Megabots, Colliders, Rockets, Tunnels Underground, and Other Big Dumb Ideas Will Save Us

Humanity is a planetwide force. We have the power to change our weather. We have the power to change the shape of the land. We have the power to selectively wipe a species from this earth if we choose.  We’ve had this power for a while and we’re still coming to terms with it. Many of us even deny it.

With such power, what do we do? We have very few projects which are in line with our ability. Somewhere in the past few years, I feel like most of us have lost our audacity. We’ve culturally come to appreciate the safe bet too much. We pull the dreamers and doers down. We want to solve the small problems first, and see if we have time for the big problems later. We don’t dream big enough, and there is zero reason for this hesitation. We could leverage our planetwide power for planetwide improvements. Nothing is truly stopping us. No law, no government, nothing.

To put it simply, as far as technology goes, everything is still low-hanging fruit. We’ve barely done anything. Even some of our greatest accomplishments can happen randomly in nature. We’ve not left our planet in any numbers or for any length of time. Our cities are disorganized messes. In every single field today, the unexplored territory is orders larger than the explored. Yet despite this vast territory, there are very few explorers. People want to optimize the minutia of life. A slightly faster processor for a slightly smaller phone. It’s okay.

Yet that same small optimization applied to a larger effort could have vast positive impact. Those same microprocessors could catalog our planet or drive probes into space. The very same efforts we spend on micro upgrades could be leveraged if we just look at the bigger picture then get out of our own way. All that is lacking is ambition. Money, time, skill, industry, and people are all there, waiting. We have the need for and have the resources to support ten thousand Elon Musks, not just the one.

Big projects make us bigger than our cellphones and Facebook. When you see a rocket launch into the sky, suddenly, “the world” becomes, simply, “a world.” Order of magnitude improvements reduce the order of our perception of previously complex problems. They should be our highest goal. Whatever field you’re in, you should be trying to be ten times better than the top competitor.

However, there are some societal changes that have to occur before we can.

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Path To Craftsmanship: Don’t Buy Awful Safety Gear

A while back I tried to make a case for good safety disciple as a habit that, when proactively pursued, can actually increase the quality of your work as a side effect. In those comments and in other comments since then I’ve noticed that some people really hate safety gear. Now some of them hated them for a philosophical reason, “Ma granpap didn’t need ’em, an’ I don’t neither”, or ,”Safety gear be contributin’ to the wuss’ness of the modern personage an’ the decline o’ society.” However, others really just found them terribly uncomfortable and restricting.

In this regard I can help a little. I’ve spent thousands of terrible long hours in safety gear working in the chemical industry. I was also fortunate to have a company who frequently searched for the best safety equipment as part of their regular program. I got to try out a lot.

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A Realistic Look At The Death of A Standard

A bit ago I wrote an article called, “Death To The 3.5mm Audio Jack, Long Live Wireless.” A few readers were with me, a few were indifferent, many were vehemently against me, and there was a, not insubstantial, subset in a pure panic about the potential retirement of a beloved connector. Now I used a lot of opinionated language dispersed with subjectively evaluated facts to make a case that the connector is out. Not today maybe, but there is certainly a tomorrow not so far off where there are more wireless headsets at the electronics store than wired ones.

I think I saw a laserdisc player in operation exactly once.
I think I saw a Laserdisc player in operation exactly once.

So what happens when a standard dies? What happens when technology starts to move on? Let’s take a look at the CD-ROM.  Continue reading “A Realistic Look At The Death of A Standard”

Death To The 3.5mm Audio Jack, Long Live Wireless

There’s been a lot of fuss over Apple’s move to ditch the traditional audio jack. As for me, I hope I never have to plug in another headphone cable. This may come off as gleeful dancing on the gravesite of my enemy before the hole has even been dug; it kind of is. The jack has always been a pain point in my devices. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky. Money was tight growing up. I would save up for a nice set of headphones or an mp3 player only to have the jack go out. It was a clear betrayal and ever since I’ve regarded them with suspicion. Is this the best we could do?

