18 Sep 2018, 20:44

The Robot

The kids came up with a wacky idea to build a robot, which has been a complete blast.

I took a look at the available kits, and they’re undoubtedly impressive. Some are pretty much stylized RC cars, some don’t require building at all, and some try to use apps to enable some basic programming or at least scripting. Never one to enjoy the shrink-wrapped solution, I stole a few ideas from the marketplace and struck off on my own.

It’s truly striking what Arduino and Raspberry Pi have done to the landscape. Even as late as my college years, PIC microcontrollers were not as much pricey as difficult to work with, and easier solutions that weren’t ground-up DIY jobs were indeed fairly expensive. Programming required flashing via a serial port, which was typically adapted to USB on the way to a laptop running very creaky C-based tooling. Processing power was scarce, and the add-on and adapter scene was thin.

The Arduino-versus-Rpi debate is a difficult one. An Arduino is a gift-wrapped microcontroller with all the good and bad stuff that comes with that: no general purpose as we know them, friendly but more bare-metal hardware interaction, lots of focused third-party libraries for robotics and automation, and good hardware support for things like generating timed pulsed waves and blinky lights. Rpi gives you a whole other host of benefits: full Linux support with any programming language you’d like, wifi, storage, rougher but still available electronics integration, and a huge array of compatible devices. You give up something no matter which way you go, but - depending on what you want to do - there’s almost always at least one good choice.

We went Rpi and haven’t looked back: because of the drivers and capabilities of Linux, I’ve been able to interact with the robot over wifi while it’s powered with an ordinary consumer USB battery pack. A growing array of microcontroller-based daughter boards fill some of the gaps created by the more computer-like Rpi as opposed to the more task-focused Arduino. Strikingly, these little boards are sophisticated, relatively (very relatively) user-friendly devices that generally cost between $5 and $15 apiece. We need one for locomotive motor control, one for power control, and one for 180-degree servo control. That set, plus a motor/gearbox/wheel kit, some mostly scrap electronic parts for hookup, scrap wood for a chassis, and some spare boxes and packaging for body parts, and we are working toward a workable model. We built the gearbox ourselves from a boxed set at the kitchen table. It’s layers of kit-based DIY with a good bit of custom engineering.

I wanted to add talking functionality, something that would have been entirely impossible several years ago. Now it was as easy as a little USB portable speaker plugged into the Rpi, and a connection to a free (up to 1 MB of text per month) Google service to transcribe voice input and send back MP3s of synthesized speech. I had it running in about 15 minutes with Python.

I have a clear ambition to make this grow with the kids, meaning I need to be tight enough with my codebase that it can eventually be adapted or expanded by the kids. I’m not sure if this will ever actually happen, but it’s important to me that it becomes accessible to them if they’re interested.

It’s interesting to see their perspective on things. Growing up in a moment that perhaps lacks game-changing breakthroughs but is more typified by the complete pedestrianization of what would previously be considered black frigging magic, you never know what will impress them. They are keenly aware that I am (currently) “making the robot talk” with my computer, and that’s clearly not as impressive as the Alexa voice responding from the ether. They crave autonomy, something I doubt I would have even thought to covet as a child. They want it to go and do of its own accord, and they want to speak to it and have it speak back. They appear somewhat mystified, but surprisingly not frustrated, when I give them the engineer’s assessments of each of their ideas: impossible, too tough for our budget, too tough for my knowledge, doable, easy.

I have purposefully avoided any kind of chassis materials that appear pre-made or purpose-built in any way. I would prefer to use a Clorox wipe container (the current torso) than something from a kit. I think they feel the improvisation of it, and I’m frequently fielding materials suggestions: use a Rubbermaid container, use a can of beans, use an old box, use a toilet paper tube. It’s a fun exercise in craftsmanship and improvisation to view your household trash and sundries as potential parts for a robot. They have impressed me with their creativity, especially in an era that nearly gives up on a device if its charge port becomes loose.

My personal goal is to see a dance of the Hokey Pokey within a month or so. We’ll see how it goes, and where they want to go with it from there.

