This is an Equals Zero Breaking News Alert: Welcome to the New Robot Trap House

We’re doing this again, huh!? Well, the thing happened.

All are welcome at the New Robot Trap House…. once I unpack and organize everything. Pardon Our Mess while I figure out why my life was about twice as heavy as I thought it was.

This fine location was chosen not for its redeeming characteristics such as a quiet neighborhood, good schools, proximity to recreation, excellent services, or anything a normal adult would care about.

Nah, I saw the 4-wide hangar bay, two driveways, entire finished basement, and wide open yard… and decided to encroach.

Anyhow… yes, I am now part of the landed gentry, or at least the portion who is leashed to our shadowy mortgage-backed securities industry for an indeterminate amount of time. Amazing what not doing a BattleBots season can get you, huh?

(subliminal message: Go to Destruct-a-Thon)

Here’s how this series of unfortunate events went down over the course of the year.

It started back in January, after I had Vantruck disassembled in preparation for the replacement fuel system. One morning. I received a panicked message from the landlord with this photo attached:

Uh oh. You saw it here first: You’ve been hit by a smooth… code violation. The city was complaining to him about the “disassembled and/or inoperable vehicles” on the property. I kind of figured this day was coming as the van flock grew and gradually became harder to hide in the back yard (besides, the back yard itself was plainly visible from the adjoining state road).

Not only that, I was most definitely too egregious with Vantruck having sat disassembled in that state for several weeks while I was 1. waiting on parts, and 2. not wanting to go outside in the winter cold. Basically, I got too relaxed and complacent, and that’s not allowed. In fact, I had thought that, if anything, having Snekvan knocked down in the driveway for longer was going to be the tipping point! Ultimately it’s just whenever the spooks come by, I guess.

(I’d like to point out that everything except for Vantruck was fully driveable, plated, and operational at the time of the citation, you dirty anti-American pricks. I thought we believed in freedom here)

Whatever the case, I needed the kick in the ass to reassess my priorities. Ol’ landy got the city to back off for 30 days instead of 7, allowing me time to sell some of the yard potatoes without the threat of fines. I’ll push back against normcore bureaucrats any day, but to ask someone else to do it on my behalf? That, I believed, was unfair, when it should be my battle to fight.

As a result, I expedited Vantruck’s reassembly. A weekend strike team, coalesced from friends and labmates, managed to get Vantruck into “visual completion” – at least with the bed back on and plates visible, even if it didn’t actually move anywhere. I then spent the majority of February, March, and April pushing Operation IDIocracy, getting Vantruck into a nominally driveable state such that if all hell broke loose I can evacuate it. It wasn’t gonna be good – and you’ll see it all right here – but it’ll putter itself across town.

Great all-arounder, but the deck was caving in and the garage roofs were imploding.

In the mean time, during the spring and early summer, I was casually snooping houses for sale. I had given some thought about this as early as mid-2022, and obviously beforehand as well.

Here’s the thing though: If all you see in the news and think-pieces online is “Housing prices are higher than ever!! Who can ever afford to buy anything!? Millennials and zoomers are so screwed on all fronts!!!” then that is what you’ll just passively believe. I never took the real estate market seriously because for years and years, that’s the only message I’ve gotten. One look at the Boston metro market definitely reinforced that belief.

Great flat lot and renovated house, but within City of Atlanta boundaries, so what I could build here in the back yard was quite limited in comparison.

Even back in Atlanta again, I’ve never run the numbers, talked to anyone, or took any other action because Well obviously I can’t afford this for a good long time if ever anyways so let’s buy these funny motors instead.

This may not be as true as you think. If there is one important takeaway from this post, it’s go find out. Working with an agent that was the spouse of a good friend and coworker also helped – I got a very objective (I thought, anyway) look at the state of the market and the ingredients that go into the process. All of a sudden it was far from insurmountable.

