2014-10-28

Breaking the patent system by making liberal use of patents.

It is no secret that I am no fan of patents.  Although the original idea was a good one (make sure inventions were shared), people tend to forget that the patent system was created a long time ago.  A very, very long time ago.  It is hardly relevant for the pace at which all industries move at today.

In fact, if you can still find an industry that doesn't have a high innovation pace:  that industry is likely to experience disruption in the near future.

Innovation- and development/iteration speed are just two underlying parameters that look nothing like they did hundreds of years ago.   But the most important parameter that has changed is that the nature of the predators that prey on those who want to make things.

It is now a legitimate business proposition to do absolutely nothing but collect patents and then extort companies and people without the necessary funds to defend themselves.

The top-of-the-foodchain-predator is today is either a solidly funded, large corporation with an army of patent lawyers, ready to unleash a heavily skewed justice system upon you -- or the patent troll.  Which is usually ditto well funded since they pick on the weak first to bankroll taking on bigger fish later.  People like Nathan Myhrvold, who already has more money than Croesus, but still takes time out of his busy schedule to shake down the weak and defenseless for money.

Despite having written a brilliant book on Modernist Cuisine (which I own), he is still a villain and I still think he epitomizes what is standing in the way of innovation today. (Funny how Microsoft bred so many, for lack of a better word, assholes among the top brass, yet the founder appears to focus on allowing his wealth to do the maximum amount of good...).

So one question that has been on my mind lately is "how can we help make patents more obviously irrelevant faster?".

I got the idea from a friend of mine who routinely studies patents to come up with solutions for his own, personal projects.

Personally, I try not to read patents if I can help it.  I'm shaped by working for companies like Google, where knowledge of a non-company patent is seen as a huge risk.  Were I to come up with something clever, I don't want there to be reason to believe that I was informed by existing patents.  I have thus far treated patents like I would treat seepage from a nuclear facility:  I have stayed far, far away.

But I think it may be time to re-evaluate that approach.  I think it might be time to encourage hobbyists and makers to make as liberal use of patents in their own personal projects as possible. And to freely share any information that may help other people implement patented technologies.

Like 3D models that can be turned into product.  I'm not sure you can be legally faulted for reproducing an interpretive work of a document, though I may be wrong.  And even if I am not wrong, the courts where patent predators do their litigation have a very strong bias towards the patent holder.

There are technologies that makes this feasible.  Like 3D printing.  And I am not talking about the current crop of hot-snot-dispensing FDM-printers, but stuff that you can use to print metal parts.   The stuff that a lot of startups are scrambling to get into the hands of consumers in not that many years.   If something is covered by a patent,  and if enough people manufacture the object themselves:  you might be able to put a big dent in the patent industry because it would be financially infeasible to go after the infringers.

Just look at the price of mechanical parts for cars.  Within short you should be able to print these at prices affordable to private citizens.  And eventually:  cheaper than the part sells for today.

A typical name brand turbo (which is a pretty hairy component to make) costs about $1500.  How long before you can print a turbo below that cost in the privacy of your home? 10 years?

The idea is to de-value patents by making it financially infeasible to take would-be infringers to court.   Both because they are so many and because most of them will have no assets worth going after.  For several classes of patents this is now possible.   Within short, this will be possible for more classes of patents.

Waiting around for (corrupt) politicians to sensibly reform, or better yet:  abolish patents altogether, is not a winning strategy.  It won't happen without significant pressure.  It is high time that pressure was applied.

And of course, lobbyists will attack the enablers for massive scale patent infringement -- by demanding whole technologies be subject to stringent regulation.  Well, good luck with that.

2014-10-27

Engineers and negativity towards making.

Over the past few years I've spent a lot of time tinkering and building stuff.  From electronics to mechanical things.  Both have been made possible by the fact that both of these things are now more available -- both in terms of physical availability, but also the knowledge on how to do things.  There are thousands upon thousands of blogs, videos, tutorials and forum posts on any DIY topic imaginable.  If you want to build something or solve a problem, chances are there are people who have published things you can learn from.

Tinkering, making stuff and learning new things has never been easier.

However the surprising aspect of making is the negativity I get from a lot of people who are, at least in theory, engineers.  It seems that it is extremely hard for a frighteningly large portion of engineers to understand why someone would make something themselves rather than just buying things.  Or why someone would want to learn about something that isn't strictly speaking required by their job.

