Author Archives: bob

My ONE post on gun control

Posted by bob in Personal Projects - (Comments Off)

This post is about my attempt at a technological solution to gun problems. I built a working prototype, but ultimately I believe that this is not a solution to the problem of mass shootings. There is no technological solution that will prevent someone who is sufficiently motivated from doing significant harm yet still afford us the freedoms that make us human. However, what I built can help prevent people from harming others with knives sometimes, check the best knife sharpeners for the money . It has some legitimate circumstances in which it could be very effective.

Background

I was approached by a guy who recognized my wireless communications skills and proposed an idea to me. He had been thinking since the Sandy Hook shooting about how guns could be made safer, and thought that some kind of token that people wore that could disable weapons would be a great solution. Essentially he wanted to create a movement where people carried these tokens that emitted a disable signal, and he thought that governments could be convinced to mandate that all guns listen for this signal and refuse to fire when the disable signal is detected. That was where we started.

Evolution of the idea

Clearly this idea had problems. First was socio-political. Getting a government to mandate this would be impossible, getting people to trade in their guns would be impossible, preventing gun smuggling would be impossible, and establishing exceptions for military and police would be a loophole filled nightmare that would render the system useless. The next problem was technological. A token that’s always emitting a signal would run out of batteries quickly. A weapon that could automatically disable itself would be tricky. And a system that only deactivates if it hears a deactivate signal can easily be foiled by… aluminum foil. Wrapping the gun in aluminum foil would prevent the signal from reaching the antenna.

It took a lot of back and forth to come to a final solution, and it still has flaws. But we’ll get to that later. And I have no way to address the political or social problems; I’m a technical guy and that is a job for someone else. Here’s what we ended up with:

Solution

 

The four parts: the weapon, enable token, disable token, and plugin disable token.

The four parts: the weapon, enable token, disable token, and plugin disable token.

1) An enable token with a button that emits an ‘enable signal’ repeatedly while it’s turned on. We’re using Bluetooth Low Energy because this is exactly the sort of thing BLE was designed for. Low energy wireless communications. The enable token is paired with the weapon so that only that enable token can enable that particular weapon. This means the weapon will not enable unless the enable token is on, and within range. This prevents people from using stolen weapons, or getting into their parents’ guns, or accidentally firing, and can also prevent a gun from being used against its owner. This enable token alone is what makes this system great. There are far more accidental shootings, shootings with stolen weapons, and attacks against the owner than there are mass shootings, and an enable token paired to a gun would prevent a lot of those. But the enable token also serves another important purpose. Remember how you could just wrap a gun in aluminum foil so it doesn’t get any disable signals? Well if the gun needs to hear an enable signal, it can’t do that while covered in aluminum foil. So the fact that the gun has to hear a signal to enable means it must be capable of hearing a signal to disable.

2) The weapon with a receiver (and optionally a transmitter). The weapon has an electromechanical device that is connected between the safety and the firing mechanism. When the safety is diesngaged, this module is powered on, and when it hears the right enable signal, and no disable signals, it will allow the gun to fire. As soon as it hears a disable signal or stops hearing the enable signal, it will disengage and the weapon will not fire.

3) A disable token that emits a ‘disable signal’ every few seconds. Essentially this beacon says to any specially equipped guns “please don’t fire near me.” Any weapon or enable token within range will immediately disable itself. Another advantage of using Bluetooth Low Energy is that many cell phones are now coming with BLE capability built in, which means eventually a cell phone could be emitting this disable beacon. So people wouldn’t need to carry an additional piece of electronics; it would be an app they could download and run in the background.

4) Finally, a fourth device can plug into a wall and emit a disable signal regularly. It could also be listening for enable signals that would indicate someone is trying to enable a gun. And if the gun were emitting a signal saying “hey, I’m a gun and someone is trying to fire me” it could listen for that as well. It would have a siren and possibly other ways to indicate authorities that a gun was trying to be used in a certain area.

Building

I ordered some fake guns from Amazon, some Bluetooth modules from BlueGiga, and designed some parts for the enclosures. Writing the software for the Bluetooth modules, building the circuits, 3D printing the parts, assembling it all, and testing it, took a relatively short amount of time. A few weeks, really, and that was just in my spare time. It’s only prototypes, so I wouldn’t want to mass produce them the way I built them, but for a working prototype, it works and looks acceptable.