Literally perfection but gone by the time I got there. A 25 x 40 foot 1.5 storey garage and a 2,000 square foot modular, on 3 acres of woods. Maybe some day…

What it was, however, was about 1.0 asstons of paperwork.

As I said above, I needed this kick in the ass too in order to get some adult™ finances™ sorted out with regards to debt, savings, retirement, taxes… everything. Things I had barely paid attention to or put on autopilot I suddenly had to get a handle and understanding on so I could explain why it was a good idea to lend me about 15 BattleBots seasons of money. That’s a LOT of RageBridges, guys.

The major selling point of this place? 5 minutes from McMaster-Carr, and a large lot with Residential-Agricultural zoning allowing me to build or farm about anything. But I’d have had to get a shop building installed in its entirety, since it had virtually no basement.

Globally speaking, my takeaway is that many avenues exist to funnel people towards homeownership. This is broadly good for the economy, so both the government and private finance industries really would like you to buy – perhaps some times too enthusiastically. Let’s be real here though – it still is very expensive compared to a few years ago and historic trends. Many confounding economic factors continue to keep homeownership out of reach for a lot of people, without a sign of political willpower to effect changes. I’m not implying the situation isn’t dire across the board, just that I learned it was barely not dire enough for me!

I seriously, SERIOUSLY liked this one, but it was barely over what I should sensibly afford. This large addition to the original house would have been an incredible lab space.

The process is opaque not because of some kind of wizardry but because of the sheer quantity of paperwork and 3rd party involvement, necessitated by the number of intertwining laws and regulations of various states and locales as well as the federal government.

Looked great from the street, large yard, but sadly a hill in its entirety behind the house.

I ended up touring about 15 properties, some of which are shown above. If you notice, they all have some… common features.

Namely, the house itself is rarely that impressive, yet all either have big shops/garages or are on a piece of land big enough that I could put one up. Many were in questionable shape, as they were generally older construction which had or hadn’t been renovated, in more working class or previous-generation middle-class parts of town (For you Atlantese, I was mostly looking on the near West side stretching from Douglasville up to Acworth).

My realtor at one point asked me exasperatedly… “How do you keep finding these places?” That’s how I know I’m doing it right: searching for houses the same way I search for shitty vans.

My requirements were relatively simple. It can’t be in an HOA area, because duh. Ideally it had between 0.5 and “A few” acres of land. I knew, from the (now old) Robot Trap House that my entire existence was possible on 0.5 acres with one garage and one basement, so a replacement must exceed that in functionality. I didn’t care so much about the aforementioned schools, parks, churches, and what-have-you. With the way the Atlanta metro is growing and changing, I’m sure things on that front will improve by the time I care about them.

At the same time, I was not out to buy the farm (unless for some reason it was very lucrative). I decided, after a lot of self-conversing, that a combination of my tech-centric skills and daily life wants and needs necessitated staying closer into the city. Yeah, sure, I could have afforded the 5 acre estate 50 minutes out of the Perimeter, above the lake, which already had the double high-bay workshop.

But as I verbalized it to folks, I wasn’t Married Dad of Three or Retired Enough to leverage such a situation. Being “out there” is great once you have the family or no longer depend on a steady stream of Asian snacks. My preferred Chinese/Korean/Japanese haunts would become over a 1.5 hour drive, and you could barely get me to stop complaining about my 30 minute commute to the lab.

So I went in with the acknowledgement that I am far from the Final Robot Trap House, and that this place should be a reasonable next step with the dominant goal of getting my foot in the door. Again – adulting conversations I couldn’t have thought I’d be having as recently as a year and some ago, which in my life seems to be several entire geologic cycles.

And so that’s how I found myself sitting at the closing table with Dramatically Oversized 3D-Printed Miku (look, I’m throwing down so much money that I alone will dictate what is in the room) signing the veritable stack of papers.

The NRTH actually came about late one night when I was clicking through areas I thought I already canvassed. Because, another thing I learned is that real estate listings have immense quality variations and often straight out errors. I forgot what slider I moved, maybe by accident, but it showed up as a relatively recent (2 or 3 week) old listing. Obviously I was drawn to the giant quad hangar and basement right away.

