ZeroPhone Adventures Round One

The story so far

During my time at the Recurse Center, some people from the previous batch were working on this cool project called the ZeroPhone) The idea is really neat - you build an open source phone for $50! How cool is that?!

The folks were well on their way - they got the PCBs and components. They even got this Reflow Oven

It was interesting. I didn’t know that we could use an open for soldering. I have an electrical engineering degree, and never was I told of the existence of this fabled oven. For whatever reason, we soldered all our chips by hand in our engineering classes like plebeians. And we’re not talking about big chips here - super tiny radio frequency chips the size of 10 grains of sand. All done by hand. The amount of frustration I felt back then in my last semester of that class over 9000.

Then, the batch at the Recurse Center working on it ended, and one of my friends who was working on the project left for Europe. I asked him if I can take his parts and take over for him. He gave me his blessing, and I started working on it.

Here is where the story takes a dark turn. In the beginning there were around 7 people. After the Recurse batch was over, I asked the folks if they wanted to continue working on the phone after the batch. But the majority of the people had moved on with their lives and abandoned this quest. The people remaining were me and one other friend. Fine. It’s a two player co-op. But she was busy, I was distracted, and the commitment to the work was weak.

We had two working sessions total. One we made the fatal error of putting too much solder paste on the surface mounts and shorted the contacts for the buttons. Subsequently, the second session was undoing the negative work.

Anyhow, my comrade then ALSO LEFT FOR EUROPE! Hmm. Why do all the cool people leave for Europe?!

I tried to get the ZeroPhone ring reader back on board and also tried to do some recruiting. But no bites.

Now this has become a solo adventure, and I’m hoping that I can blog on my progress!

What I did for the last two weeks

Here is the crux of the problem: there are a lot of small chips to solder onto the board. One way is to use a reflow oven. Put some solder paste on the board, put the chips on, then put it in the oven. The oven will heat the solder paste to a high temperate and the solder paste will melt paste the melting point X, and then it will harden with the chip component.

Now the problem is placing the right amount of paste on so that there are no shorts. To do this, you either get a really small syringe and place it all manually.

The other approach is to make what’s call a stencil. The premise is that you place a thin film with holes where the solder should go on top over the PCB, then apply solder paste on top of the stencil. Because the stencil has holes, the solder paste will cover the points where chips need contact with the PCB. Pictures are worth a thousand words - I’ll probably put a cool picture here later on to illustrate this in the future.

It seems like a no-brainer to use the stencil and oven approach! Not so fast.

One of the Recursers named Ben said he used a laser cutter and some special material to make this stencil. The class to learn how to use a laser cutter in a hacker space costs $75 dollars. It also costs around $2/minute for laser cutter usage. So it doesn’t make sense from an economic standpoint to go learn this stuff for a $50 dollar phone!

The other option is to solder all the parts manually. I thought about it, and decided that I was going to solder all the chips. I did it before - it shouldn’t be too hard right?

I proceed to take this path. I had a pretty strong start. I had a chip that now looked like this:

I was making good progress, until I got to a really small chip last Saturday. Ultimately, I ended up shorting that one. I tried removing it, but the solder tip was too dull. The usual technique of wicking all the solder was not working at all.

I tried to take the chip off, but struggled to do it I’m certain that the chip that I soldered is non-functional.

This led me to conclude that I need a stencil after-all..

The following Tuesday, I went to a Hacker space called Fat Cat Fab Lab to check out their laser cutter. Out of all the hackerspaces I’ve checked out in NYC, this one is actually my favorite.

I met this guy named David - a product engineer who seemed to have a decent amount of soldering experience. I told him about my ZeroPhone issues. He got curious, and looked up the PCBs online.

Then he looked at me and laughed.

“Dude, it’s like 4 chips! You can totally do this without a reflow oven. Why do you need a reflow oven for this?! Do it yourself. Just make sure you don’t get a shitty tip. THE SOLDERING TIP IS VERY IMPORTANT. I got a $300 dollar soldering station. The best choice ever! Those $30 solder stations? Not worth - they end up trashed in 3 months.”

He proceeded to take me to a soldering station.

“You see this?! This is NOT a good tip. Terrible. Also make sure you get lead solder and make sure it has a flux core. Your life is easier that way.”

He also said if I really want to opt for a stencil, I should order it online. Laser cutter maybe overpriced and overkill.

He’s right. There’s this website where you can order the stencil manually.

But maybe learning how to use the laser cutter is worth it if I’m lasering in the future.

At this point, I have to decide to solder, stencil, or laser. The laser cutter would be worth if I know for sure that I would need to use it in the future. One thing that concerns me is that I screw up the stencil by ordering it online, the project will be delayed significantly. I anticipate the turn around time to get the stencil may be long.

