Category Archives: Activities

Opposable Thumbs Episode 7: Homemade Chemicals

Opposable Thumbs is a podcast where Rob Ray and I solve a different design challenge every two weeks. Each episode features a guest with a different creative background, and each guest picks the challenge for the next episode. You can listen to all of our episodes here.


Homemade Chemicals! For this episode I revisited the idea of etching my own circuit boards, which I’d previously attempted (and failed). I watched/read a lot of cool tutorials online, then settled on this one. Sylvia’s Super Awesome Mini Maker Show was also a strong influence. Man, I can’t wait to get my kid into that kind of next-level nerdery…

I think my previous failure was due to old chemicals. All this ran about $25, but you could probably make it cheaper depending on what’s laying around the shop. I also made a little more volume this time: 2 shots acid and 4 shots peroxide (though that may be a glass votive candle holder, YMMV). I researched my gloves and bucket composition to make sure I didn’t create a Breaking Bad situation. I also wore wraparound goggles and pants, though I did wear short sleeves – nobody’s perfect. I suppose I should put a disclaimer here: try this stuff at your own risk, do your homework, and be careful! Muriatic acid is no joke.


This process etched a credit card sized board in about 10 minutes. The etch moves faster as time goes by, and you could almost watch the last 10% dissolve in real time. The solution is supposed to keep indefinitely, and can be refreshed with more acid and/or peroxide. See the link above for details.

As always, please listen to the show and send us your feedback.

Opposable Thumbs Episode 6: Whiteness

Opposable Thumbs is a podcast where Rob Ray and I solve a different design challenge every two weeks. Each episode features a guest with a different creative background, and each guest picks the challenge for the next episode. You can listen to all of our episodes here.


Whiteness! After much soul-searching, I decided that I was not going to make an object in two weeks that claimed to tackle this thorny issue in a meaningful way. Instead, I decided to make a purposefully goofy widget that could aid in my personal engagement with the subject. Along with my trusty fidget spinner, I read some articles that intersected with Whiteness, including Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations. Dude, the Atlantic has been killing it; support long-form journalism today! Also read My Family’s Slave while you’re at it.

Rob and I dig deep on this one! Please listen and send us your feedback.

Opposable Thumbs Episode 5: Huong Ngo / I Don’t Care You Pick

Opposable Thumbs is a podcast where Rob Ray and I solve a different design challenge every two weeks. Each episode features a guest with a different creative background, and each guest picks the challenge for the next episode. You can listen to all of our episodes here.

I really wrestled with the episode 5 challenge: I Don’t Care, You Pick. My first impulse was to move away from coding, given that I’ve gone that route for each of the last four Opposable Thumbs projects. With this prohibition in mind, I set about reworking Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies into a set of more applied/practical suggestions like:

  1. Try to end the day on a solution rather than a problem.
  2. If you think something might be hot, test it with the back of your hand rather than your palm.
  3. If you have a good idea, it’s probably already been done. This is no reason not to move forward.

I liked where that was starting to go, but I still felt unsatisfied. After all, where were the things? At the last moment, I switched gears and converted an old CNC pen mount into an etching needle attachment. I unearthed an old Processing sketch that made semi-random visuals, then scratched the output of this code into a copper plate with the mill. With help from the excellent staff in the Columbia College print shop (thanks Megan/Chris), I pulled the image above.

Opposable Thumbs Episode 4: Nick Bontrager/Stand Up Comedy

Meghan Trainor (no not that one) pitched us a curveball in Episode 3 with the “stand up comedy” challenge. Nick Bontranger was up to the task, and you can listen to his response here.

It occurred to me that I could enter this challenge in a completely straight-forward manner: by writing a traditional comedy set. This idea was immediately displaced by the urge to do something techie, so I started writing a script that could pull down humorous material from the web. Reddit seemed like a good place to look, given that it has a metric crapload of commentary to draw from (the following assumes you’re working in OSX).

  1. Make a new reddit account
  2. Follow these steps to create a script-type application (just follow the “first steps” section).
  3. Open your terminal and easy_install pip  (may need sudo)
  4. Now create a virtual Python environment for your project and activate it. Do this so random updates don’t tank your script. Take special note of source venv/bin/activate , which will put you in virtual mode for the next steps.
  5. pip install praw
  6. python
  7. This script looks for comments that include the words “tragedy” or “time” and prints them in the terminal.
  8. For the final output I installed Soundflower, which allowed me to record straight off the sound card. I then had the OSX accessibility assistants read the text aloud and laugh at it robotically.
  9. See python code below:

Opposable Thumbs Episode 1

The excellent Rob Ray and I have started a podcast called Opposable Thumbs. I used to organize art events with Rob in Chicago some years ago, and I’ve been itching to work with him again ever since he escaped to LA.

