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Projects Thinking hard, or hardly thinking?

“Art in Space”

On a cold, dark, Minnesota November evening, after what was, for me, a long week, and for the students, months of work, we shipped Blue Origin two payloads: art, for space.

In November 2019, I was contacted by the kind folks at Playful Learning Lab.

They had conducted a contest with OK Go where middle schoolers and high schoolers could dream up some art that could only happen in space. Two teams were selected, one focused on paint splatters and music, and the other focused on suspended magnets and whirling particle vortexes. The undergraduate team at the Playful Learning Lab worked with the winning student teams and also the engineers at Blue Origin.

Once these payloads were created, they’d be launched on Blue Origin’s New Shepard for an 11-minute suborbital flight into space. Actually, that’s not true! As you may suspect, putting things into space tends to have strict deadlines (and mass requirements!), and the team needed some help getting everything ready in time.

They knew I was handy with microcontrollers and electronics and making solid one-off interactives and worked well under pressure, and wanted to know if I was interested.

WAS I INTERESTED?! Rewind a few years to an interview of mine by Mark Fraunfelder.

Mark asked me what sorts of things I dream of making, and I spouted off a few things, and ended with "I'd love to build something that goes into space."

Long story short, it was like a heist movie and Apollo 13 combined. There was the “gathering the team” intro. I brought in folks I’ve spent a decade or more working with, like Matthew Beckler (with whom I have a set of informal Hardy-Littlewood rules) and some of the folks from Kidzibits (who are great at thinking creatively while creating robust, rock-solid fabrications).

We spent a week or so of long days and nights working with a truly extraordinary team of engineering undergraduate students, covering massive whiteboards with diagrams and frequently dumping everything we had onto a table and saying “We gotta remove off 100 grams from this subassembly.” (100 grams here, 100 grams there, when you only have 500 grams per payload, it really adds up!)

474 grams, or 26 grams under the limit! (Photo credit: Maria Baklund)

There were two projects. Cosmic Song had a paint chamber with sticky paper and bright powder pigment, and what I can’t describe any other way than “a space guitar”, with three strings strung across some aluminum, struck by little solenoids. They were driven in a random way, driven by a procedural combination of the telemetry data from the rocket and a little chamber with a proximity sensor and a ball in it. Once it reached space, the powder chambers opened, the powder vibrated out of the boxes and onto the sticky paper, while the space guitar’s strings get tapped by solenoids. Dark Origin had a series of magnets suspended in the middle of the payload, various types of magnetic debris in chambers, and powerful fans blowing a whirlwind. When it reached space, the chambers opened, the fans blew, and the particles swirled and interacted and coalesced upon the strong suspended magnets.

Art in space.

The “space guitar” (Photo credit: Maria Baklund)

(This showed up on Instagram, but I didn’t want to spill any beans.)

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Instagram

Hi folks!

A few months ago, I joined Instagram as adamwwolf. I enjoy posting a photo every once in a while.

I don’t post too often, and there are some gems in there!

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Trust and Hysteresis

I was talking to a friend of mine today, and we got around to talking about trust. I realized that trust can be a good example of hysteresis.

When you trust someone, they can do things that you might not agree with, but you’re still OK with them. Once they do enough of them, however, you no longer trust them. Now, their actions are viewed in a different light, and things they do that would have been OK before are no longer OK.

It even works the other way around. Neat!

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Happy Esperanto Day!

December 15th is Esperanto Day! Esperanto is a created language, started in the 1880s by L. L. Zamenhof. December 15th was his birthday, and it’s suitably close to the winter holidays that it’s become the largest Esperanto holiday.

I’ve been studying Esperanto every day for a bit more than 500 days, and I’m still having a lot of fun with it.

I wrote more about Esperanto Day last year.

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“The Impact of a Coin Toss on Major Life Decisions and Subsequent Happiness”

I read an interesting paper recently, called “Heads or Tails: The Impact of a Coin Toss on Major Life Decisions and Subsequent Happiness”. It’s by Steven Levitt, who you may know as the “Freakonomics” guy. I’m, uh, mixed, on the Freakonomics stuff in general.

