Sunday, December 30, 2018

LED Google Cloud

While I was at school and later at university, many of my friends were building all kinds of home made electronics: radios, light systems, etc. For some reason I was not interested in soldering and electronics and gravitated to software at one extreme and to woodworking and other things made out of metal, bricks, etc. However my most recent fun project required LED lighting and forced me to learn soldering and basic circuit design, which I have enjoyed very much! Here is how it came about.

For my 20% project of 2018 at Google I have created a self driving car (details at We now use these cars across the world to run customer facing hackathons to teach Google Cloud skills to clients. To built enough cars for those hackathons I had to purchase 20 car kits at the Five Dollar Store. One of the things that was not used for the final car, were the cheap plastic wheels from those kits - we replaced them with rubber wheels for better traction. Hence I had 80 plastic wheels sitting in a box. There is no way I am putting 80 perfectly good wheels into recycling! Hence I decided to build a Google Cloud sign from plywood and used wheels as decoration:

This came out nice, but was a little dark, so I decided to add LED lights to match the colors of the official Google logo:
Initially I thought to buy a pre-lit LED light and insert it into these letters, but that seemed like a flawed approach for several reasons:
  1. Pre-lit lights are bulky;
  2. They do not have exact number of LEDs that I need and there will be extra lights to be hidden behind the sign;
  3. They do not have right mix of colors (I need 4 colors for letters);
  4. If pre-lit light breaks, it may be hard to repair;
  5. It is not much fun to use ready-made light as I wont learn much.
Hence I decided to build my own LED light. It turns out LEDs are super cheap in bulk. I bought 450 LEDs for $13 on Amazon (aka single LED cost is about 3 cents). When it came to designing a circuit, it turns out you can't simply string together those lights and expect it to work. One has to consider the following factors:
  1. Total number of wheels (aka LEDs) in my design is 44;
  2. Power adapter - I selected 12V DC, 1A adapter that plugs into a standard wall outlet;
  3. Voltage drop on each LED varies from 2V to 3.3V (depending on the color - in my case 2V for yellow and red, 3V for green and blue). This means that serial circuit for 44 LEDs will require a lot more than 12V, hence I needed to split it into many parallel and serial circuits;
  4. LEDs require resistors in a serial circuit to prevent them from melting because of sudden voltage jumps of the real world power supply (good reading here, here and here).
This is a super basic circuit, but considering that I have not done any of the electricity related calculations since college, nor have I ever done soldering, it took some reading and few YouTube videos :-). Here is the spreadsheet to calculate the number of serial and parallel circuits and resistor values:

This design has 15 parallel circuits consisting of total of 44 LED connections and a couple of dozens of resistors. Google office in Pittsburgh has amazing space with all kinds of equipment, including several 3D printers, computer controlled woodworking machines, laser cutters, soldering irons, fwe hundred drawers with all kind of electronic supplies, including resistors, sensors of all kinds, servos, molding machines, etc. It is a paradise designed to help Googlers with their hobbies. I believe there is a rule that one is not allowed to use it for work related stuff - only for fun and 20% projects. I think more companies should have these kinds of facilities for their employees. Here is a small corner of this space:

One thing to note looking at the picture above - I drilled two little holes for each of the LED legs and to avoid confusion, oriented all of the holes in exactly the same way - positive on the right, negative on the left, however this posed minor issue during wiring - you can see that I should have oriented holes linearly to avoid wiggly wires going from plus leg of one light to the minus terminal of another and that wire having to be bent twice. The reason the wire cant be run directly is that for LED to stay in place, I bent the tip of the leg outward and there is only 2 mm of that to be used for connection, hence I had to orient the wire in parallel to that little 2mm piece of the LED leg.

Another improvement that I would recommend is to avoid several long connecting wires that can be seen on the photo below and simply break up some of the circuits into two and not have to connect LEDs in blue "G" and "g" letters and red "o" and "e" letters.

