CNC Table


I prototyped this table design out of cardboard to get the measurements right, then used the Solidworks to design the parts. Dropped a sheet of MDF into the ShopBot at our (now defunct) TechShop Durham and out came all the pieces ready to assemble and finish! This was my first ShopBot project. I certainly would like one of my own someday.

Arc Reactor


This is a costume prop I made a few years back when we went to Phoenix Comicon.  I wore my suit, grew a goatee and went as Tony Stark.  Of course, you can’t do that without an arc reactor!  This one went under my shirt and involved a few LED’s and resistors, an old belt, a bit of styrofoam and cardboard, a scrap of acrylic and 9V battery.  Total value of materials was about $5.  Worked REALLY well under a dress shirt!

Laser-Etched Coasters


This was a project I undertook with my daughter, Ariel, to produce commemorative coasters for my father-in-law’s annual family retreat in the mountains.  These are tile backed with cork that we covered with a masking material, etched the graphics and words off, and then painted before removing the remaining mask.  It was a big job as we produced about 120 of these.

Steampunk 3D Printer

printerIf you are going to make a 3D printer, why NOT give it a bit of Steampunk flair?  This is a derivative of the second generation open source Cupcake printers designed by Makerbot.  It differs from the pure model with homemade belt guides (with inline skate bearings for smooth motion), acme threaded rods to decrease “racking” in the z-stage, and a z-stage platform of my own design and manufacture with a built-in cooling fan to help stabilize prints.

Lightspire Design Studio

lightspireLightweight Wooden Jewelry and Other Interesting Things

Lightspire is a recently-added nights/weekend endeavor.  I’d been making lasercut wooden earrings for my daughter and her friends and discovered they were quite popular.  Because of the interest, I set up a little shop on Etsy under the name Lightspire Design Studio.  As warmer weather arrives I’ll move out into the real world and will be offering my designs at arts and crafts festivals around North Carolina.

Between now and Valentine’s Day I’m offering free USPS Priority Mail shipping to all U.S. addresses free with the coupon code “VDAYFREEDAY”.

I Make Things

cubeIn my free time I like to make things:  all SORTS of things. This is a gallery of some of the things I’ve made.  Some are useful.  Some are artistic.  Some are goofy fun.  Sometimes I might even share a failure just to talk about what can and will (or did!) go wrong.  Feel free to comment and ask questions! I’ve learned a lot by asking things from others myself.

The “Big Hammers” in my toolbox are my 40W laser cutter, my 3D printer (that desperately needs an upgrade to newer/better tech, and my electronics equipment (Power supply, oscilloscope, etc) along with my trusty MacBook Pro from 2011.

North Carolina Lurches Right (and Why It Won’t Last)

I delve more into economics than politics, but occasionally a bit of political punditry is what is required.  This is one of those times.

A bunch of folks are bemoaning the “Decline of North Carolina” as the Republican Party is using their current control of the state government to move NC firmly toward the right.  Even the Grey Lady has lamented this sorry state of affairs as a tragedy.

While in the short term, I agree that many of the things which the NC Republican Party are doing range from poor policy (as I watch our education system drop back to one of the worst-funded in the country) to morally deplorable (issues on abortion, gay rights, religious freedom, etc), I don’t think this is the end of the world for NC.  In fact, I tend to think of this as indicative of the death throes of Red State NC — and possibly of the Conservative movement as a whole in the U.S.

Somewhere back in the early 80’s, thinkers in the Republican party decided to pursue a strategy of “playing to the base”.  They identified those people that would be most fervent in their support of the GOP and tailored their campaigns to the ideals of those people.  Money and votes followed.  It was a brilliant tactical move that rewarded Republicans with numerous wins — but also transformed the party into a right-wing movement that likely would have left Richard Nixon a Democrat (not to mention Bush, Sr, who was quite the environmentalist and a icon of restraint in terms of war as a way to move U.S. interests forward).

