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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Alfred P. Morgan: A Generation’s Radio Hacker

I was surfing the web looking for interesting projects the other day when I ran into [SkyKing’s] exquisite transistor demodulator radio builds. He mentioned that they were “Alfred P. Morgan-style” and that brought back a flood of memories about a man who introduced a whole generation to electronics and radio.

[Morgan] was born in 1889 and in the early part of the twentieth century, he was excited to build and fly an airplane. Apparently, there wasn’t a successful flight. However, he eventually succeeded and wrote his first book: “How to Build a 20-foot Bi-Plane Glider.” In 1910, he and a partner formed the Adams Morgan company to distribute radio construction kits. We probably wouldn’t remember [Morgan] for his airplanes, but we do recognize him for his work with radio.

By 1913, he published a book “The Boy Electrician” which covered the fundamentals of electricity and magnetism (at a time when these subjects were far more mysterious than they are today). [Morgan] predicted the hacker in the preface to the 1947 edition. After describing how a boy was frustrated that his model train automated to the point that he had nothing actually to do, [Morgan] observed:

The prime instinct of almost any boy at play is to make and to create. He will make things of such materials as he has at hand, and use the whole force of dream and fancy to create something out of nothing.

Of course, we know this applies to girls too, but [Morgan] wrote this in 1913, so you have to fill in the blanks. I think we can all identify with that sentiment, though.

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Raspberry Pi Zero, or Minus One?

The Wall Street Journal reported that [Eric Schmidt] of Google and now Alphabet Inc, promoted the idea of an inexpensive version of the Raspberry Pi to the Raspberry Pi foundation’s [Eben Upton]. Apparently [Upton] accepted this recommendation despite existing plans to make a more expensive, more powerful version of the Pi. The outcome is the Raspberry Pi Zero that sells, in some places, for $5.00 and was given away for free on the cover of the MagPi magazine.

From the WSJ article:

“He [Schmidt] said it was very hard to compete with cheap. He made a very compelling case. It was a life-changing conversation,” Mr. Upton said, adding that he went back to the lab and scrapped all the engineering plans for more expensive versions of future Pi computers. “The idea was to make a more powerful thing at the same price, and then make a cheaper thing with the same power.”

Plans were scrapped. The more powerful Pi 2 was released at the price point of existing Pis, and now we have the Zero.

Pi’s Purpose

Foundation Mission

The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a registered educational charity in the UK. The purpose of this Foundation according to their About Us page is to, ‘advance the education of adults and children, particularly in the field of computers, computer science, and related subjects.’

Why is the Raspberry Pi Foundation so concerned about computer education? From the 1990s onward, fewer and fewer A Level students in the UK applying to study Computer Science had previous experience as hobbyist programmers. An applicant in the 2000s usually might have only done a little web design.

Why then does the Raspberry Pi Zero exist? [Upton] also told Cnet, “We really hope this is going to get those last few people in the door and involved in computer programming.”

Very good, but how well does the Zero support this goal or address their concerns?

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Complete the Hack A Day survey, win a shirt

Take our reader survey. Do it. Do it right now.  Do you think we should run more articles on the dietary needs of Llamas? Here is your chance to let us know.  We got a lot of great feedback from [Jason]’s post, and now we’re ready for more. We’ve put together 10 quick questions that will help us get a feeling for what you want. We will be choosing 5 participants at random to give free t-shirts (the basic logo one).

Update: While we wait for our survey slave to get the changes made, please just put something in the fields that are mandatory(questions 7-9). Even if you put “no opinion”, we’ll get good info from the rest of the survey.