It’s been a while…

8 years to be exact! A lot has happened in those 8 years. While the journey has been fun, with various twists and turns, it’s been worthwhile. The purpose of this post isn’t to recap those 8 years. What I’d like to do is start up blogging again, with the main focus around writing about the things that I’m really interested in, reflecting back at some experiences and learnings, and thinking out loud.

I started this blog with a focus on simplicity having grown it from a nearly strict .net/Windows/WIC blog in the days where I blogged on MSDN. Simplicity is something that I still find critical, and is expressed in so many different ways. In the past two years, operational excellence of running distributed systems has been an area that I’ve been focusing quite a bit on. This will definitely be a topic that I’ll examine further; looking at how operationally excellent thinking is a form of simplicity.

While reviving this blog, I found all the drafts of posts that I had started 8 or so years ago. Many of the posts were going to be around software testing and electronics-based projects. I may still focus on some of these, but I don’t expect to revive those old drafts. There’s too many new topics and interest areas to jump into.

Here’s a list of things that I’ll jump into at some point in the blog:

  • Python projects
  • Operational Excellence
  • Monitoring and Alarming
  • neo4j and Graph Databases
  • Building tools for internal engineering efficiency
  • Running engineering teams

While listing those is good, this time through I would like to keep this blog going and not stop after a few months or take 8 year breaks between writing. So, onto continuing this journey…

Arduino, Electronics, General, Make

Maker Faire 2011

This year was the first time that I attended Maker Faire! It certainly did not disappoint! While Maker Faire wasn’t last weekend, it’s still pretty recent, so I figured I have to post something while it’s still relatively fresh on people’s minds. Each year prior, I always remember reading in amazement at the various posts coming out of Maker Faire. The work highlighted at the event has always amazed me. In person, the Faire is really quite something to experience. There’s a lot to see, so here’s a brief recap of Maker Faire weekend.

Plane View
Plane View

Flying in on Friday I was greeted with some great weather that stayed with all the attendees through Sunday. Hey even upon approach to SFO, I got to see the Golden Gate Bridge from my seat. Since I stayed right by SFO, Saturday morning I figured that I’d over to San Mateo bright and early never having been to that part of the Bay Area before. Arriving in San Mateo, I found a Starbucks very quickly and found the free parking beneath the Whole Foods. Still at this point it was before 8am, so I grabbed some coffee and breakfast and stuck around Starbucks. Never having been to Maker Faire before, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of lines. So after enjoying breakfast, I walked over to the fairgrounds around 8:45. By 9 I was standing in line waiting for the gates to open at 10. When I got there, there were only a few folks in line ahead of me, which was great. Since they had been to Maker Faires in the past, they talked about how the Faire has changed over time and gave some handy tips (like immediately getting the “get to do cool things” armband… this lets you participate in the Faire events, for example soldering in booths or entering the Tech Shop).

Let’s just say Saturday was a really long day. I took my time to explore and get my bearings of the fairgrounds. There was good WiFi and AT&T 3G coverage, so using the online map of the fairgrounds and schedule was good, but there was also a paper version. My first stop was over to the Tech Shop. Since I was one of the first people in the gates, the whole fairgrounds were pretty empty to start off with… actually great to kinds of see what’s what.

Cupcake Cars
Cupcake Cars

I got to see some of the famous Maker Faire cupcakes driving around as well as some hand crafted olde-style cars. At the Tech Shop, I was able to talk to some of the vendors and actually get a nameplate inscribed for my son (see the video posted below) with a real laser printer. 🙂 Very cool stuff. From there I moved to the outdoor Google booth which was staged in a few freight-liner style shipping containers.

Google's Area
Google’s Area

They were just demoing off the Arduino <-> Android work they had announced a few weeks prior at Google I/O. Unfortunately I didn’t get a free ADK from them. They demoed off some Android controlled robots with embedded Arduinos and other similar projects.

Moving along, I headed into the Fiesta Hall where later in the day they had the Tesla Coil concerts on the Tesla Stage. There were a bunch of other exhibits here including demos of the POV’s on bicycle wheels, the MakerBot, talks on incorporating LEDs in clothing that happened later in the day, and Neon Sharks.

Light Art
Light Art

Initially I did not spend much time in this hall, but I ended up exploring more here later in the day and on Sunday. I ended up finding some cool other areas in there, such as the section for Hackerspaces as well as some art exhibits towards one side of the hall.

