Separating Ideas From Words

We covered Malamud’s General Index this week, and Mike and I were talking about it on the podcast as well. It’s the boldest attempt we’ve seen so far to open up scientific knowledge for everyone, and not just the wealthiest companies and institutions. The trick is how to do that without running afoul of copyright law, because the results of research are locked inside their literary manifestations — the journal articles.

The Index itself is composed of one-to-five-word snippets of 107,233,728 scientific articles. So if you’re looking for everything the world knows about “tincture of iodine”, you can find all the papers that mention it, and then important keywords from the corpus and metadata like the ISBN of the article. It’s like the searchable card catalog of, well, everything. And it’s freely downloadable if you’ve got a couple terabytes of storage to spare. That alone is incredible.

What I think is most remarkable is this makes good on figuring out how to separate scientific ideas from their prison — the words in which they’re written — which are subject to copyright. Indeed, if you look into US copyright law, it’s very explicit about not wanting to harm the free sharing of ideas.

“In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.”

But this has always been paradoxical. How do you restrict dissemination of the papers without restricting dissemination of the embodied ideas or results? In the olden days, you could tell others about the results, but that just doesn’t scale. Until today, only the richest companies and institutions had access to this bird’s eye view of scientific research — similar datasets gleaned from Google’s book-scanning program have trained their AIs and seeded their search machines, but they only give you a useless and limited peek.

Of course, if you want to read the entirety of particular papers under copyright, you still have to pay for them. And that’s partly the point, because the General Index is not meant to destroy copyrights, but give you access to the underlying knowledge despite the real world constraints on implementing copyright law, and we think that stands to be revolutionary.

Where You Are Influences What You Invent

[Timon] just bought a new PCB holder setup for his desk. It’s one of those spring-loaded jobbies that uses strong magnets to hold it up off of a work surface, and is made of metal so that you can reflow solder with it. It might be a clone of the PCBite, but frankly I’ve seen similar projects everywhere — it’s hard to say who is copying whom these days. And anyway, that’s not the point.

What struck me about the holders was their tops: they’re repurposed 3D printer nozzles. That’s a fantastic idea because they’re non-magnetic, heat tolerant, relatively uniform, and probably dirt cheap in Shenzhen, where the designer of this board almost certainly lives. Maybe he or she even works in a 3D printer factory? Who knows? But the designer almost certainly looked around for something that would fit the bill, and found the nozzles.

Indeed, there’s been a lot of innovation in all things board-holding coming out of China over the last decade. I can remember when the state of the art was a vise-like affair. (I still like my homebrew Stickvise clone for low, square jobs.)

But with cell phone repairs requiring the ability to hold and reflow ever stranger board shapes, there’s been a flourishing of repositionable holders. The pawn-pillar designs are cool, but their utility rests firmly in how strong the magnets are. (I wouldn’t buy the one linked, for instance, without trying it first-hand.) I really like the look of these jobbies, which have springs to maintain tension. (Will the 3D-printed plastic jaws hold up to multiple reflows?) Anyway, it’s no coincidence that the inventors of these devices are in the cellphone-repair capital of the universe.

The old saying is that necessity is the mother of invention. But what if, like with real estate, it’s location, location, location? You dream up solutions to problems around you, using parts that you’ve got on-hand. If that sounds a little fatalistic, consider that you can also change your surroundings, either physical or even virtual. Are you in the middle of the right challenges and opportunities?

Keep It Simple, Smartly

“Keep it simple” sounds like such good advice, but what exactly is the “it”; what parts of a project should you try to keep simple? You can’t always make everything simple, can you? Are all kinds of “simplicity” equally valuable, or are there aspects of a design where simplicity has multiplier effects on the rest of the project?

I ran into two seemingly different, but surprisingly similar, design problems in the last couple weeks, and I realized that focusing on keeping one aspect of the project simple had a multiplier effect on the rest — simplifying the right part of the problem made everything drastically easier.

EA Axon Great plane, but heavy!

The first example was a scratch-built airplane design. I’d made a few planes over the summer, focusing on plans on the Interwebs that emphasize simplicity of the actual build. Consequently, the planes were a bit heavy, maybe not entirely aerodynamic, and probably underpowered. And this is because the effort you expend building the plane doesn’t fundamentally have anything to do with flight. Keeping the build simple doesn’t necessarily get you a good plane.

Weight, on the other hand, is central. Wings produce lift, whether measured in grams or ounces, and anything heavier just isn’t gonna fly. But reducing weight has a multiplier effect. Less weight means smaller and lighter motors and batteries. Structures don’t need to be as stiff if they’re not subject to heavier bending forces. And, important to the noob pilot, planes with less weight per wing area fly slower, giving me (ahem, the noob pilot) more reaction time when something goes sideways. Trying to simplify the design by trimming weight has knock-on effects all around.

