Make: 3D Printed Stackable Height Risers for RPG Minis

One of my goals for the year is to document some of my projects. Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame is credited with saying “Remember kids, the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down”. Side note: according to Adam, it was actually Alex Jason, a ballistics expert working with them on one of the episodes. In any case, my head variation is “The only difference between actually doing something and fooling around is writing it down”. To that end, I’ll do some little after-project write-ups from some of my little side projects by way of differentiating between fooling around and whatever results I get, good or bad.

In this case, I was talking with the GM (Game Master) from our weekly Game Night and we were chatting about things including my 3D printing and I was lamenting that I hadn’t done much with it lately. He noted that if I was looking for a project, he would like small, stackable elements that he could use to differentiate players or non-players and the various elevations. This comes up because it’s easy to forget something was up in the air or how much versus a simple 2D position.

The conversation stuck and I started noodling and thinking about designs. So, step 1 was sketch and this is what I came up with:

As I started to think about how a 3D printer works (think of squeezing out a tube of toothpaste with a very narrow mouth, but instead with melted plastic and in 3 dimensions), it turns out it’s kind of tough to make something flat like the sketch standing on legs, because the printer prints in layers from the bottom up and going from legs to the platform will not work easily. I then realized I could flip it over and print the top surface first and the legs last and suddenly I had a plan.

The next step in prototyping is building a model. In this case the easiest and quickest solution was to build it using TinkerCAD. TinkerCAD is free, online CAD software that has enough functionality to do what I needed. So, after coming up to speed on the UI and how it worked, I started knocking out the design. In a CAD program, what you’re building is a series of shapes/solids and other shapes that act as holes which you use to cut, well, holes or shave pieces off the solids.

Here is what that looks like:

Or, rendered as a solid:

Now, with that, I can export that information in a file format that the 3D printer understands (typically a .STL or .OBJ). Next I import that file in to the software which communicates with the 3D Printer (in this case, Cura). Cura is used as a way to set up the print, describe options like quality and other obscure things like infill, whether to use support structures, etc. Once I was happy with those, I hit Print and wait 20 minutes for the results (and hope the 3D print doesn’t come loose and waste 20 minutes and the associated material).

Even with that, there’s a difference between what you picture in your head and what works in reality. In this case, what I determined after iterating on the design a few (like, six) times is that what I really wanted were legs that were narrower than the holes they fit in to to allow easy stacking that felt connected and wasn’t sloppy but you also didn’t have to force. So, yeah, only six or seven tries.

Before I offer the end result, I’ll show what I’ll call my Pile of Sadness. This is a combination of failed iterations and failed prints. This is what the middle bits between idea/inspiration and a working prototype look like:

The result, though, was pretty good. I was happy with it and will print up a number of them for our GM to use (or not) in our game. Because, in the end, it was really about making something that didn’t exist before as much as it was about solving the problem. But, solving the problem (satisfying my customer) also feels good.

And, as an additional bonus for lasting this long, here is a print I did just for fun of Baby Groot. (Design credit to Tom Davis and the model found on MyMiniFoundry)
Note: This will only be cool if you know the Guardians of the Galaxy movie and its sequel.

 

Thanks!

Goals: 2017

Rather than make resolutions, which tend to be a bit trite and are typically abandoned soon after making them, I thought this year I’d try to make some specific and concrete goals for 2017. I’ve also read that one way to make yourself more accountable for those goals is to share them since it add accountability, even if it’s imagined accountability.

In my experience, goals benefit from being SMART. Variations exist, but for my purposes: Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic, Trackable. The last, T, could have been Time-based but since these goals are for 2017 and therefore time-based or time-bound isn’t relevant, but trackable is.

That means there should be some sort of regular check in for progress. I’m choosing monthly as a period because it’s enough to show progress but not so much that I lose focus.

Goal 1: Health
What: Get my weight down to my target goal and keep it there on my scale and maintain for at least three months.
How: Adjust diet, get more consistent exercise, maybe add in some resistance regimen.
When: By 7/1/16
Measurements: Weight (Withings Scale/App), Blood Pressure (Cuff/Manual Entry), Data from phone/app
Specifics:

  • Walk 10000 steps 3x weekly (Q1)
  • Walk 10000 steps 4x weekly (Q2)
  • Maintain (Q3/Q4)

Goal 2: Tech Refresh
What: Pick something to refresh and take a(n online) course.
How: Set aside a chunk of time weekly to work through this. Maybe a few nights a week or four hours a week on the weekend.
When: By 7/1/17
Tracking: Completion of the Courses

Goal 3: Read some non-Fiction
What: Read 6 non-Fiction books this year. Any subject, any (reasonable) length.
When: By 12/31/17
Tracking: Addition to Books:Reading Log

Goal 4: Document some Projects
What: Document some Projects that I work on. Painting minis, lamps, leather cases, whatever. Blog post is fine.
What: Document 4-6 Projects this year with pics and text.
When: By 12/31/2017

Goal 5: Volunteer
This is a stretch goal and I won’t hold it against me if I don’t do it, but it seems like a good thing to have as a goal for the year. This one will not be tracked monthly

That’s it! Let’s see how it goes.

Note
Image courtesy of https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Darts_in_a_dartboard.jpg and is a Public Domain photo.

Vancouver Rocks! And It’s Spreading…

Have you heard about Vancouver Rocks? Here’s a story from the local paper. Here’s the Facebook page which describes and shares some of the creations.

