Basic Robotics

Overview

As a general rule, a robotics system consists of three parts: Sensing, Planning, and Acting. If you're missing one of those parts, it's technically not a robot, but for many people, that doesn't really matter. Even if it's only a subset of being a whole robot, you need to know whatever's in the silos of knowledge for those parts. 

Sensing. To sense, you need sensors. Sensors come in all kinds, but you'll have things like light meters or optical sensors to sense light, galvanic skin sensors to sense how conductive your skin is, sonar to sense how far something not that far away is, and so on.

Planning. To plan, you generally need something Turing complete like a microcontroller or computer. The planner takes the input, figures out what it means, decides what to do, and tells the actuators to do that thing.

Acting. To act, you need actuators. These are motors, servos, linear actuators, and so on. Most of them are variations of the same thing (i.e. a motor), though some are radically different, such as wire that changes from one shape to another depending on if electricity is running across is.

Your basic rolling robot, like a Roomba, will do something like this: Am I hitting something? If no, go forward. If so, back up, then go forward.

Sense - Am I hitting something? 
Plan - If not, 
Act - go forward. 
Plan - If so, 
Act - back up, turn, then go forward. 

Everything else is, essentially, a more or less complicated version of that. There are dishwashers now that have enough smarts to be robots.

The hard part with robotics is selecting and acquiring parts. If you have lots of time and money, then it's easy. The faster/cheaper you need something, the harder it becomes. Getting something in town becomes even more difficult. You'll rarely find exactly what you need (well, until you're months past when you need it, in which case someone will just start carrying it), so understanding what kinds of flexibility you have in your design will be key. Also, I'm a firm believer in iterating prototypes, so you start out with one thing, see how it succeeds and how it fails, and then make a couple more versions until you are quite happy with it.

Finally, you have different challenges with doing one-offs or short runs versus medium- to large-scale production. Some parts available for one stage of creation will be completely unavailable for other stages (one way or another).

Sensors

Sensing the world around you, or even the world that is you, is in some ways easy and other ways complicated. I'll probably start every part of this series with a variation of that sentence, now that I think of it. Still, for sensors that means that you have a few standard ways of interfacing with them, but interpreting that data becomes complicated. 

Analog sensors. Some sensors have an analog interface. These generally have three pins: supply voltage, ground, and output. You have to check the data sheet for what kind of supply voltage you give it, but let's pretend like everything you use will be a 5V device. A simple example of a sensor like this is a potentiometer, which is a resistor that changes the amount of resistance it gives based on how far you turn/push it. These are what are commonly used for turn dials, slider controls, and so on. If you feed that 5V, at one end of the dial, your output will be 5V. At the other end, it will be much lower (maybe 0V, maybe 1V, or something of the sort). 

Advantages of analog controls are the variability you get with their output. Disadvantages are that reading analog input is one of the harder things for your planning devices to use, because they have to convert those signals to digital before you read them. Also, the resolution of the device reading the input will limit the infinite potential of the device to something that is maybe 10, 12, or 16 bits (meaning you have, between 0V and 5V, no more than 2^10 values, 2^12 values, or 2^16 values, respectively). 

Devices like photocells, photoresistors, varistors, potentiometers, and various distance sensors like sonar will give you analog outputs. The galvanic skin response, because it's measuring conductivity, is also likely going to be an analog sensor.

Digital sensors. Other sensor have digital outputs. These will come in the form of either a single bit of information, such as a simple switch being on or off (a.k.a high or low), or information over time, such as a frequency or Pulse Width Modulation (PWM; see below). There's a third class of digital signal, but we'll get to that in a bit, because it's complicated enough to be it's own. 

Your single bit, simple digital sensor is the easiest thing to implement. You can make them either control power to your whole project, which is easy but means you'll likely have some startup time whenever you activate, or you can wire them into digital inputs on your sensing device, which are cheap and plentiful and usually only limited by space on the device (to a point). 

Pull-up and Pull-down Resistors. The hardest thing to deal with on simple digital signals is that you frequently have to add a resistor into the mix. They are called pull-up resistors and pull-down resistors, depending on how they're used. Although you would think that digital sensors might have two states, on or off, that's not exactly true. There's kind of a third state: floating. 

Floating input is when you haven't properly grounded your sensor, so it picks up on whatever current is floating around your circuit. If your current is grounded, then all of the excess current is going into the ground, and none of it goes into your sensor. If you apply a proper current, then the current flows through your sensor and raises it to its on state.

You fix this by adding in a resistor of the pull-up or pull-down variety. For more on this, check out this handy pull-up / pull-down resistor tutorial

You don't really need this until you start implementing things, but it will be very important when you do. These resistors are also useful for analog sensors. 

Frequency and PWM are two different ways of achieving similar goals. Instead of sending you a continuous 2.5V signal out of your potential 5V maximum as the analog signals do, these will send you, for example, 5V only 50% of the time. Frequency signals divvies the up and down more or less symmetrically, though there are different shapes to different types of waves (square waves go from 0 to 5V immediately, hold on 5V for a period of time, then drop immediately back to 0. Looks very rectangular if you plot it out. There can be saw-tooth waves, sine waves, and similar, but they're always symmetrical).

PWM is a different beast. Very few sensors output PWM unless it's for a specific type of application. But the way PWM widens the high signal rather than keeping things symmetrical. 

Generally, your sensors will output a straight frequency if anything, and you will need to use a pulse-counter module to take advantage of that. If it's a slow enough signal, or you want to get fancy with your programming, you can make your microcontroller count for you, but that does get to complicating the programming significantly. Some microcontrollers are better at that than others.

Speed sensors are a common frequency-type digital sensor. One of the more common is a bicycle speed sensor, which has one or more magnets on the wheel and a sensor just off the wheel. Every time a magnet passes by the sensor, you get a pulse. The faster you go, the more pulses you get. A little math will let you convert the number of pulses per second into miles per hour. Or kilometers per hour. Or furlongs per fortnight. Whatever it is you want to know for speed.

Other digital sensors. The other type of digital sensors are the kind you are, in some ways, more familiar with: they just send out their data over a common communication protocol. You'll have things like Serial (RS-232, RS-422, RS-485, or TTL), ethernet, WiFi, and so on. You need to have support on your device for these, and some of them require specialized hardware and software to deal with. TTL and 232 are pretty easy, but ethernet, WiFi, Bluetooth, and USB get progressively more complicated. Maybe WiFi and Bluetooth should be switched. There are also several simple protocols meant to be easy for things like micrcontrollers and using many, many sensors, such as I2C and SPI. The great thing about those is that they are lightweight. The bad thing is that implementation is often inconsistent, so you have to find out how each device implements it. 

