Hobby: DIY bio

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This is my latest obsession.  DIY bio is a movement that started around 2008 with a core of young scientists that took advantage of the lapsing patents for various bio-technologies.
bio-3Now that manufacturers were no longer able to charge thousands of dollars for a piece of plastic that cost $100 to prototype and manufacture, amateurs could afford to make or buy modern microbiology equipment.

I am just now learning the basics of this very complex and fascinating field, but I’ve already been able to do as much as what I imagine graduate students were doing in 2000.  Although none of the materials I play with are hazardous, they’re alive and can therefore mutate.  I’ve gone to extremes to make sure that I read and follow every known bio-safety standard and practice that I can.  Someday this hobby is going to be regulated and I want to be ready for that day.

I maintain an online lab notebook at http://openwetware.org/wiki/User:Jeff_Zahir

If you look at the web sites of professional and academic Bio labs they almost never have pictures of their empty lab.  They have pictures of colleagues on group outings.

Because there isn’t a Makespace interested in DIY Bio in my area, I’ve had to go it alone.  This is less than ideal since I can’t share costs; can’t collaborate among fellow enthusiasts and; my work isn’t open and visible to a wide audience of P.I.s and safety experts.  By keeping my online notebook current and corresponding with others often, my hope is that I can partially mitigate these shortcomings.

Hobby: Shakyou

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Shakyou is the zen meditation practice of writing the sutras out by hand.  For me, the meditation includes the feel and smell of grinding the ink and the feel of the limited interaction of brush with paper as I recite the sutra.

I spent the summer of 2shakyou006 building the floor lamps, altar, collection box and seiza tables you see here for the use in the Buddhist Church of Spokane, Washington.

I bought ink suzuri stones, brushes, paper and other supplies for 18 seats and made fancy wooden boxes for each set.

When people entered, they were greeted with a warm, damp cloth to wipe their hands and face with and to sit by a small box with a rock garden and water basin.

Each participant then picked their supplies from a table and sat down in a chair or on the ground to begin their meditation.shizuri_bako

Because this was done in a lunch area, the fluorescent overhead lamps and paraphernalia around the area were distractions.  I purchased table lamps for the tables and made traditional Japanese lamps for the seiza tables and turned off the overhead lights.

On the far right of the picture you can see a hanging curtain with the symbol for this church.  These were screen printed in gold on moleskin fabric and hung on rolling coat hangers. There was a wall of 6 alternating black and white curtains-on-rollers that walled this space off from the greeting area and the kitchen storage that was visible next to the space.

The carpets and runners I brought from home finished the space and completely converted the space from a lunch room into a magical space for meditation.

Hobby: Optics

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I only worked on optical systems that others had designed at Subaru Telescope, but while there I met Dr. Stephen Pompea of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.  He had worked with Nishimura San of Subaru when they were both at U of Arizona and “Nishi” was always kind enough to take me along when he visited with other scientists from the mainland.

Dr. Pompea has always been an evangelist for teaching optics to pre-high school youth and in 2003 he got an NSF grant for “Hands-on optics” which gave teaching materials to grade school teachers in optics.  I was invited to participate in the inaugural class held at USC in 2003 and was able to teach it to a few of the home-schooled kids in Spokane, Washington.

The class provided a large notebook and a wide range of projects for us to teach with, but I went beyond the materials provided and built optical rails, and other “toys” for kids to take home to play with.



Hobby: Holography

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In the early 1960s Holography emerged as one of the most exotic uses of the unique light produced by lasers.  By the early 1970s it began to make the transition from scientist only to hobbyist.  At first it was to exploit it as an artistic medium but the amateurs that saw its potential quickly developed innovations of media and techniques that became main-stream.

By the mid 1990s the nascent “World Wide Web” had one or two Usenet newsgroups called alt.holography dedicated to the hobby.  Between this and a couple of “how-to” books published by the 1970s superstars of the San Francisco Holography Art movement everyone had access to the technology.

The hardware came available with affordable Kodak holography plates and the surplus lasers from copy machines made the hobby approachable to interested amateurs.  holo1

My holography table was built from the aft bulkhead of a 747 from Boeing Surplus which is a two-inch high honey-comb sandwiched between two aluminum sheets.  I added padding and bricks and placed it in my basement.

In the configuration seen in the pictures it is making a reflection hologram of some plaster whales.  One beam illuminates the whales, while the other illuminates the plate at the far right.

As yholo2ou can see, this is all stuff hacked together from scraps.




Hobby: Rocketry

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The 1990’s was a wonderful time to be a hobbyist.

The contagious optimism of that time lent itself well to the enthusiasms of people and families [ :-(  mostly men and mostly white] who bonded in far flung disciplines that had always been the purview of “trained professionals”.

