Friday, August 12, 2016

I'm having fun posting how-to guides

I'm feeling really good.  I just posted the full set of instructions on how I made Julie's Arc reactor on Instructables.  If you haven't seen it, Instructables.com is a website where users can submit instructions on how to make something.  It's pretty remarkable.  You can find instructions for changing the bulbs in your headlights, recipes for brownies, or an guide to making friendship bracelets.  Among these are a lot of electronics projects.

It's odd and inspiring to see how much can be made with such cheap, available parts so easily.  I recently looked to it because I had an idea at work, and found instructions on how to build an ohm meter from $30 of parts.  It's exciting to be able to access so much knowledge. At some point, I decided that it'd be cool to be able to provide that level of usefulness.  Fortunately, you don't have to produce a college course, you just need to do a good job documenting a project well done.  So I started taking pictures when doing a crafts project in the hope of having something simple worth showing to others.

This year has been a solid year in crafting for me.  It's exciting, because that was kind of a New Years resolution, and I felt like I've been following through.  Earlier this month, I took the pictures that I took while making my Captain America costume, and added some text explanations and submitted it.  I was honestly really proud of myself, because I've seen people present instructions which gloss over steps or are in some way vague, and I was proud of the way I'd tried to honestly explain every step and offer several suggestions for ways to do something. So I was really thrilled when it got a little tag labeled 'Featured', which apparently is a way of promoting posts which the site management considers to be instructions which should come up high in a search.

This was enough to motivate me to document the steps I took to make Julie's Arc reactor.  This project had taken a pretty long journey from its starting intent.  I tried to build something electronic, had failed, and then looked up better instructions and succeeded.  And then after I posted this on Reddit, I got an email from someone who offered to help make a file so that a big part of the work could be simply cheaply custom-ordered from a factory online.  He made it, and I got some great pictures to include of Julie wearing the Arc reactor.  The final product again came out better than I had hoped.  It's thrilling to feel like I'm learning how to present information well.  This isn't just a vanity thing, I think about this kind of skill as a valuable one in engineering and science.  You may have heard that much of the research in the academic establishment has been found to be unreproducable, which calls into question a lot of results we need to trust.  Much of these problems may simply be shortcomings in the ways in which researchers share instructions on how to do something.  Sadly, some of that is by cultural design.  There is a certain language used in this kind of literature, and it's overly formal.  It looks very dignified, and is lingua franca among scientists, but it isn't actually the clearest way to speak.  The clearest way to speak is usually using the smallest words available and including LOTS of pictures.  And some suggestions of problems to look out for and possible remedies.

I would probably feel like I'm spamming the site, but I received an automated message after my Captain America costume got tagged as featured.  The message said that if I posted three guides before the end of the month that all got tagged as featured, I would be entered in a drawing for a knife.  I got a second reminder after posting the Arc reactor, which got labeled as Featured as well.  I think the likelihood of winning a drawing is pretty small, but it's clearly an encouragement to try to submit more well-made submissions.  So I'm writing up a description of how I built a chicken coop last year and I'll see how it goes.

Check out the arc reactor here.

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