Category “making”

More PPE Heading Out

We’re still chugging along at IL PPE. A bunch more shields and masks out to local schools, hospitals, and assisted living homes. If you need something, head over to our website. If you want to continue helping our project, check our donation page out.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Looking to make masks?

We have a long list of tutorials by Pam Daniels and others over on the Illinois PPE website on how to get started. We also have the materials and machines ready to go if you need them and are in Illinois. Check them out!

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Getting stuff to people who sew

If you can sew and are in the southwest suburbs, fill out our form over at Illinois PPE. I’m currently handing out tools and materials to anyone in the area who can help us get face masks into the hands of people who need them. We currently have requests for thousands of masks from hospitals and correctional facilities.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus


We just bought one of these tiny little guys for ~$300 at Spacelab. Nice printer, and have been getting pretty decent prints off of it thus far. Check it out if you’re in the market for something inexpensive with decent quality.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Book Survey

My old pal and co-collaborator Dave Wolinsky and I are working on a book tentatively entitled “HOW TO MAKE ANYTHING,” a book about getting un-stuck when you’re stuck, and making awesome things. If you have a second, we’re circulating a survey that we’d love to have you fill out to help us understand the lay of the land a little more.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

5 Favorite Tools and Gear of 2019

For the people who know me, it goes without saying that I’m a tools-and-gear-thing person. Physical, digital, even digital-physical things… there’s something about having the right object that can help you take stuff apart, make quick repairs, make new things, make life easier, or just help manage resources.

Given that I spend so much time thinking about these kinds of things, I thought it’d be useful to share with you the five pieces of gear I picked up in 2019 that have made a huge difference. Here they are.

1. Sawstop
This wasn’t a personal purchase, but instead, something we bought at the Idea Realization Lab. When I give tours of the space, I often say that safety is about respect — not fear. I also tell folks that the table saw is likely the most dangerous thing inside the space.

When we owned our old job site table saw, I used to spend sleepless nights worrying about what might happen if it were used improperly. The Sawstop, with its ability to stop the blade on a dime if it feels skin touching it, helps me go to bed a lot easier. And while having a piece of equipment like the Sawstop doesn’t mean that everything is *fine and perfectly safe*, it does make the space a lot safer.

2. MSR Hubba NX 1-Person Tent
We own an MSR Hubba Hubba two person tent for when Sarah and I go out backpacking together, but seeing as how we have three (going on four) children at home now, getting out to backpack together has become difficult. I brought along our two person tent to a few backpacking trips last year, and felt like I could reduce the weight I was carrying and footprint I took up at campsites.

The Hubba NX was a perfect piece of gear to achieve those ends. In a recent trip to Isle Royale, I was able to cut precious pounds off my pack weight while also fitting into tighter spots at campsites. Also noteworthy: on the second day of the Isle Royale trip it poured buckets — to the point where I felt like I was swimming in my own clothes. When we got to the campsite, I was a little worried that the tent wouldn’t withstand the rain. To my delight, the Hubba NX kept dry and set up so fast that it barely got wet inside before I could get the rain fly on.

3. Full Focus Planner
Based on a recommendation from a friend earlier this year, I bought a book by Michael Hyatt a while back called Free to Focus. I’m not a consistent self-help book reader, but F2F really connected with me, and helped me get out of a treadmill-like funk that I’d been in.

So, after finishing the book, I went right out and bought a Full Focus Planner (also by Hyatt) — it’s made a huge difference in my long-term strategic thinking. The planner takes a bit of time to set up, but that’s because it’s asking you to think about things like your quarterly professional/personal goals, your roadmap to achieving those goals, and the reasons you want to achieve them. It then has you revisit those goals weekly and daily to plan out your schedule — something I’d been missing in the past. While that might seem like a lot of planning, I’ve always subscribed to the Eisenhower principle that while plans are useless, planning is indispensable.

4. Jabra Elite Active wireless earbuds
Yard work is more or less my duty around the house, and that’s fine because I really enjoy it. One of the things I started doing a few years ago was listening to podcasts while I mowed the lawn — it seemed like a productive thing to be doing while taking care of an otherwise singular activity. But, dumb-dumb that I am, I was blasting the podcasts on my cheap headphones and, eventually, it occurred to me that this was bad for my hearing. And really, in general, even the noise of a traditional lawnmower is bad for hearing.

So after some careful research, I landed on these wireless earbuds that would cancel lawnmower noise and also be good for things like jogging, filtering out noise on the train, and other similar situations. I have not been disappointed. These headphones have a cool feature that allows you to turn on/off outside noise so you can hear what’s going on, take phone calls using their built-in microphone, and switch seamlessly between two devices simultaneously over Bluetooth. Best headphones I’ve owned.

5. Pilot FriXion Clicker
A good pen is invaluable, and for me, this is now my device of choice. I am a big (as Willy Wonka would say) “strike that, reverse it” kind of thinker, and that thinking is often reflected in my writing. What that typically means is a lot of scratch-outs and write-overs.

Call me a newb, but I had no idea that there was such a thing as an erasable pen. But this last year I learned (through the same aforementioned Hyatt book) that such things existed and, in fact, were quite useful. I buy these pens on a quarterly basis now because I find myself giving them to folks to try out, and burning through them with my constant note taking.