I asked my agent to investigate, upon which we found it had an offer pending already. I went to tour it anyways and decided it was the make-or-break for this year – I was getting pretty exhausted by that point in July and should it have not panned out, would have put the vans away for the rest of the year, cleaned up the yard, and revisited the search in 2024.

So I submitted a backup offer and went about tidying up the remnants of Operation IDIocracy and cataloguing robot parts I wanted to sell (spoiler: I sold none. I had to lug them all over.)

Magically, a week later, I was informed my backup offer was now primary.

Oh – final lesson? The snowball falls off the mountain VERY FAST. I was making or taking phone calls daily with the mortgage officers, inspectors, contractors and service providers, and so on. End to end, from the contract signing to closing, was less than three weeks. Months and months of planning effort could come down to this sudden rollout. I see why this process causes divorces.

Surprise! I have NOBODY to divorce! You can’t get me, capitalists.

As I got green light after green light, the magnitude of trouble I was in began dawning upon me.

Luckily, I’ve been a stickler for organization and mobility for a very long time, since my MIT shop days. Much of my existence was already on a shelf, rack, dolly, or in a tote. I bought a few more wheel shelves and plastic totes and began filling them up with loose items. When I had the items kinda evenly distributed, each one was wrapped up with a few layers of pallet shrink wrapping to keep all the goods in place. Leftover suitcases became packaging for the more mundane electronics and household cables.

This is basically the entire EE lab/3d printer room (what you normal people might call a living room) packed up here. By the first week of August, when seemingly nothing remained in the way of closing day, I’d managed to get down to “Living like I was in a hotel but with many heavy things I needed help to push around”. Really, I don’t own that much “life stuff” as I called it, just a lot of project detritus.

As soon as I had the keys, I began trickling over the easy hand-carryables almost daily (work, drop off stuff, return).

Two weekends before Dragon Con 2023 was what I called the “Heavy Move”, which was an operation involving 8 different friends and two days. The plan was to evacuate the tools and parts from the basement and inside the house, as well as get as much of the garage shelves as we could.

The threshold was all shelves, workbenches, and machine tools moved; everything else I could conceivably just keep trickling by myself if I could borrow no more help. The objective tier was of course to do as much as we could, including the robot crate, Overhaul family, and my other large car part stashes.

I rented a full size box truck with a liftgate so we could roll the wheel shelves into the truck with minimal disruption. That said, no matter how many pounds these things advertise, the wheels are definitely sized with smooth institutional floors in mind, not rolling over random sheets of plywood and rough concrete. No matter how gentle we took it, there were still 5 or 6 shelf casualties where a wheel just up and broke off or bent beyond usefulness. These were recovered with handtrucks and gentle massaging.

My master plan of putting everything on wheeled shelves was so successful that we managed to reach the threshold before noon after starting around 9:30! I actually had to invent more things to do on the spot.

This is the culmination of the moving effort for that weekend: the entire garage was evacuated, the robot crate had been knocked down and sorted into totes and shelves, and the house was completely clear of tools and equipment. Only regular people furniture remained, which I hired an actual moving company to handle (I wasn’t about to trust randos with my equipment and shoddy shelf casters)

I next turned my attention to transferring the van fleet. Spool Bus was filled up to the gills with loose robot and van parts. I then rented a U-Haul utility trailer for it to move crabmower over with.

This was when I discovered that Spool Bus wasn’t spooling too good no more – it was down on power and tended to run hot, and I also didn’t really detect any spool sounds. I haven’t taken it apart to inspect the turbo or anything yet, but it’s on the docket for when I straighten my tools and parts out.

In the mean time, the hero of our story was used to pick up appliances. I have the pleasure to disclose that Operation IDIocracy reached criticality in May; throughout June and July, I took Vantruck around to a bunch of local meetups (as well to work and back a lot) to put miles and cycles on it. There are improvements and patches I’d like to make, again later on in the fall when I have the shop sorted out. For now, it exists as “An Thing”.

