Mega Menorah 9000!

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MM9k  MM9k

Introducing our newest Hanukkah menorah kit: Mega Menorah 9000!

This is a great new easy soldering kit to make a handsome and decently-sized menorah. Once built, it stands just over 6 inches (15 cm) tall, and is 7.5 inches (19 cm) wide.

It’s USB powered, USB programmable with a built-in interface based on the Adafruit Trinket, and features 9 discrete RGB LED “pixels” that can produce all kinds of bright colors. Flickery flame effects built in too, of course.

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One of the cool things about this kit is that it has a unique “Trompe-l’œil” circuit board design that gives some illusion of a rounded 3D surface. As you can see above, it’s actually flat as a board.

To make it, we started with a 3D CAD model of what we wanted the circuit board to look like. The outer contours of the model became the outline of the circuit board. We then rendered the CAD model, and used our StippleGen 2 software to convert the resulting image into a vector stipple drawing— one that could eventually be converted into the artwork for the circuit board. All together it’s over 9000 stippled dots of black silkscreen! (To be more specific, there are roughly 17,000 dots on each side.)

MM9k FAQ: OK, but isn’t the name “Mega Menorah 9000″ perhaps just slightly on the excessive side?
Yes, we must (grudgingly) admit that it is. It just slipped out when we were trying to come up with a working title for the project — a name that meant “better than deluxe” so as to distinguish this model from our old favorite Deluxe LED Menorah Kits.
Alas, it was funny. And so it stuck. And now, it’s too late.

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There are two circuit boards in the kit. The “top” PCB is shaped like a menorah and the components (mainly just the nine WS2812-style LEDs) are for the most part hidden on the back side.

The base circuit board has rubber feet, the control buttons (color, night, reset), an ATtiny85 AVR microcontroller, USB power/programming jack, and a programming indicator LED. The circuit is actually an implementation of the Adafruit Trinket, which allows for reprogramming the microcontroller without requiring any hardware other than a regular USB cable.

MM9k FAQ: Why is there a binder clip there?
It’s an assembly jig that helps to align the parts in place so that it’s easy to build and looks neat. We’ll write more about it later.

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And, wow does this thing do colors! The nine WS2812-style individually addressable RGB LEDs in 5 mm packages, look reminiscent of candle flames, but can be tuned to just about any color in the rainbow. From a control standpoint, it’s awfully nice that they’re managed by just a single pin of the microcontroller, and have the built-in ICs to handle colors and dimming.

Mega Menorah 9000 begins shipping this week.

CNC Dragonfly Barrette

Dragonfly Barrette

When I saw Simone from Othermill running her machine this weekend, I told her about an idea I had for a metal dragonfly hair clip. She quickly grabbed the file from Sam DeRose’s Light-up PCB Pins tutorial. After carving the texture and doing the cutout, the only other tools needed to complete the project were a pair of pliers to bend the wings and some glue to affix it to a clip. It turned out great!

Ostrich EggBot 2.0

Ostrich EggBot
Ostrich EggBot

We’ve just released version 2.0 of our Ostrich EggBot kit!  This is the giant size EggBot. Like the smaller models, it’s a machine capable of drawing on the surface of all kinds of spherical and egg-shaped objects up to 6.25 inches (15 cm) in diameter, including large ostrich eggs.

This chassis of the new version is CNC machined from melamine-faced MDF, and laser engraved with markings and calibration scales. (The previous version was made of plywood; you can read about it here.) We’ve also updated the graphics, and rolled in a number of subtle improvements based on user suggestions and our own extensive experience with the machine and other members of the EggBot family.

Ostrich EggBot Ostrich EggBot

With a relatively large chicken egg chucked into the holders, you can get a better sense of scale. (An ostrich egg is a terrible object to suggest a sense of size!)