The wiring was quite time consuming, especially the installation of LEDs into plywood and measuring, cutting and arranging connector wires. Soldering turned out to be the absolute easiest and fastest part of it all! Thanks goodness for Holidays, just finished the project at home last night:

I expect that some LEDs will burn out over time, hence I did not cover any of the LED connection points for easy access. Replacing a single LED in this model will take only a couple of minutes and I have 400 of them sitting in my drawer.

Here is what the final result looks like:

Happy New Year 2019 my friends!!! 
I wish you all peace, good health, and many fresh creative ideas! :-)

Saturday, June 16, 2018

New job with Google

Ok, I have changed job more than a year ago, so it is not exactly a new job anymore. I have not posted anything on this blog since I left IBM and joined Google in Pittsburgh as Customer Engineer in March 2017. Starting a new job takes a lot of time and the last time I did that was 19 years ago when I joined IBM. This past year and a half with Google have been amazing. I have met many new people and learned a lot of  cool things. If I could go back in time and change anything - I would tell myself to join Google much sooner :-).

View of New York City from the Google office (Noogler training class)
Here are few updates for the period that I missed on this blog.

Most important and saddest event is that my very good friend Yevgeniy Mikhaylyuta had died of cancer. RIP Zhenya... We all love you and will remember forever. You were very special to so many people. There are many ways you contributed to my life, including starting my triathlon passion, overall view on life and science among many other things. Every one of my long runs on weekends are dedicated to you from now on.

Yevgeniy and his wonderful family (I am Santa)
My oldest son Misha graduated high school with honors diploma and went to college to study for graphics designer.

North Allegheny High School class of 2017

Misha became certified Cross Fit Coach and wants to open his own gym. He is 19 now and a couple of months ago took 3rd place in Pittsburgh Cross Fit competition in the open category. To say I was impressed is to say  nothing.
Misha is coaching a CrossFit class
We did many fun trips as a family, including Las Vegas, Dominican, DC, NYC, found new cool places around Pittsburgh, such as this farm.

Horse riding in Pittsburgh

Among other things - I still train every day of the week, but not race as often. In late 2017 did Tough Mudder 10 miles race - that was a ton of fun. Also did Cook forest 65 miler bike ride with Google team.
After finishing Tough Mudder 10 miler
Completed Memorial Day Murph Challenge in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Big THANK YOU to our heroes.
LT. Michael P. Murph
Going forward will try to keep this blog a bit more up to date.

Monday, January 23, 2017

CO2 powered pinewood derby car that works

My son and I enjoy Cub Scout pinewood derby car building and racing every year. We've built Formula 1 car for 2015 race. In 2016 we built a simpler rocket inspired car. This year we built Star Wars Ship.

These are all gravity driven cars. Starting 2016, we being adventurous parents decided to do a "no-rules" race the night before the official kids event. Last year I created my first CO2 powered pinewood derby car, but it did not work well. This year I wanted to make a working CO2 car, but unfortunately had serious time constraints and was not able to start my project until 12pm on the day of the race. This means I had between 12pm and 5pm to work on this project. I had high level design in mind, but have not yet worked out all of the specifics and implementation details, which frankly consumed about half of these 5 hours with the other half being actual work with metal and wood and testing the prototype.

The problems with last year's design were as follows:
  • The car weight without CO2 cartridge was 1.5 oz - way too light for the power of the CO2;
  • The location of the CO2 cartridge was incorrect - it was at the rear of the car and it caused front wheels to lift when gas was discharged (the car flew to the ceiling more than once);
  • The angle of the CO2 cartridge was too small - probably about 15 degrees to the horizon - this meant that vast majority of the propulsion was used for forward motion and too little for keeping the car on-track;
  • The starting mechanism was complicated and unreliable - it is almost impossible to consistently punch a hole in the CO2 cartridge with a sharp object. Many times it did not fire at all, at other times it missed the head of the cartridge, at other times the hole was too small or off center and it caused lateral forces and thrown the car off the track.
This year design fixed all of these issues:
  • The weight of the car without the cartridge is 7 oz;
  • CO2 cartridge is angled at 35 degrees, so a good amount of force is used to push the car into the track and keep it from jumping sideways;
  • Location of CO2 cartridge is almost in the middle of the car, so the pressure is applied in between front and rear wheels to keep car on-track;
  • Most important - the starting mechanism uses bike inflator, which punches the cartridge in advance and allows for fine control of discharge of gas - see picture below.