Planners

Planners are relatively straightforward, because you have used computers for a while and they are essentially, or actually, computers. Your two main divisions are: computers and microcontrollers.

Computers. The thing with the CPU and the keyboard and the screen and stuff. Although generally, once it's in the robot, you won't bother with the keyboard and the screen and most of the stuff. Runs programs. With most computers, you will have a lot of processing power, but you'll likely have to add something (USB accessory, PCI Card, or whatever) to get your digital and analog ins and outs, but things like WiFi, Ethernet, and USB will be easier to deal with. Most of the complexities of programming a robot with a computer comes from the interface with your sensors. On the plus side, you usually have the option of a full IDE with cool things like a debugger.

There are several frameworks for programming robotics on a computer, from the simple Processing Java framework (usually paired with an Arduino, see below) to offerings from Microsoft, NASA, and others. I'm most familiar with MAX from Perrone Robotics, because that's my day job, but it's not widely available right now, and is currently best for going from prototype to scale, autonomous vehicles, or certain kinds of sensor projects.

For a project with low processor needs but a desire to use a proper computer, the most exciting thing around right now is the Raspberry Pi. It's very inexpensive ($35, give or take), has a bunch of I/O, has a huge community, and runs Linux. I have one, but haven't used it yet. One of the nice things about these is that you can power them relatively easily; some computers require AC power unless you are going to do some hardware hacking.

Microcontrollers. The big difference between a computer and a microcontroller is that a computer has an OS and a microcontroller doesn't. This means that everything you do on a microcontroller you have to implement yourself. On the one hand, this is great, because that means that your stuff is more likely to be Real Time, meaning that you will have a predictable amount of execution time between the sensing and the acting. On the other hand, that means you have to do a lot more programming to make something happen. Microcontrollers are generally slower than full-sized PCs, consume far less power, and tend to have a decent amount of digital and/or analog I/O on board. They also generally don't have Ethernet, WiFi, Bluetooth, or whatever on board without some sort of bridge. Serial, either TTL or RS-232, is often included one way or another. Microcontrollers also boot pretty close to instantly, but computers rarely do without a lot of work.

One of the best things about a microcontroller is that you have really quick access to the digital and analog I/O. Like, really, really quick access. A few lines of code will get you something that can blink an LED when you press a button, and a few more lines of code will let you control how quickly it blinks when you turn an analog potentiometer. 

If you're starting for the first time, I highly recommend the Arduino breed of microcontrollers. Available in a range of sizes, capabilities, and prices. Lots of people use them. They are dead-simple to get started with. They are Open Hardware, so they won't be going away even if the Arduino organization goes under. I own about 30 of these in various forms and love them ever so. LilyPads are sewable versions of the Arduino, so if you're planning to do a lot of textile work, it's a really good option. You program those in C.

If you're in the mood for a hybrid project, you can use Processing (above) on a computer, then have it communicate with an Arduino, so you could do complex logic and communications on the computer and I/O on the microcontroller. There are some people who have combination devices that are part linux computer and part Arduinos, though I've never used one.

If you are doing a project with a lot of concurrent I/O, then you might consider a Propeller. They're a little odd, as they have several independent programs that each execute in their turn. So program one gets an instruction, then program two gets to run an instruction, then three, and so on until it loops around again. It keeps you from having to create your own threading system or otherwise manage all of that concurrency, but it's a weird mindset.

There are other options, of course. Many other options. Arduinos run on ATMega chips, which could be run without the Arduino software on top. It's harder to do, and requires different toolsets, but it's a lot faster. If you need the speed but don't mind the form factor, there are ways to bypass the Arduino overhead and just program it using the environment. There's the BASIC Stamp, the JStamp, and many more. 

Actuators

There are surprisingly few methods of causing something to move. With a couple of exceptions, everything starts out going around and around, and then that circular motion gets turned into some other path as needed. That being said, there is often some other thing you might want your robot to do that isn't, strictly speaking, movement related, and all that goes into actuation.

Motors - Motors are the things that spin around a lot. The common types of DC motors are: brushed, brushless, stepper, and servo. There are variations of each type, but let's not worry about that right now.

DC Motors come in a couple of major flavors, namely brushed and brushless. Brushed motors are simpler than brushless, but brushless are more efficient than brushed. For a detailed explanation, check out this article on the difference between brushed and brushless motors. The most important issue is how you control them.

With both the brushed and brushless motors, you need to control how quickly they move. Your planner will likely not have the ability to do this on its own, because motors use a lot of current, and computers and microcontrollers are designed to move small amounts of current. To get past that, you'll need either an H-bridge or a motor controller. Both are methods of applying a small-current signal and a large-current source and using the signal to proportionally output high current to the motor. The H-bridge is a simpler and less expensive device than a motor controller, but a motor controller will have more features, often including the ability to reverse, over/undercurrent protection, and maybe even some feedback.

You are not likely to be able to control a modern brushless motor with an H-bridge, and you will need to match your motor controller to the type of DC motor you are using. 

Stepper motors, instead of going round and round continuously, are made to go in discrete increments. They are actually brushless motors, but they have some internal gearing in them to get them to stop in regular increments. Useful for things that need to go to discrete positions when you don't want to actually have to attach a sensor to see where it is at all times.

Hobby servo motors are another limited-style motor that takes a specific type of command signal, the Pulse Width Modulation signal discussed in Sensors, and uses that to go to a specific position. These are most often seen in RC cars and planes to handle the steering angle. The great thing about servos is that you can send them a very specific type of signal and, without keeping any other track of what's going on, know essentially where the motor will end up rotationally. There is a quirk because of this, though: when you first start up a servo motor, you have to go from having no PWM signal on the line to having some sort of PWM signal on the line. As a general rule, a 50% duty signal, meaning you are spending half your time up and half your time down in the waveform, is "center" for any given application.  100% duty cycle, or up all the time, will take you full one direction, and 0% takes you full the other direction. You can't immediately jump from nothing to 50% and expect to go to your center position, so applications that use servos for steering will usually twitch when they are first started up, while the signal goes from nothing to 50% duty cycle. 