I can’t think of a single good reason not to immediately start dumping the headphone jack. Sure it’s one of the few global standards. Sure it’s simple, but I’m willing to take bets that very few people will miss the era of the 3.5mm audio jack once it’s over. It’s a global episode of the sunk cost fallacy.

In the usual way hindsight is 20/20, the 3.5mm audio jack can be looked at as a workaround, a stop over until we didn’t need it.  It appears to be an historic kludge of hack upon hack until something better comes along. When was the last time it was common to hook an Ethernet cable into a laptop? Who would do this when we can get all the bandwidth we want reliably over a wireless connection. Plus, it’s not like most Ethernet cables even meet a spec well enough to meet the speeds they promise. How could anyone reasonably expect the infinitely more subjective and variable headphone and amplifier set to do better?

But rather than just idly trash it, I’d like to make a case against it and paint a possible painless and aurally better future.

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Are Today’s Engineers Worse?

Today’s engineers are just as good as the ones that came before, but that should not be the case and there is massive room for improvement. Improvement that can be realized by looking for the best of the world to come and the one we left behind.

Hey kids! Let's learn why the CE certifications exist!
Hey kids! Let’s learn why the CE certifications exist!

Survivorship bias is real. When we look at the accomplishments of the engineers that came before us we are forced to only look at the best examples. It first really occurred to me that this was real when I saw what I still consider to be the most atrocious piece of consumer oriented engineering the world has yet seen: the Campbell’s soup warmer.

This soup warmer is a poor combination of aluminum and Bakelite forged into the lowest tier of value engineering during its age. Yet it comes from the same time that put us on the moon: we still remember and celebrate Apollo. It’s possible that the soup warmer is forgotten because those who owned it perished from home fires, electrocution, or a diet of Campbell’s soup, but it’s likely that it just wasn’t worth remembering. It was bad engineering.

In fact, there’s mountains of objects. Coffee pots whose handles fell off. Switches that burned or shocked us. Cars that were ugly and barely worked. Literal mountains of pure refuse that never should have seen the light of day. Now we are here.

The world of engineering has changed. My girlfriend and I once snuck into an old factory in Louisville, Kentucky. The place was a foundry and the only building that survived the fire that ended the business. It happened to be where they stored their professional correspondence and sand casting patterns. It was moldy, dangerous, and a little frightening but I saw something amazing when we cracked open one of the file cabinets. It was folders and folders of all the communication that went into a single product. It was an old enough factory that some of it was before the widespread adoption of telephony and all documents had to be mailed from place to place.

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Path to Craftsmanship: The Art of Being Wrong

Every technical person knows, unlike artists and politicians, that they can be provably wrong; at least to a degree. Math tells the truth. Coupled with this knowledge is an ego which is often entirely based on our output. If our mechanism works, we feel good because we are provably good.

A disclaimer.
It didn’t stop Scott Adams from writing four books full of it and it won’t stop me.
from Dilbert: Advice

Unfortunately, unlike the robots we build or the simple minds we spin out of code, we are still human at the end of the day. When we feel the sting of being wrong we often respond poorly. Some of us slip into depression, claiming it all and dredging up a few other mistakes from our past along for the ride. Some of us explode into prideful rages, dropping our metaphorical shorts to show that this one fault is no fault at all compared to a history of personal majesty. Others become sullen and inward. Others ignore it all together. Others yet strike out at those around them leaving unpleasant barbs. The variations are endless, but I do think there is an ideal to be reached.

Despite the risk that the nature of the things I’ve learned will reveal exactly what kind of arrogant sod I am, I’ll give it a go anyway. I’ve made many mistakes, and I have many more to make, but these are some of the things I’ve learned. I’ve learned them all in technical fields, so I’m not sure how broadly the advice applies, but luckily this is Hackaday.

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Yak Shaving: Hacker Mode vs Maker Mode

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.
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