Saturday, August 23, 2014

Why Making Things is Difficult

Taking apart old electronics after a while gives you some appreciation of how complex these systems are. If you don't have the right tools, disassembling these things is a little more permanent than you might wish. But things like CD ROM readers from the 90s aren't exactly an investment to preserve, so why not. And a little curiosity makes it far more interesting.

CD ROMs are largely plastic enclosures that embed gears as well as fixtures for holding wires, motors, and other parts. At the heart, there's a laser, an optical sensor, and a weird motor that is difficult to control but extremely efficient. I found the most useful information about these from an Australian RC Plane hobby board. They have detailed plans how to disassemble some of these motors and rewire them, to make them easier to control for a remote control toy plane. The electronics discussions are a little sketchy, to the point where I've started wondering if there are electrical engineers on the Web anymore.

Having some of the skills makes these projects seem easier. If you count it out, the range of skills is much wider than you'd expect, and depth in each varies quite a bit. Here's a short list that comes to mind-
  • programming in a C-based language (if you have an embedded controller like an Arduino)
  • Some electronics
  • Some mechanics
  • Some CAD for printing a circuit board (for finished projects) or just a well though out design for creating the circuit more permanently.
  • Some CAD for designing the 3D printer files to make the shell out of plastic, or the ability to machine this stuff from your material of choice.
  • The problem domain you're working in. If it's a quad copter it's some aerodynamics. If it's a plotter of sorts, it's also going to involve a lot of gear sets and geometry.
It's hard (I think) when you have some of the needed skills, but don't even know what other skills are needed to make these projects work. So how to work in this kind of environment? Some ideas, though I'd like to find out about alternatives-
  1. go to an outstanding STEM school
  2. Be around people who are good at this stuff
  3. Access to tools and materials for hands-on work with this stuff, some of which is fairly expensive
  4. Have a place to experiment with this stuff
Others? So what happens when you don't have a good STEM program, and don't have personal contact with people proficient in these areas, and don't have some expensive equipment and materials around to help learn this?  At the moment, you're out of luck. Something tells me this is a terrible situation that can be readily fixed, if there is some money and care for solving the problem of unequal access to these critical skills across cultural and economic lines. Money that would be a fairly cheap fix compared to the alternatives of persisting and even expanding these divides.

After years of addressing the "Digital Divide" by sending computers to schools, I think we missed the real point. I don't have a solution, but just a growing awareness of what doesn't seem to work no matter how many resources are misdirected at solving the wrong problem.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Making things

After getting an Arduino and doing relatively little with it over the past couple of years, I've spent a bit more time trying to figure out what to do with it.

I've eased into a few Maker type projects of late, especially after graduation. Some has involved salvaging parts from old computer drives, motherboards and the like. Aside from blinking lights and controlling speeds on old CD ROM motors, no robots have been created.

Building things out of wood pallets has been more  constructive, even if the projects are workbenches and wood racks for taking apart more pallets.

At some point, building a work area for salvaging parts should be used to actually build things. But the electromechanics of CD drives in particular has been interesting, and it may take time to figure out what to do with them.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Trying out the Mobile app

Given the long lapses in this blog, it seemed like a good idea to try the Android app for Blogger. Blogger is starting to feel like the hotmail of dear diary providers, but somehow I don't have the supply of animated GIFs that a Tumblr account needs for respectability.

So far it seems to work as well as the Android onscreen keyboard and swipe interface allows.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

I graduated.

I graduated, finally, almost ten years after starting the PhD program. Ten Years.

The life thing got in the way, or perhaps the other way around. Looking back at a post from 5 years ago, I'd have never guessed how things would have turned out. Well, most people can't, so it's a bit trivial to dwell on. I'm not going to field advice about how to graduate from a PhD program quickly, being better suited these days to be a cautionary tale for others.

But it's over, grading for the semester is just about done, and I have 10 weeks ahead with fewer overarching demands on me. Just the task of recovering, repairing, and moving forward. And I have a stack of articles to go through for some research topics I've had on the back burner for a couple of years.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Reclaimed things

One of my stress relievers of the past few months has been in woodworking. Given that Wood Shop was possibly my least favorite part of Middle School, it has suddenly begun to serve a purpose in my life. Owning an old house affords many opportunities to dabble in carpentry, but all of it has always seemed like a chore. Even some earlier building projects, making shelves, seemed a bit pointless in that the materials needed seemed to cost nearly as much as a low-end bookshelf of equivalent quality, given my limited number of mostly hand tools. 

