Tuesday, November 30, 2010

TFPC 33: Booklet printing

33:  Booklet printing

I don't know why I didn't see this feature on printers earlier but I love that I can print out a document designed to be folded in half and stapled in the middle.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Electronics tools you didn't know you needed

Side trip from my regular posts on organizing your work space and taking it with you:  tools that you didn't know you needed.

Most of the tools in the toolkit are obvious- the soldering iron, the tweezers, the "helping hand", etc.  There are a few items that are in my toolbox (or are always close at hand) that I use constantly but somehow never make the lists I've seen for equipping a bench.

1. Cyanoacrylate adhesive- especially the brush-in-bottle "Krazy Glue" brand that I highlighted in my tool kit post.  Useful for "dead-bug" assembly, reattaching lifted pads, and temporarily holding things in place while you work on them (I know many CNC machinists who use CA to hold their workpieces down while they are in process.
2.  Hot glue gun- super useful for low-cost ruggedizing, strain relief, conformal coating and mounting PCBs.  Nothing fancy- a standard low-temperature hobby gun will work fine.  In fact, the high temp type take a little too long to cure for my taste, and tend to be too runny to boot.  A few globs of hot glue will transfer the strain from the solder joint on a wire to, well, the glue gob; if you push a PCB against a surface and squirt a little glue through some available mounting holes, you get top-notch semi-permanent mounting, right where you need it.
3.  X-acto knife- best tool ever for removing the outer jacket from a multiconductor cable.  By bending the cable to a sharp 180° angle and lightly scoring the outer jacket, you can easily cut through only the jacket, leaving the conductors (or foil/braided shield) intact.  Also useful in hacking (cutting traces and scraping off soldermask to create a new "pad") and rework (if the board is more important than the IC, the best way to remove a SMT IC is to cut the pins off at the package with an X-acto).
4.  Scotchbrite pad/steel wool- cheap phenolic protoboards tend to be unplated, so the copper finish gets oxidized.  You can pour a bucket of flux over the board before you start working OR you can rub it down with an abrasive pad of your choice.  Scotchbrite and steel wool both work wonders.  They can be used on old component leads, too, but that's a little harder.
5.  Dental pick-  good for lifting leads while you have the solder melted, if you need to rework a fine-pitch SMT IC.  For larger scale stuff, good for maintaining pressure on a component while you melt away the solder, or for picking off questionable stuff on the board (is it a glob of solder or something else?)
6.  Magnifier- I use a 3x for reading part markings and a 10x for doing board inspection. 
7.  Flashlight- pairs well with the previous item.  It's also handy to be able to readily direct light under components without having to rotate the whole PCB.
8.  Your nose- long a favorite tool of mine, this one would've been left off this list if not for being mentioned in Todd Harrison's excellent power supply troubleshooting blog posts.  I daresay not many people who've spent any time working with electronics DON'T know what the magic smoke smells like; that smell will linger long after the heat is gone, and will often be present even if no damage is visible.  Sniffing around on a board (UNPOWERED) can frequently alert you to a dead or damage component, or at least the region of the board that component is in.
9.  Your fingers- a non-contact IR thermometer works well, too, but for sheer cheapness and immediate availability, nothing beats the fingertips for detecting unreasonably hot components..  NB NB NB GREAT CAUTION IS REQUIRED HERE.  Do not probe circuits under power with your fingertips if there is a chance of them containing high voltages (above 24-30V).

TFPC 32: Internet symptom searching

I was down- hard- yesterday with a bad bout of food poisoning, which brings me to the 32nd item I love about living in the future:

32.  Symptoms of disease are easily available- Of course, this has it's downsides.  While the SYMPTOMS are often widely available, as are the prognoses, sensitivity and specificity are often ignored, as are any kind of information about likely age groups, races, gender types, risk-enhancing behavior, etc etc.

