A Dust Bowl Themed Machine?

It’s been quite a while since my last post, but the custom pinball business keeps me busy (on nights and weekends anyway). My current project is quite interesting- although at first it might not seem so. I affectionately call this project my “Dirt Machine”, since it is a custom design for a museum exhibit dedicated to the “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s. The Smoky Hill Museum is located in Salina, Kansas.

The museum’s website is at https://smokyhillmuseumorg.presencehost.net/.

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Farming Fun in Kansas, 1930s. No, Thank You.

With the Great Depression as the backdrop, many families fell victim to circumstances that included over farming, extreme debt, economic collapse of the wheat markets, drought, illness, and death brought on by monstrous dirt and dust storms. Suffice it to say that the people of this region experienced some miserable conditions at the time.

So how is that for a challenge to design a custom pinball machine? Sound like fun?

Fortunately, I have the guidance and enthusiasm of Josh Morris, Curator of Exhibits at the museum, to feed me information and ideas. The first thing to note is that the machine will be a centerpiece of a new area of the museum called “The Curiosity Shop”, a hands-on area for children to explore.

My goal is to have the parents of these kids- in a fit of nostalgia- flock towards my pinball machine. The kids won’t have a chance.

So what’s the plan?

The theme of the machine will be to take on the challenge of an impending dust storm, and to take (symbolic) actions that can “save the farm” and otherwise weather the storm. Progress/success takes the form of accumulated points on the vintage machine that is the basis of my new design (a 1964 Williams “Wing Ding” EM unit). There is a feature in this machine that lets the player hit targets to “rack” little wooden balls in the back glass of the unit, and after accumulating 9 such balls, the machine rewards the player with an extra ball. At this point, any dust storm in progress will end.

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Wing Ding Back Glass: That Doesn’t Look Like a Dust Storm to Me….

I’ve adapted this game play such that the targets and “racking” represent the proactive things that farmers needed to do to improve their chances of saving their farms and surviving the dust storms.

For example, one target will activate mechanical “wind breaks” (gates) that will close off the sides of the game making it easier by eliminating the side drains. These “wind breaks” in reality would be the planting of lines of trees to lessen the impact of heavy wind.

The key feature of the game, however, will be the presence of a mechanical mechanism that simulates a dust storm- that slowly covers the lower playfield, obscuring the player’s view and making it difficult to play. This dust cloud effect will cover more of the play field as time progresses.

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The “Dust Storm” Mechanism Design

So the game includes both positive and negative impacts to game play that the player needs to deal with in order to score more points, get an extra ball, or play on through the dust storm so that peace is restored to the game play.

Add to this a custom sound track that simulates an old-timey news cast, with music, news, and weather alerts from that era. All of this will be played through a sound system that incorporates a vintage RCA speaker on the top of the machine (Thanks eBay!)

Looks Authentic To Me: RCA 100A Speaker

Concept artwork designs are in process, and I’ve solicited the talents of my friend and comic book artist Chad Cicconi to finalize the look and feel of the playfield. We are considering a scarecrow as the central figure to the design.

Check out some of Chad’s work at http://ccicconi.deviantart.com/

Stay tuned for more details as work progresses.

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The Basic Layout of the Playfield: Missing? Scarecrow.

 

I’ve Been a Lazy Blogger, but a Busy Maker.

A blog is only as good as the story it tells, and my story for the past few months is that I’ve been holed up in my basement a lot, trying to see how many safety violations I can rack up while rushing to finish my latest project.

Since OSHA hasn’t been in touch, I think I’m in the clear now- no major loss of digits, air quality is good enough to keep a canary alive, and I’m not telling about any tripping incidents.

I won’t count the numerous soldering gun events either, since I’m rationalizing that those are almost like what people pay for at tattoo shops (just without the ink or artistic intent).

All of this was in preparation for what I’ll call the “big boy show and tell”- the World Maker Faire held annually on the site of the 1966 Worlds Fair in New York.

The stories from this past weekend were many and varied- I connected with dozens (if not hundreds) of potential clients who were envious enough, nostalgic enough, and “seriously considering” partnering with me to build them a custom pinball machine in a theme of their liking. But the most enjoyable conversations had nothing to do with that.

