The Plan

It occurred to me that a lot of people may be out of the loop with what has been and will be happening over the next while. Here’s a short description of the plan:

Erin is going to graduate school in Madison, WI, and I am moving with her.

On July 31 our apartment lease in Richland expired.  On August 15 our apartment lease in Madison begins. For the two weeks in between, we are house-sitting for a friend and storing our stuff in their garage. On August 15 we pack everything up again and begin our 3 day trek across the nation, putting us in Madison on the 17th. We’ll live there for a couple years while she gets a Masters in GIS (Geographic Information Systems).

In anticipation of this move and change in lifestyle, I’ve made quite a few changes already. A few days ago I sold my car; its useful life had was ending and was getting to a point where it would need more and more maintenance and repairs. Since I work from home, and Erin will be taking public transportation in Madison, and parking is expensive, it made sense to only keep her car. In January, I left my job at PNNL to start my own business. I was subcontracting back to the lab for a few months after that to retain some stable income as I built up my own business. I am currently freelancing a little (and open to new work if you have leads), but also working on the portable electronic scoreboard and an automated dog-sitting application. When we move I’ll continue working on them; in fact changing my location doesn’t change a thing about how I do my work other than that my office will soon have better windows.

The hazop chapter is drawing to a close and the next adventure begins shortly.

Four months on my own

It’s been four months since I started on my own. The first weeks were a whirlwind of applications and registrations, some of which are still in process. I’ve been building up projects, finding my niche, and getting used to and developing my processes.

In the beginning I started by reading a lot of books; everything from business law to marketing to general advice on working from home. I feel like I’m getting an MBA by fire, but the stakes are a lot higher than being in school.

Here’s an overview of what I’ve done in the last four months:

  • Registered my business with the WA Secretary of State, the WA Department of Licensing, and filed for an EIN number from the IRS.
  • Applied for a trademark on the WYZGYZ name. I still haven’t heard back about that, but the process takes some time.
  • Set up a business bank account.
  • Set up
  • Met with a lawyer
  • Met with an accountant

On the other end of the business, I’ve been involved with quite a few projects:

  • Two contracts back to PNNL to continue to work on projects I was doing when I left. This is my source of income while my other projects are still in development.
  • Volunteer development for the Atomic City Roller Girls. I redesigned their site and have been helping them with posting and using it.
  • Working on a project called the electronic scoreboard. I built a second prototype, set up a web site, and am currently looking for manufacturers and getting feedback from users.
  • And a few more things I’m not ready to talk about yet.

Between learning about and getting used to owning a business, my own projects, and my contract work, I’ve been pretty busy with WYZGYZ. I’m not discouraged, though I have had a couple rough days and some tough decisions to make. Rather, I’m excited that I’m doing this, and I have high hopes for what it will become.

Starting on my own

It has been long overdue, but I’ve finally taken a giant step in my career. 1/11/11 was my last day working at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. I have left to start my own business, and I’m very excited about it. The last few days have been a flurry of paperwork, but I’m making progress and getting to a point where I can finally start talking about it. Assuming all my paperwork goes through in the next couple days, I’ll officially own my startup: WYZGYZ (pronounced ‘wise guys’).

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with PNNL when I was there. I really appreciated the opportunity to start working on challenging projects and contributing to publications and leading-edge research right out of university. I have many conference and journal papers and presentations, and even a few patent applications through the lab. I’ve gotten the chance to work with influential people at the top of their careers, and travel around the United States to meet and work with dozens of others on some pretty fantastic projects. I’ve learned a lot and become a pretty good software developer. For my first job out of school, the lab was perfect for me.