In other words, it's better at ruling things OUT than ruling them IN- but it WAS comforting to know that the very serious food-borne illnesses generally don't have the symptoms I was suffering through.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

TFPC 31- Online travel

I've been obsessing over how I can plan a trip to Maker Faire next year using the train...online travel reservations are pretty spectacular, since I can try different departure dates and travel permutations and find a cheap option.  I should write a Python script that spools out dates and returns prices...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

TFPC Day 30- Web updates from anywhere

Or at least, any PC.  I need to figure out how to do this from my phone...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

If you can't find it, you don't own it (part 2)

In part 1, I covered my mobile electronics kit.  This time around, I'll look at my mobile electronics toolkit.

While the mobile kit contains (almost) everything I need to do some breadboarding of circuits, more permanent hacks, installations, disassembly of finds and really fun stuff is all bound to require more advanced tooling than the cheesy $5 multimeter (that link shows it for $13, but it's available locally in the Twin Cities at AEI for less than $5, and with a bulk discount option)(yes, I have purchased multimeters in bulk) and adjustable wirestripper in the kit.  After a few scrambling debacles where I realized I didn't have what I needed to finish the job, I decided that I'd best come up with a toolkit that I could use at home and on the road.

After some hemming and hawing at the local Home Depot, I bought a Stanley XL Tool Organizer, which is a nice fold-up unit- essentially, two of the more conventional see-through plastic lid boxes that fold up around a central spine that has a handle and six drawers.  It was only $25 at the Home Depot; I bought the last one that was there and it's not on the website, so I'm wondering if it's been discontinued.  Amazon has another one that's twice as expensive but has more drawers and clear sides rather than black- that's the one complaint I have about it is not being sure where things are all the time.

Here you can see how the drawers slide out; the "back" (relative to us; it's perfectly symmetrical) is folded down and the front is folded up.  When the two halves are folded up the drawers are captive, but can be opened and closed with a bit of effort.  I've not yet had one slide out on me while moving the toolkit around, so I consider it a pretty successful design.

The drawers have two different lengths- one short one at the top, to accommodate the handle in the center of the spine, and two longer ones on the bottom.  The depth of the drawers makes it possible to store larger objects in the drawers than can be stored in the clamshell sides- at least, if you don't want to take a cutting tool to the dividers in the sides.

The image above has tooltips- hover over the image to see the active areas (may not work in feed viewers like Google Reader).  Most of the stuff in the drawers was selected either because it wouldn't fit (comfortably) in the clamshells or because it fits so nicely here.  It's also stuff that I find having access to without having to lay out the side is nice- the precision driver kit, wire strippers, and multimeter are among the most frequently used items in the tool kit.  The butane heat gun is great for heat shrink; some day, when I have some extra cash, I may buy a combo butane heat gun/soldering iron.  That's a long way off, though.

There are a couple of items of note in here- the digital caliper is a ridiculously useful piece of tooling and once you have one you'll wonder how you lived without it.  There's a long-handled flat-blade screwdriver which is for prying apart seams in plastic cases more than anything else.  The USB-serial adapter will probably eventually move to the computer kit.  The solder sucker is a cheapo unit that I got from Marlin P Jones; I've seen it elsewhere as well and, surprisingly, it works substantially better than some that I've seen for five or ten times as much.  Lastly, if you haven't seen the brush/can variety of cyanoacrylate adhesive, let me just take a moment to extol its virtues.  The cap doesn't seem to glue itself on as easily, there's no tip to clog, and the brush is delicate enough to put glue right where you want it.

Nothing terribly unexpected on this side.  I'll mention that, in addition to an Arduino, I usually have a "Thumbino" in here, which is an Arduino clone of my own design that is the size of a USB flash drive and plugs directly into a USB port for programming- no cable needed.  Someday I'll sell them...if you're interested in buying one, let me know and I'll see what I can do.

There are a couple of things I'd like to add- I'd like to replace the sponge for the iron cleaner with a copper poof type tip cleaner.  A small DC power supply would not be out of line, either here or in the electronics kit.  A crimper and header connector kit wouldn't go amiss, either.  So far, I haven't felt a lack of any tool as I've worked away from my home base- of course, I don't expect to be able to do fine-pitch SMT soldering on the road.

