Jeff Barr's Blog

Things I Like..

Links for Sunday, February 23, 2014

  • Leaflet – “An Open-Source JavaScript Library for Mobile-Friendly Interactive Maps.
  • Yelm Earthworm & Castings – “Red Wiggler, Red worms, Worms-Eisenia Fetida, Worms, Organic Soil & Produce,Vermiculture, Worm Composting.
  • Making Root Beer At Home – “We will set up a fermentation in a closed system and capture the generated carbon dioxide to carbonate root beer. You may of course adjust the quantities of sugar and/or extract to taste
  • Hugh Howey: My Advice to Aspiring Authors – “To begin with, you need to write. This seems axiomatic because it is. The only way to amass a pile of words into a book is to shovel some every single day. No days off. You have to form this habit; without it you are screwed.
  • LEGO Engineering – “The aim of this site is to inspire and support teachers to go beyond the basics in bringing LEGO-based engineering to all students.
  • Robot2: LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3: 12 Bonus Models – “The LEGO Group has just revealed the 12 official bonus models that you can build with the LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 31313 set. They were designed by members of the LEGO MINDSTORMS Expert Panel, and officially endorsed by LEGO. Some of them also appear on the EV3 packaging.
  • Links for Friday - LEGO

    Long-time readers of this blog know that I like to collect and share links that are of interest to me. With the blog’s rebirth, I am resuming this practice. On some days I’ll just throw out random links. On other days I am going to try for a theme. Today’s theme is LEGO.

  • Crowkillers: Jennifer Clark’s JCB JS220 Track Excavator – “Now you can build the ultimate LEGO pneumatic model, the JCB JS220 tracked excavator designed by Jennifer Clark. This model has almost 1700 parts and features 13 pneumatic actuators and pumps, 5 motors, and all the functions you’d expect from a scale model of the real thing.
  • RobotC – A C Programming Language for Robotics – “ROBOTC is the premiere robotics programming language for educational robotics and competitions. ROBOTC is a C-Based Programming Language with an Easy-to-Use Development Environment.
  • SR 3D Builder – “ new way to create your Lego models with PC.
  • Gizmo’s Freeware: Best Free Lego Building Software – “Fancy clicking some virtual bricks together on your PC? Over the years, the Lego toy brand has become increasingly oriented towards prebuilt models making it more difficult to think outside the predesigned blocks. But on a computer you can let your fantasy rip without having to shell out for designer components. And Lego building programs are a spatially intriguing experience for youngsters of all ages.
  • The Great Ball Contraption – “Welcome to the Great Ball Contraption (GBC) website. Here you will find information regarding some of what it is and what some of us are currently working on. There are always several projects currently ongoing, and many of them are finished.
  • LEGO GBC Module: Ball Factory ver.2 – “I added some improvements to the ball factory module, because the former module didn’t support 1.0 balls/s.This new module can carry at 1.3 balls/s.
  • PV-Productions: GBC-8 Published – “It has been a while since my last GBC. But I have made a new one with new modules in it – See more at:
  • My Personal Productivity Tips

    Over the years I have developed a set of productivity tips that seems to work well for me. I have shared them with my coworkers from time time with positive results, so I figured that they would make for a good post to get my blog back up and running. Once again, these work well for me. I am not religious about any of these; if you were to shadow me around for a week or two you would undoubtedly find me breaking each of them at one time or another. I have tried to illustrate each tip with an example or two of how I put it to use in practice.

