Fire the Laser: My Trotec Speedy 300 laser cutter

Ever since moving out of New York City and away from NYC Resistor I have dreamed of once again having access to a laser cutter. A decade later it’s finally a reality! I got a Trotec Speedy 300, 80w. It’s a huge beast compared to the Epilog Mini 35W we bought in 2008.

I spent a long time looking at various brands of lasers. I ruled out Glowforge early because their cloud based software was a dealbreaker and I also wanted something at least 12×24. After doing a bunch of research I decided I didn’t have the time or patience for the various Chinese lasers (though there are some really nice looking options there now). I wanted something that I could call someone to fix if it broke. After talking to Epilog, Universal Laser, and Trotec I decided that the camera registration system on the Trotec set it apart enough to justify the increased cost over Epilog and Universal. It’s worth mentioning that Trotec also has a budget line called Rayjet, though I didn’t spend a lot of time looking at those.

I placed a deposit on my machine in mid January and was told to expect a delivery date of 4-6 weeks. 10 days later it was sitting in a crate on the elevator, where it remained for a couple weeks while I got the studio space ready for it.

Massive elevator dwarfs the not so small laser cutter in its crate

Note: if I was doing this again I’d get the Speedy 360. Why? The Speedy 360 is slightly shallower than the 300. The 300 does not fit through a standard 36″ wide doorway, and turning it on its side to move it was a stressful pain in the ass. I ended up hiring some movers to pick it up and carry it through the doorway.

Trotec speedy 300 in the sud

I hired an HVAC company to run an exhaust vent through the roof and connected a Penn State Industries 1.5HP motor blower to it. I then build an MDF box to put it in, both to make it easier to deal with and to muffle some of the sound. There’s also a DIY prefilter (not shown, made from a 5 gallon bucket) to catch the larger particles from engraving.

In the first picture up above you can see a fire extinguisher on the floor next to the laser. This is a CO2 fire extinguisher rather than the foam spray kind you can get at your local hardware store. It’s considerably more expensive ($200ish) and kind of a pain to get (I had to drive to Grainger to get mine) but absolutely worth it in the event of a fire in the laser. CO2 fire extinguishers work by starving the fire of oxygen and work well in situations like this. The benefit is that you don’t have to clean goo out of your laser after putting out a fire.

The laser with blower in a box. This was an in progress shot, we’ve since moved some things to make the ducting straighter.

After the exhaust was set up my sales rep Josh came out to show me how to use the machine and software. I have a ton of experience using the old Epilog but the software for the Trotec is very different. Instead of a printer driver that integrates with Corel / Illustrator they have locally hosted network based software. The benefit is that you can set up jobs from any computer on the network, and don’t need to have Corel / Illustrator installed on the computer that’s connected to the laser. The drawback is that the software, called Ruby, is very new and definitely feels like a beta product. It works very well for the things it does, but feels a bit limited in functionality. The other downside is that all their help documentation still references the old software (JobControl), so I was kinda on my own when figuring out things like how to make delrin embossing seals.

I got the Trotec Vision camera, which I got a good price on because it was being phased out in favor of a new, cooler camera that mounts in the lid. It cuts extremely accurately, so I don’t have to add bleed to my images. This saves on ink (which I think is still the most expensive liquid on earth).

Some stickers I cut on the laser

I also made a wooden puzzle from some of my generative art postcards. I first cut the puzzle out of Unisub, then printed it on my sublimation printer. I think next time I’ll reverse the order and print it first.

Other fun stuff includes some merch for my body positive fitness studio and a whole bunch of felt mouths for the puppets for a puppetry studio.

Then of course there’s the boring stuff, like signage for the office building in Manayunk where I have my studio.

I’m taking commission work on a case by case basis right now, if you’re in Philly and looking for some laser cutting please reach out! If I’ve got the time I’m happy to do it.


Yet Another Raspberry Pi Jukebox

We decided to move the Amazon spybot Echo out of the living room and I needed to come up with a new way for the kids to play music, since they can no longer run around yelling “Alexa, play Katie Perry!” 200 times per day.

I combined a Raspberry Pi with an RFID reader to make a system where the kids can grab a card and swipe it in order to play a song or playlist.

I’ve seen both RFID and mag-stripe based music players built around Raspberry Pis so putting this together was more about assembling the bits that suited my needs rather than actually doing any hard work. Helen Hou-Sandí has a really thorough write up of her project which was the jumping off point for mine.