Basically folks have been painting, hiding and finding rocks up in Vancouver where I live. My wife told me about it after she became aware of it. One weekend morning a few weeks ago we wandered Orchards Community Park for my first time and looked for rocks. We each found a couple and had a really nice walk exploring a new park. Also met a couple of other rock hunters who were thoroughly friendly and enjoying the hunt.

We had so much fun with it we even painted a some rocks ourselves to hide when we get a chance. Christina already hid a few of them. Here are a few we have left and one of the rocks I found on my first adventure. (I painted the Princess Leia. It’s my favorite.)

This last week, as I was exiting my parking garage in downtown Portland, some color caught my eye and I spotted the rock up in the cover photo. And with such a simple message: Love.

I’ll probably hide this somewhere else downtown just to spread the fun.

I feel it’s this kind of act of creation coupled with the serendipitous and unexpected joy of discovery that can offset many of the realities of life that may get me down about current events and helps offset some of the fear I have of the future.

Here is something that is a purely positive event which takes place in the real world. You find a rock, you celebrate. You paint a rock and someone finds it. One person gets the joy in the act of creation, another the joy in discovery and maybe the pleasure that comes with re-hiding and hoping someone finds it as everyone moves forward putting that positive energy back out in the world. From one small act, many ripples can occur.

There’s no great reason for it, there’s no message or goal, it seems, other than to create moments out in the real world between people who will never meet but still find a way to communicate with each other.

How wonderful is that?

2016 – Well, that was a hell of a thing.

Let’s start off the new year with a picture of a pretty meadow as way to be mindful that as much as 2016 could be described as many things, not all good, we also have things to be thankful for.

My list revolves around family and my kids and my own relationship. We also made progress on some financial goals we wanted to get resolved in 2016, though it took much longer than expected. While there were certainly nights of shaking our heads, some insomnia around fear of the future and certainly frustrations, on balance I remain a fortunate man who is working to be mindful and appreciate my life.

I’ve been giving some thought to personal goals for 2017. I haven’t decided if I’ll write them down or make them public, but I’m leaning that way.

For no good reason, it appears I haven’t written anything worth posting for almost 18 months. Just the way it works out.

As it is the new year, I put a new coat of paint on the site and may tweak it a bit more. The top domain page hasn’t changed in far too long, so I should think about that.

Looking at the site, it does have me wondering whether it serves any purpose aside from self-gratification. Once upon a time, having your own site was akin to staking out your own corner of the new World Wide Web! It was virtual real estate. The reality today, though, is that aggregation to places like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat have shifted things away from words but also away from personal sites more towards these controlled publishing venues.

I’ve made clear before that I really, really don’t like the Facebook model. It controls who sees my content, not even guaranteeing that people who I have explicitly indicated are Friends will see the content, but those same people will certainly see ads inserted inline every four or five stories. Similarly, Instagram is inserting ads in my streams. Frankly, I don’t get Snapchat, which officially makes me an “old”.

The best argument I’ve heard for continuing to publish on my site is that I own the content and presentation. That’s not exactly a compelling argument since I’m not writing for a wide audience, but it’s at least an argument for paying the $10/mo to have it as an option.

That’s it. I’ve got no great point other than to write something here and get 2017 kicked off. Here’s hoping you are able to make this year everything you want!

Note
Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/people/29069842@N02 and licensed via Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication. For more info, see http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en

Book Reviews

I recently finished a book which made me want to do a quick review. Then I wanted to contrast that with a different book. Then maybe toss in a third book, just for contrast. Finally, I thought I’d mention a book I’m looking forward to. I think I’m doing some book reviews!

 

The Martian: A Novel by Andy Weir

TheMartian_Cover

When this book came out, I originally gave it a pass. For reasons I don’t recall, I somehow thought of this movie as Castaway on Mars. I had visions of a Space Wilson and Tom Hanks, all on Mars. Maybe some kind of Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

Tangent Alert Did you know that there was a movie in 1964 called Robinson Crusoe on Mars?! Apparently he is stranded on Mars with his monkey. There is an alien man Friday, slaver-aliens, air pills and explosions!

Back to our novel. Eventually I read a couple of reviews which, again, raved about The Martian and I started to think I needed to give it another look. About that time I heard that the book had been optioned to be made in to a movie (With Matt Damon, squee!!) There’s little I like less than having a good book spoiled by a bad movie so that added to the pressure to give it a read before I started to see images from the movie.

I absolutely loved this book! It’s probably one of the most fun and enjoyable books I’ve read in a very long time. I enjoyed the main character very much. He is a NASA astronaut (mission specialist), so he’s smart and he knows his science! He can think on his feet and he can think his way out of whatever sort of problem he’s faced with. Sure, he occasionally gets emotional, but he was always able to bounce back and come back positive.

One criticism I read said they were turned off by the cycle of “Disaster-Panic-Recovery, rinse, repeat”. I didn’t feel that at all. I and the story were propelled from one event to the next very fast and with what felt like real momentum. I cared about the guy. I wanted him to survive! It was, in the old parlance, a page turner despite the fact that I was reading it on my iPad.

One of the things I really liked about it was that it was pro-Science and pro-Math and pro- being smart. The main character was intelligent and he was resourceful and that was constantly fun to read about and feel a part of.

At the end of the day, that’s one of the things I liked best about it: I really enjoyed my time with that adventure and really sad to have it come to a close.

