Productivity, Unfinished Projects, and Letting Go

Most of us have been there, some projects just don’t get finished. Everyone shelves an in-progress build from time to time, and some hackers drop almost every project for fully finishing it. Why does it happen? What can we do about it? Or does it even matter? My own most memorable one is the wine glass rack I was making for my sister’s birthday, still sitting incomplete on a shelf eleven years later.

The answer may lie in what you consider to be a “done” project. Is it a fully completed build with every possible feature implemented and polished? With that rubric you could be counting all of your completed projects on one hand. What are you really getting out of your personal projects? It’s an interesting topic to consider as pivoting your mindset can end up boosting your productivity. So let’s dig in!

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Planned Obsolescence Isn’t A Thing, But It Is Your Fault

The common belief is that big companies are out to get the little people by making products that break after a short period, or with substantially new features or accessories that make previous models obsolete, requiring the user to purchase a new model. This conspiracy theory isn’t true; there’s a perfectly good explanation for this phenomenon, and it was caused by the consumers, not the manufacturers.

When we buy the hottest, shiniest, smallest, and cheapest new thing we join the wave of consumer demand that is the cause of what often gets labelled as “Planned Obsolescence”. In truth, we’re all to blame for the signals our buying habits send to manufacturers. Dig in and get your flamewar fingers fired up.

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A Look at Liquid Dielectrics

One evening quite a few years ago, as I was driving through my hometown I saw the telltale flashing lights of the local volunteer fire department ahead. I passed by a side road where all the activity was: a utility pole on fire. I could see smoke and flames shooting from the transformer and I could hear the loud, angry 60 Hz buzzing that sounded like a million hornet nests. As I passed, the transformer exploded and released a cloud of flaming liquid that rained down on the road and lawns underneath. It seemed like a good time to quit rubbernecking and beat it as fast as I could.

I knew at the time that the flaming liquid was transformer oil, but I never really knew what it was for or why it was in there. Oil is just one of many liquid dielectrics that are found in a lot of power distribution equipment, from those transformers on the pole to the big capacitors and switchgear in the local substation. Liquid dielectrics are interesting materials that are worth taking a look at.

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Exploring an Abandoned Toys “R” Us

If someone asked me to make a list of things I didn’t expect to ever hear again, the question “Do you want to go to a Toys “R” Us?” would be pretty near the top spot. After all of their stores (at least in the United States) closed at the end of June 2018, the House of Geoffrey seemed destined to join Radio Shack as being little more than a memory for those past a certain age. A relic from the days when people had to leave their house to purchase goods.

But much to my surprise, a friend of mine recently invited me to join him on a trip to the now defunct toy store. His wife’s company purchased one of the buildings for its ideal location near a main highway, and before the scrappers came through to clean everything out, he thought I might like a chance to see what was left. Apparently his wife reported there was still “Computers and stuff” still in the building, and as I’m the member of our friend group who gets called in when tangles of wires and sufficiently blinking LEDs are involved, he thought I’d want to check it out. He wasn’t wrong.

Readers may recall that Toys “R” Us, like Radio Shack before it, had a massive liquidation sale in the final months of operations. After the inventory was taken care of, there was an auction where the store’s furnishings and equipment were up for grabs. I was told that this location was no different, and yet a good deal of material remained. In some cases there were no bidders, and in others, the people who won the auction never came back to pick the stuff up.

So on a rainy Sunday evening in September, armed with flashlight, camera, and curiosity, I entered a Toys “R” Us for last time in my life. I found not only a stark example of what the changing times have done to retail in general, but a very surprising look at what get’s left behind when the money runs out and the employees simply give up.

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My Career As A Spammer, And Other Stories From The Sneakernet

A large hacker camp is in microcosm a city, it has all the services you might expect to find in a larger settlement in the wider world. There is a telecommunication system, shops, bars, a health centre, waste disposal services, a power grid, and at some camps, a postal system. At Electromagnetic Field, the postal system was provided by the Sneakernet, a select group of volunteers including your Hackaday scribe under the direction of the postmaster Julius ter Pelkwijk. I even had the fun of delivering some chopped pork and ham. (More on that later.) Continue reading “My Career As A Spammer, And Other Stories From The Sneakernet”

PLA: The Plastic That Grows

If you’ve ever taken a coast-to-coast car trip across the United States, the one thing that’s sure to impress you is the mind-bogglingly immense amount of corn that we grow here. If you take the northern route — I’ve done it seven times, so I know it by heart — you’ll see almost nothing but corn from Ohio to Montana. The size of the fields is simply staggering, and you’re left wondering, “Do we really eat all this corn?”

The simple answer is no, we don’t. We grow way more corn than we can eat or, once turned into alcohol, drink. We do feed a lot to animals, many of which subsequently end up as burgers or pork chops. But even after all that, and after accounting for exports, we still have a heck of a lot of corn to put to work. There are lots of industrial uses for this surplus corn, though, and chances are pretty good you’ve got an ear or two worth coiled up next to your 3D-printer, in the form of polylactic acid, or PLA.

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Doing One Thing, Well: The UNIX Philosophy

The Unix operating system has been around for decades, and it and its lookalikes (mainly Linux) are a critical part of the computing world. Apple’s operating system, macOS, is Unix-based, as are Solaris and BSD. Even if you’ve never directly used one of these operating systems, at least two-thirds of all websites are served by Unix or Unix-like software. And, if you’ve ever picked up a smart phone, chances are it was running either a Unix variant or the Linux-driven Android. The core reason that Unix has been so ubiquitous isn’t its accessibility, or cost, or user interface design, although these things helped. The root cause of its success is its design philosophy.

Good design is crucial for success. Whether that’s good design of a piece of software, infrastructure like a railroad or power grid, or even something relatively simple like a flag, without good design your project is essentially doomed. Although you might be able to build a workable one-off electronics project that’s a rat’s nest of wires, or a prototype of something that gets the job done but isn’t user-friendly or scalable, for a large-scale project a set of good design principles from the start is key.

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