I ended up installing and configuring the music server by hand rather than using Pi MusicBox. Pi MusicBox is built on top of Mopidy, which I installed on a fresh copy of Raspberry Pi OS (formerly Raspbian). I added in four extensions: Mopidy-Iris (web frontend), Mopidy-MPD (needed for command line control of the player), Mopidy-Spotify, and Mopidy-Local (which used to be bundled with the core but is now separate). This was a moderate pain so if you’re not familiar with the joys of Linux and Raspberry pi I suggest sticking with Pi MusicBox, which Just Works.

While I’m not an audiophile I do think the sound output on the Raspberry Pi is pretty miserable so I added a Hifiberry DAC+ card to it, which has RCA outputs I can connect to my stereo. Configuring the card is pretty easy, you just need to make sure you set the appropriate Mopidy config so it uses the RCA out and not the onboard headphone jack.

I picked up a 125kHz RFID reader and a package of 100 RFID cards. The RFID reader is a ready to go USB device that functions like a keyboard when you plug it into a computer, so no driver setup was needed for the pi.

Side note: the RFID reader has the weirdest configuration method I have ever seen. You plug it into your PC, swipe a special “configuration card” and then it will start spitting out config options, one second at a time, into Notepad or whatever you’ve opened up to accept text input. When it gets to the setting you want you unplug it to “save” that setting.

When the Pi boots up it runs a bash script that listens for the RFID reader’s input. The cards I got were pre-programmed and read only, so I set up a document that correlates the card number to the song or playlist to play. Each line has the 10 digit card number, track URI, and a comment about what it is to make the list easier to update later. The script is a fork of the one Helen wrote for her jukebox project. I tweaked it so I could include the card number and comment in the song list, and designated a specific card to trigger a graceful shutdown in case it needs to be unplugged, moved, etc.

Helen’s original repo is here and my modified version of the file is here.

My hamburger of the Pi, Hifiberry DAC+, and RFID reader.

I’m using a Raspberry Pi 3B+ which has the ethernet jack on the side and I wanted everything to be on the same face so I make a short ethernet cord to bring the jack around to the back.

I had all these parts lying around like a totally normal person.

Eventually I’d like to make a nice enclosure for it but right now this cardboard box is doing just fine. I made a template for the outputs and hacked some holes in it with an xacto knife.

Here’s everything nestled into the box, with plenty of room to spare:

I put together a quick tool to generate the labels. Photoshop has surprisingly clean SVG output. I was able to use that with a script that swaps in the artist / song title and changes the colors for each label. I’m still working on tweaking the label images but the basic process is to put the titles into a JSON file, run that through the script which outputs to a browser, then use Chrome’s “print to PDF” to print it out. It’s not really the best way to dynamically create printable PDFs but it was easy and it works.

Printing the labels in Chrome

Future Enhancements

I’ve got it working well enough to suit our needs but there are definitely some things that could improve it for the future, including:

  • Nice looking enclosure
  • Attached card holder / organization
  • Physical play / pause / next / previous and power buttons
  • Moving the track listing into a database of some sort (maybe Airtable) for easier updating and maintenance
  • Cutting out the labels on my Silhoutte Cameo rather than by hand
  • Amiibo support

The last one is just a silly add-on. I realized after I’d ordered the reader and cards that Amiibo use NFC and it would be neat to be able to scan those and play songs as well. Unfortunately it’s a different frequency than the reader I ordered.

Originally I had planned for a card holder to slide the currently playing card into, and have it look like a cassette deck. Right now this doesn’t work because after a few seconds the RFID reader scans it again and starts the song over. I’m sure I could come up with a software workout for that though.


Here’s a list of materials and components, most of which I already had lying around.

  • Raspberry Pi 3B+ ($25 at Microcenter)
  • Hifiberry DAC+ ($29 at Hifiberry)
  • 125kHz RFID reader ($34 on Amazon, though this is a generic Chinese brand)
  • 125kHz RFID cards ($22 for 100 on Amazon)
  • Ethernet extender (I made my own but they’re $5 on Adafruit)
  • Sticker Paper ( $37 for a 100 sheets at Onlinelabels, you can find smaller quantities at Michaels or Staples)


Tabletop Game Organization

The past three years we have attended PAX Unplugged and the general pattern goes like this:

  • Play a bunch of games at PAX
  • Buy a bunch of games at PAX
  • Put those games away
  • Go back to mostly playing Galaxy Truckers and Sagrada

This came to a head this past Chrismas when I went to put away some games we’d gotten as gifts (Mega City: Oceana and Ticket to Ride: London) and there just wasn’t any room on the shelf. As I shuffled things around I came across games we’d only played once, games we’d never opened, and games I swear I’ve never seen before. It was then I realized there needed to be a Reckoning.

