The Ribbonfarm Lab

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Ribbonfarm Lab

As I’ve mentioned in passing a few times, through the pandemic, I’ve been been spending a lot of time getting back into hands-on engineering, after nearly 20 years. I finally have one small thing worth showing off: the first test drive of one of my robots:

It’s not a kit design. I designed and fabricated this robot from scratch. It is probably the most complex engineering project I’ve ever done by myself in my life. I’ve had bit parts in larger, more “real” engineering projects, but they were all much easier to be frank, since my bit parts were mapped to my strengths.

Getting to this video has been a long, slow 18-month journey.

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Touching Transistors

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Ribbonfarm Lab

After a longish break, thanks in part to my stuff being packed away in boxes I was too lazy to unpack because we’re theoretically house-hunting (that’s going slow), I’m finally back tinkering in my lab. A couple of days ago, I fulfilled a teenage dream from the 1980s: Getting an LED to flash using a 555 timer chip.

This is a weirdly anachronistic circuit to build in this brave new age of Arduinos, RPis, and what I’ve come to think of as microcontroller supremacism. But there’s something very fun about doing something with primitive, simple parts and no code (though wiring up a logic circuit is a kind of coding). Making an LED blink without an Arduino is the engineering equivalent of touching grass. Call it touching transistors.

As my younger and more knowledgeable friends tell me, doing electronics this way isn’t a particularly useful skill in today’s technological environment. It’s like using hand tools for wood-working. Borderline quixotic. The “right” way to make an LED blink in 2023 is to write a “blink” program for a microcontroller. Software ate this older style of electronics sometime in the mid 2000s. “Blink” on an Arduino is now the “Hello world” of electronics (I got past that milestone in my learning curve a couple of years ago). Apparently only a few experimental musicians making weird music synth gadgets do things in this 1980s way anymore.

Still, I was unreasonably pleased with myself at making a 555-blinker, and checking off a 35-year-old to-do item. The experience really took me back, and got me thinking about how electronics has evolved since the 80s.


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Can Robots Whittle?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Ribbonfarm Lab

Continuing my descent into a middle-aged cliche, I bought myself a cheap beginner whittling kit.

The impulse was born of wondering whether a robot powered by modern AI and equipped with appropriate end effectors could learn to whittle, a premise that features in my recent short story Knowledge Management. It was either this or an Oak-D Lite AI camera for robotics. Either $34 vs. $149 to jumpstart 2024 maker activities. I always find that a bit of shopping for new toys reliably gets me out of a stall in the painfully slow evolution of the Ribbonfarm Lab (it’s not going to turn into Bell Labs anytime soon), but usually I acquire something aspirationally bleeding edge and high-tech even if the chances of my learning how to use it are low.

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Lego Soup

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Ribbonfarm Lab

I’ve been mildly hostile to Lego as a medium of tinkering. Even though I’ve bought all sorts of other kits as I’ve built up the Ribbonfarm Lab over the last few years, I’ve resisted the siren song of Lego. Until now. I’ve finally succumbed. It all started when I inherited a starter box from a Summer of Protocols workshop exercise, worth about $30, in July. It sat around for 6 months, until I finally caved, and played with it for a bit over the winter break. Turned out it was a relatively weak kit, heavy on cosmetic detailing and greebling parts (googly eyes, flowers, tiny 1-stud contour-smoothing wedges) apparently aimed at 4-year-olds, rather than expressive and versatile parts. The kit was the Lego equivalent of the stone in Stone Soup. Before I knew it, I’d spent another $170 or so. Here’s my current Lego meta-kit.

The reason I’m mildly hostile to Lego is it takes away too much friction and engineering messiness in favor of simplicity of UX (PX? play experience?) and aesthetics (apparently this has been a trend known as “juniorization”). I argued this point in Truth in Inconvenience, via a Lego-Meccano comparison. Lego fosters somewhat utopian engineering sensibilities. Compared to Meccano or electronics kits for example, it encourages an excessively sanitized view of engineering problem-solving. I have no experience of the Technic or Mindstorms lines (they were wildly beyond my means as an 80s kid in India — my sister and I only had a couple of very small Lego kits), so I’m looking forward to seeing whether my first-ever Technic kit, the Perseverance kit shown above, offers a more Meccano-style experience.

