Friday 22 December 2017

Season’s Greetings

As we race towards Christmas Day I want to wish all my followers, readers, and their families and loved ones the best of the season. Merry Christmas to all and may you have a fantastic New Year. I’ll see you all back here in 2018.


Tuesday 19 December 2017

Useless machine

Over the years I have accumulated many useless machines, everything from disassembled motorcycles to garden implements to power tools. The only common factor is that they don’t work now and will probably never work in the future. In fact they remind me of some of my co-workers when I was employed by the government many, many years ago. But I digress.

So, yes, I have owned (and currently own) a lot of useless stuff, but never have I set out to purposely create something that is completely useless. Until now.

The idea of creating a machine that serves no purpose whatsoever goes back to at least the 1930s (and probably much earlier) when Italian artist Bruno Munari began creating machines that were completely unproductive as a counterpoint to the future and a world controlled by machines. Clearly he fought a losing battle. Since then many have designed and built contraptions that exist for no other reason than to exist; they are there simply because they are there. Kind of like the Kim Kardashians of the machine world. Then in 1952 a guy named Marvin Minsky, working at Bell Labs, created what he called the “ultimate machine”, more commonly known as a Leave-Me-Alone Box, or Useless Machine. It’s sole purpose in being was, when turned on, to turn itself off. Which is a fascinating concept when one thinks about it, raising some pretty interesting philosophical questions.

Of course most folks didn’t think of it as anything but a curiosity and the concept attracted little interest. Then, in the 1960’s, apparently inspired by the television show The Addams Family, a version called “The Thing” was put on the market. But it was a mere flash in the pan and by the 70s both the Addams Family and “The Thing” were history – relegated to late night reruns and the attic toy trunk.

However, for unknown reasons, there has lately been a resurgence of interest, fuelled by the internet (of course), in building these types of useless machines. And after seeing one such post I decided I must build one. It’s not nearly as complex and sophisticated as some out there, but I wanted something simple in the nature of the original 1952 version and its 1960s cousin.

So, using an old cigar box I had lying about, some electronics components left over from other projects, and a small servo motor I cobbled together my version.

Monday 18 December 2017

The serial hobbyist

The Serial Hobbyist. Doesn’t that sound like it could be the title of Dashiell Hammett’s latest blockbuster? Or would, if he hadn’t died in 1961. But still… Imagine Sam Spade, with a leggy blonde at his side, chasing down a nogoodnik who leaves unfinished projects lying around for unsuspecting spouses to discover and ask, “How much did that cost?” before being silenced … forever.

Sadly, that’s not the case. No, “serial hobbyist” is the caption that appears under my photo in Wikipedia.  The only constant theme has been a love of motorcycles and riding and wrenching – the others come and go and sometimes return. Astronomy – or more accurately stargazing, cabinet making, wood turning, metal work, hobby electronics. Jump in with both feet for a while, then something else catches my eye. “Ooh, look, there’s something shiny over there”. Or, “I could make one of those if I had a plasma cutter.”

But eventually it all comes home to roost, as the saying goes. After finishing the sewing machine table I decided it was past time to clean up the garage (a detested autumn ritual). And while doing so I came across the following: a cigar box guitar that needs to be finished and parts for a couple more, an electronic programmable timer I built for a solar powered light that needs repair along with the solar panel, a fully dismantled Honda Ascot engine that I had plans for (can’t remember what at this moment although I'm sure it was brilliant), a pile of woodturning blanks (just need to cut away anything that doesn’t look like a vase), a completely dismantled 1965 Honda S65 motorcycle (long-term project), a couple of 1981 Kawasaki gas tanks that need repair and paint, a reluctant snowblower (it was free!), an old chainsaw that needs attention, and said plasma cutter collecting dust in the corner. And all that after just the first layer of 'stuff' was removed/organised.

As the expression goes, sometimes the bodies are best left buried.

Tuesday 12 December 2017

The age of ignorance

I’m not referring here to ignorance in the pejorative sense but rather as a simple lack of learned knowledge.

In times past a person knowledgeable in their field would be trained in not only the ‘what’ of an object but also the ‘why’ and ‘how’.  It wasn’t sufficient for a skilled auto mechanic to simply know what a part did, he also had to know how it worked and understand why it was important. It was similar for any tradesperson or other professional and that knowledge was what separated them from us, the ignorant, as it were. They had their secrets and we employed them to get access to that knowledge.

But today? More and more of those secrets are now available to the world through Google, YouTube, and the other great equalizers of the internet world. Who cares what a link arm does? It’s sufficient to know you need them and there are thousands upon thousands of YouTube videos that explain how to diagnose a faulty suspension component and replace it with minimal fuss. There’s probably even one for your specific make and model of vehicle in order to make it really simple. So now you’re an ‘expert’.

Case in point.