One thing I skipped was designing the electromechanical part that would prevent a gun from firing. I justified this by saying that many guns would be different in their implementation, and I don’t have a real weapon to develop for, and we were trying to prove the wireless concept.

Problems

Here are a few of the problems I ran into.

  • Range: Of course, you’re preventing guns that are within range, not bullets. A gun that is sufficiently far that it doesn’t get a disable signal will still be able to fire INTO an area.
  • Aluminum Foil: It’s still entirely possible to put the enable token INSIDE the aluminum foil surrounding the weapon so that it gets the enable signal and not a disable signal.
  • Timing: A disable signal should be sent infrequently to conserve battery life, prevent collisions, and keep the airwaves mostly clear. But the longer it is the more opportunity to not hear it. A weapon could be enabled and fired in between disable signals. We tried to get around this by disabling for at least five seconds after hearing a disable signal, but if the weapon is turned on, enabled, and fired before the first disable signal reaches it, there’s at least one bullet getting shot. Yes it prevents further shots, but one is enough to do damage. You can see in the video that the gun is enabled briefly before it receives a disable signal.
  • Safety: Usually when a gun is being fired, timing is critical, and having to wait for your gun to enable before you can fire it could mean life or death. That’s why it’s critical that the enable happens immediately every time.
  • Bad guy has a regular gun and a disable token: So he can prevent you from firing, but he is unaffected. Unless the world has 100% adoption of this system, there will be guns that have an edge over other guns, and that makes this system undesirable.
  • Batteries: Yes, it has batteries. Batteries run out. Then you’re in trouble.
  • Gunk: When weapons fire, there’s an explosion, and then powder gets all over the place. On guns it’s really hard to keep this powder from getting all over. Further, there’s not a lot of room in a lot of guns for the firing mechanism to attach to the trigger since it has to wrap around the magazine, so it’s a tiny space that could easily get filled with stuff that could prevent it from working.

Benefits

  • Safety: Guns can only be fired if the enable token is on, which means fewer accidental firings.
  • Theft deterrence: A gun without its enable token is useless, so the owner (who should still be responsible about protecting his gun), can add protection by keeping his enable token separate from his guns.
  • More difficult to misuse guns: It’s not a failsafe system, but it adds a layer of security and challenge that may deter some people.

Conclusions

This is my contribution to the conversation. I built something that has the potential to solve some problems for some people. But after developing and considering the situations in which this might not work, and the motivations behind the gun makers, legislators, gun owners, and gun shooters, this system, and any other like it, has too many holes and challenges to make it a cure-all for gun control. We shouldn’t be applying technology like this to guns because it defeats their purpose and doesn’t solve the real problem that exists with the person holding a weapon.

Post-China update

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Yep, I haven’t updated in a while. So what happened in the last year?

  • Went to china to participate in HAXLR8R, the first hardware startup accelerator, which took place in Shenzhen. Read about it here!
  • Came back a few weeks early because I couldn’t get what I needed there, went to San Francisco for demo day and launched a kickstarter project.
  • Demo day was a flop and my kickstarter failed. I just wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t have a team, I was exhausted after China, and I didn’t know how to do media campaigns.
  • I learned my lesson and brought on a couple of co-founders to handle marketing and business development.
  • I learned another lesson about hiring people I’m not completely comfortable with, and was able to fire him before the paperwork was signed making him official.
  • I drove across the country with my girlfriend to go to an amazing wedding and see friends and be with Erin’s family.
  • I continued product development for a long time, making it manufacturable, talking to U.S. factories, jumping through regulatory hoops, getting prototypes in the field with beta testers, and in general making the product and the business awesome.
  • I sent balloons into near space.
  • I have become an expert in many things business and startup related.

And now you’re caught up. :)

Fast Scanner

Posted by bob in Building - (Comments Off)

Since I’m moving in a few months to an apartment of significantly reduced size, I am starting to reduce the size of my collection of stuff. One thing I’ve been carrying around is everything from my college career. I have every syllabus, paper, homework assignment, handout, midterm… in total it was three boxes full of binders. This represents tens of thousands of dollars of education, though, and I wasn’t entirely willing to part with it. I started scanning pages with a scanner. I had a process that was giving me up to 6 scans per minute. The quality of the scans was good, but the speed was not fast enough, and there were too many manual parts to the process. I needed something faster.