Seriously!?

Of course, not everyone cares to figure things out and build stuff. I guess a lot of engineers, while nominally having jobs that require some creativity, would rather just punch the clock and do as they are told.

But I don't understand where the negativity comes from.

Norway has a problem with abysmal levels of innovation.  I think this shitty attitude might be one reason.

2014-10-21

Makerbot Replicator 5 gen lab notes.

For the past couple of weeks we have been playing with our Makerbot Replicator 5 generation PLA 3D printer in the office.  We use it for a project in the Exploratory Engineering department at Telenor Digital.   Exploratory Engineering is a program for allowing employees in Telenor Digital spend 3 months on a project of their own choosing.  The idea is that they get to do something that would otherwise be hard to realize, and at the end of the three months they pitch the product/project to management for funding.  Exciting stuff.

Mostly we use it to prototype enclosures for devices we are working on, but we also use it for printing various odds and ends that we need.

PLA plastic.

Previous to getting this printer I had mostly printed things using the older Makerbot products that use ABS plastics.   I had heard a lot of bad things about PLA plastics, but I have to say that it isn't that bad.  The parts are a bit more brittle and not as heat resistant.  On the other hand, the parts are much harder and more rigid.   It also seems that there is a lot less warping on big prints.  With ABS and early Makerbots I had to design and orient parts specifically to avoid warping, and it was always a nightmare with people walking in and out of the (heated) room and not closing the door after themselves.  Depending on your use this may or may not be to your liking.  For prototyping I don't find this to be a problem.

Extruder problems.

The extruder is the weak link in this printer.  Since you are using PLA, the extruder will clog sooner or later.  And chances are it will clog so badly you can't get it to work again no matter how many times you cycle it through unload/load filament cycles.

If you pick it apart I guess you will void the warranty -- but I would actually recommend you do pick it apart.  It is actually worth having to buy a new extruder rather than having to wait for 2-3 weeks for a new extruder to turn up.  If voiding the warranty is not your thing then I would advise against buying the Makerbot Replicator.

Thankfully, taking the extruder apart is relatively easy.  You have to be careful when opening the casing so you don't break the clips, but the insides are very easy to understand and to take apart. Beware that there is a spring inside which pushes against the nozzle at one end and the contact sensor on the other end.  The contact sensor is the little plastic thing with a magnet inside it.  It seems like the contact sensor actually uses a magnet and a hall-effect sensor -- which is a pretty clever design since mechanical switches aren't all that precise.

There is a video on youtube of how you do it.  The video is low quality, but it is helpful in showing you the order of operations when you pick apart the extruder.

Z-axis alignment before printing.

Before printing the Makerbot will go through a calibration procedure to determine the exact position of the Z-axis. If you have problems with the extruder rubbing against your build plate when it starts printing, it probably has misjudged the print plate position.  This will lead to the nozzle getting backed up and could end up clogging your nozzle.  You will hear a ticking sound come from the extruder, which means that the filament is slipping -- the stepper is pushing the filament but the filament has nowhere to go.

Sadly, the Makerbot doesn't have any configuration where you can adjust the Z-axis calibration and offset the print head, so instead you have to trick the calibration procedure.  What I've done is that I have 4 sheets of paper that I have cut into a long strip;  when the printer starts its pre-print Z-axis calibration I slip the sheets under the nozzle as it measures the build plate position.  Then, before it starts printing, I retract the paper again.  This way it will start printing at a slight offset over the Z-axis and it won't grind the nozzle into your build plate.

It seems that if you print things on a raft, the extruder will start a bit higher and pump out a thicker extrusion on the first pass and that this lessens the chance of getting a Z-axis problem -- but this is just guesswork on my part.

