Friday, September 7, 2012

What the World is Made of

This actually happened several months ago...

On my way home from work, slumped in a BART seat, playing some kind of puzzle game or something on the iPad, and some kid (early-mid 20's maybe) flops down - a little heavily - in the seat next to me.

Generally I kind of keep to myself on planes, trains, etc., and I kind of like it when others do the same, so my annoyance needle kind of twitches over to the right a little when this kid looks at me (which I feel through the side of my head even though I'm pretty pointedly looking at what I'm doing and not at him), and asks:

"Hey, can I ask you what the most important thing you've ever learned is?"

It's Friday, I'm looking at a weekend, and I had a reasonably good day, so I give him an honest answer.

"Never make a decision hot."

"Oh.... You mean, like, physically hot, or...?"

"No, emotionally hot - angry, excited, whatever."

"Oh yeah, okay.  How did you learn that?"

"By making the wrong decisions a bunch of times because I didn't know it yet."

"Ah.  Thanks."

Like I had just told him which stop was coming up next.

I go back to whatever pointless game I was fooling with for a second, then I think to myself that what that kid just did required a certain amount of courage - I mean, asking a complete stranger on a BART train what is the most important thing they ever learned was statistically pretty likely to get the answer "Not fucking talking to strangers on the train" or something similar - so I put away the game and ask him a question of my own.

"So...what made you ask me that just now?"

"Well, I look at this train, and there's all these people.  There's like hundreds of years of life experience right here in this train car, and I figure it's worth trying to benefit a little from that."

"Huh - interesting thought."

"Yeah - I like hearing people's thoughts and stories.  I kind of collect stories."

"Yeah, well, that's what the world is made of, right?"

At this, the kid goes all quiet, and looks at me like I just pulled a quarter out of my eye.

"Have you read that?"

" what?"

"That book - 'The World is Made of Stories'?"

"It's a book?"

I had honestly never heard of it, nor had any recollection of hearing that phrase anyplace in particular.

The kid keeps looking at me with that your-clothes-are-on-fire look.  "That book changed my life - I tell all my friends to read it."

"Really?  Huh."


We ride on without really talking any more until his stop comes up, and he gets off the train. "Hey - thanks for the wisdom."

"Sure, if you can call it that.  Take it easy."

I downloaded the book to my iPad, but haven't gotten too far in it.

Shapeways and SketchUp, a maker's friend

So we bought this cheap-o lamp years ago - little florescent tube on the end of a plastic jointed neck, nothing special.  It was one of those "touch lamps" - instead of a mechanical electrical switch, it had a capacitive switch, the kind with a little metal nub that you touch and it uses the capacitance of your body to trigger the switch.  You know the ones.

Anyway, the crummy plastic housing broke about a year into its life, and of course I think to myself "well, I'm not going to throw out a perfectly good working circuit like that," so I scavenged the circuit board and the flourescent tube assembly, and stowed it away for a future project.

Recently, I got to thinking about that lamp circuit, and started roughing out some designs, and realized that before I could get very far I'd need an enclosure for the bare circuit board so that I could then put the whole affair into a mortise in the base or something.  But where to get a suitable enclosure?  I looked all over the place for an off-the-shelf project box, but they were all either way too big or just enough too small for my needs - I wanted the minimum amount of space to house this thing to allow for as much latitude as possible in the design.  What I really needed was a custom enclosure designed to JUST fit the board and components, isolating it from its surroundings, and allowing for the wires that needed to come out of it for the tubes, the power cord, and the touch switch.

Enter SketchUp and, ultimately,  For those who don't already know, SketchUp is a very simple yet powerful (and free!) 3D modeling application (you can get it from - the free version is plenty functional for most purposes, including this one).  Taking exact measurements of the circuit board (including the power cord strain relief, holes for the mounting screws, etc.), I created a simple box with the ports, stand-offs, and recesses to just exactly hold the circuit board and provide clearance for the wires.  Here's what it looked like:

Simple enough, right?

So how to make this a reality? Enter  Shapeways is a website front end to a 3D printing shop that makes custom forms to order in a number of materials, including a kind of nylon plastic.   They take a number of 3D model formats, including one that SketchUp natively exports, and in a couple of weeks voila!  

My box showed up today, and apart from a minor defect in the snap-together tabs which turned out to be a defect in the exported file, it was exactly to spec.  The material is also easy to machine, so if you want to leave some details to "post-production" (like I did with the drilling of screw holes in the standoffs) it works fine.

Here's the box, with the circuit board installed:

Cozy, no?  I had to shorten the power cord wires and re-solder them (the strain relief isn't moveable on the wires), but everything fits exactly into the little notches, and the screws went into the drilled posts perfectly.

