| Send me an e-mail! I'd love to hear your praise, criticism, suggestions or just "hello". Send e-mail to
firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanx for your feedback. -- Al|
Wednesday, May 2, 2012, 8am. I Love Math
The above scan from my physics text shows the type of force vector drawings that I can easily understand but somehow find impossible to draw on my own.
The above Calculus examples are from the math review appendix of The Art of Electronics by Horowitz and Hill. You can do lots of of interesting projects knowing much less math than this, but you can do a lot more, with more confidence, if you know the math.
| I love math. Because of that I've taken about sixteen semesters of college math.|
I love math. But I find it more than a little challenging.
I've taken first semester Calculus three times with generally improving grades and definitely improving understanding. Actually I've taken it about 3.2 times, but that drop was about life complications, not the math. Eventually I figured out that I was slow not because I wasn't understanding the concepts but because of my quirky memory. While everyone else was working on actual problems I was re-deriving basic formulas and transformations that wouldn't stick in my memory no matter how much I drilled.
Between iterations of first semester Calculus I took several semesters of Algebra. I'd always considered myself "a natural" at Algebra but I was hoping to discover some critical misunderstanding that would explain my struggles with Calculus. That seemed not to be the case. I was pretty good at Algebra. I enjoyed the classes even though they weren't challenging enough for my taste. But I like math so it was OK.
I started Calculus II several times and fell so far behind that I never finished. Take 0.5, 0.7 and a few others and that adds up to another couple of semesters of college math. Eventually I figured out that weakness in Trig was causing a lot of my problems. Intermixed with the Calculus II attempts were several repeats of Trig. I always finished and actually got fairly good grades. Trig just isn't that complicated. But I found it much harder than I thought it should be and unlike my experience with Algebra it didn't seem to get any easier when repeating. I found that a little disturbing, but I still enjoyed the classes overall. I like math so it was OK.
Eventually I got enough Calculus I and Trig bashed into my brain that I was able to get through Calculus II with a reasonable grade. I created a "cheat sheet" of formulas and re-read it compulsively. With enough repetitions in the hall before class I could keep just enough of the formulas in my memory to reduced my re-deriving work to a manageable level so I could get through to the end of a test. I was generally there to the bitter end with the other slow students but I was finishing most of the problems. It was pretty frustrating. I really understood the concepts but it seemed that the part of my memory that held previously derived formulas was broken. Every step was a painfully slow process. But I made it through. And I like math so it was OK.
Physics is just a math class with more interesting problems. I love math word problems. Physics homework and tests are nearly all word problems. I thought Physics would be great fun. I read the problems. I worked to a solution. And I was wrong nearly every time. What? I'm used to getting stuck. I'm not used to being wrong without recognizing that I was stuck. It turns out that the hole I had in my memory for calculus truths was also the part of my brain needed to visualize force vectors. Whoops, that could be a problem. One afternoon I spent some time going over homework problems with my professor. I understood every step of the solutions. I walked out his office door, sat down on the floor and tried to re-do them on my own. Nada. I could not setup the problems properly on my own. Not even from memory. I could do the math working from my professor's drawing, but for the life of me I couldn't describe the angles on my own. Well, that certainly explained some of my Trig challenges. By the time I figured that out I was hopelessly behind and had to drop Physics I.
I'm not sure if that really adds up to sixteen semesters of college math, even with all the fractions. But is does add up to lots of time sitting in really uncomfortable classroom seats. And a lot of the time was pretty painful for reasons other than just the seats. But I learned a lot about math and about how my brain works. And I still love math so it was OK. I'm not done yet either. Near the top of my "bucket list" is making it through the Calculus and Physics sequences. Math is fun and important and I'm not a quitter.
I'm not an engineer either but I like doing engineering activities. The better I can do the math the better I can do the engineering. Every painful step I've taken to improve my math skills has also helped my engineering skills. It has definitely been worth the effort. I don't consider myself a math failure, I've just needed a very intense personal training program to achieve my current level of success. Just like a pro athlete.
When I belonged to a gym the trainer had me to do "reps" on the weight machine to build up my strength. I did that diligently. Just like I do my Calculus "reps." Maybe I'll be a pro some day. I started college hoping to get an engineering degree but eventually had to settle for a bachelors degree in Information Systems and an MBA. I haven't given up hope of getting that engineering degree some day.
An amazing amount of technology has moved from research centers to common use over the last few decades. Forty-some years ago I was one of the first high school students anywhere to have used a computer. Today its hard to find a high school student who doesn't carry around a vastly more powerful and connected computer in their backpack. Only today they call it a phone. We are now at the point where robotics technology is is starting to transition from research to daily use. Today you can buy a car that parks itself. It won't be too many years before your car drives itself down the freeway. Would that be a car or a robot zooming down the freeway? Lots of electronic and robotics parts are powerful and robust enough that you can by a pile of parts, plug them together and do interesting things without knowing much about them. Its surprisingly easy. It's very cool. But its not engineering. Engineers don't just know how to do things. They know how they work. They know how to make them better. They know how to do the math. That's what I want to do when I grow up.
I don't consider my obsession with math training any different than other people's obsessions with lowering their golf handicaps or improving their scoring averages. As a society we pay a lot of attention to sports. We idolize the winners and watch replays of thier every move. Even the loosers get a lot of attention and hearing them saying "we will be back and do better" is recognized as a sign of honor. For some reason we don't look at education the same way. Loosing at school is called failure. Liking to practice math identifies you as an oddball while practicing tossing balls through a hoop makes you a hero. There is something wrong with that. Its part of the reason why fewer and fewer kids are going into the science and engineering.
I have to listen to stories about sports all the time. There is nothing wrong with that, but I wish the nightly news had a regular segment on math, science and engineering challenges to balance the sports reports. For some reason I don't understand the sportscasters declare certain basketball shots as being made "with authority." MIT runs a Calculus Integration Bee. Why don't they show some of those problems being solved "with authority"? Is math too boring for TV? They find lots of time for golf ... enough said ...
If you've read this far you probably are working through your own math, science and engineering challenges. The nightly news might not want to hear your story, but I'd love to hear it. Send an email to
email@example.com. And if your challenge involves building something, please consider getting some of your parts from Hobby Engineering.
Thanks for reading. -- Al
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| If you enjoy my blog posts and Hobby Engineering's products, please consider sharing that with your friends. I have included a couple of links here for the electronically connected but there is always regular email, the telephone and, oh-my-gosh, a real, live, human-to-human conversation. I'd really appreciate your help expanding my audience!|| || |
Wednesday, August 24, 2011, 10pm. Engineer or Tinkerer?
| I have been an electronics hobbyist since the early sixties and a computer programmer since the late sixties. I've been involved with what we now call PCs since the earliest days of IMSAI and Altair microcomputer kits. Back then you had to be pretty serious to to get involved. You didn't have to be an engineer, but it helped. At minimum you had to be committed to thinking and learning like an engineer and be willing to invest significant amounts of time and money to do anything. Boy, things have changed.|
Anyone who remembers the old days recognizes that computers have become amazingly powerful, cheap and easy to use. Heck, they have become amazingly more capable just in the last few years, let alone the last few decades. The vast majority of intense computer users today have just about no engineering focus.
I started Hobby Engineering to help people get involved in the electronics and robotics hobbies. As the name implies, I was mainly interested in engineering focused activities. The business got off to a pretty healthy start during the growth spurt of hobby robotics. Times change, technology changes and people's interests change. The business and market today are much different than they were nine years ago when I started. The number of people in electronics hobbies seems to be growing rapidly for the first time in decades, but what they are creating for the most part is not conventional technology. While there are still numbers of people involved to build their engineering expertise, lots of other are just involved to have fun and make things happen. They are looking for modules to snap together quickly rather than components to master. Engineering is a necessary part of the process, but many newcomers care primarily about the final product they are building rather than the technology they are using.
I was slow to recognize the shift but I think its finally sunk through my thick skull and that I still have some unique contributions to make to this new market. On the other hand, I started Hobby Engineering to encourage science learning and I am not sure that all this building helps that. There is some significant value in getting people to play with this technology, but tinkering with circuits is not the same as engineering or understanding them. I don't intend to loose sight of the engineering part of this business. Hopefully I can find a balance that keeps this a viable business, which requires a certain level of mass market success, while also encouraging people to dig into the hard engineering needed to advance the technology.
The first picture on the left is a motor control circuit for simple applications where you want things to go back and forth. It can be wired either for continuous back and forth operation or to require a button press to start each pass. It is a handy function for interactive dioramas or model railroading animations as well as simple industrial automation. I will soon have it on the site with a working scissor-lift model.
A lot of my business has to do with motors. At one level they seem so simple, but the farther in you dig, the more complex they can seem. I am working on a little motor tutorial, so I've been digging. The second picture on the left shows some of what I've dug up. The details of interest are the brushes. They vary significantly. The first has dainty little brushes. It might not be clear in this picture, but a good part of the apparent thickness is lubricant. The last looks pretty industrial. There is a difference! I'll post more later.
Please check back and please shop at Hobby Engineering.
Thanks for reading. -- Al
Thursday, July 21, 2011, 10pm. The Best Little Project Supply Store On The Net
| Visitors to the warehouse almost always say "Wow, you've got a lot of cool stuff!" Its true. And they ain't seen nothin' yet. I've got lots of new products in the pipeline.|
My goal is to have a comprehensive selection of parts for people who are building small projects for themselves. I can proudly say that I have sold lots of product to renown schools, to prestigious research labs, and to major corporations. I hope those orders keep coming because they really help pay the rent. My motivation to build the business, however, comes from helping individuals working on their own to build things that are important to them.
I am working night and day to provide you with an amazing selection of parts of the highest quality, that work together, and including the information, tools and support supplies needed to make them work. That's a big job, but I think that if you browse the site you will be impressed by the range of products I offer today and that you will be even more pleased with the improvements I will be making in the coming months.