That’s the end of my list! I hope you enjoyed it. If you have any things that you’ve found have helped you in some way, feel free to drop them in the comments/replies.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

This Should Work – Paul Valente Interview

Paul is a former teacher, now administrator at Chicago Public Schools, and he has been a friend of mine for a while now. I love talking with Paul because he gives me perspective on my thinking that I would have never gained on my own. He’s a really clever guy like that, and I hope you find the insights in this podcast as interesting as I do.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

We’re Designing Embedded Systems All Wrong

One of my primary projects this summer is to research embedded hardware design processes, toy design processes, and to develop a framework for creating embedded, interconnected toys that addresses both practical design and ethical considerations. This comes out of a need I’ve identified through co-designing and developing several projects in the field (Thotcon 0xA, Thotcon 0x9, Thotcon 0x8, Big Data Outbreak, for instance). Namely, we have processes for creating software and processes for creating hardware, but when you’re looking to do both, combined and at scale, there’s not a lot of literature out there on how to proceed.

That’s not to say the literature doesn’t exist. The body of knowledge on the topic of embedded systems design can be found, for instance, but is fairly sparse and mostly uses an adapted version of agile (typically XP). Additionally, most of the research looks at the design of objects from a human-centered perspective, which has its own limitations when we’re talking about designed objects (not necessarily humans) interacting with other objects.

Suffice to say, I find most of these approaches to be lacking. My experience developing for embedded systems has led me to the following conclusions:

1) Applying software development processes to hardware and firmware development is insufficient. The feedback loop with software is much tighter and easier to control than with embedded systems. With embedded systems, debugging contains both a physical and digital element. Additionally, the loop between writing code and testing code is dramatically different when, ultimately, that code must move to a separate platform for testing. I suspect there may be some connection points here between six sigma and agile processes.

2) Thinking about the design of ubiquitous systems from a human-centered perspective is totally flawed, and yet, most of the literature out there makes this mistake. It seems to me that in order to design objects at scale that work together, we need to move beyond the human, which is just one component. How do those objects work with each other? How do they work with the rest of the world? This line of thinking quickly veers into the realm of object-oriented ontology (OOO).

3) There are important ethical considerations to be addressed when we begin to put embedded, interconnected systems into the wild at scale. By their nature, these systems add a layer of hidden qualities to the physical world by embedding computer algorithms and data stores into the world. Of course, objects already have many hidden qualities, but embedded systems allow those qualities to (theoretically) be controlled by others invisibly. As my advisor at DePaul says, an embedded system represents a snapshot of a particular ontology at a particular point in time, with the value judgements of that snapshot being encoded into the world. This line of thinking connects to what David Rose calls enchanted objects.

As part of this summer project, I’ll be re-designing the Thotcon 0xA badge to make it more of a consumable product — this will be my case study. I’ve also been assembling current literature on embedded design, OOO as applied to design, and ethical considerations of developing toys and hardware systems. And so, to close this post out, here are a few whitepapers and books that I’ve found useful (The Limits of HCD, by the way, is a “shots fired” kind of piece and I love it):

  • Enchanted Objects: Innovation, Design, and the Future Of Technology
    David Rose – Scribner – 2015
  • Object-oriented Ontology: a New Theory Of Everything
    Graham Harman – Pelican, an Imprint Of Penguin Books – 2018
  • Educating the New Makers: Cross-disciplinary Creativity
    Mark Gross and Ellen Yi-Luen Do – Leonardo – 2009
  • Piloting Lean-agile Hardware Development
    Maarit Laanti – Proceedings Of the Scientific Workshop Proceedings Of Xp2016 on – Xp ’16 Workshops – 2016
  • The Limits Of HCD
    Vanessa Thomas-Christian Remy-Oliver Bates – Proceedings Of the 2017 Workshop on Computing Within Limits – Limits ’17 – 2017

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

The Educational Makerspaces Interview Series

I recently completed a series of four podcast interviews with folks from higher ed, K-12, and libraries who all run makerspaces and are involved in the educational advancement of making. You can check out all four episodes on This Should Work*, but here they are in sequence:

Aaron Hoover, Olin College

Terry Steinbach and Betty Shanahan, DePaul University

Jeff Solin, Lane Tech

Sasha Neri, Harold Washington Library

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

SPIME (I’m now assembling PCBs)

Astute Thotcon badge observers may have noticed a “Made with SPIME” imprint on the back of this year’s badge. This wasn’t just a hint to a puzzle, but to a new project that my creative partner Rudy Ristich and I have been working on. The name SPIME is inspired by Bruce Sterling’s moniker for objects that contain more than their material qualities through attachments to information in “the cloud.”

For Rudy and I, SPIME is an endeavor that leads us into some exciting territory. While we’ve been developing conference badges for a while now, we’ve never actually gotten as close to the production of them as we’d like. After the board is initially designed and we’ve worked with the fabrication and assembly folks to get them built, the work is handed off and presto, a few weeks later, our objects are complete.

So last year, in the never-ending quest to get closer to the point of creation, we decided to buy an SMT (surface-mount technology) line so that we could begin assembling small batch runs of boards for our work and the work of our friends. Thus, SPIME was born.

Our goal is to help folks relatively new to the PCB development process get their boards into production as painlessly as possible. This ranges from people who also create their own conference badges to companies and individuals prototyping or putting together small runs of product.

At the very least, this will be an interesting experiment that allows us to help a few friends out and to scratch an itch that we both have. But who knows? If you’ve got a project that could use some help and fits the bill, check out our website and send us an assembly request.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus