Special Effects

March 26, 2015

There is a contest to design a TV show that will draw people to engineering the way that MacGyver did for so many of us. And they want a woman protagonist. You can see the contest rules and enter at TheNextMacGyver.com. This is one of my entries.

Title: Special Effects

Genre: Comedy, family drama

Logline (summary):

Running a live educational children’s program is not easy. The show must go on even when everything is broken: Micah had better start fixing this mess, right now.

Pilot synopsis:

On the stage of a live, educations children’s TV show, everything works perfectly. All of the puppets are in good repair, all of the robots work without error, each light is timed perfectly, and even the rails for the camera are working as planned. Every special effect works exactly as intended.

Micah receives congratulations from her coworkers on her fantastic engineering skills, becoming more deeply unhappy with each accolade. Her boss, knowing her well, says he’s certain she’ll come up with something better next time.

Micah is an artist and engineer. She likes to learn and try new things. She’s sick of everyone telling her how awesome her job is (she knows). She gets bored with doing the same thing the same way each time. This tendency to change things, even working things, often leads her into trouble.

Main Character Description:

In her mid-20 and pretty, Micah can weld, work in a shop, use a soldering iron, and program a computer. She has minions to help her but she does the bulk of engineering for the show. She knows how to make it all work; fixing anything that needs it, possibly a few things that don’t. (Mythbusters showed that awesome engineering skills are needed for special effects and stunts, she could have been Adam, if they’d only cast Mythbusters better.)

Three Sample Episode Storylines:

  1. One of the puppeteers gets sick, Micah has to fill in. The work is hot and sweaty so she builds robotics to replace herself. The creature stops moving on live TV and emits smoke. Tears (and hilarity) ensue.
  2. Micah talks her producer into letting her build a robot. Now she has to give it personality but the darn thing is just a lump of metal without personality (well, occasionally it is creepy but definitely not the R2D2 she’d dreamed up for herself).
  3. A favorite reading puppet is destroyed when a child vomits on it. Micah rebuilds the skeleton and skin before the next show.
  4. Micah gets a helper: a boy who uses his Make-A-Wish to see how the eyes glow in his favorite creature. In a quiet episode, she shows how accomplishes this effect in a way anyone can follow.


March 22, 2015

There is a contest to design a TV show that will draw people to engineering the way that MacGyver did for so many of us. And they want a woman protagonist. You can see the contest rules and enter at TheNextMacGyver.com. This is one of my entries.

Title: Underground

Genre: Drama

Logline (summary):

Jenny joins The Game to solve puzzles. If only she knew which side she’s on…

Pilot synopsis:

Jenny Quinn has three degrees: electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and cognitive psychology. She knows a lot of theory but not much about people.

Hired as a junior professor despite her extreme social awkwardness, Jenny discovers she not only hates lecturing, she’s so bad at it that her school is about to fire her.

She calls her aunt to complain and ends up playing a complicated real-life game of puzzles, science, math, even costume play. She flies through everything except the costume part: pretending she’s a spy (she does ok but throws up after, the only physical stress she shows throughout the game).

Jenny is enthralled but does not realize the game is actually breaking into Acme Technology HQ. When “caught”, actually by presenting herself at the head office, Jenny is reprimanded then offered a position creating gadgets for spies. She jumps at the opportunity to continue solving excellent puzzles.

Main Character Description:

Jenny is 24, striking. She is healthy from swimming but klutzy: her body is a tool but she spends her time in her mind. Being social is as difficult and exhausting for her as it would be for another to solve a two-body physics problem.

Through her job at Acme Tech, developing devices for covert operatives (spies), she gains people skills and connects with her coworkers. Eventually, she grows from introverted nerd to someone who speaks for the agents heading into danger.

Three Sample Episode Storylines:

  1. When a rush job comes in, Jenny learns speed is of the essence. She fumbles around, working alone and refusing help. She fails to deliver the required gadget. Luckily, she’s not the only smart one and Joe saves the day. Jenny wonders if she’s smart enough.
  1. Jenny lets a shield device go a little early, knowing there was an occasional glitch. It fails and someone gets very hurt depending on her tech. At work, she act like it is no big deal but is unhappy as she heads home.
  1. After several episodes of awesome puzzles, Jenny realizes her devices kill people, real world people, not simulation targets. She begins to wonder who she works for.

Shameless Self Promotion

March 19, 2015

I recently read Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking. It was a good book but I feel like I should be able to use the information instead of be vaguely amused, somewhat uncomfortable with the anecdotes.

Once again, I started a blog post with a plan and then totally lost the thread by the second sentence. Writing is hard. This blog is where I practice-write. I know it is public so it isn’t my absolute worst attempts (the drafts area is a scary place) but it isn’t an attempt to be professional.

On the other hand, Chris and I have been trying to be professional with writing for Element 14. We have a blog called The Linker that is loosely related to the people was talk to on the Embedded.fm podcast. Readers don’t have to listen to the podcast, the idea is we start from some topic we discuss and explore it further.

In Solving a Different Problem, Chris talked about how a guest said he wanted to explore a business problem instead of a technical one, how that’s neat and different from most engineers.

In How to Win the Hackaday Prize (and Other Design Challenges), I mug about being a judge for the Hackaday Prize (again!).

In Make Anything, Chris starts to explore the idea of how open source hardware is changing the industry.

In the next one, I’ll be talking about how applications matter to me and why that makes working on open source tools difficult, which makes me appreciate them more.

So yeah, I’ve been quiet here because I’ve been writing over there. We are getting paid for that which is nice. Though we’ve both been so angsty over, the material the cost/benefit is not going well. I think after we’ve got a half dozen finished, it will flow more easily. I hope, I hope.

I suspect that will happen around the time we hit 100 podcast episodes. One hundred. That is just crazy. We are still having a good time, still enjoying talking with people and hearing from listeners.

I’ve never been much of a joiner. I’m truly an introvert: I’d rather be by myself (or with Christopher) almost all the time. Without an external impetus and a fair amount of effort, I wouldn’t meet people. But after almost-100 episodes, I feel a lot more connected to the industry and to the the community than I’ve ever felt.

Chris and I have talked about ways to publicize the podcast. I got stickers (ok, the stickers crack me up but they seemed like a decent giveaway for people who want to know the show name when I’m at conferences).

I was looking into going to more conferences. However, Chris pointed out that conference attendees and podcast listeners may not overlap. That prompted me to ask if I could go on The Engineering Commons, they said yes and I did. It was fun, I should see if there are others.

As for conferences, I am going to and speaking at  Solid in June on inertial sensors and ESC-SV in July on making. I’m already nervous.

Other than that, I’ve been working a lot. I have two projects that are currently in the “omg, I broke everything” stage. One of them will be finished in the next week (fix then finish white paper). The other will get fixed and then I can start the fun parts.  (The third one really seems to be in production so it is finished… or would be if they’d pay me. Sigh.)

A week or two ago, a friend asked how things were going. I burbled on about work and the podcast and Chris. Then she asked about non-work stuff, how is that going?

I was couldn’t come up with anything. I mean, I read many books and watch tv but didn’t think we’d have any commonality there. I have some new ipad games I find amusing but those are mental cupcakes so I’m a bit embarrassed about them. House and garden need attention but who wants to hear about my plans for new closet doors and mulch? And my exercise program is going well but I can’t really imagine discussing it. It made me feel a bit one dimensional.

I know that is silly.

Well, if this was a professional piece, I’d wrap it all up and have some grandiloquent point at the end. Yeah, you can imagine that for yourself while I go make lunch


Heaps of public speaking

February 13, 2015

An embedded.fm podcast listener posed a question:

What tips do you have for preparing for an event that you’re speaking/presenting at? Tips for first time presenters (like me)?

Tips for when you’re speaking about something that’s a bit technical, but you don’t want to spend too long explaining everything. ( Do you just assume people are following along, and let them ask questions later?)

Let the pictures in the presentation do the talking?

I wrote Stuart back but I was typing on my phone, delaying getting out of bed, so I did a somewhat terrible job. It is a good question, one I’m pondering since my Intro to Inertial talk was accepted at Solid (June 23-25, SF, CA).  (ESC won’t be returning results until the end of the month though I have it on good authority that I’m in.)

Speaking tips: I can tell you what I do. I can’t tell you if it is the best thing for you. There are different speaking styles and that’s a good thing.

