Saturday, July 2, 2011

High Tech for the Masses

TechShop opens San Jose space, giving do-it-yourselfers access to cutting edge tools and machines
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, July 2, 2011

Ella Vallejo of San Jose checks her soldering of a circuit board in the Solder and Basic Electronics class at TechShop Menlo Park.
Just to see one of Moto Ohtake’s shimmering stainless steel kinetic mobiles spinning in the wind is worth the drive to Sierra Azul in Watsonville. Or to see Kathleen Crocetti’s radiant multi-panel hanging mosaics made from thousands of tiny pieces of stained glass. Or the fascinating eroded sphere made by David Mudgett, made from what looks like rebar for giants. “Sculpture Is,” the 6th-annual June-October sculpture show at Sierra Azul Nursery and Gardens, once again has an amazing array of incredible large-scale pieces.

As a maker who leans towards materials I can safely work with on my kitchen table, I can certainly appreciate these sculptors’ facility with materials as daunting as steel, concrete, bronze, and glass, and techniques as demanding as soldering, welding, grinding and sandblasting.

Your creative endeavors are always limited by know-how and access to tools and machinery. And even with training and tools, you might not have an appropriate workspace or the high tech machinery to work as efficiently as possible.

“Build your dreams here” prominently greets open house
 visitors at the entrance to TechShop San Jose.
But now there is TechShop. The equipment-rich DIY Bay Area workshop has just opened a new location in downtown San Jose, near the San Jose State. Seven days a week from 9 am to midnight, members have access to tools and machinery to create just about anything they can think of. TechShop classes are also open to non-members to learn techniques, master the safe operation of high tech equipment, and get a taste of the possibilities.

Classes offered by TechShop such as sewing, wood shop, embroidery and silk screen printing, might sound conventional. However, TechShop teaches these crafts using expensive, state-of-the-art machinery, which is (in the case of the San Jose shop) brand-spanking new.

TechShop’s pride and joy is a state-of-the-art
 3D printer, which can make three-dimensional
 items out of sturdy ABS plastic from any
 3D CAD file, layer by layer.
For example, in “Industrial Sewing SBU” (SBU stands for Safety and Basic Use) you’ll learn how to safely sew thick fabrics like canvas, leather, sails, tents, and nylon straps on an industrial sewing machine. In “Wood Shop SBU,” you’ll build a bench using all the standard woodworking tools and equipment, and be introduced to the CNC ShopBot—an amazing computerized router that carves in every direction for making 3D projects like signs, instruments and furniture.

Take “CNC Embroider SBU,” and you’ll learn to use a computerized machine that creates digitized stitches based on monogramming and logo art as well as clip art style designs. Or take “CNC Vinyl Cutter SBU,” where you’ll make use of software like Adobe Illustrator, Corel Draw, FlexiStarter 8, and machinery like the CNC Vinyl Cutter—a great tool for making screens for silk screen printing, signs, banners and decorating t-shirts.

I took “Soldering and Electronic Basics” at the Menlo Park TechShop location last week and learned how to solder electronic components for electronic printed circuit board
assembly by making an LED Blinkatron 2000. (!) With a six-student limit, the instructor was able to give individual attention to absolute beginners like me. This is also one of the classes which allow young adults aged 12-17 to participate without a parent. Upon request, I was also given a tour of building by one of TechShop’s Dream Coaches who are always on site to help members with their projects and answer questions.

TechShop Menlo Park describes their bin wall as the world’s
 largest shared junk drawer. Members bring in their surplus
 items and materials and add them to the appropriate
 bin for other members’ use.
TechShop was founded by Jim Newton—formerly a science advisor to Discovery Channel’s MythBusters—who rounded-up lenders and opened the first TechShop in Menlo Park, California in October 2006. Today there is also a TechShop franchise in Raleigh, North Carolina, and TechShop San Francisco opened in January of this year. TechShops Detroit and New York are in the planning stages.

One of TechShop’s success stories is Patrick Buckley, who used the Menlo Park shop to develop a prototype for a handmade iPad case. Today, his San Francisco-based company DODOcase, has sold $1 million in product, or about 10,000 to 15,000 cases. Joe Menard, TechShop’s chief operating officer, said that another member developed a bamboo knitting needle gauge, and today has a $300,000 business. A third is building a lunar lander for an annual NASA-funded amateur contest.

Menard said TechShop’s membership ranges widely, “from kids, to whimsical adults, to serious adults to people with business ideas.” He himself used TechShop equipment to make an audiophile-quality stereo amplifier for his home.

Members work on the vertical knee mill and the metal turning lathe
 in the machine shop at TechShop Menlo Park.
San Jose Dream Coach Kasey Kvamme led tours at Saturday’s open house with obvious enthusiasm. “Our instructors will get you using machines in a matter of hours,” she said to the crowd. “It’s easy and it’s so much fun,” she said about welding. After the tour, she described  Menlo Park as TechShop’s “Millennium Falcon,” in that, San Jose incorporated the features that worked at Menlo Park, and improved upon the one’s that didn’t work as well. “We’ve learned a lot from Menlo,” she said.

Before becoming an employee, Kvamme first came to TechShop Menlo Park for a laser cutting class. In the future she hopes to use the longarm computerized quilting machine (which hadn’t arrived for the grand opening) to make a new bedspread. And, as a dedicated Arkham Horror player, she’d like to build a glass-topped game board.

Memberships are priced at $125 per month or $1499 for an annual membership, and include free Autodesk Inventor classes. TechShop Menlo Park has about 800 members and San Francisco, about 675. Non-members can take most classes, which range in price from $45 to $90, plus materials fees.
TechShop Menlo Park’s main workshop area accommodates classes and provides workspace for members.
At the far end of the workshop is a kitchen always stocked with free popcorn and coffee.

