Sunday, September 15, 2013


Part of a bigger project. Shouldn't take more than a decade to finish.

(The key to this is realizing that everything is based on two square grids with the same center, but they're at a 45 degree angle to one another.)

Monday, September 9, 2013

So what's the point of this, anyway?

There are any number of things I could be doing to satisfy any creative ambitions I have. Why this stuff? OK, aside from the Alex's Batcave room, which is sufficiently cool to require no explanation; everyone worth speaking of wants a Batcave. Why the faux-antique high tech items? Well, for a start, our most sophisticated tools are our most boring. When I started working in IT, computer hardware was uniformly featureless beige boxes. Now, it's mostly featureless black boxes, but some are featureless grey boxes. Exciting! They're also shaped pretty much like they were decades ago. Monitors are smaller because they're LCD screens instead of tubes, but present essentially identical rectangles to the viewer. Desktop computers are tall rectangular boxes, keyboards are wide but flat rectangular boxes, mice conform to one of a handful of designs to fit the hand but be used ambidextrously, laptops are clam-shell boxes, and tablets are almost entirely screen on one side and featureless plane on the other. There are vents and ports around the edges, and even an on-off button on most devices, but they're otherwise as featureless as possible, and everything that happens, happens invisibly inside the featureless boxes. I'm surrounded by such devices all day, and I'd like them to be more interesting.

Part of my approach to more interesting devices is to have technology that looks like it does something. Sure, sticking gears and smokestacks onto a computer won't give those bits a function, but they look like they might have one. Rather than being an inscrutable slab or hand-curved peripheral, the device takes on an illusion of having macro-scale parts which visibly work towards some end.

There's a secondary goal of, for lack of a better word, humanizing devices. Wood and leather are organic. Using them on a device puts the user in touch with substances connected with life, and possibly make it look a bit more like they were made with human hands than stamped out by a machine. Fake buttons, cranks, and similar elements make it look like you're supposed to physically interact with it. Beaded and filigreed ornaments are decoration for decoration's sake, something that only a frivolous, feeling human would add. All of those elements bring it closer to being not just an item for storing and processing data, but one which a human touches and regards.

Though a number of things I've done might fall under the rubric of "steampunk," I'm not sure that's the vibe I get from all of them. The iPlume feels borderline pre-industrial (say, Georgian), while the USB drive with the brass-screened porthole feels electrical, like a tube radio, rather than steam-powered (call it, perhaps, Edwardian). That said, I can see why people into casemodding might go heavily into Victorian and para-Victorian modes. We don't have a great many approaches to industrial design to play with. The Industrial Revolution shades into dieselpunk, which shades into the Space Age, which shades into today's featureless black boxes.

What I'm doing, I realized only recently, isn't that far different from Japanese chindogu, made famous back in the early-mid 90s by the Unuseless Inventions books which a friend at the publishing company I worked for at the time showed me. They're not as deliberately useless or self-defeating as real chinodgu are, but they are definitely whimsical and over-elaborate. (Also, never sold.) They all function, even if they're larger, heavier, and/or more elaborate than they need to be.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Clockwork Mouse

Had an old mouse. Had a broken mechanical clock. So what do I do with them?

 I cut the body of the mouse in half down to but not including the base and removed the rear part. When chopping up a mouse body, if you want to use the original buttons, it's important not to take off too much from the rear. The buttons attach well back in the body.

For the front of the mouse, I painted it copper, then did the middle button in gold for contrast. The remaining section of mouse behind the buttons is upholstered with a scrap of leather, while the sides are veneered with wood. The key is something I picked up at the craft store.

The rear is the workings of the old clock, cut to fit with a Dremmel and decorated with a variety of additional and repositioned gears and other components.

One of the nice things about this one is that when it's plugged in, the red glow of the LED is visible from the rear, but there's not a glare because it has to reflect through several layers of gears and structural bits.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Heroine Control Pads

So those hero descriptions I wrote up to give a little gender balance to Axis of Villains? I slapped together some control pads to print out for them. Anyone with actual graphic design skill could do vastly better, but these are, at least, functional. Created at 300 dpi, they come out of my printer reasonably legibly.





Wonder Woman


So now there can be more playable women for Axis of Villains than men.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Gratuitous Bat-Symbol

I saw some electroluminescent wire and thought "That'd be cool for the Batcave. If I can think of something to do with it." And I did.

I got a piece of EL wire billed as yellow, though as you can see, it isn't. It's got a transparent yellow vinyl jacket, but the wire itself seems to glow blue, so it comes out green. Not what I was after, but I'll deal. I cut out a Bat symbol using the same technique as for the clock, drilled tiny holes through the edges at corners and what seemed like other important points, and used wire and thread to secure the EL wire to the symbol. How does it look? Well...