All of the problem children were moved over one weekend under the cover of darkness (Okay, full disclosure: Nobody has working air conditioning at the moment and I literally picked the hottest month in recorded human history to move).

I finished unloading… not unpacking, just unloading… the day before Dragon Con was supposed to start. All of the remaining loose van and robot kibbles were stuffed into remaining open corners.

Mikuvan always parks inside or under cover, so I reserved one of the hangar bays for it. It occupies the garage closest to the basement door, since it’s also the only thing that can cut the turn to get into it. The vantrucks will eventually get a double-wide carport awning installed over the primary driveway, and I’ve yet to decide its precise location and style.

On the last day of August, I bid farewell to the (now Old) Robot Trap House. I was quite lucky to find this place as well, when I first moved back. It wasn’t the most glorious looking thing to come back to every day, but it showed me what was possible. And, for the past three and some years, it gave me a taste of what having my own ops base is like. Despite me swearing up and down that I’ll learn to take life easy and stop working on stuff all the time (we knew how much of a folly this belief is), two more BattleBots seasons, several 30hauls and small bots, a few drones and random small EVs, plus like a half dozen terrible vans all rolled through here… on top of the engine swap I swore I’d never do.

I’d always wanted to make this change or add that facility, but drilling holes in someone else’s foundation was just… not worth it. But now, that fight is mine!

…along with all of the maintenance and repairs. Uh oh.

This photo above was taken on December 9th, 2019, the afternoon I arrived from Boston. As I often say to people, I have yet to feel the Adult Dilation of Time that seems to make one feel older and older. “Where did the time go?” isn’t a feeling that resonates with me quite yet, and I’m extremely grateful for that. I attribute this to the aforementioned “Always working on or fiddling with something” which keeps the days and years different in the psyche.

This photo feels like a lifetime ago, but was only less than four years. If we just shift the time band back to the old MIT days, mid-December to the last day of August is basically the same as September to mid May. It’s a little poetic to me that my stay here was essentially one undergraduate tenure in length. Enough to get into a lot of trouble that I had to figure out how to get myself out of, and to know more about what I do and do not want.

What’s next for the New Robot Trap House?

So I probably won’t be documenting all of my random home improvement adventures here. The exception will be if I plan or execute something in a completely irreverent and misinformed fashion and follow through with it – like I do with everything else.

I feel lucky the place didn’t need any major renovation or significant, tear-out-the-everything repair. There are random things I need to do, like tame the yard (quite overgrown in spots), add lights and outlets to the garage bays, repair/restore the outdoor lighting mounted to the eaves, and so on. I already replaced some breakers and wiring (open circuit, sparkly, terrible looking), repaired the garage door openers (stuck/seized), fixed some random drainage issues, and replaced the locks. Lots of things I’ll pick at for the next possibly few months.

First order of business is of course making the place decently liveable on the first floor, working through unpacking everything. My pledge is to separate living space from workspace: no 3D printers or soldering irons and stuff upstairs! Electronics, 3D printing, and other “clean” work will remain in the basement. The hangar will have one bay dedicated to a machine shop and welding area. I intend to put up a 2-post lift (FINALLY!) in the second, and keep the third as a designated integration space/open workspace.

I don’t have a grand plan for the place because I have barely even figured out where I want to put my computers and bookshelves. That will all condense in due time. But I’ll just say the back yard is very open compared to the Old Robot Trap House and is surrounded by trees and a grove of bamboo…

Operation IDIocracy: THE TESTENING – Bench Run of the IDIot

When we last left off, it was 2 weeks before Dragon Con 2022 and I was hell-bent on getting the engine run on the stand and then packed away while I take an Overhaul Intermission. I wanted to make sure that as many subsystems were tested as possible. Part of those was the coolant loop.