The main event for me surrounded the huge Expo Hall. This is like a garage tinkerer’s paradise. There’s everything from electronics to Legos to building blocks to kinesthetic art to crafty stuff all jam packed into one hall. Really great stuff. Over the two days I managed to solder together a MiniPOV and a Drawdio at the element14 booth.

Lego City
Lego City

SparkFun had another huge soldering station setup, but I didn’t end up doing any soldering there since the lines were generally pretty long. None-the-less, they had a vending machine for various part that they sell and ended up getting a Barometric Sensor for a project that I have in mind. Among my favorite booths here was the SeeedStudio booth which also housed Ian from Dangerous Prototypes and the B-Squares Project. They happened to also be across the way from the Make: Live stage, which was handy for some of the talks that I attended. Roaming through this hall takes a ton of time. There’s lots to see and stuff that’s easy to miss, even the 10th time through. Some of the big highlights here included a huge Lego setup as well as a building blocks section where kids built very tall towers.

The outdoor areas were jam packed as well. The South Lot had tons of outdoor sculptures, and I learned only on Sunday that there were metal working, glass blowing, and other classes that you could sign up for.

Big Bubba's Grill
Big Bubba’s Grill

This was also home to the Whiskeydrome as well as the Life Sized Mousetrap game. The West Green was a great place to hang out on the grass and drink some beer or eat some food. The West Lot had a Homegrown village where you could learn about eating locally grown foods. There were some food vendors there as well as the Coke Zero+Mentos Demos. I have to say, other than eating lunch at Big Bubba’s (hey with a grill that big, you kinds have to try their BBQ!) I really didn’t spend much time in this section.

I spent some time in the Maker Shed, which is basically a store where you could get Arduinos, electronics projects and kits, books, T-shirts, etc. Some of the stuff you see online and wonder if it’s worth ordering, so it was actually nice to get to look at these items. Another pavilion, which was a bit underwhelming, was the Health 2.0 exhibit. Don’t get me wrong, the stuff there was cool, like doing microscopy with DSLRs and the GE Whole Body Analysis, but it was really light compared to the rest of the Faire. I hope in future years this area expands more.

All-in-all, it was a busy two days! On Saturday I didn’t leave until 7pm and Sunday I was first in line at 8:15, and left around 1:30 to head to SFO to catch my flight back to Seattle. From a logistical standpoint, showing up early is a great idea… I beat the crowds and line getting in. It actually seemed that the folks who travelled from out of the Bay Area were eager to get into the Faire. Parking at Whole Foods next to the aforementioned Starbucks was great. It’s only about a 15 minute walk, and with nice weather this was not bad. I wish I had attended more talks, for instance I missed Massimo Banzi and Adam Savage talk. 😦 So next year I definitely need to plan these into my day. I didn’t see the battleship area since the lines were long and I just didn’t plan around the show times. Also there were sections, especially outside, that I don’t feel like I spent enough time at. All things to take into account for next year!

Below you’ll find a pieced together video of all the short clips I took at the Faire, as well as a selection of photos.

General, Simplicity

Is simplicity easy?

There has been much talk about simplicity (here, here, here).  Simplicity of design.  Simplicity of use.  Simplicity!  What does it all mean?

Having spent some time thinking about this, I wanted to share my thoughts on the subject.  My thoughts are on the general subject of simplicity and I’ll be using the phrasing of “product” and “consumer” to refer to the abstract concept of a product and target audience.  Additionally there are some specific examples for illustrative purposes.

Are simplicity and complexity related?  The real difference between simplicity and complexity is the way in which complexity is presented to consumer.  Products that have been designed with simplicity in mind may still be complex in their functionality or topic, but not so in their usage.  To illustrate these points, I point to The Elements for iPad.  When taking chemistry in high school, students learn about the periodic table of elements, but it’s a pretty dry subject causing them to have to memorize types of elements, number of free electrons, and mnemonics such as BrINClHOF.  However, the iPad app takes the periodic table of elements to the next level, taking a complex topic and making it simple to understand.  It does so by not only presenting the standard information about each element, but showing photos of products made from each element and explaining other usages for them.  Essentially they were able to bring objects from the everyday world we live in and tie it in with the elements that they are comprised of.