There was the guy who shared his story of how he longed to be a “creative engineer” (a textbook oxymoron if ever there was one), and how he started his life adventure dissembling and then repairing TVs at the age of 5. He now does movie production work. He was eager to talk about the social messages of the zombie movie, George Romero as a genius director, and asked “why did you choose to keep all the old electronics in your game design?”

Then there was the college grad student who picked my brain about getting new micro controllers to work with all the “electronic noise” of an old pinball machine. She seemed genuinely interested, and she even took notes.

There were dozens of baby boomers who I spoke to who simply loved the sights and sounds (and the physicality) of an old pinball machine- and they played to relive their youth, and to refresh their flipper skills. The “BB of the H” (Baby Boomer of the Hour) and I chuckled together as we watched kids from 2 to 22 walk up to the machine wide-eyed, but not having a clue how to play such a thing without a joystick or controller.

There were the casual inquiries from others who mentioned that they had never seen this model of machine back in the day when they were players. It was always fun to tell them that this was the one and only machine of this type- and even though it looks and sounds like a 1970’s era pinball, those machines didn’t have enclosed fog generating systems or “infinity mirror” portals. “You made this?” was my favorite phase of the day ( but also made me realize I wasted a lot of time and money on signage that tried to make that as pretty much the point of the project.)

There were engineers, artists, scientists, inventors, small kick-starter funded company presidents asking me technical details about my Arduino control system architecture. Some seemed dissatisfied with my choices, but were more forgiving when I admitted that I bought a “Getting Started with Arduino” kit exactly 1 year ago at this very Maker Faire. That same story gave comfort to a few wannabe inventors who were intimidated by the entire concept of Arduinos and programmable micro controllers. If a Civil Engineer (the opposite of an Electrical Engineer, if there is such a thing) can do this- you can as well.

And then there were the zombie and horror movie enthusiasts who shared how NOTLD “affected” them with its bleak ending and ground- breaking visuals.

These were the many languages spoken at Maker Faire- and I was happy to participate in such a wide range of discussions in all of those languages.

But I also must admit that I’m a bit sleepy now. Until next time….
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Night of the Living Dead Update

The last few months have been frantic. Work duties during the week, and weekends spent “cramming for finals” with my Engineering Senior Design Team at Roger Williams University.

Well the finals are done, the Team has graduated and moved on, and I have been teaching myself new programming languages so I can build a custom fog/light/sound/special FX control unit for my machine.

As of today, the machine is symbolic of its own state- a zombie mechanism capable of limited movement and grunting- but lacking a connected “brain” to make it all work correctly as envisioned.

So to the world of breadboards, Arduinos, LEDs and servos I have journeyed.

I emerge from the other side of this jungle jumble of thought wires with clarity- it almost all makes sense now. I have a complex web of my lessons connected, buzzing, glowing, and moving on my actual (not virtual) desktop. The design all works now- lights flash multiple colors, moans and screams happen electronically as I direct them to- as opposed to haunting my dreams. Fog generators glow when expected as I touch trigger wires.

I now must transform this rats nest of success into the limited space of my zombie machine to make it come alive.

I now look forward to days of soldering and cursing my iron scorched fingers.

The sprint is now to get it all together and functioning in time for the planned “big reveal” in New York City- at the World Maker Faire in September- if they accept my application. If so, my work gets an audience of 100,000+ people.

As part of my application, last night I put together a crude video of the transformation of this custom machine. The story, as is the machine, remains unfinished- a stumbling, bumbling zombie still searching for brains.

The video so far can be seen here:

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Pinventions- Catching Up in the New Year

Happy New Year to all!

I blinked. Before I had a chance to open both eyes, the holidays were over, I was back at work, and I didn’t spend nearly as much time as I wanted to on my favorite hobby-business. In my last update, I introduced the Pinventions Senior Design Team working on a fog system for my “Night of the Living Dead” custom pinball project. That was in late November.

Here’s a quick update on what has happened since then:

1. The Roger Williams University Engineering School Senior Design Team delivered a summary of their work in a semester-ending presentation to faculty, students, and others.
2. I can only assume they all got A’s as a result of their awesome progress (and because they all looked sharp in their suits). Photo below.20140116-212216.jpg

3. Linda, Amanda, Jon and I had a nice long drive to PA to visit and celebrate a total of 3 Christmas’ with our families. Eve made alternate arrangements.
4. Amanda graduated from college a semester early. This was good.
5. Other stuff…
6. In pinball related news, I recently partnered with a talented comic book artist, Chad Cicconi, to help design a playfield for my Night of the Living Dead pinball machine project. Chad happens to be from my hometown- Brownsville, PA, and does some lawyering on the side (much like I do some engineering on the side- meaning that those are our real jobs).