On a related note: I’ve seen the official trailer for the movie (YouTube Link) and it looks really, really good. Favorite line from the trailer: “In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m faced with only one option: I’m going to have to Science the shit out of this”. Not a line in the book, but very much in line with the character from the book. I’m looking forward to this movie, too.

Now, I’m going to move on to a book that I wanted to enjoy but did not.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Seveneves_Cover

Stephenson wrote a couple of books that I enjoyed a great deal: Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. Both of these were about Big Ideas and playing out the consequences of those big ideas. I enjoyed them both a great deal for those Big Ideas, for the characterizations and for the story that was told.

Some time after those came Cryptonomicon, which was the first of what was to be a “epoch making masterpiece” in the words of one reviewer. Personally, I found the book to be very, very long. And very self-involved and while I did make it through the book, I totally lost interest in anything that followed in that world or from Stephenson.

Recently, however, he released Seveneves which was reviewed well by some folks whose opinions I value. Additionally, it had what seemed to be a killer hook that asks the basic question: What would happen if the world were ending. Stephenson proposes a huge, cataclysmic disaster and them proposes to follow it through. Even better, the story was going to come back much later in the future to see how the world was impacted and how mankind recovered and was changed by the event.

It was enough to bring me back on board and give it a try.

Unfortunately, the book was simply not enjoyable to read. I did manage to suffer through, but I didn’t enjoy it. In the end, I finished it out of perversity and stubbornness as much as anything else.

The big disaster which drives things starts off very unemotionally. It just happens. Which is just fine. Sometimes things just happen and the interesting story is in watching how it affects the characters.

Unfortunately for me, the characters, with the exception of one, were largely uninteresting or unpalatable. The felt one-dimensional and I was unable to engage with them as people. In contrast to how I felt about the main character in the previous book, I just really didn’t care what happened to any of them.

On the upside, this may well be a book for someone interested in the science of a disaster like this. It might also be interesting to someone who follows the space program, enjoys physics (in the abstract) and is fascinated by astronauts as they are, really, the heroes of the story and that’s laudable.

Eventually, about two thirds of the way through the book, the first portion with all the characters we’ve been following winds down and there’s a giant flash-forward in time to see how the mankind fared in the interim and how, or if, the Earth recovered.
Again, I found the story cold, unengaging and, ultimately, uninteresting. I was, sad to say, bored.

It may simply be that Stephenson’s prose and story telling are not engaging to me and that’s okay. But at this point I suspect it would take a very large truck to pull me back in to trying another story from him.

Now, in fairness, I’m bashing a book that’s currently a bestseller from an author who has received multiple awards, all of which may simply indicate that I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, but it remains my opinion.

From that, I wanted something to clear my palate, so I read a book in a series which I’ve been enjoying. It’s a book in the Sandman Slim series by Richard Kadrey

The Getaway God by Richard Kadrey

TheGetawayGod_Cover

I enjoy this series. It’s a mashup of a very noir L.A. coupled with a fantasy series involving monsters of various stripes, demons and angels as well as Lucifer and a God that’s got a bit of multiple personality disorder (literally!). And our main protagonist, Stark, known to many as Sandman Slim.

The world is, quite literally, going to hell and Stark, often reluctantly, is the one who stands between the forces trying to tear it all apart and the rest of us, obliviously living our lives.

I like how L.A. is where (at least on Earth) we spend most of our time in the books because the glitz and glitter of L.A. is reflected in a Hell that looks and feels much the same.

Stark is a hard-drinking, hard-living man who is always ready with a quip or a fight. As with the best of noir characters, on the face of things, he’s not all that likable, but he’s always fun to watch. And, really, at the end of the night, all he wants is a drink, good takeout and good movie to watch.

Our world sits on the edge of annihilation and all that stands between us and the end of all things is Sandman Slim.

This is the sixth book and in each, Kadrey has managed to ramp up the suspense and the stakes. I’m not sure how long he can keep doing that, but as long as they’re fun to read, and they are, I’ll likely come back every year or so for another.

Finally, I’ll mention a book I’m looking forward to.

The End of All Things by John Scalzi

TheEndOfAllThings_Cover

This is the last (for now!) book in the Old Man’s War series. It takes place in a universe where humans are out and about interacting with a variety of other space-faring intelligences, many of which are bigger, badder and more capable of killing than humans. We are not, by any stretch, the big kid on the block.

I find the Old Man’s War universe to be very enjoyable and a fun, easy read. Scalzi was answering the question recently on reddit whether his writing can be compared to eating popcorn. I suspect it was implied that somehow being compared to eating popcorn was a bad thing. On the contrary, if you’re in the mood, a snack is a wonderful thing. Sometimes it’s exactly what you’re looking for. In a fairly self-aware response, Scalzi notes that his goal is to write books that sell – he has a family to support, after all. And sell books, he does! And, I like popcorn.

I’m not buying the book (and, to be clear, I will be buying the book) because it’s necessarily the best piece of literature ever, I’m buying it because he writes books that I’ve enjoyed, tells stories that I want to read and I have a pretty high degree of confidence, based on his track record, that I’ll enjoy this book as well.

The End of All Things comes out August 11, 2015. Now, Mr. Scalzi, TAKE MY MONEY! And let me know when you write something else. There’s a pretty good chance I’ll buy that, too.

On The Practice of Practicing

Back in 2013 I set myself a goal of writing 1000 words weekly. There were actually several goals that I had in mind, but an additional goal was to see if doing something weekly would result in a habit. This has not been the case.