The tailstock (the sliding portion of the right hand side) has been slightly redesigned for higher stiffness and better ease of use. The bulk of the stiffness in the directions that we care about (that is, in the directions where the chassis material is not strong) derives from the steel angle brackets, and the new tailstock helps to reinforce that for better overall rigidity.

Ostrich EggBot

One of the best things about the new chassis material is that it laser engraves particularly well, giving high-contrast, highly readable adjustment scales on the sides. And that makes it all easier to use in practice. All considered, this has turned out to be quite a nice little upgrade.

Robot heart

For Halloween this year, I went as a robot, wearing a silver dress with a slowly pulsing LED heart glowing visibly under the fabric.

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The LED is a one watt white LED, which we’re running at about 50 mA. It has a wide viewing angle, and the star-shaped mount lies conveniently flat. The LED is wired up to the PCB with a pair of twisted magnet wires. Magnet wire is flexible and thin, which makes it hardly noticeable under clothing. It is controlled by ATtiny2313 (running the code from our Mac sleep light pumpkin project) and powered by three AAA batteries. The PCB corners were rounded off so it wouldn’t be stabby.

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The dress was fully lined, which made it very convenient for mounting electronics. I pinned a makeshift pocket onto the liner, and tucked the battery holder and PCB in the pocket. I could feel the battery holder switch and turn it on and off through the fabric.

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The LED was taped to the dress liner with medical tape to hold it in place. An extra piece or two of tape held the wires to make sure there was appropriate slack for movement. (A note on tape: use the good stuff. The cheap paper tape in the off-brand first aid kit only stuck to itself and the magnet wire. 3M plastic medical tape worked great and came off easily.) This makes it easy to disassemble after Halloween.

LED heart


You can find more costume projects in our Halloween Project Archive.

Pumpkin Faces for EggBot

Pumpkin Face

renegade_geek posted a set of Pumpkin Faces on thingiverse for the EggBot. They’re cleverly arranged in layers so that you can hide and show the different eye, nose and mouth options.

A collection of separate eyes, noses and mouths, each set on its own layer, for a customized jack-o-lantern/ghost face to be printed with the Eggbot. These were made to print on ping pong balls. You may need to adjust for eggs and other less regularly shaped items. I have included a “faces menu” PDF so that you can clearly review your choices. This was really helpful in a classroom situation.

Soldering Tip Tinning with Sal Ammoniac


If you solder, you’ve likely come across an “untinned” tip at some point— that’s when the tip of your soldering iron loses its shine, and doesn’t easily wet to solder any more.

Once your tip gets this way, it doesn’t make nearly as good of a thermal contact to whatever you are trying to solder, and it simply doesn’t work well. Soldering can take 2-10 times as long, and that isn’t good for your circuit board, components, or mental health.

You can sometimes re-tin the tip by melting fresh solder onto it, but that can be challenging, because the whole problem is that the tip isn’t melting solder. It’s particularly hard to keep tips tinned with modern lead-free solder, because it needs to get even hotter to begin melting.  If you get to this point, you might think about even replacing the tip.

But before you throw that tip away, instead consider using one of the “old standard” solutions, which is to refurbish the tip with a tip-tinning compound. And we came across the most classic of them in one of the most unexpected locations.  Continue reading

New Winches for WaterColorBot

We’ve just given the WaterColorBot a little bump up to kit version 1.5. The new version now comes with a pair of beautifully machined aluminum winches.

The winches are precision cut on CNC machines and anodized clear. We add a few extra little parts (flat-head rivets to wind the winch around, screws, and a stamped and polished stainless steel “clamp” to hold the string end), and wind them with the same “100 pound” Spectra cord as we did before.

We described the process of making and winding our older laser-cut wooden winches in our blog post about the making of the WaterColorBot, and again in our post about the  winch cutting jig. For better or worse, transitioning to the new aluminum means that we’re no longer using our older wooden winches that we described in those blog posts.  But in the end, these new winches are a better, more elegant solution.

 WaterColorBot kit version 1.5 is now shipping from the Evil Mad Scientist Shop.