About Chad Cicconi.
Link to Chad’s website.

I’d like to dedicate the rest of this blog to highlighting some of the comic book work Chad has done, and sharing some of the concept art he has created for my pinball project.

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Chad draws (among other things) the FRACTURE series of comics for Action Lab Entertainment, and a recent issue has been receiving some favorable press. Review.Traditional (nostalgic) pinball art has many similarities to comic book style art, and I am not especially talented in that genre. I saw some of Chad’s work online, liked his style, and realized that he could help me with certain parts of my overall design. He has some great ideas, and I am excited to see how his work, my work, and the Senior Design Team’s work will all come together in the next few months.

There are a few surprises in store, but here is a sampling of what Chad is working on for me. Stay tuned, this should be fun.

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P.S. I am overstocked with “donor” pinball machines (and running out of room since both Jon and Amanda are back living at home temporarily). I have 12 or 13 machines now (I honestly lost count), and would be willing to sell a few “as-is” (non-customized) for $500 to $800 just to clear up some space. If you are interested, let me know- I’ll get a machine cleaned up and working for you.

Motel Hell and Pinball Nirvana

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This is My Canvas

Hello world! I made it home alive from my excursion to exotic York, PA last weekend where I attended a pinball convention (of sorts) for the third straight year. If that sounds super exciting to you, then wait, there’s more! I am also pleased to report that I was privileged to stay in what I judge to be the worst hotel in the world.

I can hear you doubters out there saying “Come on, Dave! It seems certain that there are hotels in third world countries and West Virginia that can proudly make that claim. Surely you jest!”

I’m not sure why you all speak that way, but that’s what I heard.

Anyway, I can offer proof of this claim by way of a list that I will entitle:

Why the York, PA Econo Lodge is the Worst Hotel in the World

Let me list a few examples that help to illustrate my point. Let’s begin at check-in….

1. I was greeted and checked in by a woman (I assume) that (I assume) was the owner, who-during the entire time (s)he was checking me in- was wheezing uncontrollably and continuously. I almost called an ambulance for this person, but (s)he didn’t seem to be bothered by this nearly as much as I was. Also, I didn’t call for help because I was so distracted by the large flap of skin in her (?) left nostril that fluttered in rhythm to the wheezing. This had an oddly hypnotic affect on me.

So perhaps I only imagined the rest of these examples…

2. The hookers relaxing in the lobby, as well as (evidently) in the room next to mine were, well…let me put it this way- have any of you seen “Breaking Bad”? And how did I know they were in the room next to me? Let’s just say that I could hear them doing their “breathing exercises”. Enough said.

3. In my experience, most no star hotels at least have chain locks on the doors so that you can barricade yourself in the room, offering at least a small measure of resistance to any criminal encroachment, FBI raids, or zombie hordes. The Econo Lodge in York, PA does not offer such a thing. The chain lock in my particular room had been ripped from the wall several decades earlier.

4. The hotel room was curiously large and spacious- which may seem like a good thing. It was perhaps 12 feet wide and maybe 25 feet long- in fact I counted as many as 7 (maybe 8?) carpet remnant patches used to cover the massive floor. The variety in the carpeting color and texture were much like the rings in a tree, offers clues and glimpses into the colorful history of the room. For example, the patterns of stains in several of the pieces suggest periods of time when civilization may have first used fire, or the inhabitants evolved to using utensils like crack pipes. Other sections of carpeting hint of massacre or perhaps human sacrifice. Fascinating.

5. An interesting feature of my particular room was that all electrical outlets (except one!) had been eliminated. Smoky colored plastic plates covered areas of the walls where (I assume) electrical outlets used to exist. I can appreciate how this may save management the expense of having hotel guests syphon off precious electricity from their power grid. I imagine they also save money from not having any place to plug in vacuum cleaners. The one lone outlet in the room was taken up by the microwave oven, which was perched on top of the trash can by the door, 20 feet from the bed. I must remark that the microwave seemed out of place in this room, like some strange “artifact from the future” accidentally deposited here by a careless time traveler.

