing any belts or pulleys, immediately thought “magnets are involved somehow”.

Some quick googling confirmed my suspicions. The blades in many types of fans are spun via induction motors, remarkably clever devices which utilize rotating magnetic fields to generate torque. There are different types of induction motors, but one common variant is comprised of three pairs of coiled copper wire which generate a magnetic field when current is applied to them. Applying current to the next pair generates a new magnetic field with a new north pole a few degrees away from the previous north pole. The same process is repeated over and over again in each of the three pairs, causing a disk or cylinder positioned at the center of the apparatus to spin along with the magnetic field.

I have found this process of gradually discovering the intricacy of things I’d previously taken for granted to be enormously gratifying. Learn more about induction motors here:

Learning Engineering’s “Electrical Machines” playlist.

The STEMpunk Project: My First Solder

I spent almost the whole of last Tuesday morning doing a soldering kit from Elenco toys which, when completed, results in a circuit that produces a siren noise similar to the one on European police cars:


The bottom of the kit, complete with all my soldered connections.


The top view of the kit. Note the resistors, the capacitors, and the integrated circuit!

This is my second Elenco kit, and they continue to be a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand their kits do a great job of encouraging experimentation by having you complete a small project and then suggesting ways you might, say, make the pitch of a sound higher by routing current through different resistances. On the other, I have been repeatedly struck both by how poor the editing in their documentation is and by how sparse their explanations are, even for projects which are fairly advanced from a beginner’s perspective.

But I did enjoy this kit, and especially appreciated that it had special practice sections of the printed circuit board on which I was able to take my first halting steps in soldering before trying to complete the actual project. This is definitely something you could get for the little Feynman in your life!

Profundis: The Deep Range

I picked up Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Deep Range” because the only other Clarke work I’ve read is “Rendezvous with Rama”, and having explored so little of one of SF’s titans is a grave mark mark against my credentials as a nerd.

The book began exceptionally well. It follows the life of Walter Franklin, a talented engineer and astronaut no longer able to work in space because an accident during transit to Mars has left him emotionally shattered.

A world feeling the strain of feeding billions of people has turned to farming its oceans and, not wanting to lose someone of Franklin’s caliber, psychologists reassign him to work for a government agency tasked with using submarines and underwater electromagnetic shields to herd whales. The similarities between sea and space make him a good candidate for the job, while their differences will (theoretically…) prevent any deleterious flashbacks to the traumas he experienced in his old profession.

“The Deep Range” showcases Clarke’s excellence in both the ‘science’ and ‘fiction’ aspects of his craft. Much of the technology running in the background seems plausible enough to me. Ethical issues aside, why shouldn’t it be possible to raise whales for meat and milk, or to use heat from submerged fusion reactors to create superblooms of plankton to be harvested for protein?  And like water to the proverbial fish the prose was so crystal-clear I quickly forgot I was reading at all, immersed instead in the excitement of hauling a giant squid up from the depths while fending off the sperm whales that would gladly eat it for lunch.

My only complaint is that the book began to lose cohesiveness after the midway point, reading instead like a series of vignettes whose only unifying thread was that they were scenes from the life of one man. This isn’t a serious blemish — hunting monsters amid earthquakes 4000 feet under the ocean still makes for exciting reading! — but it did diminish some of the edge-of-your-seat quality exhibited by the book’s earlier sections.

Given how much I’ve enjoyed Clarke so far, the decision is clear: I’ll have to make time to read more of him.

The STEMpunk Project: Beginning Schematics

As of today I am excitedly in the middle of stage I of the electronics module. I have been working with the Sparkfun Inventor’s Kit and the Elenco Electronics Playground, learning a ton along the way.

One of the first problems I ran into was trying to figure out how to read the schematics that accompany so many electronics projects. Here is an example of one:


Both kits include wiring diagrams which make reading the schematic unnecessary, but this step can’t be skipped if you really want to understand the circuit and get as much as possible from the exercise. Plus, once the training wheels are off schematic reading becomes indispensable.

I started with learning the basic symbols for electrical components like resistors, capacitors, and so on. These three tutorials helped:

  1. Sparkfun’s “How to Read a Schematic”.
  2. An Instructable on How to Read a Circuit Diagram.
  3. Make’s tutorial contains a nice summary near the end to which you might want to refer in the future.