Hobby Engineering is a small business. I don't have anywhere near the number of items in stock as the "big guys", but for many kinds of projects I have a better selection. I don't have their 500,000 items, but I just might have the 10 things you need that would otherwise have to come from multiple suppliers. That's not an accident. I try hard to complete the purchasing loop. I have screws for my stand-offs, wires for my switches and connectors for my sensors. I also stock slow moving, hard to find parts like M1.7 screws needed for some motors. I have even more of those essentials coming and improved site navigation so you can find them easily.
When shopping at Hobby Engineering please consider:
- We are small order specialists .. we gladly accept orders of every size with no minimums.
- We ship quickly and have very attractive shipping rates.
- Our small packages sizes and broad product selection lets you get everything you need for your project in one easy transaction with a minimum of waste.
- We are very choosy with our suppliers, so you can be confident of getting quality parts that just work. Manufacturing is a global enterprise these days, but we make an effort to work with US designers, manufacturers and distributors as much as possible.
The following pictures are links to pages you might not have explored recently.
Thanks for reading. -- Al
PS: The second "picture" is a test output from my new imaging system. Over the next year I hope to vastly increase the amount of information I provide on the site, and that silly drawing is the first output from one of the tools that will help me do it.
Thursday, June 30, 2011, 10pm. The Best Building In Bodie
| Bodie, California, is a ghost town and State Historic Park on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Its definitely out of the way, but its a fairly easy day trip from the gorgeous and much more popular tourist stops of Lake Tahoe to the north and Yosemite National Park to the west. Its also a relative "stone's throw" from Death Valley which has the lowest elevation and highest recorded temperatures of any spot in the continental USA and Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental USA.|
Bodie is a harsh, lonely spot that somehow seems to combine all the worst characteristics of the neighboring region in one awful place. Its as hot and dry in the summer as the nearby Mojave Desert and as cold and snowy in winter as the adjacent Sierra peaks. But that didn't stop it from being a boom town between 1877 and 1880 thanks to the discovery of gold. By some reports it grew to be the second or third largest city in California. The picture on the left is a shot I took of the best remaining building in Bodie.
Best? Nope, its not the neatest, straightest, best maintained or warmest building in Bodie. Its not even the messiest, crookedest, most disheveled or coldest building in Bodie. I just like it, so it must be the best. Am I right?
I've been working very hard to make Hobby Engineering "the best."
I've been thinking a lot about what I've been doing with Hobby Engineering and about the accumulation of "you really need to ..." comments I've received from customers. I've also looked at lots of other web sites and listened to lots of professional recommendations. In many cases what I think is best is not what seems most successful in the real world. And some of the things I find most irritating actually generate lots of revenue to support those practices, which is why they proliferate.
- I've added more new products in the last few months than I have in a long while.
- I've written more blog entries in a shorter period than ever.
- I've run more sales and sent more emails.
- I've gotten "this close" to finishing a new content system that will soon let me bring you more useful project information along with my products.
Hmm-m. I know what I like when it comes to derelict buildings, but I could use some help deciding what is best for Hobby Engineering.
I'd love to hear your ideas about anything related to the site and what products and services you would like Hobby Engineering to offer. Let me know what you have liked and disliked about Hobby Engineering in the past and what you think I should be doing in the future. I really need your help. Remember which building I picked as "Best in Bodie." You don't want me doing this on my own. The best way to reach me is email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks in advance for your help.
For those of you in the USA, have a great Independence Day holiday weekend. For those of you elsewhere, have a great weekend of any kind. If you are working on any projects this weekend, make them your best and please consider using some parts from Hobby Engineering.
Thanks for reading. -- Al
PS: The second picture is an information sign I found in a state park explaining the operation of the first electrical power source in Big Sur on the California central coast. It helps prove that you can learn about almost anything, anywhere. It doesn't have anything to do with this blog post, but I'm training myself to be much more of a picture person. If I followed my natural tendencies, there would be very few pictures on this site. Actually, there are very few pictures on this site compared to most and that is one of the problems I am working diligently to make better. I am slowly learning. This picture is practice.
PPS: My blogging and newsletter schedule has been extremely irregular and infrequent over the years. I've made a commitment to do a better job for both myself and for you. I am trying to make this a routine, weekly affair. This is newsletter number three in the series and so far the schedule has been much slower than weekly. I'm clearly not doing my best yet, but I'm committed to getting there. So far these have been stories about how Hobby Engineering got started and the thinking that has motivated me to stick with it. I hope some of you find it interesting and that the rest of you will indulge me. The next blog post will be about a technical topic -- promise!
Tuesday, June 7, 2011, 10pm. Making Things
| As often as I can I jump on my old bike at the end of he day and take a little ride on the Bay Trail. For most of the ride, my view to the west is commercial and high tech: research facilities of biotech giant Genentech. To the east is part of the San Francisco Bay shoreline, which probably looks much the same as it has for eons. My most frequent companions on the ride are birds. For several weeks in the Spring and Fall, the path is thick with geese taking a break from their global commute and showing no fear of an old man coasting through on his bike. I always blink first in this game of chicken ... or should I say "goose." The geese own the road.|
Despite how dominant these birds are, they don't leave much of a footprint behind them. One moment there is a traffic jam of birds and then with a few quick flaps and squawks they are gone. If you come along a few minutes later, you wouldn't know they had ever been there.
We humans are a totally different kind of bird. If we were all to fly away, the ruins of that technology park would remain for hundreds of years. The most recognizable landmarks on the water side of my ride are remnants of the old paint factory that occupied the site for a century before Genentech came along. We humans tend to leave long lasting artifacts everywhere we go. When we leave a beach, we leave a transformed landscape of sandcastles, fire pits, footprints and trash. Some of that will be gone with the next tide and some will last for years, but for some significant period of time there will be no question whether or not a flock of humans had visited.
Some people consider that a bad thing. I think its great. I think that the act of making things, of transforming our environment, is a critical part of what makes us human. Set people to work making things and and you also create joy from the pride of accomplishment. Even under the harshest work conditions, people tend to take pride in their accomplishments. Even when they aren't fairly treated or compensated. They may hate the boss, but they still take pride in what they make. To create is human.
Clearly some of that making has come with a significant cost in environmental and human damage, but that's a problem of not taking proper care, not of the making itself. It seems that many of the people who most hate the damage have no appreciation for the making. They were happy to see the factories move "offshore" because it got rid of the mess and they thought that loosing the factory was a small price to pay. They had better things to do.
I think that was extremely wrong headed. Firstly, in general we didn't clean up the mess, we just moved it and often made it worse. Secondly, and most importantly, I think that loosing the ability to make our own things was a major loss. The politicians are starting to recognize this is a practical problem both economically and strategically. Its making this recession hard to cure and makes our economy and defense dependent on off-shoring hosts who don't always seem as much our allies as we'd hoped. But I don't think even that is the biggest problem. We've lost the pride that comes from making things. I think that it has left us feeling out of control and empty. Most of us have found "other things to do" in this service economy. But I don't think they are always better things to do, even when they are easier, cleaner and better paying. I think this is a major contributor to many of the social ills that seem pervasive today. People don't behave well or even take proper care of themselves if they don't take pride in what they do.
I'm not a social scientist and I don't have proof, but I think that most of us recognize this as true. Most of us take great pleasure in our own creative efforts. People herded into camps after disasters tend to get lethargic. People set to work rebuilding seem to do much better. Problems don't go away overnight, its not a fairy tale. The workers will grouse. They will get hurt. They will make mistakes. But they'll get it done the best way they can, feel much better about the situation and be better prepared for the next project. Its often hard to put people to work these days because we've built ourselves into a box where we worry about lawyers, regulations, corporate rights, union rights, etc and don't properly value the human right to actually do something productive. Even politicians have begun to talk about the need to focus more on making things for ourselves, but we don't have a good way talk about the risks or what exactly is important. Making things is often dangerous and messy, so we do need rules to manage it. But we need to remember that the rules are there so the making is better, not as an end in themselves. And sometimes we need to be willing to live with a certain level of risk. Its sometimes unavoidable and worth taking.
Somehow we seem to pay lots of attention to the risks of making things, but not enough to the more subtle, but potentially more significant problems resulting from not making things. When the economic recovery act was proposed a couple of years ago, I thought it could be a good idea. I was thinking about all the landmarks I see in public places with "WPA" engraved in the cornerstones. About the hundred of rural bridges and tunnels I've driven on with construction dates in the 1930s. I was also thinking of the many people put to work all over the country, doing things they were desperately unprepared to do but desperately ready to learn. For some reason we can't mobilize people that way today. So instead we just mobilized the same old bureaucrats to issue the same old contracts to the same old contractors who did the work with the same old equipment and subcontractors in the same old way. We caught up on some deferred maintenance, but hardly anything new was made and hardly anyone learned a new trade. No wonder it didn't seem to help. Potholes need to be fixed, but I think recovery requires building new things and learning new skills. We used to understand that as a people, but we have somehow forgotten.
So go make something, it will make you feel better. Please clean up after yourself. And please consider using some parts form Hobby Engineering.
Thanks for reading. -- Al
PS: The fist picture is my bike leaning against a wall remnant from the paint factory, with the beautiful San Francisco Bay in the background. The second picture is a stock photo of the most ornate sandcastle I could find. It does lack a microcontroller operated draw bridge and LED lighting so its not perfect. But its really the making of it that matters.
PPS: My blogging and newsletter schedule has been extremely irregular and infrequent over the years. I've made a commitment to myself to do a better job for both myself and for you. I am going to do my best to make this a routine, weekly affair. This is week two. Through the end of June I will be continuing the story of how Hobby Engineering got started and grew to this point in its history. Including the thinking that's motivated me to stick with it. I hope some of you find it interesting and that the rest of you will indulge me. After that I plan to begin a rotating schedule of topics including my musings and actual technical and product subjects -- what a concept!