I realized that a photo of a piece of paper would be faster than having a scanner do it, and if lit well enough and with a good enough lens, it would be just as good as a scanner. I rigged up a tripod with an extended arm to hold my camera, and I put a white background on the desk and marked some lines where the paper needed to be to be in the shot. Since I don’t have a fancy DSLR with a remote, and pressing the button manually was way too much effort and moved the camera around too much, I rigged up a piece of twine so that by pulling down on the twine I could get the camera to take a shot. I tried pulling the string for a while, which was pretty fast, but still not as efficient as possible. I tied the twine to a ruler and used the ruler as a foot pedal, giving me both hands to move the pieces of paper as quickly as possible. The light sources were just regular white compact fluorescent bulbs, placed to put as much light on the paper as evenly as possible.

The resulting contraption bumped my speed up to 15 pages per minute on average. Sometimes it was higher depending on if I was dealing with loose notes or stapled sheets. Having the shutter controlled by my feet gave me a huge advantage, and I was able to fly through all 3 boxes of papers in a few evenings much faster than I expected. Now I have it all on my computer, which should probably still be sorted, but at least it’s not taking up any physical space, and I don’t have to feel any sense of loss when I recycle my stacks of papers.

Four months on my own

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It’s been four months since I started on my own. The first weeks were a whirlwind of applications and registrations, some of which are still in process. I’ve been building up projects, finding my niche, and getting used to and developing my processes.

In the beginning I started by reading a lot of books; everything from business law to marketing to general advice on working from home. I feel like I’m getting an MBA by fire, but the stakes are a lot higher than being in school.

Here’s an overview of what I’ve done in the last four months:

  • Registered my business with the WA Secretary of State, the WA Department of Licensing, and filed for an EIN number from the IRS.
  • Applied for a trademark on the WYZGYZ name. I still haven’t heard back about that, but the process takes some time.
  • Set up a business bank account.
  • Set up http://wyzgyz.com.
  • Met with a lawyer
  • Met with an accountant

On the other end of the business, I’ve been involved with quite a few projects:

  • Two contracts back to PNNL to continue to work on projects I was doing when I left. This is my source of income while my other projects are still in development.
  • Volunteer development for the Atomic City Roller Girls. I redesigned their site and have been helping them with posting and using it.
  • Working on a project called the electronic scoreboard. I built a second prototype, set up a web site, and am currently looking for manufacturers and getting feedback from users.
  • And a few more things I’m not ready to talk about yet.

Between learning about and getting used to owning a business, my own projects, and my contract work, I’ve been pretty busy with WYZGYZ. I’m not discouraged, though I have had a couple rough days and some tough decisions to make. Rather, I’m excited that I’m doing this, and I have high hopes for what it will become.

Starting on my own

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It has been long overdue, but I’ve finally taken a giant step in my career. 1/11/11 was my last day working at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. I have left to start my own business, and I’m very excited about it. The last few days have been a flurry of paperwork, but I’m making progress and getting to a point where I can finally start talking about it. Assuming all my paperwork goes through in the next couple days, I’ll officially own my startup: WYZGYZ (pronounced ‘wise guys’).

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with PNNL when I was there. I really appreciated the opportunity to start working on challenging projects and contributing to publications and leading-edge research right out of university. I have many conference and journal papers and presentations, and even a few patent applications through the lab. I’ve gotten the chance to work with influential people at the top of their careers, and travel around the United States to meet and work with dozens of others on some pretty fantastic projects. I’ve learned a lot and become a pretty good software developer. For my first job out of school, the lab was perfect for me.

