Thursday, February 26, 2009

The project begins

Well it's been way too long since the last post but I've been flat out. I've been testing a range of new components that we want to use in our project board. The idea is that we prototype each of the various sub-circuits to make sure we don't end up with any surprises when the first proto pcb comes back. So far its proved a very fruitful exercise.
One of the devices I had to check out was a 2W audio amp. Now apart from the poor english in the datasheet (Example: When driving a speaker load suggestion set to the BTL mode for get the more power output.), the application circuit was drawn with the shutdown connection wired ON - i.e. to VCC. So without thinking, that's how I wired up the test circuit. When I got nothing coming out of the amp, I probed a little further, went back and read the data sheet, and realized that ON meant the shutdown was on, not the amplifier was on. Shutdown ON = amplifier OFF!
A quick rewiring of that pin and everything came to life - and quite impressively too. Given the mistake I made, I checked over the circuit that our hardware guy had created and sure enough, he'd been tripped up by it too. So it was well worth doing the quick prototype.
Next job was to test out the quality of some low priced speakers. They were tiny surface mount things and they sounded crap! I'm glad we did that check because it would have been a real let down if we'd gone ahead with them. It forced us to probe a little further and our sourcing guys found some great little beasties for about 70c each. They are 30mm across and use rare earth magnets and boy they can pack a punch. Unfortunately I don't have the specs on them just at the moment but I'll post a link later on.
I checked out a few other components such as an SPI-based Real Time Clock and One-Wire ID chip. Fortunately there were no surprises there but I've got to say, using Altium Designer to do the testing was a real breeze. They already have software drivers for SPI and One-Wire devices so it was pretty easy to get some basic test applications up and running.
So it looks like we are just about set to begin developing our first reference design. We had a brainstorm yesterday and came up with over 50 project ideas. But as we narrowed it down, we didn't want to spend all the time on developing the application. We wanted a project that would let us demonstrate the way to approach building a system without getting bogged down in the detail of developing a complex application. So it looks like the project will be a Natural Disaster Reporting System. The basic idea is that these units can be installed in people's houses and will log weather data back to a central site. In return, that site can send emergency response information back to the units based on immenent danger from fires, hurricane, tsunami etc. It'll give us a chance to show how to interface to a number of IO devices as well as build a nice user interface for the LCD and perform some Ethernet comms. I'm looking forward to building it.
Oh, and as a very topical side note, we drove down to Melbourne last weekend and had to drive through some of the areas affected by the bushfires. We weren't trying to be nosey but you can't help but notice the huge devastation. There are warnings that the weather tomorrow might be pretty bad as well and my mother in-law is going to evacuate just to make sure. No one wants to take any chances after what happened three weeks ago. So maybe our little project might get some people thinking about ways to use technology to better manage people during Natural Disasters.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

What would you like to see me design?

It looks like I might have the opportunity to work on some techy projects at work. But the best part is that we don't even know what the projects are going to be yet. At this stage, the goal is just to create some cool stuff. I can't tell you what hardware we'll have to work with yet but you can bet it'll be heavily based on NB2 stuff. So what would you like to see me build? I want ideas. I want suggestions. I want the weirdest, craziest ideas for cool little gadgets and applications that you've always wished someone would build for you.
As an idea, I was hunting around Harvey Norman today for an Ethernet-USB adapter. Basically I want to have a portable hard drive available to my home network but without needing to have any one specific PC on. So the adapter would simply present the portable harddrive to the network so anyone can access. Even better would be the ability to limit certain PCs to certain folders of the hard drive so everyone can have their own storage space. (BTW, I did find one but it was $199 - way too pricey!)
Another idea might be a USB - Hard disk drive adapter so you can use one of those cool Everio hard disk based camcorders and dump the contents to a much bigger portable drive every so often without needing a PC/laptop.
So give me your ideas and let the world know what hot new gadget it needs.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What matters most!

Australia is still gripped by the tragedy of the weekend's fires as the death toll continues to rise. This morning's news reports posted the count at 181 but warned that it may dramatically rise as emergency service personnel gain access back into the areas effected and continue the grizzly task of finding more bodies. Around 20 fires remain out of control and several towns are still on high alert. But the weather has abated to some extent and it looks like the atrocious conditions of the weekend that lead to so many people being caught unaware are behind us.  If nothing else, we certainly won't be underestimating the power of the elements.  One report likened it to a hurricane that rained firey embers and drove flames ahead of it with such ferocity that it could not be outrun. Even families who took refuge in bunkers have been found perished. And in one photograph, the alloy wheels of a car lie like a solidified molten lava flow on the ground.
I've tried a couple of times to blog about topics that were the original purpose of this diary but have found myself unable to focus.  Surrounded by such human tradegies, my ongoing thoughts about technology are inconsequential.  Technology is our servant.  It is our aid to a better life. But when life itself is under threat, the pursuit and accolades of technology must take a back seat as we focus on matters of greater importance.  Hug your children.  Tell your husband or wife that you love them. Be human. Use now as an opportunity to remember what matters most.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Fires rage through Victoria

This morning I woke to the tragic news that over 100 people are now confirmed to have died from bushfires in my home state of Victoria, Australia.  Unfortunately it would appear that the worst news is still yet to come as authorities have only recently been able to get back into the worst effected areas to begin the grizzly task of sifting through the destruction.  So far, over 750 homes have been destroyed with countless loss to property and possessions.
The eyewitness stories that have filtered through all tell a similar tale of personal loss and tragedy, but the common thread that seems to run through all reports is the shear ferocity and speed that the fire raged. For some it was only a matter of 10 - 15 minutes between realizing the fire was heading their way until their homes were totally engulfed.  As a consequence, so many were caught in a panic and confusion trying to escape at the last minute.
One picture which probably hit home the most for me was of the burnt out shells of 5 vehicles that had collided on one of the roads in the path of the fire.  The panic and fear that the occupants of those vehicles must have experienced in their last moments alive must have been horrific. For a moment, as they tried to escape the devastation of the approaching fires, they must have felt optimistic about being able to outrun the flames and flee to safety.  But with thick clouds of black smoke obscuring visibility, it was a near certainty that an accident would occur as so many other people caught in the mayhem struggled to leave at the same time.  
It seems so obvious that panic is the last thing that one wants to find themself in at a time when clear thinking is so vital, but when planning their escape route, drivers would have thought about the roads they were travelling on and imagined them just as they had always seen them - infrequently travelled with plenty of capacity. But as people rushed to leave the scene everything changed. Roads became blocked, visibility obscured and people died. My thoughts and prayers are with all those suffering under this shocking event.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

... and now for the business cards

Yesterday I posted about just how easy it was to buy and set up a custom website in an evening but today I want to tell you about how we created our very own business cards too.  Having the website was one thing but we needed a way to get the word out and point people from the conference to it.
The key here was that it all had to be done superfast!  If we had more time we could have looked at using one of the online business card services such as clickbusinesscards. I've heard a couple of really good reports about their service but for our situation, we didn't have time on our side.
Instead, we opted for a cheeky use of Harvey Norman's photo centre. If you are handy with photo shop or some other image editing software then you can create your own impressive business cards very quickly and easily.
A standard business card is 8.56cm x 5.398cm and you can get 3 into a 6" x 4" photo or 4  into a 5" x 7" photo.  The normal price for 5 x 7's is 59c each but for 6 x 4' s its 25c.  And if you go on a Thursday, the 6 x 4's are only 19c each.  So that means I can get 3 business cards for 19c - i.e. 6.33 cents each. It's not double sided but it is photo quality and actually cheaper per card than clickbusinesscards' 1000 qty deal.
Renee estimated she only needed about 30 business cards to cover the conference so the total investment would be all of $1.90 if she printed it up on Thursday. Can you believe it!  In the end, Renee decided on going for a 6x4 photo sized flyer so she could put more information on it and because the conference is actually today (Thursday) she had to print them up yesterday and  couldn't take advantage of the special. But all up, she got 30 very professional looking cards printed off for $15 yesterday and she went off to the conference this morning brimming with confidence and optimism.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Watch out Web Developers