TFPC 29- RSS feeds of my favorite blogs

Of course, it kills my productivity, but it's pretty much what I've always dreamed of- someone says, "here, I think this might be interesting to you" and I have all the reading I can manage.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

TFPC 28- Project sharing on the internet

28.  Projects on the internet

Instructables, Makezine, forums, etc.  I remember a time where you had one option for example projects involving microcontrollers: the PIC16F84.  That persisted well into the 21st century- WAY beyond the point where the F84 was a viable product.

Monday, November 22, 2010

If you can't find it, you don't own it (part 1)

Mr. Jalopy's famous side one, track one of the Maker's Bill of Rights is all well and good, but more basically, if you can't FIND it, you don't own it.

Owning an object has a cost, however minor, associated with it.  You'll have to move it if you change residences, you have to keep your kid/cat/ferret/sugar glider away from things you don't want smashed/pissed on/drug under your couch/scent marked by a weird oily forehead gland, and clutter (IMO) occupies mental real estate we can usually ill-afford to waste.  If you're going to pay these costs, you should take care to keep your gear well organized so these costs aren't wasted when it comes time to use something.

As a hackerspace-going maker, I find myself with an additional constraint- if I want to work on a project at the shop, I need to either bring what I need (tools and materials both) or be darn sure I know what and where stuff at the shop is.  My solution is a robust, scalable, compact group of toolkits broken down by four disciplines:
  • Electronics- since I'm an electron jockey, this one was first.  It's all the standard stuff- breadboards, jumper wires, voltage regulators, diodes, etc.  One Arduino, of course, and a wire stripper, and a small, simple meter, but no real tools to speak of.
  • Electronics tools- this is the first "add-on".  My electronics kit contains everything I'm likely to need to breadboard something up and get it working; this kit contains everything I'm likely to need to make a project permanent: soldering iron, pliers/dikes/screwdriver, more capable wire cutters, some spools of wire, a better meter, etc.  Also, a few batteries and battery holders, a couple of Arduinos, some shields, and a few Xbee modules.  Some cables, too.
  • Computer/custom project stuff- this is my rolling laptop case.  It's a much less well defined kit, because I don't have a spare computer to throw at it right now, but ultimately I expect that it will contain a laptop, a nice assortment of cables (possibly drawing some out of the tools kit), a rich digital library, a nice notebook and several pens, a graphing calculator, and have assigned space for my o-scope and a small box which will be large enough to contain and protect projects in process.
  • Electromechanical parts and tools- enough parts and tools to make a fairly decent little robot (or six).  Several Tamiya gearboxes and associated hardware, an X-acto knife kit, some drivers, belts, gears, motors salvaged from all manner of equipment, wheels, pulleys, etc.  Sculpey, JB-Weld, and a hot glue gun round out the mix.
Below is a nice, tagged image showing the outside storage area of my electronics kit.  If the box looks familiar, it's because it's the same one that the MakerShed electronics components packs are distributed in.  They are sold locally for about $7 (frequently on sale for $5) at Menard's, a fairly stock home improvement warehouse common in the upper midwest.

    Mouse over the buttons for descriptions (you may need to view on the blog site itself for that- Google Reader, at least, doesn't display them); click the image for a larger view.  As you can see, there are some fairly esoteric parts in there (the QT110 touch sensor, pager motors, and the IR receivers spring to mind); I've still got some empty space even WITH those parts so why not?  I feel like I have my bases pretty well covered here.

    This, of course, is just the lid- it lifts up to reveal another set of larger and deeper storage compartments inside.

