I am always torn about the title of “engineer.” When I talk to school kids about engineering, I tell that an engineer is a person who uses science and math to solve or analyze practical problems. However, these days you hear a lot of engineering titles thrown around to anyone who does any sort of technical (and sometimes non-technical) work. “Software engineers” don’t have to be licensed to practice, while civil engineers do. What’s in a name and does any of this matter?
I’m guessing most of the members of the Hackaday community are what most people would consider early adopters. Sure, there’s variation among us, but compared to the general population we probably all qualify. I’ve spent many years being an early adopter. I owned a computer, a TiVO, a digital camera, a 3D printer, a drone, and many other gadgets before they became well known. I’ve avoided the self-balancing conveyance craze (I’ll stick with my motorcycle).
Of course, you know if you are an early adopter, you will overpay. New has a premium, after all. But there is another price: you often have the first, but not the optimum. My first digital camera took 3.5 inch floppies. My TiVO has an analog tuner.
I was reminded of this last week. A number of years ago, I built a 3D printer. A lot of printers back then didn’t have heated build plates, so printing ABS required rafts and ABS juice and frustration. I made sure to get a heated bed and, like most people in those days, I had a glass print surface covered in Kapton.
That works pretty well with ABS, but it isn’t perfect. Aqua Net hair spray makes it stick better, but large flat prints still take a little work. With a little practice, it isn’t bad. I eventually switched to an aluminum bed and didn’t have to level the head quite as often, but it didn’t really make things any better, just more repeatable.
The years pass and other gadgets beckon. I use the printer about like I use a drill press. I don’t use it every day, but when you need it it is handy. I have to admit, I’ve been getting partial to PLA since it doesn’t warp. But PLA in the hot Houston sun isn’t always a good mix, so I still print a fair amount of ABS.
The other day I noticed a product called BuildTak. I also heard some people are printing on PEI sheets. I decided to try the BuildTak. Wow! What a difference.
On the one hand, this is awesome functionality. The browser is the most ubiquitous cross-platform operating system that the world has ever seen. You can serve a website to users running Windows, Linux, Android, iOS, or MacOS and run code on their machines without having to know if it’s a cellphone, a desktop, or a virtual machine in the Matrix. Combining this ubiquity with the ability to control Bluetooth devices is going to be fun. It’s a missing piece of the IoT puzzle.
On the other hand, it’s a security nightmare. It’s bad enough when malicious websites can extract information from files that reside on your computer, but when they connect directly to your lightbulbs, your FitBits, or your BTLE-enhanced pacemaker, it opens up new possibilities for mischief. The good news is that the developers of Web Bluetooth seem to be aware of the risks and are intent on minimizing them, but there are still real concerns. How does security come out in the balance? Read on.
Part of the job of a Hackaday writer involves seeking out new stories to write for your delectation and edification. Our tips line provides a fruitful fount of interesting things to write about, but we’d miss so much if we restricted ourselves to only writing up stories from that source. Each of us writers will therefore have a list of favourite places to keep an eye on and catch new stuff as it appears. News sites, blogs, videos, forums, that kind of thing. In my case I hope I’m not giving away too much to my colleagues when I say I keep an eye on the activities of as many hackspaces as I can.
So aside from picking up the occasional gem for these pages there is something else I gain that is of great personal interest as a director of my local hackspace. I see how a lot of other spaces approach the web, and can couple it to my behind-the-scenes view of doing the same thing here in our space. Along the way due to both experiences I’ve begun to despair slightly at the way our movement approaches the dissemination of information, the web, and software in general. So here follows a highly personal treatise on the subject that probably skirts the edge of outright ranting but within which I hope you’ll see parallels in your own spaces.
Before continuing it’s worth for a moment considering why a hackspace needs a public website. What is its purpose, who are its audience, and what information does it need to have?
Last time I showed you how to set up a reasonably complex design in a spreadsheet: a common emitter bipolar transistor amplifier. Having the design in a spreadsheet makes it easy to do “what if” scenarios and see the effects on the design almost immediately.
Another advantage that spreadsheets offer is a way to “solve” or optimize equations. That can be very useful once you have your model. For Excel, you need to install the Solver add-in (go to the Excel Options dialog, select Manage Add-Ins, and select the Solver Add-In). You might also enjoy OpenSolver. You can even get that for Google Sheets (although it currently lacks a non-linear solver which makes it less useful for what we need).
A lot of us spend a lot of time switching between Windows and Linux. Now that platforms like the Raspberry Pi are popular, that number is probably increasing every day. While I run Linux on nearly everything I own (with the exception of a laptop), my work computers mostly run Windows. The laptop is on Windows, too, because I got tired of trying to get all the fancy rotation sensors and pen features working properly under Linux.
What I hate most about Windows is how hard is it to see what’s going on under the hood. My HP laptop works with a cheap Dell active stylus. Sort of. It is great except around the screen edges where it goes wild. Calibration never works. On Linux, I could drill down to the lowest levels of the OS if I were so inclined. With Windows, it is just tough.
War is Shell
One place where Linux always used to have an advantage over DOS and Windows was the shell. There are lots of variations available under Linux, but bash seems to be the current pick for most people. If you want more power, you can move to some alternatives, but even bash is pretty powerful if you learn how to use it and have the right external programs (if you don’t believe it, check out this web server).
When I start up a new project, one that’s going to be worth writing up later on, I find it’s useful to get myself into the right mindset. I’m not a big planner like some people are — sometimes I like to let the project find its own way. But there’s also the real risk of getting lost in the details unless I rein myself in a little bit. I’m not alone in this tendency, of course. In the geek world, this is known as “yak shaving“.
The phrase comes obliquely from a Ren and Stimpy episode, and refers to common phenomenon where to get one thing done you have to first solve another problem. The second problem, of course, involves solving a third, and so on. So through this (potentially long) chain of dependencies, what looks like shaving a yak is obliquely working on cracking some actually relevant problem.
Continue reading “Yak Shaving: Hacker Mode vs Maker Mode”