A Saturday Project

One advantage to having a brother-in-law visit for the weekend (especially one who is both an architect and has extensive experience with fabrication) is that you can ask him to help you with a project and it will get done quickly.

This weekend, Paul and I built a workbench for my office. It has been on my list of things to do since we moved in and the need for a workbench (for computer work) has only increased since we moved into the house over a month ago.

I laid out my needs and he promptly came up with a plan in his head. Impressive. So we went to pick up the needed supplies:

  • 2″x4″ studs (twelve)
  • 49″x93″ high-density fiberboard sheet
  • 1lb 2 1/2″ #8 all-purpose screws
  • Phillips head bits (two)
  • #8 tap

All of that for under $100 and we were set to go … almost. I thought I knew where my corded drill was, but I was wrong (and now my wife keeps telling me I don’t have one, she’s probably right). So I headed out to get a cheap drill to get us through the day. I’ll be bringing it back to Target because the trigger sticks and it is terrible. One thing on my list is a decent set of power tools.

With an extension cord, drill, pencil, tape measure and improvised straightedge, we got to work.

It is better to just show you the progress.

start of bench

Prepared to make the first cuts on the high-density fiberboard. I really don’t have any tools, so we were using the studs as improvised horses so that we would not cut into the deck.

all of the materials in the office

Here you see all of the materials in my basement office, read to finally get put together. Word of the foolish for those who don’t know: be willing to spend money on tools. It will make the whole project easier.

What will become the lower shelf has a frame just like the top-level frame seen in the picture. The top of the workbench overlaps the L-shaped legs and gives it a really sleek look.

putting together the benchHere Paul is putting screws into the frame for the top of the workbench. You can see the lower shelf already in place and providing the structure for the legs as well. Really easy to put together.

the workbench finishedThis is the workbench as it stands right now. You can see the lower that is mainly used to house machines (and boxes for the moment). There is still some work I need to complete which mainly revolves around sanding and coating the shelf and top. I mounted a monitor on the wall for use on testing and debugging machines.

The workbench stands 38″ tall so that it is at a decent height for me to stand at and work on computers. It works quite well. I was able to put together my brother-in-laws new machine pretty easy. I need to figure out a lighting scheme for the area and also get some storage for tools on the wall or on the bench itself before I would consider it completed, but it is a huge step forward.

A huge thanks out to Paul and my wife (who watched our son while I worked on this with her own brother)!

Simplifying a Toolset

I tried working with Balsamiq Mockups today to see if I could incorporate it into my workflow for webpage design. Mainly I use paper + Sharpie as my toolset of choice for design mockups before I jump straights into HTML + CSS to get a working mockup.

I’m happy with how things work right now but I was wondering if a more digital tool would benefit me at all.

I’m sure it works wonderfully for other people, but I find that I’m too picky when working with a digital tool. I tend to try and get everything to line up properly, and spend more time crafting the mockup than I probably should. Balsamiq was no different. I spent maybe thirty minutes trying to put together a single webpage mockup and ended up trashing it

On the other hand, I spent maybe ten minutes with a couple of pieces of paper and some colored Sharpies to put together a few design mockups and come to some quick conclusions on what would and would not work (for those interested, why looking at the difference between three or four wells for content).

What does this mean? Not much. I just find that the simpler my toolset, the more I end up using it.

Sweat the Big Stuff

As I was getting ready for bed last night, a phrase popped into my head.

It’s the small stuff that makes the difference.

It’s a true statement. In a lot of ways, the tiniest of details can make a huge difference between a good product and a great product. The way something feels can change how you interact with something. My Logitech MX620 wireless mouse feels infinitely better in the hand than a cheap Microsoft Basic Optical Mouse. You pay more, but the experience is better as well.

However, the small stuff wouldn’t matter if you don’t get the “big stuff” correct first. I don’t care how good the mouse feels in my hand if it can’t effectively track my movements. A cake with excellent frosting can taste terrible if the underlying cake is stale. A car can look awesome, but if it doesn’t have wheels it’s a huge paperweight on your front lawn.

