Studio Re-Design (part 1, the before)

I’ve been yammering on for weeks about the work I’ve been doing preparing to rework the studio/home office, but it occurs to me I’ve hardly broached either the why or the how of all that. And I’ve skimped on pictures, too. So let’s fix all that.

The current space looks (more or less) like this:

Studio before.

Yowch. That’s not pretty. To be fair, there’s a bunch of stuff prepped in those bins for the install, so it’s a fair bit more cluttered than “normal” right now. But still.

I’ll break down part of what you’re seeing. On the left far wall- that’s all analog stuff. Sewing, typing, book binding, soldering, crafting… all that stuff happens over there somewhere. There’s about eight feet of desk there between the two tables, but it’s crowded and not great. The right side is all digital stuff- that’s some rack gear on the ground, four monitors (for two different machines), and a laptop. And another rack underneath. And it’s a hot mess of cables and clutter. No good.

The plan is something like this (all along the right hand wall):

IMG_3897

In case you can’t read my writing, that’s two seven foot desks (with a bit of overlap) mounted to the wall, and a freestanding (on casters!) 28u rack on the far right. That extends my computer standing desk from just under four feet wide to seven, and adds a considerable amount of storage above for all the other supplies I need to keep around.

The 28u rack I’ll be building is 30″ deep, too- so it’s going to get all the audio, video, and computer gear I have strewn around. All the hard drives. All the dead media format devices (VHS!) I keep around. All of it, in one place, neatly. Both computers go in there, too, along with (I imagine) the in-the-mail NAS I’m putting together.

I’ve got most of a parts list (and most of the cut-list, too), but I need to take some more measurements and finally do a proper scale drawing of the whole thing (with markings for the studs in the wall) to know exactly how many brackets of which type I need to buy. And then there are a couple of specialty parts (24″ shelf brackets, 28u rack mount rails, etc) that need to be special ordered, so I’ll have to get those en route.

So that’s where I’m at: an hour with the stud finder and some tape away from a full shopping list. Then it’s time to mount stuff to walls, cut and glue a bunch of shelves, and get going on the rack case.

Projects

This is less an update on status (my standard SitRep posts), and more some smaller look at how I manage some my projects. Just a small look, mind you.

IMG_3804This is a (partial) look at my project board- anything that I’m even thinking of making. It gets added to an index card, and pinned up. I (usually) organize them by category (bike, house, clothing, etc), but I shuffle them pretty often to see if anything lines up or can be batch processed. From here, these cards get filed as “finished” when the project is completed or “abandon” when I decide it’s not something I want to pursue. Every once in a while, on the rare occasion I’m feeling dry creatively, I sometimes paw through the “abandoned” cards for inspiration- I almost never re-up a project as-is.

For projects involving building, I usually spend some time sketching before I begin work. I have a couple of notebooks, depending on the scale I need, but this example is from my largest. It’s done in pencil, and it’s deliberately loose right now. I had the idea to overhaul my studio into a more functional space- that IMG_3820means more desk space and more storage, all while looking a bit less hodge-podge than things currently do. I’ll be installing a massive (16′ long!) work-wall, with (double) vertical desks build in- plus more shelving storage, cable management, and lighting. It’s about as big a project like this as I’ve taken on, and I know (based on finishing requirements) that I won’t be doing much until I can work in the garage again- the stain and polyurethane don’t like below freezing temps. But: I’m spending between now and then sketching and sketching and thinking to get the plans as solidified as I can, so when the temps finally break, I’ll be able to get right to work. So, for now, the sketches live here, and I’ll be revising and adding detail as I go. It’s the thinking that’s important, as it’ll make the construction go far more quickly, be less expensive, and better fit my ultimate needs.

So: between the board (to see the full range of the projects that are active) and the notebooks (for project details, sketches, equipment buy lists, etc), I find I manage to keep a reasonably good eye on what project is on which burner. For stuff I’ve never done before (like this studio 2.0 project), there’s a much-needed┬áhibernation phase. I need the time to think through iterations on projects so I don’t have to build as many physical iterations. For some stuff (like my long suffering shoulder bag project, currently on prototype #5), that build/test/build is a normal part of the process- but when I can (and especially for larger stuff like this), I need to minimize the number of physical revisions.