What even is all this stuff?

The first step in getting organized is figuring out what you have so I set out to inventory my games. I started out with a spreadsheet but quickly decided to switch to using my account at BoardGameGeek.

The awesome thing about BoardGameGeek is that is has a really comprehensive database of pretty much every tabletop game. The less awesome thing is that the UI is completely overwhelming and I didn’t find out until after I was done entering everything that there were some shortcuts I could have taken (namely the tiny ‘add game’ button at the top of your collection list).

Once it was all in BGG I connected my account to a site called GeekGroup.app which has a very nice UI and got this easy to digest list of games:

Nine of the 49 tabletop games I own

What’s also neat is you can make a group collection with friends who have done the same. This does mean badgering your friends into logging everything in BGG, but the reward is a list that makes it easy to see who owns what (and thus whether you can leave Galaxy Trucker at home because there will be a copy where you’re going.

Circled letters under each game title indicate who owns what

Planning to play games

I came across the idea of a 10 by 10 challenge wherein you set out to play 10 games 10 times in a year (or other timeframe of your choosing). You can decide how strict you want to be (I’m allowing myself to swap out games if I really start to hate them)

10 by 10 tracker by daftconcepts on Etsy

I don’t have a fancy board so I’m using a phone app called BGStats to track my plays. Each time I play a game I log who I played it with, what the score was (where applicable), and who won. I hand picked 6 games that I want to play this year (Chaturanga, Eclipse, The Expanse Board Game, Mage Knight, Pandemic Legacy, and Power Grid) and the other four will auto-fill in the app based on whatever I’m playing the most.

More Stats

Now that I’m tracking my games I suddenly have all this data! Data which can be used to generate… MORE STATS AND VISUALIZATIONS.

GeekGroup has a bunch of different ways to visualize your playing. There’s the streaks and records page:

But what I really love is the playback visualization which walks through the timeline of your plays. Check it out on the GeekGroup site to get the full effect.

I’m heading into 2020 with a goal to get to know my game collection better (and jettison anything we just don’t like to play). I’m excited to dig into some games that I’ve only played once or twice, and even more excited at the idea of getting away from Weekly Rules Explanation Night by playing repeats.


Questions I have about Stranger Things


Warning: this post contains major spoilers for Stranger Things season 1. If you do not want to know what happens in the series do not read any further!

The end of Stranger Things season 1 left a lot of unanswered questions, which is not surprising to anyone. Various websites have put together lists of questions which are all things obviously meant to be ambiguous. Let’s address a few of them before moving on:

Is El still alive?

Yes, obviously.

Is Beth Barb really dead?

Yes, obviously. She seemed pretty clearly dead from the moment she got pulled into the pool. Her character wasn’t particularly well developed. She exists only for the purpose of getting Nancy involved in the story. She’s not coming back.

Edit: see she is such a non-character that I got her name wrong.

Is Dr Brenner really dead?

First rule of Hollywood: if you don’t see the bad guy die on screen, he is not dead.

What’s with Will and the slugs and the upside-down?

Gee I guess we’ll have to wait ’til season 2 comes out to find out!

Ok, with those out of the way, here are some of my questions. And whether I think we’ll find the answers.

  1. How is/was the Demagorgon moving between the normal world and Upside-Down? He’s obviously popping out in places without using the Big Ass Gate. Does he control openings like the one that idiot Nancy crawled into? Or do they just show up whenever someone cuts themselves?
    Odds of getting an answer next season: pretty high
  2. Who is Mr Clark’s girlfriend and did she dump him after he interrupted their date to tell some kids how to make a saltwater tank?
    Odds of getting an answer: maybe
  3. Did insurance cover the damages to Joyce’s house, or did they have to cover it out of pocket? If so, how? If she doesn’t have the cash for a new phone, she definitely doesn’t have the cash to repair the fire/hatchet/etc damage.
    Answer odds: low
  4. Did Mike’s mom realize the hairs she found in the basement were from a wig?
    Answer odds: nil
  5. Why on earth did Hopper think they’d be able to get into the lab the 2nd time around?
    Answer odds: medium. I think we’ll learn a lot more about Hop next season.
  6. What happened to the other 2 Bad Men in the scene where Hopper comes to get the kids from the junkyard? Did he pop all 3 of them or what?
    Answer odds: nil
  7. If the series makes it up to 1988 will there be Heathers and Beetlejuice references?
    Answer odds: slim
  8. Does anyone else refer to Steve as Steve Holt?
    Answer odds: tell me in the comments!