A Flavor Exploration Kit

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There are culturally common activities like wine and cheese tastings that explore variations of a particular theme. There are also flavor tripping parties specifically for trying out the taste bud altering miracle fruit. And there are molecular gastronomy and modernist cuisine that are intended challenge your expectations of texture and flavor. In the spirit of these kinds of experiences, we came up with a wide-ranging set of interesting (and sometimes challenging) items that can be shipped through the mail and shared between internet friends.

The goals of the project include isolating a few interesting flavors that are not normally tasted on their own, understanding a bit about the ways that shape and texture affect flavor, and play a bit with some of the available “mouth altering” spices and flavors.

Most of the items we included in our tasting kit are from Indian or asian grocery stores. For herbs and spices, getting them from a shop with high turnover will help in obtaining fresher spices that are more full of flavor. They’re also likely to be less expensive at places that expect larger quantities of spices to be used in foods (we’ve written about this before). Ethnic groceries are better at this than mainstream ones, and places with bulk bins can be just about the worst. A few items we shopped for online, and a couple came from our garden.

For tasting order, we opted to start with more subtle flavors and end with mouth-altering ones. Our general itinerary was divided into four parts: flavors & scents, shapes, adventures, and light.

Of special note: many people are sensitive to particular (and sometimes esoteric) food items. Be sure you have discussed food allergies with all participants before plying them with unknown ingredients. Decide if you want to try things before announcing what they are. Have water and neutral flavored crackers or bread for cleansing the palette between flavors as needed or desired.

One of the joys of life is introducing people to new flavors and textures that you love, whether they are from your own kitchen or your favorite restaurant. Every so often, that will backfire, when someone ends up not liking your beloved dish. But sometimes you’ll see that “eureka” moment when someone lights up from the new experience. Eating involves many kinds of sense perception, including smell, taste, texture, temperature, and sight.

 

Part one: Flavors & Scents

  • Fenugreek Leaf (Methi): fenugreek has an aroma reminiscent of maple syrup and is one of the magic ingredients in tandoori marinades. Crumbling dry herbs in your fingers will help release aromas.
Makrut (Kaffir) Lime Leaves

Makrut (Kaffir) Lime Leaves

  • Makrut (Kaffir) Lime Leaf: a crucial ingredient in many Thai curry pastes and soups. This double-lobed citrus leaf is available fresh at many asian groceries, and we’ve written about it before.
  • Curry Leaf: used in south Indian cuisine, such as the soups you find at dosa shops. We have a little curry tree, but leaves can be obtained fresh at Indian groceries.
  • Ajwain: spicy, somewhat reminiscent of thyme or oregano. Also from Indian cuisines and spice blends.
saffron

Saffron Threads

  • Saffron: always used in very small amounts due to its potency and expense. Almost never tasted alone.
  • Chat (Chaat) Masala: used primarily on Indian snack foods. Key spices include black salt, mango powder, cumin and asafoetida. Try it on some fresh fruit.
  • Black Salt: very sulfurous pink colored salt mined from the Himalayas.
  • Truffle Salt: an excellent way to experience the heady aroma of truffles. Try sprinkling it on vanilla ice cream.

 

Part two: Shapes

Sugar crystals

Sugar Crystals

Salt hopper crystals

Salt Hopper Crystals

 

  • Sugar Crystals: these large (~1/4 inch) sugar crystals are available at Indian and middle-eastern markets, sometimes labeled as “sugar cubes” despite their elegant shapes. They don’t seem as sweet as granulated sugar because of the low surface area to volume ratio.
  • Salt Flakes (hopper crystals): because of the huge surface area, these taste even saltier than granulated salt. Great for when you want to have lots of salt flavor and are sprinkling on a surface that will not dissolve the salt. Trader Joe’s is selling small containers with huge crystals. Alternately, Maldon Sea Salt Flakes are large enough to see the crystal structure.

    pepper threads

    Shredded Dried Red Pepper

  • Shredded Red Pepper: we came across these dried pepper threads at a Korean grocery store and have been garnishing our soups with them ever since. They’re preserved with salt and rehydrate to show the cross section from the center of the fruit to the skin.They’re beautiful and spicy, but not as spicy as red pepper powder because of the difference in surface area.