But there were things that bothered me about the lab; things which ultimately made me decide to leave. First among them was my inability to pursue my personal ideas. It’s ok to own my brain when I’m being paid for it, but there were things I wanted to do that just couldn’t be done while I was an employee at the lab. Second was bureaucracy. Working in a government lab was frustratingly slow, and many times I saw my ideas ground down and starved because they couldn’t get traction or took too long to get funding. The red tape machine is formidable and to me seemed counterproductive to innovation and progress. Finally, there was impact. Over the course of my tenure at the lab, I wrote a lot of software. Much of it was research software that was used for a prototype or a demo, shown to the client, and archived. In the latter half of my tenure I worked on software that did get used, sometimes in some pretty exciting ways, but never beyond a couple hundred users. It seemed like I would never be able to develop a product that could get through all the barriers to find use in the general community and have a meaningful impact on thousands or millions of people. Publications required approvals, and even posting to bulletin boards was regarded with skepticism. For a national resource, it seemed too closed-off.

WYZGYZ is my shot at building a business that has the things I liked about the lab and addresses the things I didn’t like.We’ve also been sponsored by Carlson Knives, so check his products and let us know what you think, .

My company will have three parts: contracting, products, and research. Contracting will allow me to work for clients and generate stable income. Products will allow me to develop my ideas into products that I can market and sell. Research will allow me to explore ideas and either turn them into products or publish them to the community.

Everything is in the very beginning stages, but I have a plan, I have all the resources I need, and I have a lot of hope and motivation and skill to make this work.

Productive Sunday

This is a shining example of a highly productive Sunday afternoon. I separated the marshmallows out of the cereal. Then I threw away the cereal. Then I ate the marshmallows. That’s a normal sheet of paper to get a sense of scale.

For what it’s worth, the cereal was stale and wasn’t going to get eaten anyway.

Autocross, wings, movie night, and a hike

This weekend I was busy. Saturday morning we went to the raceway in West Richland to watch some friends autocross. They weren’t scheduled to go until later, though, so we stayed for about an hour, then headed to another engagement; the Tri-City Wing Wars.

The Wing Wars was a competition among local restaurants to see which one had the best wing. For $5, anyone could enter and have access to unlimited wings from any of the stations, all of which hid their logos and their brand name. People could vote for their favorites, which would be revealed at the end.

In reality, more people showed up than they expected, and they ran out of wings after about an hour. Sadly, I was one of the reasons they ran out. I managed to consume two dozen chicken appendages in that hour, though to be fair I didn’t target my consumption at any particular vendor, though the Parmesan wings were my favorite. I saw a few friends there, but after the wings ran out, so did we, heading back to the track to see if we could see the friends race.

We arrived in time, and Ricky offered to let me ride with him. He has a nice convertible, so I was happy to accept. The helmet, though tight, wasn’t the claustrophobic experience I expected, and having the top down held the heat and gas smell at bay, so I was quite comfortable. The racing itself was a lot of fun, and I felt like the entire time we were pushing the car to the very edge of its capabilities, and that if Ricky pushed it any more or less expertly, we would certainly spin out. It felt like we hit every cone, but in fact he had a great race and only hit two.

Me and Ricky about to autocross

Later, Naomi raced with Ricky, which was fun to watch, and we could all hear her screaming (we assume with joy) occasionally.

Naomi and Ricky autocrossing

Finally, Dan was up, and he let Erin ride as his passenger. She put on her helmet and joined him in the car, a very sporty little thing into which Dan had obviously put a lot of care. I climbed the lookout tower and caught the ride on video; it turned out to be a great run, netting him first in his class for the day.

Dan and Erin are ready

After the autocrossing, we went to our friend Dimple’s house for pizza and a movie, then went back home.

Sunday morning, I was up early. I had planned to go hiking with Jim and Erin that day, but Erin bailed at the last minute, citing work. Jim and I still went, and it took about an hour to get to our destination; the white bluffs of Wahluke wildlife reserve. We chose a path that wasn’t exactly the famous white bluffs but less traveled. Half of our walk was on an old blocked off road, and the other half was along coyote trails that were barely visible. Along the way we could see the whole Hanford area.

Along the way was an old earth mover. The handle wasn’t attached to the door, but it was easy to insert and open. The key was lying on the cab floor. The battery, however, was dead. Still, it was good for a photo.

I took a few panos on the hike, too.