    Inside, there is a nice assortment of 5% tolerance resistors (65 values) with each different value separately bagged, labeled, and stored in increasing order and segregated by decade for easy access (if you can't find it...).  The Arduino clings to the underside of the lid; it's held in place by a few dabs of Sugru under some old PC motherboard standoffs.  The largest subdivisions has a small, cheap meter, a few breadboards, a cheap wire stripper/cutter, and a largish HD44780 driven LCD (4x20, LED backlight).  There's also a 3x magnifier, because there are a LOT of small numbers in this box, and a standard 5.5mm by 2.1mm barrel jack with wire pigtails that leads to the outside world.

    There are a few other sensors in here, along with some batteries, some largish switches, discrete semiconductor devices, a bag of random LEDs, and some terminal blocks (see my bathroom hassler project for more details on the terminal blocks).  Again, there are probably a few things in here that could go (SCRs?  Really?) but for now and until I have a need for the space I'm going to keep them in.

    I'm interested to hear what other people think I should have in here- maybe some logic ICs?  I'd like to add some variable voltage regulators- I know I have some LM317 parts around here somewhere.  A small variable voltage wall-powered supply would be nice, too.  Some higher power transistors, too- the NMOS parts I have in there are pretty decent as are some of the PNP parts, but I have no PMOS or NPN TO-220 devices.  Maybe some L293D motor drivers?  What else am I forgetting?

    Tomorrow (hopefully) I'll do a write up on my electronics toolkit.

    TFPC 27- Geek culture

    27.  Geek culture

    Growing up geek was hard (I'm not going to claim it was as hard as growing up gay would be, naturally)- especially because my formative years were spent in a small school (less than 90 students from preschool through 7th grade) where a sizable number of the attendees were there as a school of last resort.

    So it does me some good to see the embrace of geek-dom people like Wil Wheaton bring to the world, and to see that being a geek is no longer anathema.  I'm sure it's still hard on teenagers and kids in small schools, but maybe it's getting better.

    Sunday, November 21, 2010

    Hassling the bathroom going public

    Recently I was approached by an architecture/design firm to help with an electronic install at a client site. The client had requested a system that interacts with users in the bathroom- "interacts" meaning, hassles them when they come and go.

    I spent some time debating how to do this; hacking an MP3 player would be easy, but keeping the devices synchronized is a pain- how do you play one sound, at random, then stop until the next input? The Adafruit Waveshield is nice and easy, but the sound quality is poor (22kHz 16-bit mono). Plus, the cost is kind of high for what you get- $30 for the Arduino and another $22 for the Waveshield.

    Searches for a cost-positive MP3 shield failed me (there are some out there but they are really quite pricey) and the MP3 trigger somehow eluded my search.

    It was around this time that Adafruit offered for sale the Chumby Hacker Boards. I decided that I'd do the project with that- it was a bit more expensive but it offered the benefit of playing many types of audio files natively, being programmable in Python (yay!) and being, well, cool. I partly defrayed the cost to the client by offering to do the job in return for enough parts to build a setup for myself (so I have a CHB of my own to play with) and pizza after the opening.
    The electronics are fairly simple (outside of the CHB, of course)- I used a protoshield to interface with the CHB (on these beta release boards, Arduino-ish headers are in place; the final product is likely to have that removed as the compatability with Arduino shields is pretty low due to the 3.3V signal level and the lack of hardware SPI and PWM on the right pins of the header). For ease of installation, I hacked on a terminal block (Altech AK950 5-pos, purchased at Ax-Man for $0.50). The install of that is quite a good hack (IMO)- the AK950 is a 5mm spaced header which is close enough to .2" to line up well with the holes on the protoshield. I pushed some pins that I dug out of a .156" spaced header (also from Ax-Man) into the holes and soldered a right-angle .1" spaced snappable header to that. The right-angle pins drop through the board and Bob's your uncle. I used hot glue to secure the terminal block.

    The cans and inductor on the lower half of the protoshield are a PCB I designed that has a step-up circuit on one side and a step-down circuit on the other. They use the same BOM (apart from the voltage set resistors), and can do step up from 3.3V to 12V or down from up to 30V to 5V. I got the board from Laen's awesome PCB batch buy.