Now the question is - how to start the gas flow? I decided to make two metal "hooks" on both sides and connect them with bike tire rubber to press it to start the flow of gas. This can be seen in the video:

Here is how the parts were made:

As for the car itself - I planned on making a very elegant design, but being severely time constrained, had to resort to a basic rough bodywork made out of a block of wood:

In the end this design worked extremely well - it was very easy to operate and the car was about twice as fast as the next fastest car on the track :-). It could be made even faster with lighter car body and more aggressive angle of the CO2 cartridge, but this will require experimentation and time, which is in limited supply :-). The other thing to add would be an automatic start, instead of using manual start with vice grips. Perhaps next year...

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Dirty Dozen bike ride

On November 26, 2016 I participated in and finished one of the most epic bike races known to men - Pittsburgh Dirty Dozen. This race had first started back in 1983 when few cyclists wanted to showcase Pittsburgh's steepest and toughest 13 hills in one ride. The total distance is 55 miles, but the fact that it is done so late in November with the temperature being around 35 F and riding these crazy hills makes this race unique. The Canton Avenue with its 36 degrees climb is considered to be the steepest street in North America. Many pictures are available on the official website.

This was my first time and hopefully not the last time doing this race. The race started in four heats. I was in the 3rd heat and only made it into top 10 on one of the hills. The rest of the hills I was consistently in top 20 with the total number of people in our heat around 60. The race was very hard, but it was a ton of fun. Not having done this before, there was an added benefit of not knowing what is ahead and how long and steep each hill is. So I just rode balls out mode every time and luckily, made it on every hill without touching the ground. It helped that it was dry. Doing this in wet or snow conditions would make it sooooo much harder, considering that if you touch the ground, you need to start from the foot of the hill. Ouch...

See Google Album here.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Conquer the Castle Trail 25K race

Fantastic race today, but I am glad I did not run 50K or 100K :-). This is a very tough run on a trail full of roots, leaves, etc. could hardly see where to go and got lost handful of times when I missed markers, so I had to backtrack a little bit.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Long trip to China, Spain and Russia

In April and May this year I've made a long business trip and worked 1 week in China, 1 week in Spain, 1 week in Russia and at the end took a ten day vacation in Russia and was able to visit St. Petersburg for the first time.

This was my 5th time in China and I am always amazed to learn new things about the country. For example, Chinese folks shop in USA because electronics, clothing and all other stuff that is produced in China costs much cheaper in USA than it is in China. Who would have thought? During this visit the pollution in Beijing was pretty strong and there could be no way for me to run outside. So I worked out in the hotel gym. The rate of heart attacks, cancer, lung diseases and other sicknesses is very high in Beijing and many people are happy to live in much smaller cities to avoid pollution. Here is a complete album of photos from China.

Next I flew to Madrid, Spain. Since I have been in the city three times I spent most of my time on work or in hotel, but one night was able to take a good tour of the city with Saglara - an old friend of mine from school days who now lives in Madrid. She and her friend know the city very well and used to work as guides, so I had a personalized tour :-). Here are some photos I took in Madrid.

At the end of the week we went to a beautiful Spanish city Toledo. That was fantastic! The city is beautiful and with perfect weather and the festival going on there it was an awesome day. Having two folks who know and love the city was great and we all enjoyed it very much. Few photos I took in Toledo.

Next I flew to Russia and worked in Moscow for a week and then went to my parents and visited St. Petersburg with my younger brother. This was my first time in St. Petersburg and I was very impressed with the city. Here are 190 photos from the 4 days in the most beautiful city in the world:

Also see 54 photos from the Faberge Museum.