Wishlist for Makerbot gen 6

  • Make the extruder user-servicable.  It will clog and it will be more expensive to engineer an extruder that guarantees you won't have clogging than to make it user serviceable.  I wouldn't even bother trying.  Get rid of the fragile clips, at least for the main housing, and use proper torx head bolts.  Provide instruction videos for how to pick it apart.
  • The calibration/measurement sequences are slow.  Dead slow.  This smells of bad programming rather than a conservative approach.  Levelling the build plate shouldn't need to take more than 30 seconds.  The pre-print Z-calibration should be a 5-8 second affair.  I have no idea why it steps down so slowly when lowering the extruder to the plate to trigger the touch-sensing.
  • Make the firmware more configurable -- both up front and during printing.  Things like travel speed, temperature, Z-axis offset etc might as well be configurable.  If people screw up then they screw up.  (Being able to adjust travel speed while the printer is working enables you to find good settings faster since you don't have to start an entirely new print).
  • Document the network API of the Makerbot so users can easily write software for interfacing with it.  Give it a proper REST API and put libraries for different languages on GitHub. Encourage third party developers to make libraries.
  • Redesign the build plate guide and attachment.  It has a tendency to not slip correctly into place.
  • Fix the top of the extruder where the filament guide tube attaches to the print head.  It has a tendency to slip out and taping it in place doesn't work well either.  I've been thinking about designing and printing a kludge for this.
  • Make all the values editable in the print profiles.  Sure, most people who care are fully capable of editing the JSON file with the config values, but having a proper UI for doing this would be nice.
  • Make it more hackable again.  The product isn't a traditional consumer item anyway, so you might as well go back to your roots and design the thing to be user-modifiable.  If it voids warranties:  fine, I can live with that.  I'd rather risk breaking the bot and have an easier time repairing it than being guaranteed humdrum performance.

2014-09-21

Cars

A few days ago I had the pleasure of driving +Ståle Dahl's 1972 Bertone-designed Alfa Romeo 2000 GT Veloce from Trondheim to Lom.  Or rather, Ståle and I shared driving duties along this scenic route on our way to a company offsite.  (We usually just refer to the car as "The Bertone" or fondly: "Bertis")


Most motorists today have so few opportunities to drive an older car -- and in particular an older car that is in excellent condition and which can offer an exciting driving experience.  Apart from being a beautiful car, it is a pleasure to drive.  The 2 litre, 4 cylinder Nord engine from Alfa Romeo provides a characteristically wide power band.  It growls, fizzes, crackles and barks thanks to a refreshingly simple exhaust system and not least a pair of decent sized Weber carburettors with trumpets, rather than the large filter-boxes used to neuter most modern cars.

Norwegian author Kjell Aukrust has written extensively about the joys of motoring, and it is not hard to understand why the Alfa Romeos always had a special place in his heart.  There is something very special about the combination of stunning Norwegian scenery, with mountains plunging into the water, curvy roads hugging the mountain sides, and the sound of a Nord engine.   Slower cars are dispatched quickly.  Approach carefully from behind, so as not to startle the victim prematurely, then downshift in two takes, blipping the throttle between gears, allowing the trumpets to bark, before burying the pedal.  When your vision becomes blurry, that means it is time to shift up.

One does not need to go particularly fast to have an engaging experience in the GTV.

The difference between driving an older car and a modern car struck me a I was trying out a new car for my daily driver.

It has been clear for some time now that my daily driver, an Alfa Romeo 156 Selespeed, is becoming somewhat long in the tooth.  We are now at that magic crossover point where the cost of repairs relative to the monetary value of the car means you keep asking yourself if it is worth investing more in the car.  By all means, the car is still a brilliant drive in many respects.  In particular I love the precise and perfectly balanced steering feel.  And thanks to a diligent mechanic, it will still out-brake most other cars by a good margin.  But I need a younger workhorse.

The choice landed on the relatively new Alfa Romeo Giulietta.  More specifically the Quadrofoglio Verde, which has Alfa Romeo's brilliant 1750 TBi strapped under the bonnet.  The same engine that you will find in the gorgeous Alfa Romeo 4C.  The key figures are pretty exciting for a 5 door hatchback: 1350 or so kg, 235hp, 340Nm of torque and a clever front differential that will deal with the embarrassing tendency of front wheel drive cars to uselessly direct power to the inside wheel and light it up during hard cornering under power.



The thing about modern cars is that they are fussy.  There is so much stuff in them.  Stereo,  multiple climate zones, seats that contain more electronics than your TV.  The interior is a museum of all the various polymers humankind has come up with over the last 100 years.  And this is without even beginning to describe the infuriatingly useless computers that are strewn throughout the car running shit software written by underpaid engineers on strict budgets under unrealistic deadlines.