OT is a biweekly creative exercise where Rob and I invite a guest to set some sort of design challenge. Next, the three of us each make something based on that prompt, then Skype in to talk about our successes and failures. The first episode is out now! Here’s a preview of my project:


Prompt: Paper Clip & 2×4

In this episode I create a diegetic prototype that recruits material “flaws” (such as the knot above) to act as touch sensors. The paperclip or other wire is embedded in the wood and attached to two pins on the Arduino. Add a 1M resistor or greater and use the source code below. Right now we’re just blinking an LED, but that’s how all great things start… Please download, remix, and send me photos or video of your implementation!


Raspberry Pi + Thermal Printer


I’m looking at doing some experimentation with thermal printing, using the same type of device that prints point-of-sale receipts. I found the Adafruit tutorials to be a little incomplete, so here’s how I got my printer up and running.

  1. Download the full version of Raspbian Jessie (Lite will not work).
  2. Open the terminal and type   tar xzvf /path/to/your/file/ (the file is too big to unzip by double-clicking in OSX).
  3. Use ApplePi-Baker to transfer the .img to an SD card (I couldn’t get the official terminal method to work).
  4. Boot up the Pi and follow these instructions.
  5. Connect the printer to a 5V power source. I could only get it to work with a 10A supply, which is rated far above the 2A that the Adafruit tutorial calls for. You can test the printer by holding down the button near the power LED and then turning on the power.
  6. Wire up the printer data lines to the Pi’s GPIO pins. If you use a Pi rev1 like I did, you want pins 6, 8, and 10. Note that the RX and TX lines cross between the Pi and the printer.
  7. If you get a permissions error at the end of the Adafruit tutorial, open the terminal and type  sudo usermod -a -G lpadmin pi (source).
  8. Finish up with these steps for network printing (optional).


Sterling Silver at Shapeways

I’m working on a new version of Controlled Feeding Status that will be cast in sterling silver! First test “print” just arrived and is looking hot. Next up: soldering and refinishing.

CAA 2017, NYC

I’ll be delivering a paper on Saturday, February 18, as part of a panel called Making Objects Speak: Speculative Design, Critical Making, and the Internet of Things.

Call for papers @ FATE 2017

fate2017FATE (Foundations in Art: Theory and Education) 16th Biennial Conference
Hosted by the KCAI (Kansas City Art Institute) Foundations Department
April 6-8, 2017

FATE is a national association dedicated to the promotion of excellence in the development and teaching of college-level foundation courses. A full list of sessions for the 2017 conference can be found here.

With the conference theme “To the Core and Beyond” in mind, session chairs Tom Burtonwood (The School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and Taylor Hokanson (Columbia College Chicago) seek abstracts from educators who promote digital fabrication in foundations level courses and beyond. This session invites papers addressing best practices for introducing, integrating and establishing digital fabrication into the art and design foundations curriculum, especially research that addresses experimental materials and collapses boundaries between disciplines. We aim to facilitate debate around a set of tools that is growing more common in our field. How have a few years of access to the technology changed how and what you teach on the subject?

Possible topics to explore:

  • Do you regard 3D printing technology/processes as equivalent to or fundamentally different from more familiar shop resources?
  • How do you address a potentially steep learning curve while avoiding easy introductory projects (keychains, etc.)?
  • What software/hardware do you use and why?
  • Where do you fall along the professional equipment/DIY tool spectrum?
  • Have you had the technology long enough for students to get four years of access? What effect did this have on their work?

To apply, please fill out this form, then email the following to and by Friday, July 15.

  • CV
  • paper title
  • paper abstract (200 words max)
  • name, contact information & cv of any co-presenter (if applicable)

Seeed GPRS v2 in Hong Kong?

It’s the classic new media problem: you’ve got a cool show abroad, but will all your technology still work over there? I need to determine whether this board and this SIM card will be compatible in Hong Kong. This page suggests that 2G (a limit presented by the board) is still available in Hong Kong, and that the 900 band is still active. I suppose my fallback will be purchasing SIM cards when I arrive, but I’d like to avoid that. It may be cheaper, however, so maybe I’ll try both.