Is DIY-BIO the Personal Computing of the 21st Century?

Bento Lab Starter KitLast last year I ran across the following article in IEEE Spectrum: Tools for Would-Be Biohackers.  Since I have a daughter with interests in Biology, I considered getting her one of these “mini-labs” as a Christmas gift.  The high cost had me wondering if this was an outrageous idea.  It works out that adjusting for inflation, these mini-labs aren’t any more expensive than 8-bit home computers of my youth.  My wife asked what seemed like a totally reasonable question, “What are they even good for?”  It’s a good question, and it was probably the same question my parents asked about those early personal computers.  It got me thinking about whether this kind of Do-It-Yourself home biology (actually genetics) is going to become the same kind of technological revolution that the personal computer became?

I don’t have a ready answer.  I do know that I’m not willing to dismiss the idea out-of-hand, and I want to learn more.  While I think the kits above are really cool from a technological perspective, I’m planning on doing some small scale (i.e. cheaper) things first.  It will be interesting to see if I can find an answer to my wife’s original question, and if there is a whole new world of innovation to come.

Here are links to the various mini-labs:

3D Printer: Rigidbot

We purchased a Rigidbot during their Kickstarter campaign last year, and it arrived in the middle of last week.  It took 8.5 months longer than projected, but frankly by Kickstarter standards that’s not bad.

Since it was so close to the end of the kids’ school year, I saved it as a project for the weekend.  I spent Father’s Day assembling our new 3D printer with the 13 year old.  I think we both had quite a bit of fun!   We finished basic assembly late last night — so no test print yet.  This evening, we plan on tidying up the cabling, performing calibration, and running our first test print.  Pictures and comments to follow.

Why I DIY (again)

About four months ago I mentioned that we were having the Kim’s bathroom remodeled. Here we are 4 months later, and I’m still fixing problems the contractor left after ‘finishing the job’. The amount of time is my fault, but the amount of FAIL is his.

  • Mis-installed light switch – works…sometimes
  • Missing toilet gasket – flushing causes water explosions
  • Sink drain kludged – washing hands leads to water on floor
  • Tub fixtures not accessible
  • Tub drain full of plaster/debris

So these guys were a pretty awful. It’s taking months for me to get around to fixing these issues, but at least when I’m finished everything will be done right.

Posted in DIY

Why I DIY

Ok, I admit that I enjoy making things with my hands, but I also suck at finishing DIY projects. Therefore, I usually punt on anything that is time/mission-critical to life, and just pay someone to do the work.

At the moment, we have contractors at Kim’s house remodeling the upstairs bathroom. Anyone who’s been in my house in the last 5 years, knows that *my* main floor bathroom has been closed for remodeling the whole time. So it’s only sensible that we have contractors working at the other house as we prepare to sell/move. But here’s the problem. They just did a pretty awful job tiling around the tub. I don’t pretend I could do a great job of tiling, but this job is a mess. It’s not level, square, or plumb. It’s just shoddy workmanship. If I had wanted a rushed, shoddy job, I could have done it myself.

So I just remembered the other reason I do some things myself. I can control the quality of the finished product. If I screw up a project, I can rip out the mistake and try again. I don’t have any profit-driven need to get in under budget, and as long as I don’t mind not having 3 bathrooms in the house, I can take the time to do the job right.

Posted in DIY

Highlander Temperature Control Repaired

We’ve been having problems with our Toyota Highlander temperature controls. The system would blow hot/cold air randomly. Messing with the controls would get the correct temperature for a few minutes or seconds and then back to random temps.

Luckly, the Internet has lots of documentation on this problem:

http://www.devalcourt.com/2010/03/fixing-2004-toyota-highlander-ac-and-heat-issue/
http://www.tundrasolutions.com/forums/highlander/32217-heater-quit-sort-of/

I followed the directions online and the repair was pretty straight-forward; anyone who can use a screwdriver and has basic soldering skills could have tackled this repair. The whole thing took less than 30 minutes. We ended up saving close to $1000-$1500.

Tools required:

  • 10mm nut driver or socket wrench
  • #2 philips screwdriver
  • soldering iron
  • solder wick or desoldering tool
  • wire stripper/cutter

I’m grateful that the information is out there and that I have at least enough basic skills to perform this type of repair. We had all the tools and skills in the house and frankly, our 10-year-old has the skills required to complete this repair with some guidance. This was a great example of where some basic DIY saved a lot of time and money.

It’s amazing to me that Toyota hasn’t done a recall on the part, since this seems to be a pretty common problem and a simple fix to a relatively expensive part.

Posted in DIY

Of iPads and eBooks

The best thing about the iPad is that it removes the clutter from reading. Traditionally, there’s a stack of books next to my bed that I’m currently “reading”, which is to say that I’ve started them, and not finished any. With the iPad (and the iPhone before it), I have that stack of books in a convenient digital device. I’ve been using the Kindle app mostly, since it manages to keep my Mac, iPhone, and iPad synced with my current position in each book, so that I can use whichever is most convenient at the moment. Most importantly, you don’t need to actually own a Kindle.

But recently I’ve been somewhat ticked off at Amazon. I purchased a couple of eBooks from them 4 years ago, and they’ve since closed down that particular store and associated format. I have my original (encrypted) PDF files, but they’re now worthless since Adobe has shutdown the associated authentication servers. The result is a bunch of bits I “own”, but cannot access. Amazon customer service is no help and based on comments in their own forums, I don’t think Adobe would be either.

So this week I’ve taken to converting all my Kindle books (of which there are many). It works out to be a fairly easy process once you gather all the software. I’m using iPhone Backup Extractor to retrieve the eBook files, a Python script to “modify” the files, Calibre to handle format conversion to the open ePub format. On the devices iBooks and Stanza read the results in pretty close to the same quality as the Kindle apps (sans location syncing). All but one of my eBooks was painless, and that other book was handled by a different tool that I don’t expect to need very often. The nice thing about this setup is that the Python script can be configured as a plugin to Calibre, and once you get the Kindle PID for each device (for instance, using kindlepid.py ) that part becomes seamless. If I can figure out the PID for my Kindle for Mac, I’d be able to eliminate the backup extraction, and could do everything from inside of Calibre.

As a side effect of all of this, I can convert and read any PDF I have handy on the iPad/iPhone as well. More importantly, I’ve future-proofed my eBook purchases against another boneheaded move from Amazon. Now I just need to figure out how to access those older files…

Review: CTEK 7002 Battery Charger

I’m a bit odd when it comes to car repair. I like to get my hands dirty, but I’m not really reliable enough to accomplish all the work I need to do on the cars. The result is that my Corrado is constantly in need of some attention, and recently that attention is almost exclusively dealing with drained car batteries. Somewhere a previous owner has spliced in an accessory that’s draining the car’s battery, but I haven’t taken the time to track it down. In the mean time, I’ve gone through 2 Optima car batteries and spent too much time and money keeping the batteries charged.

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