Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Engineering definition: elegant

Elegant (adj.): “I’m being an unnecessarily clever d!ck about this, and that’s going to open up a lorry-sized hole in my design that I won’t see because I’m being too smug about how clever this solution is. Oh, and it’ll be harder to fix, understand, build, troubleshoot, and use, but I saved $.000001 on each unit by committing untold future resources to solving the problems I don’t know I just made. It also took far longer to design than it would have had I done it in a more conventional manner, but that’s okay, because design time is free and per-unit cost is king.”

KISS is the alternative to "elegant", and frequently results in designs which are MORE elegant than trying to be clever produces.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Power of the First Time

No, not that first time (well, not exclusively).

Think about the first time you did something that scared the hell out of you.  For me, the best example is the first time I set out to ride a rollercoaster and actually enjoy it.  Before, the tiny number of times I'd been on coasters were all profanity-laced panic-attack-like attempts to assert my masculinity.  This time, however, I decided to seize my fear and enjoy the ride.  It worked- that summer, and the two years thereafter, I bought a season pass to the local theme park and racked up literally hundreds of out-and-back trips, and I made a couple of special trips to other theme parks to hit THEIR coasters, too.  Something that had been previously unimaginable became a source of tremendous enjoyment to me.

What about the first time you used a tool you'd never used before?  I was terrified of the vertical milling machine until the first project I used it for; now I can't imagine NOT having access to it.

Or the first time you used a skill?  What spurred this post was my maker's notebook project.  I'd considered doing something like that for a very long time, but never did.  Now that I've done it, a whole new world of possibilities is opened up.  I used some hot glue to repair an engineering notepad that had lost its cardboard backing this morning, basically using the same process I used for the maker's notebook.  I'm starting to collect scrap paper (all those orphan printouts from around the printer, for starters) to make future pads.  It's too easy NOT to do that, now that the skill is in my stable.

My point is, never underestimate the power of doing something once.  Whether you're scared to do it, or think it'll take too long, or think it'll be too hard, you have nothing to lose by giving it a shot.  If you succeed, even partially, the second, third, and fiftieth times will come almost without thought.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Maker's Notebook

I've long suffered from notebook envy.  Not envy of any particular notebook; I just always wished I could be one of those people that carries a notebook around and jots down notes on everything- stuff they want to look up, buy, make, write about, talk about, whatever.
I never HAVE been one of those people, for a number of reasons.  I'm scatterbrained, so even if I did have a pen and notebook, they'd have to be pocket-sized so I can not have to carry them around, or I'll lose them.  I hate writing (I actually have a mild learning disability which affects my ability articulate ideas with a pen and paper), so I'm not likely to be writing draft blog posts or a novel in my notebook.  I can't draw for crap, either, and I don't have much interest in developing that skill.  I also never found a notebook I really liked- they're too big, or too rigid, or the paper is too thin, or they are lined/gridded wrong.  I'm very Goldilocks on this.

I like the Maker's Notebook for a number of reasons: the pages are numbered and gridded, there's an elastic band to hold it shut, and there are pages of reference material in the back (although I think most of the reference material is stuff I'd never use).  I don't like how big it is, the spacing of the gridlines (1/8" is too small for me), or the fact that it's hardcover.

I also don't like the idea of buying my maker's notebook.  It seems...contrary to the whole spirit of the thing, I think.

So, what to do?  Make my own, of course!  I did a little research into what's involved in binding a book, and it turns out it's really quite easy.  The process I followed is:

