Austin Maker Faire 2008

The Austin Maker Faire was last weekend and I was there, of course. I got a different view of it than last year because I spent part of the time as a maker. I helped out at the Dallas Personal Robotics Group table, where we showed off a variety of a small robots. We had several autonomous mobile robots, a robot arm that Martin interfaced with a game controller, a variety of robot components, and a couple of robot-like art pieces that were the result of my recent obsession with welding.

We did pretty well. There was a good-sized crowd of people at our booth throughout the faire, handling our robots and playing with the robot arm. Our table won an editor’s choice award from Make magazine. And we’re already talking about how we can do something bigger and more interactive next year.

All the usual crazy stuff was there too; cyclecide with their human powered carnival rides, including one they didn’t have last year called the Melody Maker, in which the rider propels spinning guitars to make music. The Austin Bike Zoo brought a 50 foot human powered rattlesnake that could be seen slithering in and out of the show barn and surrounding areas during the faire.

The Austin Robot Group had the giant ponginator robot, which is probably the biggest, loudest robot to be found in the State of Texas. They had about a dozen tables of smaller projects too. There were also fire-spewing machines, strange vehicles, medieval siege weapons, the Swap-O-Rama, DIY metal forging, liquid nitrogen ice cream, wind generators, linux clusters, pretty girls, (with mohawks), pirates, (and a pirate ship), tesla coil music, and a nice sunset on Saturday night.

Goodbye Acura RSX

In my last post I told you about the theft of my Acura RSX. It was stolen from our driveway in the early morning hours of Sunday, Sep 27. The police didn’t come out and collect any evidence, they just took a report over the phone. We did a little evidence collection on our own, finding a clipped wire, a plastic pop-rivet, and a pair of black latex gloves. If real life was like the CSI TV show, they’d just turn the gloves inside out and grabs some prints.

A few days later, my Acura RSX reappeared on the shoulder of 75 near Mockingbird Lane. It was stripped. The police had it towed to their impound lot but were otherwise uninterested in it. They didn’t check for finger prints or any other type of evidence. Their only concern was letting me know that I owed them a hefty storage fee that would increase by $20/day.

For now, I’m driving a Nissan Versa rental car paid for by State Farm insurance. State Farm picked up the car from the impound lot and moved it to a State Farm location yesterday. Before they picked it up, I made a trip over to the impound lot myself to check for any personal belongings the crooks might have left in the car. Oddly, I’m less annoyed by the loss of my car than by the loss of several hard to replace CDs, my prescription sunglasses, a Mega-Donkey t-shirt and an assortment of robot parts.

The Dallas Police impound lot is huge. It’s like a shopping mall parking lot but without the shopping mall. There are vans that transport people from the main office to the section of the lot where their car resides. Tow trucks are coming and going like cabs at the airport. It was an interesting experience. I brought my camera along and shot a few photos.

The woman who drove the van I was in described how to break into each of our cars. “Oh, on this model you pop off a panel and cross two wires to disable the alarm. On that one you use a jiggler key.” One of the other guys in the van had a club on his car. His car was stolen and the thieves left the club lying in his driveway. Our driver said, “Clubs are worthless. Just spray freon into the lock, tap it with a hammer and it opens right up”. She went on to describe how to overcome alarms, immobilizers, and all sorts of other things.

My RSX had an alarm plus an RFID-based immobilizer which is supposed to shut down the engine if it’s started without the encrypted key present. Yet, the thieves drove it away in seconds without even breaking the glass. Turns out you can buy a Honda/Acura jiggler key online for $30 that will open any Acura RSX easily. Once inside, it’s apparently trivial to disable the alarm and override the immobilizer. There are several methods of doing it that can be found online with a little googling. Brad Stone wrote a piece for Wired on the ease with which you can steal cars. Some methods are so easy they’re stupid – write down a vehicle’s VIN, visit the dealer and tell them you lost your key, use your new key to steal the car.

Yesterday, I spoke with the Irving Police detective about my case one last time. She was friendly and sorry about the theft. But at no point did the police send anyone out to the crime scene or the recovered car to look for evidence. When I described the black latex goves, she said they hadn’t heard of them being used but weren’t interested in investigating further. At the impound lot, I noticed my car was coated in a sticky substance similar to Cosmoline. I hypothesized this was to prevent or obscure finger prints. The detective said they’d never heard of this being done. I suggested it might be helpful to analyze the chemical and find out what it was. Perhaps it would offer a clue to where the chop shop was. She didn’t think it would be worthwhile. If my casual observation turned up two things the cops have never noticed, you have to wonder what a trained crime scene investigator might find.

I also noted that my car was found on a major freeway monitored by 24/7 traffic cams. I suggested it should be possible to check the traffic cam recordings to find the make and model of the vehicle which dumped my car there and perhaps even track it backwards to the point it entered the freeway, offering another clue to the chop shop location. She didn’t think it would be worthwhile to do all that work. I asked if anyone had thought of correlating the locations of theft vs the locations where cars are dumped. With dozens of cars stolen every day, you’d think that might be useful. She thought there was a “task force” somewhere that did stuff like that but it wasn’t her job to do anything like that. As far as the Irving and Dallas police are concerned, the case is closed.