Now instead of a mess of components and wires to deal with, I just have to account in my design for a mortise to hold this:

In the interest of full disclosure, this wasn't cheap - it ended up costing about $70 after shipping etc. - but I figured that it was an okay investment in an experiment, and was cheaper than a lot of other ways of producing a single unit of a custom design in plastic.  Also note: it does say on the site that the material is "for decorative purposes only" - so they don't vouch for using it in this context.  If you do something like this, then like me, you are doing so at your own risk.

All things considered, I'm calling it a success, if only because it made possible a much more professional result than I would have been able to get from off the shelf products, and learning how easy it was to get from digital to physical was pretty cool.

Once the lamp is done, I'll post pictures.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Please take this required training

I have to say, I do agree with this policy, and I think it's something that all employees should be aware of and recognize as their own personal responsibility.

However, I question whether a posted notice is really enough.  I think at minimum we need to track attestation for all employees and contractors.  

Really though, when it's this important, let's go the extra mile and put together an e-Learning course...

(...whole-tone scale played on the harp...)

"Welcome, and thank you for accessing this required training on urinary evacuation policy and procedures.  Here at Your Massive Employer, we take potty training seriously.  We believe it is important that every employee understand, and follow, the proper protocols when voiding their bladders in any of our company sanitary facilities.  At any time during this training, you may refer to the above policy to reinforce your knowledge before working through the scenarios, answering the practice questions, or taking the final test.

Click "Next" below to continue..."

[next] (don't click it, it's an allusion)

Scenario 1.  Chet, an employee in the processing department, has been working all night in a coffee-fueled haze.  He hasn't visited the restroom in at least six hours, and things are getting pretty desperate.  He manages to get is fly undone, but in his haste just barely misses his aim and sprinkles the seat.  He figures it will dry out on its own, since it was only a little drop or two.

Has Chet violated the policy?

__ Yes
__ No

If you chose 'Yes', you're correct! Chet has violated the policy, which clearly states that peeing on the toilet seat is prohibited.  Even though it wasn't his intention to do so, and the dribblings were quite minimal, the policy is quite clear on this point."

(...whole-tone scale played on the harp...)

...I could go on, but I'm afraid it might get gratuitous.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Smarter Packaging for a Better Tomorrow

Today, the Very Nice Man has a challenge to put to all you thinking folks among my vanishingly small readership. Here's the set-up.
Say you have a 3/4" rubber hose washer, just like this one. Now suppose you have to get this, somehow, from Georgia to California.
What do you do?
You might say "Why, Mr. Very Nice Man, I'd put that there little sucker in an envelope, for starters!" Now that's a clever solution, I'll grant you - but you might be tempted, times being what they are, to just use any old regular letter envelope. But obviously this would be a mistake. You need something far more robust for such a sensitive piece of interstate lading. Something that gives the little guy some elbow room on the journey at the very least. For this job, clearly you need at least a 10x12 bubble envelope; something like this:
Now THAT'S the way to send a washer!
Let's make it a little harder now. Let's say that you have not one, but (GASP!) FOUR of these little bastards!
"Well, Mr. Very Nice Man," you might say, "that's a number of washers, whereas before you only had but the one...but I'd bet you could get 'em all in that one single envelope if you tried just a little."
Well, now you might be right about that, but just because you COULD, doesn't mean you SHOULD, you know. Clearly, these precious little treasures need to be protected not just from the harsh travails of the journey but from each other as well. If you really want to be on the safe side, better get some more envelopes.
There, that's more like it!
So once you've got these dear and dainty devices all snuggly-wuggly in their well-cushioned and oh-so-spacious accommodations, you're all set, right? Not so fast, buddy - I suppose you think you're gonna, what, just stand in Georgia and whip those suckers side-arm fashion into a fair tailwind and have 'em land safely at their destination in Californee? If that's what you had in mind, I think you're missing a step or two.
"Well I've got you now, Mister V.N.M." you say, "I know how to address an envelope."
And then I say to you, there you go again, going off all half-cocked and ill-considered. Do you really think you're just going to address those envelopes and expect things to come out okay? I mean, sure, they're envelopes, and you might think they'd be suitable for mailing as they are, but I say to you why stop at half-measures when you can really do a thing right. I say let's get this quartet of high-precision hose-sealing units there in the appropriate style - and nothing says quality merchandise like a big ol' cardboard box. 18" by 12" by 12" ought to do juuuuust fine. Then we really oughta throw some crumpled-up brown paper packing in there, just for a little extra protection for our investment.
(18-lb cat provided for size comparison)
Now THAT'S looking good! Remember, we're talking about FOUR 3/4" RUBBER HOSE WASHERS here, this is NOT a time for cutting corners! Though I will mention that this method has the advantage of saving on shipping labels - you only need one, so hey - save a tree!
So now you know the RIGHT way to ship 4 tiny articles most of the way across the country. I would like to thank the good people at HANSGROHE, providers of fine kitchen and bathroom fixtures, for providing this helpful how-to!
Thanks, Hansgrohe!