6. The towels (both of them) were of an interesting gray color, crusty to the touch, yet still lacking the “nibs” that seem to be common on most towels. My best guess is that the nibs had worn off several years ago after repeated washings on stones in the local “stream” that ran in the back.

7. I’m glad I didn’t have a black light.

8. I could go on, but I’m guessing you can see a pattern here.

At this point, a logical (and fair) question to ask is how I ended up at the Econo Lodge in York, PA, and why I stayed there after my first impressions of “Wheezy” and the girls.

I admit that this is all my own fault- for when I am traveling on my own, I am admittedly very frugal, and in fact I make a game of seeing how little I can pay for a hotel room. In this case I used Priceline, and even “named my own price”- a price so low that I was surprised it was accepted. In hind site, I can understand why Wheezy would take any offer (s)he could get. I usually am OK with my Priceline results- I really don’t care that much since I tend to arrive very late, go to sleep immediately, get up, shower, and leave. No star hotels are OK with me as long as I believe the sheets and towels are clean- my basic rules include: never touch the comforter; wear socks at all times; wear long sleeves to bed; use plenty of hand sanitizer.

But in this case, Priceline and the room won, and my rules were insufficient. It was that bad.

The weekend was not all lost, however. I eventually made it out of the Hotel California, past the beast, and on to Pinball Nirvana at the York Fairgrounds. I spent the day with other game room aficionados, freely playing the dozens of old and new games and perusing the older junker machines for sale that I target for my restoration/customization projects.

I have several projects in the works currently (one is in the photo above), and have a few donor machines in stock already, so I didn’t have to buy anything. I did end up buying a machine very similar to the one I converted into my Springsteen machine- Tenth Avenue Freeze Out-complete with the roulette wheel/turntable feature. My thinking is that if anyone out there wants a machine similar to that one, I now have a donor unit that can be used (along with the art designs I have already created) to create a very similar, but new, Springsteen themed machine at 1/2 to 2/3 the cost of the original. In the scheme of things, this could be a bargain for someone.

So as I wrap this ramble up, I want to again mention the photo above- this shows the original play field of the machine that I will be using for my Night of the Living Dead project. It has been stripped of all hardware and is ready to be stripped of the original design- down to the bare wood. In others words, I am preparing this as my next “canvas”, and am currently working on the art design on my iMac.

As I ponder my adventures of the past week, and look for inspirations for this new design, my memories and thoughts converge into an idea that is growing on me- “Wheezy” and the girls as zombies.

Unfortunately, this idea is very close to the reality.

A Triumphant Return….and there are no losers.

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It’s been a while.

I enjoy writing these blog entries, and I want to keep my website fresh. I really do. I promise.
But I have been extremely busy doing a few fun things, a few charitable things, and a few other things designed to build my business and network. I have also heard rumblings from the underworld concerning my promise to pay $50 for any pinball design ideas I use.

And as I keep reminding myself and others- I still have a day job that I am committed to (FM Global needs to know that!)

But “Digress, I do .” says the little Yoda on my shoulder. So let’s tackle a few topics in order:

1. Pinball Design Contest

I received about 30 design ideas through various means (including Facebook, emails, and notes in bottles) -although an objective in creating the contest was that I was kinda hoping to drive up the traffic to my website. But never mind- a few of the ideas have real promise, and if I ever pursue any of them- I sincerely promise to pay off the idea man or woman. To be honest, I am not working on any of them currently- so there are no winners yet- and there are no losers! I wish things could be different. It’s not me, it’s you. You deserve prizes from someone better than me. Can’t we just be friends?

Moving on.

2. Roger Willliams University Engineering Senior Design Project

I am very excited that my endeavor “Pinventions” is sponsoring a senior design project at RWU. Some of you know that I serve on the professional advisory board for the university’s engineering school, and working with the faculty there we came up with the very cool idea of packaging a senior design project around one of my machine’s designs.

The challenge? Create a fog-filled cemetery scene in the back glass of my “Night of the Living Dead” custom machine design. To do this the team needs to develop a self-contained, self-cleaning fog management system that can respond to various actions taking place in a pinball machine.

