Thursday, January 11, 2018

2017 Wrap Up: No'-As-Big-As-Medium-Year-But-Bigger-Than-Small-Year-Year

This is my 2017 wrap up post. I glanced at the report from 2016. 2016 was the smallest year. I didn't try to beat that record in 2017. I decided to actually go places in my car. I got my transmission rebuilt after my 1996 Honda Accord turned over 300,000 miles. I got all the other regular stuff done, new timing belt, etc. Right after that I got a crack in my radiator. I fixed it with epoxy. It worked well enough to get me to the mechanic for a new radiator.

I went on a day trip to Mobile, Alabama to pick up a sewing machine I bought on eBay. That was fun. I stopped on the border with Georgia and saw a big dam. The sewing machine was very good too. It was my second Singer 301. I later bought another one in Tallahassee and I use them both a lot. I keep the first one I got, the Centennial 1951 model, rigged with white thread. The one I got in Tallahassee is maybe my favorite, it's a portable model with the cord done a bit different. It's black and I keep it threaded with black thread. I sold the cabinet the first one came in and the second machine from Mobile to my brother.

I drove down to Jupiter, Florida to see my brother's new house and pick up my niece for a week of crafting up here in Georgia. That was fun. She's 14 and likes things that are slimy and kind of tactile. She was good at finger painting and marbling. One word: methylcellulose.

I got rather obsessed with the Royal Game of Ur in 2017. I learned Affinity Designer and did several different graphic depictions of the game. I worked on how to make it on wood with paint and transferred laser printing. I figured out that Floetrol can be used to transfer printing to wood. You stick the laser printed side to the wood and when it's dry you wet it and rub away the paper. Coated paper works best. But a water slide decal works even better. You have to go over it with water based polyurethane after, not solvent based. Tape makes better lines than paint.

My nieces and their friends helped me get excited about this game by playing it with me at the beach. Matt Berry is responsible for making up a lot of UR based puns for potential designs and featURes.

Chris Warnock at Funjump Rigging helped me enormously with his laser cutter. He's actually the one that helped me figure out I could export SVG files, convert them to DXF, and import them into Osmond Cocoa to get the vectors into the printed circuit board design. Printed circuit board design is so not like graphics. Mainly there is no scaling, for obvious reasons. I kind of enjoyed learning a new piece of software. I used to design real circuit boards so doing one with no actual parts, no connections, and no holes was about easy as it gets.

I had my first idea for printed circuit boards, TransistUR, already designed when I realized I could do WatUR as well. I had 15 each made as circuit boards by Seeed Studio in China.

After they arrived I did 6 different prototypes for bags before I found a satisfactory container for it. And I am still not happy with it. I've made v7 and v7.1 in 2018 already.

I finally worked out good dice at the end of 2017. Chris Warnock laser engraved blank dice and Go stones for me. I'm still working on coloring them in with UV cure gel nail enamel and Sharpie paint pens.

I knit some stuff in 2017 as well. I got 50 items on my Etsy store by November 16 and had a 50% off sale on my 50th birthday. It went great. I made enough money from Etsy to be able to buy those blank dice. I got a few Christmas commissions from hyping the prototypes for sale on my birthday.

Financially 2017 was just the same as all the other small years. I lived within my means, payed all my bills on time. I stayed neatly below the threshold for needing to file a tax return, so I'm not burdened with an abundance of bookkeeping. I did a lot of spreadsheet work for Kickstarter for the board game and remembered I don't really like trying to be profitable. After the Kickstarter failed I went back to happily designing things based on other criteria besides profit. The problem with my latest case design is not that it's expensive, it's that I can't reliably produce them with high quality. The only way to get price down is quantity and I'm just not there. So I'm more concerned with manufacturability.

I did not go to any kind of doctor in 2017. I did get one professional haircut for my birthday. I might get another one in 2018. Nobody ever sees me so you'd think it doesn't matter, but I'm too old to be sending selfies to my niece exclaiming that she could cut my hair better than that. In 2017 she cut my hair twice, and it was great. But going to Great Clips spoils my attempts to block out the realities of the human condition. Getting a license to cut hair takes more training than I've had for any job and they still can't get it right? I don't need to waste my coping skills on that.

That's all I've got. I want to start version 7.2 of this board game bag now.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Hype the Prototype

I've challenged myself to get 50 items listed on my Etsy store by November 16 when I will have a 50% off sale on my 50th birthday.