But don’t consumers want products with many features and if everything is boiled down won’t they move to other products?  I’d like to present the argument that one of the main reasons we don’t see products embracing simplicity is because it is easier to design a product that is complex, and much harder to design a product that embodies simplicity.  Examples of this can be seen in many places, perhaps the stereotypical example being that of the Apple iPhone. Both the phone and OS embody the essence of simplicity of design.  The phone has one main button on it (other than the power, volume, mute), contrast this to Android phones having 4 or more buttons that encapsulate much of the same functionality of the iPhone’s single button.  Another example of the growing movement towards simplicity is Amazon’s quest to answer the demand from consumers to make packaging on product less frustrating.  Why is it that Amazon had to spearhead this effort in the first place?  Applying my earlier argument here, it’s easier for the manufacturers to make packaging that hard for the consumer to open since it actually takes more effort to create packaging that is easily opened.

The article at PresentationZen really highlights the essence of this argument.  The way they put it there is that:

Simplicity doesn’t necessarily mean removing the complex; it means removing the superfluous.

PresententationZen’s summary plays nicely along with the argument set forth here.  Spend the time to create simple solutions instead of taking the easy route of just putting a product out there.  It’s not easy to spend the time to remove the superfluous to come up with a design that can remain as full functioned as its complicated counterpart, but in a simpler design.

Photography, Time-lapse

Projects, posts!

Before getting the site all setup, there were a number of posts that I’ve been thinking about writing. As outlined in the first post, I wanted to use this site as a way to communicate various personal projects that I’m either working on or planning to work on. Also wanted to use it as a means to write about interesting topics.

For a few months now, I’ve been playing around with the Arduino. It’s been some time since I’ve done any electronics work… Well, back in college I had taken Physics Electronics Lab, which covered the principles of analog circuits, and Digital Systems Design, which covered the principles of digital circuits. Getting back into electronics has been quite fun, especially with the Arduino. I’ll have post coming up discussing my mini-electronics lab that I setup in the garage and resources I found helpful for getting back into electronics.

Around the same time that I started to get back into electronics, I heard on TWiP from one of Ron Brinkmann’s “Picks of the Week” about the OpenMoCo project. For those unfamiliar, the purpose of that project was to create an open source motion control system using the Arduino as the controller, and (semi-) off-the-shelf parts to create a lower cost dolly/rig for capturing video or photos for time-lapse. I’ve been reading quite a bit about this in my spare time and have started to design and source parts for my version of such a rig. There will be a number of upcoming posts about this work.

Lastly, there have been a few article that have come through my daily RSS feed that caught my attention. For those, I wanted to share some thoughts. So there will be some of those posts coming up as well.

Photography, Solarography

First attempt at solargraphy

Earlier this year, there was a cool article on LifeHacker about taking ultra-long exposures using a pinhole camera to capture the sun’s path through the sky.  A few days later I emailed Tarja Trygg of the Solargraphy site about trying some exposures from my home.   He graciously offered to send me a camera that he constructed.   A few weeks later I received 3 cameras to capture the sun’s tracks through the sky in the Spring.

Pinhole cameras
Pinhole cameras

In order to keep the cameras in-place for the 3-month duration of spring (March 20, 2010 to June 21, 2010), I constructed a simple rig to insert the cameras in place.  This rig consisted of pieces of cedar purchased from the scrap wood bin at Home Depot, with holes drilled just deep enough to hold the film canister cameras in place.  The rig was then mounted to the overhang of my roof using clamps.

Mounting apparatus
Mounting apparatus

Below are the results of the 3-month long exposures.  While the rig that was constructed held the cameras in-place for the duration of the exposure, the rig shows up in the photos.  For future experiments, this rig needs to be modified so that it is not visible or minimally visible to the camera.

Spring 2010 Solargraphy, Camera #1
Spring 2010 Solargraphy, Camera #1

Spring 2010 Solargraphy, Camera #2
Spring 2010 Solargraphy, Camera #2

Spring 2010 Solargraphy, Camera #3
Spring 2010 Solargraphy, Camera #3

Results of this shoot are also now posted to the Solargraphy site!



Welcome to simplicityguy!

My name is Robert Wlodarczyk, and I’m the guy behind simplicityguy.

Getting this site going has been in the back of my mind for quite some time now.  The concept behind the site was to share information in a simple format, making it easier to understand.  This site will cover a variety of topics, including programming, photography, and electronics, as well as posts to various technology that’s really innovative.  Tutorials will also be posted, with photos and step-by-step instructions on how to do the same project on your own.

I’m certainly looking forward to this!