10 Apr 2018, 19:11

Against the Usage of "Um" in Discussions

I listen to a few podcasts that are critical of the usage of “Well, actually…” and “Turns out…” in internet culture. With the internet comes a full deck of cite-able sources of various quality and provenance to correct people in an irritating way: “Well, actually the study that said to drink all that water did not say that”, “Turns out salt intake isn’t bad for blood pressure”, etc., etc.

This is valid cultural criticism and should be noted by people. Much of the time the value of the correction is overshadowed by the irritation it causes, and half the time the “correction” is just as questionable as the original statement.

I would submit that the “Um” prefix is the dirty bomb of such phrases. “Um” does not just telegraph a “get ready to hear something I read that you didn’t”. “Um” says, “You moron, haven’t you read that…”

Anyone familiar with Hacker News would not be surprised to see me use a link to a discussion on that site to illustrate the point. It strikes me as a shorthand for the person who says “Time out” and then corrects someone in conversation. It is both pretentious and superfluous. I struggle to imagine a situation in which the meaning or clarity of a statement is not improved by removing it from the front of the sentence.

27 Jul 2017, 14:19

Riften On My Mind

My time with Skyrim appears to be drawing to a close.

Even the writing of that sentence highlights the complexity of my feelings about this fantastic game. I put quite a bit of time into it, easily the most time I’ve put into a game in the last five years or more, and I enjoyed almost every bit of it. The nonlinearity and openness were huge wins for me while playing.

In retrospect, though, that great strength of the game (thousands of things to do, many having no bearing on the actual storyline) created a bit of a bitter aftertaste in the sunset period. The main quest was awful in many areas, with bugs and design issues impacting somewhere around a quarter to a half of the stage gates in the quest. I actually had to drop into the console and input codes I found on discussion boards in order to get through a pointless cinema sequence at one point. The plot was somewhere between pointless and incomprehensible, with way too much “dragon language” and gopher quests and time travel and other silly fantasy game tropes.

Even as I complain and retrospect here, I am generating counterarguments that minimize my complaint. Yes, this was the “main quest,” and yes, it was bad for me in many areas. But what is a “main quest” in a sandbox game? Was it a mistake for me to even go through that quest?

Interestingly, my approach to Skyrim was heavily influenced by my two runs through Hitman: Absolution (one on easy, one on hard), which revealed my interest in stealth approaches to games. In Skyrim, I played a thief who didn’t steal (much), essentially an ethical assassin.

A dragon-slaying main plot was never going to work well for a thief. There was no going after Alduin the World Eater with a dagger, and my sneaking (even maxed to 100!) was not effective against his preternatural abilities. Since I had no interest in magic and had invested all my time in sneaking and stabbing and shooting everything, I essentially had to play tank for the main quest and count most of my skill development work as wasted.

Speaking of skill-building, what an experience to work through a big game doing something besides the straightforward hack-and-slash! The most interesting (and challenging) thing about Skyrim for me was the experience of starting out in this different context. You know you want to be an assassin type player, and you do what you can in the character rolling to position yourself to get there, but when you start out you’re basically just terrible. This makes complete sense, but it requires real patience in the early days to stick with it and prepare to reap the rewards later.

You are approaching a challenging game wanting to sneak around, but you can’t sneak. You need to attack from afar, but your equipment is terrible and you aren’t that effective with a bow. You would love to get the sneak-and-stab 15x bonus, but you can’t get within 10 feet of someone without them alerting on you. So you sneak, save frequently and reload when you get slaughtered, and grind it out until you get up to journeyman status. Then the game really opens up.

Because everything is so open, you can really experience fun rewards if you concentrate on certain areas. The “perks” skill system has its weaknesses, but tracks such as Sneak are filled with deeply powerful and fun rewards for concentrating effort.

By the end of my time in the game, I was taking out rooms full of people by dropping down on them and doing stab-and-retreat attacks without being noticed. I could pick any lock, my equipment was fantastic, and I really felt like I had built something to be proud of and to enjoy.

I can still imagine dropping into the game occasionally and playing my character. I occasionally think about rolling a new one and starting over, but I don’t think I would. I got it right the first time, and the quest variety is really not that good (perhaps the obvious trade-off that counterbalances the available volume of quests). Too many “bandit has thing, go into cave, kill five bandits plus one magic-casting bandit, three frost spiders, and a pair of draugrs, open chest, get thing, take shortcut out” quests. A little bit of that goes a long way.