Note that industrial servo motors will be a different beast, so ignore all of that above if you are thinking of working with an industrial servo.

Feedback loops - There's something I implied in the stepper and servo motor notes, which is that it's hard to know what's going on with a motor if you aren't sensing what's happening to it. If you are trying to use a motor to move something to a specific position, or you are trying to go a specific speed, you can't just expect to send it a particular signal and expect it to do what you want. Well, you can, but you will be terribly frustrated after. Motors are very dependent on real-world conditions; friction, air resistance, people, rocks, dust, and so on will get in the way of whatever you're doing, and will make your motor not travel as far as it might have otherwise. Even barring all that, motors will change characteristics over time, and you will likely want to compensate for that. Therefore, adding some sensing and changing what you're doing based on the data you're getting back is usually a good plan. Unless you're using a stepper, in which case you can count the steps you give it, or a servo, in which case you just send it the right type of PWM signal.

One way of sensing a motor's position is by using an encoder. Encoders can be digital or analog, absolute or relative. Absolute encoders will tell you what your position is, and are usually analog or expensive and not a simple digital signal. A potentiometer is a type of absolute analog encoder. Relative encoders will tell you how fast you're going and sometimes what direction. If you've seen speedometers for bicycles, they are about the simplest type of relative digital encoder. They use the Hall Effect to let a magnet pass an electromagnet coil. When the magnet passes the coil, if it's going fast enough, it generates a pulse. You could have one or more magnet placed equally around the wheel, and every pulse tells you the wheel has gone whatever fraction of a turn around. Keep count of that, and you can calculate the speed of your wheel. Other digital encoders work essentially the same, but the method used for keeping track will be based on different physical laws (light, sound, and so on).

To make a proper feedback loop, you have to consider what you're sensing, what kind of precision you need for knowing what's going on, and you need to be ready to handle it. If you are counting pulses with your microcontroller for a high-speed application, for example, you'll want to keep the number of counts on your encoder low, so you don't get too many pulses for your microcontroller to handle. If you had a commercial counter-frequency digital acquisition device, you could have it do the counting, then just send you a serial signal telling you what your current speed is. If you're doing low-speed, highly precise work, though, you want something that can give you a lot of pulses per revolution, and you want to not use a hall effect sensor, because those work better at higher speeds. That sort of thing. Learn the details of your application and look for the strengths and weaknesses of your components.

There are two major types of control loops: open and closed. Open loop means you send a signal and pretty much accept that what you want is what you're going to get. Closed-loop feedback means you are actively monitoring the speed or position while you are commanding it, and you are using smarts to change how you are going from one state to another in-between the major commands. So if you want to go 5 MPH in an open loop, you know that 1.2V on your analog input to the H-Bridge will get you pretty close, and (optionally) if you don't reach 5 MPH after a while, you can try a higher value. Or not, depending. In closed-loop control, you will plan every step of the way, including the rate at which you increase speed, and you will make adjustments along the way. The usual algorithm for this is called the PID loop. I'm not going to tell you about the PID loop right now.

Strictly speaking, open-loop control doesn't take any feedback. Strictly speaking. But a simple system that I described above is lacking enough in control that it might as well be open-loop. People will likely argue with that, so if you're talking with pedantic people about what I said, be prepared for them to say I'm dumb. 

Gearing - There are two major reasons to gear your motor. The first is to change the speed and torque of your motor. Using gears one way, you can take a motor and make it faster but weaker. Using them the other way, you can make them slower but stronger. You are looking for the gear ratio in this case. A gear ratio higher than 1 means that you will get more torque and less speed out of the motor in the end. A gear ratio lower than 1 means you get more speed and less torque. 

The second reason to use gears is to change the motion of your motor. If you need a wobble, or a flutter, or you need your motor to move in a straight line, different gear combinations will give you different effects. 

As a general rule, you will buy your gearbox to do what you want. You can make gears, or even pick sets of gears that your put together yourself to do what you want, but it's usually unnecessary and something that will take a lot of learning to get right. 

Linear Motion - As I mentioned, motors go round and round. If you need them to go straight, you need to attach something to the shaft to cause the rotational motion to go linear. You can buy motors that already have this work done for you, and they are called Actuators. There are a bunch of different methods to cause actuation to happen, and most of those are very interesting and well worth looking into, but not terribly useful to know off the top of your head. Mostly you want to know how quickly the actuation will happen, how far it can go, and how much force it can apply.

Solenoids - There is one type of motor that doesn't really go in a circle, but instead goes in a straight line: a solenoid. It's a simple device that quickly moves from one position to another. You don't have a lot of control with solenoids. They are the actuator version of the simple switch. They are on or off, one position or another. I have seen electric, pneumatic, and hydraulic solenoids.

Muscle wire - And now the oddball actuator. Memory wire will move small distances with a little force when an electric current is applied. I've not used it, but if you need something subtle and silent, this might be a good way to go. 

Non-movement actuation - Of course, there are so many ways to interact with the world than moving. Lights. Sounds. Smells. Jets of water. Electromagnetic pulses. The possibilities are endless. Each method of actuation will take a signal of some kind and convert it to an interaction with the real world. Some will require more power than you can provide with your planner, others you can run straight from your outputs. 

National Novel Writing Month

It's November, which mean that it is also National Novel Writing Month! Also known as NaNoWriMo, its goal is to encourage you (and everyone else) to abandon their excuses and write 50,000 words of a novel. Start today, write fewer than 1700 words every day, and you will be done with your first draft. Find more at their site, including community, tips on word counting, stories of successes, tales of standard problems and solutions, and so on.

Or, just write. Write. And after that, write some more, until you have 50,000 words or more.  

Wriiiiiite! 

Ukulele Multitasking

Image by David Rose.

Image by David Rose.

At Intervention this year, we decided to set up a booth in Artist's Alley. We weren't selling anything for, you know, money. All we did was tell people about Awesomeography and collect information for the Meet an Awesomeographer series. 

As this was our first convention, we had no idea what to expect from the experience. There was every possibility that we'd spend some time just not doing a lot while people didn't visit us. It didn't end up being a wasteland or anything, and we had a decent number of people drop by to talk with us. We weren't continuously bombarded by visitors, though, so I'm glad that I took the chance to bring my ukulele.