Thursday, May 26, 2011, 1pm. A Few Loose Screws.
| No, the title doesn't describe my mental state ... its how Hobby Engineering got started.|
Just about a dozen years ago I had my son help me with a network installation project. It was a big project for my small consulting business and pretty sophisticated for its time: file servers, routers, e-mail, always-on web access and semi-custom application software. Most of us have that stuff in our pockets today, but it was bleeding-edge technology at that time. Ben helped with it all: assembling computers, installing software, and helping test every picky detail for my extremely picky customer. He did a great job. Better in some ways than my peers who I usually called in for this kind of assistance. If my memory is right, this was the summer between his sixth and seventh grades of school.
Some time later one of the hard drives failed. When I pulled the machine out I discovered that Ben had "screwed" the hard drives in place with 4-40 thread screws. I put the word "screwed" in quotes because hard drives have 6-32 mounting threads. The drives were merely pinned in place, the screws never tightened up. That had nothing to do with the failure, most of my personal hard drives in that era weren't screwed in at all. Why bother with screws when I was constantly fiddling with the hardware? The mismatched screws weren't a real problem, but they did get me thinking about how little building he had done and how different that was from my life. I didn't learn proper screw terminology until I was in my twenties, but by fifth grade I had my own tools and and intimate knowledge of how things went together. I may not have known what the numbers meant, but I would never have left an incorrect screw in place because it wouldn't have felt right. How did Ben reach the ripe old age of eleven without knowing that feeling?
The more I thought about the situation, the bigger the problem seemed. As little building as Ben had done, it was more than his friends had done. And nobody seemed to miss it. I grew up in San Francisco, which is hardly the rust belt, but production was all around me. My father owned a clothing factory. There were railroad yards downtown. When we drove to the airport we passed through South San Francisco which proudly proclaimed itself to be "The Industrial City" and had the facilities to back up that statement. Even the cartoons of the my day frequently had industrial settings. Things had definitely changed, and it seemed that nobody, including me, had noticed.
We had become a consumer society, but didn't seem to be paying much attention to how those goods we consumed were made.
Tune in next week for more ...
Thanks for reading. -- Al
PS: That's a picture of Ben fearlessly peeking out and over the observation deck at the top of the Empire State Building that same summer he helped me with the network project.
PPS: My blogging and newsletter schedule has been extremely irregular and infrequent over the years. I've made a commitment to myself to do a better job for both myself and for you. I am going to do my best to make this a routine, weekly affair. Through the end of June I will be continuing the story of how Hobby Engineering got started and grew to this point in its history. I hope some of you find it interesting and that the rest of you will indulge me. After that I plan to begin a rotating schedule of topics including my musings and actual technical and product subjects -- what a concept!
PPPS: I love writing. But I find it slow and difficult. Part of the exercise is to force myself to be more professional and fast. The next few entries may be a bit disjointed as I adjust to writing with a schedule.
Friday, April 1, 2011, 1am. I Never Stop Learning.
| That probably has something to do with being an idiot.|
When I started Hobby Engineering I knew I had a lot to learn, but I didn't think it would be that big a deal. After over eight years of learning more than I could have imagined, I realize that I'm still just scratching the surface of what I'd like to know.
Then there are the things I've had to learn but would rather not. Like about business taxes and permits, for instance. Or forklifts. Thanks to the Bay Area's insane property values, if you have a lot of stuff you have to stack it high to save space. I definitely have a lot of stuff. Did I mention that this was the San Francisco Bay Area, with two major fault lines about five miles and twenty miles from the warehouse? Tall shelves require building permits and engineering analysis. I realized that made perfect sense the moment they told me about it. Duh! Too bad it didn't come up before I paid for the shelves. But I digress ...
When you have tall pallet racks, you need a forklift to lift those pallets high in the air. Who would have guessed that selling tiny electronic parts would require me to become a forklift driver and mechanic. Yet another surprise in the life of an entrepreneur. The other day a truck pulled up with two pallets of boxes. No big deal, its pretty routine now. I drove down the driveway and just as I reached the street the motor stalled. Nada. Nothing. Shoot! After getting my neighbor's forklift to unload I lifted the hood.
There's not much to check under the hood of an electric forklift. Mainly it just one huge, expensive battery. I popped off one of the inspection caps and saw shiny metal plates. Hmm. When was the last time I checked the fluid? Too long. Dummy!
No lesson learned here. I knew what to check and when to check it. I just didn't do it. I let myself to get so busy that I forgot the basics. No lesson learned here. I knew that I had that tendency and that I had to fight it. I just didn't do it. It seems that there are some lessons that are so important that you have to keep learning them over and over again. At least I do. The hard way. Dummy!
As I've mentioned before, a lot of my energy these last few years has been focused on background development. I'm finally making the transition from focusing inward on those projects to using the results to reach out to customers. Just in time. Hobby Engineering has gotten a bit stale. But things they are a changing. I am madly upgrading operations and the web site. I've added a lot of new products and have many more to come. I'm steadily adding pictures and expanding product descriptions. I've started sending emails on a regular basis. After building myself some esoteric tools, I'm getting back to the basics. its about time. I've let things look the same for too long. Dummy! I hope you find the changes helpful.
Yes, things are changing. You might notice that these last two blog posts are the first with graphics. And yes, the picture to the left is a joke. Honest. April First. Get it? Well ... at least I wore my safety gear ... and got out the big roll of duct tape ... my shop teacher would be so embarrassed ...
Thanks for reading. -- Al
Monday, November 22, 2010, 9pm. Homework as hard as a good soccer practice.
| When parents go looking for a sports team for their kid they usually want a pretty aggressive coach. Not crazy aggressive, but someone who is willing to push their kids hard. A coach who wants to win. A coach who's practices are as long as he can get away with and who sends the kids home tired, bruised and occasionally injured. A coach who won't tolerate lack of focus and with little sympathy for errors. Why don't we look for science and math teachers like that?|
Teachers are supposed to be kind, gentle and forgiving. Homework is supposed to be modest. Nobody is supposed to get bruised mentally or physically. A teacher as aggressive as a middling coach would get drummed out of school as unprofessional. I think we need to rethink that a bit.
Hobby Engineering exists because I want to help people, especially kids, get deeply involved in science, engineering and the arts. Not just observing and appreciating but working their hands and minds as hard as they can. Like they do in sports.
"No pain, no gain" is as applicable to science and the arts as to sports.
- Study till your brain hurts.
- Do as many "reps" with your tools as it takes to become a craftsman.
Challenge yourself or someone you love to learn how to make something you never thought you could.
I'll be here to help. -- Al
| Cartoon courtesy of Saturday Morning Comics (http://www.smbc-comics.com). Click for more laughs.|
Thursday, November 11, 2010, 9pm. My Left Ear
It is generally recognized that creative people seem to be at least a little bit crazy.
I consider my ongoing software project to be a great (as in big) creative work. I have been creating a unique software environment that has required me to develop my own vocabulary for describing systems and my own tools for developing them. A conventional programmer might well think that I sound like a delusional street person spouting random words that don't fit together. Since I am making this up as I go, I have no honest idea of what it will finally be or when it will be done. Its lonely work, its hard to explain to anyone else because "it" isn't really anything yet. How do you explain that? Michaelangelo said that his sculptures were naturally in the stone. His job was to find them and let them out. I can relate to that. I wonder if he was as surprised by what he found as I often am?
Some days I feel a little crazy. On late nights when the thinking is particularly hard, I feel particularly crazy. I often wonder if its the craziness that leads to creativity or if the creative process is what makes you crazy. I could imagine either or both being true.
A little crazy seems OK. It beats reading the news. You should try it. Thanks for reading. Take care. -- Al
Saturday, November 6, 2010, 9am. 'This is like deja vu all over again.' -- Yogi Berra
Making things is hard. Even the most automated and regulated assembly lines include a quality assurance process to cull defects. No matter how effective the maintenance department, from time to time the assembly lines shuts down unexpectedly. Add the word "custom" to the production and hardly anybody expects the product to arrive on time or under budget.
Software development has got to be the worst kind of making. Software products are almost always horrendously late, over budget and seriously lacking in features and reliability. I should know. I am a software guy. I learned my first programming language around 1970 and I haven't gone many days since then without writing some kind of code in more programming languages and on more architectures than anyone I know. That has got to define me as some serious kind of crazy. But I have managed to solve some interesting puzzles from time to time.
One of the more interesting characteristics of software development is that it can be very difficult to gauge progress. Software projects seem to quickly achieve a level of "really good, almost done" and then stay there almost indefinitely no matter how much additional effort is expended. At some point the pointy headed manager says "time to ship" and you get to use that "really good, almost done" software that could use an almost infinite amount of additional effort to be really good and really complete. If you look at mountains of code it doesn't look like much. Its pretty boring really. But creating it can be a huge mental challenge. Its hard. Its so hard, in fact, that I think you have to be irrationally optimistic to stick with it for very long. Rational people quickly realize there are far more productive ways to spend their time. Those of us who stay in the field spend a ridiculous amount of energy to scratch out a few meager lines of code. Instead of realistically kicking ourselves for wasting so much energy we software folk smile, think "really good, almost done" and resume staring at that screen of dense code.
I think the pot is finally getting ready to boil here at Hobby Engineering. I have been working on a number of interesting projects. They are all "really good, almost done" and I think the pointy headed manager in me is just about ready to kick some of them out on the street for people to see.
Check back soon. Thanks for reading. -- Al
Sunday, November 29, 2009, 10am. Cats, Sawhorses and Experimental Physics
When our cat jumps on the dining room table our fist impulse is to scan for valuables lying along the edge of the table. Tippie's favorite occupation is to use her paw to bat whatever she finds off the table and then watch it fall. If it bounces in an interesting way she jumps down and starts to play. I think that makes her an experimental physicist. But not a toolmaker.
Under the mountains along the Swiss-France border sits the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC is built in a ring-shaped tunnel with a diameter of nearly 5.5 miles. The projects costs will total between five and six billion dollars by the time it is operational. The LHC will accelerate protons in opposite directions on adjacent tracks to an energy level of 7 TeV (teraelectronvolt: a million, million electronvolts). When the protons are up to speed they will close a switch to cause a 14 TeV head-on collision. They will be watching computer screens to see if they bounce in an interesting way. Like Tippie, the scientists and engineers working on the LHC are experimental physicists. But they are serious toolmakers.
