Geeks Gather, Make Stuff

A2Geeks and GoTech go in together for movie night
A2 Geeks Mill

Bob Stack's mill was in the atrium of the CSE building on UM's north campus, spelling out "a2 geeks" in a chunk of metal.

Edwin Olson, assistant professor in the University of Michigan’s Computer Science and Engineering department, didn’t know beforehand about the A2Geeks Make TV Movie Night, but when he saw robots in the atrium of the CSE building, he figured it was something he might be interested in and stopped to chat. Olson directs the Autonomy, Perception, Robotics, Intelligence, and Learning (APRIL) lab on the third floor of the building.

Movie night was not an A2Geeks event per se. As Dug Song put it, the organization, which he helped form in November 2008, is meant more to support other existing groups than to run its own events. And on Thursday, the existing group getting some geek love from A2Geeks was GoTech.

Dale Grover of GoTech explained that it’s an organization for people who like to make things using technology, and that when people come to their monthly meetings (generally the second Tuesday), they bring stuff they’ve made, like robots, or they spend their time making things, like printed circuit boards. They’re the sort of people who enjoy Make Magazine and its TV version, Make Television.

Movie night took place in an auditorium that adjoins the atrium, and was filled with around 60 people by the end of the two episodes of Make Television that were shown. Projected onto the twin screens of the room at various times were bicycle-driven kinetic works of art, giant flame-spewing sculptures, as well as a kitty cat getting fed by a VCR.

A2Geeks, networking, Ann Arbor

Screen shot from Make Television: cat getting fed by a VCR.

The three giant pulleys required to step down the RPMs of the VCR motor from 1800 to 30 in order to achieve the requisite torque to ensure the smooth operation of a cat feeder by the VCR motor were a source of mild amusement to the audience. But people were moved to actual applause later in the program by the demonstration of the sheer power of a pneumatic nibbler for cutting metal.

Between episodes of Make Television, there was a raffle drawing (attendees received a ticket on sign-in at no cost) with O’Reilly books and magazines as prizes.

And there was time at the conclusion of the screening for folks who wanted to stand up and pitch whatever they wanted to promote before heading out to the atrium where geek gear was set up.

Some highlights:

Coffee House Coders: Zach Steindler plugged the weekly meet-up of all kinds of coders at the Espresso Royale on State Street. Wednesdays from 9-11 p.m.

Robotics Competition: Keith McHenry Keith McClary announced that the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) was underway.

Pedal Powered Film Festival & FestiKites: Michael Flynn plugged two separate projects. The first was the idea for a bicycle-powered film festival. He also encouraged people who were interested in kite-flying and paper-folding to get involved in FestiKites. He did not plug himself.

Giant Rubik’s Cube: Mark Brehob was recruiting UM students, in particular mechanical engineers, to work on a giant Rubik’s cube project. Dimensions would be something similar to the spinning cube on UM campus next to the student activities building. It would make “virtual turns” and could possibly be manipulated remotely via web connection.


An example of a clock made from Nixie tubes by Peter Jensen. They're available from Peter as finished clocks, as assembled except for the enclosure (as shown, a block of aluminum), or as parts (

Outside in the atrium a half dozen different tables were set up:

Nixie Clocks: Peter Jensen had some clocks built from Nixie tubes on display. They’re available as complete clocks, or with everything assembled except for the enclosure, or as a set of parts. He builds them from Russian Nixie tubes. He has a stash at his own place and has an arrangement with a guy in Ukraine to get 3,000 more.

CNC Milling: Bob Stack had his machine set up and working on fabricating some decorative lettering out of metal: “a2 geeks.” He said he used it in practical applications like machine parts as well.

Security: Jon Oberheide, PhD student in computer science, had security devices on display that ranged from physical door locks to magnetic strip readers. M-Cards were one kind of card he was able to read and analyze, and he gave some background on how the security of the cards was gradually being improved by replacement of the zeros at the end of one key numerical string with random digits. The Chronicle didn’t have a chance to quiz Oberheide on the possible implications (probably none) for the new AATA fare boxes, which will require M-Card swiping.

Robots: George Albercook had programmable robots on display, which attracted the attention of the younger folk who were there, among them Grant Davis. His mother, Raelyn Davis, was there with GoTech-er Adam Davis, and as it happens had Albercook as a professor when she earned her engineering degree at UM. Albercook was plugging a day camp where kids can learn to program their own robots as well as climb around on rocks: Rocks and Robots.

So what came out of the event that could count as a something in the plus column? At least this: The Chronicle watched as Bob Stack, who was in the atrium demonstrating his computer-driven milling machine, was arranging with the UM robot guy, Edwin Olson, for a tour of the APRIL lab.


Bob Stack at right with examples of the work that his computer-driven mill produces. The blue square is machinable wax.

A2Geeks, networking, Ann Arbor

Jon Oberheide (leftmost with yellow card in hand), PhD student in computer science at UM, attracted an interested cluster of folks with a card reader that extracted information from M-Cards (or anything with a magnetic strip) and analyzed it on-screen.

A2Geeks, networking, Ann Arbor

Mark Brehob shows The Chronicle how big the Rubik's Cube will be that he's planning to get built by a collaboration of UM students.

A2Geeks, networking, Ann Arbor

Michael Flynn plugging the Bicycle Powered Film Festival and the FestiKites on April 5. Find Flynn at

A2Geeks, networking, Ann Arbor

Grant Davis helps George Albercook aim the T-shirt gun.

A2Geeks, networking, Ann Arbor

Auditorium in the CSE building for Make Television Movie Night.

A2Geeks, networking, Ann Arbor

Dale Grover of GoTech.

A2Geeks, networking, Ann Arbor

George Albercook and his robots attracted the curiosity of the future geeks.

A2Geeks, networking, Ann Arbor

Contrary to appearances, Dug Song was not standing "hat in hand." The head-wear was the vessel holding the raffle tickets.

The raffle prize scored by Les Orchard.

The raffle prize scored by Les Orchard.

Bigger and better photos of Thursday evening’s event are available on Dug Song’s Flickr account.


  1. January 31, 2009 at 10:55 am | permalink

    What a great idea! I love the mix of kids and adults (grown kids) that are gathering. Seems to be heating up in the area. Hope they continue and plan to attend future movie nights w/ my son.

  2. By Keith McClary
    January 31, 2009 at 3:13 pm | permalink

    Nice article!

    I’d like to make one correction – It should read:
    “Keith McClary (not McHenry) announced that the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) was underway”.

    Also, an addition:

    Local High School student teams are now building their robots, for competitions in March and April.

    High School FIRST teams are still seeking adult volunteer mentors with basic tool skills to help them build their robots. To contact a FIRST team close to you, please call FIRST HQ at 1-800-US1-TEAM (1-800-871-8326). Ask them for a local “FRC Team Contact”, or where to find an upcoming admission free competition event nearby to watch the fun.

    You can also find either one online, at:

    Enter: “FRC”, “Michigan”, “Teams” (or “Events”), and “List” (or “Map”) in the pulldown menus, then hit “Show Results”.

    - Keith McClary
    WAFL – Washtenaw Alliance of FIRST Leaders