Pointless, but pretty cool.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A More Inclusive Axis

(This isn't quite a crafty thing. It implies craftiness, but that's really just printing out some scaled images and maybe gluing them to cardboard. But I couldn't think of a better place to put this, so here it is.)

I got Wonder Forge's DC-licensed Axis of Villains game, sold by Target as part of this summer's Justice League push. There are comic book fans in the house, and my lovely and talented spouse prefers cooperative games like Castle Panic, so I thought I'd give it a shot. From a game design point of view, there's nothing wrong with it. It's a cooperative game with simple mechanics: Villains, who come in sets matched to the heroes in play during any given game, move according to die rolls and special card draws. Heroes move to intercept them and beat a target number with a die roll in order to capture them and remove them from play. There's some nice chrome in the form of cards which allow the heroes to trigger individual special abilities; they can also "team up" and combine their rolls, necessary to defeat some of the particularly powerful villains. I give them credit for not underestimating the intelligence of children; they recommend the game for ages 8+, but I've seen games of similar complexity rated for 12+ or even 14+.

So far, so good. There's a problem with the hero selection, though. All dudes: Supes, Bats, Flash, and GL, the chick-free quartet DC has been pushing on their JL merchandise lately. This should be irksome to any right-thinking person, but it's particularly irksome to my Wonder Woman-loving wife who, if she's going to be pretending to be a comic book superhero, would like to play her favorite comic book superhero thankyewverymuch. But as someone who has been tinkering with fun but somehow unsatisfactory games since white box D&D (for those who weren't around for the early editions of D&D in the 70s, let me just say: uphill both ways, and get out of my yard), I can fix that problem.

To play female heroes, they need the same attributes as the existing ones: color, abilities, and villains. The villains are easy, at least as game pieces. Each hero has, mechanically, an identical set of villains. There are five villain pieces, covering the same range of values (odd numbers from 7 to 15), so it's just a question of attaching faces and names to the numbers. Special abilities are a little trickier, but not insurmountable. It's just a question of breaking down what the rules are and making tiny exceptions to them. The hard part, really, is the presentation. Color is tricky, but naming the villains has been harder. For some of these characters, it's not difficult to come up with a list of characters they've had long-term enmities with. For others, I've had a hard time coming up with a list of five bad guys distinctly associated with that hero and not already attached to someone else (consider the massive overlap between Gotham heroes and villains). The name of the villain is, game-mechanically, irrelevant, but if you're going to the trouble of playing, say, Huntress or Zatanna, you want to be fighting Mandragora or Felix Faust, not just "11" or "7." Where possible, I've provided a full list of five and suggested villain values. Where my knowledge of comics fails me, I've come up with powers in hopes that people who know more than me can fill in the non-mechanical details like villain names.

Here, then, are some other superheroes I've drafted for Axis of Villains. With these, you could play an all-female version of the game, or mix and match as you see fit. You'll need to make your own control pads, villain counters, and stand-ups for them using the ones that come with the game as templates, but the Internet is full of useful images. Good hunting!

(The following won't make any sense if you don't have the game, and I've had to invent some terminology anyway. Those of you who have played the game know that powers are keyed to two symbols on the control pads and power cards: a puffy impact cloud and a spiky explosion. Below, I refer to the former as "biff" and the latter as "pow.")

Wonder Woman
Color: White

Biff: Granter of Victories. When teaming up, if the villain's color matches any of the heroes', all roll two dice.

Pow: Golden Lasso. Select one villain in the same space or an adjacent one. That villain misses its next move. (Turn it face down to indicate that it misses a move, then face-up again after movement is called for in its sector.)


Dr. Psycho--7

Color: Black

Biff: Summoning. Move any villain in her sector to her space.

Pow: Pots! The villain she fights misses its next move, even if she loses the fight. (Turn it face down to indicate that it misses a move, then face-up again after movement is called for in its sector.)


Brother Night--15
Poison Ivy--13
Felix Faust--11
Warlock of Ys--9
Dr. Light--7


Color: Orange

Biff: Battle Rage. If she loses in battle, Hawkgirl does not move back to the Satellite.

Pow: Nth Metal Mace. Hawkgirl may move any villain she fights back two spaces, even if she loses the fight.


Shadow Thief
The Monocle


Color: Purple

Biff: Crossbow. Huntress may attack any villain in an adjacent space.

Pow: Motorcycle. Huntress may move up to four spaces farther than shown on the movement die.


White Canary
Sicilian Mafioso


Color: Glow-in-the-dark lime green

Biff: Coordination. Other players may use their powers during her turn.

Pow: Advanced Planning. When a <<>> card is to be drawn, draw three, select the one to be used, and return the others to the bottom of the deck.


