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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Stay Scrappy, Hackers! Hardware Startups Versus Goliath

A toast to all the hackers out there who like to do it scrappy, who fight hard to get your products to work, who make your own tools and testing jigs and assembly lines in your basement, and who pound the pavement (and the keyboards) to get your product out there. Here’s to you (*clink*).

I had the fortune of a job interview recently in a big faceless company that you may have never heard of but probably use their stuff all the time. They make billions. And it was surreal. This article is about what it’s like for a scrappy start-up engineer to walk into the belly of the beast of an organization that counts its engineers in the tens of thousands. For obvious reasons, I can’t go into specific details, but let me paint for you in broad strokes what you, the hacker and entrepreneur, are up against.

When you have a company that’s been around for decades and whose yearly sales volume has more digits than some countries, everything is a few orders of magnitude bigger in scale. People, resources, volumes, everything.

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Kids! Don’t Try This at Home! Robot Destroys Mankind

From the Forbin Project, to HAL 9000, to War Games, movies are replete with smart computers that decide to put humans in their place. If you study literature, you’ll find that science fiction isn’t usually about the future, it is about the present disguised as the future, and smart computers usually represent something like robots taking your job, or nuclear weapons destroying your town.

Lately, I’ve been seeing something disturbing, though. [Elon Musk], [Bill Gates], [Steve Wozniak], and [Stephen Hawking] have all gone on record warning us that artificial intelligence is dangerous. I’ll grant you, all of those people must be smarter than I am. I’ll even stipulate that my knowledge of AI techniques is a little behind the times. But, what? Unless I’ve been asleep at the keyboard for too long, we are nowhere near having the kind of AI that any reasonable person would worry about being actually dangerous in the ways they are imagining.

Smart Guys Posturing

Keep in mind, I’m interpreting their comments as saying (essentially): “Soon machines will think and then they will out-think us and be impossible to control.” It is easy to imagine something like a complex AI making a bad decision while driving a car or an airplane, sure. But the computer that parallel parks your car isn’t going to suddenly take over your neighborhood and put brain implants in your dogs and cats. Anyone who thinks that is simply not thinking about how these things work. The current state of computer programming makes that as likely as saying, “Perhaps my car will start flying and we can go to Paris.” Ain’t happening.

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A Look Into the Future of Slicing

I’ve had a few conversations over the years with people about the future of 3D printing. One of the topics that arises frequently is the slicer, the software that turns a 3D model into paths for a 3D printer. I thought it would be a good idea to visualize what slicing, and by extension 3D printing, could be. I’ve always been a proponent of just building something, but sometimes it’s very easy to keep polishing the solution we have now rather than looking for and imagining the solutions that could be. Many of the things I’ll mention have been worked on or solved in one context or another, but not blended into a cohesive package.

I believe that fused deposition modelling (FDM), which is the cheapest and most common technology, can produce parts superior to other production techniques if treated properly. It should be possible to produce parts that handle forces in unique ways such  that machining, molding, sintering, and other commonly implemented methods will have a hard time competing with in many applications.

Re-envisioning the slicer is no small task, so I’m going to tackle it in three articles. Part One, here, will cover the improvements yet to be had with the 2D and layer height model of slicing. It is the first and most accessible avenue for improvement in slicing technologies. It will require new software to be written but does not dramatically affect the current construction of 3D printers today. It should translate to every printer currently operating without even a firmware change.

Part Two will involve making mechanical changes to the printer: multiple materials, temperatures, and nozzle sizes at least. The slicer will need to work with the printer’s new capabilities to take full advantage of them.

Finally, in Part Three, we’ll consider adding more axes. A five axis 3D printer with advanced software, differing nozzle geometries, and multi material capabilities will be able to produce parts of significantly reduced weight while incorporating internal features exceeding our current composites in many ways. Five axis paths begin to allow for weaving techniques and advanced “grain” in the layers put down by the 3D printer.

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