Wealthy patron to support artist/scientist/writer. Said patron will provide for all of my (few) worldly and (not so few) intellectual needs. In return I will undertake bizarre projects designed to delight, enlighten, and sometimes confuse. I can also add “color” to formal gatherings and tutor your kids in (mad) science. Please include a photo of my new living quarters and workshop space.

What’s next? (part 1 of N)

The world is in for a serious shake-up over the next couple of decades. Here are a few of my (and many others’) predictions:

  • Catastrophic job loss. Essentially all manual jobs are going to go away due to cheap automation.
  • Bio-terrorism. With CRISPR, anyone can make a virus in their garage with a thousand dollars of equipment and chemicals
  • Environmental collapse. When it comes to climate change, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
  • Nuclear disaster. I think that we have at least one more Chernobyl-level event ahead of us.
  • Human rights abuses. This will get worse before it gets better.
  • The rise of the police state. This too will just get worse.

Scared yet? Well there are good possibilities on the horizon, too.

  • World peace. Seriously, it’s a thing that can happen.
  • Universal health care. It’s about time that we caught up to the rest of the civilized world.
  • Universal basic income. In light of the aforementioned catastrophic job loss, this is the only rational option.

There is a lot more to all of these, of course. And much more to add to the list. As I figure it out for myself, I’ll post more in the series.

The not-so-wonderful world of textbook editing

For the last month and a half or so, I’ve been a staff writer and editor for a major K-12 textbook company. And let me tell you, this process is horrific. It consists of passing around MS Word documents that cannot deviate in the slightest from a particular format, and commenters that give such helpful suggestions as, “You need to rewrite the chapter. We don’t feel that you are properly targeting the intended audience.” Please, can you be any more vague?

As a science and engineering consultant, I work on large projects for a living. And I’m talking “space shuttle” large. Textbooks are microscopic by comparison. And so here’s what I think the textbook industry needs to do.

1) Adopt a version control system. You have multiple people editing a thousand single-page Word documents. This is horribly inefficient. Everyone should always have access to all of the pages, at least for reading. And then they should be able to check-out for editing, with merging at the end. The software industry solved this problem a long time ago, and it’s about time that publishers adopted it.

2) Adopt a CSS-style system for templates. You want the book to have a consistent look and feel — I get that. But insisting that everyone conform to writing with the same (very messy) template in the same version of Word is stupid. Content should not care about look and feel, and the textbook artists should be able to change that without having to go back and edit every single page. Again, this is a solved-problem in the software development community. Maybe look in to that.

3) Adopt a requirements management system. Engineering projects have tens of thousands of requirements. This keeps everyone on the “same page” with respect to things like module inputs and outputs, screw sizes, and the like. It ensures that all of the pieces fit together at the end. A textbook has a lot of requirements too. Common core dictates that these things be taught in this order, and a finished text can have over a hundred sections. But again, this is a much smaller number of requirements than even a medium-sized engineering project. And again, this is a solved problem, whose solution should be adopted.

These three pieces can (and often are) integrated in to a single package in the engineering world. ClearCase/Doors is a good example of just such a package. If publishers were to adopt such systems, they’d get all of these benefits:

  • Authors and artists could use whatever tools they like to edit pages.
  • If an editor wants to change the look and feel, they can just do so without having to change every page.
  • It’s easy to see what previous people did to a page, and a page can be reverted if need be.
  • Multiple people can edit the same page at the same time without stepping on each other.
  • It can be seen at a glance, which requirements have been fulfilled and which need work.
  • A single “builder” can be used to “compile” the textbook in to a single file for printing, or ebook publishing, or web delivery, without changing any of the content or editing any page.
  • Since it’s easy to see who worked on what and did how much, individual authors and artists could easily get the credit (and payment) that they deserve.

So come on publishers — get with the 21st century and start using the tools that are already out there!

Teaching, learning…

So as the gods would have it, I’ve now become a textbook editor and sometimes-author. I’ve been contracted with a large publisher (name withheld) to update their Texas high-school geometry text to national, common-core standards. And I’m having a lot of fun with it!

But I’ve learned a few things. First among them being that books written by committee are rarely good. And usually, barely passable. Yep, of course I’m doing all that I can to change this, but there’s only so much of it that I’m allowed to write. Here are the main reasons that such books go astray:

  • They try to plug companion software and websites to the point of being reliant on them
  • They introduce concepts in strange order, since different chapters are written by different groups
  • The introduction of keywords and definitions is likewise inconsistent
  • Examples and problems are clearly recycled from older texts (how many people can relate to plowing a triangular field?)

As I said, I’m doing my part. But I find myself wishing that I could do more, just for the sake of making the kids’ experience better.

You wanna do what?!