But I still couldn’t figure out how to translate the symbols and wire connections to an actual circuit. What I really needed was to see someone walk through a schematic while illustrating their process and building the physical device. Luckily some people have done just that, and I’ve compiled a list of some of the better videos I found:

  1. Collin’s Lab: Schematics Collin Cunningham patiently lays out the basics of reading a schematic in his own oddball, funny way.
  2. Principles of Schematics Follow along with Ben Heck as he builds a touch plate LED circuit. Pay special attention to his method for laying out and keeping track of all those little components.
  3. Reading Electronics Schematics Very thorough explanation of schematic reading by Youtuber Cold Redd. Near the end of the video there are a number of close-up shots of the circuit he’s built. Pause the video and make sure you can see where power is coming from and how it gets to the various pins on the Integrated Circuit. Hand draw the schematic for easy reference if needed.
  4. How to read an Electronic Schematic Paul Wesley Lewis walks you through a simple breadboard, carefully illustrating how each connection corresponds to a part of the schematic.
  5. How to Read a Schematic RimstarOrg’s video contains the simplest circuit and explains symbols for connections like a chassis ground which aren’t contained in the other videos.

One of the difficulties in planning something like The STEMpunk Project is the simple fact that I just have no way of telling in advance when some essential, basic skill is going to be required and I’ll have to spend several days figuring it out.

But then exactly this sort of adaptability will be required in anything else I’ll want to do in the future, so it’s a skill worth building!

The STEMpunk Project: Third Month’s Progress

Normally I include an image in these summary posts, but since I spent pretty much all of May working on Mike Meyers’ “CompTIA A+” the picture would look nearly identical to last month’s.

That book was much more formidable than I thought it would be, but I have to say that it was well-written, thorough, and extremely informative. In order to finish before the month was over I had to skip some less important chapters, which I plan on revisiting when all of this is over.

I managed to get five STEMpunk-relevant blog posts published:

While I’m happy with this list there are still three or four posts which I didn’t have time to finish. The biggest one is “How Computers Work, II”, which I’m still planning on writing and which will hopefully be done some time this month. I chose to put it off in favor of diving into the Electronics module, which so far is off to a very strong start!


The STEMpunk Project: Adventures With The Sparkfun Inventor’s Kit

The electronics module of The STEMpunk Project began early this week when I excitedly tore open my Sparkfun Inventor’s Kit (SIK) and plugged the Redboard into my computer.  The instructions for installing and configuring the SIK have six parts: download the Arduino IDE appropriate to your OS (OSx Yosemite 10.10.5, in my case), connect the RedBoard to the computer via the supplied USB cable, install the Arduino FTDI drivers, uninstall the native FTDI VCP drivers if you’re running OSx Yosemite (10.9) or later, select the correct board and serial port, and then download the SIK code from the supplied URL.


All seemed well when I built out the first project circuit — just a simple blinking LED — but when I tried to upload the code for the second circuit to the Redboard I discovered that the Arduino IDE I was using simply couldn’t interface with it.


There were three places where I ran into trouble. The first and biggest was getting the right Arduino IDE installed. For whatever reason the latest install, v. 1.6.9, just doesn’t work because it just can’t upload the code to the RedBoard. I tried uninstalling it and installing 1.6.8 and had no better luck. Finally, I opted to install 1.6.5, the last known fully-functional version, which worked.


During each of these installs I re-ran the FTDI driver install and the uninstall script for the Mac FTDI drivers. It seemed like sometimes when I skipped this step the IDE couldn’t see the SIK code file, though I have no idea why.


When I finally installed IDE v. 1.6.5 and re-installed the drivers I ran into an issue with the USB port. Evidently v. 1.6.5 doesn’t recognize the same ports, because I had to go in and select a different one. Further, for some reason the IDE wouldn’t recognize my SIK code file either; when I re-downloaded the exact same file and I tried to upload the SIK code for the second circuit, everything worked.


I mention all this because throughout the process I repeatedly found myself getting annoyed that I even had to go through this much effort. Hadn’t I paid money for this equipment? Shouldn’t it work out of the box?


Then I realized that I was being silly, for two reasons. First, a lot of the software upon which the SIK relies is free, open source, and actually very good. Unless I can produce something better then I have no right to complain about the fact that I have to spend a morning or two getting it to work. Second, even with million-dollar programs and state-of-the-art computers, troubleshooting is a fact of life[1]. The STEMpunk Project is about building serious technical skills, and if I loathe the process of tinkering with hardware and software then I stand no chance of succeeding.