    For door detection I used a work-surplus (people who know me well are snickering at that; I'm infamous for the mountains of stuff I've scavenged from the trash at my office. My co-workers have in fact started bringing things to me instead of the trash bins, much to my wife's dismay.) infrared obstruction sensor. It's got an adjustable range and a nice, easily mounted package. Unfortunately, it runs on 12-30Vdc, hence the step-up supply (the CHB runs on 5Vdc input, and requires a pretty nicely regulated supply, at that). To manage the 12V->3.3V output conversion I used a transistor to make an OC circuit with a 3.3V pull-up resistor.

    For additional state monitoring there's a PIR sensor (from Adafruit). Conveniently enough, that sensor runs off 3.0V-6.0V, and has an on-board regulator to 3.3V, which is the level of the return signal. That meant no signal conditioning needed there.

    As you can see from the picture the sensor box is pretty simple- a black painted aluminum enclosure (bought at AEI in Golden Valley) with a hole drilled in it (the PIR lens is a scoosh too big for any step bit I had access to; I ended up using a boring bar on a vertical milling machine to widen out the hole). Inside the box is a voltage protection diode and a 5V regulator; the room was pre-wired with 4-conductor low-voltage burglar alarm wire, so I sent 12V to the box and regulated it down to 5V for the PIR. For the junction between the wire in the wall and the wire I pre-terminated with the 6-pin DIN connector (chosen because it was the only connector at AEI that they had two males and two females of), I duplicated my trick with the terminal blocks, only this time instead of hot glue I built a body up between the two out of Sculpey (one of these days I'll do a post just about that- it's amazingly useful stuff).

    I coded up the state machine in Python (Python 2.6 has been built for the Chumby) and arranged for the program to run off a USB drive automatically on boot.  The system has three events- enter, exit, and "loiter", and sounds in different folders on the USB drive will be played for each event, allowing users to change the sounds later if they wish.

    It's been installed but it's not running yet; there are still some tweaks to be done to get the thing working reliably.  Sometimes it loses track of what's going on- it stays in loiter when the room is empty, for instance.  I need to tweak some timeouts on the motion sensor, I think.

    If you're interested in seeing it in action, stop by Pizzeria Lola in South Minneapolis (55th and Xerxes) and ask if you can use the bathroom- I'll tweet when I have it up and running.  They do a mean pie there, and the design of the place itself warrants a peak- particularly the spectacular copper-wrapped wood burning oven which is the centerpiece of the dining room.

    TFPC 24, 25, 26 (Wireless Internet, YouTube, Injection Molding)

    24.  Wireless internet

    25.  YouTube
    A million monkeys with a million camcorders will generate more garbage than can possibly be imagined.  Fortunately, there are a million OTHER monkeys pre-sorting it for me.

    26.  Injection molding
    Okay, not new, but the last few years have seen an EXPLOSION of inexpensive goods come from China's vast injection molding farms.  I'm not a big fan of cheap plastic crap, but there is some REAL gold hiding in that sludge.  The inspiration for this was the ease and low cost of putting together some really awesome mobile making kits lately.  Will post more anon, with pictures.

    Thursday, November 18, 2010

    TFPC 23 (Awesome batteries)

    23.  Batteries

    Lithium based rechargeable batteries rock my world, even if they are much harder to hack.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010

    TFPC 22 (Digital music)

    22.  Digital music

    Compressed digital music, in particular.

    10,000 songs in your pocket.  What's not to like?

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010

    TFPC 21 (Machine vision)

    21.  Machine vision

    There are a surprising number of machine vision applications out there these days- 2D barcodes, out-of-lane detection in cars, and manufacturing.  This is a result of the dramatic increase in available computing power- as data transfer rates go up, image sensor integration gets cheaper and more complete, and processing cycles get cheaper, the number of applications will go up as well.

    Which begs the question- why does the TSA need to people to look at my naked body on the scanner?  Presumably, any thing a person would see could be seen by a computer; if the area of interest were cropped and presented to a human for follow-up, then a more thorough search could be ordered.