I recently had an experience with some website creation software that simply amazed me. My wife (Renee) is taking some very deliberate steps to refocus the direction of her career towards Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and she will be attending a conference over the next couple of days. While preparing for this networking opportunity, she decided that it would be a good idea to put a lot of her ideas and knowledge online and then give out business cards that would direct people to her website. But she didn't know how to create a website and, as the technologist of the family, was looking to me to assist her.
The last time we looked into creating a website it was for an online wooden toy business and it cost us several thousand dollars to get a professional web developer to set it all up for us.  I know a thing or two about C/C++ programming and I've dabled in other languages too but I'm a long way from anything when it comes to web programming. And so it was with great fear and trepidation that I set out to create a website in an evening.
We thought about creating a free website using Google Sites but it wouldn't give us our own URL or email and Renee wanted a more professional feel. So she looked into Smartyhost which is the hosting service we have used for a number of our other websites.  She was particularly drawn to  their $40 Website Package which offered your own domain name for a year, 5 page website, email, and hosting. It sounded too good to be true so it's fair to say I was a bit skeptical. But after running through the online demo, I felt confident enough to at least part with my cash and try it out for real.
At about 9:15pm I punched in my credit card details and launched myself into the abyss. I thought all my fears had been realized when, after submitting the payment form, the only feedback I got was that my transaction had been successful.  No information about what the next step should be and I was completely lost as to where to go next.  I quickly checked the email account that I had registered as part of the purchasing process but nothing. I checked again and still nothing.  What next? Patience.  Having done a couple of things like this before, I figured it would probably take a few minutes for the domain to be allocated and the details to come through so I waited a while.  
After maybe 10 minutes, some emails started to trickle in with the information I was after.  They provided me my login details including an auto-generated password, and a link to the site creation software that would guide me through the rest of the process. We picked a page design from the 460+ templates and customized it to our particular taste. Next, choose the names of the 5 pages you want. We selected the standard 'Home' and 'Contact Us' from the list of preconfigured pages but for the 'Links' page and 'CSR Information' page, we just used one of their default containers.
Next was the editing process where we added all the content.  Renee had already written all the information into a Word document so it was simply a case of cut and paste and tweaking the layout here and there.  Renee wanted a picture of herself on one of the pages and so we had to slip that in as well.
Finally we published the page and we were live.  I tried opening another web-browser window and typing in the URL: but to no avail. The domain name was still propagating and I knew that would take at least 24 hours or so. I still had a bit of energy left so I decided to set up the email.  Tap, tap, tap and 5 minutes later that was all sorted as well.  Renee had a professional email account linked to her domain name.  I looked at my watch and it was only 11:30pm.  I couldn't believe it.
So all of this technology has got my mind spinning. Maybe I'll share some more thoughts in another post but my parting conclusion was simply that the ease that someone can create a presence on the web is astounding and there is really no excuse for any business not to have one.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Happy birthday to me

On the 3rd Feb, 1973 I first caught sight of the world.  In that year, the Australian top single was Tie a yellow ribbon round the ole oak tree. Its amazing how some of the songs on that list have still lived on having been repopularized through modern films. The two examples I can work out off the top of my head are:
* Killing me softly with his song - used in About a Boy
* You don't own me - First wives club
but there might be more (comments?)
So now that I'm on the downhill run to 40, it makes we wonder what fate awaits me.  Of the 40 songs that are listed in the australian pop archives, several seem to have survived to the modern era without being rehashed but most have simply fallen out of vogue never to be played again (accept in some weird 70's theme party where you have to come dressed as something starting with the letter 'P').  And what about the names of the songs? Even though I can't remember (or never knew) many of the tunes, the titles don't seem to have changed much in almost 40 years.  We are still singing about love, lost love and sex.  Is there anything new?
So it begs me to think about what this all means for my future.  As a technologist, how should I move with the times?  Are there going to be themes and technologies that I learned about in my 20's that will still be around in another 20 years time? What technologies are going to be 'rebirthed' to a new generation? And what technologies are simply going to fall by the wayside?  Putting your money on the right horse is pretty important for technologists because their fate will often be tied to the technology they are invested in. I sure don't want to be backing the horse that loses its rider as it rounds the final bend. Pass me my crystal ball...

Monday, February 2, 2009

Be Bold

You certainly don't have to look hard to find all sorts of economic doom and gloom predictions in the media.  So what should our response be?  Should designers and technology leaders retreat into their shells and focus only on low-risk, incremental improvement type products, or is there a better option?
Before answering this question, it is important to consider once again what it is that drives company profits.  You can slice and dice it a number of ways but ultimately the key driver of company profits is differentiation.  If consumers can't differentiate your product from your competitors' products then you will be forced to compete on cost alone. Over time, costs will be driven down and profits eroded until only the highest volume players who are able to achieve better economies of scale will remain.  You can hope that you are that company but its a very unreliable business model that relies on you covering your back as much as attacking from the front.
So differentiation is the key to a sustainable business model and building profits. And working further back up the food chain, it is design innovation that builds the greatest differentation.  How do we innovate? Well that's the million dollar question and there is no formula that will guarantee breakthrough. But it is possible to posture yourself to be in the best position to maximize the benefit when the next innovative idea hits you.
Look at your design processes.  Do they stifle innovation or promote it? Look at your design skills. Do you know how to access and maximize the benfits of the latest technologies?  Do your design tools create a barrier to innovation, or do they help you leverage your existing skills to access the next wave of disruptive technologies? Be bold.  Now is the time to study hard and equip yourself.  If you are going to retreat, don't retreat to nothingness.  Retreat to the lab.  Use it as an opportunity to refresh and reinvigorate your career.  Innovate your way forward.