What I’m basically saying is that before you can start fretting over the details you need to have your foundation in place. Sweat the big stuff and get that right, otherwise all of those small tweaks you make will be for nothing because you’ll still have a terrible product on your hands.

It will just look really good doing nothing.

Content Workflow Musings

One thing I am tasked with doing right now is coming up with a viable workflow for content creation at Martin Luther College. There are a couple of goals I am trying to keep in mind.

  • enable faculty/staff/students to create content for various sections of the website
  • create a system that allows staff to vet and proofread created content before it goes “live:
  • have the system not get in the way of posting information in a timely manner
  • everyone can use it and understand it

Not exactly the easiest things to work out. Plone provide a workflow mechanism, and I will be working within that so that all content can stay within Plone from start to finish. Granted, a lot of it will be pulled from print publications or written in Microsoft Word, but the idea is to get it into Plone and then work from there.

The main problem I am running up against in my own mind is balancing the need to vet/control the content and allow creators the sense of ownership for the content they create (getting it up in a timely manner). How much control should an editorial team exert on the content that goes up?

I don’t even pretend to have the answers right now, and a lot is going to change as I grow into this role, but I think an approach that is flexible enough to change based on the person who is creating the content and the area they are posting is probably needed.

I’ll try and give a few examples.

  • Someone creates a new page outlining the programs available at MLC. They submit it via Plone and it can either be posted directly to the site or merely submitted for approval. Considering it is main content for the college having to do with academic programs, I believe that submitting it for approval is the best course of action.
  • Graduate Studies has their own section of the website chronicling what is going on with the program along with links to various sources that might be of interest to the students. The head of the program creates the content for this area. I can’t help but think that he should be able to post directly to the area pertaining to his program.
  • Breaking news on the campus: a bear has just gotten a honey pot out of a tree! Awesome. Someone from PR writes up an article with a picture and wants to post it up as soon as possible. In this case, one of the few editors should be able to quickly vet the article and then post it directly from Plone. It could be the head of PR, webmaster for the school or whomever.

Those are just some thoughts on various situations. One about vital information, one about continually-updated information for program-specific students and another about speed. I don’t know what is right or wrong, and I’ll be changing my tune soon enough as I find out what actually works, but I really feel there needs to be flexibility and no hard-and-fast rules that can get in the way of both simplifying things and obfuscating them when the need is there for each.

The Return of Odysseus

After a long and arduous process over the past two months I finally purchased my development laptop. Oh, you thought this was going to be about Greek mythology? Sorry, I just happen to use Greek mythos for my computer and networking names and Odysseus has been the name of whatever laptop I currently have with me for a long, LONG time.

It was a longer process than I was hoping because I’m both very picky and very cheap (right now). Since purchasing a house, the available money for extra expenses hasn’t just dried up, it has also been fired in a kiln. However, that didn’t dispel the need for a mobile development machine and that is what Odysseus is going to be.

So, what did I get?

I knew that a Mac was out of the question (at least for a while), so that narrowed it down in one way and opened up Pandora’s Box of Windows-based machines in another. However, I was able to quickly narrow it down when the defining thing I needed was Linux-compatibility.

Quite simply, I can’t develop very effectively in Windows. I’m not sure what has happened since early 2005 and now, but my use of Mac OS X and various distributions of Linux has rewired many parts of my brain to just expect a bash-like command line for me to work with. So, I’ll be running the newest releases of Ubuntu for the time being or until something better shows up.

Now, back to the hardware (sorry for the diversion there). I narrowed it down to IBM/Lenovo and Dell as the two I was going to focus on. Keep in mind that I am looking at used machines and I like to be able to “toss around” my laptop a little bit as I move from place to place. With that in mind, I focused on the business-class of machines from both as well. So it was ultimately down to the Dell Latitude D-series and the IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad X/T series as well.

Spending a month or more looking around I finally fell onto a deal on an IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad T61 and decided to give it a shot. That’s what I’m currently typing this post on right now. I’m hoping to keep it around for a while and wear it out as my traveling companion so that I might be able to save up some money for something smaller and lighter in the future. For now, however, it does everything I need and runs Ubuntu 10.10 like a champ. Not too bad for under $250.