Space exploration, Perseverance and Utopia

I’ve had a love hate relationship with space exploration. The Sagan quote “These days, there seems to be nowhere left to explore. Victims of their very success, the explorers now, pretty much, stay home. Maybe it’s a little early- maybe the time is not quite yet- but those other worlds, promising untold opportunities, beckon. Just now, there a great many matters that are pressing in on us that compete for the money it takes to send people to other worlds. Should we solve those problems first, or are they a reason for going? Should we solve those problems first, or are they a reason for going?..” has been the topic of many a daydreams and lost thoughts. I recently heard a podcast about the Mars Orbital Mission and some of those thoughts came back to me.

Whether valid or not, space exploration has always inspired me for the sheer technological prowess that it represents. I made this laser etched Pioneer Plaque to keep right next to the desk at my workshop. I look at it when I feel tempted to give up. I imagine the emotions of the thousands of people involved in the project. Knowing that the satellite they were working on might just crash and burn, might never make it to it’s celestial destination. But still, they had the audacity to hope and dream, and put this plaque so that we may talk to someone out there. To me, this plaque represents perseverance and never giving up hope and believing against all odds that we as a collective can succeed.

I believe in the dream of the Utopian society; with no need going unsatisfied, nothing out of reach, but for the lack of reaching out. On a dark day, this plaque reminds me that ridiculous dreams can come true. And I forget whatever silly thing I was stressing about and get back to work. Because we’re not in utopia.. yet.

Self Surveillance

I’m a huge data nerd. I really like collecting data, even though I suck at data analysis. I always imagine a scenario where I build an amazing AI, and I’m collecting data for then. One of the types of data I like to collect are interesting conversations. The audio recorder is on my home screen. I always seek permission to record, of course. But, the best conversations happen spontaneously. I’m often lost in the conversation and we realize only too late that we should’ve recorded the audio. I can’t count how many good ideas I’ve lost because they came with like a half dozen others over the span of an hour of conversation. By the time you pick up your phone, it’s too late.

I want to make an audio recorder, that just keeps recording. It keeps a buffer of the last, say three hours of my conversations and gives me the opportunity to go back to the conversations and store them. By default, it doesn’t store anything, just keeps a buffer. It can be as simple as an app. No dedicated hardware needed. I always have a pair of bluetooth headphones on, so the phone being away or in my pocket is not an issue. I know that most voice assistants store voice as well, but I like the idea of this being away from the cloud. Some semblence of privacy and ownership remains that way.

Now, I know this sounds very black mirror ‘grain’ like, and privacy intrusion is a big issue. I’m not sure how I feel about that. One can argue that privacy is pretty much dead and we should just accept the fact. Our only real hope is to rely on the decency of our fellow human being. Huh, well.. good luck with that.

Put yourself in else’s shoes

I was really inspired by this story of Emma, a designer who lost motor control in her hands to Parkinson’s. She was unable to draw a straight line or sign her own name. The story is about a device that helped her get over the tremors and regain control of her hands. But, the thing that really interested me was the feeling of losing control. I cannot imagine what it must feel like to want your hands to move, to beg your muscles to contract in just the right way, and watch yourself fail.

I want to make a pencil which would simulate the experience of that frustration. I guess it would be a pencil with a wide, poorly designed grip which would force you to hold it the way Emma is forced to. It would have motors that would move the tip to match the way Emma’s hands vibrate. Or perhaps the pencil would just have electrodes and act as a TENS device, exciting the muscles involuntarily.

I hope that this would give me, and perhaps others a taste of what it might be to live with Parkinson’s; and make us more empathetic.


I’m writing this post because of a recent encounter with a friend, a designer. I came to know that in design the norm is to not discuss ideas and to work in secret until you are ready to release a project. I think that this way of doing things would constrain the design process and weed out good design talent because not everyone can work well in isolation. I understand the motivations of an individual designer to not share her techniques and ideas for fear of being copied, but this has to be detrimental to the field itself.

If you haven’t guessed already, when it comes to open source philosophy; I’m your typical hippie. I think all work should be open and free to modify. Anything less is unacceptable. Security by obscurity is a joke. And making money should not be the prime motivation of any project.

Practicing this philosophy has been quite easy so far. I share almost everything I do -hardware or software- under a commercial creative commons share-alike license (which is often not a lot, since I’ve only recently learnt the value of good documentation). I’ve been more or less completely disinterested in making money and do projects for the fun of it. I’ve turned down projects because they would include a non-disclosure clause.  I share ideas freely and without fear of being copied. And, so far this has worked out very well for me. Some of my best ideas have emerged when I have been explaining the workings of a project to someone. I’ve not had anyone rip off my ideas and try to pass them off as their own -at least none that I know of. And I’ve cultivated many good friendships based on love of electronics. Friendships that would certainly not have been able to cultivate if I was afraid of sharing ideas.

I can personally reverse engineer a fairly complicated two sided PCB in less than a day. And I know people who can do the same in a couple hours. In a world where automated tools can sniff code from a microconroller and de-obfuscation software is easily available, is it even worth protecting designs? I look up to companies like Sparkfun and Adafruit, which embody open source philosophy fully and are a commercial success never the less. I really hope more companies follow their lead. I know when my turn comes, I will.

Solve a problem, don’t sell a product.

Product design is tough. It’s hard to internalize the design thinking process. As an engineer it’s too easy for me to think of a tech and put it in a context. Hey, here’s a water pressure sensor, why don’t I use it to monitor the water level in my overhead tank? I wouldn’t think completely dumb ideas.. but they wouldn’t be truly innovative as well. The worst happens when I get to know of a new tech. My brain instantly vomits ten situations where I could apply the tech. It takes conscious effort to not start thinking this is the best thing since sliced bread. To reach God level in product design, it’s important to think of tech as tools and not products. The tech is a small piece of the puzzle. It needs to be put in a specific use case. So, the first time you think of a solution, stop thinking about the solution and start thinking of the problem. Forget the tech and understand the problem. Solve a problem, don’t sell a product.

All about context.

I’ve been ranting about bringing the digital to analog. I really want to pursue a set of projects that provide information through non visual means i.e. through haptic feedback, or sound.. So, a cup that screams when you pour hot coffee in, and shivers when you have ice tea. A work table that shouts out when you bang it too hard. And, I realized that I don’t really care for the non-visual bit of it. What the projects really have in common is that they provide contextually relevant feedback. So it doesn’t matter whether the cup screams or vibrates or turns red. What matters is that it does so when you pour coffee in, and not when say.. you’re rinsing it. It’s about contextual awareness.

Here’s another idea from the same stem.. a contextually aware digital photo frame. The photo frame listens to ambient conversations and changes the photos to become more relevant to the conversation. It can pull photos from facebook as you post them and run a simple search through the tags and comments. If you happen to come across a photo you like, clicking on it takes you to your feed back then, photos of your then active friends pop up. The point is to allow for nostalgia and rediscovery.

It’s all about context.