If someone suggests you spend time working on boring projects, would you take that advice? In this case, I think Kipp Bradford is spot on. We sat down together at the Hackaday Superconference last fall and talked about medical device engineering, the infrastructure in your home, applying Sci-Fi to engineering, and yes, we spoke about boring projects.
Kipp presented a talk on Devices for Controlling Climates at Supercon last year. It could be argued that this is one of those boring topics, but very quickly you begin to grasp how vitally important it is. Think about how many buildings on your street have a heating or cooling system in them. Now zoom out in your mind several times to neighborhood, city, state, and country level. How much impact will a small leap forward have when multiplied up?
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When we sat down for an interview, we dug a little deeper into the “boring” projects that Kipp Bradford sees as important. HVAC has already been mentioned, but he adds to that things like electrical infrastructure, concrete (think construction), and plumbing. At first glance these don’t feel flashy like the latest and greatest smart watch design. But they affect a mindbogglingly enormous portion of humanity. Start looking around and you’ll easily appreciate Kipp’s point of view. Boring things are everywhere, and they’re begging for a new set of eyes to move them forward.
If you just can’t get excited about the infrastructure, there’s still hope. We touched on the difficulty of getting medical equipment through the regulatory process — a realm where Kipp has breadth of experience. It’s interesting to hear his views on the opening up of what has been a closed area. Specifically he mentions hearing aids and electrocardiograms (ECG). Kip cites HeartyPatch from last year’s Hackaday Prize as a great example of progress — what once was prohibitively expensive is now available in a chip for anyone to experiment with. He sees additional opportunities opening now in places like hearing aid technology as the supply chain and regulatory process both become easier to navigate.
I like the message that Kipp leaves us with: “The imagination has to be at 20, not 10, not 11… 20!”. As with so many brilliant people, Kipp found he was working during all waking hours and it took a toll on his creativity. He turned to Sci Fi literature as an outlet and found it to be exactly what he needed. For him, these books helped him envision many possible futures, which is the first step in going out and making those futures happen.
Want to hang out with hundreds of awesome people like Kipp Bradford? The place to do it is at the Hackaday Superconference!
16 thoughts on “Kipp Bradford On The Importance Of Boring Projects, Medical Tech, And Sci Fi Novels”
” At first glance these don’t feel flashy like the latest and greatest smart watch design. ”
A product of our image based culture, but there are people who find “boring” interesting for the same reasons some climb mountains. It’s a challenge. As the “incomplete projects” article demonstrated though is people sometimes underestimate what’s involved with solving challenges. Our “short attention span theater” culture doesn’t reward taking long-term views towards problem-solving.
I love it. I’m constantly looking for ways to improve my house’s cooling / heating systems.
There are still lessons to be learned! Try taking something that’s boring to you and teaching it to someone who has never done it before…you’ll find all kinds of things you missed once your attention moved on to tastier projects.
>”How much impact will a small leap forward have when multiplied up?”
Not much. When you move up the scale, you also need to scale your point of reference or else you’ll over-estimate your achievements. Congratulating yourself on the many little things leads people to be penny wise and pound foolish.
For example, whenever the government subsidizes up a new windmill, the press praises it by saying how many thousand households it “powers”. This is usually a large number in the thousands, which sounds impressive and leaves you with the impression that things are getting done, and it’s all generally going to be fine in the end – until you realize that there are millions and millions of households and they’re only consuming a fraction of the total energy demand, and what they counted as “powering” the household didn’t include the gas they burn for heat.
Picking your point of reference sufficiently low, any achievement can be made to -look- large.
I beg to differ.
When the author (and Kipp I imagine) speak about improvents on a small scale that can be benificial at the large scale, they are not talking about politicians and greenies spruking how much a wind turbine (or whatever) is producing.
They are talking about how something small, like saving a single watt of power consumption in your home A/C quickly multiplies to hundreds, thousands, and eventually millions of watts if the slightly more efficent A/C is rolled out to/ purchased by/ used in more and more homes.
I’ve only picked A/C as an example, but there are plenty of others… save a cupful of water with a better shower head… save 5kg of concrete in a building because of a better structual design…
I’m talking about that exact same thing.
Saving a Watt in your house might save you pennies, and multiplied by all houses it can save millions, but what’s millions in an economy measured in trillions?
Not much. It’s the same thing. Something big on a local scale can be small on the global scale even if multiplied by the number of localities, because broadening your scope requires that you also count in other expenses you didn’t before.
Like for example, it’s been generally considered that banning the incandecent lightbulb was a good idea, because LEDs and whatnot consume 1/6th the energy, and multiply that saving over all the households, you get a ton of energy – but – then you consider that household lighting consumes about 15% of household energy consumption in the first place, and households consume about 15% of all energy, so the actual savings potential on the whole system is 2.25% and the actual savings is on the order of 1%
So even what seemed like a big thing on the local scale turns out to be quite small on the global scale. Meanwhile, Bitcoin mining is about to consume as much electricity as all the lightbulbs we replaced. Penny wise, pound foolish.