Dr. Linda Riley at RWU tells me this was one of the most popular and most requested projects. I’ve already met with this very impressive team of young engineers who visited me at home for a tour of my shop and an overview of the project objectives. I can’t wait to see what they come up with. They are:

-Alexander Gilman
-Anthony Melkonian
-Brian Stuckman
-Richard Mendoza

3. NYC World Maker Faire

I got my first taste of the Maker Faire in Providence a few weeks ago, and realized I am indeed a “Maker”- which is a difficult term to define. In general, a “Maker” makes, creates, hacks, mashes, etc. for his own enjoyment, or to challenge themselves to solve a problem that they may in fact create for the sole purpose of solving it. I create custom pinball machines (among other things).

Anyway, I am hooked on this “Maker” movement, and knew I had to attend the New York City version to saturate my senses and curiosity. I was not disappointed. The photo above is of me by the icon of the movement- the Maker Robot.

I also had a meeting with some “Make” representatives there who were more than a little interested in my pinball creations. Nothing for sure yet, but we continue to talk.

4. The Pittsburgh Pirates

I am a life-long baseball fan, and grew up in the 1970’s with the Pirates- Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell- these were my heroes. As a professional working in downtown Pittsburgh in 1992, I attended every home game of their last playoff series. As a “Maker” even then, I created a banner mocking the Brave’s “tomahawk chop” and hung it in the stadium. It even made the ESPN broadcast back in the day. Just prior to that playoff series in 1992 our daughter Amanda was born, and I recall watching the Pirates on TV in the hospital while Linda was in labor. At that time they were gunning for the playoffs (the Pirates, not Linda and infant Amanda), which they made, and cruised through until…

…my beloved Pirates were minutes away from the World Series. It was the seventh game of the NL final. They were ahead in the bottom of the ninth with two outs. Then with a single swing of the bat it all changed. A weak single. A weak throw from Barry Bonds to the plate. A lumbering Sid Bream- who for years prior had been a fan favorite in Pittsburgh but then the traitor bolted to the hated Braves-scored the winning run in slow motion, and sent the shell-shocked Pirates home to a cold exile for 21 years.

Pittsburgh baseball fans like myself have been in shock ever since, afraid to commit as fans, reluctant to ever come close to experiencing that heartbreak again.

Amanda just turned 21 a few weeks ago, and the Pittsburgh Pirates have had a total of zero winning seasons since that terrible day.

Until now.

Let’s go Bucs!

Seriously? I Guess $50 wasn’t Enough.

So a week or so ago, I asked blog readers, potential customers, and Facebook friends to contribute their ideas for creating a new pinball game- as long as it was nostalgic and met a few other criteria- and I would offer $50 if I chose to used your idea in a future design.

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So far, my favorite idea is one of my own that I am building now- “Alien Abduction”- a prototype flying saucer can be seen in the photo. Picture this saucer with a blue “tracker beam” hovering low over cornfields looking to levitate cows- with all of this fitting into the back glass of a pinball machine. More details as to how this will work for scoring to be forthcoming…

But I digress. This is not about me, this is about the collective “you”. You are letting me down.

I received a handful of ideas- including several sent through email (rather than in the blog comments), but all in all I am underwhelmed by the lack of interest. The ideas that I did get do have promise- so “thank you Bob”- and if any of them become a reality, I will be forwarding a royalty check to the idea man or woman. But “Alien Abduction” is what I’m going with for now.

The offer still stands- $50 for any ideas that I end up using in a design- or 50% of one of my “donor machines” if you want one for a commissioned project.

Also, a few loose ends to tie back to some previous themes:

1. My “Night of the Living Dead” back glass design– the one with a backlit fog effect- has been accepted as a Senior Design Project for the Roger Williams University Engineering Department. This is very exciting since I like mentoring the engineering students, and since hopefully they can help me come up with a good way to manage fog production in an enclosed glass case.

2. Jacquizz Rodgers is not panning out as the Fantasy Football League stud that I thought he would. He had one catch for -1 yards, and no yards rushing. This resulted in a grand total of 1 fantasy point.

3. There no longer seems to be a market for the Cumberland Farms/David Hasselhoff iced coffee ad cardboard cutouts. I have one in my possession. Don’t ask how or why.

4. I refuse to believe that summer is over. Do not try to convince me otherwise.

5. My baby girl Amanda is turning 21 next week. I refuse to believe this either. Do not try to convince me otherwise.

And finally, spend 30 seconds thinking of a good ( or even a bad) idea for a game theme and list them in the comments. $50 is real money. Believe it!