My thinking was, and this was certainly aided by common beliefs, that anything one does as a habit will come more easily than something that requires discipline. However, my experience doesn’t align with that. The practice of writing regularly (removing the requirement to do it weekly) remains just that: something I practice.

In 2013, because I set the goal and executed it, I produced 52 postings of 1000 words or more for a total of 87 thousand works.

In 2014, with no discipline in place and no publicly stated goal, I only produced 14 thousand words roughly monthly.

In 2015, here late in the month of April, I’m only writing my fourth posting and this word: frabjous is the 4286th word that I’ve written here this year.

What to take away from this?

Well, the most obvious is that a good, publicly stated goal is easier to accomplish than a private one. I do think holding myself accountable and saying it out loud (relatively speaking, in this space) resulted in more discipline than I would have had otherwise.

I think it’s bunk to say “If you do a thing N times, it’ll become a habit”. This is no more true for brushing your teeth than it is for exercising or writing regularly. I have a habit of drinking a chai tea I make at home on Monday and Thursday mornings. That’s a habit. I shave on twice a week unless there’s a special event. That’s a habit.
I suspect I have more bad habits than good habits. I have things that I want to do more that I wish were habits, but are not. Flossing, for example. I should floss daily. Many dental professionals have told me this and I refuse to make it a daily habit. I have, in the past, made the effort to floss daily, often a month or so before a dental exam in hopes of avoiding the finger wagging when they poke at my gums. But as soon as that’s past, I fall right back in to my irregular flossings.

It seems to me that very often things that we call habits are things that we should do or wish we did more regularly, but often we don’t.

Like writing or practicing a musical instrument, habits seem like things we wish we did more, if we would only put in the work. We wish we would make it a practice that takes priority over the other bright and shiny objects that fill our lives and serve to suck up our time.

I imagine the goal is to figure out how to balance between the things we want to do, the fun things, the things that give us that burst of pleasure in the moment and those things we should do, often because those things that we should do are not about gratification now, rather they are about deferred gratification.

If I floss, if I work out, if I practice an instrument, if I prep the garden, if I write regularly, if I do any of this or a huge list of other things I could and probably should do, I often get little immediate gratification from those actions. But, I’m doing it to keep my teeth longer, I’ll live longer, I’ll eventually be able play a song, I’ll eat food that I’ve grown, I’ll not cringe at my writing. Not today, necessarily, but eventually.

I think our monkey brains which are often and largely faced with operating in the short term and are not particularly well evolved to do things for later, lacking immediate gratification, deferring the gratification till another day. Maybe it’s a consequence of evolution and where our hunter/gatherer brains have evolved to focus on not starving today rather than planning for not starving in the winter, maybe it’s the thin veil of modernity that sits atop our animal brains. I don’t know, but I know I struggle with it.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to try and fight the fight. I’ll continue the Practice of Practicing when I can and when the long terms benefits portion of my brain can overpower the monkey brain or the lizard brain that sits below and demands what it wants NOW, screw the consequences, screw the future. It’s a good fight, but I imagine it’s not one you win. It’s a holding action. Sometimes my brain will be more disciplined and other times I’m going to sit on the couch and watch Daredevil. That’s life!

Note
Image courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/thart2009/ and licensed via Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication. For more info, see http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en

Make: 3D Printer!

I grew up on Star Trek. It was an escape for my imagination and it was a place where technology, albeit fictional technology, usually played a part in saving the day. Scotty, the ship’s chief engineer on the Enterprise, would often complain about the impossibility of a request, but always managed to come through. Smart people, whether the First Officer, the Doctor, the Engineer or even the Captain, were never denigrated for being intelligent and using that intelligence to save the day, one one-hour episode at a time

It wasn’t until Star Trek: The Next Generation, though, when they introduced the replicator. On the show, the replicator could be used to produce any material or object, so long as the pattern existed on file. So, Captain Picard could walk up and request “Tea, Earl Grey, Hot” and the tea along with the cup would magically appear.

We’re nowhere near that kind of technology today, but the 20th century is filled with examples of science fiction serving as fodder to help foster new ideas. The flip phone cellphone looked like it did because they modeled it after the communicator from Star Trek. Actual physicists and engineers will talk about things like Warp Drives and tractor beams which don’t exist, but they wonder if they could some day.

3D printers have been around awhile, but much like the PC in the early 80s, mass production and the reduction in cost of technology have caused the price to drop enough that the current state of the technology is increasingly accessible to the average person. It’s not sufficiently advanced for it to be interesting or useful to most folks, but for the tinkerers and the dreamers, it’s enough to make it interesting!

Most consumer grade printers available today print using a couple of variations of plastics, PLA and ABS. One is corn-based and the other is petroleum based.

The current generation have the ability to take in this plastic material, run it through a hot tip and extrude it in 3d space for a given X,Y,Z coordinate in the build space of the printer.

Typically, the technology uses a layered approach and prints the base of the object then prints layers upon very narrow layers until the object is eventually finished. I think it looks a bit as though a hot glue gun were married to a computer which could think in three dimensions.

I purchased a Printrbot Simple Metal after watching the technology for the last few years. I’ve been reading yearly reviews that Make Magazine produces yearly, watching the price come down as the quality increases. I chose this model because it was a reasonable trade-off between price and quality as well as openness of the technology. This particular model is modifiable to accept either PLA or ABS materials as well as others that are based on this basic technology. They also didn’t lock in the consumer to only use their branded materials as some others have done, following the printer approach of using DRM so that you can only a manufacturers materials with their printer.