    Here’s a quick summary of what I have to offer. The tips themselves are described in more detail later in the post:

    • All Of Your Minutes Are The Same
    • Pay Bills as They Arrive
    • Find Joy in Being Productive
    • Enjoy Living Life
    • Keep a TODO List
    • Ensure that Done is Really Done
    • Put it On Your Calendar
    • Keep a Clean Desk
    • Learn and Use Shortcut Keys
    • Keep a Worklog and Good Notes
    • Re-Read The Fine Manual (RRTFM)
    • Don’t Lose Your Keys
    • Always Be Learning / Charging
    • Get Double Value From Your Efforts
    • Stay Balanced
    • Shape and Customize Your Environment
    • Be a Half Step Ahead

    All Of Your Minutes Are The Same

    I try to treat all of my minutes as the same precious entities that they are. I don’t believe that I have “good” minutes when I am productive, and “bad” ones when I am not. In practice, this tip means that I try to take care of little things are they come in to view, rather than setting them aside where they might be forgotten.

    Pay Bills as They Arrive

    This tip is a direct consequence of the previous one. I still receive a fair number of paper bills in my mail box. I fetch the mail, recycle as much as I can right away, unsubscribe from stuff that I don’t want by using the Paper Karma app, put all magazines into my reading pile, and then immediately schedule all bills for online payment. This tip avoids late fees, piles of paper, and makes sure that I am on top of my financial situation.

    Find Joy in Being Productive

    It is possible to classify a lot of tedious stuff that must be done every day or week as boring. I don’t. Instead, I find fulfilment in expeditiously managing all of the routine stuff so that I have more time to be creative.

    Enjoy Living Life

    A lot of people seem to think that their life will change in some fundamental way if they suddenly or eventually become “successful,” whatever that is supposed to mean. They envision days filled with caviar, champagne, and private jets, not realizing that they still need to handle the everyday realities of life. I believe that this attitude leads to long-term dissatisfaction and to a life spent pursuing a fantasy lifestyle that does not actually exist. I try to simply enjoy being alive and doing what I enjoy.

    Keep a TODO List

    Over the years I have tried and ultimately discarded many different systems and tools for managing my TODO list. I used to track my tasks, calendar, and my days in a large Day-Timer. I used Emacs Org Mode for a while. Today, I keep a long-term TODO list as a draft-mode Outlook message. This list contains items that I want to do over the course of the upcoming hours, days, and weeks. Every morning, I examine the list, adding new items and reordering existing ones to reflect changing priorities. I also keep a handwritten list for smaller items.

    Paper TODO

    I do not obsess over my list, and I know that I will never get to the end of it. I will confess that I have managed to train myself to feel really good about checking off an item from the list. I’ll often put a couple of simple (yet entirely necessary) items on the list in order to have something worthwhile to do if I need a break from the bigger items. I also like to break large items into smaller, bite-sized items that I can push forward when I need some quick victories.

    Ensure that Done is Really Done

    Once again building on earlier items, I don’t check something off of the list until it is well and truly done. I don’t consider my paper bills to be actually paid until I have deposited them in the mail drop of our community mailbox and filed away the residual paper.

    Put it On Your Calendar

    When someone asks me to do something, I need to allocate time for it in order to make sure that it will actually get done. For work-related items, I estimate the amount of time required to do the work, and then I reserve that time on my Outlook calendar, marking it as Busy and Important. I also paste the original email and other necessary files into the appoinment to create a nice, self-contained “object” that I can just open up when the time comes to work on the item.

    Keep a Clean Desk

    I try to rid my desk of clutter and distractions. Besides my computer, my goal is to have my TODO list, one pen, one glass of water, and my phone close at hand. I’m not quite there yet, but that’s my goal.

    Learn and Use Shortcut Keys

    I strongly prefer the keyboard to the mouse, and sometimes tell myself that having to use the mouse is a “bug.” I will even navigate through menus using the appropriate keys on occasion. This tip, more than some of the others, is certainly a personal preference, but it definitely works for me.

    Keep a Worklog and Good Notes

    For long-running projects, it is a good idea to keep a log of what you did, and how you did it. This is great for development projects; you can track successes, failures, obscure commands that took you 30 minutes to discover, and much more.

    For my now-dead Syndic8 website, my worklog grew to over 34,000 lines over the course of 11 years. Here’s an early entry:

    Syndic8 Worklog

    My one-time colleague Mark Dalrymple took my suggestion to heart many years ago; he documented his model in Logs is Logs.