1.  Draw up my pages (link goes to a ZIP file of the pages I made):  I used Inkscape to make a template page, then I used a Python script to change the page numbers and create a new SVG file named according to the pages it contains.  I only numbered the odd pages and didn't attempt to print on the back- I found that the printer I was using was too unreliable for my tastes (pages printed duplexed were off by a millimeter or two in both axes) to create two sided sheets.  The pages are 85mm by 125mm, 5mm minor grids marked by "crosshairs" and 25mm major grids marked by lines- the last 10mm on the spine edge is unprinted to provide for margin.
2.  Print them off (link goes to a PDF of the pages in one file):  I printed the pages onto resume paper- I don't figure I'll be printing any resumes anytime soon so I might as well do SOMETHING with it.  I didn't want the paper to be thin enough for the ink from my pen to bleed through (a problem I had with my last Moleskine notebook), and I was hoping to be able to write on both sides without even seeing the writing on the other side.  I was partly successful- the ink doesn't bleed at all but it can be seen through the page.
3.  Cut them out:  I used a guillotine-type bypass paper cutter for mine, and cut the pages out one sheet at at a time.  I used a flashlight to silhouette the cutting edge so I could line up the edges better.  A slide-type cutter would probably work better.
4.  Align the pages:  Align the to-be-bound edges by rapping the stack edge-on on a table (think about the move you do when shuffling cards, between the fun flippity-flippity-flippity parts, to realign the cards.  But more cautious.).  Once you have a nice, well aligned stack (you'll only be able to get the binding edge REALLY straight), take a couple of binder clips and secure the stack by clamping them over the edge OPPOSITE the binding edge.  Then, create a nice, solid edge on the binding edge by taking some pieces of stiff material (I used thin sheet aluminum but wooden or steel rulers, cut glass, paint stir sticks, or anything else of that ilk would work) and clamping them along the edge with another pair of binder clips.  In the picture, the edge clamp pieces are a little short- they are sized for a different sheet but you see the idea.  Make sure that the clips and clamping pieces are at least 2-5mm from the edge; less than that and you'll get glue on them, but more than that and the pages will not be tight enough (they'll want to spread as they absorb glue).
5.  Smear the glue on the spine:  I used fancy-shmancy bookbinding PVA, but regular old Elmer's Glue-All should work just fine, since that's pretty much the same thing.  I've also seen websites recommend Gorilla Glue and hot glue as well, but I can't vouch for those first hand.  It's nice to get something in a pot, though, like I used, because you can brush it on more readily with a tool, then.  I used a foam paint brush and it worked perfectly.  Start with a light coat and work it into the spine a little (by light coat, I mean, cover the entire spine, but not so thick you can't see the "grain" of the paper stack through the glue).  Then, immediately, paint a slightly thicker layer over that (thick enough that you can't see the grain anymore, but not so thick it threatens to drip or run).  Let this dry for a few hours; when you come back you'll likely find that you've got a few places (or maybe many places) where the glue has thinned, soaked in, or otherwise become transparent enough that you can see the grain again.  Now put a thick dollop down, all along the spine- as much as you can get without drips forming.  Go down the front, back, and ends, as well, by a millimeter or two or three.  You want to form a nice "cap" over the bound edge, that captures all the pages and lends strength to the spine such that the pages fold easier than the glue cap does.  Leave the binder clips and clamping pieces in place until the spine dries.
6.  Cover it- once you've got a nice, thick spine coat of glue, you can put a cover on it.  I used a piece of upholstery fabric from an old sample book, cut with pinking shears to prevent (or at least slow) fraying.  Personal preference is key, here- I wanted the cover to be long enough that the back cover would flap over the front and be secured to the front, to keep the edge opposite the binding from becoming "frizzy".  All I did to cover it was add a little more glue (a thin layer, but over the entire surface of the cap I'd created earlier) and wrap the cover around the bound pages (line it up nicely!).  Be sparing with the amount of glue you use- as I smoothed the fabric over the spine, a lot of glue oozed down to the end and dripped out.  I replaced the binder clips and clamping pieces along the spine, and the two clips along the open edge, just to make sure I got a nice crease.

Once the glue dries, you have a notebook!  There are a few things I did wrong that I'll try and rectify with the next version:
  • The paper I used was too heavy.  It could be a bit thinner and still be quite opaque; then it would fold easier, too.
  • I shouldn't have printed a line along the three visible edges I wanted to cut.  The lines show up here and there which lend a slightly slap-dash look to the thing.  Either printing a line that's offset by one of the paper cutter's grid units (so I can line it up with something else to cut) or just using the ends of the grid lines would have been better options.
  • The snaps I put on the cover are too thick.  They lend an uneven feel to the surface, marring the sleekness of the closed notebook and embossing a circle on the first few pages.  Better options escape me at the moment, though- both corners of the cover need to be fixed or the will inevitably fold up when stuffed into your back pocket.  Elastic band, perhaps?  Magnets?
  • The fabric I used is a few mm narrower than the book itself.  Not a big deal, but a definite lack-of-planning issue.
  • The fabric is a little too floppy.  I haven't decided if I like this or not.  It's durable enough to protect the notebook but soft enough to easily be folded around the back.  Next time I may use leather if I can find a source for usable size pieces on the cheap.
  • I rushed it with the reference information.  The reference pages at the back have a few pinouts of transistors, the Atmega328P, standard resistor values, a tap/drill chart, ASCII characters, some conversion ratios and some tangent values.  Most of them I just stole from around the web (that's why I didn't upload those pages); many are scaled bitmaps and screen caps, so the resolution is sub-par.
  • Time will tell if my "cross-hairs for minor/lines for major" solution is the right one.  I may go to tiny little pips rather than cross-hairs, and I may abandon the major grid marks all together.  I am, however, very happy with the 5mm spacing for the gridlines.
Despite all that, I'm very happy with my new notebook, and I'm reasonably sure that the combination of it being nearly exactly what I want and my having made it with my own hands is going to encourage me to use it.  Now I just need to get a really nice pen to use with it!