    I suspect it's for the same reason voting machine companies have told us it's "impossible" to issue a paper receipt- failure of imagination coupled with hidebound ways of doing business.  And money, of course.  Lots and lots of money.

    Monday, November 15, 2010

    TFPC 20 (Twitter!)

    20.  Twitter

    What I don't like about Twitter is the incessant navel gazing (tweets of the "why hasn't he called?" ilk).

    What I LOVE about Twitter is the ease with which it levels the playing filed for the sharing of ideas and information.  People rich and famous to, well, me, can post something on Twitter, (potentially) gain a following, and disseminate information.  Provided it can be shared in 140 characters or less.

    The bandwidth restriction is something else to love, in the same way as it is for text messaging.

    Sunday, November 14, 2010

    TFPC 17, 18, 19

    I suck at daily blogging.

    17.  Blogging (did you really not see this coming?)

    Both creating and consuming.  It's nice to see what's going on out there, what other people are doing, and to share your ideas and achievements yourself.

    18.  Tabbed browsing

    Despite its attendant, the Wikipedia tab plague.  It seems like such an obvious thing I'm amazed it took so long to come to fruition, although it probably only feels recent to me.

    19.  Super-easy free open-source software development

    I am thinking in particular of Arduino, Python, and Processing (which I have yet to play with).  Between the fact that these can be freely downloaded and used by anyone for anything and the massive culture of sharing tricks, tips, and how-to docs, you can pretty much figure out how to make a computer (either a PC or an embedded system) do what you want, quickly and easily.  And cheaply.

    Thursday, November 11, 2010

    TFPC 16

    16.  Laser cutters

    Cheap laser cutters (well, cheap is relative) can now cut any shape you can imagine out of some pretty useful materials.  Acrylic, thin plywood (say, 1/4" or so), vinyl, and most other types of plastic can be sliced into intricate shapes for your home projects.

    Wish I could afford one...

    Wednesday, November 10, 2010

    TFPC 15 and 16

    I'm struggling to keep up with this every day- it really is hard to carve 5 minutes out for it.

    15.  Ubiquitous cellular connection

    Weak but it's true.  I have no idea how I managed to see my friends before we could connect via cell phone.  Although, for me, pre-cell phone days were college and high school, so I saw my friends around in person far more often.

    16.  E-commerce

    I can buy pretty much anything, anytime.  For someone with slightly esoteric hobbies (electronics still doesn't have enough clout to get really great local stores), that's a must.

    Monday, November 8, 2010

    TFPC 14 and 15

    14.  Online banking

    This one is actually a prime reason why I'm doing this.  I was paying bills, transferring money and generally budgeting our lives when my wife pointed out how amazing it is that I can do that all online.

    It's become so normal, so natural to me that I completely overlooked how incredible cool it is.

    15.  Hackerspaces

    I think that about covers that.

    Saturday, November 6, 2010

    The future's pretty cool 13

    13.  USB

    It seems like it's been here forever, but USB is a relative newcomer when stacked up against things like the parallel interface, serial ports, and PS/2, which are still (relatively) ubiquitous.  We forget the bad old days, before hot swappable input devices were the rule, printers had cables that could actually bend with less than a one-foot radius, and adding more devices was a simple matter of plugging in a hub.

    USB gets some flak from nerds for it's hub and star topology, inefficient use of bandwidth, and relative lack of hackability.  It wasn't that long ago that the people were really worried about what the disappearance of serial ports and parallel ports from PCs meant for hacking; with the advent of product lines like FTDI's USB chips that emulate serial and parallel interfaces, I think all but the most die-hard serial fans will agree that we've come out ahead.

    Friday, November 5, 2010

    The future's pretty cool, 12

    12.  Optical mice

    I'd never thought of it before just now, but there are TEENAGERS out there who likely think "mouse balls" is a euphemism for some social disease.