I’m currently working on a small electronics project. I am not an electronics engineer, nor do I have any electronics training beyond basic high school physics. I couldn't design a circuit from scratch to save my life. However, armed with nothing more than an idea for this project I started digging. Google came up with numerous sites of folks who had done something similar and who shared their tips, tricks, and circuit designs. Likewise YouTube offered up a few dozen videos showing how others had tackled similar problems.

With that information I was able to create and build a circuit that does what I want but which I don’t really understand. I have a 220 ohm resistor in there because that’s what someone else said I needed. I’m still not completely sure why it’s there and why it’s that specific resistance. Ditto for the capacitors and diodes and all the other little bits and pieces of which I only vaguely know their purpose.

It works – which is a good thing – but I feel a bit like I cheated, not having earned the right to create something without having been schooled in the underpinnings of the technology. It’s a bit like claiming to be Van Gogh because I’m adept at paint-by-numbers. Or, I suppose, a better example might be the baker who can churn out loaf after loaf of delicious bread without ever understanding the chemistry behind the process, or developing their own recipes.

It is but one of the many, many ways technology has significantly changed our world. But still, somewhere, sometime, someone has to be the creator, the designer, the chemist. And as long as they continue to share the fruits of their expertise and creativity the rest of us can continue living in the age of ignorance.

Wednesday 6 December 2017

From the shop

Some time ago I acquired an old Singer sewing machine base with some vague plans of using it to make something. Six months later it was still taking up space in the garage so I decided I’d best get to work. Besides, riding season was over, as was the golf season, so I had nothing else to do with my time. Right, my dear?


So first job was to repair, sand blast, and paint the treadle frame.  Fortunately, other than being rusty from being out of doors for a while (previous owner), it was in decent shape with only a couple of small cracks to be repaired. I got it all moving freely and made a replacement treadle arm. All it does is spin the wheel, but that’s okay. With a fresh coat of paint it finished up even better than I expected.


Then it was time to decide on a top. I always have a pile of leftover scraps from various projects (never, ever throw anything out!), and I found a small piece of padauk which I thought would make a nice table. But it was too narrow, so in order to make it fit I had to cut it diagonally and slide the two pieces past each other to get the necessary width, which left an unsightly seam. Rather than try to hide the seam I decided to accentuate it by gluing in some bits of maple and cherry I also had laying about. Then it was lots and lots of hand sanding and finishing.


Today was the big day when I put it all together and I think it turned out pretty nice. So nice that the missus has already claimed it as a Xmas present. Perfect – one less shopping trip to make.


And now I have a little more room to work on some of the other projects on the infinite list of things to do.

Monday 4 December 2017

The pendulum has swung too far

Although I have my own opinions on the current frenzy around sexual harassment and the whole #metoo hashtag thing I have avoided publically commenting on any of it because, as with every social issue, context and nuance are important but are virtually impossible to have come across accurately in a short blog post. But this issue blundered into the realm of the ridiculous when a sitting Liberal MP, Sherry Romanado, stood and made a statement to the House of Commons today.

Here’s her statement in its entirety:

"In May, the member from Selkirk—Interlake—Eastman [James Bezan] publicly made inappropriate, humiliating and unwanted comments to me that were sexual in nature. These comments have caused me great stress and have negatively affected my work environment."

Immediately the mind thinks of explicit and unwanted propositions, snide comments about her person and/or body, or any of a number of other possible and serious transgressions. Right?

Well, before manning the barricades, it’s important to know what actually happened.

Back in May (7 months ago) Ms. Romanado, a Liberal, was posing for a photo with 2 Conservative MPs, one of whom was Mr. Bezan. In a joking manner Mr. Bezan made an off-the-cuff comment about it not being his idea of a threesome.  A bit boorish? Perhaps. But these are coworkers and colleagues and, presumably, adults. He was clearly not serious and made the comment in reference to having 2 Conservatives and a Liberal together in the same photo and not at each other’s throats as they are often portrayed.

Since then Mr. Bezan has apologized personally to Ms. Romanado, stood and apologized in the House of Commons, undergone sensitivity training, and had the chief human resources officer review the case, in response to a complaint by Ms. Romanado, and determine that “no sexual harassment had occurred”. And still … still …. Ms. Romanado felt the need to stand and make the above statement today.

Really? Has it come to this, that any flippant comment deserves a full, and preferably very public, broadside? That a stupid remark causes the person who hears it “great stress” and negatively affects their work environment? (As an aside one wonders how Ms. Romanado can even function as a politician with such thin skin.)

And that’s the crux of the problem. Sexual harassment is real and, as we have recently seen, usually a result of a power imbalance. Women (and some men) have had to deal with very serious issues around use of force, physical assaults, unwanted and persistent harassment, and so on. It’s not right, does not belong in our workplaces or our politics, and needs to be weeded out. But when we tip the scales for every Chicken Little who claims to be aggrieved over some trivial matter we debase the plight of those dealing with serious issues of harassment. And we make it just a little bit harder for those truly harmed to find justice.

We need to find some balance, and soon.