Upcoming venues for the Chaos Machine:

Past venues:








  • TCEP 16, September 2009, Laurel, MD.

I’ll be looking for Chaos Wranglers for all of these events (and thanks again, Tony, for your continued wrangling!)

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Here’s a brief view of one of the Chaos Machine exhibits I’ve done; this one’s from the 2013 North Carolina Maker Faire.

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… and boy do our feet hurt.

First and foremost I want to thank my wife Carrie, and Tony Montuori for helping out — it would not have been possible to do this event without their help.  This was a 4-day show for us, in a huge convention center with concrete floors.  Lots of walking, even more standing, and always on one of the hardest surfaces known to man.  The Walter Washington Convention Center fills three city blocks, and is a Union-controlled shop.  This meant that nothing larger than a backpack could be carried onto the exhibition floor by anyone other than a teamster, and that all of the booth setups (walls, electrical, etc) had to be done by one union or another.

Thursday — Move In

You can’t just arrive at the convention center and expect to unload your van.  You have to be marshaled, first.  In this case, that meant driving to one of the parking lots at RFK stadium, checking in, getting assigned a number, and (possibly) waiting your turn to head to the convention center.  We got to RFK around 10am, then drove around it searching for the marshaling lot, which we eventually found by accident.  After waiting in line for 5 minutes, I was given paperwork and a number, and directed to head to the convention center.  To get to the loading docks, you have to find the loading entrance (it’s on L street) and then you drive into the bowels of the convention center.  Once there, you’re directed to park, then the teamsters look at your paperwork, decide to write up a second copy, and get confused, and eventually haul your stuff (in our case, 8 large Tupperware bins, a bag of pool noodles, and a roll of carpet) to somewhere close to your booth.  At which point, Carrie took the van to park it.

When we got to our booth, we discovered that the bins and everything weren’t too far away.  Our booth was actually 4 booths (20’x20′), facing a major walkway … but the booth itself had been setup in the wrong place.  This meant that we would have to wait for the union guys to reset the booth in the correct location, and wire it for power.  That killed a couple of hours, but gave us time to go out and get lunch.

By 1pm we were set up and building.  We decided to build a T-shaped machine, with the top of the ‘T’ facing the walkway, and the base of the ‘T’ nearest to the tables with the parts bins.  Once the framework was assembled, we added elevators, and stunts along the center of the ‘T’.  By 7pm we were done for the day, so we headed home.

Friday — Building and Sneak Preview

By 9am we were back in the booth, adding track and stunts to the machine.  There was a rumor that President Obama was going to come to the Festival in the afternoon (he did, but he didn’t walk the exhibition hall) so we worked furiously to link all of the sections of the machine.  At the same time, bus loads of students from area schools came in to see the displays, including us.  Usually we’re used to seeing kids and parents; these were large groups, typically supervised by a couple of teachers/chaperons, and no time to really learn how to work with the machine, but instead asking lots of questions and occasionally wanting to do an interview.  Around 2pm the crowds started to die down, and we could work on the machine in relative peace.  By 7pm the machine was largely complete, and, with the exception of one section, didn’t see many changes for the rest of the weekend.

Saturday — The Mob Arrives

Back again at 9am with another helper (Shaune Lee), we tuned up the machine, and awaited the onslaught, which was quick to appear.  The families came in waves, but at peak times the kids were surrounding the machine 4 and 5 deep.  Almost the only thing we had the breath to say was “You can look as close as you like, but please don’t touch the machine.  If you find a marble on the floor, you can place it on the big track at the bottom of the machine.”  This went on until 6pm, when we unplugged the machine.  Remarkably, no one got hurt, and there wasn’t any significant breakage, though we did have to replace one of the chain drive motors (it was stalling too much).

Sunday — The Last Day

By this point, we were all dragging, and so we got to the exhibition hall around 9:30am.  Sunday was much like Saturday, though the official stop time was 4pm, when again, we pulled the plug on the machine.  I went over to the show offices to schedule a move-out time, only to be told that I would have to drive all the way out to RFK to schedule to get marshaled, the same as Thursday.  Grumbling we packed up the machine, then off I went to RFK, where I was told (once again) that I had the wrong paperwork, yada yada, here’s your number, and race back to the convention center.  After jockeying around and dodging a big rig, we got loaded and went home, to sleep and rest our feet.

