Keeping It All Together

Today I was thinking back to those first days at home after my latest downsizing, I remember a feeling of exhilaration at the possibilities of moving forward on my back-burner projects. I knew I’d have to balance job search activities with getting to the backlog of things that had been building while I’d been employed. The tempest of ideas swirling upstairs was nearly overwhelming. I needed a plan. I sat down with a sheet of paper and started listing my ideas.

At last, the mess of ideas was there: Documented, saved, I wouldn’t forget those things. The next step was organizing and ordering. I knew I’d need to bounce between different tasks and not try to concentrate on doing each thing one at a time. The idea was to incrementally move along on several fronts. I came up with a few top level categories to bounce between:

  • Job Search Activities
  • New Skill Training
  • Tech Projects
  • Home Chores / Maintenance
  • Yard Chores / Maintenance
  • Computer Tasks
  • Car Maintenance
  • Shopping
  • Errands
  • Appointments
  • Creative Projects
  • Scouts
  • Fun
  • Books/Music/Movies to check out

Then I started prioritizing the sub-tasks. At that point I realized I’d benefit from some kind of organizational productivity software.

I’d previously used Excel for this kind of list, but that seemed cumbersome. Especially with prioritization. I was concerned with losing tasks during cut/paste or blendering columns during sorts. I wanted to be able to check off the list items on my cell phone while shopping, or look at the list while away from home. Google documents was a possibility in that sense, but still cumbersome.

I eventually found out about Todoist. I’m using their free version to keep and organize my lists. I like the Google cloud storage for the lists, the easy way to check off what’s been completed, and the intuitive reordering.

[5/26/19 Edit: I’ve now heard of Trello (through the comments below) and have started using it. It’s a little more complicated, but seems to handle teamwork a little better.]

Composition Book

I still use a good old composition notebook for working out my daily list of tasks and priorities, but Todoist holds the master list. The notebook also gives me a place to quickly work out some ideas before they get put into Todoist.

Today, I’m getting ready to start a new job adventure. Checking to see if I have anything to finish before I start next week. I’m also working out how to re-organize our family day and meal plans. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed at having not finished everything I carefully jotted down in those early days of the “break”, but I’m also realizing that through that organization, I’ve accomplished a lot along the way.

Have you found any super-useful list management software? Please share it with us.

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Hardware … and Software

Yep, I go both ways. My penchant for hardware was fostered in the 3rd grade. My uncle got me a “crystal” radio kit for my birthday.

Science Fair Crystal Radio Kit

I also spent many after school hours at a friend’s house working on the Radio Shack electronic X-in-one kits. The first being his 100-in-1.

Science Fair 100-IN-1

Many others followed: My own 10-in-1, then a 150-in-1, and so on.

At the time, software was not a thing for kids my age. My interest in electronic circuits did get me looking at Popular Electronics magazine at the city and Jr. high school libraries. Eventually, I convinced my mom to get me a subscription for myself. I’d read those monthly issues in great detail, and I’d pick up old issues at bargain book sales.

Popular Electronics

Next came the subscription to Radio-Electronics.

Radio-Electronics

My freshman year in high school finally provided me access to a TRS-80 Model I after school. The data processing classroom had two, and certain respectful students were allowed to learn on them until the janitor came to clean the room and lock the door at the end of his shift. I went out and plunked down $5.95 plus tax to get this manual so that I could start learning BASIC.

BASIC Computer Language – Instruction Book

I learned BASIC at home, with the computer, but then came into the classroom to try my programs. I also tried some programs out at Radio Shack, but would usually get shooed away by the sales team before I got very far.

It wasn’t too long before I started hearing about the ZX80, and then the big price drop happened at the introduction of the ZX81. I ordered an assembled unit and 16K memory expansion for about $150. I had my first computer.

ZX81 Kit Advertisement

From there, I got into the computer magazines: Compute! and Byte.

Compute!

At that point, I was of both worlds: Hardware … and Software.

I still tend to work right there, right at the bare metal interface of the two worlds. That duality always comes up in my job interviews. When I saw the following video for the first time, I realized that I’d forever remember it in every interview going forward.

The Origin of Job Interviews

Mapping Tools

Google Earth Pro showing a 1940 Travis County Highway Map overlay and some waypoints

Continuing on the mapping theme, I wanted to talk about a few tools I use for my mapping activities.

MapSource

I use an old Garmin eTrex Legend GPS receiver for my geocaching hobby and backwoods exploration. I purchased Garmin’s MapSource Topo in 2004, and I still use it today. The software isn’t updated much anymore, but it reliably moves waypoint and track data to and from my receiver. My map database is still original, but it isn’t a big issue as I don’t tend to use the unit for street navigation. I usually save “raw” field data in .gdb files, and also save a copy where I’ve cleaned up the tracks or edited waypoint symbology and labels. These files can be converted / imported into the programs below.