The problem for Republicans — and the reason the majority of Americans should not lose faith in our Great Experiment — is that the policy hitched Republican fortunes to a smaller and smaller group of rural aging Americans.  The *majority* of Americans believe in the right to abortion in the first trimester.  The majority believe in protecting the environment.  The majority want health care reform.  The majority want to rebuild our aging infrastructure.  The majority believe in religious tolerance and that the federal government shouldn’t try to force one faith on all citizens.

The fact that the majority is out of step with the Republicans although the Republicans hold a great deal of power in many states leads many Democrats and Independents to despair.  They feel that the system itself is failing.

It’s not.

The system grants one person one vote BUT the influence of a party is very much boosted by the degree to which their supporters are fervent in their participation.  Republicans tapped their core, and the core responded with an outpouring of time, energy, votes and donations.  That’s FREEDOM, folks…  the moderates and the left could buck up and do the same any time.

Here’s the problem for Republicans:  their core values are more and more out of step with those of the 60% or more of the country.  Their success depends on their core — but that core is predominantly elderly and rural.  The elderly pass on to the next generation and the percentage of our populations living in cities continues to grow (you know… those places that need efficient government services like modern rail, infrastructure, etc which Republicans tend to vote against).

In other words, the Republican core is dying both through age and through migration.  Our republican system (by that I refer to the U.S. electoral system, not the party) gives heavier weights to rural state voters than to urban state voters, so they have a short to intermediate term advantage.  Regardless, though, the tide is turning rapidly against the Republicans as led by Neoconservatives.

So for liberals:  don’t despair!  The Neoconservatives have had  their day in the sun.  It’s almost over.  That’s just pure demographics.  If the Republican Party wants to stay relevant in the coming decade they need a new strategy FAST.

On the other other hand… I don’t claim this is “all good” either.  I think democracy works best with two or more vibrant parties sparring intelligently over issues.  By exploiting a culture war in the U.S. the Republicans have abandoned the ground trod by Nixon’s GOP.  We need a good debate and a smart, savvy Republican party as part of it.

In summary:  Democrats need to stop thinking that the United States is going down the tubes, and Republicans better start thinking about how they can win the hearts of the middle if they don’t want to see everything they’ve down flushed down the toilet and branded forever as a misogynistic, extremist, warmongering era studied in the future only as “what not to do”.

The future is still to be made, and I for one still have great hopes for the future.



Jawbone UP Review

My life has settled down a little bit.  Ariel has graduated high school and is ready to head to college.  Maker Faire North Carolina is “Achievement Unlocked” for another year.  That’s brought things around so that I can focus more time and energy on my own well-being, so I’m tackling some health and fitness goals.

Unsurprisingly, I’m going about this with an engineering mindset:  hard data and tracking progress.  Also unsurprisingly, I’m using technology to help.  I thought I’d share some thoughts on my tools and process for anyone interested.  I currently employing four pieces of technology:  my iPhone, Runkeeper, a Withings WS-50 Smart Body Analyzer and my Jawbone UP.

Right now, I just want to review the Jawbone UP.

Short version:  the UP is a $130 pedometer.  I highly recommend it.

Long version:  the Up is a $130 water-resistant pedometer that uses an accelerometer and fairly sophisticated software to track the number of steps you take each day (the recommended healthy number is 10,000) as well as tracking motion as you sleep to determine times awake, total hours of sleep and time in deep sleep versus shallow sleep.  It is supported with a smartphone app — you just plug in the UP to the headphone jack on your phone to update your data.  Additionally, the app is compatible with several other fitness products (including my new scale/body fat monitor) and Runkeeper (my running app) as well as others. Among other niceties it features a “power nap” mode to help you take the right length nap to refresh yourself without ending up “fuzzy” the rest of the day and the ability to set inactivity reminders if you are a desk jockey so that you get up and move on a regular basis.