 

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The thing about the ukulele is that it's a relatively quiet instrument. The thing about me is that I've never played ukulele solo in front of strangers. I'm really not very good. I can play roughly 2.1 songs, and to play something that I'm not embarrassed of on video, it takes me roughly 20 takes.  

As a general rule, I try really hard to be consciously present whenever I'm at an event like this (or in any social situation). I'm not saying I'll never pull out the phone, but I'll do my best not to unless it's relevant to the current discussion. Still, the ukulele is something that I could put down when someone came by, and it actually ended up being a bit of a draw to the table, which was great. 

 

The advantages to bringing the ukulele: 

    1. I got some practice in, which I really needed;
    2. I got the experience of playing in public, without the actual "people listening to me play badly" experience foisted on them; 
    3. It was a reasonably effective marketing tool.

    So, when you're stuck in a situation where you don't know what sort of free time you'll have, consider finding a venue-appropriate way of working in the thing that you want to be awesome at.  

     

    Writer's Market

    Selling your writing is difficult. Giving it away is really easy, but if you'd like someone to pay you for your article, story, novel, manuscript, or whatever, you have to do a bunch of legwork. On the plus side, there are still many, many people who want to give money for good writing. On the minus side, most of them aren't looking for exactly the thing you write. So you can either waste your time sending to thousands of people who will have no need for the thing you wrote, or you can focus on the dozens or hundreds that are looking for exactly the thing you wrote.

    The problem of allowing writers to find their market has been around for a long time, and the solution has been around for almost as long. At first, it was just a book called Writer's Market. You can still get this book at bookstores, Amazon, or a library. And if you're going to use the actual book, I recommend the library, as it'll be free that way. If you have money to pay, though, there's a better option.

    WritersMarket has a website. It currently costs around $6/month, but the information in it will be up-to-date, unlike the book. It also has handy tools for letting you keep track of publishers you are interested in and similar tools to help your search.

    Even better, there's a 7-day free trial. Give it a go and find some publishers who want a writer just like you. 

     

    Time Commitments: Temporary and Long-Term

    One of the things that happens when people learn about Awesomeography, and its underlying question, "What's stopping you from making something awesome?", is that I will get a list of all of that person's time commitments. More often than not, if someone's going to be just a little bitter or defensive about one of the categories of what's stopping them, it'll be Time. I think that's because Time feels like the thing that, with just effort, we could overcome, if we just pushed a little harder, then we should be able to magically have more Time. 

    Illustration by David Rose.

    Illustration by David Rose.

    Which is ridiculous. There are often very good reasons why you might not have time, and feeling bad about it won't change anything. Skill is the thing that you just need to put more effort into it to make it happen, but often Skill doesn't feel like that. Time does. 

    So I'll get a list of time commitments, sometimes with a hint of an, "I dare you to tell me that I have more time than I have," sort of attitude. That's not really something I can do upon first meeting someone, and it's not something I want to do. I can't prioritize your life, but I can try to help you do that for yourself. 

    For the purposes of this article, there are two major kinds of commitments: commitments that you know will end in the near future, and commitments that you cannot predict an ending for, but presume they will be ongoing for months, years, or decades.

    Your ongoing commitments are: work, relationship building, child raising, sleep, and so on. Ongoing commitments are vital to maintain and you are not going to be rid of them.

    Your temporary commitments are: houseguests, helping a sick person who will recover soon, funerals and related matters, having a slower method of transportation while your vehicle is being worked on, or whatever. Temporary commitments are important, but will go away soon.

    You need to remember how to handle each commitment in such a way as to avoid it preventing you from making your awesome thing. The temporary commitments are often very disruptive and will break whatever habits you've built up over the minutes/hours/days/weeks/months/years to allow you to make a thing. The trick with those is being prepared for the end and to get right back into your creation of things.

    I've just finished about 11 days of crunch time standing in a parking lot testing robots. It's prevented me from doing just about anything other than waking up, going to work, coming home, and going to sleep. However, that ended after a week and a half.  After a brief rest to get my sleep schedule back in order, I started back into writing articles (this one, for example) and finding new ways to make the site better.

    With temporary commitments, you can do the same thing. Focus on your new commitments, handle them properly, and move on. 

    With permanent commitments, you have a different sort of problem. You can't wait for them to end and expect to get anywhere with your awesome projects. With long-term commitments, you optimize and fix things so that they work better. Find a faster path to and from work. Have the children help with chores. Stop having the kids help with chores, because it makes things faster. Adjust expectations at work so they know you will be going home at a decent time. Whatever has some give, optimize it so that you can fit in 30-60 minutes per day to work on your thing. 

    Remember: expecting long-term commitments to disappear will be a long, long wait. Similarly, trying to optimize your workflow around temporary commitments will take more time than you're going to save. Recognize the type, and act accordingly, and you will have more time for the things you want to do.

     

    Random Ideas

     There's a belief that ideas are important, and even that ideas are The Most Important Thing. These are called "Million Dollar Ideas," though these days a million dollars doesn't go as far as it used to. People will hoard these ideas, or if they want to show off, they'll share their idea and make the recipient swear to secrecy.

    This is ridiculous. Ideas are not special. Ideas don't bring people to see your thing, and ideas definitely will not make you a million dollars. You know what does all of those things? Execution. Create a thing and people will come to see it. Create a thing, and people can buy it. Think about a thing and it'll be thought about.

    If you are stuck for inspiration, or if you cling to the belief that it's the idea that's important,  set aside some time to make something (a painting, a story, a song, a stone mosaic, or whatever) and get the idea for it from a random source.

    • You could use bibliomancy, and open a book to a randomly chosen page and create your thing based on the first sentence your eyes hit;
    • If you have an iOS device, you could get Story Dice, or there are other equivalents on other devices, platforms, and even in real life;  
    • If you are feeling ambitious, pick a theme-based contest to compete in. Masters of Song Fu, for example, has inspired many of the songs I most listen to. There are similar competitions for whatever it is you want to do (see, for example, Worth1000).

    Find an idea and do something with it. If you get really good at creating things with random ideas, you will be even more amazing when you have an idea that you love and want to pour everything into it. 

    TV: The Time Sink

    Image by David Rose.

    Image by David Rose.

    We are living in the golden age of television. The past several years have seen an explosion of quality television, with more money spent per episode than any other, and more risks being taken on concepts than ever before. The golden age is dying at the hands of the so-called "Reality TV", but there are still plenty of good programs on TV. So, to begin with, I would like to say that I am not a person who hates television. 