This particular printer has a build volume of 6” cubed, which is mid-range for consumer printers. I can also mod the printer to handle up to a 10” cubed volume for a reasonable cost, but for now that’s sufficient.

Here’s my setup in my garage for the 3d printer. I have it in the garage because of both noise and the smell. My wife, though very understanding, is likely to respond poorly to the smell of melting plastics permeating the house. The noise isn’t bad, but it’s not silent by any stretch.

Garage Setup

The first thing I was directed to do was print several small boxes. This is to allow me to dial in the printer accurately. This went fine and I adjusted the printer accordingly once I figured out the right settings.

Next I wanted to print a shroud for the fan which blows air on to the extruder. The shroud would focus the air flow and is supposed to result in more consistent quality.

In the next pic you can see the results of my first attempt to print the shroud.

Failed Shroud Print

As you can see, it did not go well. The blue tape on the bed of the printer is simply blue painters tape. It gives a reasonably grippy surface for the print, but it’s not infallible. In this case, I printed on the same tape that I’d used to calibrate earlier and it appears that the shroud came loose from the build plate. Of course, the printer doesn’t know that, so it merrily goes about printing the remainder of the shroud, not realizing it’s gone from printing usefully to making modern string art.

LESSON 1 Change the tape between prints

LESSON 2 Print times are larger than any rational person would like.

The shroud took something like an hour, so I lost time when the first build failed and more time and materials to print it again. But, the printer is in the garage, so if the print fails, I won’t know till I go check, which I did roughly every 20 minutes. And, all I can do once it does fail is cancel the print and clean up the mess and decide whether I’ll try again.

Here is a pic of the results of my first nights attempts. As you can see, the pile of the left represents the successful prints. The pile on the right are the failed prints. Those piles are roughly 50/50, meaning my confidence in doing anything more complicated is not high at this time.

Success/Failure Ratio

I did try to print a little robot which has moveable joints, mostly in the legs, shoulder and neck. Sadly, my success with the printable joints was also about 50% and it took two tries to get him to print.

LESSON 3 Start reducing the number of variables to increase the odds of success.

Right now I basically try and print and see how it goes. Roughly half the time it works and half the time something goes wrong with the print coming loose or messing up in some number of ways.

I need to figure out why they’re messing up and what knobs and levers I have access to to make it more predictable. There are a plethora of configuration options in the software that controls the printer. Right now I’m using a basic setup and haven’t yet dug deep in to those other options.

Additionally, I suspect I’ll want to try with the other main material, ABS. That means an upgrade to my machine to add a heated bed and perhaps a new extruder. The PLA is very rigid and not very forgiving and I believe I may get better accuracy and results with ABS. Additionally, you can get different effects from ABS because you can sand it and even dip it in solutions to get a smoother finish, options that don’t exist for PLA.

That means this next phase is about trying to understand how to get the most out of this printer. I can’t treat it like a paper printer and hit Print and walk away. The technology is just not there, yet.

It’s a fair question to ask: What are the requirements for people to start buying these in volume for their homes?

I think we can look back to the days of the personal computer to answer that question. Having lived through those dark ages lo these many decades past, my belief is that killer apps were what caused people to adopt those early computers. And that meant two things:

  1. Games
  2. Business Applications (spreadsheets and word processors)

Because my crystal ball is terrible, I don’t yet know what the parallel would be for 3d printers.

Also, the technology needs to be much more reliable.

My first computer, a Commodore PET, was built out of sheet metal steel and the body could be lifted like the hood of a car and it even had a steel rod to hold the upper half up. This was necessary, at least in part, because I occasionally had to reach in to the guts of my computer to reseat the bus connector that connected the video to the main board. Imagine having to do something similar to a computer or a video game system today. We expect them to work and if they stop, as often as not, many people will throw it out and buy another one.

Here are the things I think will happen in the next decade to bring this technology in to the home:

  1. Prints have to succeed 95+% of the time, preferably 99%
  2. The speed of the printer has to be measured in minutes, not hours.
  3. The variety of materials and the characteristics of those materials needs to be sufficiently broad. This would include things like metals, ceramics, wood-like, teflon, rubber, etc. Did you know some people are already experimenting with printable food using chocolate and sugars and other ingredients? The food synthesizer of the original Star Trek doesn’t seem so far away now.
  4. The tools to make or re-mix a new thing need to be easy to use. Current tools and software require a great deal of patience and knowledge before you can be effective.
  5. The technology will probably be paired with a build-in low-cost scanner.

Back when I was making the case to my Dad to try and justify spending the then prodigious sum of $300 for my first computer since I didn’t have that money, he asked me a very rational question: “What are you going to do with this?” I didn’t have a great answer then, because I hadn’t had a computer before, but I probably talked about learning how to program and writing games, both of which I would later do for a ridiculous number of hours. That first computer undoubtedly put me firmly down a path which has paid off that investment many, many times over.

Recently when I was talking to my wife about 3D printers, she asked a similar question: “What are you doing to do with it?” There was similar hand waving and attempts at justification, but at the end of the day, I don’t need a 3d printer any more than I needed that first personal computer. But now, as then, I’m convinced that this technology is on a similar cusp of enabling amazing things and amazing times and, at the end of the day, I want to experience that joy of learning and joy of discovery much as I did 35 years ago with my first computer. So, what am I going to do? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be cool!

Up, Up and Away!

