Oooh, Yeah! And… It’s Gone

I’m trying to understand something…

I get very excited when I read certain books. Recently it’s been Seth Godin’s series of books on marketing and other interesting ideas. I just finished We Are All Weird.

Seth Godin's interesting book We Are All Weird
Seth Godin’s interesting book We Are All Weird

Getting through the book was a breeze despite his unorthodox way of organising his thoughts (I imagine it’s a lot more haphazard than most people can accept). It’s a book that got me excited many times, with his repeated (successful, in my eyes) strikes against mass marketing and the call towards tribal marketing.

His books are not the only ones that elicit (imbue?) excitement from me. Reading Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Adam Grant’s Give and Take, among other books with interesting ideas, is like going through an inspiration rollercoaster.

But that’s the thing I’m trying to understand… I’d get excited and before I know it, it’s gone. I can’t remember what exactly it was that got me excited.

It always originates from an interesting idea that is put forward by the author(s), but the excitement comes from a synthesis of that idea along with the multitudes of knowledge and at-the-moment thoughts I have in my mind.

It’s a little like travelling. You get a sudden rush of inspiration when you visit some place you’ve never been before, smell things you’ve never had a whiff of before, talk to new types of people you’ve never met before.

I think these moments are interesting and inspiring precisely because of the other sporadic ideas we have in our heads at any point in time. Without their messy mixing we’d not arrive at insight. Sentences on a page delivers a message, not an insight. Insight is arrived at, not delivered.

So the analogy of a rollercoaster ride is perfect. The build-up of excitement is great, but you can—and you will—just as easily lose it. Before you know it, you’re at the bottom of the rail, unsure whether you’ll be making another ascent (and loop!) or you’re going back to the start/finish point.

My problem is stopping to capture the inspiration before it disappears. Often times I’d have to get to the end of the chapter before writing down my thoughts (and follow-up actions), just because it’s more methodical. In my mind I think, shouldn’t I give the author a chance to explain something properly before jumping to a conclusion?

Alas, these are different issues. I can allow the author the space to argue points before judging his ideas. Inspiration to take action, however, is transient, and must be held on to to be developed further.

I’ve just got an idea for storing my ideas involving a physical box and post-it notes. I’m going to try it out and if it’s any good, write about it here in the future.

Pursuit of a Memorable Life

You're not going to forget this
You’re not going to forget this

“Wow, the past 5 years went by too fast…”

“How did that happen?”

“Where did all those years go?”

Asked such a question before?

Me too. I’ve asked variants of this question a few times in recent years as I move past the care-free days of my early 20s. It’s not a question I ever came up with an answer to, though.

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A Year Later, I’m Still Not On Top of Living On Our Own

A year later I’m still getting used to having to do my own… everything.

My wife and I moved out of our parents’ in October 2014 so it’s been a little over a year now that we’ve lived on our own. You know, underpants in the walkway and all.

It’s nice to have your own space. Heck, it’s privilege and a dream come true for us and I imagine, any newlyweds. You get to do the aforementioned, for one, and there’s no more brushing up against different egos. (Except for your partner’s, of course, which ought to be sort of your alter ego anyway.) That was such a nice change.

But more than a year into managing our home—cleaning, tidying, stocking groceries—I’m still learning everyday to accept that this is my new life and learning to handle it.

Handle it.

Handling it means knowing when to do a grocery run (when the stock is low but not so low that we’d go hungry or too high that we would be overstocked and waste food). It also means remembering when we last swept and mopped the floor, changed the sheets, the type of bulb that our wall lights use and whether we’ve paid the bills.

For a 26 year old, I must admit, that’s quite a lot to ask. (Am I the only one that feels this way?) But like I said, I’m learning to handle it. I’ll soon get up to speed.

To be honest, though, I thought I’d be a pro by now. Maybe I’m still just a boy. Perhaps I want to be one, and let mum handle it all for me.

Why I’m Shelving My Hardware Startup After 6 Months

With a solemn heart...
With a solemn heart…

It was another day with an important meeting that might help push my startup forward. At the lobby I took a deep breath and stepped into the lift. “Hey, I’m Nick…”, I said to myself in the lift as I extended my hand for a rehearsal handshake.