Long story short - I have a decision to make on how I approach this.

Now, for some rants =D.

Rant #0: The previous fellas decided it was a good idea to separate all the chip components by individuals. Mr. Panda would have one bag for all his phone components, Ms. Giraffe would have all her components in one bag, and Dr. Zebra one bag for all his components. This is interesting. During my time in school we never organized this way - we only took the chips from their bags when we were putting them on our PCBs. Why this is a problem? Because it’s really hard to find my components - I’d rather have things organized by component than scouring through my baggy and emptying out every time I’m working. Also, I failed miserably trying to solder that one difficult chip. Pretty sure it’s fried.

Surprise! There’s no more extra chips of that type! Yeah. Life lesson: Always have backups, and multiple chips when you’re doing electrical stuff. You will screw up. Oh I’m sure.

Rant #1: There has to be a better way to do this for all hobby electronics makers. It’s bullshit that 50% of the time is spent not on designing chips but part sourcing and soldering fine chips that bring you closer to blindness. We need a pcpartspicker but for electronics. We need to be able to put an order, and not also wait two weeks to get a PCB to our doorsteps. We need to not spend half our lives putting chips with a stupid iron pen and fill our lungs with cancerous smoke. Someone out there reading this - please build this. Or let me know if you want to team up and try it.

Perhaps we just have to wait for robots. A robot to do all this stupid soldering would be sick. I hope I’m alive to see this - what a joy it would be.

Rant #2: All the tutorial videos on Youtube are excessively long. I swear, if they can cut it to half the length and show all the important points that would be great.

Rearchitecting Game of Thrones from the Finale

I watched the Game of Thrones finale, and I was very happy. That this season is finally over. I can move on by doing better things with the extra hour that I now have on Sundays. Honestly, the only scene that is worthwhile in the entire hour long episode was when I got to see Ghost again. Awww. It would be so nice to pet his fur…

What are the writer’s thinking? Do they even have a basic sense of what makes people tick? The best part of Game of Thrones for me was that the character motivations seem so real, or human. That was missing this season.

One of my friends said we need a Game of Thrones: Brotherhood. I agree. We need to start from season 7 and rebuild.

I hope that one day, we will have amazing AI systems and movie making tools. With pure software, maybe we can replicate all the actors and scenes to give Game of Thrones a proper ending.

I’m an idealist. My favorite movies are movies that teach us a lesson about humanity, or give us some message to chew on. Earnest Hemingway said something in the lines of, “To start any good writing, you simply need to start one with true sentence.” What can we say about the ending of Game of Thrones? What is a good true sentence for the series? Expect the unexpected? People are corrupt? Sacrifices must be made for the common good? They are weak contenders.

If I was the writer of the show, I would restart from Season 7. But with the results we have now maybe things can be tweaked with what we have now.

What if we can make a secret season 8 episode 7?

Here is how I would roll it out.

Note that I’m just a disappointed soul - this is one way I am coping. I am also fully aware that my alternate reality below is filled with inconsistencies and breaks many Game of Thrones consistencies. I’m mending a pot that’s already broken.

Obligatory spoiler warning

It’s a story about Dany and Jon, and they both got screwed. Everyone else did all right.

Sansa? Got her kingdom by screwing over Jon.

Bran? King.

Grey Worm? It’s sad that his lady friend died, but he gets to be a full-time traveler!

We should stat with Hemingway’s one true message/sentence. The true sentence should be, “Love matters more than anything.” or “Love demands great sacrifices. And it’s worth it.”In the end, life’s all over love right? Love yourself and your fellow human beings.

If we can get Dany and Jon a proper ending, I would be able to sleep at night properly. After all, it’s a series of Song of Ice and Fire.

So the REAL ending with an extra episode would go like this.

Jon kills Dany in the heart, just like how he got stabbed in the heart. Drogon still melts the throne. Drogon flies off with Dany’s body.

To a secret location. (This is the hardest part. I don’t know how to engineer it so it makes sense. But like all things in life, I’m sure we can figure out how Jon can get Drogon to this.)

Melisandre wasn’t actually dead. She faints for a bit after the battle between the humans and whitewalkers. She is actually alive. Sir Davos assumes that she’s dead after that scene, but Jon puts a necklace back on her. Reasoning: She’s Jon’s savior! Why would you let someone who brought you back to life die like this? I think it’s in Jon’s core that he looks out for everyone at the cost of reason. If this doesn’t make sense, then perhaps we can weave in Melisandre’s secret disciple.