Boy in the Ivy

1000791_133577123455888_320601942_nI just finished reading Boy in the Ivy, a memoir about buried pain brought into clear focus by the suicide of the author’s brother. It’s a pretty heavy book by all counts – in fact I switched to Game of Thrones when I wanted a break for some lighter fare. But it’s an unusually honest and personal account of a man who is buried so far under his past he’s hardly conscious in the present.  The author also happens to have been my seventh grade English teacher, T McKinley.

It’s a little strange to read such intensely personal stories from someone I knew in a decidedly professional context. Sort of like driving by a distinctive house every day and then, years later, happening to meet someone who lived there. When we know people superficially we file them into neat little compartments. But real people almost never fit into tidy boxes. Once when I was in the seventh grade, a classmate asked why Mr. McKinley had quit doing stand-up. He replied simply and somewhat solemnly, “it would have killed me if I’d kept doing it.” Even a twelve year old can recognize that statement belongs to a man carrying some pain.

A few chapters happen to overlap with the years I was his student, and I recognize a few of the colleagues he describes. The description of my math teacher is so spot on I had to read it aloud to my husband. Perhaps the most shocking is that T’s feelings towards both the math teacher and the Head of Middle School mirrored my own. At the time, the veil of professionalism between staff completely precluded the idea that some of the teachers might find the Head as vapid as I did.

As uninspiring as I found the Head of school,  the math teacher and I were in a stand off. Our school had tracked math, and once you got stuck in one track it was difficult to move out. The math teacher, “Ethyl,” was a dear and doddering old lady to those students she’d groomed since grade school. But to me, an interloper who had switched into her class mid-year because I was blowing the curve in lower math, she was cold. As I was finally being challenged, my math grades slipped from 98 and 100% down to more reasonable numbers (I was, after all, a somewhat apathetic seventh grader taking pre-algebra). Ethyl took each middling grade as proof that I didn’t really belong there.

A recurring theme in the memoir is impostor syndrome. T fears the new school administration will notice he has no formal background in education, and sack him in favor of some shiny-resume’d fellow who loves khakis. It’s impossible to know whether that was a serious risk, but I don’t doubt there was at least a shred of reality there. And I can’t imagine the “battleaxe” of a math teacher feared for her position in the least. One would hope the administration would be able to appreciate any teacher whose students were engaged and interested, regardless of whether it was due to cutting edge educational training or just an incredible ability to improvise. But having been in the professional world for a decade now, I know better than to count on that. T gives no concrete reason for leaving the school, possibly because it’s not relevant to the story, or maybe to avoid burning any bridges.

Which brings me to my only complaint, and it does feel blasphemous to even attempt to critique one’s English teacher (especially given some of the clunkers I turned in). Towards the end things feel rushed. Early and middle years are laid out in painstaking detail, drawing a clear road map between childhood and the buried state T found himself in 40 years later. But the last decade is given just a few chapters, a rush of moving cross country and finally asking for help. I couldn’t help but feel like something important had been left out.

Part of it may be that I recognize myself in parts of the book. Although our lives and paths have very little in common1, I empathize all to well with loathing one’s inner child. I see it manifest in my own short temper with my daughter. My dad was short tempered too, although he’s mellowed out in his old age. We’re close now, but it took a while. I want to ensure that I break that pattern a lot earlier with my own kids.

But Boy in the Ivy is a memoir, not a self help book. It is perhaps a mild call to action: if you see yourself here, you may also be buried. But it is primarily a personal story. It is the story of one man who found his way out, and is still walking that path. It takes an incredible amount of courage to publish anything that deeply personal, and even more skill to make it into a compelling story. Boy in the Ivy does both beautifully.


  1. In particular I want to mention that my parents were warm, loving, encouraging, and completely averse to corporal punishment of any sort. Lest you read the book and get the wrong impression. []

Voting with one's feet

I want to take a moment to talk about something serious: a terrorist organization. Called the TSA, or Transportation Security Administration.