Color: Orange and yellow stripes

Biff: Eagle flight. Roll the movement die twice and take the higher number.

Pow: Rhino charge. Select a villain whose space she moves through during her turn and push it back to the outermost ring.

Saturday, June 29, 2013


Did Thomas Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence on his iPad using a plain old stylus? Did Jane Austen compose her novels with her fingers on her Nexus's screen? Of course not! Cheap styli for use with touchscreen devices are a dime a dozen, but they lack elegance. My solution: the iPlume.

Making your own stylus for a tablet with a capacitive screen is absurdly easy. You want a soft (so you don't scratch your screen), conductive tip such as a bit of kitchen sponge and a conductor which connects that tip to you. The form doesn't really matter. It could be an armored gauntlet, a door key with a sponge stuffed through the hole, or a bit of ScotchBrite held with a set of metal tongs. I used a quill.

Though one can use a sponge, I didn't. I got a bunch of dirt-cheap styli off of Amazon (took a few weeks to get here from China, but the cost me pennies each) and pulled off the conductive rubber ends. The black rubber struck me as classier than ScotchBrite yellow. I prepped the quill by snipping off the tip to a point where it was a little narrower than the rubber end. I wrapped some brass wire around the shaft of the feather as a conductor, stretched the cup-shaped rubber tip over the end, and used a few drops of superglue to secure everything in place. Works absurdly well.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Another Victorian-esque Drive

Similar approach to the last one: Start with a small block of wood (this a little section of 1" x 2" lumber), hollowed out with drill and tiny router bits. There's an additional hole in the top, drilled with a half-inch drill bit. The whole thing got stained and coated with shellac.

The half-inch hole got filled with a large-sized clothing grommet lined with a little square of brass cloth. The leather upholstery on the sides is cut from a disused glove and nailed/superglued in place. The gear is from a bag of old watch parts, while the corner piece and the "crank" are fashioned from scrapbooking and cheap jewelry pieces from the craft store, superglued in place.

After the drive was epoxied in place, I traced around the end of another USB plug on a scrap of wood veneer (collections of assorted samples are available cheaply on-line from veneer suppliers). Cutting the outline with an Xacto knife, I had a bit of veneer with a hole that fit snugly around the plug. Putting that on the end of the drive, I then traced around the end of the casing, removed it, and cut around the outline so it matched the dimensions of the casing as well. I found that sticking a bit of masking tape on the back while I was cutting greatly reduced splitting. Then I put it back on, glued it, and finished it with matching stain.

The nice bit about this one is that the amber LED attached to the drive, visible through the grommet, is designed to slowly fade in and out while the drive is plugged in. It gives a nice warm light reminiscent of a tube radio, which the finished casing vaguely resembles.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Brass and wood thumb drive

So I made a decorative thing out of an old thumb drive. This is the less interesting side.

The electronics, such as they are, are cannibalized from an old thumb drive. They're cheap, and the case can be pried off easily with a screwdriver or cracked with pliers, leaving you with a circuit board attached to the USB plug itself. The whole thing's about the size of a stick of gum.

The heart of the case is a section of 3/4" wooden dowel. Most of the work on it was done with a Dremel drill press and a bunch of different bits. To make space for the drive, I drilled a bunch of holes in the end, more or less outlining a rectangular hole. A lot of material was removed by that alone, but I enlarged the hole with the aid of some router blades and a few others. By the end, it was nearly just a thin wooden shell.

The bands around ends are from a short section of copper pipe, removed with a pipe cutter (maybe $8 at your hardware store). Since they almost-but-not-quite fit over the ends of the dowel, I used a sanding/grinding bit around the ends of the dowel, shaving down the diameter just a bit, until the copper rings fit. The dowel was prepared for the other metal fittings by a lot of drilling, from tiny, tiny bits in the drill press for the parallel wires to a 3/16" bit (attached to a full-sized drill) for the top "window."

Once all the holes were drilled, the dowel got a coat of dark stain and then one of polyurethane to seal it. The various bits (decorative square brads and long bronze-ish pins from the craft store, a small grommet from the fabric store, and the aforementioned copper rings) were put in place and secured with garden-variety cyanoacrylate. The only unusual bit is that the grommet "porthole" has a layer of woven brass "fabric" behind it. I cut a tiny square, a bit larger than the diameter of the grommet itself, snipped off the corners to make sure they wouldn't project as much, and pushed the grommet through the hole in the dowel, wrapping the fabric over the end and helping wedge it in place.

The bullet end is made from a plastic gear (ordered in a large, cheap bag years ago) painted copper and secured by nailing a decorative tack from the hardware store into the end.

And when the drive is in use, you can see a bright red light through the porthole.