There was clearly a lot of love put into the Thieves Guild quests and a few of the other major non-main arcs. They were quite a bit better than the main arc.

All in all, I think Skyrim is a game that should be played precisely how you want to play it. You can’t let the actual presence of a storyline push you too hard to play it that way, unless you really want to do that. The tricky thing is feeling a sense of completion in that environment. Have I “beaten” the game? Am I “finished”? There’s certainly more to do, but why would I do it? It forces you to think deeper into your true motivations for playing, which might or might not have a good answer.

It’s a much more complex way to play and enjoy a game, but I definitely prefer it to the old one-way variety of these role-playing games.

29 Mar 2017, 16:07

Goals, But Not in the Usual Sense

I’ve always been a projects-oriented person. I think in projects, I work in projects. Even standard, periodic work is best treated as a project to keep me engaged in it.

Blog writing used to be a bit of a project, but not so much anymore. But it is still nice to have a white sheet of a paper that’s quite more public than a diary but not public in the “OMG donuts <3 <3 <3” thumbs-up sense of Facebook.

I’ve been thinking some about various projects that might bring me joy and fulfillment in adult life. The mindset around time clearly changes as one passes into different stages of life. I’m convinced that one almost never experiences a true surplus of time whether it is actually present or not. Time consumption is a gas, or at least a liquid, and expands to fill what it can reach.

Referring back to a recent conversation, I might advance the idea that an effective time surplus exists when you can make choices about your time and not have the feeling that you are making a value judgment between options and “sacrificing” one activity for another. I find “sacrifice” to be the operative word at the extreme; “prioritize” would be the neutral term on this spectrum I am constructing here, and I suppose “opt” would perhaps be the far-left side in which scarcity may be even perceptually absent from the picture. “Prioritize” is neutral in the sense that - while your calendar day may be full - you are able to choose which activities fill what I would see as a de facto surplus.

It’s very difficult, in the sense of being mentally stressful, to be in the “sacrifice” space of the spectrum. When articulated plainly, the statements become almost comically selfish: “I am currently cleaning benign goop off of the inside of the garage door in preference to actively participating in the rearing of my children this afternoon. This is something I am doing for me and my house.” Come at me, bro.

Any cost-benefit analysis becomes an exercise in balancing urgency and guilt in (often) emotionally unhealthy ways. The Covey time management quadrants teach us that “urgent and important” almost always wins in terms of prioritization, but the loser is the one dealing with all those emergencies. How does one bring preventative or restorative activities to the fore when nearly everything is important, and a good bit of that is urgent?

The obvious answer is that we implode or explode - depending on our mental and emotional makeup and proclivities - under such stress unless we take time to de-goop the garage door, or take a long soaking bath, or run a marathon, or actually understand Twin Peaks. We stand up and say, “Overriding priority of my life, I am being a jerk by neglecting you now so that I am not a jerk when I am next with you.”

And this works fine, but it still sets a higher bar than we’d probably like to have for what amount to time-wasting activities. Is a football game you don’t care about really a compelling “break” that will restore and feed your soul, bettering yourself and consequently those around you?

This can create a sense of paralysis. Throw a free hour to someone who feels maxed out with meaningful obligations, and they may spend 45 minutes deciding how best to relax.

When looking at elevated, meaningful projects, it becomes clear that, in a high-obligation scenario, much of the less structured time you are often given is essentially the “garbage time” of life. It’s hard to open that new programming project at the end of a long day. It’s hard to stay awake for Twin Peaks, even. Which means it’s going to take some amount of sacrifices and trade-offs of “prime time” to get real, transcendental things done. Which in turn means that a lot of real, transcendental things don’t get done.

And that is fine. But it’s important to keep those things in mind, so that when one is thrown an hour or two, the Rolodex gets spun and something comes to mind. For me, even having things in mind is perhaps as valuable as doing something tangible to achieve them. With this in mind, here are some things I’m thinking about right now, along with the “why” that I see as emotional justification:

Build a software project of any kind that is actively used by at least one complete stranger. Creating something like this that can become part of subsequent projects for others would be deeply meaningful to me.