I have a very tolerant spouse. This is never more true than her reaction to my taking up a new hobby. I’ve been interested in flying radio controlled for a number of years. A few years ago for my birthday she bought me all the parts to build a flying wing style RC plane. I was very excited to get that present and spent many hours gluing and covering that thing, wiring the motors, following the tiny diagrams and ultimately I had something that looked a great deal like a plane. When I pulled back on the controls, the elevons reacted as expected. When I pushed on the stick to start the motor, the right things happened.

When the day of the maiden flight came, it was a calm and clear spring afternoon. We went over to the local school and I was very excited. I’d read repeatedly that the right thing do to is find a local flying club and have them test it and teach me to fly, but I was having none of that! I am smart, I am independent – I am also congenitally incapable of asking for help. It should come as no great surprise, then, that when I did all the right things to launch my plane, it angled up in to the sky then promptly tipped up and over to one side and took a very impressive header in to the grass. Total flight time: About five seconds. Had there been live test pilots aboard, there would have been no survivors. Nothing broke, but despite trying several more times, we only repeated this same pattern, climb for a moment, but it didn’t seem to have enough oomph to get up and stay in the sky. I suspect it may not have a strong enough motor.

The smart move, then, would be to search out a flying club, but my poor plane sits up on a shelf waiting in my queue of hobby activities to see the light of day once again. Because the alternative would be to ask for help and that’s very, very hard for me.

I told you that story so I could tell you this one.

Quadcopters, sometimes ubiquitously and erroneously called drones, have become increasingly cheap and increasingly powerful. Recognizing that I wasn’t sure I had the patience to build my own, I started by buying a cheap quadcopter that’s no bigger than my palm and flying it in the back yard. And in to the trees. And on to the roof, requiring ladders to effect a rescue. Basically, I was a danger to myself and to my dogs who watched all of this with suspicion and a fair amount of wariness.

This year, I decided I was ready to move on to what I decided was the next level and when Amazon had a good sale, I purchased a DJI Phantom Vision+ quadcopter with camera and gimbal. Where my previous copter was the size of my palm, this is bigger than my head. In fact, there are numerous stories of folks flying these things in to lakes and the backs of people’s heads. You can go to YouTube and find no shortage of spectacular crash videos, often from the perspective of the poor, unsuspecting drone as it lives it’s last moments (before major repairs, at least).

Here is an example of a flight, presumably by an experienced pilot, that did not go as planned and pretty much exemplifies my biggest fear for my new, expensive toy:

So, it was with no small trepidation that I read up on the controls and features of the copter. Roughly a week ago, I took it to a local field/park and was able to take it or its first flight.

You can see the video here:

A few things of note:

  1. Where my tiny copter was pushed around by the least gust of wind, this copter is much beefier and less prone to be knocked about so easily.
  2. The video on this was pretty great, at least for something at this price point. I can take camera shots or video and control both from an app on my phone which is easily mounted to the controls. This also allows me, with some lag, to see what the camera sees. The gimbal kept the footage smooth with little to no jitter. This was pretty great.
  3. I did not crash! I attribute this to me being very careful and having practiced on the smaller copter so I had a decent sense of what would happen when I did something with the controls. I also kept the copter in beginners mode, which was plenty responsive and zippy for me, certainly for a first time flight.
  4. The final shot in the video involved me testing a feature which seemed very cool and very necessary. If you switch off the controller, the copter detects this and goes in to autopilot mode and returns to where it started from (via GPS) and lands itself. This was, by far, the most terrifying part of the trip. As the copter flew towards me and the road behind me, only then did it occur to me to wonder what I was going to do if it just kept going! While it did come about 10’ closer to the road than where it started, it did stay in the park – and missed the fence by only about six feet.
  5. This thing can go 700 meters away from the controller. I think I let it go about 35 meters up in the air and maybe 150 meters away. I was amazed at how tiny the copter was as it was 35 meters above my head. Had there been some catastrophic failure, plummeting from that height would have resulted in nothing but busted bits of copter and a very sad me. The fact that it’s smart enough to return to its landing spot on its own does give me some solace, but it’s still disconcerting.
  6. The conditions were fantastic and I got some really nice views of Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood.

Over time, my real goal is to try this with FPV flying with is First Person View flying. You put on some goggles and you see, in real time, what the copter sees. The better systems will even turn the copter to one side or the other as your look left and right, effectively giving the illusion that you’re flying up there yourself. But, the issue there is that the goggles aren’t build to be worn with glasses and the few that offer adjustable lenses to replace the goggles don’t go anywhere near my prescription. This points me towards having to either get contacts just for this or to hacking a pair of goggles to put in my own lenses from an old pair of glasses. Not ideal, either.

I’m also looking forward to flying this on a morning where we have some ground fog, as we do pretty regularly this time of year. I imagine flying it up and out of the fog to the clear day above and seeing the neighborhood blanketed in fog with occasional trees and houses poking out of the fog. The part that is a bit scary is the notion of having it above the fog and me unable to see it.

I’m very appreciative of having a wife who supports my hobbies as well as the time and money to afford them. In all of those I know I am spoiled. Spoiled, but appreciative!

The Interview

Interviews are interesting things. When I first started out, I thought they were all about me and, in a way, they were. I wanted a job and the company had to establish whether I was worth taking a risk on and giving me the job. As time went on I learned a lesson: As much as an interview is an opportunity for the company to interview the candidate, it should be, at the same time, an opportunity for the candidate to determine if that is someplace he or she wants to work!

This was a lesson impressed upon me by a mentor who pointed out that as much as they are trying to interview him, he’s trying to understand what he can about the products, the company and, most importantly, the people.

