First light – five years later

Five years ago today I got my very first piece of LED art gear to light up for the very first time.

It was a Color Kinetics panel that you sent data to over ethernet, not an addressable LED strip & embedded microcontroller coding situation at all. The panel itself previously belonged to an LED art pioneer, “Frostbyte”, who had taken it with him on his desert adventures before his untimely and accidental demise. His old electronic gear was auctioned for charity, and without really knowing what I was getting in to, I bought this massive (28 pound!) metal box with 144 RGB LEDs in it, and the network controller to match.

Frostbyte lives

I could find no open source software to drive it, and owning the commercial sequencing/design package was out of my reach. For three years, the panel sat in my workroom idle and dark. But at some point, I found that the vendor had a simple free “test program” available, and I decided to see what I could do. Since the color data was sent from the test program to the panel over ethernet, I was able to capture the network packets, reverse engineer them, write my own code to talk directly to the LED panel, and TA-DA! First light!

But even with that one LED panel up and running, more than a year passed before I started learning how to use addressible LED strips and Arduino microcontrollers.  Another year after that, I had officially become ‘part of’ FastLED with Daniel Garcia.

And now?  Now I’ve created LED art myself, taken it on my adventures– desert and elsewhere, sold it and gifted it.  I’ve taught LED classes, and I’ve helped build an online community for thousands of FastLED users.  I’m not sure what I expected when I first bought that LED panel, but I don’t think it was all this great stuff.

So if there’s a lesson here, it might be this: If something intrigues you, step toward it.  You never know exactly where you’ll wind up, but the journey will be an adventure in the right direction.

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Cautionary Tales of Power

When doing an LED electronics project, there seem to be three big “P”s that have to be tackled:
1. Pixels (which ones, how many, what configuration?),
2. Programming (what do I want, and how can I do that?), and
3. Power (how much, from where, and how do I distribute it?)

And people (by which I mean: perpetual newbies like me) tend to do them in that order: first wire up some pixels, then program them, then figure out how to power it all for real.

And of course, this often leads to a problem where you get stuck between steps 2 and 3, where you have your creation sort of up and running on the lab bench — but now there’s this little problem of how to power it, and you have to go back and rethink and rework other parts of the project to accommodate the power situation.  So it’s worth planning for power from the start — which is easy to say, but hard to do!

What could possibly go wrong? (A list)

So what happens if you don’t plan for power? Well, here are some power problems that I have personally had. How many of these can you diagnose just from the description?  (“Failure to plan” is a nice catch-all phrase here if you get stuck.)

  • Hrm, now how do I get power all the way up there?
  • Gee, that’s a long run of wire… but if I use fat wire, it’ll be expensive and heavy and cumbersome. Nah…
  • I’ll use skinny wire, it’s much cheaper… Hey, why is it only reading 4v at the far end? And does anyone smell something burning?
  • OK, I switched to thicker wire, and I’ll just re-use the power connectors from before. Holy cow now the connectors are getting hot!
  • Fine, I’ll switch to these big thick nonpolarized connectors. Huh, that’s odd, it’s not working now. Does anyone smell something burning?
  • For this other wearable project, I’ll use a simple battery holder and regular alkaline batteries… hey… why are the colors so ‘warm’.. no blue? And now no green, too…
  • OK, switching power to one of those ’emergency phone chargers’ that takes AAs and puts out 5v from a USB socket. Hey! Why are the batteries dying so fast?
  • OK, fine, I’ll switch to this lithium battery pack… hey, it said 5000mAh… so why did it stop powering my 5000ma project after only half an hour?
  • How come my WS2811 project works fine from my computer, but then flickers like crazy when I power it from this cheap USB wall power adapter?
  • For this big outdoor project, I’ll use this big, burly 12V lead-acid marine battery. Hey… how come it won’t hold a full charge after the first time I let the lights go all night?
  • Everything was working fine yesterday, before last night’s rain!
  • Everything was working fine yesterday in the cold and snow, so it should be working fine today now that it’s warming up, right?!
  • I think I’m going to switch microcontrollers.  The old one had a power regulator that could handle 12v input.  Hey… do you smell something burning?
  • Why is this power switch getting hot now? And why is it now totally stuck in the “on” position? And … do you smell something burning… again?

So: Plan For Power.

The lesson to learn here is that for basically any real project, calculate and plan the power first.  Before you wire up any pixels. Before you write any code. Just stop for a minute and think about how much power you’re going to need, and where it has to come from, and where it has to go.

Use on-line calculators that will help you figure out how much power you’re going to need, and what gauge wire you’ll have to use given how long your cable runs are going to be.  I also really like the “LEDstimator” app for iOS to help explore some “what-if” values for things like wire gauge.  https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/ledstimator/id945794010?mt=8

And above all else… uh… wait… do you smell something burning?

 


Monkeys, cucumbers, habaneros, and me.

There’s this experiment:

In this experiment:

  1. Monkey#1 completes a task, gets a cucumber slice.
  2. Monkey#2 completes a task, gets a sweet sweet GRAPE!  Importantly, Monkey#1 SEES this deal with Monkey#2 and the grape.
  3. Now Monkey#1 completes the task again, and gets a dull old cucumber slice again — NOT a tasty grape!  Aaaaand to no one’s surprise, Monkey#1 now HURLS the cucumber slice back at the experimenter.