Here’s the abstract:

Little is known about whether people make good choices when facing important decisions. This paper reports on a large-scale randomized field experiment in which research subjects having difficulty making a decision flipped a coin to help determine their choice. For important decisions (e.g. quitting a job or ending a relationship), those who make a change (regardless of the outcome of the coin toss) report being substantially happier two months and six months later. This correlation, however, need not reflect a causal impact. To assess causality, I use the outcome of a coin toss. Individuals who are told by the coin toss to make a change are much more likely to make a change and are happier six months later than those who were told by the coin to maintain the status quo. The results of this paper suggest that people may be excessively cautious when facing life-changing choices.

They actually made a website where people self-selected, asked a question, got a virtual coin flip and filled out a little survey. The survey asked them how happy they were, and they got a followup survey six months later. The ones who were told by the coin flip to “change” vs “maintain status quo” (and did it) reported being happier.

Hmm.

(I have the original paper saved in my Pocket, but I’m not sure why. When I go to the link in a browser, it shows a paywall.)

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Even Swaps

I first encountered the idea of “even swaps” a few years ago, in an operations research class I was taking for a graduate degree in systems engineering.

Even swaps is a systematic technique for thinking about complicated choices with multiple different tradeoffs.

Rather than write another summary of it, I’ll point to a pretty good write up (although it is a little wordy):

https://hbr.org/1998/03/even-swaps-a-rational-method-for-making-trade-offs

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Weight Loss in 2015

This is what I looked like in February 2015.

Feb 14 2015

This is what I looked like in February 2016.
January 2, 2016

I lost 45 pounds over the year. At first, the primary thing I did was to stop ordering french fries at restaurants. I noticed that I often switched from choosing a healthier option to a less healthy option because the less healthy option came with fries–so I just stopped ordering them altogether. Within a month or two, this wasn’t something I wanted to really overindulge in so I didn’t have to completely abstain.

My wife signed us up for a CSA, which was a *lot* of vegetables, so all summer, my meals were almost entirely vegetable based.

I replaced my work lunches with protein bars, which are basically candy bars with extra protein marketed to men who want to get swole, but they do a pretty good job of tasting good while being filling.

I increased my physical activity, but I definitely avoided anything that qualifies as “working out”. I did a lot of walking, and would walk to go pick up lunch with my work buddies (without getting anything, of course.)

It’s been nice–I saw some people who I hadn’t seen in years at Maker Faire MSP a few weeks ago, and one person didn’t even recognize me until I talked, and he said, “Wow! You lost like… half a person!”

So, where does that leave us now? I’m not 100% satisfied with where I am right now, but I’m definitely more in a maintenance mode than last year. I have a goal for where I want to be by the end of this year, and I’m working hard to make it!

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Budgeting with a buffer

I’ve realized that having a buffer in my availability is more and more important. By having extra time in your schedule, extra willpower, extra cash, whatever, you enable higher quality in the things you *do* choose to do.

What this implies, is that an activity that is only a possible or good choice if it fills the entirety of your availability, isn’t actually a possible choice!

Whoa.

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Bags and Purses

I enjoy a good bag and a good purse. I have no qualms about being a man who wears a purse, and I’ll usually correct you if you use some silly word like “man bag”, “man purse”, or even worse, “murse.” I’m not Adam West.

I currently use the Tom Bihn Ristretto as a purse.
Tom Bihn Ristretto

Tom Bihn Ristretto

I’ve been using the Ristretto since 2012, and I still really like it, 4 years later.

I use the Tom Bihn Brain Bag when I need waaay more space, or am traveling.

Brain Bag

I had tried a Tom Bihn Synapse 19, but it was just a smidgen too small for the work travel I was doing, where I needed two laptops and some equipment. The Brain Bag is big–really big–but it shrinks up better than you’d think if you don’t need it fully expanded.

The Synapse 25 wasn’t out when I bought my Brain Bag, but it’s probably the next bag I’ll try.

When I was in college, I had a Maxpedition Neatfreak and a Timbuk2 laptop backpack.

The Maxpedition Neatfreak was pretty durable, a good size (it’s bigger than it looks in this photo), and worked well, but I didn’t really like the look. It looks a little too military/prepper for me.