Interviewing for a manager position, especially in an engineering organization, can be an additional challenge. Typically you’re coming in to an existing organization where the people already know each other and have, in many cases, been operating just fine without you. Management above is trying to figure out if the new candidate is going to cause more harm than good and the team needs to work really hard to be sure they don’t hire in a new manager who going to make their lives even more difficult. As a result, I found in a recent interview that I had the opportunity to interview with quite a number of folks. I had one all day interview, one half day interview and at least a few of those were via Skype/remote.

In-person interviewing is hard, interviewing with someone via telepresence/Skype is even more difficult because you lose all the information we all gather, consciously and unconsciously, from being in a room with someone. Worst of all is an interview over the phone with no visual feedback. This is often the case with a phone screen and those are really tough to get a good read on someone.

And what I’ve found in the past, and I don’t know whether this was the case at this most recent interview or not, any single person giving the candidate a thumbs down may be sufficient to remove that candidate from consideration. I described this to someone as a painful version of the Dating Game because you’re trying to land a date with everyone you talk to! But, for all of that, I get it: The company is potentially bringing in someone that the team will spend more time with during the work week than they do with family, so choosing wisely is worth the time and considering everyone’s input is important. And, again, from my perspective, it’s equally an opportunity for me to learn about the company and the team as it is an opportunity for them to learn about me.

Here’s a story from a recent interview and then we’ll see what, if anything, I learned.

This was during an all day interview that went from 9am to 4:30. As an introvert and acknowledging that I am, to some extent, performing, it was exhausting!

During one of the slots, I had something happen which has never happened in all my years of job hunting.  It did such a number on me that I was speechless and for a few moments I felt like I might be having a stroke – it was that much of a surprise.

I sat down with one of the engineers and he had his laptop with him.  The very first thing he does after we sit down and he introduces himself is to set the laptop down, point at the screen and in a very serious tone said “Explain this page to me”.

I thought maybe it was some sort of test and at first I wasn’t even sure what he was really asking.  I looked a bit more closely and realized it was the company’s content blocker which was blocking access to a page.  I thought that was a pretty weird thing to explain, but okay.  Then I paused a moment more because I parsed the content of the page a bit more and saw my last name, or rather, Mossor.org. My domain was being blocked by the company content blocker!

Looking up at the URL bar – this seemed like it took five minutes to work out, but I suspect it was closer to 10 seconds that just SEEMED like forever, and saw that he was trying to go to mossor.org but the content blocker was blocking access.  Looking again at the block of text in the middle said the following:

Reason: PORNOGRAPHY

I looked at the guy and he was just giving me a total deadpan expression.  That’s when my brain broke again for somewhere between an hour and five or so seconds.  In the midst of my interview, it was being pointed out to me that MY SITE WAS BEING FLAGGED FOR PORNO!

I stuttered for a moment and then became a bit more indignant because, as I told him, I know every byte on that site and there is NO pornography!  He asked, again, deadpan, if I was prepared to clear this up with company IT and I said, of course!

It was at that point that he he let me off the hook and started laughing.  I know a couple people that work there and one of them had apparently tried to show him something from my site and they found that it was blocked and they both thought it was hilarious that it was blocked due to supposedly pornography.

It was, at the same time, one of the most challenging things that’s ever happened in an interview and, by far, the funniest.  You know, afterwards. After my blood pressure returned to normal. After the tunnel vision went away. After I could make sentences again.

What’s the takeaway from this? I could look at that and say, “Geez, that was a really mean thing to do.” But, I don’t think it was. Or at least I believe that wasn’t the desired intent. I think it takes some guts to do something like that to your prospective manager and I think it tells me a fair bit about the organization that I’d be coming in to. They don’t take themselves too seriously, there’s a sense of humor and a prank, even out of the gate, was fair game. All right, I can work with that!

And, as the Chinese say (and stole from the Klingons) “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

Note
Image courtesy of http://pixabay.com/en/manager-person-people-group-308474/ and licensed via Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication. For more info, see http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en

Eyes Forward, Eyes Back

It’s cold outside and I am at home, warm and happy and a bit contemplative. The end of the year approaches just a couple of days away. All of this nudges me towards that most dangerous of activities: The Year In Review! And, as a coda to that activity, what are my goals for the new year?

On the professional front, it’s a time of transition. I will be starting a new job early in January. That means new people and the necessity to start building new professional relationships, as well as new responsibilities, new expectations.

Hey, wait, one may ask. Haven’t you only been at your current for a couple of years? Well, yes, it’s been about 30 months (30 months sounds longer than 2.5 years) since I started at VMWare. Roughly a year and a half ago, VMWare spun us out along with some other parts of other companies to form Pivotal, a new “startup” with 1400 folks. A year and a half in to that, the company has decided to reorganize their structure and that resulted in a shuffling of the organizational structure in engineering where I manage. The effect on me is that I went from a job that I liked very much where I managed a great group of people, worked for a boss I respected and liked and helped manage the product that I worked on to a new role called Technical Product Management where, at best, I was responsible for managing the backlog of tasks to be worked by a group of folks that would almost certainly change over time. I lost my connection to my product and my team and frankly that wasn’t appealing. As a result, I began looking via networking with friends and discovered that there was a new opportunity worth pursuing.