    Every once in a while, I come across a really old non-optical mouse somewhere in my company at some old, old workstation and I'm reminded anew why I love my optical mouse.  Remember when the ball would hit a grain of crud and just...stop, in one axis?  And you'd have to back it up and give it another run?  Picking it up and jiggling it helped, too, sometimes.  And let's not talk about the cleaning process...

    If you want to have some real sadistic fun, find a friend who is old enough to have spent a lot of time working with a ball mouse but young enough that that time was highly formative (30-35, long term nerd), and put some scotch tape over the optical sensor on his/her mouse.  The result will be a recalcitrant pointer that behaves a lot like a ball-mouse with a fouled roller.

    Then watch as s/he instinctively does the mouse jiggle and back up and try again motion...

    Thursday, November 4, 2010

    The future's pretty cool 11

    11.  LCD monitors

    I honestly never thought I'd see the day when a 19" LCD was not only affordable, but SO affordable that I would have TWO of them sitting side-by-side on my desk.  When I started college my 17" CRT was larger than standard, and we marveled at the 19" that one of my friends brought back after the summer.

    Wednesday, November 3, 2010

    The future's pretty cool 10

    10.  Digital watches

    I still think they're a pretty neat idea.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010

    The future's pretty cool 9

    9.  Wikipedia

    Any self-respecting information hound will nod in sympathy when you mention the Wikipedia tab plague (which reminds me- tabbed browsing may be number 10): you head to Wikipedia to look up, say, chi-squared tests for random variable distribution, and two hours later you're reading an article about the history of the Boxer Rebellion or the scuttling of the German fleet in Scapa Flowe at the end of WWI.  You've completely forgotten why you pulled Wikipedia up in the first place, and you may have missed a meeting.

    Maginot Line Engineering

    I tweeted on this a couple of weeks (months?) ago, but it's important enough a concept that I think it bears repeating because it applies to a lot of work that engineers (and, really, anyone) does.

    For the less historically-inclined, the Maginot Line was a series of defensive fortifications between France and Germany built between the World Wars.  France, tired of Germans tromping through their country every couple of decades, elected to try keeping them out by putting fortifications, guns, traps, and big, strongly worded signs in several languages all along the border with Germany.

    And it worked- the Germans were utterly and completely repelled by the Maginot Line's defenses.  Of course, they went AROUND them and attacked from the north, but by God, they didn't cross the Maginot Line!

    In the engineering world, there can be a tendency to do the same thing.  If one manufacturer's product has a defective lot, design them out!  A particular technology (e.g, tantalum capacitors) fails you, don't use it again!

    It seems like a simple fix, but I'm here to tell you: at best it is only breeding false confidence.  At worst, it can actually CREATE a problem, because once a company has suffered through a problem (material contamination, process failure, what have you) that company is LESS likely to have that problem again than another company that hasn't yet made the same mistakes.

    The lesson here is simple- learn from past mistakes and problems, but recognize when you're going too far.  Ask yourself: am I spending too much time and effort on solving the problems of the last war?  Because, I promise you, right now, someone somewhere out there is making something RIGHT NOW that is going to blow up in your product and give you a three-month headache.

    Monday, November 1, 2010

    The future's pretty cool 6-8

    Three-for-one today, because I pretty much didn't touch a computer all weekend.  I need to figure out how to pre-post things.

    6.  High resolution dislpays

    As Apple has famously pointed out, our eyes are capable of absorbing much greater detail than digital systems typically provide them with.  "Normal" vision (ie., not SEVERELY color-blind, or capable of being corrected to 20/20 with reasonable glasses/contacts) allows for a tremendous data density in a small package, and displays are finally starting to catch up with that.

    7.  Gaming as a force for good

    Some folks out there have finally recognized that the competitive spirit can be harnessed for good- from MMOs like WoW being used as economic microcosms and social fishtanks to competitions in neighborhoods to reduce power consumption.

    8.  The local food movement

    This is a fave of mine, because it means that it's now possible to buy locally grown food direct from the farmer at prices comparable to the really cheap pre-packaged stuff.  Net result: better food, lower prices.