Way Back

2014 called. They have a copy of that .pdf you’re loooking for.

One drawback of having all of the Internet’s resources available is that sometimes these resources move or go away. Usually, a quick Google search can find what you’re after — unless it’s a particular paper on a particular topic that was referenced in a course you’re co-teaching. Then, it has to be that particular paper.

Well, times change, companies update their offerings, and old links get broken. Fortunately, we have a powerful weapon against such things — the Internet Archive’s “Wayback Machine.”

Think of it like a time machine for the Internet. You put in the URL that you’re looking for, and the Wayback Machine searches its archives for that URL. If it finds a match, you often get a choice of snapshots, allowing you to see how the site has changed (or not) over time.

Occasionally, it even has that obscure Cisco .pdf on Industrial Ethernet that you were looking for.

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The Revolution Will Be Printed

Every so often, you come across a technology that would have seemed magical only a decade or two ago. Occasionally, such technology is impressive enough that, even though you know how it works, it still retains some of that magic even after extensive use.

3D printers are one such technology. The ability to download or design a Thing using your computer, slice it into layers, and then send it to a device on your kitchen table which will make your design into reality is simply magical, even if you understand the entire process.

My Hictop Prusa i3 clone 3D printer making a thin sphere.

My Hictop Prusa i3 clone 3D printer making a thin sphere.

Part of this magic is that 3D printers have the potential to democratize invention and design, much like the Gutenberg press democratized written communications. Anyone with an idea for a new gadget can design it on a PC and produce it locally. With 3D printers now selling for well under $400 shipped, the technology is really starting to take off. Fittingly, I bought my kit on October 21, 2015 — the very day that Marty McFly first sets foot in The Future.

If you work for a university or a decent-size design company, of course, you know that 3D printers have been around since the 1980s. They’re an invaluable tool for prototyping as well as for production of one-off or low-volume items. Companies like Stratasys have developed reliable (but very expensive to buy and run) turn-key solutions to turn designs into objects. Until recently, of course, they’ve cost tens of thousands of dollars — or more.

Where the 3D printing revolution really get interesting is when the cost of the technology drops to the point where hundreds of thousands or even millions of hobbyists have access to it. Communities such as Thingiverse spring up online, where people can share their designs and expertise, helping others to get going quickly.

This is happening now. With the recent expiration of some key 3D printing patents, the hobbyist market has exploded. For under $400, you can get a 3D printer kit capable of making parts of similar quality to professional printers costing $15,000 or more.

The main differences, actually, are that the hobbyist machines are far more customizable in terms of both modifications and print settings, and they run on commodity filament, rather than proprietary cartridges. Parts are roughly ten times cheaper to produce on my Prusa i3 clone than on a Stratasys uPrint.

A 3D printed Klein Bottle, produced on my Prusa i3 clone.

A 3D printed Klein Bottle, produced on my Prusa i3 clone.

I’ll be writing more on various aspects of 3D printing as I explore them — but for now, here are some of the things that really strike me as interesting / important /cool about the technology:

  • If you need a part right away, it’s often possible to download, slice, and print it in hours or sometimes even minutes. There’s a reason it’s called “Rapid Prototyping.”
  • Parts cost very little to produce, once you have a 3D printer. A typical cost for a medium-size part would be $1US or so.
  • It’s possible to get involved as little or as deeply as you like, from downloading and printing out Pokémon figurines, to learning mechanical engineering and product design principles, designing professional-quality parts, and hand-tuning your 3D printer to produce them quickly with excellent quality.
  • The ability to design and print customized parts is amazing. Having access to such a device opens up all kinds of possibilities — like designing a phone holder to fit the visor on your car, so your 1997 Escort can have Google-powered navigation.
  • You can print your own upgrades. One of the most amazing aspects of the technology is the one RepRap project founder Dr. Adrian Bowyer envisioned: These printers can make many of their own parts. We’re not yet to the stage where a 3D printer can print another one — but people have stopped laughing, which is the first sign that a technology is becoming more science than fiction.

This is the beginning of a very cool new technological revolution. If you’re a technology geek, and don’t yet have a 3D printer, you should start thinking about getting one. If you don’t believe me, go take a look at all of the cool designs available for free on Thingiverse.

Here’s a link to the model I bought.

I’ll review it in a later post, but the TL;DR is that it’s magical — and I’d buy it again in a minute.


Posted in 3D Printing, Current Events, Design, Digital Citizenship, Tools | Leave a comment

Stopped in My Tracks

One major problem with using Someone Else’s Infrastructure is the inevitability of the Someone Else losing interest in the project while you’re still using it. This is a natural part of the progression of technology, of course — but it’s important to keep in mind.

For example, Google recently announced that they would no longer support their (pretty cool and reasonably lightweight by modern standards) My Tracks app. I’ve been using this for the past several years to track my walks around Philadelphia — mostly to and from work.

End-of-support announcements are nothing new, certainly — but this one had a more stark warning attached: Export your data before May, or you will lose it.


I understand Google no longer being able to justify maintaining a web service for the two or three of us codgers still using an app from way back in 2009 — but just a little foresight would have made it possible for My Tracks to keep right on working. All I really use it for is to get a position from the GPS module, timestamp it, and save it to a file.

The bottom line is, it doesn’t have to care about the Internet, or Google, at all, except maybe to display the moving map. And I don’t see Google dropping that functionality anytime soon. (Hopefully.)

Oh, well. Looks like it’s time to find another lightweight GPS app, write one, or maybe teach an Arduino about GPS logging. So long, My Tracks, and thanks for all the data. We hardly got to know you.

Posted in Android, Current Events, Digital Citizenship, GPS, Reviews | Leave a comment

Dirt Cheap Arduino Clones

While reading an article on making electronic “candles” for a few bucks out of a USB power stick and some LEDs, I came across aliexpress.com.

Now, I’m used to getting cheap parts from China. The four-dollar knockoff PING)) ultrasonic range finders usually work well enough — and it’s always nice to be able to get discrete components for basically free.

But Arduino clone boards for $2.65 just shouldn’t be possible, right??

Well, they are! Free shipping from China, and all. I just picked up five of them from AliExpress — and the first two work well, once I fiddled around with the USB driver a bit. I haven’t tested all of the functionality, but they did pass the Blink sketch test at two different timings, so there’s a real microcontroller on there. I was skeptical about posting about these things (since China does kind of have a reputation) — but they actually seem like the real deal.


An Arduino Uno clone for under three bucks shipped — and it can actually be programmed and everything!

Come get ’em! (Note: I’m not affiliated with the site — just amazed.)

Posted in Arduino, Current Events, Digital, Resources, Toys | Leave a comment