I had little in terms of power tools, save for a cordless drill, cordless screwdriver and an old jigsaw I inherited. These are no longer the days when power tools are stamped out of sheet metal, far more likely to catch on fire than to ever break under anything short of a steamroller.  

Materials also proved to be expensive given the number of mistakes made with limited experience and limited tools. I'm certain my old shop teacher could have made fine furniture with my hand saw and power drill, but these tools serve to merely magnify my lack of skill. So I jumped on the hipster / Maker bandwagon and started using wooden shipping pallets for raw materials. After all, throwing away a growing pile of cutting mistakes is a lot less annoying when the wood was free.

Finding pallets is easy. Finding pallets that are not disgusting is not so easy. If you ask manufacturing companies if you can take the clean pallets that expensive equipment is shipped with, that they would otherwise have to dispose of by the pound, they're often more than happy to get rid of them. 

Taking them apart is either frustrating and irritating, or a pretty good way to blow off some stress. I've found that a combination of crowbar, rubber mallet, and reciprocating saw work pretty well. Especially on those special days when there are few other socially acceptable outlets for men to express certain feelings, a rubber mallet works wonders. 

Post-divorce doesn't exactly result in a lot of cash lying around, so free fits the budget pretty well. Cashing out some old junk around the house and freeing the bad juju of the old wedding rings resulted in a reciprocating saw and a miter saw. Once these are reunited with my table saw that I loaned out and never used, there will be some real projects to play with.

So, the result so far from playing with pallets has been three work benches, a table, a bench, and some retaining walls for the garden we're planting this year. I'm likely to tear apart and rebuild the workbenches. The little pallet table has been a learning experience, which I'm not likel.y to bother rebuilding. It's become a workbench for small electronics at work, a place to tear apart old electronics and salvage components of interest before sending the rest to recycling. 

Parts of old hard drives, CD ROM readers, remote control cars, helicopters, cables, and other electrical components spread over the pallet table in my office.  A few VHS Cassette cases serve as organizers for the collection of parts yielded, and there are enough to start working again on the Arduino stuff, to run motors, lights, and read switches and buttons. On the drawing board are some projects, maybe a little car or even a crude drone this summer. But with the dissertation behind me, it feels like life itself has been reclaimed on some level.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Life after.

I'm finding that as Graduation approaches, I'm having a little trouble seeing what comes next. It's mostly a formality at this point- the work has been done. I think there's a little touching up with the last dissertation edits in the next couple of days. After all this.

The anticlimax of my own graduation with the funny hat feels more a chore than a celebration. I'm a little irritated that it coincided with the graduation of my own students. I've actually sat with a schedule and Google Maps to see how to exploit the hour offset between my graduation and theirs, and whether I can get back to "my school" before the ceremonies end.  "My school" has been where I teach, not where I'm getting my degree.  It's a blur the in the past, a decade offset from my prior degree a decade earlier. A hectic three years of intense work, a couple of years of juggling with a FT teaching job, a year and a half of divorce hell, and now a couple years since, rebuilding a life and a home.

I think this is the point where regrets would be shared. Had I just bailed out during one of the many times I considered doing so, I wouldn't have had my head fitted for a poofy hat yesterday. It's a useless game of what-ifs for turning left instead of right.  I had something to say about the last time I played the game of what-ifs, but it was just about the train I didn't take to work on the morning of 9/11 so I erased it.  I'll be damned if I ever catch myself playing the game of what-ifs again.

May 19th is the start of "Summer Break" and another chapter in life. That chapter is going to involve a lot of neglected repairs around my house, and most likely, in life overall.

Friday, December 13, 2013

..and back again.

Back again with a lot to say, and perhaps just enough good judgment not to do so.

I've been told to start to revive this thing and talk about real life again, to continue the thread of this series on being a returning PhD student entering into academic life. To avoid the dominant facts of the last three years would be somewhat dishonest.

I'm now divorced, a single dad. Two of the last three years have been extremely painful to say the least, and now the third year finds me in a new relationship quite unexpectedly, not to mention against my best efforts. But her persistence in making the relationship work overpowered my persistence in ruining it, so here we are.

I try to be thankful when it occurs to me, now as one-half of a small academic department, trying to revive an entire major. Some would run, but somehow a chance to start something over is appealing for more than the obvious reasons. At home, breathing new life into old things, old machines, and even messing around and turning shipping pallets into seats or workbenches is yet another way to turn the discarded into something useful.

Apparently, Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.