It is a tradition in the construction trade that one of the first tasks assigned to a new carpenter is to build a sawhorse to use in his work. When my son started engineering college, one of his first projects was to learn his way around the machine shop by making his own hammer and screwdriver. I'm a software guy, and for the last few years I have been spending a lot of my time building tools. Compulsively, some might say. Compulsively enough that the Hobby Engineering web site has been getting kind of stale while I worked on tools that let me do updates the way I want to do them. At last count, the code base was over 40K lines of hand written Python source plus another 40K lines generated by the tools. I think that's a fairly serious amount of toolmaking.
One of the goals of the LHC is to dislodge, and therefore prove the existence of, the Higgs boson. If that happens, the Higgs boson will be visible for approximately 1/1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000th of a second before being re-absorbed into normal matter. Hopefully the output of my tools will last a bit longer. I am just barely starting to get the benefit of my new tools, most of which so far support how I work, not how the site looks or how I communicate with you. But it seems pretty cool to me. By early next year there should be lots of improvements visible to you and hopefully I will finally have the tools I need to make it better and better going forward. My only disappointment is that unlike the LHC guys, I don't see a Nobel Prize in my future. Oh well ...
This has been a challenging year for most of us. While business could always be better, Hobby Engineering is staying afloat, I am doing interesting work and I have the opportunity to interact with interesting customers. I wish everyone was doing as well. Thank you for your support. I wouldn't be able to do this without you, my customers.
I hope you all have a joyous holiday season and find the time and energy to create some tools of your own. -- Al
Sunday, May 2, 2009, 11am. More Than Prices Are Dropping
There is a pretty well known retail chain that often runs adds touting its falling prices. Its a compelling argument for shopping at that chain. We all have to watch our budgets -- prices really are important. Prices are also easy to compare and you immediately know what kind of deal you are getting. Unfortunately most of us have had the disappointment of paying extra for quality, service or prestige that never materialized. You never have that kind of disappointment when buying purely on price. Cheap is cheap. There is a lot to be said for immediacy and simplicity.
Before starting Hobby Engineering I was a computer and network consultant for small businesses. One of my clients was this really clever guy who started a company making nicely designed consumer products. He never owned a factory. He never had more than about six employees and that included himself, his wife, his mom and his dad. But when I first met him all his products were produced in the San Francisco Bay Area. He made a pretty good living for himself and a reasonable number of people in the neighborhood made a pretty good living producing, packaging and shipping his products.
Then he was told that he needed to start dropping his prices if he wanted to stay featured in that big chain. His first drop was accomplished by replacing metal parts with plastic. Those products weren't quite as elegant as his originals, but they were actually a better value for consumers. The lower cost materials lasted as long as the customers wanted the product. Around the Bay Area some metal workers lost their jobs at one factory, but others were hired at the plastic factory down the road. Overall you might call it a win-win.
Then he got another call. Time for prices to drop again. This time the retailer said that they had staff in China and could help source parts there. Costs went down again. By a lot. Chinese workers get paid pennies per hour instead of dollars. Chinese factories are much more efficient because they aren't burdened by our complex labor laws, pollution laws and tax laws. This time when the plastic workers lost their jobs in the Bay Area the only local up-tick was a few minutes of work at the docks taking containers of parts off ships. Consumers got the same nice product for less. My client and the retailer actually made more money for themselves because costs went down further than prices. The economy grew overall, there was more product and money moving around. But most of that money was going to fewer people and the employees who were laid off at the plastic plant faced poor prospects of finding new, good paying jobs down the road.
After the next call to drop prices the entire production operation moved to China. Completely packaged products moved directly into the US sales channel. My client and the retailer were doing really well for themselves because costs were reduced even faster than prices. Consumers got the same nice product for less. And the economy was booming with more product and money moving around. But most of that money was going to fewer and fewer people and there were hardly any factory jobs left in the Bay Area. Those workers kept on consuming by mortgaging their past and future and by everyone pretending real estate prices only moved up. Unfortunately you can only stay busy for a certain amount of time if the your only job is arranging deck chairs on a sinking ship. Somebody needs to be doing real work to keep the ship afloat. The problem became obvious to almost everyone during the second half of 2008 but it had been developing for decades.
There are days when I ask myself if I'm becoming a socialist in my old age. I don't think so, but maybe a Taoist. There is a lot to be said for the balance of the Yin and Yang. I think we have lost a lot of our balance here in the USA. Too much respect is given to big and easy and not enough to fair and challenging.
A lot has to do with how discussions get truncated. If it doesn't fit in a 15 second sound bite or 140 character Twit it doesn't get into the general conversation. The thorniest issues get reduced to "pro-choice vs. pro-life" or "big-business vs. big-labor". You can't have a real discussion at that level of abstraction. Those slogans aren't even complete thoughts, let alone actual choices. Its just a game to keep us commoners distracted. The only way to inject nuance or real influence into the conversation is to buy your way into the back rooms of Washington. While there are lots of specific differences between Republicans and Democrats, sorry Ralph they are not the same, both parties have bought into the same big and easy system. Us little guys don't get to play the real game.
I have talked to a lot of people about this situation. While not everyone agrees with every point of mine, not one person has said that I'm completely off base, they just see a need to frame it a bit differently. And almost all have reasons why they think a desire for change is hopeless, why they have to play along with the current game.
Call me a Pollyanna. I don't think its hopeless. Just complex and maybe a little scary.
First, stop listening to the slogans. We have to "save Wall Street in order to help Main Street". At this end of Main Street I see Wall Street getting bailed out with big credit lines, 0% interest and tax credits while my credit lines get cut, my interest rates skyrocket and my taxes go up. Whoops, too many words. Ignore the results. We have to "save GM and Chrysler to save the American Auto Industry and get fuel efficient cars." I see Ford carrying on without government aid because it started living in crisis mode years ago while the other two companies and their unions played financial and political games. If I want a quality, fuel efficient American-made car I can get one from Toyota or Honda. Sure the name plate isn't an American icon and many parts are imported but the Asian manufacturers have been increasing their investment here while US car makers have been reducing theirs. Whoops, no slogan, bury that thought.
Ask questions. Where is this made? Under what environmental and work conditions? Don't accept easy answers. Reward people and companies who are trying to do things the fairest way. Sure people deserve rewards for their ingenuity and investment but there needs to be some proportionality. Don't expect quick solutions. Don't even want quick solutions, they are probably part of a new game with same puppet masters.
In these essays I usually try to tell a little story and then tie that back into what is happening here at Hobby Engineering. That's not working this time. I'm tempted to just delete this thing because its too political and too controversial. Its too long and its too incomplete. I'm not sure if Hobby Engineering is part of the problem or part of the solution. Maybe that's the point. I think many of us have been coasting along for the last few decades taking advantage of a system that was significantly flawed. Following the big and easy. I don't know the solution, but I am pretty darn sure its not big and easy. I think its smaller and more complex. I think we all need to work harder and especially smarter. Big mainly helps a few big guys in the long haul. Easy mainly means that we have our eyes closed, which coincidentally also mainly helps a few big guys.
I'm going back to work. I hope you do too. -- Al
Thursday, April 2, 2009, 3am. The Wisdom of the VCs
No, the headline is not a late April Fools Day joke.
Back around the year 2000 I was recruited to be the developer for what turned out to be a dot-bomb start-up. The two finance guys managed to snag $300K of angel financing and I set about to single-handedly build the prototype of a system intended to beat the telephone monopolies at their own game. Yeah. It was a fool's errand. But that's not my point.
The day after we signed our $300K deal we read an article about a company at the other end of Silicon Valley getting $50M in venture capital financing for a similar product. The finance guys were totally bummed, their bragging rights didn't last 24 hours. I was bummed and confused. I was bummed because those guys had the several million dollars that I thought would be needed to develop a trial system and bring a few customers online. They had the resources to build the real system. I only had the resources to build a minimal prototype that would hopefully get us the next round of financing. I was also confused because while I could see the need for a $5 million investment I couldn't understand why the the VCs dropped ten times that amount on a venture with no product, no staff and, as it turned out, no clue.
During the course of the next 18 months several more startups got big dollar VC funding for similar projects and our main finance guy threw in the towel. Even at the height of the dot-com boom it would be almost impossible to get funding as the fourth or fifth look-alike venture until the concept was validated.
Not long after that the dot-com boom turned into the dot-bomb bust and every one of these companies evaporated without ever getting a product to market. From what I could tell, my one-horse development effort produced the most functional prototype of the bunch.
The "wisdom" of the VCs? They wasted several hundred million dollars on an idea that I only wasted a few hundred thousand on. Plus I got more significant results. Shouldn't I be calling myself the wise one? Since it didn't work out for anyone I might be able to justify that. On the other hand, just suppose that the idea was a little bit easier to turn into a product and a little bit easier to sell. If a tidal wave of customers hit those other guys they would have had an established infrastructure of office space, support staff, server farms, accounting systems, etc. ready to begin handling the load. If that wave hit us we would have had to put the customers on hold for months as we scrambled to establish our infrastructure. In all probability someone else would have siphoned off the business while we played catch-up.
The wisdom of the VCs doesn't come from being able to pick great business ideas. From what I have seen they aren't any more prescient than the average man or woman on the street. Maybe less. What they do understand is how hard it is to find good ideas, to turn those ideas into products and to turn those products into successful companies. Success requires not just that golden idea but a lot of gritty work in development, marketing, staffing, accounting and hundreds of other areas. While no amount of infrastructure will turn a bad idea into a success, failures in any part of the infrastructure can turn a great idea into a failure. To make it even harder, not just any infrastructure will do. It has to be matched precisely to the the product, the market and everyone involved in the product's success. There is no cookie-cutter formula for success.