What I didn’t want to do was hook up the radiator, with its 2 inch diameter hoses. Getting a few feet of that stuff to put it nearby was going to be really expensive, and all I wanted to do is make sure the whole coolant loop can fully purge itself with the thermostat cycling. It didn’t need to reach full flow.

So I made these … reducer fittings. They’re 3D printed from regular ol’ ABS. One end goes into the 2 inch and 2.25 inch radiator hoses, the other end is for 3/4″ diameter coolant hose. This reminded me a lot of making Anderson SB350 to XT-60 adapter cables or something. But, hopefully, with the whole system only running idle flow, it’ll be fine.

I hooked just the water pump up using a short belt I had which literally happened to be the right size. I’m pretty sure this is supposed to be a drill press belt or a lawn mower belt.

The test setup is shown here. I did not trust hanging the whole engine off just the stand, because these things shake the entire van when they power up and shut down. The plan was to spoon the crane into the stand, using it to unload the stand a little using the hoisting points on the intake manifold. This way, the crane is taking up some of the weight, spreading it across broader points of contact with the ground, and also countering the torque of the rotating parts from another point.

The electrical setup was very simple. These things only need the fuel shutoff solenoid held on to run, so I rigged a random E-Stop button into that circuit. The roller limit switch controls the starter motor. So basically I unclick the E-Stop and wham the limit switch to crank it.

There is no glow plug circuitry installed. Yes, I was going to Spicy Start my freshly rebuilt engine.

The rest of the test setup included a fuel pump running from a jug (the whole feed and return circuit is shown here with the black hoses) and a bucket full of water.

After some initial cranking to purge the air out of the injection lines, we’re ready for takeoff.

Starts out a little rocky as expected for maybe having some residual air in the fuel system, but otherwise it settled into idle smoothly. To be fair, this was the second run – after the first, I decided to mount the OEM exhaust pipe so as to keep the massive smoke cloud away from me just a bit.

I realized quickly the water pump setup would never prime if the reservoir was lower than it was, so I had to hang the bucket from the crane arm. In real life, the radiator water level is always above the pump.

I let the thing run long enough to hear the cold idle circuit shut off – this adjusts the timing slightly and lowers the idle RPM by letting the injection pump rest at a lower hard stop point.

It would be a long time before the thermostat opened enough to let everything purge out. A big surge of rusty water – emblematic of Snekvan’s neglected cooling system and me letting the whole thing sit for months – let me know that the water was now flowing.

The hilarious thing was that on one of my subsequent test runs, the battery clamp just straight up melted apart. These starters demand almost a thousand amps as they turn the ridiculously high compression over. This single little battery was not thrilled about it.

So what lessons were learned?

First, that I didn’t use NEARLY ENOUGH silicone. I think they assume you just buy the entire cartridge gun or something, because it began leaking oil from literally everywhere along the oil pan. The front and rear covers, in particular, seem to need GOBS of the stuff.

I’m used to depositing silicone in little 1/8″ wide weenie beads for Mikuvan, but you can clearly see those beads were BARELY making contact with anything!

So I had to undo both front and rear covers (involving removing the water pump again) and absolutely CRAM IT FULL of silicone.

(Check out that cavitation damage on the front cover plate, by the way. It’s not deep, but this is one source of problems that EOLs these engines. The cavitation will eventually erode through this plate and cause coolant to enter the crankcase)

Same process repeated for the rear cover. This involved disconnecting the engine from the stand and hoisting it with the crane. Glad I took the time to set that up, I suppose.

I also made minor adjustments in the seal positioning to get them to line up better with the end of the crankshaft. I think the seals I ordered might be a little different than the OEM design, since they stuck out in different ways.

Lastly, the engine was clearly not timed correctly – I just let the injection pump lay where it fell, when there are (at minimum) marks you have to line up. That is an operation I’ll leave for later, since you’re supposed to do it with the final fuel pressure as well.

At this point I had the setup pretty well tuned. A small, less than 1/2 second puff of the Spicy Air and it would light right off with barely one full turn of the crank!

