Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Ode to an Industrial Designer Genius

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

I’ve been kinda busy lately. I have been doing some major renovations in our house. Doing most of the work myself has meant going through a large learning curve. I have always done little projects but this is the first time taking on the complete renovations of a whole room. It has been exhilarating as I just love learning how to do things.
We also bought a cottage which doesn’t really need much renovation, fortunately or unfortunately. One very nice feature included on the property is a construction shed which was used as a shop by the previous owner. Of course I want to continue that tradition. Since I still have my small shop in the city I’ve been going to garage sales to properly equipped this new space. An industrial vacuum cleaner is one of the essentials and since I already owned one I decided to look for another of the same brand. I found a really nice one that Is a little more powerful than what I have now which is good since I plan to make quite a bit of sawdust. When I had the two vacuums opened in front of me I realized a part was missing from the unit I just bought. After a call to a very helpful employee at the company I found out what I was missing is called an “Inlet Deflector”.

When I started to research on how I could get this part I noticed that the design was different from what I had in my existing unit. When I phoned back I again got Dave and he explained to me that the new design was so you would not need to switch the direction of the deflector when you went from dry pick up to wet. With the previous design you placed the deflector pointing down for dry and in order to prevent splashing you placed it pointing up for wet. In the new design the deflector pushes the debris off to the side which works perfectly for either dry or wet. INGENIOUS!
What intrigues me about this story is how did they come up with this new design. Was it a eureka moment where someone in the middle of the night thought “We could save our customers the nuisance of changing the deflector direction by redesigning it to deflect sideways”. Or did they sit down with this objective in mind and experimented until they found the answer. I can happily say that in my history of fixing and making things I have experienced a bit of both.
I don’t know if I’ll ever find the answer but it’s been a delight imagining. It is a good reminder that using our hands and eyes teaches us things. And even better, that knowledge can come back to us as a GOOD IDEA.

Let them tumble . . . they’ll learn.

Friday, May 8th, 2015

I believe that life long values like; self-confidence, creativity, curiosity, collaboration and persistence can come out of a childhood where you had opportunities to build and fix things. Reflecting on a recent story coming out of Alberta I want to add ‘judgement’ as one of those values. If you are building a large structure with Legos, for example, there is a point where you have to make a judgement of whether your structure will hold up and not fall over or collapse in the middle. The conditions for collapse can be explained by some rule of physics but it comes down to you, the builder, making a judgement of how to proceed with your design based on observation, trial and error (and of course how many bricks you have left).

A couple of weeks ago an 11-year-old boy in Calgary hopped onto his bike for a 4.8 kilometre ride to his favourite Lego store. He had $200 of his own money and was going to buy some Lego. He wanted to get more bricks for his new monster project — an eight-wheeled off-road vehicle. He had been shopping there by himself for two years. Despite the clear evidence he could safely carry-out his mission, from the store’s point of view he was under-age and needed to be detained until his father showed up.

There are a number of disturbing aspects to this story (see this CBC report for more details). Security guards and a store manager have no right to detain a person who has not committed a crime. It was not up to them to bring the father’s parenting skills into question. If the mall needed to be evacuated the boy would have just bicycled the 4.8 kilometre back home. Responsible parents are the best people to be evaluating the capabilities of their children. But what is most baffling is that the boy had been in the store on his own before and they knew him and there had never been a problem. They went for the rule book and not common sense.

Makers know quite well that you can’t totally depend on the instruction book. If you have experience building and fixing things you know that judgement is extremely important. There are very few projects where you don’t have to scratch your head deciding on how the next step should be carried out. How to balance the two boards so you can put in the second screw or else the whole thing will collapse and your first screw will snap right off. How to remedy a sewing project if your machine starts to skip stitches. If you are a maker you have to observe, experiment, adapt. I believe these are the same qualities needed to run a store.

This store policy was written by lawyers. It was to protect the company not the children. Children don’t need restrictive store policies they need opportunities. Children don’t need fearmongering, they need competences. Playing with Lego is one way they can develop skills. I think these lawyers need to get down on the floor with a big box of Legos and build something elaborate. Who knows, maybe they will learn something.

You’re AMAZING, in an AWESOME sort of way

Monday, November 10th, 2014

Don’t get me wrong, I love to receive compliments. I even fish for them sometimes; “Did you enjoy our concert?” “Did you like the stew I made?” But it really struck a chord when I read Salman Khan’s blog from the Khan Academy website. The point of the blog is to explain why he will never tell his son he is smart. He decided to praise his son not when he succeeded at things he was already good at, but when he persevered with things that he found difficult. The approach Khan Academy takes towards learning is that of the ‘growth mindset’ based on the idea that capability and intelligence can be grown through effort, struggle and failure.

