Friday, November 18, 2016

How to make a cellular-connected garden monitor

Check out this project I made to monitor the soil moisture level of my remote garden plot. Since the garden has no power or internet available, it uses a cellular data connection to send info back to a cloud service, and then that data gets passed to another cloud service for plotting. A great learning experience!

I posted all the details on, a community for hardware makers with lots of interesting projects:

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Book Review—The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

The Lean Startup is an influential business book by Eric Ries that seemed to really make waves through the software industry and beyond. The premise, reduced to just one sentence: build a “minimum viable product” to get early feedback from customers to avoid the risk of a long development process that results in a polished product that no one actually wants. Being somewhat familiar with the concepts of lean manufacturing, I thought I would see if some of the ideas could be applied to physical product development.

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

Friday, April 15, 2016

Book Review—Zero to One by Peter Thiel

In Zero to One, author Peter Thiel makes the case for unorthodox thinking in order to build the future purposefully by creating companies so good they can effectively reap the benefits of a monopoly for a long period of time, potentially decades. He argues that the path to making money long-term is to make a product at least 10x better than the so-called competition and not get trapped in the traditional thinking of making incremental advances on existing products. The all-electric Tesla Roadster, for example, was in a league of its own when it launched and created much better opportunities for Tesla than if they had made something to compete with the Honda Civic.

Zero to One by Peter Thiel

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

How to make a vertical laptop stand from laser-cut acrylic

When my wife is working from home, she likes to sit at a proper desk with a monitor, keyboard, and mouse instead of hunching over her laptop. To make it easy, I set up an "umbilical cord" of power, USB, and display connection to plug in and off she goes. To free up room on her desk she lays her 13" Macbook Air on the floor which is always kind of awkward. To resolve this, I thought a space-saving vertical laptop stand could help, much like one of these made by Twelve South or Rain Design.

But it's no fun to buy one; let's design and build one from scratch out of laser-cut acrylic!

The two copies of the laptop stand I cut out of acrylic
The two copies of the laptop stand I cut out of acrylic

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Mini Book Review—Making Things Move by Dustyn Roberts

Making Things Move by Dustyn Roberts is well described by its subtitle "DIY Mechanisms for Inventors, Hobbyists, and Artists". I picked it up at the library to see if there were any fun new pieces or tricks I could learn from as an engineer. Highlights included the parts about the internal workings of stepper motors and a trick on how to drill a hole in the center of a shaft without a lathe. So while there were some cool new tidbits, it was mostly just fun to see all these topics in one place and easily approachable for new people.

Notable covered topics:
  • The six simple machines
  • Material types, properties, and tolerances
  • Fastening and joining
  • Forces, torque, power, work, energy sources
  • Intro to hobby motors and servos and their control
  • Bearings, gears, screws, springs, cams, linkages, and motion conversion
  • Lots of example projects bringing these concepts together
For a non-engineer getting into making projects with electronics or motors, this would be a great resource I would recommend. If you are already an engineer with some making experience, this book would be just for fun.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Review—The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman was my first foray into studying industrial design, rather than the mechanical design techniques I am accustomed to. The number of complimentary concepts and issues definitely makes this book useful for engineers. It was updated with modern examples in 2013 after 25 years of success, and incorporates topics from many of the author's separate books and articles.

Book cover of The Design of Everyday Things

Thursday, July 9, 2015

How to set up an iPhone for international travel on AT&T

Traveling abroad with a smartphone plan is definitely confusing. You can have all the features you want pretty much as-is, but you have to be willing to pay for that convenience. In the worst-case scenario, it could literally bankrupt you if you're not careful. AT&T charges $0.0195/KB $0.002/KB for international roaming data, but don't be fooled by that small number. Your monthly phone plan at home might have 10GB included, but one tenth of that (1GB) in maps, music, youtube videos, and FaceTime calls (not unreasonable) while abroad will cost you $21,000 $1997. Whoops.

Update 2/23/2016:

  • It looks like AT&T made some changes on Nov 13, 2015 in our favor to keep up with the competition! After Verizon made roaming to Mexico and Canada for short trips incredibly easy (an automatic $2/day for the same service as your home plan), AT&T made roaming in Mexico completely free! Unfortunately, no change in pricing for Canada.
  • However, pay-per-use data cost seems to have come down, and this blog now reflects this. I could not find any evidence online of when this exactly happened (do any of you know?) so I assume it was at the same time as this other change. The new rate of $0.002/kB is $1997/GB which is 1/10 of the previous mind-boggling $21,000/GB. Still too high to use casually!
  • Passport packages remain the same price

How do we get around this? Here are a variety of options that start with the simplest and safest for not having any overages, and slowly increase in service, cost, and complexity. Given your individual needs and budget, take a look and choose what's right for you! Most of these tips will be applicable to Verizon or T-Mobile plans, too. I tried to be comprehensive since I've never seen another website that lays it all out with detail.

Option Voice Incoming / Outgoing Text Incoming / Outgoing Data Capability Difficulty Cost
0. Turn off your phone None / None None / None None Paperweight Low Free
1. Airplane mode + WiFi None / None None / None WiFi only All your apps/camera with data on WiFi only Low Free
2. Data roaming off to have most phone functionality Straight to voicemail / Outgoing works No extra charge / $0.50 extra charge WiFi only, but can turn on cellular data for extra charge (risky) Most functions work; very popular Med Low
2A. Set up a Google Voice account Like above with better voicemail Low
2B. Turn on data roaming when needed Get data on-the-go at risk of big bill Low to High
2C. Use VoIP for voice calls Cheap calls to back home Low
3. Buy a travel data package $1.00 to $0.35 per min based on plan Unlimited 120MB to 800MB included based on plan Full capability with controlled price Low Med
4. Get a local SIM card Variable minutes included Variable texts included Variable data included Full capability; same as local phone High Med

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