The wisdom of the VCs is recognition that there is no wisdom involved. If they want to start a successful company they start a few hundred and recognize that with hard work and large investments one of those is likely to be a success. They also recognize that even the successful companies will make mistakes along the way and the key to success is not perfection but the willingness to recognize problems as they develop and to quickly act to fix those problems before they turn into disasters. Fixing problems is expensive. Fixing problems quickly is even more expensive. While my estimate of starting the communications company with $5M was a reasonable programmer's estimate, it naively assumed a high level of efficiency and perfection. The wisdom of the VCs was to add $45M or so to take care of all the things needed to make that $5M core effort successful.
For a significant period of time Hobby Engineering was blessed with regular month-to-month growth of 20%. That was great for a while but I was soon inundated. I gave it everything I had, working 80 hour weeks, adding staff, increasing inventory and filling up credit cards as fast as the banks would issue them. It took me too long to figure out I was working hard but dumb and that I didn't have the organization or resources to grow so quickly. Once I realized I was in trouble it took a lot of time and effort to scale back without destroying the business. While I didn't have big bucks to throw at the problem, I did have had the luxury of a loyal customer base that allowed me to scale back while still getting enough sales to survive while I worked on a myriad of projects.
Operations have been improving day by day. While still not perfect, I now feel confident that I am providing better service than I typically get from businesses where I am the consumer. I have been diligently working to develop new products, services and infrastructure that will help me turn Hobby Engineering into a really exciting business with the infrastructure required to do a great job while growing.
Hobby Engineering was started to help people learn while making things with their own hands. I hope that you consider me at least a little successful helping you do that. It turns out that I may have been the one with the most to learn and the most to build. I still have a lot of work ahead of me, but some of my zillion active projects are on the verge of implementation and during the next few months will be making Hobby Engineering a more valuable resource for you my loyal customers.
Stay tuned for updates! Thanks for your patience and support. -- Al
Wednesday, September 3, 2008, 7am. That Was Interesting!
I officially declare the move completed. Yea!
That does not mean that that the new warehouse is fully organized the way I want it. That's not remotely the case. It mainly means that place is organized enough that I can work reasonably efficiently and that the place is getting better day by day. For much of the last few months it seemed that I was creating two new problems for each one I fixed. Some of the problems seemed intractable. Honestly, I was getting pretty depressed about my ability to ever get back to normal operations.
In late July I realized I was getting into serious trouble so I did the only thing I had the energy to do. I took a couple of days off to have some fun and get some sleep. Then I started to pick focus days where I worked on one serious problem until it was fixed well enough to live with for a while, ignoring the crises that inevitably arose during that process. Between focus days I worked on little problems but also made sure that I rested up and took some mental health time, ignoring the crises that inevitably arose during that process. Finally, I worked solidly Friday through Monday of the Labor Day weekend to cleanup lots of middling size problems since I had most of the most serious issues reasonably under control. I went home Monday night realizing that I had passed the point of crisis. I wasn't "done" but I was clearly at the point where things would be getting better every day instead of getting worse.
I worked at Wells Fargo Bank for seven years. For much of that time I worked in check processing first as a clerk and later as a programmer. There were strict daily deadlines for posting customer records and exchanging checks with other banks. Meeting those deadlines was a critical objective for banking regulators as well as a source of professional pride within the department. One of the critical deadlines was a physical exchange of checks in the clearing room of the Federal Reserve Bank. There was a one dollar fine if all your checks weren't distributed before the 8:00 AM bell. Being responsible for having to pay that dollar could ruin your career and make you a topic of conversation in the operations departments of every bank in the Federal Reserve district. As far as I could tell, Wells Fargo had the best run bank operations department in the state and during my time there we only missed our deadlines one time. One day we implemented a large number of interdependent changes that increased the mainframe utilization more than anticipated. At the peak of our work shift the mainframe stopped processing. Actually it didn't stop. It was working at 100% utilization but nothing was coming out. The scheduler was thrashing.
In many ways the heart of a computer operating system is the scheduler. While most computers seem to do lots of things at once in human time, most computer subsystems do one sequential operation at a time. The scheduler keeps the list of tasks that needs to be accomplished and tries to use all the computer subsystems as efficiently as possible while making balanced progress on all the running programs. Since the scheduler can run thousands or millions of tasks in the blink of an eye, computers seems to do many things at once. You call that multi-tasking. Everybody does it now but when I was at Wells Fargo it was a new term invented for computer processing. That night the scheduler wasn't working very well. Because of all the changes, the scheduler had a very long task list. Each time one task finished, it reviewed the list to figure out what to do next. Unfortunately it was taking far longer to review the long to-do list than to do the actual productive work. As the backlog lengthened, the problem got worse and worse. Once we recognized the problem the solution was simple. Stop piling on work. Cancel non-critical activity. Work on one thing at a time. Ignore the crises that inevitably arose during this process.
My shift which normally ended at midnight continued until noon he next day but we got the work done. The next day work was scheduled very carefully so we met our deadlines but worked late to finish the non-critical jobs. After a few weeks some underlying inefficiencies were corrected and the operations department was performing better than ever.
The last two months -- in some ways the last year or so -- has been one nightmarishly long repetition of that night. Too many changes leading to thrashing. The initial attempts to work harder and faster just making the problem worse. Finally taking a breather to get focused and then dealing with one problem at a time with the highest possible degree of focus.
I think I'm back at the point of having the warehouse working well enough to be past the crisis and able to resume incremental improvements so I will be performing better than ever within a few weeks. I still have a lot to do, but I'm back to being confident that I can do it. Thanks for your patience. Let me know if you think I owe you a dollar.
Thanks for reading and thanks for your support. Please send in your orders. I think I am ready to handle them properly and after all this disruption I really need the business. -- Al
Tuesday, July 22, 2008, 7am. The Move
For the first seven months of Hobby Engineering's existence the warehouse was a small collection of boxes stacked in a corner of my garage. I then moved into a 700 square-foot office. That move was accomplished in two trips of the family mini-van: one for the inventory and one for my worktables and computer. With almost 100 linear feet of wall, I laid out the inventory on the floor around the room so I could keep things organized by topic and reach any product without moving something else out of the way. What an improvement!
Over the next few years I began accumulating shelves from the hardware store to make better use of the floor space and eventually expanded into the office next door and a garage-sized locker at the local self storage warehouse. When all that space was over-filled with over-filled shelves it was time for the next move. Hobby Engineering's new home was 2000 square-feet of the funkiest warehouse space on earth plus a 700 square-foot retail store on the other side of the building. That moved involved about 30 trips in the family van. It could have been fewer, but we managed to slip most of the shelves into the van without taking them apart. The ten minute drive was much easier and faster than the work of breaking down and reassembling the shelves. After it was all unloaded only a small corner of the warehouse was filled. I figured that I was set for life.
Over the next few years the inventory kept growing and I kept buying larger and larger shelves from the hardware store. Then came the first segment of 10-foot tall bulk shelves and a growing collection of ladders to reach the top. Then my office moved into a separate space to make room for more shelves. Then the store was closed to make room for more shelves. Then the auto repair place next door closed and one of their repair bays become home to even more Hobby Engineering shelves. Time to move again!
Hobby Engineering's latest home is nearly 5000 square-feet of real warehouse. My collection of bulk racks are in two neat rows instead of broken-up to fit around the obstructions in the old space. Parallel to them is my first set of 12-foot tall pallet racks. To service them I bought a wreck of a forklift that can lift two or three pallets between battery charges. This move also took about 30 trips in my family van ... plus I can't remember how many trips in a rented 16-foot lift-gate truck. To make the move more manageable, a lot of the inventory was loaded onto about 43 pallets. But there was lots of other material loaded one shelf or box at a time.
I had this plan (or maybe a fantasy) that everything would go almost directly to its new location. First I had to work around the prior tenants remaining stuff for part of the move. Then I had to deal with the reality that the great, smart help I got from Craigslist.org had no idea what any of this stuff was or what I was trying to accomplish. They were just there to move someone else's stuff. My plan was too vague to work in the real world. After everything was dropped off I spent several days solving a puzzle box made of 500-pound pallets. First find the most important pallet, then find needed shelves and equipment, then make room to set it up. When that was done I had one set of shelves ready to go, and the next even more buried than before. Can you spell "gridlock"?
After 10 days of being completely closed I manged to ship exactly two packages on July 21. Most things are still on pallets but the space is opened up enough that I am mainly putting things away rather than just moving them around. The place is a mess. A lot of stuff will have to be moved again once I have the floor cleared of pallets. But I can already see that the new space is going to be great once the dust settles.
I'm painfully tired. I'm also pretty happy that I did this.
- Inventory is all in one space and organized -- no more running between buildings and up and down stairs with a ring of keys.
- A logical arrangement of workstations to match the work-flow and minimize wasted steps and time.
- Equipment to do the heaviest lifting and spare my aging back.
- Room to use all my tools without moving things around.
- A graphics studio so I can finally populate the web site with pictures.
It will take until the end of the month before things are reasonably settled. I have lots of stuff to put away at the new warehouse and lots to clean-up at the old. I also need to get some rest.
Thanks for your patience.
Thanks for reading. -- Al
Monday, March 3, 2008, 7am. The Seven Year Itch
Hobby Engineering turned 5 on December 17, 2007. I personally turned exactly twice that on February 10, 2008. Add that up and you get 555 years. I'm tired.
Survival rates for business and marriages share some interesting common trends. A huge number fail in the first year. That's fairly easy to understand. Most of these early failures are the result of fundamentally bad ideas and/or extreme lack of preparation. More interesting to me at this moment is that there is another jump in failures in the fifth to seventh anniversary time frame. My current thinking is that these failures happen to business (or marriages) that were only marginally successful at the start and never improved. They survived because the participants refused to give up and struggled through the turmoil, suffering whatever was necessary to continue. At some point they start to think "This isn't getting better. I'm tired. I give up." Actually, I think most business and marriages get really close to this point of failure, the difference being that some throw in the towel and others buckle down and do whatever is needed to actually fix the fundamental problems. The process of fixing the problems can be even more grueling than suffering through failure.
