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…

5 thoughts on “This is an Equals Zero Breaking News Alert: Welcome to the New Robot Trap House”

  1. Great read Charles… when I was looking for a house, I had the same/similar ideas in mind. You know, I think your Robot Trap House adventures might make a great show on it’s own….lol

  2. That’s great! There are a very few things better than having your own storage and lab space.
    True pain here, because I had to move to a smaller house for reasons, and have literally no space to do anything, not even for moving things around. Waiting to move to another (hopefully large enough) house.

  3. Hello Charles! I am at a talk where someone was explaining how their battlebot, which was Very Well Constructed They Thought, was destroyed by this other battlebot who had made some staggering implementation choices, and long story short, their robot broke and it was “Charles Guan”‘s fault. Hey! I know that guy! I thought. So I have found your website and see that you haven’t changed a bit since EC/MITERS. Congratulations on your new ops base and also the great blog. Your fan, Nadya

  4. Huh… who did I win against recently?? It’s been a hot minute or two…

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