This is the resulting poo water from letting it warm up. It looks like there’s chunks of something floating in it… I changed this water out twice before going “eh, it’ll deal”; on a scale from 1 to Flint, Michigan, it maybe ranked somewhere around Newark, NJ. It went from fresh black tea looking to just a little bit brown.

The IDIot Gurney

With a few days remaining before Dragon Con, I decided to go ahead and construct some infrastructure to make my life easier when I perform the install.

Most people install the transmission and engine separately, but I was daft enough after seeing how they came out such that I wanted to install the whole thing in ONE piece, instead of dealing with aligning them in-situ.

That will take some creativity, but more importantly, I had to assemble the engine and transmission first, and do so in way that I can then grab the assembly at its barycenter later on. I decided to make a small but heavy duty cart that cradles the engine and transmission. Here’s how that went down.

I started with some 2×10 wood arranged in a V-block shape. The IDI engine mounts are 90 degree inclusive on their mounting faces, so they will rest on the V.

Next is a frame made of 4×4 lumber and some of the highest capacity urethane casters Harbor Freight offered. The combined transmission and engine was going to be almost 1400 pounds. These casters combined aren’t rated for that, but I figured that they could probably tolerate some overloading and I was just needing the engine to be somewhat mobile so I could get it out of the way. Not like it had to be in service and rolling around a factory floor.

The width of the cart was dictated by how far in I could push the crane and still safely grab what I believe was the balance point of the engine + transmission assembly.

The wheels are bolted in with 3/8″ lag screws. The frame itself is held together with 8″ long lag screws driven into the ends!

My plan was to hoist the engine onto the cart, level it with the crane or a jack, and then build a rear support for the block.

To do this, though, I had to wrong-way scissor the engine stand and crane again. This arrangement was certainly a little precarious.

… Maybe a little too precarious. While shoving the thing forward one last time, I made the mistake of applying the force too high up on the crane body, and watch the whole thing very slowly tip its way onto the cart. No damage or anything, but it was like one of those “slow disaster in motion” videos!


After repositioning things, I got the engine swung into a central position in the V-block and began levelling it with the floor jack.

I secured two 4×4 posts using screws driven in at a 45 degree angle to support the outer reaches of the exhaust manifolds.

The next day, it was transmission time. I read that you had to fill up the torque converter beforehand or it’ll take forever and ever to fill the transmission (as the oil pump has to otherwise do it for you). There’s a removable plug on the side of the torque converter to do this filling through. I pumped the transmission fluid salvaged out of Snekvan (and just about everything else I had with a C6/E4OD) right back into here. At the same time I went ahead and filled the oil pan itself as well, by pumping in through the dipstick hole.

I didn’t fill it much, because I didn’t want things to potentially leak out as I was manipulating it into Vantruck later (it’ll need to be highly angled forward and backward to wiggle in). But it should be enough to prevent a dry start.

I went ahead and mated the engine and transmission with the mounting bolts, then measured how far the tail housing was off the cart frame.

Some quick action with the miter saw later and the rear support is done. I’ll take some measurements of this thing and maybe back-CAD or back-document it later for everyone else’s amusement.

And here we have it. In one photo, both of my terrible time-consuming, money-burning, expensive facility-requiring hobbies.

Oh yeah! While I was on the woodworking binge those few days, I also whipped together a future Vantruck bed carrier cart. I won’t have the luxury of an all-concrete surface any more like the ol’ Vape Shop parking lot, because the Robot Trap House driveway is rather hilly and everything else that surrounds it is grass or dirt.

As a result, I made this cart with big pneumatic wheels so Vantruck’s bed can be craned onto it and then I can roll it into the back yard or something. This will come in handy in a few weeks/months time.

With Dragon Con 2022 having come and gone, and Overhaul’s 2022 season updates in full swing, Operation IDIocracy would pick up again near the end of Fall with some more infrastructure work and then Vantruck’s final disassembly…