So you are out in the ocean in a small boat. You realize that the hull has a leak so you head below with a patching kit and bilge bucket. You realize that the water is too deep to install the patch. You start bailing but it doesn't help. You continue bailing but even faster. After a while you realize that you can't possibly bail any faster but try anyway. You eventually freeze after admitting to yourself that the boat will sink during the time it takes to patch the leak ... assuming that you could install the patch with all that water in the boat. That "deer in the headlights" look is fascinating but doesn't really help.
What do you do?
Try writing a blog entry using mixed-metaphors?
The first five years of Hobby Engineering's history have been interesting. I had a clear reason for starting the web site but only the vaguest vision of what kind of business it would be or what resources it would take to be successful. The first three years were really exciting. Try this. Try that. See what happens. Enough things worked that the business grew like crazy. Since then the business has stalled. The problem hasn't been that it was a bad idea. I've got lots of customers and most really like Hobby Engineering. The problem is that the business didn't have a solid foundation that could support its success. I can still find ways to increase sales for a while but I always have to slow down again due to service problems because I can't properly handle the growth. For a while I kept hiring more staff and renting more space. That helped some but not as much as it should have. I was still trying to build on a weak foundation and never had enough time to fix that because I was too busy dealing with all those customers and employees who were constantly clamoring for my attention.
So now I have that deer in the headlight look while bailing as fast as I can while desperately wanting to scratch that seven year itch while sinking into depression realizing that any time I take to solve the fundamental problems will result in the water level rising even higher.
How's that for mixed-metaphors ... and run-ons!
The good news is that while I haven't been a brilliantly fast learner, I do think that I have finally figured out what to do and how to do it. If I was starting from scratch with a full savings account and no ongoing business commitments I know just what I would do. It would be cool from the start. Instead, I have to crawl my way through a complicated path, moving toward my ultimate goal while taking care of existing obligations to current customers, landlords, banks, etc. It won't be so cool for a while, but it will get there eventually.
Basically, I need to keep the business going well enough to pay the rent, etc. while slowing things down enough that I can make some progress clearing my backlog of commitments and improving my business foundation.
Effective today, this is what I am doing:
The vast majority of Hobby Engineering customers probably aren't aware that there have been any problems at all. On the order of 95% of orders have been properly processed according to my published processing schedule. On the other hand, I feel as if I've been treading water (yet another metaphor) for the last year or two. The delays for those unlucky 5% of customers have been getting longer and longer and business fundamentals have been slipping. At one time nearly all my customers, vendors and other associates felt that I did nearly everything well, now more and more are wondering what's wrong with Hobby Engineering. I can't live like that.
- The brick and mortar retail store is closed.
I firmly believe that the world needs retail stores selling the kinds of items I sell and I think that I now have a pretty good vision of what it will take to make a retail store work. Unfortunately it won't work within my current resources. I hope to begin restarting the retail business later this year.
- I won't be answering the telephone for the next month or two.
Telephone support is too disruptive and too much of a time killer. I need to focus on building a solid foundation for the future business. Lack of phone support will loose some sales. That is a painful result for a merchant like me but I do need to slow the business down a bit. I'm hoping that enough customers will support me with Internet only ordering and communications to give me time to make this transition. Lack of phone support will also mean more frustration for current customers with problems. All I can say is that I am pretty confident this will allow me to fix the existing problems as quickly as possible while also eliminating the creation of new problems.
- I have slowed my order processing interval commitment.
Very few orders will be shipped this week. For the next few months my general commitment will be to process and ship orders within two to four working days, depending on the requested shipping method. Trying to ship every order every day takes a level of organization that I can't provide right now. Since last Tuesday the shopping cart and order acknowledgments have indicated that orders may not start shipping until the week starting March 10, 2008. I will soon update that to state the two to four day interval.
- I have stopped all advertising.
I hope to survive on returning customers looking for me and standard web searches without paid advertising. If business gets too slow, I will do an emailing to my customer list that includes a clear statement of my capabilities at that time.
Hobby Engineering will be bigger and better than ever within the next few months. In the mean time, I need to focus on the internal work required to make that happen. I am lowering my level of commitments, but by the end of this week I should be back to actually delivering 100% of that I have promised.
I do appreciate and need your orders, but only if you can live within my current service commitments.
Thanks for reading and thanks for your support. -- Al
Friday, December 7, 2007, 5am. Frames of Reference
Hold your breath ...
Count 1001, 1002, 1003 ...
If you happen to live on the equator you have just traveled about 4500 feet around the axis of the earth ... a little less for the rest of us. Wherever you live, you've also traveled about 100,000 feet along earth's orbit around the sun. If I wasn't starting to get nauseous from motion sickness, I might look up how fast our solar system is moving within our galaxy or our galaxy within our universe.
Just joking! About the motion sickness that is. We are definitely moving ... in lots of directions ... and with lots of speed. Physicists talk about "Frames of Reference" to help explain why some change is undetectable and why other changes aren't really what they appear on the surface. I think philosopher George Santayana was thinking along parallel lines when he wrote "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" to remind us to keep track of change and to make sure that we are really moving in the direction we desire.
Change is constant, rapid and difficult to detect. Today seems an awful lot like yesterday and the day before but if you stop and think about it, all that sameness has accumulated into a lot of change over the years and decades. Eek! Decades! I am part of the generation that invented "Don't trust anyone over thirty!" It seemed to take a while, but I did eventually hit that milestone. A few blinks later and I am on the horizon of thirty more. Boy have things changed!
You either have to learn something new every day or start falling behind. I do catch myself thinking "who needs that silly new thing" but then remember that's what my parents said about things we now consider essential and what their parents said about their new fangled contraptions. We have horses, who needs automobiles? Now we may really decide that cars are killing us through speed and global warming, but that just means we will have to learn about something else.
Somewhere in this stream of change Hobby Engineering was started and is now within 10 days of its fifth birthday. Hobby Engineering has not turned out to be what I originally expected. I currently define it as "A supply store for people who want to build robots, electronic gadgets, kinetic art or anything else that moves, beeps or flashes." I have been thinking that I need to make that crisper, but I haven't figured out what that will be. Just be sure that we will keep changing to stay relevant to you.
To celebrate our fifth birthday, I am running some specials and introducing a number of new product lines. Starting tomorrow and for the following ten days I will be introducing one new product every morning and will be able to offer an introductory sale price for that day only.. Please check
my home page to see what's new. I will also try to write a blog entry each day talking about some of the lessons I have learned from my customers, vendors, family and friends during Hobby Engineering's development and maybe even a few from the bowels of history since I bought my first soldering iron over four decades ago.
PS: I have been trying to stop myself, but I can't help but point out the significance of this date. When I was a kid many, many, many years ago, there was always a lot of discussion about Pearl Harbor and World War II in the days and weeks leading up to the anniversary of this date which FDR said "Will Live in Infamy." So far I haven't heard a peep. That's probably appropriate, a lot of "stuff" happened to us and to every other nation before and since December 7, 1941, so it may no longer be the most significant commemorative date in our global consciousness. I do think we need to keep it highlighted in our memories in some significant way both for the sadness of the losses that day and for its significance as a tipping point in the balance of world power and social and technological development in the decades to follow.
Thanks for reading. -- Al
Sunday, December 2, 2007, 5am. The Peter Principle
I have discovered that kids get out of school these days without ever learning about The Peter Principle.
For those who don't remember, The Peter Principle was the title of a management science book by Dr. Laurence J. Peter that became a best seller in the late sixties. The principle was most often stated something like "Within an organization, each employee tends to be promoted until he reaches his level of incompetence." The book was a roaring success because almost everyone saw in that principle the only possible explanation for how their bozo of a boss ever got his job. The book never accomplished as much good as it might have, of course, because hardly anybody recognized that The Peter Principle might apply to themselves.
Most people never bothered to ask why organizations acted so insanely because they "knew" it was the result of favoritism and even more incompetence further up the management chain. While those explanations apply in many cases, generally the cause is described in the corollary principle that "each person has his or her own level of incompetence." If an employee is doing a good job, the reward is often a promotion or other more challenging job. No matter how well you evaluate, train and otherwise prepare, you never absolutely know how that person will do in the job until after they have the position.
One of the many wild cards in trying to use the principle as tool is that a persons level of competency is not constant. A person who comes into a new job thinking "I was doing well before, I'll just keep doing that" is destined to really become that bozo boss you work for. On the other hand, a person who thinks "I don't know what I'm doing ... how do I figure it out" is on his or her way toward an increased level of competence and continued success.
We all have our own levels of incompetency in each area of our lives. We innately recognize that reality and the solution for our kids and send them off to school. First we put them in kindergarten where they struggle to learn how to sit still for hours at a time, how to take naps when they have to instead of when they are tired and how to color within the lines. Just when they start to get comfortable with that, we toss them into first grade with a brand new set of challenges. And we keep that up for a decade or two.
We parents often like to think we are done with school and know all that we need to know. Maybe so. Or maybe we have become the bozo parents and bosses we love to laugh at. What is your most glaring area of incompetence? If you don't know, ask you spouse or kids. They will know! Or maybe you'd like to challenge yourself with a new level of incompetency in a subject area you are curious about but have never explored. Maybe its time to get back to the gym, read a non-fiction book, take community college class ... or buy an educational kit from Hobby Engineering for yourself. Don't forget to get something for that wiseacre who pointed out your incompetence -- you know exactly what they need to learn.
Thanks for reading. -- Al
Friday November 9, 2007, 10pm. Kids, Video Games, Playgrounds and Boredom
Life is hard and most of us wouldn't have it any other way. If someone asks you to tell the story of your greatest achievement you will probably tell a story of blood, sweat and tears. While the achievement might be glorious like winning the football game, having your first child, finishing school or making it to finals at a robotics competition, the heart of the story will almost always be the hard work needed to get there:
Ash, the good old days. Our best memories are often filled with hard work. Easy is boring.
- Football practices in hundred degree heat with an insane coach.
- Seventy hours in the labor room with a sadistic doctor and not enough pain killer.
- Walking to school in the snow, up hill, both ways.