Getting things done is intimidating – until you start

My biggest lesson from U.S. History class in High School didn’t have anything to do with History. It was a lesson that’s stuck with me ever since, and it has affected me in many aspects of my life. Getting things done is really intimidating, until you start.

Within the first month we had our initial assignment, but this was an AP class, not a regular history class. Our task was to write three essays, and we had a week to do it. I went through so many emotions; anger, outrage, frustration, hopelessness. I started to do the work but it was impossibly daunting. There was so much that I didn’t know, so much research to be done. Each question could have been a masters thesis and seemed to require citation of dozens of materials. I remember crying to my dad. He couldn’t do anything for me, though. Ultimately, I got it done, and on time, by just getting started.

My problem, and my major block, was knowing that I didn’t know enough. There was no way I could read all that I needed to to make a cohesive and complete argument. I had to give that up. The trick was to start with a decision already, start writing, then look for supporting facts in my research materials. I didn’t need to find the right answer; I needed to be able to defend my answer. This worked most of the time, because our lectures were usually on the topic of the essays and we had a good idea, but it didn’t always happen that way. Sometimes I would start with a thesis, but in the process discover that it was completely wrong. Since I had already started, and was already in the process, it was easier to go back and modify than it would have been to start over. Eventually I would get to the right answer anyway.

At the beginning of the school year, it took me the whole duration to write the three essays, which were assigned every week, but almost all of that time was just trying to get started. By the end of the year, and for the AP test, I was producing all three essays in under an hour, at roughly 2-3 pages each. Sure, I had gotten better at researching, but I’d also become less intimidated by the assignments.

That’s been a lesson for many things. With skydiving, so much worry and preparation goes into that first jump, but after getting used to going through the motions, it becomes routine, and what seems like an impossible feat to those who haven’t done it yet is just another day for someone else.

The truth is everything is intimidating until you start doing it. Then you learn a lot really fast. Then you become good at it. If we all just accepted that once we started doing something it would be fine, and skipped the intimidation step, life would be a lot easier for everyone.

Trying something new

It’s been over a year since I’ve posted, which is not cool. I’d like to say it was the fault of the technology I was using, and that it was a hurdle, but that’s just making excuses. A lot has happened in the last year. The girlfriend and I have traveled to Vietnam, Thailand, Vancouver, Belize, Guatemala, Seattle, Montana, and a bunch of other places. Work hasn’t been much different, but it’s always interesting. In fact, a lot has happened, but over the course of a year, it condenses quickly into only a couple sentences. This is no longer acceptable, so I’ve decided to change technologies, and devote more time to posting about the things that I do. We’ll see if it works out well.

What I Read

I’ve been doing a lot of interviews at work lately, and one of the questions I like to ask is what they read to keep current. In my job I am constantly evaluating new technologies and incorporating new things into our work, and it’s essential that I stay up to date with the latest in news, software development practices, gadgets, and just the field in general. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen something in my daily reading and used it in my work or at home. I rarely comment or contribute to the sites; I prefer just to watch and not participate in what’s usually a flame war by people with questionable qualifications. I read some of the sites at work, but most at home after work.

So here is my list of things I read daily in the industry:

  • – I’ve been reading this for 10 years and have only commented a few times, but I check this many times a day and have used information I’ve found on this site for all kinds of things.
  • – I read this a few times a day to keep up with the news in general. I’ve found this site is the best news aggregation site of the ones I’ve tried.
  • – I use this to track a few stocks and look at relevant business news and new pay day loans opportunity’s.
  • – I usually do this from home as it has interesting stuff in all kinds of categories.
  • – This site is useful for the latest in gadget and technology news.
  • – Almost identical to Gizmodo, and they often report on the same things, but sometimes they have a different interpretation.
  • – Joel Spolsky’s blog. Somewhat diluted with his own advertising for his talks and conferences, but often has good articles on managing a tech company.
  • – This channel of reddit is for articles similar to the ones Joel writes.
  • – Every day an article or two about some curious piece of code or business practice.
  • – Nifty tools and tricks for technology and geek life.
  • – Mostly curious or silly news, this is great for keeping up with the strange stories that are likely to come up in conversations.