But there were things that bothered me about the lab; things which ultimately made me decide to leave. First among them was my inability to pursue my personal ideas. It’s ok to own my brain when I’m being paid for it, but there were things I wanted to do that just couldn’t be done while I was an employee at the lab. Second was bureaucracy. Working in a government lab was frustratingly slow, and many times I saw my ideas ground down and starved because they couldn’t get traction or took too long to get funding. The red tape machine is formidable and to me seemed counterproductive to innovation and progress. Finally, there was impact. Over the course of my tenure at the lab, I wrote a lot of software. Much of it was research software that was used for a prototype or a demo, shown to the client, and archived. In the latter half of my tenure I worked on software that did get used, sometimes in some pretty exciting ways, but never beyond a couple hundred users. It seemed like I would never be able to develop a product that could get through all the barriers to find use in the general community and have a meaningful impact on thousands or millions of people. Publications required approvals, and even posting to bulletin boards was regarded with skepticism. For a national resource, it seemed too closed-off.

WYZGYZ is my shot at building a business that has the things I liked about the lab and addresses the things I didn’t like.We’ve also been sponsored by Carlson Knives, so check his products and let us know what you think, .

My company will have three parts: contracting, products, and research. Contracting will allow me to work for clients and generate stable income. Products will allow me to develop my ideas into products that I can market and sell. Research will allow me to explore ideas and either turn them into products or publish them to the community.

Everything is in the very beginning stages, but I have a plan, I have all the resources I need, and I have a lot of hope and motivation and skill to make this work.

Mouse Modding

Posted by bob in Building | Computers - (Comments Off)

Last night I made some changes to my mouse; we’ll see if they’re improvements or not. Originally I was dismantling it to clean it. Something had gotten inside the wheel and was causing it to scroll inconsistently. Once I got inside, though, I saw an opportunity to tune it.

First was the clicking on the wheel. This is accomplished with a spring, and is sometimes annoying, especially since I like to give my scroll wheel big long spins to quickly move around on a page. Removing the spring was pretty easy.

Second, I noticed a weight added to the inside. I’m not entirely sure what the weight accomplishes, other than making the mouse that much harder to move, so I took it out, too.

If I need, I can easily put the parts back in, but at the moment I’m rocking a lighter, smoother mouse.

image

Productive Sunday

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This is a shining example of a highly productive Sunday afternoon. I separated the marshmallows out of the cereal. Then I threw away the cereal. Then I ate the marshmallows. That’s a normal sheet of paper to get a sense of scale.

For what it’s worth, the cereal was stale and wasn’t going to get eaten anyway.

Autocross, wings, movie night, and a hike

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This weekend I was busy. Saturday morning we went to the raceway in West Richland to watch some friends autocross. They weren’t scheduled to go until later, though, so we stayed for about an hour, then headed to another engagement; the Tri-City Wing Wars.

The Wing Wars was a competition among local restaurants to see which one had the best wing. For $5, anyone could enter and have access to unlimited wings from any of the stations, all of which hid their logos and their brand name. People could vote for their favorites, which would be revealed at the end.

In reality, more people showed up than they expected, and they ran out of wings after about an hour. Sadly, I was one of the reasons they ran out. I managed to consume two dozen chicken appendages in that hour, though to be fair I didn’t target my consumption at any particular vendor, though the Parmesan wings were my favorite. I saw a few friends there, but after the wings ran out, so did we, heading back to the track to see if we could see the friends race.

We arrived in time, and Ricky offered to let me ride with him. He has a nice convertible, so I was happy to accept. The helmet, though tight, wasn’t the claustrophobic experience I expected, and having the top down held the heat and gas smell at bay, so I was quite comfortable. The racing itself was a lot of fun, and I felt like the entire time we were pushing the car to the very edge of its capabilities, and that if Ricky pushed it any more or less expertly, we would certainly spin out. It felt like we hit every cone, but in fact he had a great race and only hit two.

Me and Ricky about to autocross

Later, Naomi raced with Ricky, which was fun to watch, and we could all hear her screaming (we assume with joy) occasionally.

Naomi and Ricky autocrossing

Finally, Dan was up, and he let Erin ride as his passenger. She put on her helmet and joined him in the car, a very sporty little thing into which Dan had obviously put a lot of care. I climbed the lookout tower and caught the ride on video; it turned out to be a great run, netting him first in his class for the day.

Dan

Dan and Erin are ready

After the autocrossing, we went to our friend Dimple’s house for pizza and a movie, then went back home.