    Re-Read The Fine Manual (RRTFM)

    When I first started working with computers, my time at the keyboard was often limited to an hour or less per day. In order to satisfy my curiousity, I became an inveterate manual-reader. I would explore interesting commands and functions offline and then plan ahead so as to be able to make the most of my time at the keyboard.

    After I learned the language or system, I would always read the manual a second, third, or even fourth time. This allowed me to make sense of more complex features that I didn’t understand the first time or two. I have noticed that many people spend all day in their chosen text editor without bothering to learn how to take full advantage of it. Go back and read the manual again!

    Don’t Lose Your Keys

    I hate to spend time looking for my car keys. In general, I try to make certain kinds of things so routine that I don’t have to think twice about how do to them.

    When I arrive home my keys go into a designated container on my desk (I realize that the existence of this container conflicts with an earlier tip). When packing up after giving a conference talk, I unplug my laptop’s power supply, and put it into my messenger bag before doing anything else.

    Always Be Learning / Charging

    Be curious, and read something intersting every day. Never wonder about things, dig it, search, and figure out what’s going on. Take some online courses, learn a new human or programming language, or go back to school.

    On a related note, be sure to keep all of your devices charged up. My colleague Scott Barneson refers to this as ABC – Always Be Charging.

    Get Double Value From Your Efforts

    I have found that it is often possible to do something once and get credit for it twice! I’m not cheating, I am creating interesting synergies between my work, personal, and school lives.

    For example, I had always wanted to drive across the United States, stopping in interesting cities and giving AWS talks every night. As I was wrapping my time in the University of Washington’s MCDM program, I realized that trip could form the basis for an independent study project. The resulting web site and final report simultaneously satisified my work and school requirements. I also got a lot of first-hand experience with S3 Website Hosting and video processing.

    If you are taking on a new work project, see if you can use it as an opportunity to learn a new programming language or framework.

    Stay Balanced

    My day job (writing the AWS Blog is surprisingly unstructured. Every day, I start out with a blank page and work to fill it with words and pictures that describe our offerings. I have found that I need to balance my unstructured job with other activities that are very structured. Lately, I have enjoyed building advanced LEGO Technic sets containing thousands of pieces. There’s something reassuring about being able to follow directions that result in a defined product at the end.

    Shape and Customize Your Environment

    This tip can take on a variety of forms. For me, it means that I fine-tune the settings on my tools and applications in order to make them work the way that I want. My .emacs file dates back to the late 1980’s; the shortcut keystrokes therein are now second nature to me.

    Similar recommendations apply to your physical working environment. Fine-tune your desk, car, office, and phone with affordances and tweaks to make them work the way that you want. I suspect that 3D printing will make customization of this time even more commonplace. The trick is to recognize friction points and to see what you can do to work past or around them.

    Be a Half Step Ahead

    This may very well be my strangest tip; it is definitely the hardest one to describe. The idea here is to anticipate the next step of something that you do, and to do it as early as possible, preferably in conjunction with the prior step. The best example that comes to mind is sitting in my garage! I drive a manual transmission car. After I pull in to my garage and set the parking brake, I shift in to reverse before killing the engine. This leaves my car all set up and ready to go; I can start it up, let the oil circulate, and then let out the clutch to be on my way.

    I hope that you have enjoyed these tips, and that you are able to make use of them (suitably adopted).