True, modern cars are more comfortable.  If I were to drive this car for 12 hours straight I'd arrive well rested and able to feel most of my extremities.  12 hours in the Bertone, which encourages you to drive "con spirito", means you probably need to rest up for a day.  Preferably in a hotel overlooking some body of water.  While imbibing bubbly and nibbling on cured meats.

Also, modern cars are fast.

It may seem odd that a confessed petrol head would complain that a car is fast, but hear me out.  The problem is that you want the feeling of speed, of danger of drama -- but not necessarily very high speeds.  The Giulietta QV is so easy to drive, so quiet and so effortlessly light-footed that you think you are going 80km/h, but when you look at the speedo, it says 130km/h.  I suppose that to recreate the oh-my-god-we-are-going-to-die-feeling you get in older cars, I would have to drive at speeds that lead to carpentry (building pallets is the stereotypical prison job in Norway -- whether this reflects reality or not -- hence "building pallets" is a euphemism for "going to prison").

I like braking hard, cornering fast, place the car precisely and hit the fun pedal before most people have discovered that they are even in the corner -- but thundering down a straight piece of road at warp speed....even the land-boats of the colonies can do that.

Of course, then there are cars from the 80s.  When there was electronic injection systems and car designers were struggling to get to grips with this newfangled thing called a "turbo".  Now, the turbo wasn't a new invention, but strapping them into road cars and, in some cases, tripling or quadrupling the top end power output, did not come without challenges.  Apparently this was so hard to sort out that for a decade, nobody had time to design cars with curvy bodies.  The ruler was the main design tool and I suppose Giugiaro and Cressoni enjoyed the 80s since it meant they could go home early every day -- after spending most of the day drawing essentially straight lines.

While the 60s and 70s was about bone-rattling, yet rather linear engine performance, the 80s was the nuclear age.   Nothing at low revs, still nothing, nope and then, suddenly, hundreds of crazy horses come gallopping out of the gate at the same time, turning your tyres into plumes of expensive smoke and depositing your car in the nearest tree.

I happen to have one of the most frightening cars from this era:  the 1987 Alfa Romeo 75 Turbo Evoluzione (Interestingly, almost everything on the Wikipedia page is wrong about this car, so I should get around to fixing that some day.  Not only did they make 509 rather than 500 cars, but they were also more powerful than claimed by the factory -- because Alfa made a V6....and a 4 cylinder engine isn't allowed to be more powerful than a V6 in their universe...so obviously they had to lie).

It was made as a homologation vehicle -- meaning, to race in certain series, you needed to make at least 500 cars to be able to claim that it was "serial production".  Alfa made 509 of these cars.  Sadly the timing was a bit off so they only raced briefly.  Again meaning that development of the car never really got going.  Which again means:  this is a frightening car.



While the 1972 GTV is the sort of car you can drive in a tweed jacket, and the Giulietta QV allows you to thunder along in comfort while checking your mobile phone, the Evoluzione should probably come with a straightjacket and anti-psychotic drugs.  Give it the beans and within short you will start suffering from ischemia of the knuckles.  It is recommended that you bring a change of underwear and arrange for some sort of plastic covering for the seat.  At least until you get used to what happens when the little turbine up ahead wakes up and starts cramming obscene amounts of oxygen into the cylinders.

Owning a 75 Evo is like owning a bear:  pretty cool, but there's always the risk that this is the day it is going to eat you.

But you do feel alive when driving it :-).

2014-08-26

Consumer grade health monitoring equipment.

Right now a somewhat new category of health/medical equipment is beginning to emerge.  These devices are not your traditional medical devices, with their bureaucratic, long-winded approval processes that guarantee that whatever comes out the other side is ten times expensive and several years behind the technological status quo.  These devices are for everyday use of consumers to have some idea of how their health is doing.

When I talk about measurement devices to track your health, you probably think of glucose meters and blood pressure measurement cuffs.  Expensive stuff that needs to be carefully calibrated, tested, rated and approved.  Well, those are critical and very nice to have.  But there are lots of other parameters that you can look at and analyze to gain useful information.