Sketching

If you’re the one person who follows my SitReps here, you might be aware that I’v been working on designs for a new shoulder bag for some time. I’ve been edging steadily closer for the last few months, but it’s never come fully to the front of my list of projects.

It is now.

I’d like to have it ready for the Autumn, but that means starting to work on it now. It’ll take time to get materials in, make patterns, cut & sew, and finish. If I don’t start soon, I won’t be ready for the cool weather.

So the other night I sat down in the basement studio to sketch some- I had some ideas and design criteria, but I wanted to flesh things out. I’ll need detailed dimensional drawings soon, but first I need to understand the construction. Pencil and paper in hand, I got to work. Which is when the eldest child (8.5) rolled up next to me on her own chair to “help.”

Shoulder bag sketchesAnd you know what? She totally did. She started asking really interesting questions about how things would work and how the bag should look and behave. And as I drew, she kept asking these amazing questions- and the sketches kept coming and getting better. And now, after a bit of that, I’ve got the best design I’ve come up with in a good long while. It’s amazing what someone unafraid of asking questions can do for the creation process.

 

New Keyboard

My obsession with mechanical keyboards continues.

My long-awaited 60% keyboard finally showed up (after the now-standard tomfoolery of DHS + USPS for delivery), and the first thing I did was rip all the key caps off install the set I got custom made from WASD Keyboards. It looks lovely now, and I’m very happy to be using it.

V60 w/ Custom Key Caps

I’ve not given up on my hand-wired monstrosity, either. It’s wired and has an “enclosure” and whatever, but I’ve been stalled for time with building out the custom firmware it needs to run. So it’ll wait a bit on that one. No rush.

 

obsessions.

The obsession with mechanical keyboards that I seem to have developed is… troubling. To the degree that I’m thinking about building a macro-specific┬ákeypad Keypad Layoutfor a number of the repetitive tasks that I handle on a regular basis. So, for example, one layer of this keypad would make the Mod 3 and Mod 4 keys the Edit In and Edit Out commands in FCPX, with the Mod 1 and Mod 2 maybe triggering transitions or media imports. Alt 1 would be to show video scopes, and so on. Then, with another layer, Mod 3 and Mod 4 would become Cut and Paste (in a single key press), with other keys (maybe) being mapped to insert small batches of heavily used HTML. Or something. Regardless, I’m figuring out parts lists and where to order key caps and switches and whatnot. AND how to get a Teensy 2.0 to act like a keyboard and handle all the macros and whatnot. All doable, mind you.

 

I bought a new computer.

Ah, so. The time had come.

My “current” computer is a very (10!) old MacBook Pro- it’s been great, but it’s gone all glitchy, and keeping it up and running has become entirely too time consuming- and inconsistent. I’ve written before about my affinity for Plex as a media serving solution, and this machine had been pulling Plex Media Server duty. It’s gone so flakey that it can’t be relied upon for that anymore, so it was clearly time for something new.

Or, I should say, new-er. I had planned to ante up and grab a 27″ iMac Retina of some flavor- by all accounts a lovely machine. It’s minimally user-serviceable, though, and the most you can really do is upgrade the RAM a bit. And: $1500 base price. So I also looked at a Mac Mini, but the price of those can be stiff, and they’re not user upgradable anymore, so… used? Nope- they hold value like crazy, and you’re effectively better buying a new one. So that’s out. And I don’t need the portability of a laptop.

