My 7 year old son, Charlie, brought this home from school yesterday.  He really wants a Tesla Motors car.


New way of making electronics front panels?

Geez, it's been forever since I've posted here.  Maybe I'll use my blog to tell you about my latest project adventure.

I've been working for a while on an enclosure for a raspberry pi that will allow me to use my jog dial interface that I've built for my ShapeOko 2.  I call it the "ShuttleBOX".  I wanted to have a nice aluminum panel on the front.  So, first I designed something that looks like this:

I thought that was pretty cool, and even though I hadn't ever cut aluminum on my ShapeOko2, I've seen others do it, so I figured I would use this as a learning experience.  However, the problem was with that text.  How would I get into the corners of that tiny text?  I have some really tiny bits for use on PCB milling, but I just knew that if I tried that, I would go through a ton of bits with them snapping like twigs.

So, I investigated other options.  Some folks use acid etching to etch in their designs.  Others mask an area and then paint.  None of that appealed to me.  I also designed the panel using Front Panel Express to see if they could make it for me.  That software is great, but running it through the estimator, it was going to be over $70 for them to make.  That's too steep for me.

But then I ran across some photo printing sites that were offering new services that print on aluminum.  I checked it out, and some of them were quite affordable!  If I could get all the text printed on the aluminum, all I would have to do it cut out the holes to mount equipment and the edge profile.

I looked more into the "Metal Prints" at BayPhoto.  For a 4" x 6" print, I could get it for about $11.  Not too bad!  And reading their material, they claim: "Because the image is infused into the surface and not on it, your images will take on an almost magical luminescence."  Oooh.  Magical!  Who wouldn't want that?

I downloaded their software and started exporting my design into it.  I made an image fit exactly their print size since their software is not exactly set up for sizing things exactly.  Meaning, I can't position a drilled hole at some exact location - their software is more commonly used by people panning and zooming images by hand until they get the look they want.  Once I had my image in there I realized something - if they can print anything, why am I just putting text?  I could add a fancy background!  So, I did:

Before I ordered it, I saw they offer a sample pack where you get 5 different surface finishes of your print.  For my 4x6 size, it would be $30.  So, now instead of $11 per panel, I'm down to $6 per panel!  Not too bad.

I submitted the order, and after a week or so, some great prints showed up.  I decided I would make my first attempt at cutting aluminum on one of these, so I picked the finish I liked the least.  Surprisingly, I didn't have a single issue cutting the aluminum.  I used some WD-40 as some cutting fluid and things went just fine.  Here's a video showing some of the cutting at work:

After cutting:

I added my nice metal buttons (I'm still missing one at the top) and I think it came out quite nice.  Although, this was the print finish I liked the least (so I have 4 more better looking prints still here).  Also, if I did it over again, I would lower the saturation on the background image to be a more washed out white so that the text stands out more.  Oh well, live and learn.  I still think this looks pretty great:

I did some searching and didn't really find folks doing something like this. And I'm not sure how new this whole "metal prints" for photos thing really is.  But I think it worked out great.  Thanks Bay Photo!

P.S. - In case you're interested, I plan on posting the plans for the enclosure to Thingiverse at some point, but I'm still iterating on the design.


A surprise party for me

I would have never survived in the mafia. Sometimes I am so unaware of my surroundings that I'm ashamed.

My boss walked with me into the office, and as he opened the door to the shop in the back, I heard a loud "Surprise!!!". I felt the urge to start clapping for John and immediately started to feel worried that I had forgotten about some sort of surprise party for him that I was supposed to be at!

Then I looked at the cameras, and they were pointed at me. I don't have the pictures yet, but I'm guessing that my face is going to look pretty darn funny in those.

Everyone at my company METECS, was there to surprise and congratulate me on a Silver Snoopy award from NASA. If you've never heard of it, it is a fairly prestigious award given out by an astronaut to an employee that has contributed to safety or mission success in human spaceflight. Snoopy is the mascot, so-to-speak, of NASA's human spaceflight program. The award is named after a silver pin of Snoopy that flies on a space shuttle mission and comes with a certificate to say where and how long it flew. The award is not for management, and you can only receive one. For folks who work at Johnson Space Center, it is a pretty big deal to get one.

You can read more about the Silver Snoopy Award here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silver_Snoopy_award

And so, looking back, there were a million hints that something was off. Things that happened that morning. Doors in the office that were locked that never normally were. My boss drinking coffee and not worried about being late to our staff meeting. The moving of the staff meeting time. All kinds of things. I was blissfully unaware. My brain was running wild, but about a problem I was working on at work to support an upcoming demo. Never once did it think about the odd things that morning, or that people may be planning something concerning me!