I once suggested a person not read word-for-word off their slides, trying to be, you know, helpful. That person became very argumentative and explained that was the best, perhaps the only good, speaking style as it was how people retained information: visual and audio together. Uhhhh, hmmm, uhhhh. Yeah, sure. Seriously, I thought we might one day be friends, that was the only reason I worked up the courage to gave unsolicited advice. I see that’s not going to be and I will back away slowly. (I hate, hate, hate being read to. Unless it is a bed time story.)

(I had a bad, unrestful night with a sick dog and then a bad morning with the IRS whose operators won’t even let me wait the two hours they did last time to talk to them, this time they just say no one is available and I should call back some other time. I’m not coherent. I’d be working if I was coherent.)

Ok, so first, I can tell you about my style. I can point to other styles I like. TED talk videos are good styles. I saw Simon Wardley speak at OSCON 09 and it changed my speaking style. He does a constant barrage of somewhat-related visuals along with his talk. His slides are relatively word free. The whole thing feels a bit like drinking from a firehose. I dig it. It is a heck of a lot of work to put together so I tend to only go halfway there.

I have my slides and talk from the Embedded Systems Conference 2014 on Element 14. It is about consumers and the internet of things. It isn’t as rapid fire as Wardley but I hope it has the same visuals are another channel of information, supporting the verbal (text) but providing more dimension as well.

I’m slightly addicted to clip art and visual eye candy (stupid but pretty tables! marginally related charts!). I’d prefer they look at the slides than me. You can see this in the (not very technical) talk I gave at Silicon Chef last fall.

Don’t put together a presentation for idiots. For book writing, O’Reilly says to assume your reader is a smart person, just not well versed in your topic. I think that is good advice for all audiences. To consider an audience member, consider yourself before you learned this topic (you minus a year).

Slides should be visible to average vision from 20-60 feet away (depending on size of speaking room). Stick to big fonts and simple diagrams. Colors with some differentiation. If it gets too detailed, break it into multiple slides (and/or take off the words and say them instead of putting them on the slides). So squint at your slide while it is on your screen and take off (or enlarge) the pieces you can’t make out.

Some slide decks are documents unto themselves. Mine are not. If yours are intended to be, you probably will have your visuals and audio match more. (Or you can use the speaker notes section in your slide prep program in case people ask for your slide deck.)

Have cues for yourself on your slide deck for whatever will keep you amused/cogent. For example, consider putting in one or three that tell you (in a non-obvious to the audience way) to take a drink of water. This lets the audience catch up and keeps you hydrated.

My cues are usually small, marginally related icons, reminding me to slow down / breathe / smile. (I once gave a talk at full speed and it was very fun but I gave it to a very small, very smart group.) If you put something that makes you less nervous (a picture of your kid on slide 3; secret, hidden cats on every slide; etc.), do so. It will make you enjoy the presentation more and that will make your audience enjoy it more.

I’d like to say “have fun” but that is so hypocritical I can’t even. And yet, a few jokes to yourself are worth it. I once made bullet points on every slide have haiku form. No one noticed but it made me happy: slightly more relaxed. A happy speaker makes for a happier audience.

I strongly suggest watching this TED talk from Amy Cuddy about posture. It is because of this talk that I can be found doing superman poses before the talk starts. (Ok, usually found in the ladies room.) Whether it is meditating or breathing or putting a pencil in your mouth (forcing you to smile), do something before talking other than thinking yourself into a dither. I do a few voice exercises (most saying “red leather, yellow leather”) to get it so I don’t stutter and so my voice doesn’t crack when I say hello. (If I can just get through slide one, I can settle into the rest.)

Stuart asked about questions. At the start of the talk, I usually request folks ask clarifying questions as we go along. But then when someone asks a discussion or argumentative question, I’ll say “That’s a good point, let’s hold it for the discussion at the end.” Don’t hesitate to push back if a question isn’t at a good time (“If I haven’t answered in 3 slides, please ask again.”). You probably want to think about likely clarifying questions as you do your slides. There is some nice satisfaction when someone asks a question and you flip to the next slide and there is the answer.