Around the same time that I read this blog I was on an interesting shoot at a private school. We were filming a first grade class doing math problems. Up front, on a Smart Board, there were two groups of circles displayed. They had to replicate this layout at their desks with tokens. It was great to see hands being engaged as part of the solving process. The objective was to decide if the tokens/circles on the left side were less, equal or greater than those on the right side. One student was chosen to go up to the Smart Board and insert the appropriate mathematical symbol between the two groups. More often than not the teacher would say when the student got it right “You are AMAZING”.

I shivered a bit when I heard this. I do believe you can cause great damage when you criticize a person to the point that they see themselves as dumb and unable to do anything right. At the same time to call someone AMAZING for doing something that is quite unextraordinary can in the long run inhibit the striving to do something more difficult, something slightly beyond our reach.

How does this relate to the subject of MAKING. I firmly believe when you use your hands to make and fix things you get instant feedback. First you measure carefully, scribe a line that is perpendicular to the edge, keep your tool vertical and then saw away. When the scrap end falls and you take your final piece into what you are building and it fits, you don’t need anybody to say you’re amazing. The very tactile experience of what you just did is all the feedback you need.

The very direct feedback that comes with MAKING can also communicate that you screwed up. I had this experience recently making a device that turns an electric hand sander into an ultrasonic parts cleaner. I measured where holes should have been and then made my marks and drilled. My holes were off as I had not paid enough attention and marked them at 10.5″ instead of 10.125″. I thought I could solve my first problem by altering other measurements to compensate, but that would be more problematic. This seemingly smart decision would have left the tub sitting on top (with cleaning solution in it) very loosely secured. In the end I just bent the threaded rods and everything worked.

I would love to hear your stories of when a MAKING experience communicated something to you. Was it “Good Job!” or was it “Sorry that doesn’t work, find another way.”

A Perfect Marriage at Ottawa’s Mini Maker Faire 2014

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Two years ago last weekend I was in New York City at the World Maker Faire and although I had been once before at the inaugural Montreal Mini Maker Faire it was still like the very first time. At this point I have been to four and have some thoughts on what keeps Maker Faires a terrific experience.

Keeping it well organized; Even simple logistics can make the difference. The visitors will always have a good time. If things run smoothly they will have a great time.

Keeping your volunteers and makers happy; The visitors will be happy if the people they are interacting with are happy as well.

Having variety; Variety gives the visitors, obviously, a more varied experience. More importantly it communicates the message that MAKING can mean many things. For the maker movement to thrive it needs an image that appeals to the widest variety of people.


A perfect (“ideal” is a better word) marriage was consummated on August 16 and 17, 2014, when Artengine and the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation co-presented the fourth annual Ottawa Mini Maker Faire at the Canada Science and Technology Museum. Artengine is an Ottawa-based collective of artists, technologists and interested members of the general public with strong ties to the local, national and international community of technologically-based artists.  By partnering with the Canada Science and Technology Museum Corporation, it is in a practical and symbolic way bringing two worlds together with the sole objective of celebrating and showcasing MAKING.

The museum was a good setting for another reason. Some of the technologies on display at OMMF were pretty advanced. It was opportune that one could learn the history of that same technology by stepping out of the maker rooms and into the rest of the museum.

See for yourself by watching this highlights video. The person being interviewed is Britta Evans Fenton. She was a technical coordinator at Artengine and co-producer with the Ottawa Mini Maker Faire team.. ENJOY

The Tinker Room at Ottawa’s Mini Maker Faire

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

If two companies, one developing software and the other designing physical objects, were to set up a room at Maker Faire, what do you think it would look like? Would you envision a display of all the products their companies have produced. Or would you envision a setup involving a battery and a vibrator glued on top of a toothbrush head? Or could you picture a tall popcorn machine that would drop kernels onto a hot pan based on event outcomes of a video game? If you guessed the last two you truly understand Maker Faire philosophy. And so did the companies Macadamian and Design1st. They wanted to convey in a fun way the path taken to design a product; Imagine, Create, Collaborate. It started with the simple and then showed how an idea (even crazy ones) can eventually become product.

The video above gives you a snapshot of The Tinker Room, part of the very successful Ottawa Mini Maker Faire that happened on Aug 16-17, 2014. We hear the perspective and expectations of both Fred Boulanger; CEO of Macadamian and Kevin Bailey; President of Design 1st. After my interview Kevin told me more about their company. I came to realize that one of the secrets to their success is that they are involved in many different types of products. Through the years they have drawn on these experiences to apply to new projects that could be in different markets. This makes a lot of sense as there are a finite number of scientific laws; gravity, the flow of fluids and air, electronic components, characteristics of solid and liquid matter, etc. Once you understand the physical world you can shift more easily project to project. This makes a strong case for courses and activities for children to develop their inner maker. And in my opinion the strongest characteristic you develop with early industrial arts or maker style education is confidence. Look into the eyes of the kids featured in this video and you will see what I mean.