Boris Smus

interaction engineering

DIY Community Library

When my sailing class was canceled back in early March, I realized it was time for a more individualistic hobby. And so, I furled the sails and tied up the boat and picked up a circular saw from the hardware store. After I got over my fears of loud, terrifyingly quickly spinning metal blades, a whole bunch of cutting and screwing, then digging and painting, I have a Little Free Library standing outside my house, and a little bit more confidence for the next woodworking project!

Little free library photo

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Book: Selected Short Stories of Philip K. Dick

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Book: Where Good Ideas Come From

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Book: Lost Enlightenment by Frederick Starr

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Book: Debt: The First 5000 Years

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Visual Chronology of Science & Discovery

As Newton wrote, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. But whose giant shoulders did Newton stand on? And did those giants stand on the shoulders of other giants? And how about Newton’s successors, or people working in other fields? As far as I can tell, it’s giants all the way down.

Last year, I got my hands on a remarkable book, Asimov’s Chronology of Science and Discovery. It inspired me to produce a visual summary of human ingenuity, to see what one giant saw from the shoulders of another. After some experimentation, I turned it into an interactive visualization. You can play with it here:

Screenshot of the visual chronology centered at Steel.

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Books highlights of 2019

I’ve been reading and summarizing for five years now (cue Ratatat). I’m not sure that it’s helped much with retention, but at the very least, having an easily searchable corpus of my book-related notes is worthwhile.

A decent year for fiction, I finally read Invisible Cities, which I enjoyed not viscerally, but more as an art piece. I liked The Fiddler is a Good Woman for the author’s ability to retell the same sordid tale from multiple perspectives. Diamond Age was a collection of incredible ideas and surprisingly relevant for my job. I also enjoyed Hyperion, especially Sol Weintraub’s tale, which touched me deeply. The Fifth Season was interesting, but I have some identitarian reservations. I think my overall fiction highlight was Homer’s Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson.

I read two non-fiction books which were a little too extreme for my tastes: Deschooling Society, which just read like an angry and ill considered screed and Radical Markets, which had some really interesting ideas, but presented as a whole seemed ridiculous. I really enjoyed Timefulness, a whirlwind overview of geology, and Range, an ode to generalists. The standout non-fiction for me was Seeing Like a State, which will continue to turn over in my mind for years to come. I listened to fewer history lectures than usual, but can wholeheartedly recommend The Story of Medieval England. Instead, I focused on parenting books, which are pretty bad as a genre. That said, The New Father served as a worthwhile companion to skim during the first year of Eliana’s life, and Yes Brain had practical suggestions for digesting mindfulness into something that small children might be able to understand.

I also begun a new long-term book summarization project, which is to digest Asimov's Chronology of Science and Discovery, and visualize it as a Civ-style tech tree. Hopefully I’ll have something to report on that front in 2020!

Article highlights of 2019

I’m still using Instapaper for reading online things, although in 2020, my aim is to read articles (even) less, in favor of books.

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WebUSB, Arduino, and Nunchucks!

WebUSB bridges two amazing universes: the open web and the maker movement. Web pages can now talk directly to external hardware over USB, and it works on both mobile and desktop (at least in Chrome). There are a few basic samples out there, but for my own edification, I wanted to get my hands dirty. I hooked up a Wii Nunchuck to an Arduino, and built a webpage to plot sensor readings in real-time. Here’s the resulting video and code.

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Book: The Fiddler is a Good Woman

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Book: Range by David Epstein (audio)

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Book: Timefulness by Marcia Bjornerud (audio)

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Toddler’s First Music Box

Toddler toys are stacked with blinking lights, loud attention seeking noises, and earworm songs. They are often made of plastic and sadly, feel cheap. My daughter deserves better!

So I set out to design her a perfect music box: an old concept infused with modern technology, without subjecting her to the hazards of screens. I wanted the box to play her favorite songs, be durable and portable, have long battery life, all while being a beautiful object. This is the result:

My daughter’s music box

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