Coursera Design class wrap-up

I just finished up my final project for the (wonderful!) Coursera class Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society, the PeakPortrait web site. The concept was to create a web app that would allow biologists to produce graphs of genomic location data sets, to let scientists see the overall shape of large data sets at a glance. It works and the code is on Github, so I guess I’m calling it a success.

I’ve been busy blogging about my assignments each week, as I went through half a dozen iterations to reach the final result. It was motivating and inspiring to be a part of a huge internet community of people creating diverse and varied projects — physical objects, services, web apps, interior design, and more. I followed along as classmates created a new interior layout for trains, a better wall-mounted organizer, a water purifier for use in rural India, a travel app, and so many more. Sometimes it just takes a deadline and a bunch of like-minded individuals to make the magic happen, I guess.

Inspirational furniture


I had an amazing time working on the Nagelier, the chandelier that nags you, at Science Hackday 2013. This was my first attempt at inspirational furniture — smart household objects that know about you and encourage you to reach your goals and be your best self.

To bring Fitbit data out of the internet and into the living room, Gabe and Michelle and I created an Arduino-controlled chandelier with an individually-addressable RGB LED strip whose light output is controlled by the user’s current Fitbit step count. A ruby script is used to poll the Fitbit API, quantify your progress towards achieving your daily step goal, and transmit the current state to the Arduino over USB.

If your chandelier is flashing red, you’d better get off the couch and go for a walk.

Check out the instructable, and use the code on GitHub.

Yoga Breathalyzer


Last weekend was the Silicon Chef Women’s Hardware Hackathon at Stripe in SF. The event was hugely successful, with over 200 ladies defying the stereotypical Dave-to-girl ratio of electronics hobbyists. It was just like a gender-neutral hackathon, except that they had smaller-sized tshirts to hand out (yay!), and all the diet sodas were gone in about 2 seconds.
Our team of five wanted to make a biofeedback relaxation game. The project took a very, very winding road to a destination far from where we thought we were headed, which I must admit was half the fun. In the process, we looked at several different measures of biological state and anxiety level: galvanic skin response (GSR), heart rate, and peripheral temperature, as well as a few others that we didn’t have the appropriate hardware to implement (eye tracking, respiration rate).
We made two different GSR meters, neither of which worked very well. One was based on aluminum foil, while for the other we got to cut some custom PCBs to use as electrodes instead of using the recommended pennies. (Tip: it’s really hard to solder anything to a penny.) Regardless, neither was very effective. Oh, they measured something, but it had no apparent relation to the user’s mental state. Regardless, they were fun to make — learning to design/cut custom PCBs with an Othermill was really, really cool.
We also played with a pulse sensor that measures reflected green LED light to quantify heart rate. It turns out that the newer versions of this sensor work pretty well, but the older one we had wasn’t very accurate, so we scrapped the pulse-monitoring idea too. 
We put some effort into getting data out of the Arduino and into a Google spreadsheet, with the idea of recording data daily to monitor changes in your biological state over time. This turned out to be weirdly hard; there’s lots of room for improvement in tutorials for this kind of thing. 
In the end, we used a temperature sensor to monitor the temperature of the user’s palm, under the theory that stress lowers peripheral temperature, and combined this with a headset-mounted wind sensor to visualize the user’s breath. It actually turned out that the breath visualization aspect was my personal favorite part of the project, so I wrote up an Instructable on it. 
We were proclaimed the Most Relaxing hack, but more important, we all gained some new skills and spent an amazing weekend hacking with super smart and delightful ladies and fabulous mentors. 

How my dog learned to stop worrying and love the antibiotics


How my dog learned to stop worrying and love the antibiotics

Dogs don’t want to take pills. Sometimes I really need my dog to take pills, like the bottle of antibiotics we’ve been working our way through for the past two weeks. This juxtaposition of opposing wills has been the source of frustration, and eventually an amazingly effective solution I’m calling the Meat Torpedo.

First attempt: pill pockets. My dog KNOWS what pill pockets are for, and he is NOT okay with it. He formed this association immediately, the first time I tried to use them. As soon as I pull out the bag he gets suspicious. If I give him an empty one, he has to tear it apart to investigate it before eating it. If I actually try putting a pill inside the pill pocket, he carefully dismantles it with his tongue in about 2 seconds and spits out the pill before eating the good bits.

Pill feeding method #2 is to shove the pill down the dog’s throat with your finger and hold his head up in the air so he can’t spit it back out until it finally goes down. This technique is effective, I guess, but unpleasant for everyone involved. Not recommended.

Instead, I’ve discovered that I can make irresistable treats that make my dog gulp down a horse-sized pill like it’s not even there. It goes like this:

Lay out a piece of deli-sliced meat on a plate. Spread a line of peanut butter down the middle. Stick the pill into the peanut butter on one side, then roll it up like a burrito. Divide the peanut-pill-meat-burrito into thirds, and feed them to the dog so that the pill is in portion #3. He gets so excited eating #1 and #2 that when #3 comes around, it’s down the hatch before he even notices the pill.

Believe it or not, my dog loves these things so much he gets excited and comes running when I shake the bottle of pills. Too cute.

Lemonade and Lasers

After a successful Kickstarter campaign, an incredible team of volunteers came together to build a canopied floating platform serving up lemonade all day and laser lightshows all night at Ephemerisle 2012.

Yep, it floated. Here’s an in-progress shot before we added the canopy and lemonade:

Lessons learned:

  • Use good quality screws and fresh drill bits. There’s nothing worse than trying to remove stripped screws during teardown.
  • Floating platforms should be designed to discourage people from exceeding the rated loading capacity.
  • Free yourself from attachment to the physical world, for attachment leads only to sorrow, such as when you drop a tool into the water and it sinks to the bottom of the river, never to be seen again.
  • Good friends can fix just about anything.