    However. 

    The TV is one of the key culprits in "things that will keep you from making your own thing." It is a master at pulling attention, because attention to the TV is what causes it to make money. You are keen to watch a show, which in many cases makes you keen to stick around while commercials are on. Even if it's not commercial supported, or if you can somehow bypass the commercials, the programming is still finely crafted to keep your attention. 

    Resist this allure. Yes, watch the programs you love. Yes, take some time out every now and then to do something relaxing or enjoyable like watching some quality serial entertainment piped into your home and warming you with its warming glow. However, if you spend 3 hours a day watching television, that's 3 hours a day you're not working on your thing. Over a week, that's a part-time job's worth of hours that you could be spending making something awesome.

    So, if you watch TV, watch it with a mind to see the things that you really, truly enjoy the most, and not just as a way of taking up your time. The time is yours, not the television's, to control. Control it. 

    Saving Money by Buying Broken Dreams

    The problem with making awesome things is that, sometimes, it doesn't work out. Maybe you decide that you don't like doing whatever it is, maybe you find out you're no good, or maybe you just can't make enough to make it worthwhile. This sort of project abandonment is really fairly common, which normally would be just a little sad because, you know, it's an indication on failure and so on. 

    Like an overused metaphor, your awesomeness can rise from the ashes of someone else's dead phoenix. Because when people give up, they want to get rid of their old equipment, and used equipment, often barely used equipment, is significantly less expensive than buying new. 

    If you're starting a project that requires an investment in equipment, first look for what you would buy new from the appropriate retailers. Then, before you purchase something, look for those model numbers and brands on Craigslist, Freecycle, eBay, and so on. Chances are, you'll save a significant amount of money, which may let you buy better equipment, or more supplies, or even let you turn a profit sooner.

    And, if you happen to switch focus onto a new project, you'll know where to sell your used equipment. So there's that. 

    The News Cycle

    I have a few sources of news: Twitter, RSS, Facebook, and email. Occasionally app.net, but I haven't really gone through the trouble of building the proper community there, so not as much on that.  

    Your news sources may be similar, but could include Reddit, Digg, Slashdot, Monkeyfilter, Tumblr, or maybe even something weird like CNN. Whatever you're into and you check regularly. 

    I have this cycle I go through, and I suspect you do something similar: I check Facebook, then email, then Twitter, then my RSS feeds. Then maybe my RSS feeds, again, then Twitter, then Facebook, then email, or whatever. i finish one cycle, then I start over, maybe in the same order, maybe in a different order. If I'm really  not paying attention, then I'll open the last app that I just had opened a moment ago.

    Don't repeat your news cycle. If you need to check it again, check it later. Repeating the cycle over and over just takes up time you could be using to make your own thing. I've heard of some people who will check everything, then quit the apps for a set period of time (10 minutes, an hour, until tomorrow, whatever).

    Don't let yourself get caught in the trap. The news will still be there when you get back (except if it's on Facebook, because there's no real way of knowing what they're going to show you from visit to visit, but even so: it's okay). Check once, do something of your own, then check back later in the day. You'll have more time to get stuff done, and then you'll have news of your own to report.

    The Importance of Just Doing Something

    On the one hand, I hesitate to write this post, because it is essentially the only thing you really, truly need to know in order to be awesome. There are lots of other little things like acquiring a specific skill or figuring out how to pay for stuff or whatever, but this is the biggest key. So if I write it, I might feel like I've given away the biggest secret, so what more do I need to do?

    On the other hand, I have to write this, because it's the most important thing to know. It underlies many of our other Fear articles, and you're going to see this basic advice repeated in many ways. I'm not so worried, though; even being completely blunt with this advice, it's never enough.

    "If knowing were doing, what a different world we'd make." —Marian Call, The Volvo Song

    The important thing to know is: You will never do anything if you don't do something. That's it. Thinking about going to the gym won't get you to lose weight. Worrying about how many dishes you have to do won't clean dishes. Wishing you could do something awesome won't make something awesome.

    So much of what keeps people from doing things is being stuck at the thing you don't know what to do about. Identify that thing, figure out what needs doing in order to learn what it is you don't know, and then get past it.  

    Other things that keep people from doing things is just not knowing if you can do it. However, not knowing if you can is not a thing that should stop you. There's a really easy way to find out if you can do it: try. If failing isn't going to kill you or keep your family from being able to eat or something, and it's just a matter of learning if you'll fail or succeed, then get over it and try.

    If failing in your thing will kill you or something similarly disastrous, then you owe it to yourself and others to add a bunch of extra steps in between to make it safer. But, you know what? Adding those steps and doing them is doing something

    So: do something. Make it something directly towards your path of Awesome. Ignore things keeping you from doing something. And if you need help past a particular block, you can always read more articles or even ask us for advice. Just as long as you're doing something.

    Meet an Awesomeographer: Nicole of Hello, the Future!

    For the start of our new “Meet an Awesomeographer” series, I reached out to fellow Sea Monkey and lovely songstress Nicole Dieker, the one-lady band Hello, the Future! Nicole has been performing as Hello, The Future! since June 2010, in which her first show was in the Cleveland Park Library in Washington, DC. 

    While there’s nothing wrong with being a hobbyist having fun, Nicole has plenty of training (and perhaps genetics?) to back up her musical escapades. She holds a degree in music composition and a MFA in theatre, and her parents are both classically-trained musicians who began her music education at an early age with piano and voice lessons. She’s put her training and passion to work, performing at a wide variety of shows and conventions (could this list get any longer?), with one of her most notable projects being Mink Car Cover, a full cover of They Might Be Giants’ album Mink Car to benefit the FDNY Foundation.

    In between her summer tour schedule and preparing for the upcoming Intervention 2013, Nicole and I chatted over email as I picked over her brain about her creative process and the challenges she faces as a self-supporting musician.

    Awesomeographer: Nicole Dieker
    Awesome Thing: Hello, the Future!
    URL: http://hello-the-future.bandcamp.com

     

    What inspired you to start performing, and specifically as a Hello, the Future!?
    I’ve always been a performer. I was one of those kids who never stopped singing or dancing or making up plays. I went to fine arts camp, and I was in all the choirs, and drama club, and the whole deal.