For instance body weight.  For people with certain medical conditions, keeping a close eye on developments in their body weight is critical.  And this is much harder than you would think using old-fashioned bathroom scales.  Since your weight will vary throughout the day and even between days, trends can be hard to spot if you do this by eye and by memory.  But if you store the measurements and you have software that can smooth out the rather noisy data, you will be able to spot trends much easier.  For instance I can easily spot a 200 gram gain or loss over a week using my internet-connected bathroom scales with data visualization software -- I seriously doubt that even if you record your weight carefully with pen and paper you'll spot that change unless you do a bit of work.

And that's an important point.  If you want people to measure something related to their health, you have to automate it and preferably, not have it interfere with their lives.

Taking a weight measurement with a WiFi-connected bathroom scale takes zero effort.  You just step on the thing for a few seconds while you are brushing your teeth and you are done.  If you brush your teeth 2-3 times per day, that's 3 datapoints right there.  (Compare to one datapoint at your doctor's office during the yearly checkup.  An almost worthless measurement).

Taking a BP reading, on the other hand, is a pain in the neck.  The traditional way to measure BP is with a cuff -- a device called a sphygmamanometer.   The measurement procedure calls for sitting down, putting the cuff on, and performing a series of measurements.  To the greatest degree possible you have to try to eliminate sources of error and to make the measurement the same way every time in order to produce data points that can be compared reasonably well.  This takes real effort.   So you won't get people to gather lots of BP data points every day.  This is a parameter in dire need of a proper measurement technology.

What will be an important focus is how we can instrument ourselves and our surroundings in order to measure health-related parameters without effort.  And there are a lot of opportunities. Just take your bed.  You can monitor movement to determine how well you sleep.  It should be possible to pick out your pulse either by sound, or by making sheets out of fabrics that can utilize contact with your skin and make use of conductive materials embedded in the sheets.  If you have enough leads, proper signal processing and some software to figure out how the sensor grid is aligning with your body, there is no reason you wouldn't be able to produce many hours of EKG-data every night. Meaning that not only will you know more about your heart than was previously possible -- it is going to be possible to detect heart problems much, much, earlier than before.
Ditto for breathing.  Combine audio analysis with the minute movements of your bed as you breathe and it should be possible to detect a number of anomalies.

Recently I built a prototype for monitoring body temperature while in bed.  My theory was that it should be possible to automatically detect if someone is running a fever.  Without having to get up and use a traditional thermometer every now and then.  The sensors are just embedded in your bed (no pun intended) and you log the measurement values over the network.  It took me just a few afternoons to build and even after the first full night of testing it was obvious that non-intrusive fever detection is feasible.  I'm still working on it, but I've already reached the cost goal:  you can do it for under $100 in materials cost.  And that is for a WiFi-enabled device with a big, bright LED display.

So to sum up:  here are some of my beliefs around consumer health monitoring:

  1. We have to develop cheap, automated technologies for health monitoring to free up the time of medical personnel so they can spend less time on menial measurement tasks which they are not very good at anyway since they are humans -- and humans are terrible at observing and recording physical phenomena.
  2. It has to be non-intrusive.  If it takes effort, users won't stick to it.  The goal has to be to hide these measurement devices in everyday objects and to opportunistically gather data whenever data is available.
  3. New high quality sensors available for very little money combined with cheap connectivity and high capacity computing means that observations that would have been pretty hard to come by a few years ago are now easily attainable.
  4. Privacy and security will be a huge problem.  On one hand you want to keep this data private. On the other hand, you want it to be easily available to you and your healthcare professionals.
  5. Regulatory bodies and traditional makers of medical technologies are slow and incremental -- meaning that there will be an unresolved tension here for years.  Ultimately this means that public healthcare organizations will forego incredible cost savings opportunities because they lack the kind of people needed to figure out how to expedite this.

(When I say that humans are terrible at measuring things, I mostly base this on papers I've read that quantify the error rates of defined measurement tasks where the accuracy of the measurement devices are known.  For instance for a given urine collection device used in many hospitals the theoretical accuracy would lead you to believe that errors would typically be in the 2-5% range.  The observed error is as high as 25%+.   Measuring well is hard.  Leave it to the machines if you can.

Of course, I am beating myself up over being really bad at referencing these papers when I discuss things or when I write.  This leads to misremembering the precise figures as well as not being able to provide helpful references for people who wish to understand these things.  I'll try to get better at this. Sorry.  Of course, it also doesn't help that some of these papers are behind paywalls -- which is just the disgracefully obsolete way scientific publishing works)