After having used it for a couple of weeks I give this my vote of approval!  My activity level is higher, I’m conscientious about not sitting still too long at work, and I’m doing a much better job of getting the sleep I need (something that boosts your metabolism and mental clarity).  If it was to break six months from now I’d jump right back online and buy another with little hesitation.  I do recommend, however, that if you are currently very sedentary that you set your movement goal to something quite a bit less than the recommended 10,000 daily steps.  A very sedentary person might only take 3,000 steps a day or less, so going straight to 10,000 might be a bit discouraging.  Also, recognize that the distances it tracks are based on calibrating your step length, but your stride varies with what you are doing — mowing the lawn, taking a stroll, going on a power walk, and running all have different strides, so distance tracking will be an approximation.  If you want accurate distance info, try the Runkeeper app for your smartphone.  That said, I think the number of steps you take per day is a better measure of your activity level than distance covered.

Verdict: If you are looking to get fitter/healthier I definitely recommend adding a Jawbone UP to your tool chest.  You can get them from the manufacturer directly (website annoys me…) or from everyone’s favorite virtual megamall, Amazon:


Federal Receipts and Outlays as %GDP

Another look at how big our government has grown (or not)…

Here’s a chart I made from White House data on historical federal receipts and spending from 1931 to the present:

Nothing amazing or really stunning to see here, but it is informative.  For the last few decades the size of the federal government as measured as a percentage of the economy has fluctuated but not shown any definitive trend.  We’ve had a tendency to overspend on a regular basis.  No clear patterns related to political party in power jump out to me.  Prior to the current financial crisis, spending as a percentage of GDP peaked in 1982  excluding WWII (that did surprise me a little).

Government is NOT much bigger now than at other times during the post-war era when measured against GDP.  The massive U.S. national debt appears to be mostly due to policies of moderately overspending while reducing federal receipts over a period of many years — i.e. we keep spending a little too much as a country while also lowering tax collections.

So should government size generally be measured against GDP?  If GDP doubles is it optimal or necessary for government spending to also double?  I have no answer to those questions.  In other words, I can draw a few conclusions from the data in terms of where we are now compared to previous times, but I can’t tell you if that means we’re doing well or poorly.

Another “How Big?” Question: U.S. Federal Spending

Just about everyone and their dog has seen those scary graphs of government spending shooting skyward along an exponential curve.  They look like this:

This runs from 1913 until 2011 and was retrieved from  In 1913 Federal spending was $715 Million.  In 2011 it was $3,603,061 Million ($3.6 TRILLION).  However, if you’ve seen my last few posts you know how important it is to adjust for inflation and population before assigning any meaning to these kinds of statistics.  Well, that’s just what I did.  I grabbed my population numbers from a previous post and used an online inflation calculator to convert everything to 2012 dollars.  We end up with real (inflation-adjusted) Federal spending per person from 1913 to 2011.  How’s that one pan out?  Again, I was stunned by the result (which means my guess and reality were *again* very different).

Wow!  I kinda thought the folks screaming about how much government spending has grown were exaggerating in a major way.  It looks like I was wrong.  In 1913 the federal government spent $172 per person per year (in 2012 dollars!).  In 2011, the federal government spent $11,799 person person per year (in 2012 dollars).  I’m blown away!  At the height of WWII we spent only $8515 per person in 2012 dollars.

Here are my thoughts:

  • Since around 1930 we’ve seen an almost linear growth in federal spending per person.  The nineties represent a departure from that trend, but 00’s soar to bring us right back to the trend line.
  • We get a LOT more from our government today in terms of social safety nets, research, public health, education and other programs than we did in the early 1900’s.  Is that good or bad?  That’s a matter of whether or not that is what we want in terms of what we give the government and what we expect to get in return. There isn’t a clear right or wrong — but we need to recognize that fact as a society and make an enlightened choice.
  • Federal spending really is increasing dramatically over the long-term trend and seems to do so in a fairly predictable way.
  • I don’t think that trend line is sustainable.  How far can it go?  How will it end?  I have no idea.

I’d really like to look at federal spending vs. median household income, but that is a topic for another day.

Hat tip to Kenny Felder for getting me to pursue this set of calculations!