My latest fully-DIY design threw out anything that brought weight along with it, including some parts I thought were necessary for stiffness or crash resistance. But with the significantly lowered weight, these problems evaporated without needing me to solve them — in a way, the complexity of design was creating the problems that the complexity of design was supposed to solve. Ditching it meant that I had a slow plane, with simple-to-build wings, that’s capable of carrying a lightweight FPV camera. Done and done! Simply.

Nope. Too complex.

At the same time, I’m building a four-axis CNC foam cutter. I’ve built many 3D printers, and played around with other folks’ DIY CNC machines, so I had a few design ideas in my head starting out. My first iteration of an XY axis for the machine runs on metal angle stock with a whopping eight skate bearings per axis. It’s strong and rigid, and clumsy and overkill, in a bad way for this machine.

3D printers want to move a relatively light tool head around a small volume, but relatively quickly. CNC mills need to be extremely rigid and shoulder heavy side loads, subject to some speed constraints. A foam cutter has none of these needs. The hot wire melts the foam by radiation, so there are no loads on the machine because it doesn’t even contact the workpiece. And because it cuts by melting, it has to go slow. These are the places in the design where simplification will bear the most fruit.

I write this in retrospect, or at least from the perspective of a second prototype. I wanted the first design to hold the cutting filament taut, hence the rigid frame. But separating the tension from the motion, by using a lightweight external bow to keep the filament tight, meant that the machine could be dead simple. I could use smaller plastic sliders instead of complex bearings, on thin rods instead of bulky rails. In a day after having this realization, I got twice as far as I had on the previous machine design in a week, and it takes up a lot less space in my basement.

So take your KISS to the next level. Brainstorm a while about the binding constraints on your design, and what relaxing any of them can do. Do any particular simplifications enable further simplifications? Those are the ones that you want to start with. Keep it simple, smartly. And because it’s not always easy to find these multiplier effects, tell your friends!

Ideas To Prototypes Hack Chat With Nick Bild

Join us on Wednesday, July 29 at noon Pacific for the Ideas to Prototypes Hack Chat with Nick Bild!

For most of us, ideas are easy to come by. Taking a shower can generate half of dozen of them, the bulk of which will be gone before your hair is dry. But a few ideas will stick, and eventually make it onto paper or its electronic equivalent, to be played with and tweaked until it coalesces into a plan. And a plan, if we’re lucky, is what’s needed to put that original idea into action, to bring it to fruition and see just what it can do.

No matter what you’re building, the ability to turn ideas into prototypes is what moves projects forward, and it’s what most of us live for. Seeing something on the bench or the shop floor that was once just a couple of back-of-the-napkin sketches, and before that only an abstract concept in your head, is immensely satisfying.

The path from idea to prototype, however, is not always a smooth one, as Nick Bild can attest. We’ve been covering Nick’s work for a while now, starting with his “nearly practical” breadboard 6502 computer, the Vectron, up to his recent forays into machine learning with ShAIdes, his home-automation controlling AI sunglasses. On the way we’ve seen his machine-learning pitch predictor, dazzle-proof glasses, and even a wardrobe-malfunction preventer.

All of Nick’s stuff is cool, to be sure, but there’s a method to his productivity, and we’ll talk about that and more in this Hack Chat. Join us as we dive into Nick’s projects and find out what he does to turn his ideas into prototypes.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, July 29 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about. Continue reading “Ideas To Prototypes Hack Chat With Nick Bild”

Nothing Comes From Nowhere

How do you come up with new ideas? As much as it sometimes seems like they arrive in a flash out of the blue, they don’t just come out of nowhere. Indeed, we all have well-stocked mental toolboxes that say “this thing can be used to do that” and “if you want to get there, start here”.

One incredibly fertile generator of “new” ideas is simply putting old ideas next to each other and realizing that a chain of two or three can get you to someplace new. It just happened to me while listening to Mike and myself on this week’s Hackaday Podcast.

bikelangelo

Here’s the elevator pitch. You take something like the player-pianoesque MIDI barrel piano that we featured last Thursday, and mix it together with the street-painting bicycle trailer that we featured on Friday. What do you get? A roll of paper that can be drawn on by normal kids, rolled up behind a bicycle, with a tank that they can pressurize with a bike pump, that will spray a pixelated version of their art as they roll down the sidewalk.

Now how can I make this real? One of my neighbors has a scrap bike trailer…

But see what I mean about ideas? I just took two existing ideas and rubbed them together, and in this case, they emitted sparks. And I’ve got a mental catalogue of all of the resources around me, some of which fell right into place. This role as fountain of good proto-ideas is why I started reading Hackaday fifteen years ago, and why it’s still a daily must-read for folks like us everywhere. A huge thank you to everyone who’s sharing! Read more Hackaday!