 

Part three: Adventures

sichuan pepper

Sichuan Peppercorns

citric acid granules

Citric Acid Granules

 

  • Citric Acid: we found large granules of this at an Indian market. One big granule is enough to make just about anyone pucker. This is the full-strength version of the powder that is used to make sour candies sour.
  • Sichuan Pepper (Prickly Ash, Wild Peppercorn): one of the components (hydroxy-alpha-sanshool) triggers an anesthetic reaction. After chewing on a couple of these husks, your tongue will go numb and tingly. It increases your ability to eat super spicy foods, and has been described to us as “a party in your mouth.” We’ve also seen very panicked faces of people who just wanted the sensation to stop. Some people don’t seem to be as sensitive to it, or perhaps didn’t get very active pieces, and they usually find the lemony flavor to be pleasant.
super soda gum

Super Soda Gum

miracle fruit tablets

Miracle Fruit Tables

 

  • Super Soda Gum: we discovered this great bubble gum through the Candy Japan subscription service and we now purchase it at our local Japanese grocery store. It has a powerful punch of fizzy powder inside, which makes your mouth foam up like crazy. It is awesome good fun, and it seemed to help the sichuan pepper effect to subside. Even after the excitement from the foam settles down, it is really good quality gum.
  • Miracle Fruit Tablets: we got these tablets from Amazon. They’re a little bit expensive, but the miraculin binds to sweet receptors on the tongue, making sour foods seem sweet. The berries are also available, but are more expensive, and harder to get shipped.
  • Citric Acid (again): after dosing with the miracle fruit, citric acid tastes like candy. Be careful, or you’ll inadvertently eat a lot of highly acidic food because it is so fun. Try other sour foods like lemon, lime, grapefruit, vinegar, and tamarind.

Part four: Light

  • Wint-O-Green Lifesavers: sugar crystals are a triboluminescent material, meaning that when you crush them, they emit light. However, they emit ultraviolet light, and so we don’t normally get to see the effect. Wintergreen oil fluoresces blue, so eating wintergreen flavored candies in the dark in front of a mirror or with friends will let you see it. Go into a very dark room. Wait until your eyes are accustomed to the dark. Bite the mints with your teeth to crack them to see the glow.

Other possibilities

  • Asafoetida (Hing): a very powerful garlic and onion substitute from Indian cuisine.
  • Seaweed: for someone who hasn’t been exposed to the flavor of dried seaweed, it can be a shock.
  • Dried Sumac: a sour fruit used in the spice blend za’atar along with sesame seeds and dried herbs.
  • Tamarind: a sour fruit that is less well known in mainstream American cuisine, but can be found in many familiar sauces (even some Worcestershire sauces). Commonly available as a paste or as pulp.
  • Other less common fruits, such as dragon fruit, soursop, jackfruit, and durian.
  • Fresh vs. freeze dried vs. canned textures and flavors.
  • From our group came the suggestion to create a flavor symphony, walking through various movements of flavor rather than isolating each one. It could be interesting to add more familiar herbs like mint, thyme, and rosemary to the mix.

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An exploration like this is fairly simple to lead when everyone is in the same place, but can also be done remotely. We packaged up our ingredients into little bags and tucked them into plastic organizer boxes (commonly available from the dollar store) to conceal the contents until the right moment.

The list above is strongly influenced by our personal experiences and cooking preferences. Depending on your background, things we find exotic may seem perfectly normal. It is interesting to see which ingredients stir up memories from the participants, and which are new to them as well. If you come up with other ideas, we’d love to hear about them!