But once I did get the SIK working I knocked out all sixteen project circuits in about three days! I realize they won’t mean much out of context, but I took some pictures as I went along:


This is circuit one, just a simple little LED light:




Circuit two contains a potentiometer — basically a knob for adjusting voltage — which gave me the power to brighten or dim the LED:




Circuit eight powered a small servo motor with a propeller attached:




Circuit fifteen displayed a ‘hello world’ message on the tiny LCD screen:




The final circuit, number sixteen, coded a simple memory game where I had to use the buttons to replay a pattern produced by the LED lights:


[1] One of my friends who already has a lot of technical skill told me that my phrasing here wasn’t strong enough. Troubleshooting isn’t just a ‘fact of life’, it’s the core technical skill.

An Experiment in Focus

Myriad studies show that our focus is fragmented much more than is commonly realized and that this is much more damaging than is commonly realized (for a brief account of some of this research, see Worker, Interrupted).

At the beginning of May I devised an experiment to develop greater powers of attention. It began as follows: every day of the week except Sunday was either a ‘thick focus day’ or a ‘thin focus day’. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were thick focus days and Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays were thin focus days. Sundays were spent cleaning the house and catching up on chores.

There were several criteria for thick focus days. One, I would meditate during my five-minute Pomodoro breaks. Two, I didn’t access the internet until noon[1]. On really busy days I made an exception by having my phone close in case anyone really needed to get in touch with me, but by and large I abided by this stricture.

Third, I didn’t listen to music or podcasts while on short commutes, using the time instead to either reflect on my day or to run through mantras. At first I intended to spend all driving time in silence but after a couple of days I eased this rule so that it only applied to trips of less than fifteen minutes. Driving for an entire hour and not listening to an audiobook seemed a touch extravagant.

I also wanted to exercise without distractions on thick focus days but I workout at a public gym and can’t control the radio. Since I have to listen to some music I figured that it may as well be my own.

On thin focus days I would stretch or do calisthenics during my Pomodoro breaks[2]. For the most part I used some variant of a quick exercise circuit I’ve used in the past: fifty jumping jacks, forty situps, thirty pushups, and twenty bodyweight squats. I allowed myself to listen to music on any commute, but I still didn’t access the internet until noon.

This was only supposed to last two weeks but I liked my results and so extended it to fill out the rest of the month. I switched from alternating thick and thin focus days to having thick and thin focus time periods in the same day. Occasionally, when I hadn’t gotten enough sleep, meditating during a thick focus day was miserable and I needed to move around a little. Likewise there were times when I was scatter-brained and just wanted to reorient with meditation instead of doing situps.

So I decided to just use my discretion. If I felt tired breaks would be spent getting my blood moving, and if I couldn’t focus I’d meditate instead. I still didn’t use the internet until late in the morning, and even though I could’ve listened to anything I wanted to while driving, on most days I chose instead to simply think.

This experiment produced several interesting results. After a few days I felt increasingly reluctant to go back to thin focus days, wanting instead to spend my time working deeply on The STEMpunk Project. While I felt the odd pang of desire to hop on Facebook in the beginning these faded after a day or two, and I eventually started to feel a little disgusted with myself when I gave into this desire, even when it was well into evening.

It consequently became easier to maintain focus while I was washing the dishes or cleaning the bathroom, and I would find myself stopping to meditate for the span of a single breath at random times throughout the day. I smiled more often, was generally less stressed, and was less tempted to drive really fast or listen to really loud music.

In the future I’m going to try to maintain this habit of not using the internet until later in the day, instead utilizing my periodic breaks for meditation, calisthenics, or tidying up around my workspace. I have also begun to utilize forty-five minute work periods and fifteen-minute breaks, which means that I’ll likely be able to do small workouts or even longer meditation sessions when I’m not actively focusing on something important. One change I’d like to make is to see if I can’t get into the habit of thinking about my work while I’m doing small chores on my breaks.

We’ll see how it goes!


[1] It’s not totally true that I never accessed the internet. I have to have my wifi on to save to Evernote and sync my Anki spaced-repetition software with its internet database. Plus I’d occasionally Google words I didn’t know or images to add to flashcards. But I wasn’t on social media or checking my email.

[2] If you don’t know, the Pomodoro technique usually has you work for twenty-five minutes and then take a five minute break. After two or three hours you take a longer fifteen minute break. It’s possible to divide your time up differently by, say, working for fifty minutes and then taking a ten minute break.