Botany and desire in my own backyard

Humans vs. plants: Who's calling the shots?
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, June 4, 2011

   Our completed arbor is simple and relatively inexpensive, constructed of
brown-stained pressure-treated lumber, deck screws and 8 lag screws.
Are humans in charge of plants? I was recently reminded of the power of plants in my life by “The Botany of Desire,” the PBS documentary inspired by Michael Pollan’s book of the same name. In both the book and the film, Pollan makes the case that, although we’ve always thought that we are in charge of plants, in fact, they have been shaping us. In the film he says “We don’t give plants nearly enough credit. They’ve been working on us. They’ve been using us.” He points to four common plants—apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes—and shows how these plants, by satisfying our desire for sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control, respectively, have gotten us to go to great lengths to ensure their survival and abundance.

Desire, of course, is a powerful force—sometimes leading us to seek gratification at all costs. In our quest for sweetness, for example, Pollan says that we have grafted only the sweetest apple varieties over and over until they have lost their genetic diversity and ability to naturally resist pests and diseases, thereby increasing the need for pesticides and even genetic engineering.

And so I now realize that this complex relationship between plants and humans has played itself out in my own backyard. The needs of plants have been shaping the content of my weekends for months, maybe years. The following series of events shows how my own desires for sweetness, beauty, and control (we’ll leave intoxication out for now) have caused me and my husband to go to back-breaking lengths for plants—sometimes with unexpected results.


Hammering the boards in place goes quickly after figuring out how to dig
post holes in root-infiltrated soil with a "tamper head digging bar," which
we dubbed "the root-buster."

September 2010: The seven native cottonwoods growing around the perimeter of our front yard are ruining everything. My garden is losing light as the huge, leafy trees grow dramatically each year. In the spring, they drop their sticky seeds all over our deck, lawn furniture, and cars, leaving a glued-on black residue. And their invasive roots are sending up shoots, crowding out plants, and pushing up stepping stones all over the yard.

Saturday, September 11: We hire my cousin’s daughter’s boyfriend—an on-call CDF fire-fighter—to come cut the trees down. After traveling from Sacramento, he realizes he doesn’t have the expertise or the equipment to drop the largest trees without hitting structures and wires, so $500 later, we are only rid of two small trees.

Wednesday, September 29: We hire a local arborist, whose crew reduces the five remaining cottonwoods to stumps.

Sunday, April 3: With the cottonwoods gone, we lose some privacy in our front yard. My husband and I decide to build a 13-foot stretch of fence along the road. It’s our first fence and we are immediately hindered by enormous, unyielding roots (from the cottonwoods, of course) which make digging three post holes impossible.

Saturday, April 9: At Lowe’s I am directed to a root-severing device: a simple cast-iron pole, blade-like at one end, and so heavy I can barely lift it into the cart.

Later that day: By hurling our new “root-buster” downwards, over and over, the offending roots are severed one by one by my husband, the holes are finally dug, and the posts are Quikreted in place.

Saturday, April 17: We finish the fence and pose for a proud “We did it!” photo moment—which is somewhat bittersweet, because unstoppable cottonwood shoots are still erupting from shallow roots all over the garden.


Backed by our new concrete block retaining wall,
 the new tomato plants have plenty of virgin soil
  and room to grow.
Week of May 6-13: In an attempt to grow tomatoes more successfully in my backyard (see Love Apply Farms’ recommendations at, among other things, I need to:
1)      Create a new planting area in soil that is not exhausted.
2)      Dig several 2-foot holes in root-infested soil.

I choose a space at the base of a hill, not too distant from a large oak tree. I trim back ice plant, lug it away, and extend an existing retaining wall using concrete wall blocks—97 of them to be exact. It takes four trips to Home Depot to transport the heavy loads in my small trunk. I beg/bribe/bully available family members each trip to help carry the blocks from the car to the backyard.

Sunday, May 15: The wall is finally done, and my husband hurls the root-buster once again to dig the holes for the tomatoes—which are finally planted in nutrient fortified, gopher-wired holes. If the gophers don’t infiltrate the wire, we’ll know by August whether or not all that effort was worth the sweet taste of a ripe heirloom tomato.


Friday, May 20: Not far from the tomatoes, an innocently planted piece of wisteria root has grown into a thriving vine that, in the spring, sprouts a lovely profusion of hanging white flower clusters. However, now that it’s May, the wisteria has morphed into a green leafy alien-monster, sending  its wavy tendrils out into space, looking for something—anything—to grab a hold of.

Weary of hole-digging, I wonder if an arbor can be built without sinking the posts. Online I learn that it is possible to attach posts to concrete piers, but it doesn’t sound very attractive or very stable.

Our completed arbor, from plans in
"Making Arbors & Trellises" by
Marcianne Miller & Olivier Rollin
Saturday, May 28: I purchase lumber and hardware at Monument Lumber in Freedom. My husband digs the holes (more root-busting, of course) and I begin cutting the lumber.

Sunday, May 29: We attach the posts to the cross beams, then lift the two heavy structures up into the holes. We adjust the relative height of the four posts with rocks until they all match, then attach the side beams and roof pieces. Finally, towards the end of the day, we secure the posts and I stand back to admire our handiwork. Aching all over and dead tired, I’m trying to envision one of my daughters underneath a lovely flower-draped arbor on her wedding day, when my husband asks, “What if the wisteria doesn’t use the arbor?”


So what exactly have we learned about our relationship with plants? Perhaps it is recognizing that we do have a relationship with plants, and, in fact, we are rather dependent upon each other. Or as Michael Pollan puts it, “to the extent that you can put yourself in the place of these other species and look at the world from their point of view…we become members of the biotic community, one among many species, all of them together creating this wonderful web that we call life.”