Enter: Xserve. They dropped this line in 2010, but these were rack-mounted Macs meant for use in data centers. They are proper servers, too: dual redundant power supplies, lots of space for disks and RAM, dual gigabit ethernet, etc etc etc. I bought one on ebay, and it should be here early this week. Mine’s from 2008, and you might be thinking that I’m nuts to have bought an eight-year-old machine, but let me point out a couple of things:

  1. It’s faster than the iMac I might have bought- mine has 2x 3.0ghz quad-core Xeons, and the benchmarks for the machine are still pretty quick. It’s roughly a 6x improvement over my existing machine.
  2. It’s got plenty of RAM- mine has 16gb, but it’ll handle (at least) double that.
  3. It’s got space for 3 hard drives. Mine has 3x80gb, but I’ll eventually swap that to 3x2tb, so I’ll have 6tb of internal storage.
  4. It has an internal super drive (HA! well, useful for ripping existing parts of my DVD collection…)
  5. I paid $200 for it. Plus $90 for shipping, since the thing’s a TANK and is coming from the west coast.
  6. It’s entirely user serviceable. All the parts can come out and be swapped- it’s a industrial computer, after all.

Some downsides, of course:

  1. It eats power. It idles at 150W or so, but I’ll be running it on a scheduled boot/shutdown cycle to minimize that problem.
  2. Officially, it’s only supposed to be able to run 10.6.8 as an OS. Really, though, it’ll run 10.11.x without any real trouble- Apple dropped support for it’s video card, but I’ve got a much more modern card en-route that will fix that issue.
  3. It’s huge and rack mounted- but I don’t care, as I have a rack in the basement anyway.
  4. It’s loud under load- again, irrelevant, as it’s in the basement, and I’ll be managing it via screen sharing remotely anyway.

I’m excited. It’s been a very long time since I had a proper work-horse of a computer, and it’ll be nice to finally have my data and projects all consolidated onto one capable machine. The next stage will be monitors for it- the new video card will push 2650×1600 resolution, but I can’t figure out of that’s across one screen, or if that’s each on two screens. Whatever- it’s enough either way, really. I’ve got a 24″ 1920×1080 kicking around that’ll do in the meantime.

I figure even if I only get a few more years of life from it (which, honestly, seems unlikely- these were built like brick houses, so it should keep ticking along), it’ll still have been less expensive than an iMac, and I’ll have roughly the same speed and power, so that’s a bonus. And, given the price, if I want a “couch computer” for browsing, I can grab an iPad or Chromebook or whatever, and still have the total cost be less than an iMac.

I made something.

I get stuck, sometimes. Creation is hard, and it can feel overwhelming it its scope and depth. Fighting back can be hard, too- because creation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Life’s other pressures don’t abate just because you’ve started a new project.

Lots of folks have fought this- and many have come up with workable strategies. Among those I’ve found (that I like), Oblique Strategies is a favorite. It’s a deck of cards, designed by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, to help musicians stuck in the studio. As much as I like them, they’re not wholly applicable to what I do. Also, Austin Kleon recently posted about how he’s making his own deck (though his, predictably, is made with a Sharpie…).

New thing over at stealstrategies.net #stealstrategies

A photo posted by Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) on

So, today, hungry to be able to create something (as much of my creation-materials are in storage in preparation for my upcoming move…), I lugged my typewriter out of the basement and grabbed the stack of blank cards I use to work on my kids’ game we’re building together.

And to work I went.

Today’s project.

A photo posted by Tim Calvin (@nothingfuture) on

43 Cards later, I have a deck of ideas and prompts. Things to push me in a direction and (hopefully) get me unstuck.

Solving a Problem

So here’s the situation:

Students of all ages are increasingly turning to their mobile device to consume media. And, since part of what I do is deliver content for online learning, this has ramifications for me. Video needs to be optimized. There are a lot of parameters and vectors for this, but it can mostly be boiled down to this:

What is the video trying to accomplish and where will that video be consumed?

So a video that will be seen for 15 seconds at 60 mph on a highway billboard has different design restrictions than something that will be shown during a prime-time advertisement slot. That much should be obvious. But less so is the assumption that all web-based video will be consumed via a screen of some size. This, while (maybe) once was true, the days of our students by default consuming such video on a 20″ screen on a desktop are gone. The best you’re likely to do is a smallish laptop screen, and it’s more and more likely that it’ll be a 5″ phone screen. The question becomes, then, how to best convey video content (in the sense of video lectures and the like) via such little screen real estate.

We can make whatever stipulations we want- We can say that students need to use a “full” sized screen (whatever that means). We can say that things are best consumed on larger screens. But students will do what I do, and use whatever device is at hand. And most of the time, that’s a phone.