I was about to meet a guy who was in a position to fast-track my application for a government grant, and it felt like a big deal. With the money I’d be able to hire an engineer to fly past the prototype build that I so clumsily put together. I’d finally be able to show my potential customers a proper minimum viable product!

As soon as the meeting started, however, I had a bad feeling that this guy won’t put my startup in the green lane.

Continue reading “Why I’m Shelving My Hardware Startup After 6 Months”

Adventure of Flo on Everest

“Welcome, Flo, to Everest. Well, sort of. This is Everest Base Camp”, I said in Zee.

“Beeeeeei plisssh grrraw breep?”, sputtered Flo.

Let me translate that for you. Flo was asking, “What is this?”

***

My name is Nick, and I’m the only person on Earth who can understand Flo, my literally little alien friend. One day I woke up to find a green… thing the size of a big toy poodle standing outside my window staring at me.

Continue reading “Adventure of Flo on Everest”

My Millennial Impression of the Typewriter

Oh how naive I’ve been.

About two years ago I declared that I needed a typewriter so I can write more. I told my wife (then girlfriend) that if she really wanted to—but nope, she didn’t have to, of course—buy me a birthday gift, let it be a typewriter.

Like many others born in the 90s, I’ve never used a typewriter. Ever. But that has never stopped me from wanting one. They look so old school, so “simple”, so… built for one thing.

Best of all, I imagine there’s really no way to get distracted when typing on one. No Youtube, Gmail, or photos sitting on the virtual desktop to detract me. That would be pure awesome.

But the OverType web app blew my impression to smithereens. Boy was I wrong about the typewriter.

OverType is an ingenious web app whose code must have been very difficult to write. It is true to its bones on its mission, which is to simulate a typewriter true and true on a digital computer. It comes complete with the following (unbearable) features that most traditional typewriters came with:

  • Ding! carriage bar ending sound
  • Diminishing ribbon ink
  • Misalignment of text
  • Backspace that does shit (it merely moves the paper one notch to the right, letting you type over your mistake — hence the name OverType)
  • One letter at a time typing

OverType is outrageous. It’s insufferable for a millennial like me. I now know how ridiculously backward real typewriters are, and can’t help but wonder how authors in the past could stand writing seminal works with them. Seriously…

But OverType is at the same time oddly delightful. Right after trying it out (I only managed to muster the patience to write half a page), I started writing this post, and guess what? I continued to type one letter at a time. My writing style is noticeably more deliberate, a change I welcome wholeheartedly. Backspacing and N-key rollover? Such luxuries!

I don’t know what else to say about the app at this point, but my mind is blown. Ben meshed modern technology with the old and gave the result to us as a gift (it’s free to use, and you can export your written work as-is in PDF format).

Thanks, Ben, for writing this app and giving people like me an education about typewriters. I’ll be looking at typewriters with a different expression the next time I see one. Can’t promise I won’t end up buying one just for fun. You know, the kind where you’ll high-five yourself for just because you managed to do something with it.

What We Mean When We Say ‘Home Automation’

There are at least two kinds of home automation:

  1. Internet of Things
  2. Mecha-tronic Things

1. IOT! IOT! IOT!

Can you hear the crowd of geeks chanting? (In my mind I sometimes imagine a group of geeks cheering a geek supreme leader to the tune of “USA! USA!” that we all find silly [just me?] but hear all the time.)

This is what the internet is going head over heels about. The Internet of Things (IoT) is a geek’s wet dream come true, because it opens up a completely different realm of connected electronics.

At the current point in its nascent history, IoT devices are mostly connected to a master control that lives in our pockets: the smartphone. It’s the enabler at this point due to its ubiquity and tremendous computing power.

But IoT is at a really early stage in my opinion. As a result, a whole bunch of things that do not require connectivity are now connected. Worse still, their creators hardly ever admit that they’re making these things just because they can. Many of time, I observe, see connected things as a logical step forward. You be the judge:

Eggminder. Egg tray + reminder. Sent to your smartphone.

eggminder
“Eggminder” smart eggtray that reminds you when you’re low on… eggs

Then, the HAPIfork. Don’t eat too fast or you’ll… get fat. But please don’t worry, we’ll take care of that for you with a smart fork and an app to track your every mouth.