Let's do this!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

WatUR: The World's Oldest Board Game, Modurnized

I've been working on a new project all summer. I saw a video in April of Tom Scott and Irving Finkel playing an ancient board game and I became obsessed with it. I loved the dice especially. It uses four dice that represent 0 or 1. You add them up. This appeals to me because I have trouble adding big numbers and I have some relatives with the same genetic deficiency. It's not an impediment to doing higher mathematics or anything, but if you're playing a game for fun it's nice to be able to relax and not have to face your shortcomings whenever the dice come up with too many spots showing.

I decided I could make this game myself. It's 4500 years old, surely it's in the public domain. I got some blank tetrahedral dice like they found in the Royal Tomb in Ur and I modified them for the game. The ones in the museum were carved from bone. I was ready to embrace modern materials though, so I used plastic.

I had some scrap 1x6 pine boards so I cut out the shape of the board. I bought Affinity Designer when  they came out with the upgrade recently so I set out to learn that software and design the decorations for the squares. I studied the original closely.

I don't actually like the original design. It's a lot of variations of the all-seeing eye and it sort of creeps me out. There are a lot of copies of this game and they all just look like this. Why? As long as the designs repeat in the same places it could be anything. Why not be original when you're copying the oldest board game in the world?

I thought the 5 spot squares looked like frog eggs. So I designed Frog Ur as my first version.

I took this one to the coast and played it with my nieces and their friends on vacation. They liked it a lot. We played it enough to establish an average time it takes to play (25 minutes) and we tested an alternative route for a more complicated game and timed that too (45 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes). We discussed changes I could make to lead you through that alternate route. They had ideas for other Ur puns, like a boat themed one called SailUR or one with domesticated animals called FarmUR. I wanted to do one of star fish and sand dollars called EchinodURms. There could be a Game of Thrones themes one called WintUR.

I tried several of these but I felt compelled to be true to the 8 pointed rosette theme that ran through all the artifacts I saw on the British Museum website. I finally came across Enki, the god of Water. He was often shown as a mountain goat with a fish body, or he had a river just shooting out of his head with fish jumping in it. That's how I settled on WatUR, with mountain goats, turtles, fish, and sun and stars instead of rosettes.

I made some more of the wood boards with decals and played it with a friend. He complained that the dice were hard to pick up. I didn't mind sliding them off the table, but I wasn't crazy about how hard it is to make them. I'd contacted all the dice makers to see if they could customize these dice to have contrast colored tips and they refused to even try. They were happy to customize dice on the flat faces. So I decided I could solve two problems at once by having 6 sided dice made to only have 2 outcomes. Put spots on 3 sides, leave 3 sides blank. Now the odds are the same as the tetrahedral dice. And it's this probability that makes the game work. The fact that your opponent is more likely to roll a 2 than a 1 or a 3 helps you decide where to put your pieces.

I found some ready-made binary dice that had 1 and 0 on them. 1 and 0 made me think of digital logic and that made me think of printed circuit boards. TransistUR was born.

I did some research and found there are prototype board houses in China with no set-up charges and quite a low fee per board. Cost less for fiberglass cut with a CNC router and shipped express from China than it costs me to cut out a piece of wood and sand it, let alone decorate it and hand paint it.

While I was working on my board layout I was also exploring the possibility of doing laser engraving on wood. In the process of getting the vector file to a laser engraver I figured out I could convert my Affinity Designer files to AutoCAD format, good old DXF. And the board layout program can import that. In just a day or so I had my WatUR design rendered as a printed circuit board too. But I can't have 1 and 0 with Sumerian artifacts. They used cuneiform, not Arabic numbers. So I had to find a source for custom dice. It turns out they're just as affordable as the circuit boards. But only if you buy 2000 of them.

But by now I really really wanted them. I kept working on the rest of the steps to product launch and decided I could do it if I could get 250 people to pay $35 ea for a set.

I'll come back and paste in a link to the KickstarUR when after I launch it some time this week.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Hurricane Harvey is no Wilma. Now we have iPhones.

I was up until 4:30 last night riveted by the KHOU YouTube channel out of Houston. The rain bands were hammering them after Hurricane Harvey, in a configuration their meteorologist aptly described as a layer cake tipped over. I read Tweets coming in all night long from people I follow in Houston going in and out of their tornado rooms.
I saw a lot of people on Twitter talking about praying.  This is not an interesting activity for me. Where are all the people wondering why there were cars completely submerged with their headlights on? There were interstate height lamp posts with water within a few feet of the canopy and they were still on, shining on the water. I have so many questions! How much electrical current is running through that water? What's the conductivity? Is everything getting electroplated? Or the reverse, corroded? Is there a system to disconnect power to electrical infrastructure when they go underwater? I'm thinking of telephone nodes, street light controllers, stuff like that. Why are people playing in this water today? Do they have no understanding of risk?! Electricity aside, think of the live fire ants floating around in rafts. People trying to help their neighbors, that's one thing. But just playing, that's not cool.