In a country that is so fiercely split along party lines that I sometimes wonder if we’ll make it another 50 years without bursting out into buy cialis a civil war, there is one thing that seems to be a uniting factor: hatred of the TSA. Friends across the political spectrum all seem to share a thorough resentment of the organization. Some people might say I’m being over dramatic; that while the TSA is a inconvenience, calling it a “terrorist organization” is a bit over the top, yes?

No. Not at all. Terrorism is a means of controlling people via fear, and that is exactly what the TSA is doing. I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I’m not an anything-wing nutjob, I by and large stay out of politics. But the TSA has crossed a line, causing rape victims to re-live their trauma, strip-searching 6 year olds, or making cancer survivors detail their medical history to complete strangers… and trying to pass the whole thing off as making us “safer.”

Safer? This is an organization that screens the pilots for crying out loud. News flash: if a pilot wants to hijack an airplane, she doesn’t need any weapons because she’s already the pilot.

Frankly, I’m terrified. I’m trying to figure out how I’ll possibly navigate the choice between trying to make my startup work (a process will undoubtedly require many trips to California) and not wanting to allow a complete stranger to touch my vagina. I feel backed into a corner: comply or fail. I generally prefer to “vote with my feet” and use the power of capitalism to say what my vote often fails to. But in this case, I don’t have that luxury.

We’re all fed up with the TSA’s BS, but no one seems to know what the next step is. What are our options for doing something about it?


Hackers The Movie 15th Anniversary

It’s hard to imagine that 15 years have passed since Hackers came out. It seems like only yesterday we were grimacing through the bad acting and worse “technology” references that Hackers brought to life.

Whether you love or hate the movie, everyone can agree that the 15th Anniversary Party is the perfect excuse to dress up in ridiculous looking retro clothing and drink with a bunch of other wannabe cyberpunks. In other words, it will be a typical night in Williamsburg.

More information on the party Kickstarter Page


Dead Nook

Up until this weekend, I loved my Barnes and Noble Nook. Sure, the B&N digital download store doesn’t have the selection that Amazon does, and the software is slow and bloated, but I love the hardware. It has the potential to be a really nice device.

But Barnes and Noble keeps screwing it up.

First, if the paperback version of a book is $16, and the hardcover is $24, charging $19 for the digital version is not a good deal. Stop trying to pretend like it is guys. Especially when Amazon offers the same book in digital format for $10.

But more importantly, and this goes for all companies: stop designing hardware for “optimal” use patterns. Design them for realistic ones.

This weekend I was irritated to find my nook crashed/froze while I was transferring some documents to it. I reseated the battery per the instructions on the website and all was well. Then, after only a few hours of reading, my nook was at  “critical battery level.” When I got home I promptly plugged it in, but noticed the charging light wasn’t on. After a few hours it was clear it wasn’t charging. I went through a myriad of troubleshooting tips from the B&N forums, but the thing is totally dead.

When I finally broke down and called tech support, I was told that charging my nook overnight, or more than 4 hours, is bad for the battery.  So is letting the battery dip below 20 or 30%. Apparently by using my nook the way I use every other portable electronic device I destroyed the battery.

It’s completely unreasonable to expect consumers not to charge devices overnight. It’s likewise unreasonable to expect them to never let  a battery run down.

So now I’m waiting on a replacement battery, and if that doesn’t work a replacement nook. I’m not happy about it. I read my nook almost every day on the subway. Not having it at the beach this weekend was frustrating. Going a week without it while B&N replaces it part by part isn’t making me any happier about it. Thankfully my friends with their dead tree books were kind enough to refrain from saying “hahaha my book never crashes” as I stared at the lifeless corpse of my nook.

The Kindle is looking pretty attractive right about now.

PS: Why on earth is B&N making me wait a week with a broken device when they carry the battery at one of their stores half a block away from me? I’d go down and just buy another battery, but right now I’m not in the mood to give B&N any more of my money. Unfortunately the Kindle 3 is sold out right now.

Update: While the rep on the phone said to expect my battery Monday, it actually showed up today. Later this evening we’ll know if it’s the battery or the nook.

Update #2: As expected, the battery is not the problem. The battery that I got did have cialis generic enough charge on it to boot, and the nook is just not charging it. They’re sending out a new nook, which I should have  Thursday or Friday of next week. I still fail to understand why it can’t be replaced at a B&N store, but at least they’re taking care of it.