    I specifically started performing as Hello, The Future! because I missed singing and making music. After you get out of college/grad school there are fewer and fewer opportunities to perform, and so I decided I wanted to start writing my own songs and see what happened.

    That, by the way, is why my band is called “Hello, The Future!” I knew the project would change me, and I wanted to say hello to the future that I was creating via this project.

    What do you do to get yourself into a creative mode? What's your process for working?
    These questions are hard to explain and answering them actually feels too personal. The answer I like to give is that I set myself constraints and then I solve puzzles to fit those constraints. But that’s really only one-third of the answer, and the other two-thirds is private.

    At Awesomeography, we've identified 5 major challenges that stop people from making something awesome: Fear, Time, Money, Skill and Inspiration. Which of these has been the biggest challenge for you and can you share what you've done to fix it? 
    I like how you frame that question as if I’d already fixed the challenge! The truth is the two biggest challenges for me are money and skill, and no, I haven’t solved them.

    Money and skill are linked because you need money to build your skills (see Molly Crabapple’s brilliant essay explaining how that works) but until you become highly skilled, people are unlikely to give you money to support your art.

    I wrote a blog post about it earlier this year: the fear that I’ll have to quit what I’m doing because I didn’t get good enough before the money ran out. This is, btw, my current challenge.

    Do you have any horror stories that you can share, and how you managed to overcome them?
    At MAGFest XI, a guy stopped by my merch booth and I told him I liked his Illusion of Gaia shirt. He immediately began to quiz me about the game. I have played Illusion of Gaia, but it was a ridiculous number of years ago and I didn’t remember how many red jewels there were, or any of the names of the secret levels. (I only remember the names of the Super Mario World secret levels, and that’s because they were Tubular and Groovy.)

    Anyway, I asked this dude if he was giving me a fake geek girl quiz, and he said yes, and then he told me I had failed. And then I told him to go sluiceboxmuck himself.

    What's the most important thing performing as Hello, the Future! has taught you?
    The most important thing Hello, The Future! has taught me is to create and let go. When I did the 100 Song Project, I didn’t have time to write the best song in the world (and anyway, Tenacious D already wrote that one). I had time to write a song, learn it, perform it, and then prep for the next week.

    Working like this taught me to worry less about the product and more about the process. I knew as long as I was writing and performing, something interesting would happen. If I stopped everything to write the one perfect song, the interesting discoveries would also stop.

    What's your favorite thing about performing in general, and your favorite thing about the Hello, the Future!?
    My favorite thing about performing in general, and Hello, The Future! in particular, is telling stories. Every single one of my songs is a story (they have narratives, and aren’t just about feelings or general sentiments like “she loves you, yeah yeah yeah”), and my job is to use that story to connect with people. When people laugh, or tell me afterwards that the same thing happened to them – that’s the best part of performing.

    Do you have any goals for expanding Hello, the Future! beyond your one-lady band?
    Expansion is a tricky thing. There’s a certain distance you can go on your own, and beyond that you have to be invited to the next level in many ways. I know I’ve taken Hello, The Future! about as far as I can on my own. Whether I find partners, mentors or other collaborators for expansion won’t come from me—it’ll come from other sources.

    Out of everything you've created for Hello, the Future!, do you have a favorite song/lyric/performance/etc.?
    I’m very proud of Giant Robot Album, my new album that I recorded with The Long Holidays. In addition to this being my first album with a band, it’s also an album of “true story songs.” There’s a lot of nerd-related stuff in Giant Robot Album, but there’s also a lot of more personal stories; it isn’t just songs about liking a particular fandom or character. I’m so pleased with how it turned out.

    In terms of lyrics, probably the most lyrically perfect song I’ve written has been Questionable Content Girl. It has clever jokes in all the right places and is funny even to people who haven’t read the comic.

    Of course, everyone seems to like the song about those monkeys and those robots.

     

    You Are Allowed to Be Awesome

    I just came across this AMAZING yet simple post from Roz Duffy on her site Stellargirl.  Jump over there, right now, and read her post titled "You Are Allowed." Then read it again. And again. To whet your appetite, here are a few of my favorites:

    If you think that because you just earned your PhD, you can’t be a makeup artist, well, you can. You are allowed.
    If people tell you you’re a great painter, but you really love photography, take more pictures. You are allowed.
    If you want to quit your job and open a bakery, yummy! You are allowed.
    If you want to turn down a job to follow your own path, enjoy the adventure. You are allowed.
    If you need to look inward so that you can look forward, it’s amazing, do it. You are allowed.
    If you just gotta give it a try, go for it. You are allowed.
    If you want to learn something new, weird and crazy, how awesome. You are allowed.

    You are allowed to do anything you want (my advice, though, is to avoid illegal activities and in general being a dick), and you don't need to get permission from anyone else but YOU. However, I think we tend to be reluctant because we worry what will happen. What if we fail? What if we hate it? 

    Well, you won't know until you allow yourself. So make a list of things you want to do (even the simple stuff, like going to bed early in order to REALLY get some decent sleep for once) and read through it and start allowing the list to happen. It'll be awesome, and who knows where it will take you?

     

    Starting

    When I'm watching a movie or reading a book, I'll sometimes play a game called, "Where did this start?" A lot of times, it's really obvious where the idea for something came from; the most obvious is the high-level description. Especially movies these days, it's all, "Newspaper boys that sing and dance," or "Like Rocky, but with robots," or, "Like the video game, but it's a movie." That sort of thing. Usually I don't play the game with the really obvious sources.

    Sometimes, though, the source of inspiration isn't just the elevator pitch. Sometimes you start with the opening scene, and see what falls out of that. Sometimes you create a world, and you put someone into it, and see where it goes. Robert Jordan always said that the inspiration for the Wheel of Time saga was the ending scene (which is why it took so long to actually complete).

    Sometimes you start with a theme, as often happens with school projects. Sometimes a snippet of conversation you've overheard, and you want to create something which manages to recreate that snippet. Sometimes an image, sometimes an emotion, sometimes a name.

    Sometimes you want to change the world, and show everyone that what they thought was true really isn't. That's kind of the place that Buffy, the Vampire Slayer came from: turn the trope of the helpless damsel on its ear. Lazy writers use clichés as a way to get through their writing more quickly and easily; clever lazy writers turn those clichés around.