Google Earth Pro

I know most people know about Google Maps in their on-line or phone app form. Fewer people know about the free, downloadable PC/Mac app called Google Earth Pro. In addition to allowing you to view zoom-able maps of the entire globe, you can also make your own maps to share with others. The features I use are:

  • Satellite basemaps (recent historical imagery is available)
  • Track and waypoint overlays from my collected GPS data
  • Photo overlays of old maps and aerials (zoomed and rotated)
  • Getting coordinates of features in the overlays and basemaps.

You can also make cool map fly-over videos. It’s an awesome tool and a great place to start learning about making maps.

ArcGIS / ArcMap

Sometimes you need the real deal for mapping. In my case, I found that building a composite aerial map of around 16 photos in Google Earth Pro was bogging down the computer I was using. I also needed to stretch a hand drawn map in a non-uniform way to match the basemap. That task exceeded the capabilities of Google Earth Pro’s zoom and rotate (AKA affine transformation).

Esri’s ArcGIS / ArcMap does all of this work very well. It’s not so easy for casual users without mapping experience, but it’s definitely the way to go for people who are really into this stuff. It lets you stretch maps and aerial images to fit other maps (georeferencing) and uses variable image resolution to speed screen update time. This is the tool that makes most of the print maps you see today. I’ve completed a lot of on Esri’s on-line courses. It’s the next best thing to community college courses on the subject. I find learning this tool to be quite engaging, especially when paired with my interest in local history.

QGIS

QGIS is another fantastic Geographical Information System program. It’s open source and free to use. It has many of the features of ArcGIS and its components. I did have great success in using the program to get beyond my issues in assembling the previously mentioned composite. On-line training is also readily available. I stopped using the program when I decided to start learning the more mainstream ArcGIS.

Where to go from here?

What direction is the wind blowing?

I’m looking for and preparing for my next career opportunity. My school and work experience are listed on LinkedIn.

I’m not one to just let the wind blow me to the next place. I want to put in some thought, so I can apply my efforts to move toward something that is going to continue to be relevant.

Where I am

My chosen career is computer engineering. To me, that’s designing computer systems that people and businesses need to get their tasks done. The design discipline has two main aspects: computer hardware (electronics) and computer software. I’ve gained lots of experience in both, and I definitely want to keep close to my experience base. Relevant experience will be what’s most useful to my employers in quickly getting their project completed.

Lots of my hardware designs have required software or firmware to complete the product, and most of them have required me to write some kind of functional test software before hand-off to other teams or the customer. Here is a subset of my skills that I see as being useful to employers going forward:

  • C/C++ programming
  • Python and Bash scripting
  • Verilog logic design
  • FPGAs
  • Hardware / embedded system design (board level schematics, circuits, PCB layout)

Which way is the wind blowing?

There’s been a shift in consumer hardware that has already affected my career. I took a while for it to sink in, but the shift to a smaller set of mass produced mobile platforms (phones and tablets) instead of individually engineered devices has translated to a smaller number of hardware products being developed. The smartphone is the hardware “hammer” that gets applied to most problems today. The phones take over as the general purpose computer and it’s chosen as the ready-made solution in lots of cases.

Where to next?

Being involved in the engineering of phones and phone chips has been good for me in the last few years. That might continue for a while longer, but the competitive field is narrowing. It does appear that there is increased interest in IoT hardware to connect to those phones. The devices are medical, industrial, and some home products.

So with the changes, I’ll probably have to shift focus a little. These are some adjacent engineering specializations that are in demand and appealing to me:

  • IoT communication
  • Machine learning
  • Cloud hardware and software
  • Blockchain and network security
  • Software defined radio

Finally, there are things that I’ve been interested in, but require a complete shift out of the computer engineering field, but hopefully not too much additional training:

  • 3D mechanical design
  • GIS mapping
  • Drone 3D surveys

I’ve been looking into inexpensive ways to train in all these fields and I’ve progressed well into a few of them. I’m not concentrating on any one thing too much as I’m not really sure where I’m going to get traction. My future posts to this blog will detail my progress. If you have any suggestions, or know anyone who is blogging about the same things, I’m open to hearing about it!

I took the image for this blog post at George Washington’s Mt. Vernon home in 2006.

The Front Burner


– OK, let’s just call it “The Front Burner” for now.

For some time, I’ve been considering finally starting a blog that’s not a photo blog. There are more than a few things on my mind, and I want to share some things to a wider audience than my Facebook friends. The stuff I’m considering writing about involve: continuing education, my electronics projects, work, local history, and exploration of the world around me.

I really wanted to showcase some of my back-burner projects (old and new). Those are the things I think about and work on while I’m not on the job or doing stuff with the family. I started thinking of calling my blog “The Back Burner”, but then I realized the things I’d be covering would be on the front burner at the time. Double think, re-think, over-think. Oh OK, let’s just call it “The Front Burner” for now.