The fact that I was thinking about work that morning speaks to how much I love my job, and how much fun I have at work. I find myself in a unique position where my work is rewarding and important, but also free enough to discover and learn new things constantly. My coworkers are amazing. The projects I work on are really cool (sometimes you have to stop and step back from them to realize how cool they are). And while working at NASA has some downsides, it is far outweighed by how many good things I have with my work. I am truly blessed, and try to remind myself of how lucky I am - particularly when we are living in a time where so many are without work, without meaningful work, or without happiness in their work.

My award ceremony is in a couple of weeks, so I don't know exactly which astronaut will be presenting, but I am pretty excited.


5 things Android devices should be doing but aren't

After many months of frustration with these thoughts swirling in my head, I have decided to write them down and share them. So here are 5 things that Android devices could be doing to leapfrog Apple in the market, but aren't.

First off, I love android. I really do. And probably the number one reason I love it is because I feel like I own, and am in control of, my mobile life. No app store lock in. No vendor deciding what apps I am allowed to install. No restrictions on replacing my battery or upgrading my storage. Smartphones and tablets are nothing more than computers, and virtually no one would buy a computer where every application had to be approved by the manufacturer. It astounds me how many people are fine with this when it comes to mobile devices. I love my freedom and this leads me to point #1:

1. Android devices should advertise freedom and functionality.

So many discussions are taking place on social networks that begin something like, "Time for a new phone. Should I get an iphone or a droid?"

The use of the term "droid" aside, this is a very straightforward question that many people have. Let's take a look at some of the advertisements these folks see when trying to make a decision. Imagine a woman in her 50's trying to decide between an Apple product, or an Android device. For Apple products, she will likely see an advertisement like this:

Now, Android users will immediately know that they have had similar capabilities on their devices way before Apple ever added it. But do people see this advertised on TV? Nope. Do the Android ads talk about the things that make their devices different or better? Nope. Any discussion of how Apple limits your freedom with their devices? Never. Instead, that same 50 year old woman will probably see an advertisement like this:

Jeez. I don't even know what else to say. You have elements that make your products better than Apple's!!!! Why is no one advertising them????

What should an Android device advertisement look like? Some should be showing off new features that Apple doesn't have like the new face unlock feature in Android 4.0. Others should highlight their restrictive model: picture the old Mac vs. PC ads, but with the iPhone checking with Apple before denying the user's request to install an app of their choice. Then denying their request to upgrade their storage. Then denying their request to change their battery. Then denying their request to visit a flash-based website. Then the tagline: "[some Android device]: Freedom included."

2. Android devices should include a darn infrared emitter/sensor.

With the many millions of smartphones being bought and used every day, for the life of me, I can't understand how we STILL don't have an infrared emitter on our phones. I'm sitting with a computer in my lap, and it can do all these amazing things, but it can't turn my TV on and off? Especially when the hardware needed to do this is a few cents and requires basically zero power (think about how long the batteries last in your TV remote).

Well, I suppose if I wanted to control my TV, I could get my TV on my home network, and then connect my phone to WiFi, and then have an app to talk to my TV. Now, imagine telling all that to the same 50 year old woman above. Or, I could start the IR remote app on my phone and hit the power button.

If Android devices had an infrared emitter (and possibly a sensor as well), think about the huge range of applications that could be made to use them. Low power wireless communication, robotics, temperature measurement, blood oxygen level and heart-rate sensors, light detectors, direct phone to phone communication for games, transfer, etc. (everyone remembers palm-pilots doing this YEARS ago). And those are just the immediate things I think of.

Appliance and electronics manufacturers for fans, air-conditioners, lights, radios, dvd players, tv's, and many more, all either include infrared control on their products, or would consider doing so if everyone's smartphone was potentially a controller. Once a device's config file shows up in the open database for IR control, then the app could auto-configure and control it! C'mon manufacturers: the reach of the smartphone could be much further than WiFi networks!!!!

3. Get a standardized dock/interface connector.

Most phone chargers have finally become standardized, which is a huge win. The next step is to standardize an interface connector so that manufacturers can build a plethora of Android accessories. Not Motorola Droid Bionic accessories. Not even Motorola accessories. Android accessories. This would open up a huge market to let people buy all sorts of add-ons for their devices. A person need only look at the aisle in their electronics store for iphone/ipod accessories. Now imagine a global market much bigger than that for Android accessories. But the main reason I want this interface connector is for the docks that could be made. These could be docks that know what type of dock they are, and have the phone respond appropriately. Docks for the nightstand, or the car, or the kitchen, or - most importantly - the computer desk. Which brings me to my next feature that Android devices should have...

4. Still be a smart device when docked to my computer.

Why is it, this computer with all these sensors, connectivity to multiple networks, cameras, microphones, FM radio, bluetooth, etc... just shows up as a dumb disk drive when I plug it into my computer?