    You can start on your story anywhere. Some people claim the beginning is the best place to start, but even if that were true, it's not the only place. Find a middle, or an end. Or pick a scene that will never even show up in your story, and work everything around that. Your choice, if you but choose.

    There's More Than One Way to Do It

    There's a lot of advice you get from helpful people, whether on the Internet or elsewhere. This site, for example, is all about being helpful. We're here to help set you on your path to awesome, and give you tips to keeping it up. What you may find, though, is that the advice you get is entirely unhelpful. You'll read something about how to begin artisanally stippling Solo™ cups or somesuch, and you'll give it a try, and it just won't work for you at all.

    The important thing to do at this point is not to presume that you are incapable of realizing your Solo™ Stipple dreams. And it's not necessarily a matter of practice, practice, practice, either. I mean, yeah, you're going to have to practice, but it's also entirely possible that whichever bit of advice you ran across is not quite right for you.

    There's a scripting language called Perl, and unlike many of the programming languages that came before it, it was very flexible in how you could approach solving different problems. Because of this flexibility, especially compared to older programming languages, programmers new to Perl are given the handy acronym, TMTOWDI (pronounced tim TAU dee), which means, "There's More Than One Way to Do It."

    TMTOWDI is a great thing to remember. Everyone's a little different, and some people are a lot different. There's no reason to assume that just because something works for one person, it will work for someone else. However, the great thing about the world we live in now is that you can probably find dozens or even hundreds of different ways to get you going in your Stipple Cup empire. Chances are, one of them is going to be the right approach for you. And, if it isn't, then you're probably going to see enough of the similarities and differences between the approaches to be able to figure out the rest on your own.

    So give it a go and try it different ways until you find the one that works for you.

    What Do You Want?

    One of the biggest problems in life is figuring out what you really want. We are big complicated creatures with an endless stream of immediate desires and needs, and we have to learn from the first day we try to run through the house naked when the neighbors are visiting that we cannot just do everything that we want when we want it. After that, it's a balancing act of determining which impulses will cause us problems if we ignore them and which impulses will just disappear with the appropriate amount if time or distance.

    One of the big questions early on in life is "What do you want to be when you grow up?" This question is so big that people are still asking themselves this question when they are about to retire. And, once you hit a certain stage of life, the immediate icebreaker question in any conversation with a new person is, "What do you do for work?" The effect of the question means that your job becomes your identity. Thus, all of that pressure from not knowing what you want to be when you grow up intensifies, and the importance of tying what you get paid to do into a worthwhile pursuit becomes very high on the list of wants and needs.

    My first couple of jobs out of college were making video games. For the geeky, and especially the male set, making video games seems like an ideal job. You get to make the things that you've devoted much of your life to playing, you get to make people happy, and you are generally awesome.

    If you know people in the video game industry, though, you'll find that the reality is often very different. If you work for a big game company, especially the biggest game company, you will find that deadline pressures cause you to work a tremendous number of hours, which often you will be happy to do for a while because you want to make a great game. That pace is unsustainable for most people though, and when you or most everyone you know is laid off when the deadlines are done, you find that sometimes tying your dream to your work isn't the best way to accomplish your dreams.

    This is not to say that you can't have a happy career doing what you love, and it's not even saying that you can't have a happy career in video games. Both of those things are possible. What it's saying is that you don't have to tie your identity to your job, and you don't have to sacrifice everything else in order to work in something you love.

    If you want to do something awesome, figure out what it is that you really want from doing that awesome thing. Singer/songwriter Marian Call recently mentioned that, with merchandise sales, accounting, promotion, production, touring, and similar activities being necessary for the independent musician, that she would get more time making music if she had a regular job and made music on the side. Which isn't to say she isn't pleased to be a full-time independent musician. It is to say that, if all she wanted was to make and record music, she is not going about it in the most efficient manner.

    So, when you're thinking about doing your awesome thing, think hard about what you really want from it. Do you have a world inside your head with compelling characters who won't stop talking to you until you share their stories with others? Then write the book, but don't necessarily try to become a full-time author. Full-time authors are the exception more than the norm, and you will likely be surprised when you learn which authors have other, non-writing jobs.

    Similarly, if you love performing in front of people but don't have any love for the creation of music, there are plenty of opportunities in any area to perform in theater, coffee shops, or karaoke. Or if you hate performing but just like living in a bus and eating diner food, instead of becoming a touring musician or stand-up comedian, consider becoming a long-distance trucker.

    There are lots of ways to become what you want, if you can take the first, hardest step of figuring out what it is that you really want. Once you have a handle on that, you can work towards fulfilling your desires.

    The Art of Time Blocking

    Time blocking? How many of you said, "A-yup ... NO FREAKING WAY!" Well stop, come back!  I promise it's not as scary as it sounds ... I think.

    I've mentioned before that I freelance on the side regarding popular business and career self-help books, and last time I talked about Gary Keller's The ONE Thing , I was sharing with you the idea of a habit taking 66 days to hit the sweet spot. And now I'm back to share Keller's thoughts on a concept he calls time blocking.

    According to Keller, time blocking is as simple as rigidly scheduling very specific time in your life to work on your ONE Thing (in our case, your awesome project). So, let's say your project is ongoing and will not just be a one-off event. To time block effectively for it, you need to block off the appropriate amount of time every day so your project becomes a habit (though I think even if you started with certain days of the week, that would be a great start). During the block of time that is dedicated to your awesome project, everything else—this includes emails, phone calls, Twitter, Facebook, etc.—must wait. Once you get into the habit of this kind of scheduling, you'll be able to keep it up—or so Keller says.

    To take time blocking to the next level of being a lifelong, successful habit, Keller writes: 

    1. Time block your time off. Successful people launch their year by taking time out to plan their time off because they know they’ll need it and that they’ll be able to afford it. By planning your time off in advance, you’re managing your work time around your downtime instead of the other way around. Resting is as important as working. 
    2. Time block your ONE Thing. Yes, your ONE Thing comes second. Why? Because you can’t happily sustain success in your professional life if you neglect your personal “re-creation” time. The key to making this work is to block time as early as possible in your day. Aim to block fours a day, minimum. If you can do more, then do it.
    3. Time block your planning time.  This is when you reflect on where you are and where you want to be. Block an hour each week to review your annual and monthly goals.

     Now, do I think this is the way to go for everyone? No, but when you're trying to figure out how to schedule your time for your awesome project, I think it's a good idea to look at all your options and see what is a good fit for you and your style of doing.