Drogon flies North with Dany’s body. Dany is revived by a Red Lady, with the exact same processes that brought Jon back. Dany finally understands what Jon has been through. I knowledge the flimsy logic in this. Red Lady leaves a letter to Dany from Jon. It reads something like,

“To Dany,

When I saw you on the leet dragon burning people alive, I knew I couldn’t let you take that route. I love you too much to let this happen. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. I am no different. And so are you. What will become of us? I used to have a lover once, but she died by my hands because of all the fighting, fighting, and more fighting. I am sick of it. I don’t want to fight anymore. I don’t want to fight anymore. I want to be with you, just like we discussed that one day when you taught me how to ride a dragon. Except there’s only one now, so we have to share. But isn’t that what life is about?”… and so on. Details don’t matter.

Jon says that he will come for her when everything has settled, and asks that she wait for her. He knows that he’s too important to kill. Jon gives Dany a choice. She can either go back to rule the Seven Kingdoms and choose to restart her conquest. Or wait for him. Dany does some soul searching, and we can weave in some flashbacks.

Same series of things happen. Jon becomes exiled to Castle Black.

But after that, Jon goes on a scavenger hunt with Ghost and stages his exit. The official story is that the scavenger hunt goes wrong, just like how it went wrong with Robert Baratheon. Jon goes MIA, and Ghost comes back to Castle Black with some blood and Longclaw, symbolizing that he is no longer fighting. He is presumed dead. The Night’s Watch release Ghost so that he can forge his own path in the wild.

Jon comes back to the location that we saw earlier in the season when he went on a dragon ride with Dany. He sees Dany there. Jon walks up to her, gently touches the spot that he stabbed her through the heart. He places a dagger that he used to stab Dany in Dany’s hands.

Dany takes the dagger, gently runs the tip of the dagger through Jon’s heart and ultimately throws it to the ground. Dany gives him a hug and a passionate kiss.

They’re in a cave facing the outdoors and there’s a waterfall beneath them. It’s the North, so let’s say that there’s some light snow falling to the ground. In the cave facing outdoor. There’s a single fire behind them in the cave. As the fire cackles and burns, there’s an icicle that is hanging on the ceiling, and it falls into the fire. This symbolizes Jon “falling” for Dany… haha…

Dany and Jon both look at the beautiful mountain view in the North with waterfalls and stuff holding hands.

Ghost and Drogon in the background where Drogon is chasing Ghost. Or Ghost is on top of Drogon’s head XD.


P.S. After writing this, I’ve realized that I’m just a sucker for twists ¯\(ツ/¯_

Book Tips

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. One of my goals earlier in the year was to double the amount of books I read per year. Which adds up to around 26(?). I’m hopelessly behind. Here are my current notes on my reading process.

  • Read multiple books at once. In general, we tend to get bored with studying one subject, so for me, it helps to read multiple books at once so I can hop on over to another book. Books also have difficulty levels. Some books, like an algorithms book or a signals and system book take a long time to grasp. You may go at 5 pages per hour if the material is super-abstract, or things just keep breaking your model of the world and you can’t stop thinking about it. Adjust accordingly depending on time of day, and freshness of your brain.
  • I tend to have the attitude of extracting key points and information from a given book that is most relevant to me. I tend to write notes, or highlight important bits(if it’s my book -.-). The objective is to make whatever you’re reading yours. Countless studies have shown that recalling helps you remember better. Rephrasing things in your own words and summarizing is one form of recall.
  • Everything is connected. If you’re reading a math book, you may find things that are relevant in an area that is completely irrelevant. It’s a ton of fun to try to connect it to other topics!
  • Don’t focus too much on the page count, or the speed(which may be contradictory to the earlier statement of book count).The mathematician Heisuke Hironaka says that a book is a triggering device to make you think. It may be good to focus on the process. When I was teenager, there was this huge bragging contest about how fast people can read books. It’s stupid. Sure, you can speed-read, but you sacrifice depth and time to ponder on ideas, contemplate their pros and cons, or even form your own counter-arguments.
  • Sign and date on the back of your book after you’re done. My dad does this, and it’s amazing. I try to take it one step further and put one sentence on how I felt about it. I wish we had a culture of doing this in our libraries! Wouldn’t it be awesome to find out who read the exact same book, and track em down, and talk to them via email? Hopefully they’re not dead though.

Why so Serious?

I was on the New York City subway, and I was sitting as usual.

Then these kids came in. They were super happy! They started climbing on the poles, poking and chasing each other, and laughing. Smiles did not disappear from their faces. There really wasn’t that much to smile about! After all, all they had was a pole and they were in the New York City Subway…

Across them, there were 3 adults with this blank, tired, expressionless faces. The contrast was so stark that it left an impression on me.

Kids have this playfulness, energy, and they laugh easily. Most adults are not like that. But I’m sure we used to be. What happened to us?! Can we get back to that sense of playfulness, and smile by default attitude?