Maxpedition Neatfreak Bag

I’m not 100% sure which Timbuk2 laptop backpack I had, but it fit a 13″ laptop and a few thick EE textbooks just fine. It had a main pocket, and two side pockets. It lasted about five years before tearing apart.

(Photos taken from the respective product pages. Go buy the Tom Bihn ones. They’re awesome!)

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Esperanto Lives!

(Hey, I posted the design files for the 3D printed Esperanto Jubilee cookie cutters.)
Saluton amikoj!

Jubilee Cookies and Frosted Green Stars!

Esperanto has two main symbols–the green five-pointed star, which is on the flag, and the Jubilee symbol, and at least one holiday.  Esperanto Day is December 15th, and this year, I designed and 3D printed a Jubilee cookie cutter!

Jubilee cookie and unfrosted stars

I hadn’t ever designed a cookie cutter with indents in the middle before, but they turned out pretty well!  Next year, I think I’ll get some cookie cutters made with a food-safe process, so I feel comfortable giving them to other people.

Jubilee cookies, ready to be baked.

This year for Esperanto Day, people are asking that Esperanto speakers post that #EsperantoLives!  (So I am!)

Evildea is a relatively famous Esperanto YouTuber, and he made an #EsperantoLives post today.  Watch it!

 

“Wait, wait,” you say.  “You can’t just show us cookies without giving us a poorly edited high-school style essay about Esperanto.”  Fine.  If you ask for it…


 

Esperanto is the most widely spoken constructed language in the world.  It was initially created by L. L Zamenhof in the 1880s, and was released to the world through the first book “Unua Libro” on July 26th, 1887.  His goal was to create an easy-to-learn, politically neutral second language to help bring about peace and understanding between different people around the world.

I am skeptical it will bring about world peace, but it’s definitely an easy language to learn for native speakers of many different languages, and not a difficult one for most anyone.  Some studies have been done that showed that learning Esperanto before learning another language, like French, increased how well you learned French, at a greater rate than just studying French the whole time.

I started learning Esperanto about four months ago, through Duolingo, an online language learning tool.  It is a pretty good way to start to learn Esperanto.  I spent about an hour a day learning for the first few days, and now spend about twenty minutes a day.  I tweet sometimes about Esperanto things, or in Esperanto, at @adamo_esperanto.

Esperanto Jubilee Symbol
Jubilee!

Like I mentioned earlier, Esperanto has two main symbols–the green five-pointed star, which is on the flag, and the Jubilee symbol.  The Jubilee symbol, a Latin E and a Cyrilic Э smooshed together, was created at the 100th anniversary of Esperanto.  This was 1987, during the Cold War, and the two symbols that begin the word Esperanto in English and Russian were to represent the joining of the East and West.

Esperanto also has a holiday, Esperanto Day, on December 15th.  This was Zamenhof’s birthday.  (Coincidentally, it’s suitably close to the solstice and many other holidays.)  Many Esperanto speakers buy an extra book in Esperanto and get together with other Esperanto speakers.  I made cookies with a custom cookie cutter, above.

It puzzles me that some people react with anger and frustration when they find out I am learning Esperanto.  It’s certainly no less useful or entertaining than spending the equivalent time watching TV or dinking around on Facebook, but I have had people genuinely get angry with me for learning Esperanto.  Today, however, it is safe in most of the world to speak Esperanto, which hasn’t always been the case.  Many of the political regimes of the 20th century actively hunted down and killed Esperanto speakers.  Others simply marked Esperanto speakers as spies or political criminals.

Since the 1960s, there has been a couch-surfing program, Pasaporta Servo, for people who speak Esperanto. Many people alive today who grew up speaking Esperanto talk about how fun it was when someone from “Esperantoland” stayed for a night or two.

There are some native speakers who grew up speaking Esperanto, and some of them had children who grew up speaking Esperanto, and there are even a few cases of third generation native Esperanto speakers. (There aren’t any people I could find who grew up speaking exclusively Esperanto.)

There’s a good body of Esperanto literature.  William Auld, a pretty awesome poet, was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature for pieces in Esperanto.

Phew!  Feel free to ask me more about Esperanto or head over to Duolingo or lernu.net (they’re both free!) and join us!