I can't stop thinking ahead to what the recovery from this will be like. I'm remembering back to 2005, 4 years before I started this blog, when Hurricane Wilma went for a wild ride all around the Gulf of Mexico. It forced my step-sister to move her wedding from Isla Mujeres, Mexico to Destin, Florida, in the panhandle, on five days notice. My brother and his daughters, who had flower girl dresses made, couldn't come from South Florida because of gasoline shortages.

I was working for a civil engineering firm in Tallahassee at the time. They had a disaster recovery division that got a contract with Broward County (Fort Lauderdale area) to manage the clean up effort. I was sent down there to work on it. I took my personal laptop, cell phone, GPS, camera, and car. They gave me a company hard hat and a company safety vest. I went to Walmart and bought some steel toed boots.

My job was to go out to neighborhoods with private contractors who had come from all over the country with loaders and dump trucks. All I had to do was stand there and watch them load trucks with debris. When the truck was full I filled out a form with many duplicates. It had the time and date and how full I thought the truck was. Then I gave the driver one copy and he went to dump the load at the landfill where they were grinding up all this organic debris.
The landfill where the trucks took debris to be ground into bits small enough to move efficiently
The idea was that I would turn in a copy to my people at the end of the day and they entered all this into a giant database. My cube mate from Tallahassee was in an office building back in Ft Lauderdale doing data entry all day. Broward County had to very carefully track all of this activity so they could be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As far as I could tell it was a lot of people using their own resources to repair a Federal Disaster Area with the expectation that the Feds would reimburse them afterwards. I had to pay for my own hotel and gas and everything. I was a salaried employee though, so I was confident my expense report would go through. But I had to be able to cover that expense up front.
Ficus trees down everywhere
On the first day in Broward County I was sent to a neighborhood with small houses on small lots close to the street. There was non-organic debris like bottles and cans in the right of way under the entire ficus trees they had to cut up and haul off. The contractors were told not to pick up the actual trash, only trees. It was like they were only cleaning it up to the level they expected it was when the storm struck. I am pretty sure it was literally Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd where they told us not to pick up trash. I was so mad. It seemed petty and discriminatory and despicable to not clean it ALL THE WAY UP. Give them some kind of boost and motivation to move forward and be better. Jeez. They probably are all struggling with lost wages and who knows what all else.

The kind of neighborhood that got cleaned up first in Broward County

Most people don't even have power back on, but by all means, run the pump on your fountain
The next day I was sent to a very high end neighborhood where every house was on about 4 acres. They all had generators humming in the backyard so they could sit inside in the air conditioning watching DirectTV. About 5 times a day they'd make us move the dump truck off the street so they could get by in their Humvee to go get a fucking frozen yogurt or get a pedicure or whatever the fuck they were doing. They had their own yarn man hauling debris out to the street as fast as we could pick it up. We were told to not leave until the streets and right of way were leaf-blower clean. We were on one block for a week. It irked me no end. Rich people demanding that they be served first. I think it was the damn peacocks stalking down the streets that made me feel so mean.
Even the peacock thinks he owns the public property

On MLK drive we couldn't pick up empty cans, but we were told to collect anything these people put out by the road. What is that, a trampoline? 

3.25 Acres, Pool, 6 Horse Stall Barn
When they'd block the road like this they'd have to stop working to let cars go by. Over and over.
I was quite content to watch this machine all day. This guy got that thing on three wheels all the time. 

For my next assignment I was sent to document tree damage in the right of way of a small municipality. I started out with a partner who was a temp hire who came from up North somewhere excited by the high pay. On the first stop she told me I was using my GPS wrong. "You have to point it at the tree." I tried to explain that SHE was using it wrong, for maximum precision we should go all the way up to the tree and point it at the sky. But the error was so big it was fine to take the reading from where we took the photo and get it done as quickly as possible. Accurate final count more important than precision. The next day she told me she'd called her pastor from the hotel and he'd advised her to talk to me to be sure I'd accepted Jesus Christ as my savior. By lunchtime I'd gotten the city manager to let me do the whole job alone. I designed a database in my hotel overnight to use instead of the paper form and I personally documented all the trees down in the right of way for an entire Broward County town, uploading the GPS waypoints and photos into the database directly. They were so amazed by my grasp of technology.

That was in 2005. Remember 2005? This was 2 years before the invention of the iPhone. There were some modules you could use with DSLRs to put the GPS coordinates in the metadata of digital photos but they were out of my reach. But now everybody has a device in their pocket that can document storm damage with the GPS location embedded in the metadata of every photo. This job now would not require a salaried scientist to drive every mile of road in a town or county. You would just need to scrape the data off social media. Instead of writing a receipt for every truck of debris you just have the driver snap a photo and text it to a specific number where it could automatically be recorded in a database.