I’ve got some ideas in the works that might help with some of this- some methods that might allow greater student choice and better use of the limited screen space a phone has. I’ll be writing about them more in the future here, as it’s something I actually hope to publish and present on. I’m also in the earlier stages of testing some of this- I’m still learning what’s possible and what works/why. There are technical issues to overcome and consider (bandwidth, for example, looks to be an early hurdle), and there are issues of defining best practices and streamlining the workflow into a manageable and scale-able form. Still, the possibilities are enticing.

Anyway. This will be an ongoing thing- I’ll try to keep relatively up to date here with it, but again, I’ll be holding back somewhat, as I need to write a bunch of this up.

Building a Game (Part 3)

It continues.

We’ve covered how we made the board, and the manipulatives (and tools) we used to build out the game thus far- but we haven’t talked about the variables we’ve constructed to keep each round of the game from being repetitive.

We needed things to interact with during the game- Bad Guys, Good Guys, and neutral characters that would give us social interactions. And while I could write these into the notes for each round of the game, I wanted a couple of things:

  • Consistency of characters & attributes
  • Randomness of interactions
  • Input from my kids towards these characters

I knew we’d need at least three categories, and so with that in mind, I had the two girls sit down with notebooks to brainstorm characters we could create. They drew drafts of monsters, and once we had a meaningfully sized pile, they sorted them into “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys.” I busted out the box of blank cards (mentioned in Part 2), and they made two copies of each monster onto the cards- leaving an area below the monster clear for me to write in attributes.

BadGuys

I also made some “Good” cards that facilitate commerce. These are Wizards and Witches, and what they want is to trade you magic in exchange for coins or jewels. Different characters have different exchange rates (all of which float via dice roll…) so sometimes you get a really good deal (and sometimes things are expensive). The girls added some good characters too- more on that below.

GoodGuys

We needed a way to move currency between coins and jewels, so I made a quick stack of “Trader” cards- these characters only move currency between jewels and coins- though I’ve just made some Blacksmith cards (to buys swords from- again, on floating rates), and I’ll be adding a bunch more here as we go on. This category seems to be a good place to introduce new variables.

Traders

To keep these three (ever-growing) stacks of cards organized, I color coded the backs. Simple. And expandable, because I’m sure we’ll be adding more types of encounters. For storage, each stack gets a binder clip and is put in the same case as all the other gear.

ColorCoded

I’ve been really impressed with the creativity the kids have shown- we’ve got cards that add points to your dice roll to move around, cards that make you invisible to a bad guy, and (my current favorite) robot cards you can program to do your bidding in your absence. Those are pretty cool.

There are all manner of bad guys, and I try to write in a single “Boss” or “Big Bad” per round- it’s not on a card, and it’s attributes can (and do) change. This character is usually the last bad guy on a round, and it’s usually guarding a stash of loot- which you’ll likely need, as you’ll be hurting after fighting it. I also try to plan games so there’s a “healer” shortly after this character, as I don’t want them headed into the next game deep in a hole.

There’s a lot still to do- there are always more cards to add, for one. And I’m learning that hard-written numbers for damage/coins/jewels/whatever are less interesting than dice rolls to determine outcomes. I also would like the game to be more group-oriented. Right now, it’s very everyone-for-themselves, and as things get harder I want to push it towards a collaborative effort to reach some higher goal. I’ve not entirely figured out how to accomplish that, but I’ve got some ideas. I also want to make more boards- and I think I’ve got a good idea for easily-made boards. That’d be great because then the kids can help with making maps, and I’m sure they’ll like that. Eventually I also want to try making a modular board that can be shuffled (a la Settlers of Catan…) so every round can be based on the same pieces, but each assembled board is “unique.”

Each “round” of the game takes between 30 and 45 minutes right now- and that’s the sweet spot for the girls in terms of attention and enjoyment. I’m ok with that length right now, but I’m hoping to grow that a bit as they become more and more invested.

All these notes at the end should have made it clear that there’s very likely to be a Part 4 to this series. That’s not a bad thing.