Create from scratch a source of mostly, if not entirely, passive income. I feel that generating some kind of measurable, sustained value from one’s own efforts, but not requiring ongoing effort beyond the creation, is a powerful affirmation of the capacity for creation. For this reason, I find the magnitude of the income to be almost completely insignificant.

Learn how to play the drums. Perhaps the oddball of the group, I think this would simply be fun and rewarding.

Perform a comprehensive, multidisciplinary renovation on a house using mostly my own work. This would be challenging, and instructive. Also an added benefit from the permanence and tangibility of the work.

Sit on the board of a charitable or service organization. This has a sense of affirmation attached to it, to be invited to do such a thing, and also would be a good challenge in a completely different way.

I think the themes of the above are pretty apparent, and I think going through an exercise like this is important because it gets to the root of what can be sitting unfulfilled in daily life.

13 Aug 2016, 07:59

Things Are Moving Along

I have created a novel way to create blog posts in my new system by sending e-mail to a special address on my server. I’m not completely done, but it’s far enough along that I can actually use it.

It’s always cool to be able to create things that are actually immediately useful.

07 Jan 2016, 16:47

Changes

About every six months I decide I want to build a RepRap 3D printer using parts printed on my own 3D printer, and as time goes on the landscape gets worse and worse. Several of the key companies selling kits are folding up. The RepRap wiki points to articles written 3-5 years ago and still in an unfinished state.

Basically the MakerBot I would use to print the RepRap, along with several other very good relatively inexpensive manufactured or semi-manufactured options, destroyed the market for oddball printers with smooth rod skeleton frames and exposed electronics. And I suppose that’s a good thing, but also (in a nostalgic-hipster way) kind of a pity.

Then I go to DIY CNC routers and do the ritualistic “wow, where would I put that, and my oh my that’s expensive, and I bet that wouldn’t even work that well” and fold it up until the next six month window.

I also have some cycle, wavelength/period unconfirmed at this point, of thinking about trashing my Efendi blog tool and going to a static site generator using Markdown files or something like that. But the funny thing is that I then start researching web frontends to a static site generator, since my lockdown computer here at work can’t SSH into anything and barks at me with soft blocks if I even dial up dropbox.com in a browser. So I basically need a static site generator fed by a dynamic site manager. Also known as a caching CMS, wakka wakka.

I’ve been thinking about writing/modding/finding a tool that Hoovers markdown files off Dropbox (soft blocks be damned) into a static site generator and onto my web server or GitHub pages or something like that. One of my more creative and ambitious options would be a post-by-email system, which would work great with a static site generator but would be a nightmare to figure out how to edit a post. Reply to the e-mail? That would be cute until it came time to implement it and handle rich text/MIME e-mail formats.

Efendi is devastatingly slow, even at the loads I run (which are basically limit-approaching-zero unless I get crawled by a Russian search engine). A lot of this is the cool feed merging stuff I built in to update from Google Code (defunct!), Picasa Web Albums (ruined by Google Plus!), and Cluster (near-idle!). I never bothered to optimize because (1) that’s not fun, and (2) I don’t need to optimize, but I do wish I could just deal in text files and serve flat template-driven HTML without a dynamic page build on every request.

Interestingly, the other direction I feel pulled with the blog is to get some kind of Twitter connectivity set up so I could do microblog entries on Twitter and cross-publish to the site. This is difficult to do, of course, and that ick feeling that all programmers (and probably most craftsman/artisans) know starts to set in, where the feeling goes from “let’s build this!” to “let’s avoid three months of untangling API hell and unintended consequences and forget about building this!” Plus I really don’t feel like Twitter works well for me to record anything meaningful, so it’s pretty much a red herring in the whole thing.

17 Sep 2015, 15:09

Backlog

I finished Mad Men last night, which (spoilers) pretty much ended with the whimper I predicted. I put Mad Men in a special group of what I would call “vibe shows,” which I find to be difficult to continue interestingly past a few seasons. Being that it was a vibe show and a period piece, all the more difficult. It was fun to watch their set and costume designers gradually transition to the early-70s look, with Sterling growing the ridiculous mustache and the clothes slowly changing. The descent to a Siddhartha-style ramble-to-enlightenment worked suitably for me, although I would probably recommend reading Siddhartha over investing in all the ups-and-downs of the series to get to that end point.