It really was a good time, but the crowds were overwhelming at times.  I seriously needed more Chaos Wranglers, and I should have gotten low curtains around the entire booth, to better manage the crowds.  On the other hand, the machine ran well, and everyone seemed to enjoy the show.  I need to upload photos and edit videos, but that will have to wait for the weekend.

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… since the Tyrolean spa had the chess boys in it.  Scratch that, wrong song. But it has been quite a while since I last updated here.

MakerFaire:NC 2011 was great — easily twice the size of the previous year.  This year Tony Montouri came down to Raleigh to help with the Chaos, and we had a great time.  We spent most of Friday assembling the framework, planning the stunts, and getting the initial track layout done.  That left Saturday for fleshing out the build and showing off to all and sundry.  This time we built a large U-shaped layout, with a high bridge across the top of the ‘U’.  This allowed us to run marbles completely around the machine, which reduced the need to keep shuttling marbles from one side of the machine to the other.  Once again, there was barely time to look around at the rest of the exhibits.  The machine was a great draw for the show, and Jon Danforth has asked me to bring it back next year.

TCEP 18 was lots of fun too.  No where near as many people as MakerFaire:NC, but the chance to spend an entire weekend building and improving the machine is always good.  This year the Chaos Machine was used as a prop in the LARP (Miskatonic Class Reunion).  Another nice thing with the longer, slower pace is that I get to spend time teaching the kids how to troubleshoot the machine.

It looks like the next venue for the Chaos Machine will be the 2012 USA Science and Engineering Festival which is being held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, April 27-29, 2012.  This should be a huge show, but at least it’s local, with Friday for pre-build, and Saturday and Sunday for full exhibition.   I wouldn’t normally be able to afford the exhibition fees, but the organizers have arranged with Gary Mauler (RobotFest and Midatlantic Mini Maker Faire) to make a large number of booths available to local area Makers.

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I just got notified that MakerFaire:NC is doing another show, this time at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds, on June 18th, 2011, and that they would like me to bring back the Chaos Machine.  I’ve already agreed to go, so now it’s time to plan for what to do…

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Rented a van to haul the machine to Laurel, Maryland, for Tad and Craig’s Excellent Party 17.

Friday night I set up the framework and elevators before dinner, then started working on track after dinner.  After assessing the space, I went with a lightning bolt, set diagonally along a wall, which left most of the room for gaming.  The elevators were at the center corners of the machine, with their catch tracks running to the opposite ends of the machine   I didn’t make as much progress as I might have liked, due to the assistance of two cute little redheaded girls.

Saturday morning I finished tying one side together with a triple loop-de-loop and a complex trampoline, which gradually drew in kids and parents, along with a couple of other like-minded souls.  By 2pm it was going well enough that I felt I could take a break; when I came back around 5:00, the machine had evolved.

Sunday featured more gradual evolution and bug hunting, mostly by the kids but with help from some of the adults.  I mostly looked in on it between running a LARP and an INWO event.

Monday morning I tweaked a couple of rough spots, which drew in more helpers — I may have convinced a couple of parents to go hunting for used sets on eBay for their kids.  Monday afternoon we broke down the machine and packed it back into the van for the trip home.

All-in-all, another successful outing.

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This Spring I have picked up the following sets on eBay:

  • Millennium Tower ($45.88 + $15.48 shipping)
    This set was basically new-in-box, but missing its marbles.  I really only bought it to see what a Millennium Tower set looked like.

At this point, I’ve got at least one of each of the base sets that were produced. Current totals:

  • (1) Starter Set
  • (2) Intermediate Set
  • (4) Master Set
  • (1) Millennium Explorer
  • (2) Millennium Builder
  • (1) Millennium Tower
  • (3) Chaos Tower

I need to stop buying sets — I’ve got more machine than I can conveniently set up anywhere except as a dedicated installation.

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Carrie and I went to Durham, North Carolina, last week for the ShopBot Jamboree and MakerFaire:NC.  We rented a van, loaded it with the chaos machine, and drove down Wednesday afternoon.