Grand Uncle's Advice

I went on a run across the Brooklyn waterfront and it was really nice. The quality of the air was fantastic, and I loved the sun gently skimming pass by skin and soft waves gently touching the shore.

I have a favorite spot where I glaze at the Statue of Liberty. I relax my eyes staring at it from the water(staring at objects far away is supposed to relax your eyes - try it!). I drown out the noise in my head and listen to the whispers of the heart. I know it sounds stupid…

All this brought back a flurry of emotions and thoughts about my grand uncle from Korea. I met him when I went to Korea in August. He gave me a deep warm hug when he saw me. During my time in Korea, he took me across his home providence of Gochang and we had a nice drive across the shores of Youngwang. During my time there, he gave me a lot of sage advice.

Here’s what I wrote in my journal in August last year from my grand uncle:

  • Kindness(친절함) and Humility(겸손함). “The two most important principles in life are being kind to others and being humble. Don’t ever forget that.”
  • Consistency is the key to success. You have to start this today, and do what you’re supposed to be doing right now. Today becomes tomorrow, tomorrow becomes 2 days from now, 3 days from now, until it becomes an entire year. You got to start today.
  • If you want to become the 10%, you gotta put in the work and effort. There is no easy path. You have to work your ass off, or do something different, whether that be thinking or hard work relative to other people. Not everyone can be well off. It’s not how the universe works.
  • People cannot see long term. If you give 100k to everyone today, not everyone will have it by the end of next year.
  • Don’t think too deeply. He had a conversation with my dad. It went something like this in Korean:

    삼촌: (아빠 이름)아 넌 너무 깊이 생각해. 어떨땐 그게 좋으지만, 너무 깊이 생각하면 안좋은 점도 충분이 많아. 좀 덜 생각하면 좋지 안을가?

    Grand Uncle: (To my dad) You think too much. Sometimes it’s good, but there are plenty of bad points as well. Wouldn’t it be good if you thought a little less?

    Thinking deeply is useful for solving problems, and preparing meetings. At work, the way he does this is he looks up every single possible term that could be used during a meeting, and he prepares for every counterattack. He pretty much treats every teller and representative as an enemy, and prepares for the utmost for any situation.

    I reflected a lot about this today, which that itself is hypocritical and thinking too much. Funny enough, a friend told me the exact same thing that my grand uncle told my dad - you think too much. Whatever it is, me, my dad, and my brother just get way too absorbed into the simplest things and just go down a vicious cycle of thought holes and think excessively. Must run in the family.

    Sometimes we need to drag ourselves out and do a reboot.

  • Long term thinking. Think long term.
  • Children > wealth. People don’t really care about your wealth, but they consider how well your children are doing.
  • Start small, learn from mistakes, then scale as you acquire knowledge. He warned me that one of the biggest mistakes you can do is building complex systems without taking little steps. He gave the example of raising cattle. You don’t want to build a big cattle ranch, then buy the cattle. You want to acquire one cattle, iterate and learn the fine details of raising just one. Then scale to two. Then two to four. And so on.

    Unrelated - if I were to raise kids or teach, I would just let them make a ton of mistakes while they’re growing up. Then they learn from the mistakes and scale. It’s so much better that way than make high stakes mistakes when they’re a full blown adult.

  • If you want the scale, you need details.
  • Passing of time. I had to come to Korea because my grandmother passed away. His thoughts: “Don’t be too sad about grandma dying, as it is a passage of time. It is moving from one person to another, and it’s the natural way of things.”
  • Be wary of too good to be true. Usually the scammers that come to his company seem to have everything figured out and look perfect. Watch out for that.
  • Travel a lot while you’re young. “When Korean guys meet up for reunion, all they talk about is their two year mandatory stints in the army. Why do they always talk about this? Because that’s the most interesting thing they’ve done in their lives. Make sure you travel as much as you can while you’re young.”

What’s on my thoughts as of Tuesday, May 7th, 2019.

  • What I want to next. Do I get another job and play it safe? Or should I try to build something? Can I even build something?
  • Should I stay in New York City? I love how there’s always something to do here, the diverse group of people to learn from, but it’s noisy and some people are complicated. It’s just so tightly packed, cramped, and the air sucks. Public transportation is nice though.
  • Reflecting on my dumb mistakes I made and missed opportunities in the past few months. Well, it would have been nice if I knew a key piece of information or didn’t assume that information. If I knew that piece of information I may have changed my entire approach in dealing with something in the past few months.

    I also thought too much about the people’s intentions. But basically, it boils down to this: the intent could be anything. Spending too much time trying to think about things from another points of view or if any actions make any sense with a hypothesis. I heard it’s helpful in poker though. Again, this is overthinking. Ugh.

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