So I have this fun idea. It’s something that can be done for about $10K or so, but I’m having a hard time with one particular aspect of it. Allow me to explain…

Imagine that you have two velocipedes (yes, they have to be velocipedes for… reasons) and you mount them side-by-side and about three feet apart with tubing. In between, you hang a lightweight, but comfortable chair. Perhaps something like a lawn chair. Using the same tubing, you mount four electric motors around the outside in a quadrocopter arrangement, complete with propellers. Electric motors are becoming quite efficient, and you can find some on the order of one HP per pound at reasonable prices.

So far, you have a person-sized, velocipede, steampunk quadrocopter. Which is great, but would be way too heavy to actually lift off. Which is why you need a 30′ helium balloon. This would be attached to the rest via the same tubing and a kevlar fiber net over the top. Internal to the balloon is an electric compressor such that the balloon can be dynamically deflated and inflated. So it can provide just enough lift that the quad motors can lift it the rest of the way. But since they’ll be relying in part on ground-effect, the system is tuned such that you can only get about 10′ high.

I have it all laid out in my head, and trust me, it’s awesome! But now for the hard part. How much trouble would I get in to for this? Technically, it’s a “manned, un-tethered, gas balloon” according to their regulations. But since the balloon is not providing the lift (just weight-offset), it’s also technically an ultralight. But since it relies on ground-effect, it’s also a hovercraft and outside of the FAA’s purview.

So my guess is that the FAA won’t be able to decide between laughing at me and having me shot. Any thoughts?

A delicate balancing act…

There is so much that I do that I would want to write about. Much of the work that I do would make for some fantastic conference or journal articles. And some it would’ve even made a great master’s or doctorate’s thesis. BUT… the reality of the situation is that I am almost constantly under some non-disclosure agreement or other. Not that the work I do is terribly secretive. There’s no national security issue (usually) and no chance of any disclosure actually hurting whatever company I’m working for.

But the knee-jerk reaction nowadays is to hide everything that everyone does, all the time. Just in case. As though my obscure bit of network queuing code would sink the company were it ever revealed. From the standpoint of furthering the art, this is not a wise policy. From the standpoint of furthering my career, it’s damned annoying.

As always, XKCD said it best…


What I’m up to (part whatever)…

So much to do, so little time.  But it’s all good, so I’m not feeling overwhelmed.  Just the right amount of whelm, I suppose.  Anyways, on tap for this week is paper writing (due tomorrow!), art project materials gathering (the name of the project is “Your own, personal Jesus” and I’m still keeping the rest a secret), Arduino development (also a secret), a big LabVIEW project that is to serve as a proof-of-concept for future work, some Android programming (yep, also secret), a new web site (secret), and journal article reviews.

In and around all of this is some financial/business crap that needs taking care of.  That one seems to be never-ending, probably because it is actually never-ending.  Someday, I’ll be making enough to hire an business manger to foist all of that on to.  Until then, I just have to deal.

So yeah, a lot of secret stuff still happening.  At least I’m dropping a hint for the art project.  It’s going to be a busy week!

Beautiful Failure

I fail at things.  A lot.  Almost everything, really.  And the only reason that I have actually succeeded at the few things that I have is because I’m either too stubborn or too stupid to know when to quit.  I suspect a little of both.

I’m working on a side-project (yes, another one) that is a sort of combined art-science-interaction piece to celebrate all of the ways in which we fail.  I’ll probably be posting a link to this in the next couple of months or so.  Stay tuned.

What I am up to (part 3 of N)…

And now for art projects.  Again, I cannot say much.  Not because of any particular non-disclosure agreement this time, but because I am loathe to discuss half-formed notions.  So in vaguebooking tradition, here’s some of the things that I’m researching.  You can draw your own conclusions from them (and no, they do not necessarily reflect a single project):

  • Low-temperature enameling
  • Working stone with a CNC milling machine
  • Electrochromic and thermochromic chemicals
  • Photoresist etching of various materials
  • Laser-induced surface plasmons (yes, for arts’ sake)
  • Cellular automata (also for arts’ sake)
  • Quasicrystals (yeah, my art has a lot of science to it)

At some point, I’ll post pictures. But not yet. I have a few more pressing projects to work on.

What I am up to (part 2 of N)… Arduino!

So let me expound upon the virtues of the Arduino platform for a minute. In case you are not familiar, this is a family of hobbyist microcontrollers with minimal memory, no OS to speak of, and a lot of I/O. Very useful for making things that read information from, or control things in, the real world. Right now, I’m making good use of the Adafruit Feather line. Useful (to me) features:

  • Support for single Li-ion battery use, charging, and monitoring
  • Built-in micro-SD card reader (on my model, at least)
  • Really, really tiny

Anyways, my favorite part about it is the programming environment.  Being so resource constrained, and with such a simple programming model, it feel a lot like coding in the early 1980’s.  Yes, I’m old.

I cannot (yet) go in to detail about the project, but I will put something up on the “Projects” page when I am able.  As soon as I’m no longer sworn to secrecy.