Two Almost Physicists With Almost Something To Say

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Lockpickbot, Part 1

In a previous life, before there was Apple Maps, someone enthralled with their newfound ability to boundlessly string prose together made the poor decision of entitling an entry “Lockpickbot, Part 0.” This implies, somewhat forcefully, that there are subsequent parts to this saga. So here’s a serving of whatever.

The project is broken down into “lock,” “pick,” and “bot.” We acquired the “lock” aspect at a hardware store some time ago. There are two disembodied locks–one a deadbolt, one a typical doorknob–sitting on our coffee table. I have no qualms about having spent money on these. In the event that this project goes awry, they can actually be used to lock things, things like doors. I’m not sure which scenario one finds oneself in where one inherits a residence sans locks, unless one relocates to a shack in some marsh. Then you don’t really need locks, unless there are velociraptors. I’m not actually sure what sort of animals live in swamps, since I don’t watch reality TV shows on History. I have a vague idea from Donkey Kong Country: gators, long-legged birds, swordfish, rhinos, apes wearing neckties and hats. I will also mention that locks are cheap. At these prices, one can’t afford not to have deadbolts on one’s closets.

$50 not only buys you a universal key, but a lifetime’s worth of free dentistry.

GS already owned a set of lock picks. That’s fine, I imagine that he was a Dickensian street urchin at some point in his life, it’s not something to fixate on. Here’s what’s up with the picks: there are like a hundred different tools with exotic geometric shapes on the ends, and when you unroll the case it looks like the canonical movie torture scene. Two of these tools are actually useful. The rest are designed to confuse and bewilder, in case some n00b tries to use your shit, and the shafts will probably just snap right off and jam the lock up for all eternity. These are the “scorched earth” tools.

Lock mechanisms are totes cool. This is a hard point to sell, so, here, enjoy a fun animation that should give you the general idea. There is no sound. If you need sound you can combine it with this. The typical lock has an inner rotating cylinder and a stationary outer housing. Several two-part pins, with the relative lengths of the two halves somewhat randomized, sit in grooves that span between the inner and outer parts. The inner cylinder, which is directly coupled to the actual physical piece that keeps your door from being opened, is only free to rotate when the pins are positioned exactly such that the breaks between all of the pin halves are in line with the gap between the cylinder and the housing. Otherwise, the cylinder can’t turn, because there’s pin in the way. You can get into your house because you jam in a piece of metal with its shape “keyed” to the exact lengths of the inner pin parts. Johannes Deadbolt was a genius.

As for how to pick, here is another animation and musical accompaniment. The idea is to manually push each pin into its free position, and get the pin to stay there afterwards. How? With awkwardness. Each pin has finite fatness, and God makes no two pins the same. If the lock is under a bit of tension, and you depress each of the pins, you’ll notice that one of them is a bit sticky. This pin is the fattest and weakest of the herd, and you are a lion. Maintaining tension, push that pin in. At some point you’ll feel the lock give slightly, and you may even hear a small click. You just popped that pin into the open position, and that pin is now actually locked open because of the way the inner cylinder just shifted. Do not release tension. Never release tension, unless you’re feeling nostalgic for that time when all of the pins were popped out. Now test-depress the remaining pins. There will be another sticky pin. Repeat, and repeat again, until all of the pins have been popped. At this point you can open away.

Here’s how that plays out in reality, from my experience thus far with our practice locks:

  • Jam your dentistry widget into the lock and “rake the pins” to get the lay of the land. What did you just feel? A bunch of crap. How do you interpret that? No fucking clue. How many pins do you think are there? Somewhere between 1 and 30.
  • Stick a shim into the bottom of the lock and twist to apply tension. Enjoy your easy win. It’s probably the last one you’ll have for quite a while.
  • Start your search for this mythical “fattest pin.” Because you can’t interpret the sensations coming through your hands, test the same pin like four times in a row while skipping others entirely.
  • You’ve found something that’s hard to move. Push it to win.
  • Nope; turns out that it was just some fucking feature in the side of the cylinder. Where did the pins go?
  • GS just got his lock open. Mazel fucking tov.
  • Now it suddenly seems like this back pin is acting suspiciously like the fat pin of lore. Here goes nothing.
  • Jesus Christ the lock actually just shifted a little. If you could move you’d be doing the airplane up and down the block. Get your shit together. Try to find another stuck pin.
  • They are all stuck. Is this okay? Who knows, go for it.
  • That pin just went in 100% of the way. That’s probably a bad thing.
  • Do another pin. Feel a shift. You have no idea what’s happening. There’s a goddamned party going on in that lock, your shit-faced friend is there, and you’re on the phone with him trying to figure out where he’s at but he’s too far gone to be any fucking use. Is this progress? It’s something.
  • GS just picked his lock back closed. Is that even fucking possible? Now you can’t even remember how locks work when you have a key like a normal person.
  • Develop an itch on your nose. Don’t you dare let the tension off those fucking pins. You’ll be goddamned if you’re interrupting your mind meld with this doorknob. A cop could come along, you stand your ground. Do you remember what the pin ordering is? Didn’t think so. Mash your face against the door to scratch. Get back to your business.
  • The clicking of the pins coalesces into mocking laughter, resonating between your ears. They watch you struggle, bereft of compassion. You can feel the onset of thrombosis, but you will not succumb. Those pins would just fucking love it if you up and died right now. Do not give them the satisfaction.
  • Pretty sure you just went back to the first pin and shoved it further into its shaft. That seems like another step backward.
  • GS just picked his way into a bank and used the stolen funds to buy more practice locks, which he has also already opened.
  • Hail Mary: vent your rage by shoving all of the pins up as far as you can get them.
  • Lock just opened.
  • Lock just opened in the wrong direction. So that’s how GS re-locked his. File that one away under reasons to kill yourself. See you back at square one.


Luckily I’ve found that adhering to the standard playbook is wholly unnecessary; I can just put tension on and flail blindly around in there until it pops. Also my recipe for pleasing the ladies. In fact, that was the original premise for the design of the “bot”: grab onto a lock and do random unholy things to it until it opens. As it turns out, given that tumbler pin locks have been around since the 1800s, this solution already exists. And everyone is already aware of that, because everyone has seen a movie. We are now in the awkward position of trying to invent a more exotic way of lock opening so that we can be burdened with the construction of a robot to perform the task.

Meanwhile, if you get locked out of your place, ring me up. We’ve gotten really good at picking.


Lockpickbot, Part 0

(Ported from old blog)

It was a week before Christmas when I decided that my new purpose was going to be to father a robot. Excited by the prospect of exciting prospects, I went apeshit purchasing equipment to this end. Arduino, circuit components, motors, plastic sheets, batteries, yada. The last tally I recall was $400 in. Thus far all the robot does is sit in pieces in a drawer, but it does this very well, and with long stretches between charges.

The problem is not lack of interest in robots generally, but dreams which are cripplingly grandiose. I could make a robot that rolls into walls and turns left. I could attach a broom to its undercarriage and save a couple hundred on a Roomba. Unfortunately my motivation threshold is really crossed in the realm of automata who can understand commands such as “fetch me water” and “delouse this cat,” and have the appendages and power to do so. That requires a leap forward in AI programming, and probably another Arduino. $400 at The Shack is not going to get me the robot from Lost in Space. And so I was biding my time, waiting for the following Christmas when I could ask for some fuel cells and artificial muscle.

GS recently talked me back from the ledge and suggested a small robot that does something interesting and practical, which presents an engaging technical and logical challenge while simultaneously introducing a moral dilemma of a proportion usually restricted to shows on AMC. A lockpicking robot. I’ve blueprinted it in my head and then allowed my mental to leap forward five years in the future, where mass production of these bots and a subsequent glitch in their logic has led to a scenario where doors are all but useless. Like, why even bother shutting the goddamned thing, it’s just going to get opened again in an hour by some fucking robot.

Should we, as scientists, create simply because we can? Jeff Goldblum, dressed as an angel, sits on my right shoulder, reciting quotes from Jurassic Park. There is no devil counterpoint because I don’t need any other encouragement to build this thing. I guess it’s me. I am wearing a devil costume telling myself to build a robot and arguing with Jeff Goldblum.

My Geppetto-like interest might be blunted if I knew for certain that my sperm were all alive and viable. I can easily imagine years of cell phone radiation turning my nethers into an apocalyptic hellscape, haploidic Mel Gibsons constantly in search of fuel. “There is a test for that,” you say. You are correct. The test–and this holds true for tests in general–is a tool for people who are willing to have either verdict be known. Were it possible to only have a test if the answer will be yes, then that would be a good test. But, given the confines of causality, my best bet is to have no test at all until game time. Until then quantum mechanics suspends my seed in a superposition of alive and dead states. Schrodinger’s sperm. Not a good band name, by the way.