Thursday was a day-long “Introduction to ShopBot” course, designed to give people a feel for using CAD/CAM with a ShopBot.

Friday and Saturday morning comprised the Jamboree, and there were lots of presentations on what you can do (and others have done) with a ShopBot.  In general this was fun and interesting, though a couple of the speakers should be working for insomnia clinics.

Saturday afternoon, the ShopBot folks cleared out and the MakerFaire folks moved in.  That was my cue to start setting up the Chaos Machine.

Saturday evening there was a reception for the Makers at The Scrap Exchange.  It was a neat place filled with all sorts of junk waiting to be repurposed, at low-low prices.  Carrie bought so much art-makings that she needed to buy a storage bin just to bring it all home.

Sunday was the MakerFaire — a long day, but lots of fun.  Read all about it here:  MakerFaire:NC 2010.

Monday we drove home again, in time for Ludus.

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Here’s a short list of things I want to do in the month leading up to MakerFaire:NC:

  • Part out the two new Chaos Toy sets.
  • Rearrange how parts are grouped in the storage tubs.
  • Print out more labels for the parts bins maybe next time.
  • Create signs to explain the machine, and warn parents about small parts maybe next time.
  • Design and print Chaos Machine business cards maybe next time.
  • Dedicate a storage tub to just holding framework tubes.
  • Mock out how large a machine I can build in certain spaces.
  • Decide whether to use the Chaos Controller maybe next time.
  • Pre-build some stunts.

It’s important to work out in advance how much framework I’ll need for a given space, because I’ll want to make sure I have enough long and medium tubes available.  I have an abundant supply of the small tubes, and they are easy to store in the parts bins.  The medium tubes are harder to store, and the long tubes don’t fit into any of the parts bins.  “The Chaos Machine is a series of tubes …”  I need to build some custom-fit dividers that will split one of the storage tubs into sections that are correctly sized for long, medium, and short tubes.

The size of the framework will also dictate how interesting the machine will be.  When building with a single Chaos Toy set, there’s a single lift (be it a screw elevator or a chain lift), a couple of decision points, and then all of the tracks end up delivering to a single collection track, which feeds the lifter.  With 6 chain lifts and 7 elevators available, I can put together a lot more mayhem, but only if I have enough space to work with.  As it is, I’ve found the older screw elevators are unreliable for large vertical lifts, but I’d still like to include at least one small lift.

I also want to pre-build some stunts.  The trampoline stunts can be very impressive, but they require a lot of experimentation to get working reliably.  I’d like to spend some time working with combinations of trampolines, and documenting the correct drop heights and angles.  I’d like to do the same for the loop-de-loop and the double loop-de-loop.

Another stunt that requires a little pre-work is the spiral.  The spiral is made by taking a bunch of 180 curves, connecting them so that they form a spiral (either right-handed or left-handed), and then inserting pins into pre-existing holes so that the curves are vertically spaced enough so that the ball can move freely (by default the curves will nest).  I made one of these at TCEP 16 by hand-cutting pins out of wooden toothpicks, but they weren’t as uniform as I would have liked, and it took me a while to build.  I’d like to make metal pins by cutting up some old hangers, and then pre-assemble a spiral so that I can just install it, instead of having to build it on-site.  I’ve even given some thought to how to make a double-spiral…

Well, lots to do, and only a month to do it in.

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I’ve been asked to show the Chaos Machine at the North Carolina Maker Faire, in Durham, NC, on Sunday, April 25th.  Normally that would be a long way to go for a one-day show, but as it happens, Carrie and I will be attending the 2010 ShopBot Jamboree, which is being held at the same location, Friday and Saturday (April 23-24).

Given the space available, I’m only going to be able to take a fraction of the machine (maybe a third) but I hope to have enough to make it fun to play with for everyone.

After further discussion with Carrie, we’re renting a van for the trip, so I’m going to see about taking the full machine.  I’ve talked with the show organizers, and I should be able to get a larger than average place to set up, and will be able to do the setup Saturday evening, so that the machine is doing “interesting things” all day Sunday.

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