If you can get them mentally asking questions and then you, as though reading their minds!!, answer the question, well, all the points to you. They will really remember this stuff and they’ll think you are clairvoyant. Feel free to set them up for this. You have to spend some time thinking about how your audience will think but it is worth it.

One way to get started on a talk/slide deck is to pretend interview yourself about the topic. Then you get a nice rhythm of questions and answers. If you can also build in a beginning, middle, and end, that is better. Jokes are a good way to let your audience mentally breathe.

You will forget an important point during your presentation. Accept that. It is ok. If you have 20 important points, forget to cover one, that’s a 5% loss which is pretty good. (Your audience only got 80% if they were really interested and paying attention, the one your forgot is not worth agonizing over.) It is also ok to have 30 points and give yourself permission to only cover 20, the talk ends up being more fluid and variable (depending on the audience and your mood).

If you have 100 important points, your talk is a Wagnerian opera: consider splitting it into multiple. Your audience will get too tired and tune out. This is why talks are usually under 60 minutes.

I write out my talk. Wait. I write an outline, usually bullet points in Powerpoint. Then I write the talk. Then I redo the powerpoint to not have many words, adding pics and clip art. Then I practice my talk 3-4 times, editing the talk and the slides, not worrying too much about total time. Then I cut the written talk down to an outline and practice 3-4 times, checking to make sure I’m in the right time range. I do the final outline form so I don’t read my talk (which tends to be more monotone and tough to listen to). See notes above about being ok to forget things.

Expect to give the talk aloud 7 times (magic number learned in Mr. De Graf’s public speaking class in high school). This makes 60 minutes talks take at least 10 hours to prepare, usually double that. (Urk! Why do I sign up to speak at conferences? They are such time sucks.) Also, with talks longer than 20 minutes, sometimes in practice I start with the second half (or third third) so I don’t always work on that section when I’m tired.

I said this about pop science books recently: “The key to a good pop science book is > 40% good science, ~30% good explanation & metaphors, ~15% personable-ness, and < 10% politics.” That’s not a bad ratio for prepping a technical talk. Yes, do have a large portion of material but you need to budgt time and space for explanations. And your audience will like it better if you toss in an anecdote or two. Finally, you probably do need some bit about what you want them to do with this information (politics). Brain dumps are great but if you can add some encouragement or next step, even better.

Whelp, that’s all I can think of and my mind is clear enough to go play with some electronics.



In case you hadn’t noticed…

February 3, 2015

An older engineer said to me that she’d recently come out as a woman. She’s avoided all women-in-tech things, all women-only evens, even diversity boards at major companies in an effort to avoid rocking the boat. I get that though I’ve always been pretty upfront with my femininity.

That is why I will not meet you in a hotel bar to discuss your start up. That is always true but even more so if you’ve already been the sort of person who refuses to take hints, who doesn’t seem to notice when I consistently don’t respond to emails and messages. It may not be that I’m busy; it may be that you are creeping me out with too much contact from too many channels.

I understand that you may not get this. It is definitely a girl thing. On the other hand, I do know many guys who get it. There was that business trip where my electrical engineer put a chair in the hotel room door before it could close, even before I could. There was that other business trip when the guy invited me to watch TV with him in his room and then immediately explained three others would be there.

I’m a grown up, even sometimes a professional. I’m happy to meet you at a Starbucks. I’m ok having lunch if I’m not busy (and I want to). I’m a bit leery about meeting you in a hotel lobby but can see the necessities given conferences and business trips. But I won’t meet you in a bar. I won’t have a candlelight dinner with you. And I won’t be alone with you in your hotel room with the door closed.

How would that look to my husband? How would it look to your wife? These sorts of appearances matter. I won’t give my husband reason to doubt me, I wouldn’t hurt my husband for anything, especially to listen to you pitch your start up.

Ok, forget appearances. I won’t meet you in a non-public, not-well-let place because it isn’t safe for me. I won’t get in a he-said/she-said argument because there will always be witnesses. This is for both of our sakes: do you know how much such an argument can hurt your reputation?

And now, I’d like to apologize to the podcast listener that I met for coffee but refused to go back to his car to get the gift he sweetly brought me. I was ok in the busy cafe but I didn’t know him well enough to leave with him. I think he understood but was a little hurt.

So, no, I don’t want to get in your car either. Not until I know you a lot better than this.