One of the hobbies that decade “launched” was high power rocketry.  There were always two reactions the first time anyone ever saw a launch of anything bigger than the “Estes”rockets you could buy at any hobby store:  Awe and fear that you could do more than take someone’s eye out.  To assuage such fears, the hobby community itself, the US rocketsFederal Aviation Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms provided strict regulations around the storage, purchase and use of any rocket motors with a specific impulse above 36 Lb-seconds.  In order to better assure that the hobbyist would align with these regulations, hobbyists associations coordinate the launches and supply amateurs with the supplies and training they need.

In 1996 I passed my level 1 certification and my level 2 in 1997.  In order to be certified to level 3 (allowing launch of rockets with a specific impulse exceeding 1,150 Lb-seconds) it was traditional to build something novel into the design.  In those days before cell phones and micro-power electronics the favorite was altimeter-based parachute deployment.

EricalchMine was a pic-based system with a clunky altimeter and an enormous T-1 accelerometer but what I really wanted to study was what’s called the mach disks of the rocket’s exhaust.  This is actually a phenomena that reveals volumes about the sonics, plasma and nozzles of all jet and rocket propulsion.




Radio Men

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When an old guy reflects on his past, it always comes off as the pointless ramblings of a grandpa, freshly awakened from a dream, recalling his past.

The truth is, it isn’t always just mawkish sentimentality. Sometimes we’re overcome by the realization that each generation asserts that their imagined future will render all future imagination obsolete. Its a realization that compels us to remind them that any ‘imagined future’ is, by definition, a rainbow – just out of reach…that the real prize is what that vision motivates in us now.

What an ironic compulsion: Struggle to make plain, an ineffable statement about an unattainable reality!  What’s the point?  So they don’t end up with the same frustrating compulsion?

What I’ve chronicled in this blog as current passions are quickly aging and becoming anachronistic.

That’s normal.  It’s the way time passes.  The problem is that as it ages, it obtains a patina that makes it look more like older, more cherished memories that really are mawkishly sentimental. It makes it easier for me to justify boring everyone with all the outdated technologies I’ve played with.

Let us agree that once there were a bunch of kids (all gone now), as geekish as we are, who proudly called themselves “Radio Men” (Let’s acknowledge-and-then-bracket the fact that they were largely sexist, racist, homophobes who never questioned the order of their world).

The thing to carpe in their diem was wireless transmission of messages over great distance.  It was the first time using something we couldn’t perceive with our senses in day-to-day technologies that everyone would use.  Up until that time, all technological revolutions had improved transmitting power via pistons, gears, belts and wires. Now we were harnessing an invisible quality of light to change (and perceive the change in) the æther around us. It was applied theory for consumers.

It fueled the new tropes of science fiction and captured the same child-like wonder you find in Makespaces today.  It built icons of a national character no less admired than those today.  It spawned practitioners across the spectrum from enthusiast to hobbyist to student to theoretician.  There were sights and smells, unique to that technology, that instantly jolted anyone from that era back to exact moments in time and states of excitement.

How is that qualitatively different than today?  Not at all.

How relevant is that fact?  Not at all.

All I’ve experienced will someday be relegated to the same dustbin as the fact that there was a distinctive quality to the optimism held by “radio men”.  Unless I’m willing to take the time to write a thoroughly researched and peer-reviewed history, these should be set aside as anecdotes.  They’re mine and they were fine but they’re of little importance to anyone but me. And I worry that they’ll pollute the optimism of today’s radio men.

I’ll include hobbies that are still popular but I won’t dig into all the hobbies of my mis-spent youth.

Oligo sensor

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A lifelong ambition of mine has always been to be part of a team of people who race past the conventional boundaries and are surprised by every new possibility.  Where being creative was a habit that you couldn’t turn off and no terrain of thought was forbidding.

There is a cozy little shop in Spokane, Washington that smells of photoresist, solder and machining coolant oil where that happens every day.

NLIWhen I was there from 2001 through 2003 we had just enough contractual work to  produce just enough surplus energy to get the next contract.  But the culture there placed such a high value on creative and innovative approaches that it was the funnest place I’ve ever worked at.

The principal (seated on the right) is the president of the company who holds several patents including several very successful patents in holography.

One of the ideas he tried to patent was an electronic sensor of oligonucleotides based on two facts: The different weight of the base pairs in a single strand of DNA and the fact that there exists a resonant frequency for any oscillating body.

My work involved preparing gold plated test slides for attaching the 5′ end of oligonucleotides of known composition.  When a complimentary nucleotide bonded with this, it could be attached to the sensor and then separated by heating and tested for its composition.

Each sensor cell consisted of a gold foil diaphragm that would be set to oscillating by a frequency generator with reflected light measuring the degree of deformation of the diaphragm.  The frequency that took the least energy to maintain would be the resonant frequency of that cell of the sensor.

Adding weight to the cell would change that frequency.

Unfortunately someone else was awarded this patent first and the proof of concept development stopped.

Strange that.  Why is it that every time I join efforts with really creative people, I end up building the ACME widget that ends up with Wiley Coyote at the bottom of a grand canyon?

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