- Camping in the robotics lab for the entire week before competitions eating pizza and skipping showers until the place smells like a football locker room.
Why do kids like video games and tend to ignore every other toy you give them?
Video games are difficult and exciting. Most other toys these days are easy and safe -- boring by design.
- Video games are a challenge, they can get better by working hard.
- Video games are a competition, they get bragging rights over their friends.
- Video games are something they can do better than you.
- Video games give them a chance to explore things you wouldn't allow if you knew in advance.
This isn't my discovery. You probably have fond memories of childhood days spent in the playground getting exercise and having fun. You probably worry about increasing childhood obesity and lack of exercise. Its a complex problem and I don't believe in easy answers -- not even my own. But at least one element in the equation is that playgrounds have become boring.
Playgrounds are a relatively modern invention from the late 1800's. Before that kids just played in the woods or on the street. The people who designed the original playgrounds explicitly made the equipment a little bit dangerous in order to attract kids away from the wilds. They made them dangerous on purpose. They actually said that. They put it in manifestos ... and they didn't get run out of town! Could you imagine the reaction today if you stood in front of your local Recreation and Parks commission and asked them to replace the candy-colored rubber monkey bars with steel pipe so that they would be dangerous enough to catch your kids interest? You'd probably earn a home visit from the Child Protective Services investigations unit. The good old days weren't really quite as good as my fading memory sometimes remembers. I'm not proposing that we go back to raw steel monkey bars over concrete foundations. I am proposing that we think a little bit more about what motivates kids. While little kids may love the candling look of today's playgrounds, it doesn't take too much growing before it looks like "little kid's stuff" and "boring".
While Hobby Engineering doesn't sell playground equipment, we do sell other things to challenge your kids, your grandkids ... and yourself. Take a look around and find something hard to do. While you don't want to frustrate your kids so badly they give up, you do want to challenge them enough that they stay interested. Don't be boring.
Tuesday June 5, 2007, 9am. Our Fifth Year
Thanks for all the clicks!
Hobby Engineering was started in December 2002 with a handful of products warehoused in my home office and a vague notion that the world needed a different kind of store to make it easier for people to get hands-on experience learning about science and engineering. Thanks to you, our many great customers, that vague notion has worked out better than I would have dared to predict. We have grown to over 3000 products, a retail store and customers on all seven continents and quite a few islands in the Pacific, Mediterranean and Indian oceans.
While we have been helping many tens of thousands of kids and adults learn about science and engineering, we have been learning a lot ourselves about warehousing, web site content management, customer service and technical support. For the past eighteen months I have spent every possible minute working on code and upgrade plans to prepare Hobby Engineering for the next five years of growth. This summer we will be implementing those plans to make this an even better resource for your technology projects:
While I think that we have generally done a great job taking care of you during these five years of rapid growth, there is always room for improvement and we have definitely experienced some glitches due to growing pains as we have gotten "too big for our britches". There will probably be a few more disruptions this summer as we install a bigger set of britches. Thanks in advance for your patience and your continued support.
- Lots of new products
- An improved navigation and search system for our web site
- More pictures and better product descriptions
- More project help linked to our products
- A new customer account system that provides more control and feedback regarding order processing
- A case management system to improve follow-up of customer service and technical support issues
- An expanded retail store
- A new inventory management system with new part numbers
- A new phone system
Sunday October 10, 2004, 9am. Open for business!
The store opened last Saturday. We still have a lot of work to do on displays and signage, but we have most of our inventory on the shelves and are perfectly happy to run to the warehouse to grab anything else you need. While we need a lot more store traffic to deem the expansion a success, we have had a pretty good start. During our first week we have had visitors from Denmark, Italy and mysterious Colorado as well as locals from the San Francisco peninsula, South Bay and East Bay. If you like the concept of a retail outlet for our products please visit often and tell your friends. Please let me know if there is anything we can do to make the store -- or our web site for that matter -- a more useful resource.
Monday September 27, 2004, 7am. Ready or not ...
I'm not asking for sympathy ... well, maybe I am .... but its amazing how hard everything is. Even writing sentences without dangling participles. It seems like I have been working 24x7 for as long as I can remember. At times the only result I see is a longer "to-do" list. Like the old song "you lift 24 tons and what do you get, another day older and deeper in debt". Or another: "work your fingers to the bone, what do you get, bony fingers". Boy, I love country music!
Back to my topic. If you are a perfectionist like me it can be pretty hard to finish anything. Whatever you do, at least whatever I do, falls short of the standard and therefore looks like more work to finish rather than like an accomplishment. A few months ago I was discussing plans for the upcoming
http://www.RoboNexus.com trade show with Eliot Weinman, CEO of Robotics Trends which is producing the show. I kept telling him what I thought had to be done. He kept telling me that some of what I wanted wasn't possible for this show. He explained his decision by telling me that he couldn't always hit home runs and that we just had to do the best that we could do with this year's resources and plan to make it better next time. I was frustrated and didn't pursue the opportunity. We are a sponsor of the show and will be exhibiting, but we won't be doing the supplemental activities we had be discussing.
This week I'm declaring Eliot right. I have been working on getting our new store open properly for as long as I can remember. That has only been about two months but my memory is failing due to lack of sleep. I have been starting on some tutorial and project content for the web site for much longer. This week I am declaring a lot of this work-in-progress done. The store opens on Saturday, October 2, 2004 -- ready AND not. I am posting the first
tutorials and projects at the same time as this blog entry. Not a home run in the game. Hopefully you'll think I made to first base a time or two. Stay tuned, the season isn't over yet.
Sunday September 19, 2004, 6am. Why is everything so hard for me and so easy for everyone else?
Almost every day I receive a call that goes something like this: "I've got this great idea for a project. I want to build my own robot mission to Mars with a budget of twenty bucks. I don't know enough to think it through any farther than that. You guys do stuff like this all the time so you should know how to do it. Just send me what I need. I'll give you my credit card right now. I'm serious about doing this." Most calls aren't quite that bad, but some get close.
I live on the San Francisco peninsula so I've had the opportunity to watch Barry Bonds hit a few balls over the fence at SBC Park. Even more amazing than the fact that he can do it at all is how easy he makes it look. From where I sit high up in the stands I can't see any tension in his muscles, sweat on his brow and certainly not a lifetime of boring workouts. Just a little controlled flick of the bat and the ball goes flying harder, faster and further than I could ever dream of hitting it myself. Easy for me. A lifetime for hard work for Mr. Bonds.
Most of us fall into that trap from time-to-time. While we rarely forget how much effort is required for every one of our own accomplishments we often act as if life is easy for everyone else. It's not true. We're all in the same boat. If you want to go faster, you have to give the other guy a break and row faster yourself.
Sunday September 12, 2004, 9am. We've moved again!
Just over a year ago I made the big move from my garage to "real" office space. At first I didn't know what to do with all the space in my 400 square foot empire. It didn't take long to solve that riddle and during the last year we have also rented an off-site storage garage, expanded into a neighboring office and learned how to utilize every square inch of floor-to-ceiling space available to us. Some weeks my family van doubled as a portable warehouse. Several months ago I came to the realization that we wouldn't make it through our busy fall season without either more room or a drastic cut in product plans.
We are now nearly settled into a new space that again gives us space to grow. While our new location is nearly 7 times bigger than our previous quarters it is still considered a small space by real estate developers. I was amazed how hard it was to find affordable space in this area despite what is supposed to be a real estate depression here on the edge of Silicon Valley. The only sign of depression I found was my own state of mind! Just as I was ready to accept my self-imposed deadline and abandon the search, one last peek at www.craigslist.com showed a brand new listing that turned out to be the perfect spot. The grand prize is that it also provided an opportunity to get a real storefront to try Hobby Engineering at retail. The store should be open within a few more weeks. Check back for updates or join our mailing list.
Sunday September 5, 2004, 9am. The next phase begins ... begins ... begins!
I recently received a call asking if we REALLY had a particular item in stock. The customer then explained that he thought the web site hadn't been updated in about a year. I calmly explained that the catalog pages were updated every few days to revise the "In Stock" messages, add new items and generally keep the site as current as possible. I was even able to say that the current content pages were less than 8 hours old. What I really wanted to do was scream "Are you nuts! This place is changing by the minute!"
While "the customer is always right" isn't exactly true, almost every customer statement communicates something important. While this customer was dead wrong on the facts he was absolutely on-the-money about how (in)effective we've been communicating to you about changes. I'll be working very hard during the next few weeks to improve our communications process. As a small first step I have added a revision date at the bottom of most pages.
Day 250, Sunday August 24, 2003, 5pm. The next phase begins!
Tomorrow we officially move from my garage into real office space. The new arrangements make it easier to answer the phone so we are now publishing our phone numbers prominently on the web site. We also have an improved UPS schedule so we can provide same day shipping on most orders received by 2pm (Pacific) Monday through Friday. Hobby Engineering feels more like a "real business" every day!
Day 236, Sunday August 10, 2003, 7am. Time flies when you are having fun!
I'm not absolutely sure of the day count, but its close. I find it amazing that its been seven months since the last entry, but then my life has been insanely busy.
The web site continues to grow. In January we had a few dozen items listed, today we have several hundred. Most orders received by noon are shipped that day and it is really rare for an order to sit around more than 24 hours except on the weekend.
I just finished teaching six weeks of electronics and robotics classes for the local community college district's summer school program for middle school students. I spent months planning the curriculum but ended up tossing most of that material on the first day in response to the student feedback (mainly glazed stares). For the rest of the summer it was a daily race to find enough hours each day to develop a lesson plan and organize materials to keep the classes moving. While we definitely had both "ups" and "downs", feedback from the students at the end of the session was generally positive in both the fun and the learning categories. Education is a significant component of our plan for www.HobbyEngineering.com and we will begin teaching additional courses at several locations in the San Francisco Bay Area starting in October.
Well, I still have a little bit of quiet time this morning. I plan to go digging through the piles of paper in front of me in order to figure out what color desktop I have. I might even get some of it organized.
Cheers! -- Al
Day 25, Wednesday January 8, 2003, 6am. "May your life be interesting!"