HAPIfork
“HAPIfork”, a smart fork that teaches you the pace to eat

Of course, to be sure, I picked the most horrible of the lot. The senseless use of technology in making products that nobody ever said they wished existed.

I don’t doubt the potential of IoT. For now, for me, we’re just playing around. If you think about the Nest smart thermostat, which is just about the biggest IoT device (and the closest thing to actually being “smart”), it’s really not that game-changing.

Besides connecting everything together and slapping “smart” labels on everything, home automation is also possible without internet connectivity. How did self-stop kettles work before people started embedding internet chips into them?

2. Mechanical Electronic (Mecha-tronic) Things

My kettle has an electrical switch…

Whoa, you have an IoT kettle?!

Nope, just a regular electric kettle. You know, the kind you can find in pretty much every hotel room in the world? Remember those?

Ok, enough jeering. IoT has its place in our lives, and increasingly so. But it has a long way to go before the technology frameworks and protocols mature, and before the user interface for making these devices melt into the background and enable an average person to understand and use IoT stuff intuitively.

In other words when it comes to IoT, we’re still years away from the level of acceptance and intuition we’ve developed for multi-touchscreens (yes, we used to call the first iPhone’s screen a true multi-touch screen, remember?).

Back to my electric kettle. It’s a simple device that (god forbids) involves me putting water into it, plugging it into the electrical socket, and pressing a ‘boil’ on-off button. It’s a simple device with a huge benefit: I don’t have to manually turn it off when it boils.

That, to me, is the most crucial part of the whole water-boiling process. I don’t want hot water spilling all over my kitchen counter top, overflowing onto the floor and accidentally scalding my feet (or my little Brownie), or short an electrical socket and cause a fire.

I can handle the rest with my limbs and a minute of time.

An electric kettle works because of a few simple but key components:

  • On/off switch
  • Heating element
  • Bi-metallic strip (two pieces of metals with different thermal expansion coefficients bound together)

Generally speaking this is how an electric kettle works:

  1. User pushes on/off switch to ‘on’ position
  2. Switch closes circuit, and heating element heats up
  3. Water starts to boil, and converts to steam (100 degree celsius water)
  4. Enough steam transfers heat to the bi-metallic strip that it expands, and because of different thermal expansion of the two metals, bends until just enough to mechanically push the on/off switch to ‘off’ position (from inside, ie. not visible to the user)

That’s it. Very simple, right?

Mecha-tronic devices occupy a lower position in the technology-sophistication scale, but they can be tremendously helpful to us in our daily struggles in life.

Washing machines take 95 percent of the effort off laundry, electric thermoflasks virtually eliminates the need to re-boil a pot of water for tea and, most recently, with electronic door locks, getting in and out of the home is at least 5 times faster and arguably more secure.

What’s important to realise here is the fact that none of these devices require the internet to work. They are made with mechanical parts and electronic components. And even though that may still be daunting, learning mecha-tronics has become a lot more accessible with the advent of cheap computer platforms like the open-source Arduino.

I’m an environmental scientist by training. That’s as different from mechanical and electrical engineering as it gets. But the Arduino platform has given me a chance to play around with electronics (and through motors and servos, mecha-tronics) and make interesting stuff.

A recent project was a small LED light that turns on automatically when I switch off my bedroom lights, which I wanted badly because it eliminates the chance of me stumbling over stuff on the floor (including my toy poodle, Brownie) when walking from the main light switch to my bed by illuminating the way.

nick arduino light project
My auto-on LED light project activates for 2 mins when my bedroom is dark

I’ve got many more (logical) projects I’d like to work on to make life a little easier at home, and have already begun working on a few.

In fact, I’m thinking this might be useful to a number of people and am toying with the idea of compiling my projects in an easy to understand compendium. (If this sounds interesting to you, let me know in the comments.)

In any case, I hope more people (you) will take to learning skills that can be used to make life a little easier for yourself, and in the process, begin to see the till-then invisible middleworld of bytes and atoms.

This is part of a bigger movement, called hacking, and it’s one that comprises more and more of electronics as we once saw it did with software. I’m feeling it. Are you?