    Saving Money on Equipment

    Every hobby or professional endeavor has equipment you can buy. There is a common acronym on message boards and forums for hobbies, especially hobbies that are traditionally male-oriented: SWMBO. It means, "She Who Must Be Obeyed," and it's a clear sign that this hobby will cost you a lot of money and get you in trouble with your wife, girlfriend, or significant other. I don't know if traditionally female-dominated hobbies and pastimes have a similar acronym or expression, but I imagine the sentiment is the same.

    As a general rule, if you want to learn to do something and learn to do it well, you do not need to spend a lot of money. Sometimes you do: there are hobbies that have a minimum cost to entry because there's only so much equipment you can avoid. I imagine flying an airplane is like this. You can take classes, and you can probably rent a plane or use planes from your school, but eventually, if you want to own a plane, you're going to have to buy one, and it's only going to go so cheap without falling from the sky in uncontrolled ways. 

    However, a lot of times, people will spend money on a new endeavor rather than spending the time and practice necessary to learn a skill well on lesser equipment. I know I do this all the time. I try not to do it as much any more, but frankly, the feeling you get from buying good equipment is a brief approximation of the feeling you get from actually doing something. And it's so much easier. So it is tempting to just buy the equipment and let it sit. 

    My advice, if money is a concern, is to avoid this trap. Look at those message boards and forums I mentioned, and find out what the bare-bones setup is. The problem with not getting the good equipment to start with is often not that you can't do what you want to do, but that it takes more time or effort. In most cases, this is a counterintuitively good thing. Learn the basics. Learn the hard way. Learn what you can do without the assistance of fancy versions of your equipment. Then, when you've gotten pretty good at doing what you want to do, reward yourself with some equipment, and learn how much more productive you can be. 

    Remember: buying the equipment won't force you to learn something, but having to learn something before you buy the equipment is a really good incentive to learn it. 

    Diversity as a Means to Awesome

    What's more awesome than being a Nobel-prize winning physicist? Being one who cracks safes. And paints. And plays music in Carnival. And helps create massively parallel computers

    If you don't know, Richard Feynman did all of the things above. And you should go read his biographies immediately, because they are endlessly entertaining. There are a lot of lessons you can learn from his life, and one of those lessons is that you don't have to do just one thing, even if you are a world-renowned expert in your field.

    Personally, I have a hard time specializing. I like to know a little bit about a lot of things. There is a phrase, "Jack of all trades and master of none," which I believe is intended to be derogatory. While I have nothing against specialists, and will often want a specialist to do specialized work, that doesn't mean the generalist is inferior. 

    We live in a big and complex world and, more than any time before, we can see and interact with those complexities. If you can know enough about two subjects to understand how those two subjects might work together, you can get specialists from both of those subjects to do new things that neither apart would have thought to do alone. Or, if you can't find those specialists, you could do it yourself. Maybe not with the skill of either expert, but in a way that either expert wouldn't have thought to do. 

    Add on skills and knowledge from different domains, and the possibilities for combinations increase exponentially. Whole industries used to be a collection of different skills that, eventually, worked really well together and became their own thing. Video games, for example: writing, animation, programming, music. It's kind of like movies, and kind of like software, and kind of like a lot of things, but when it first started a few decades ago, nobody knew what it was or how it was going to grow. Eventually, those people who could merge multiple fields turned it into its own thing. But without someone who was willing to do something outside of an area of expertise, it never would have happened.

    What's great about the new world are all of the opportunities for people to bring their unique visions and collections of skills together. The more you can do, the more you can be you, and the more you can be awesome. 

     

    Twitter vs. Other Media

    It is not a secret that I am a big fan of Twitter.* I've been using it for years, like the conversations I have with people, and I really dig the immediacy of the posting and feedback.

    Still, sometimes it occurs to me that, for the 30 seconds of effort I put into a concept, maybe I could have spent more time and done something else with that concept. For example, I used to have a blog with Fine Cooking where I would answer people's questions about cooking. Some questions I would answer on Twitter, because they were quick and easy to answer, but those questions might have been otherwise answered with a blog post or a video, if I were to go mad with power.

    Even more so, one-liners seem like the opportunities I waste the most. Sure, a quick observation about how I can use lessons from Mythbusters to do my job certainly is accurate and pretty cool, but looking back, it occurs to me that I really should consider writing an article about how you can learn from Mythbusters for your job. Or about finding a job that you can do Mythbustery things in. Or write a humorous song about someone who tried to take lessons from Mythbusters and apply it to her job with amusing consequences.

    There is nothing that says I can't do any or all of these things. Reusing a concept once is copying yourself, three times is a motif, and five times is a theme, although after that people might start to get a little bored. What usually happens, though, is that I write it, send it out, maybe converse with people a little about the concept, and then consider it to be "done". There's no niggling part of my brain that tells me that I really should do something with the idea, because it's done and checked off the list.

    So, if you find yourself throwing out a lot of quick ideas onto a medium that's all about immediacy, but when you want to do something more in-depth, you are lacking in inspiration, consider looking through your used material from Twitter (or whatever) for inspiration. Ask yourself with each post, "Can I do something else with this?"

    If you don't like re-using material, then more important would be to stop yourself from posting your quick thought, and decide whether it would be better to turn into something longer-form, or whether it would needs to be short and/or released immediately. You could find you have a lot more inspiration than you realized.

    *- With the exception of how they treat third party developers, but that's entirely tangential to this post.

    You Can Only Do So Much Awesome

    Sometimes, you want to do so many awesome things that you pick and choose what awesome thing you want to do right at this moment. It sounds like a terrible First World Problem, and it's not the worst thing in the world, but.

    What happens is, even though you're doing cool and amazing things, sometimes you worry about the amazing things you aren't doing. Sometimes you're stuck in Utah building a cool robot, when you really want to write some articles for this new web site you launched…

    Whaaa?! Is this some kind of apology post for not posting much recently? A little bit, yes. But it's an important point anyways, so go with me on this. There are lots of important things in life, and you can't do them all at once. Remember to go ahead and focus on the things you are doing right now, and not to let the things that you aren't doing take away from the things you are.

    So yes, be mindful, be in the now, all of that. Enjoy the awesome you have, until you're done with it and ready to do some more awesome. You don't have to do it all at once. Unless you have deadlines, but that's an entirely different post.