I have to say though, I’m very impressed with some of the advanced original builds by adult experts I’ve seen on social media, such as this dragon, these curved forms, and these African style sculptures. The representational art bias doesn’t necessarily mean the engineering complexity is lower. Hat tip to Topias Uotila ( on Bluesky and Dorian Taylor, among others, for helping soften my Lego-skepticism with good arguments and examples. Also thanks to Chenoe Hart for providing me with a crash course on the Lego maker scene.

That said, as a personal preference, I like to see the higher-dimensional messiness of real-world engineering reflected in a tinkering medium. So I doubt Lego will ever become my favorite tinkering medium. But it’s \ likely to become a strong supporting medium. I suspect I’m also generally suspicious of colorful-fun vibes.

So despite my misgivings, I suspect I’ll end up spending a couple of hundred dollars more rounding out my Lego inventory. I’m already eyeing a couple of buckets of additional off-brand parts and a few more interesting Lego-branded parts. Apparently, even though most of the important Lego patents have expired, generic competitors still can’t make the larger parts as well as Lego can (I suppose tolerance stacking is the issue?)

I’m still developing intuitions around what might be interesting lines of tinkering investigation with Lego, but two that intrigue me are interoperability with other construction kit languages and the idea of kit-bashing.

This universal construction kit (HT kinda gets at what interests me with regard to interoperability, though it seems to involve custom 3D printing Lego-compatible parts, a notoriously difficult thing to do due to the tight tolerances, and doesn’t include my favorite, Meccano, in its “universal” scope. I might instead try to use off-brand Lego parts set in custom-designed 3D-printed coupling sockets that mate with Meccano.

Kit-bashing is about exploring design spaces created by pooling two or more kits. Once I build the rover, I might buy a second technic kit and explore that question in-universe. It feels like kit-bashing is a good way to explore a question that interests me: the problem of scavenging parts from one machine for another, in pursuit of accretive robotics. The key idea is that instead of working with an inventory of nonspecific parts, you work with a teardown inventory. Everything comes from a nominal design. It’s like sexual reproduction rather than interchangeable-parts manufacturing.

Anyway the Lego soup is now bubbling away in the cauldron. Stay tuned for Cultural Learnings of Legoland to Make Benefit Glorious Lab of Ribbonfarm.

A Tale of Two Kits

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Ribbonfarm Lab

I’m working on two kits at once: A Lego Technic Perseverance kit, and a “hello world” spoon using a beginner’s whittling kit. They could not be more different, yet I can see why both deserve to be called kits. Both come complete with all the tools and materials needed, and guidance on what to build. Both are designed with an initial outcome in mind, but can also be used to build lots of other things the designers didn’t think of. Both embody design dispositions towards accessible design spaces. They are weakly opinionated engineering artifacts.

But there the similarities end.

The Lego kit has no tools, complete instructions, over 1000 parts, and a very credible assurance of getting to the promised outcome with ordinary skills. The manual is unambiguous pictures, no text. If you think the instructions are wrong, it’s probably you that’s wrong. The kit is built in 4 modules, and the parts for each are separated into 1-2 bags.

I’m part way through module 1. They’ve wisely front-loaded a small win in module 1: the main subgoal is that you assemble part of the rover chassis, but first you build the complete Ingenuity helicopter. They’ve really shaped the motivation curve. Here’s where I am:

Close-up of the helicopter:

The whittling kit comes with 3 knives, a sharpening/honing strop, some wood blanks, cut-resistant gloves, a pattern for making a bunny (I’m making a spoon instead; seemed simpler), no instructions, and no assurance of getting anywhere. I started to wing it, but struggled, so I had to find some YouTube videos to learn basic techniques. Here’s how it started:

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