The key to efficient management is a robust cellular data network and a few good computer scientists. We still need people with chain saws, dump trucks, and loaders, but a lot of the expense for people like me to stand there and just watch them all day is sort of obsolete.

I'm curious if these systems are already in place. If they aren't then I am going to be extra bitter than I was wasting my time in 2005 trying to point people in the right direction with innovation. But when am I not extra bitter? Nothing really changes.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

I can't think of a better name for a 4x4

Yesterday I saw a story on FHB about a Chicago law firm filing suit against Menards and Home Depot for selling 4x4s that are only 3 1/2" x 3 1/2". They included some tweets from people reacting to this news. I'm sort of glad I saw this hot take first because it pointed out to me how unnecessary it is to be mean about people who don't know that the name refers to the nominal rough cut size and that the dried planed 4x4 is a standard dimension of 3 1/2" square.

I see nothing wrong with not knowing that. The people that don't know standard lumber dimensions are not stupid. They probably know a ton of stuff I don't know, like how to keep score in tennis or what it's like to shovel snow.

To me this seems more of an opportunity to educate than a need to mock people who never had to build a deck before. I find the process of turning trees into studs and posts fascinating. It seems like an opportunity for watching a YouTube videos that shows how there are a lot of steps after sawing a board into a 4"x4" post before it turns up at Home Depot, mainly it gets dried, which shrinks it, and then it gets planed on all 4 sides, which gets it down to the final standard dimension.

I started an informal Twitter poll to see how many people think a 4x4 is really 4x4. More than I would've thought. 75% of respondents knew 4x4 was nominal and not the actual size. 25% really thought it was 4 inches square. (n=44, which is a lot more than the 18 questioned in the store for the original story, and they got 1/3 not knowing vs my 1/4)

I also got some comments from people saying it's not the same where they are, outside the US. I did some digging to see what people call dimensional lumber in other countries, particularly ones that use the metric system. They still call a stud a 2x4 or maybe a 4x2. Wikipedia says that they say timber instead of lumber for building materials, but I haven't been able to confirm this.

I found anecdotal evidence that Norwegians have their own lumber dimensions, 95 mm for a 4x4, which is about 3 3/4", 1/4" bigger than the American version. They dimension drawings and give the specs in mm. This used to be true for the US as well. When I did AutoCAD work for the Army Corps of Engineers in the '90s they required all architectural plans to be dimensioned in mm. According to David Luke at Merrick this is no longer the case. They dropped that requirement around 2005.

But even though the actual size may vary my research shows that all around they world they still say "two by four" to refer to a standard piece of framing lumber. (Here's an interesting pdf about Japan where they have their own standard stick frame construction but "2x4" is still part of the name. It's based on a 3'x6' panel convention vs our 4'x8' version. This sounds good to me. I might not have such an aversion to doing anything with sheet goods if they were that small. Apparently 3'x6' is the standard size of a traditional tatami mat.)

I haven't come up with any good ideas for better names for 4x4s, 2x4s, etc. It doesn't really make sense to rename them based on a round metric number since everything else is still in inches and feet. I would support a sudden change to metric though. I could learn to say 90x90 and 40x90 as easily as I converted myself from °F to °C. (I just flipped the switch on my thermostats and weather app and learned that 25°C is a good nominal summer air conditioner setting. I think of 15°C as a summer night in the UK and anything less than that I call cold.)

Anyway, back to the lawsuit. Home Depot clearly states the actual size of all their lumber on their website. And if you're in the store you can see what size it is with your actual eyeballs and get a tape measure out of your purse and measure it if you want to.

Here's the description of a Pressure Treated 4x4x8 (which they seem to have measured soaking wet). I don't think anything will come from this except that a lot of people may learn what nominal and actual mean.

Interestingly you can also learn lots of other information about lumber from the Home Depot website by reading the reviews. Yes, a 4x4 is going to twist like a bitch when it dries. Prepare yourself. I learned to install my deck railing posts long and brace them diagonally until they dried in place. Then I took off the braces and cut them to length and finished the railing.

Good luck to all the DIYers out there. It's hard enough with the names of the wood not matching the measurement without people in the trades mocking you for not knowing it. But getting mad in the Home Depot reviews because wood acts like wood is pretty mean too. Acting all butthurt when carpentry turns out to be a lot harder than it looks on HGTV is insulting to people who do this for a living so I sort of get why they turn so mean.