    Links for Saturday, January 11, 2014

  • 5’ and 3’ Ends of DNA – “What do we mean when we talk about the 3’ and 5’ ends of DNA or RNA?
  • aws_S3_imagetag – “An octopress plugin to upload files to AWS S3 account and Provide a tag to reference the files in your views.
  • Cruise From Seattle: Cruise Alaska… And Beyond – “Seattle is the homeport for cruise ships that voyage to Alaska and around the Pacific Northwest. Cruisers can experience wildlife and unspoiled water views while skimming the Pacific Ocean and inland waterways.
  • Style Shapes – “ is a creative fashion 3D Designers community. We feature most astonishing 3D Printed Fashion pieces and link to their authors stores where the actual items can be bought! We decided to create a home for all creative fashion designers starting with 3D printing to have a place to share their 3D designs and gain more exposure and appreciation that they need so much at the start!
  • Blogging Has Resumed

    I had planned to resume my longstanding personal blogging regimen several months ago. The summer and the fall were very busy due to the AWS re:Invent conference and a large-scale kitchen renovation. both of these items are now in the past and I am once again ready to blog on a regular and frequent basis!

    This blog is now statically hosted on Amazon S3. The content is written in Markdown and turned into HTML by Octopress. The static blogging model obviates all of my scaling and security worries, and will let me focus on writing new and interesting content. I still have to sand off a few rough edges before the new hosting model is complete. I need to install a theme and I need to decide how I want to handle comments.

    With this new burst of excitement and energy, I will also be changing the focus (if there ever was one) of this blog to reflect my current interests.

    You’ll read a lot less about virtual worlds, news feeds, and syndication (I have nothing to do with any of these topics at present), and some more about cloud computing (above and beyond what I write in the AWS Blog, LEGO (especially Technic), and home-made pizza.

    After graduating from the University of Washington’s MCDM program last year, I decided to continue my education and applied to the Professional Master’s Program in Computer Science (PMP for short), also at the UW. I was accepted and am starting my first class today.

    Blogging Will Resume This Week

    After spending the past three years in the UW’s MCDM program (one class per quarter), I graduated last week. I now have a lot more free time and I plan to use some of it on this blog.

    As soon as the last of the dust settles I’ll resume blogging with a review of my time in the program. I also plan to port this blog to Octopress and to resume my regular link posts.

    Future topics include Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Lego, and 3D printing.

    Links for Monday, January 14, 2013

  • NYC Resistor: Vector Display Introduction – “Vector displays are now mostly historical oddities — old arcade games like Asteroids or Tempest, or ancient FAA radar displays — which gives them a certain charm. Unlike modern raster displays, the electron beam in the CRT is not swept left to right and top to bottom for each row in the image. Instead the beam is steered to a point and traces the lines of the displayed image.
  • Jan Monschke: Genetic Algorithms – “A problem-solving technique that works like natural evolution. Literally!
  • National Park Service: Visiting the Hoh Rain Forest – “The Hoh Rain Forest is located in the stretch of the Pacific Northwest rainforest which once spanned the Pacific coast from southeastern Alaska to the central coast of California. The Hoh is one of the finest remaining examples of temperate rainforest in the United States and is one of the park’s most popular destinations.
  • Tim O’Reilly: It’s Not About You: The Truth About Social Media Marketing – “n short, the secret of promotion in the age of social media isn’t to promote yourself. It’s to promote others. Success comes when your success depends on the success of your customers, your suppliers, your end-users, and when you spend more of your time thinking about them than about yourself. You can even promote your competitors. In the early 90s, we distributed to booksellers a bibliography of all the best books on Unix – our competitors’ as well as our own. Our theory was that if we helped booksellers to buy the best books, the sales of the entire category would grow.
  • Engadget: Arduino Micro Shrinks Your Favorite DIY Platform Down to Ridiculous Proportions – “With the Arduino Leonardo, everyone’s favorite hackable microcontroller turned a new page. Now it’s time to bring that simplified design and slightly expanded feature set to the rest of the family, including the itty-bitty Arduino Micro. The tiny, embed-friendly board was designed with help from Adafruit Industries, one of the biggest players in the DIY market.
  • Links for Wednesday, January 2, 2013