That isn’t to say LEDs and energy saving bulbs aren’t a good idea, and anyone who cares about the sort of McDonalds efficiency of shaving a gram off a burger to earn a million more is already doing it wherever feasible – but placing such a high emphasis on such a small thing that we had to make a law about it and ban whole categories of products is just silly considering that in the end it achieved bupkiss.
Likewise, incremental improvements in HVAC systems are a good thing, a necessary thing and a laudable thing to do, but don’t go around pretending like it’s the next best thing since sliced bread, hyping it (yourself) up – that just makes people behave irrationally and you end up doing more harm than good.
>”The imagination has to be at 20, not 10, not 11… 20!”.”
And this is why the Gartner curve exists.
That isn’t to say small incremental improvements don’t matter. It’s just that when you’re at the peak of inflated expectations, everyone’s throwing their money and time around with little actual progress or impact, while a bunch of fast talking “motivators” go around making speeches and marketing the thing. What seems like effort spent on a good cause has very little actual effect, because everyone’s spending time talking about it rather than doing anything about it.
You could pretty much draw a straight line from the beginning of the curve to the bottom of the through of disillusionment, and the surface area above that line represents the proportion of resources that are wasted to fast talking charlatans.
Nothing is ever really wasted in jungles and capitalist economies, it is just rerouted in unexpected and unanticipated directions. Basically, what was channelled gets spilled, but is still around. The spillage is mopped out by other channels criss-crossing the area.
I mean, money lands in hands of people who will eventually make a good use (in sense of benefiting humanity) of it. They may not deliver the profit right away, but they will earn scars (experience) and use the money to procure expensive equipment and rare components … which will end up either in their own hands or in hands of some other enthusiasts after the clearing auction – the seeds of new sprouts are sown.
Many failures make rich soil for expansive new growth – available quality resources, material and human, and that’s why the wealth of today’s nations is dependent not on number of business success stories, but on number of business attempt stories. Of course, there has to be a number of successes, too, or else it all sinks, but if we could somehow optimise out the hype phase, technological progress would be starved – we would have something akin to socialist planned economy, a slow steady decline.
In terms of money, you’re correct, but in terms of value, the “spillage” is a big problem.
Remember the case about broken windows, and how the naive economist would argue that breaking windows is a good thing because it creates jobs for glaziers? It’s the same sort of thing here – people who live and breathe hype are just making a bunch of noise to make money, not to actually make any value in exchange for the money.
The money eventually goes to people who make use of it, but why shouldn’t it go there directly? Why not skip the middle man whose contributions are that we’re simply all that much poorer supporting him.
>”if we could somehow optimise out the hype phase, technological progress would be starved ”
That’s still begging the question that hype has any positive influence on the development and maturity of technologies. Most of the time added visibility doesn’t benefit research, because things like, let’s say batteries for electric cars, are not dependent on companies like Tesla or Nissan or people driving around in a circle in the Formula E series – they depend on hard fundamental research and science which doesn’t have such immediate and directed use.
So the money all goes to Elon Musk, while some physics grad in a small college in the middle of nowhere is solving an equation that in the future, through a number of coincidences, makes batteries 4% cheaper. He never sees any of it.
And actually, the relationship of hype and technological progress could even be a variation of Brooks’s Law
Basically, as the number of people involved with the technology increases, and many of these people have absolutely no idea what they’re doing because they’re only in there because of all the buzz and hubbub, they start to dilute the amount of money and attention paid to those people who do know what they’re doing. Essentially, the loudest talkers steal the money from the actual researchers who can’t waste time in self-promotion for all the work they need to do.
It seems you quickly realized that interesting != exciting. Sure flashy gets all the press but dealing with HVAC for a commercial space, incubation chamber, fume hood, instrument or crystal oven can be plenty interesting. Yeah, ‘keeping a space at a constant temperature’ sounds dull but thats purely in the framing. ‘Optimizing hysteresis and environmental control loops’ manages to display some of the inherent challenge.
HVAC systems are far from boring especially given that air temperature is only a very rough indicator of comfort, the need to optimize energy usage, the effect of weather and the response times of most heating and cooling systems. Add to that a wide variety of heating/cooling options to juggle. In my house I have a central propane heating system which is expensive to run, independent electrical heaters, a wood fired stove, a central AC system, a whole house fan and, soon, ductless heat pump units and possibly solar power. Optimizing a system like that is far from a boring problem to solve.
Sounds like a job for*…neural nets!
*Back in the day it use to be…fuzzy logic. My how times have changed.
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