Don essentially discovered that he didn’t like being Don, and we had a bit of a death-of-self moment on the way to an all-in-on-the-cliche literal Buddhist enlightenment. Sterling found a sort of pseudo-nirvana by calibrating his hedonism in the realism of his life stage, which maybe would have been the fate I would have preferred for Don. Or perhaps this was really to show us that this was the fate for Don if he had continued on in his previous oscillations, but instead he shed it all off to go “Om” by the seashore.

The final sequence was a classic Mad Men final sequence, really showing that the intelligence of the writers and producers so far outstripped the manifested intelligence of the plot. By abutting the “buy the world a Coke” commercial to Don’s meditation, with the Coke commercial pleading Coke as the “real thing” amid a faux-hippie backdrop, it was probably the most scathing judgment of the advertising industry they could conceive.

Edit: All of this is incorrect, Don uses his enlightenment experience to go back to the agency and make the Coke add. I hate this.

All the sub-major and minor characters just piddled into a linear extrapolation of the last few seasons, which really backed up my perception that these folks were just never really more than caricatures. Pete’s conversion from irritating scumbag to irritating reformed scumbag was the most satisfying of the lot, while Betty’s terminal lung cancer (they had to do it to somebody after all that smoking) prevented them from ever needing to do anything with her character. Sally gave up adventure to take care of the family (why, thematically?), the boys have essentially no consequence (and never did), Coop’s dead, Joan does her business hustle thing, Peggy finds love in a probably ten minute sequence that is the bouillon cube reduction of chick flick soup, shadow-Don disappears into a big company. Don’s second ex-wife reportedly returns to Canada, where I presume there’s no acting work, so why’s she there? Maybe I dozed.

Anyway, they just couldn’t really osmose their smarts at a high enough concentration to make it work for me, but I’m glad I saw it through.

/spoilers


Backlog is on my mind now, as I’m trying to get my podcast playlist calibrated to neither pile nor exhaust under normal steady conditions. I’ve found that commuting is so greatly helped by intelligent or humorous conversation rather than radio rattle, or even music shuffling, that this is of considerable value to me.

I feel I should enshrine my current list, as it’s so hard to discover these things, at least outside the iTunes sphere:

  • Mad Dogs & Englishmen: The National Review guys I really like
  • The Moth: People telling true stories in front of live audiences
  • The Truth: Cool and weird (especially last episode) reimagining of radio drama for the modern era
  • GLoP Culture: On my bubble list for deletion, chance to hear Goldberg from National Review and Podhoretz from Commentary talk about current events
  • Cato Daily Podcast: I let these pile up to about 50-60 unlistened and then listen to them all at 1.6x-2.0x speed for rapid-fire libertarianism
  • This American Life: This is kind of the good-tasting vegetable of my menu, I never look forward to it but almost always enjoy the NPR narration format and content
  • Stuff You Should Know: Pretty good explanatory topics most of the time (seems to be getting more obscure and less interesting recently), unlistenable for me at anything but 1.8x speed now that I’m used to it
  • Here Be Monsters: On the bad side of my bubble list, I feel like it’s indie This American Life
  • Top Four: Mid bubble list, a sort of misguided early-stage talk podcast where an internet-famous couple talks about their favorite stuff (but rarely actually develop a true top-4 list)
  • Analog(ue): I can’t understand why I listen to this, but it’s a podcast company head talking to a (podcast celebrity) friend, mostly about podcasting and life, and I like it
  • Reconcilable Differences: John Siracusa (Ars Technica) and Merlin Mann talk for a really long time about random things
  • Accidental Tech Podcast: Definitely on the bubble, I like these guys (each person is on at least one other podcast I listen to) but struggle with why I’m investing so much time in Apple-related news
  • Hardcore History: The best
  • Serial: Adnan totally did it, but I still don’t know how
  • Robot or Not: I love a 55 second podcast with a quick yes/no answer
  • You Look Nice Today: This is basically over, but it’s mostly really funny and nice to just hear guys talk about funny stuff that’s not topical

16 Jan 2015, 05:13

By the Numbers

The alarms honk by the numbers. The blood pressure is an alarm, but they tell you it is not a bad one. The bleating continues in arrogant defiance of this fact. The temperature is an alarm but only because of the lights. The lights are on because the Bilirubin is too high. Only good blood-work results can turn off the lights.