It was not a trivial decision. On the upside, I will be an Engineering Manager responsible for the team and the project, the job is downtown which means a shorter commute and easier access to all that downtown offers, but on the downside I would be leaving a known good group of folks and manager working on a product in which I felt invested. And, not for nothing, but it will be much harder for me to get away to play volleyball in the summer.

Some embrace change and that’s a characteristic that I envy on occasion, because it’s not one that I come by naturally. I know it comes down to control. I had more where I was, due to familiarity and the connections that I’d built and I will have less in the new job, at least initially, because I don’t know the people or the political landscape, the challenges that we’ll face or even what it is that I should be worried about. That unknown makes me uncomfortable.

I’ve read that we are at our best when we are uncomfortable. That we learn best, function at our best and excel when out of our comfort zones. Comfort can lead to taking it easy and that can be dangerous, it is true. On the other hand, changing jobs by mixing up your professional life every few years can keep you fresh or it can make you look inconstant.

Since I went to a startup back in 2007, events appear to have conspired to not allow me to be comfortable for long. The economy tanking in 2008 coupled with our startup running out of money led to a move out of the industry I’d worked in since my first job and in to a consulting organization. That company wasn’t successful which led to my most recent job and then the reorganization of that resulted in me, of my own accord, choosing change that I had confidence in rather than the alternative. It all seems explicable in retrospect, but at the time I know there were times I felt as if I was at the mercy of circumstances much more than I was in charge of my own destiny. But, that is the illusion, I suppose: We have far less control over our lives than we think we do. Certainly for someone with control issues, I suspect that’s the case.

In any case, starting early January I will start anew in downtown Portland at eBay as an Engineering Manager. The eBay office in Portland is responsible, in part, for developing the mobile app that runs on the iPhone/iPad, Android devices and Windows devices. In the last 7 years of so, mobile has grown to comprise 45% of the transactions taking place with eBay. The group that I am a part of provides what are called Platform Services to facilitate the mobile applications’ interactions with the backend.

As I said earlier, I will be working downtown, which will be rough savings of five hours per week in commute alone. I will be close to the Cart Food that Portland is so well known for (dangerous, but good!) as well as close to the waterfront – good for walking off the cart food. I’ll be just eight blocks from Christina which is an unexpected but very nice benefit. I also have several friends working downtown, so it’ll be much easier to stay in contact with them, be it taking a walk or lunch. There’s a gym at the base of the building so that removes that objection to working out more regularly.

Speaking of working out and in the spirit of reflection, I managed some focus on my own health this year, which was both necessary and good. I’ve been carrying more weight than is good for me for a while and after a very tough release at work, I decided that I was compromising my own health and decided to start eating better and getting more exercise. As a result, I dropped the weight that I wanted to and as an extra special benefit, brought my blood pressure down to the healthy range after it, too, had been climbing over time. Moving forward in to this next year, I plan on maintaining the healthier eating and exercise. I’ll be turning 50 this year in June and I want to cross that bridge healthy as well as happy. It’s certainly within my grasp, I just need to not lose focus.

At the same time, as I look forward, it’s also worth being thankful for things that come to an end. One thing I’ve realized over the years is that it’s often lost on us when we have a good thing when we’re in the middle of it. One of my favorite work experiences, both professionally and personally, was back at Eagle. I worked with great people and worked for people I enjoyed and respected. We had a great work-life balance where folks got along and seemed to enjoy each other. We had Nerf battles in the middle of the day and most folks participated. There were shared events and I cared about those people. At the same time, I don’t think I could appreciate how great that experience was while I was still in it. It was only after it ended, as all things do end, that I realized after it was gone, just how great it was. That realization resulted in a commitment I made to myself to try and appreciate the good things when I was in them, not just after they had ended.

I really enjoyed my last job for many reasons. I worked with a great team of folks who I really enjoyed on a personal level. I worked for a boss who I respected and who I learned from. He gave me challenges but, as the best bosses will, made sure that I was successful at the same time. He helped advance me professionally and looked for opportunities to help me without micromanaging. At the end of the day, he trusted me with his group and for that I’ll always be grateful, both professionally and as a friend. None of us are perfect, but he was and is a good man. That means a lot to me when you work closely with someone. I got to help people with their careers, creating growth opportunities and challenging them to grow. Sadly that effort was not completed, so I regret that I wasn’t as successful as I could have been if I’d had more time, but that is the nature of things like careers and organizations – they are never done, they continue, change and grow. And while I helped where I could, those careers, those people and that organization will continue to grow and change with time, with or without me. My hope is that I had a positive effect while I was there. And, at the same time, I wanted to be aware in the moment, as I am looking back, that I had a good thing and appreciate it then as well as now. So, thanks to the Gem team. I really did enjoy my time there.

Now, it’s eyes forward. My brain, despite my best attempts to just relax and decompress between jobs, has already started thinking about how to prepare for the new job, for the new team, for the new responsibilities. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun!

As we wrap up this year with all of it’s issues and problems all around us, globally, nationally, probably personally and professionally, my only suggestion would be to make sure and appreciate the good things in your life while and when you have them. There is little guarantee in life but change. Nothing lasts forever, so embrace the good things in your life and appreciate them. At the same time, identify a few things in your life that aren’t what you want and start thinking about what steps you can take to start making changes to improve things. Don’t let your life happen to you, be in charge of it, own it, be responsible for it and to it and make it what you want.

I am thankful for a good 2014 and I’m looking forward to the adventures that are sure to come in 2015! Happy New Year, All!

Note
Image courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/ladydragonflyherworld and licensed via Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). For more info, see http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/