  • Makeblock – “Makeblock is an aluminum extrusion based construct platform,provides integrated solution cover mechanical, electronic and software aspects. It can be used to bring your creations to life. With Makeblock you can make professional and stable robots, machines or even art-ware. It’s super easy-to-use. The only limit is what you can think of.
  • Epic Tinker – “Our memories of our first electronics projects were fond ones. These experiences sparked imagination and creativity (and, well, sometimes it’s just sparks and magic blue smoke), but we learned from these experiences each time, and it helped develop the inventor and innovator in each of us. We learn by doing, trying, experimenting. It doesn’t matter if you are making a LED blink for the first time, or if you are a seasoned tinkerer, we hope you enjoy your projects and the wonderful memories they help create.
  • A Lego a Day: New Lego train Coming in 2013 -10233 Horizon Express – “And it’s awesome looking! I have a fascination with trains that I can’t quite explain. I don’t have a desire to have a huge train layout, or even to motorize them, but I do love the Lego trains. I’ve bought several of them here and there. I think I really like the size and scale of them. And I feel they use the latest and greatest building techniques. You can learn a LOT about building from these Lego train sets.
  • Links for Friday, December 28, 2012

  • KHK Stock Gears – “8399 types of Stock Gears for Robots.
  • Welcome to RobotShop U.S.A. – “RobotShop, the World’s Leading Robot Store for Personal and Professional Robot Technology. Here you will find personal robots, professional robots, robot toys, robot kits and robot parts for building your own robots.
  • Norris Labs – “My name is Steve Norris. This is my personal web site. Here you will find a collection of robot projects that I have built over the past few years. You are free to use the schematics, diagrams and source code to build your own version for non-commercial use.
  • Minds-I: All Terrain Robots – “The MINDS-i’s vision results from the belief that the world of competitive robotics can and should do more, and the fervent desire to stimulate young minds and bring that excitement beyond the classroom
  • ATOP – “Atop is an ASCII full-screen performance monitor that is capable of reporting the activity of all processes (even if processes have finished during the interval), daily logging of system and process activity for long-term analysis, highlighting overloaded system resources by using colors, etc. At regular intervals, it shows system-level activity related to the CPU, memory, swap, disks and network layers, and for every process (and thread) it shows a.o. the CPU utilization, memory growth, disk utilization, priority, username, state, and exit code.
  • Links for Friday, December 22, 2012

    Time to clean out my browser menu before the holidays:

  • BrickPicker: The End of Life is the Start of Profits – “Missing out on a great LEGO set is a gut-wrenching feeling that happens all too often for the casual LEGO investor. The two-year rule is nothing more than a vague LEGO barometer for when a set might go EOL. As with almost every rule there are exceptions…in this case many exceptions!
  • Adafruit Industries: OLED LEGO Train Schedule – “I started thinking about various ways Adafruit electronics and LEGO bricks could be combined. I’ve always thought it would be cool to have a minifig scale video display instead of a sticker or printed brick. So, I decided to give my minifigs a dynamic train schedule.
  • Core Developers Team: UPCORE G1 Bluetooth Receiver for Power Functions System – “PCORE G1 has 9 connectors to control your brick creations and models. 3 connectors are fully proportional, you can regulate your supply motors M-motors, XL-motors, LEDs and other appliances in the range 0-100%. 5 connectors is non proportional, these connectors can control their creations as well as with non proportional control Power Functions.
  • LPE Power: Pneumatic SYS Inline 3 Cylinder Engine – “The LPEpower team is most proud to present you this new inline 3 power plant, we consider it to be an epitome of efficiency. Compared to its predecesor it is more powerful, smaller and lighter.
  • Robot2: Segway with Robot Driver – “This project is based on my universal balancing robot code. These small balancing robots are fun, but I wanted to make something that more closely resembles a real Segway.
  • Big Ben Bricks – “Big Ben Bricks manufactures and sells train wheels specifically designed to build trains with LEGO. Five Train wheels are currently available in 8 colors.
  • YouTube: Akiyuky – “Lego Great Ball Contraption (GBC) in my house. my own 17 modules