That’s every day, sometimes a few times during the day. I’d say I spend about 2 hours reading stuff each day, though only about 1/2 an hour to an hour of that is at work, and usually in a few spare moments while I’m in between meetings or tasks.

This list does a pretty good job of keeping me up to date in the world.

Seeing with closed eyes

I’ve been working on my laser pointer recently, and in the course of my work I made an interesting biological discovery. Laser pointers are ridiculously bright. You can shine them on a finger and they’ll light up the finger so that you can see it from the other side.

You’re not supposed to shine lasers directly into the eye because they are so bright. Most laser pointers, though, are class 3 or lower, meaning they won’t do permanent damage if exposed briefly. Still, my eyes are not something I like to risk, so I don’t shine it into my eye intentionally.

However, in the course of fiddling with the pointer while waiting for a process, I held it against my temple, turned it on absentmindedly, and saw some red. At first I thought that the laser must be reflecting off of something and getting into my eye somehow, but it didn’t make any sense. It was a blurry red light and was clearly more intense closer to my temple. The light wasn’t escaping outside and reflecting off anything, either, because the laser was directly against my temple. I concluded that the light was actually traveling through my temple and into my eyeball and hitting my retina without going through my iris.

This is not a huge discovery. In fact, you can simulate the effect quite easily with nothing but a bright environment. Close your eyes. Then put your hands in front of your eyes. It gets even darker. With just your eyes closed, light is still passing through the lids and into the eye. With the temple, it just takes more light to get through to the retina.

I’m not too concerned about losing my eyesight from doing this, but I’m not going to keep doing it. It’s interesting that I can see things without having it go through the front of my eye.

The Subtle Mechanics of Popcorn Poppers

In my old apartment I didn’t have a popcorn maker. I would put some vegetable oil in a sauce pan, pour a layer of popcorn kernels in, cover it, and heat it until the popcorn was ready. I didn’t have an electric one. Now that I’ve moved in to the new place, Erin has the electric variety, so I’ve been using that. I was making popcorn this evening and thinking about the popcorn popper and how it worked, and specifically how kernels can remain unpopped.

By observation, at the beginning of the popping a kernel at the bottom will pop up, sending the kernels above it flying, and often out of the popper. This is a huge loss of kernels for no good reason. They’re perfectly fine kernels that were prematurely propelled out of the popper. As the popping intensifies, the popped corn doesn’t all escape out of the cylinder and into the bowl, forming a sort of protective layer to keep unpopped kernels from shooting out of the cylinder. The steady current of hot air elevates this layer and at times it looses cohesion and the layer breaks down and all escapes the cylinder into the bowl, allowing unpopped corn to escape again. It’s a delicate balance.

In order to preserve as many kernels as possible, I’ve played around with some tools. Initially I tried a spoon. By holding the spoon inside the chute and over the cylinder I could partially block the exit of the cylinder. A couple kernels still escape, but because I prevent the popped corn from leaving, the protective layer builds up faster. Further, I can control the flow of popcorn out of the chute, ensuring that the protective layer remains without breaking down early. The only catch was that the spoon was too short and the hot air was heating up the whole metal spoon and by the end burning my fingers.

I could use a large wooden spoon from now on. That would cover up more of the cylinder and eliminate the heat problem but could introduce a congestion problem if it gets in the way and clogs up the chute and doesn’t allow me the fine control of the protective layer.

A better design of the popper might have been a taller and slightly inverted funnel cylinder. Both the tallness and the funnel shape would make it more difficult for stray kernels to escape while also facilitating a sound protective layer and retaining the heat inside for longer.

The final adjustment that could be made to retrofit existing popcorn poppers would be to the clear plastic piece that fits over the popper. With the installation of an adjustable gate, you could cover the opening to the chute entirely, ensuring no kernels escaped and retaining the heat inside the popper for longer. As the popping progresses, the gate could be opened by varying levels to allow the protective layer to remain as popped corn passed through the gate.

But I’m probably overthinking this. The spoon will work for now.