To get on google+ and join a hangout, or to video chat with someone on skype, I need a webcam and a microphone hooked up to my computer. I don't know about you, but most of the desktop PC's I see don't have both just sitting on their desk. Especially at work. What's even more ironic is that the smartphone in your pocket has both of these things, but your computer can't use them. Why can't I use the camera on my phone as my webcam and the microphone on my phone as my microphone? I know there are some apps that can try to create this experience, but they are far from any experience I'd like to see. When I sit at my computer, I'd like to dock my phone next to my monitor. I'd like a nice "computer dock" screen to pop up on the phone, maybe that lets me enable the webcam and microphone for the computer (as opposed to the nightstand dock, which would likely look more like an alarm clock). I'd like to easily be able to sync items, or manually transfer items. Perhaps my task list and mail notifications should be shown nice and big. My phone and network connected apps should also be able to see my computer network and interact with devices and let other devices interact with it.

This means the phone would be an accessory to the desktop computer. But these docks could really work both ways. Along with using the devices on the phone as accessories to my computer, these docks could let me use the computer peripherals for the phone. For example, maybe the dock would allow me to run phone apps and have the display show up nice and big on my computer screen. Let me use my full-size keyboard and mouse. Let me use my computer speakers to listen to Pandora.

5. Let users earn revenue from data collection.

This one seems obvious to me, but I don't see it happening. More and more, people are realizing that data is a currency. Everyone wants your data. They can use it to make decisions, look at trends, detect traffic congestion, supply ads, test products, and make money.

So, if that is the case, why is a device with all these sensors not able to make me money? Google maps already uses GPS data to detect traffic flow... that seems valuable!! Why not pay these users the same way we pay them to place ads on their website? I've got ads right here on this blog. Why? Because google pays me to put them here. Not much, but enough for me to place them here.

If I'm driving in my car, and my phone is charging so there isn't a power concern, would I allow Google to gather traffic data from me? Maybe. Would I allow them if they paid me? Probably. What if meteorologists could tap into a vast network of smartphones in an area and look at barometric pressure readings? Would that be valuable? I bet it would. What if the mobile phone companies could get detailed logging of cell tower signal strength? I'd think they might pay for something like that. What about WiFi access point logging? Or FM signal strength? Or temperature data logging? Or pictures of public places? Or...

Now granted, this would have to be opt in, and would likely only be viable when devices are plugged in and charging, but I still think there is potential for a data collection network like the world has never seen before. And, like web ads, users are more likely to participate if they are able to make some money. Even if it is a small amount, if this could be credited on their phone bill, I think it would be a win for the consumer.

Those are my top 5. My next 5 would be things like:

  • better car integration
  • fingerprint unlock
  • embracing the linux community (possibly by partnering with someone like Canonical or Red Hat)
  • an effort to reuse old devices on your computer network (perhaps for data collection, home automation, etc.)
  • wireless charging to enable the first completely sealed phones that can survive submerged underwater
  • better phone-to-phone wifi support to play games across multiple android phone models.

Ok, sorry, that's 6. Let's get going Android device manufacturers!!! I want to see this stuff before Apple gets to it. Please leave a comment with your ideas on how Android devices could be better.


On my honor ...

Just wanted to throw down some thoughts here about how beneficial scouting has been for my son, and for my family.

Neo went to one of the Boy Scout Troop meetings with his Webelos den last night. As they get closer to transitioning from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts, they go on some campouts together with the older boys, and also go to a few troop meetings to try to get a feel for which troop they may want to join and what Boy Scouts is like.

I was very impressed with the older boys last night. You could see leadership being farmed right in front of your eyes. They led all the activities, and they kept the group as a whole on task. The older boys were all helping each other and the younger scouts. They showed the Webelos how they pitched their tents, what they should bring, organized sleeping arrangements, planned meals, and planned activities.

Charlie is already getting interested in following in "Bubba's" footsteps. During the Boy Scout meeting last night, I caught him using his left hand to manually pull his pinky and thumb together on his right hand, and then doing the scout salute at the end of the meeting.

I'm not sure how long Neo will stick with scouts, or if he'll shoot for Eagle rank, or anything else. But I am sure of how good it has been for him up to now. In fact, I often times think it has rubbed off on me as well (both as a person, and a father).

Thanks to all those folks out there that support such a good institution for raising young men.


Schiff represents the "1%" at the protests

I thought this was some interesting interaction with the Occupy Wall St. protests. Sure, there are different levels of education and eloquence, but there are some good discussions in here. And even if you hate Schiff, and everything he preaches, you can't deny that he was the only one going on national TV telling everyone to get out of real-estate and predicting the giant crash to come while all the other economists laughed and made fun of him. From that alone, I suppose he deserves our ear.


Ballmer's take on Android

Microsoft's Ballmer has a history of bashing devices right after they are released to try and get investors to appreciate the Microsoft position. Today, the day after the Google Nexus and Android ICS was announced, Ballmer came out and trashed the device and Android. For a reference, let's hear what he had to say about the original iPhone. (Worth noting here that at the time he made these remarks, Apple's stock price was about $40. AAPL closed today at $398.62 and Windows Mobile was a huge flop, so, yeah - nobody believes anything he says)