The TPN is a stew of numbers. The label has his name on it, or at least the hospital’s name for him. “Share a TPN with BABYBOY,” you imagine the Coke can saying. But don’t, because the TPN is keeping him alive.

The CPAP went from 8 to 6. It could have gone back to 8. When you ask them the unit of measure, they have to think before they answer that it is centimeters of water. The water is bubbling next to the IV pole. The reality of this is simultaneously off-putting and welcome.

The milk is first gravity-fed at 11, and then they adjust down to pump-fed at 5. The 5 would fit in 2 sewing thimbles. On another floor, the babies are drinking 2 or 3 or 4 in a sitting, but these numbers are 60 or 90 or 120 on this floor. An hour’s snack is a day’s sustenance, a floor apart.

~ * ~

The unenlightened nurse speaks by the numbers. This was that and now it is something else. It fell, then it rose. It is okay now.

The competent nurse says to ignore the numbers and watch the squiggles. The kinks in the squiggles say the numbers are no good. Watch the squiggles, don’t go by the numbers.

The beautiful nurse says to ignore the numbers and squiggles and look at the baby. You feel a chill go through you when this nurse goes off shift. You imagine her walking down the street in a jacket, eating a granola bar, chatting on the phone about getting a pair of pants altered the next day. You wonder how he will do, now that he is back to being numbers and squiggles for twelve more hours.

~ * ~

The beds are arranged by the numbers, but most are not really beds. They are seed-pods, husks, formative material that will be shed in better days. You want to pick these things off like a scab.

The NICU is a point in space and a vector of change. You say “A-17” but you think “A-17, and getting better.” “A-17, and maybe transferring out soon.” “A-17, and they smile now when they talk to us.” “A-17, and the social worker wasn’t so persistent this time.” “A-17, and they haven’t mentioned the chaplain since check-in.”

You can’t avoid looking down the rows. The older babies are a curiosity; the private rooms are a riddle. You see doctors in the half-poncho scrubs they always wear on television when doctors work on babies. You want to shoo these people away, these totems of severity. Don’t do your procedures around my child; my child is getting better.

~ * ~

The overnight housing is assigned by the numbers. “How far away do you live?” “How many children did you bring with you?”

They say there is no food allowed in the Ronald McDonald House, but you can eat in the waiting rooms if you want. The man with the big, sweet-smelling bag of food looked hollow when they told him the rule. A fallen french fry sat at the base of a short staircase for a few hours one night. Maybe one of his kids dropped it.

~ * ~

Raising babies is measured by the numbers. The time between feedings, the focal distance of the eyes, the change in weight, the increase of height. These are numbers that could be printed above pictures of smiling people in glossy magazines.

Every problem in a healthy baby is wrapped around a blessing. The piercing cry comes from a pair of healthy lungs. The spit-up comes from an overfull belly. The stinking diaper comes from a motile intestine.

Amidst the honking alarms, the bubbling machines, the sanitization protocols, and the visiting rules, the NICU is quietly growing these bundles of potential, these radiators of sweet heat, these evokers of joy, these generators of worry. May it be unnecessary for all of them as soon as it can be.

09 Oct 2014, 19:15

Don't You Loose Yo Lip on Me

I’m gonna cash in my hand
And pick up on a piece of land
And build myself a cabin back in the woods.

Lord it’s there I’m gonna stay
Until there comes a day
When this old world starts to changin’ for the good.

02 Jan 2014, 18:51

Behaving Badly

I found an inexpensive “dog repeller” that I am quite looking forward to employing on the neighbor’s dog. Making unpleasant faces has not silenced the racket to date, so I’m thinking this bit of strategic escalation will improve my lot substantially.

Also, on an unrelated product review, I don’t know how you get a “Real Name” badge with the following handle:
shaggy

“Oh yes, we always did love that Shaggy1944 McDaniels. Too bad he always spoke in all caps.”

We are embarking upon what I see as probably the final two phases of the moving and settling in to the new house, with a final push to hang pictures and get our decor items spread throughout the house, plus painting a few more rooms upstairs. Then, pretty soon we’ll be furnishing Claire’s “big girl room” and getting all that settled. It will be nice to feel like we’ve properly settled the house within a year of moving!