Sunday morning, I was up early. I had planned to go hiking with Jim and Erin that day (even looked up several mens hiking boots and the best hiking poles compared side by side on review sites and had a pair delivered), but Erin bailed at the last minute, citing work. Jim and I still went, and it took about an hour to get to our destination; the white bluffs of Wahluke wildlife reserve. We chose a path that wasn’t exactly the famous white bluffs but less traveled. Half of our walk was on an old blocked off road, and the other half was along coyote trails that were barely visible. Along the way we could see the whole Hanford area.

Along the way was an old earth mover. The handle wasn’t attached to the door, but it was easy to insert and open. The key was lying on the cab floor. The battery, however, was dead. Still, it was good for a photo.

I took a few panos on the hike, too.

My biggest lesson from U.S. History class in High School didn’t have anything to do with History. It was a lesson that’s stuck with me ever since, and it has affected me in many aspects of my life. Getting things done is really intimidating, until you start.

Within the first month we had our initial assignment, but this was an AP class, not a regular history class. Our task was to write three essays, and we had a week to do it. I went through so many emotions; anger, outrage, frustration, hopelessness. I started to do the work but it was impossibly daunting. There was so much that I didn’t know, so much research to be done. Each question could have been a masters thesis and seemed to require citation of dozens of materials. I remember crying to my dad. He couldn’t do anything for me, though. Ultimately, I got it done, and on time, by just getting started.

My problem, and my major block, was knowing that I didn’t know enough. There was no way I could read all that I needed to to make a cohesive and complete argument. I had to give that up. The trick was to start with a decision already, start writing, then look for supporting facts in my research materials. I didn’t need to find the right answer; I needed to be able to defend my answer. This worked most of the time, because our lectures were usually on the topic of the essays and we had a good idea, but it didn’t always happen that way. Sometimes I would start with a thesis, but in the process discover that it was completely wrong. Since I had already started, and was already in the process, it was easier to go back and modify than it would have been to start over. Eventually I would get to the right answer anyway.

At the beginning of the school year, it took me the whole duration to write the three essays, which were assigned every week, but almost all of that time was just trying to get started. By the end of the year, and for the AP test, I was producing all three essays in under an hour, at roughly 2-3 pages each. Sure, I had gotten better at researching, but I’d also become less intimidated by the assignments.

That’s been a lesson for many things. With skydiving, so much worry and preparation goes into that first jump, but after getting used to going through the motions, it becomes routine, and what seems like an impossible feat to those who haven’t done it yet is just another day for someone else.

The truth is everything is intimidating until you start doing it. Then you learn a lot really fast. Then you become good at it. If we all just accepted that once we started doing something it would be fine, and skipped the intimidation step, life would be a lot easier for everyone.

Jump 29

Posted by bob in Skydiving | Sports - (Comments Off)

Saturday morning I looked at the weather and it was not good. There was a good chance of rain, it was overcast, and the ceiling in Ritzville was 7500-9000 feet. My friend and I were supposed to go skydiving, but the weather made it seem like it might not happen. She called and they said it was still on, so we got in the car and drove up there. Once we arrived, I suited up and barely made the next load, and I’m glad I did. We went through some clouds on the ride up, but directly over the drop zone there wasn’t anything, so that was good. It was getting a little cold, but I was also at the door the whole ride. I was the first one out, and it was a great jump. This time I tried a few things; I tried going feet first, but immediately flipped and was on my head, starting to spin. Then I tried doing a couple cannonballs, which is fun because you go faster and you have no control over how you spin. I also played with some flips and turns and generally doing acrobatics and getting back under control, as well as looking around for other divers and getting awareness. My chute opened fine and I turned to watch the others, who were some still falling for quite a ways, which was cool to watch.

I practiced some riser turns before I unstowed the brakes and made a regular landing, this time standing up and on the grass. I was very happy.

I had some help packing my chute, but I wasn’t fast enough to get on the next load, which was unfortunate because that’s the one my friend was on. I watched her get on the plane and take off. Unfortunately for her, the clouds had rolled in overhead and they could only make it up to 7500 feet before they had to get out.

That was the end of the day, and they rolled the plane in to the hangar. I asked the instructor what he wanted me to do before he felt comfortable stamping my license card, and he was ok with it, so now I officially have an A license for skydiving. woo!