One can say a lot about this experiment, and how this monkey business is paralleled in human nature, etc., and a lot of people are saying a lot of things here and there.  Whatever.

For me, there’s a personal lesson here, and it goes something like this: the path to happiness lies in enjoying the slice of cool fresh cucumber that I’ve got right here.  Fixating on what other people have that I do not, instead of focusing on the small happinesses right in front of me makes me an awfully dumb monkey.

Other people have more money, more prestige, more friends, more patents, more love, more chocolate, more LEDs, more time with their kids, more travel stamps in their passport, more habaneros in their garden.  If I fixate on that, all it does is sour my feelings for the good and marvelous things that I do have.  I’ve harvested a whopping six tiny little  habanero peppers from my plant this year, and I’m so proud of them you wouldn’t believe it.

Thinking further: I’m doubly dumb if I do what the first monkey did: throw away the cucumber that I have just because I didn’t get a grape!   If my neighbor harvests nine habaneros from her pepper plant, should I bitterly throw away the six I got from mine?  How does that make my life better in any way at all?  (Hint: It doesn’t.)  Can you imagine: you just won $1,000.  But then when you find out that your neighbor won $2,000, you turn around and tear up your $1,000 check. That’s of absolutely no benefit to you, no matter how envious you might feel of the extra money.

Now it is true that if I see my neighbor’s chili plant producing more than mine, I might ask her for tips, or I might wonder if she’s using the same sun that I’m using, or I might solemnly vow to treat my pepper plant better next season.  So there can be some good motivational value in seeing what I could do better next time.  But cursing out my neighbor for her success, or throwing out my own six perfectly awesome little chili peppers?  That’s behavior befitting a creature with a brain the size of a peach pit, a dumb little monkey.  But me?  I can do better. I bet you can do better, too. We all can.  We’re not mere monkeys.  We’re awesome people.

For the record, my garden this year has not only produced six habaneros, but also exactly one (1) cucumber, and I plan to enjoy that one little cucumber like crazy.

Update: the garden also produced one awesome tiny watermelon.


Travel Tips for Venturing OUT of Black Rock City

So! You’ve decided to take a trip away from Black Rock City!  Here are some tips to keep in mind when traveling away from Home:

Clothing: Make sure to bring enough clothes so that everyone in your group can have some. Among other things, will save you all time later since you won’t have to keep switching.

Stormy Bedroom Eyes

Travel:  A note of caution here! Some vehicles that appear to have extra room for more people may not be giving rides!  We’re not sure exactly why this is, but we’ve had several reports of this.  Always ask for explicit permission before getting into someone else’s vehicle — a friendly “Hi!” and a wave as you climb in may not be enough!  Use your judgement.  Also note that some vehicles may travel faster than 5 M.P.H.

Make sure you are at Burning Man...

Money: Do you remember when you were a child, collecting bits of money here and there, slowly saving up for that one thing you really wanted? Well, money here works the same way, except that you may have to break open your piggy bank a little bit more often.  If it helps, think of every shop, store, restaurant, gas station, bar, and mall that you see as if they were “Arctica”, and what they’re all selling is basically just ice: cool, and maybe useful, but ultimately fleeting and ephemeral. ‘Nuff said.

be 100% happy or receive 100% money back.*

Fire: Make sure to establish a safe perimeter around any burn events that you create.  This goes double for large-scale burns; many people you meet may be new to this form of expression and will greatly benefit from your love and guidance as they participate in the burning of any large-scale structures.  Also, you might want to ask permission from the structure’s owner beforehand, if you can find them easily.

And finally... The Man burns... and we are done.

Bacon: BACON IS EXACTLY THE SAME EVERYWHERE, THANK $%!*&@# GOD.

Returning Home After Your Trip: After you’ve had an exciting jaunt out and about, it’s always good to come back Home, to be with your family and your loved ones.  Have a wonderful trip, and we’ll see you when you get Home again.

Mighty Trojan Warriors!

Yours in flame-
-Mark


My favorite riddle

My favorite riddle is this:

Q. What do you sit on, sleep on, and brush your teeth with?

Now before I tell you the answer, walk slowly through the question for a moment with me.  It starts out simple enough (what do you sit on…?), and mid-way through seems like there’s still an answer (…sleep on?), and then it throws you a curve ball (…and brush your teeth with?!?), and you’re left wondering What’s the trick this time, Mark? But wait! There is no trick!  Observe:

Q. What do you sit on, sleep on, and brush your teeth with?

A. a chair, a bed, and a toothbrush.

I love this to pieces.  Three pieces, to be exact, and there’s a real moment of aha! lurking in here.  Although it maybe have been suggested, or not, the question is not asking you for one object with which to do these three different things.  And in fact, if you try to find one such object, the best you’ll do is one that doesn’t exactly fit the needs of all three tasks very well.

So the lesson here is this: if you’re me, and you’re trying to figure out what you can use to make a blog and a wiki, the answer to the riddle is: a blogging setup AND a wiki setup.  Welcome to the former.

-Mark