The quote I used for today's title is commonly referred to as "the Chinese curse". I'm not sure that the source is actually Chinese, but it definitely has the subtlety often attributed to Chinese philosophy. On first reading it doesn't even sound like a curse. Then you have one of those days when nothing is boring and suddenly you realize how the "curse" description is justified.
When I draw I'm generally thinking that I want to draw a line or curve from one exact point to another. Often I have very specific geometric coordinates in mind. Have you ever noticed how hard it is to do that with a computer drawing program? Even with so-called technical drawing programs, all my energy goes into figuring out how to coerce the program into creating a precision layout. These things should have a warning sticker: "For Impressionist Style Artists Only!"
For the last few days I have been trying to start the project section by documenting my K'nex robot. I could be done by now, but one of the things that I want is a process that makes the site easy to expand and maintain. None of the half dozen or so programs I've played with meet that criterion. So I've just about finished my own drawing program. Right now I have a test diagram on the screen with a couple of ICs. Pretty boring. Except that they are placed EXACTLY where I wanted them on a rectangular grid with the same proportions as a breadboard. The program knows that wires connect at the pins and lets me specify connection lines by using the names of the pins. The "drawing file" is a simple text file that makes it easy for me to cut and paste as needed, but I won't have to do that very often because the object-oriented design lets me just reference an existing drawing and specify changes.
Now I can get back to actually documenting the project. Undoubtedly that will require adding more features to the program and who knows what else that will slow me down. But by the time the first project arrives on this site (in another day or two or so), I'll have a system that makes it reasonably easy to maintain.
Have you every noticed how many projects on the WEB just don't work or are really confusing because the text contradicts the drawings or contains other errors. I'm convinced that's in large part because standard publishing tools are so hard to use that most hobbyists and engineers give up before getting the documentation finished. I'm as lazy and impatient as the next person, but I only want to publish articles that work, so I'm building a system that makes it as easy as possible to get it right.
Thanx for your patience.
Day 22, Sunday January 5, 2003, 10am. Building Standards
I assume that 99% of the people involved in building do so because they love the creativity of building things. This seems generally true whether we are talking about "professionals" who get paid for their work or "amateurs" who do it entirely for their own reasons. Occasionally the creative part gets out of hand and makes things needlessly difficult for the next person in line. I'm talking about the un-helpful creativity of component manufacturers coming up with unique ways -- or no good way -- to connect their products so that each interconnection is a unique challenge.
I did get my K'nex robot together enough to do something at the RSA meeting. It wasn't that exciting because I didn't have much time to debug the software because I lost an entire evening just trying to get things plugged together. Even parts from the same supplier that ought to fit together didn't fit. Or they did fit mechanically but not electronically -- in one case almost frying a Basic Stamp. I finally got everything working, but it was definitely frustrating. If I didn't have a well stocked shop I would have lost another day or two waiting for connectors to arrive. If I wasn't able to solder I couldn't have done it at all.
I have a new mission: developing standards for connecting all these parts. Standards will make it easier to interchange components and easier to know in advance what connectors and cables are needed for a project. Within a few weeks I will post some proposed standards and added interconnect information to all the product descriptions. I'll also add connector components and pre-built cables to the catalog. Now, I need to do something about my promise to post some projects by tomorrow ...
Day 19, Thursday January 2, 2003, 6:00am. Never ignore the obvious ...
My SN754410 H-Bridge is working. I wasted most of yesterday debugging an instability problem. The motor ran fine most of the time. Periodically the drive system would go nuts grinding and shaking. I couldn't see a pattern to the failure except that hitting the reverse switch seemed to make it worse. I added debug statements to track speed changes in my control program. The debug screen looked perfect, so the problem "had" to be in the h-bridge circuit. The only thing that made sense to me was noise from the motor. Sure enough, I removed the motor and the monitoring LEDs indicated normal operation. I re-installed the motor and tried every conceivable combination of filters on the Vcc, on the motor, reverse-EMF blocking diodes, multiples of the above and I don't remember what else. No improvement.'
Back to the start. What are my debugging statements actually showing? Every possible change of motor speed. But no debug in the reverse switch loop. What could go wrong there. Its just a switch. Add a debug statement anyway. Let 'er rip. Crank up the speed. Lots of "Rs" on the screen. Sometimes an even number of Rs, causing a little grinding. Sometimes odd numbers, causing a change in direction. Physically isolate the motor from the controller. Problem gone. it was the !@#$%^& switch! Must be a bad spring that started bouncing with just the right/wrong level of vibration. Problem permanently fixed by replacing with an "identical" spare.'
The moral: anything can break so don't make assumptions. Usually it is the new stuff causing the problem, so that is where you generally spend your debugging time. Occasionally the new stuff just exposes problems in the tried-and-true. Never forget that your finished work may be good, but that it's not likely to be perfect. Every now and again a latent bug in your debugged systems will reach out and nip you from behind.'
Day 18, Wednesday January 1, 2003, 8:00am. Happy New Year! ...
One of the reasons why I started this site was so I could play with the toys. So far its not working out that way. Mainly I stare at the WEB server logs, try to discern what visitors are doing, and then jump back into coding to make the site better. The site has been on-line for 11 days, but it feels much longer. It's been a lot of work but IMHO the site has gone from amateurish to pretty darn nice looking in a short period of time.'
I think that I've also had some success in WEB log telepathy. With each change, visitors seem to be hanging around longer and digging deeper into the site. Most visitors are currently getting here as a result of my Google ad campaign which takes you to the "Robot Builder's Menu and Guide". Until a few days ago, that page didn't make it very obvious how to get to my home page. Duh! Now much more of the site is getting visited, including this BLOG. So now I'll make a point of writing an entry every day.
For those of you who care about such things, this site is totally home grown on an open source platform. The server runs LINUX and APACHE. All the code you see is generated by Python scripts which I wrote myself. All the product pages are generated from a database once a day, which means that the availability information is not quite real-time. All the text pages are written in a mark-up language that is a cross between HTML and troff. I've been making fairly significant changes to the site almost every day. All I have to do is type "build" and the changes are replicated across the entire site with perfect consistency, something I don't think I would have accomplished with other systems I've seen. This system is carefully designed to work the way I think and to specifically prevent the kinds of mistakes I commonly make. And it keeps getting better all the time. You don't get that off the shelf. If nothing else, nobody would be dumb enough to market a system built the way I think!'
I was able to spend New Year's Eve playing with robots. I'm working on a project report showing how to build a K'nex robot. The article will be mainly about building an h-bridge using the SN754410 and driving it at variable speeds using a Basic Stamp. There are a number of articles about this chip on the WEB but I haven't found one that seems to pull all the needed information together. I hope to have this finished by Saturday so I can take it to the '
RSA meeting. The article will be posted on the web complete with pictures, circuit diagrams and a fully functional program listing.'
Day 11, Wednesday December 25, 2002, 7:30pm. Progress continues ...
So much to do. The new home page goes up in a few minutes. Finally a home page that looks reasonably like a home page. More importantly, the first draft of the Robot Builder's Menu is on-line. One more round of clean-up and the site aught to inspire some confidence in visitors. I'm worn out. Tomorrow I've got to play with a robot!
Day 8, Sunday December 22, 2002, 6:00am. We have lift-off ...
The site is now live. Ready or not! Please browse around and make a purchase if you see something you like. Check our
frequently asked questions page   to get a sense of what we are about. And come back often! We will be adding many new products in the next few hours and days (they are in stock, but not yet typed into the database). We will be adding information to help you or your child learn about this technology. If you have a problem please be patient and let me know with as much detail as possible. Please e-mail me at
al@HobbyEngineering.com with your comments, suggestions or problems. I will respond promptly, often in minutes.
Day 6, Friday December 20, 2002, 11:00pm. Ten, nine, eight, ...
A braver soul would just click 'live' now. The basic process seems to be working! Undoubtedly there are bugs in the system. That will probably be true no matter how long I wait. I'll take one more day to clean-up the catalog and stomp more bugs. The site goes live Sunday morning. Period.
Day 5, Thursday December 19, 2002, 9:00am. Why programming is such fun.
Rule number one in programming: never make commitments! You are always going to be wrong. The cart is still not quite done. The order button now appears in the catalog and cart maintenance seems to be OK. I just wasted a lot of time trying to get the 'continue shopping' button to return to the last item. I'm missing some subtlety of referrals and local tags. Back to the right page will have to do for now. I just need to create the secure info page and it will be ready for orders ...
Day 2, Tuesday December 17, 2002, 8:15am. This should be day three ...
but the big storm knocked out power for a total of almost 11 hours, no problem thanks to my UPS, and then both of my Internet connections. Out of luck. Telco couldn't accept the concept that a customer actually knew what he was talking about and insisted that it was my router. Many hours and dollars later I proved them wrong and helped myself into their locked cabinet to swap parts and fix one circuit myself in ten minutes. Working with big monopolies is such a challenge.
Today's commitment: I will get the order form on-line no matter what! 'Today' means any time before you wake up tomorrow. I'm going to start by getting some rest so I can read what I'm typing ...
Day 1, Sunday December 15, 2002, 7:15am. I never thought I'd start a blog ...
www.HobbyEngineering.com is supposed to meet the world in less than three hours. Everything is almost ready. Which is to say that NOTHING IS ACTUALLY READY! The San Francisco Robotics Expo is going to start whether I'm ready or not, so here we go. At this moment, this site is just a partial, not terribly well edited catalog of our initial product line. We really are almost ready, so the site will be changing by leaps and bounds over the next few days. Browse around and start to get a sense of what kinds of products we offer. Come back frequently to watch our progress!
Almost everything on this site is in our warehouse, so if you see anything you need come back tomorrow afternoon to place can order! By the end of this week, I should have some content in place so you an start to get a sense of how I hope to make www.HobbyEngineering.com a special place on the WEB.
Let the adventure begin!
-- Al Margolis, founder
Go to Al's Summary of Interesting Projects ...
Go to Al's Resume ...
Go to home page ...