On Making Things

post by Gram_Stone · 2016-03-05T03:26:02.996Z · score: 11 (14 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 13 comments

(Content note: This is basically just a story about how I accidentally briefly made something that I find very unfun into something very fun, for the sake of illustrating how surprising it was and how cool it would be if everyone could do things like this more often and deliberately. You also might get a kick out of this story in the way that you might get a kick out of How It's Made, or many of Swimmer963's posts on swimming and nursing, or Elo's post on wearing magnetic rings. If none of that interests you, then you might consider backing out now.)

I'm learning math under the tutelage of a friend, and I go through a lot of paper. I write a lot of proofs so there can be plenty of false starts. I could fill a whole sheet of paper, decide that I only need one result to continue on my way, and switch to a blank sheet. Since this is how I go about it, I thought that a whiteboard would be a really good idea. The solution is greater surface area and practical erasure.

I checked Amazon; whiteboards are one of those products with polarized reviews. I secretly wondered if ten percent of all whiteboards manufactured don't just immediately permanently stain. Maybe I was being a little risk-averse, but I decided to hold off on buying one.

Then I remembered that I make signs for a living, and I realized that I could probably just make a whiteboard myself.

I had a good rapport with my supervisor. I have breaks and lunch time, and the boundaries are kind of fuzzy, so the time wouldn't be an issue. I didn't have to print anything, so I wouldn't be taking up time on the printers or using ink.

Maybe everyone knows what 'vinyl' is and I don't need to explain this, but the stuff that 'PVC pipes' (PVC stands for polyvinyl chloride) are made out of can be formed into thin elastic sheets. Manufacturers apply adhesive and paper backing to these sheets and sell them to people so they can pull off the paper and stick the vinyl to stuff. You can print on some of it too. It comes on long rolls, typically 54 in. or 60 in., sort of like tape or paper towels. If you ever see a vehicle that belongs to a business with all sorts of art all over it, then it's probably printed on vinyl.

It's kind of hard to print on a really short roll without everything going horribly awry, so we have tons of rolls with like 10 ft. by 54 in. sheets on them that just get thrown away.

If you scratch a vinyl print, the ink will come right off. So we laminate the vinyl before we apply it. Most of our products are laminated with a laminate by the enigmatic name of '8518', but today we happened to be using a very particular and rarely used dry erase laminate. So naturally I ran one of those extra sheets of vinyl through the laminator after I finished the job that I was really supposed to be doing.

And we keep these things called 'drops', which are just sheets of substrate material, stuff that you might apply vinyl to or print on, that were cut off from other things that were made into signs, and then never touched again. Sometimes you can make a sign out of one. People forget about them and don't like to use them because they're usually dirtier and more damaged than stock substrate, so we have a ton of them. It might be corrugated plastic (like cardboard, but plastic), or foamboard (two pieces of paper glued to a sheet of foam), or much thicker, non-elastic PVC.

And this is when I started to think that this was becoming a kind of important experience.

I looked at the drops lined up on the shelf. I definitely didn't want to use foamboard; it's extremely fragile, you can't pull the vinyl off if you mess up, it would dent when I pressed too hard with the marker, and it most generally sucks in every way possible except cost. Corrugated plastic is also quite fragile, and it has linear indentations between the flutes that vinyl would conform to; I wanted the board to be flat. PVC is a better alternative than both, but drops can sit for a long time, and large sheets of PVC warp under their own weight; I wanted a relatively large board and I didn't want it to be warped. So I went for a product that we refer to as 'MaxMetal'; two sheets of aluminum sandwiched around a thicker sheet of plastic. It's much harder to warp, and I could be confident that it would be a solid writing surface. PVC is solid, but it's not metal.

I was looking through the MaxMetal drops, trying to find the right one, realizing that I hadn't decided what dimensions I wanted the board to be, and I felt a little jump in my chest. That was me finally noticing how much fun I was having. And immediately after that, I realized that even though I had implicitly expected to do everything that I had done, I was surprised at how much fun I was having. I had failed to predict how much fun I would have doing those things. It seemed like something worth fixing.

I finally chose a precisely cut piece that was approximately 30 in. wide by 24 in. high. And then I made the board. I separated some of the vinyl from the backing, and I cut off a strip of backing, and I applied part of the vinyl sheet to one edge of the board. I put the end of the sheet with the strip of stuck vinyl between two mechanical rollers, left the substrate flat, flipped the vinyl sheet over the top of the machine and past the top of the substrate sheet, pulled up more of the backing, and rolled it through to press the two sheets together while I pulled the backing off of the vinyl. I put the product on a table, turned it upside down, cut off the excess vinyl with my trusty utility knife, and rounded the corners off by half an inch for safety and aesthetics. I took an orange Expo marker to it, and made a giant signature, and it worked. A microfiber rag erased it just fine even after letting it sit for half an hour. I cut off some super heavy duty, I-promise-this-is-safe double-sided tape, rolled it up, and took it home, so I could mount the board to my bedroom wall. I made a pretty snazzy whiteboard for myself. It was cool.

There probably aren't a lot of signmakers on LessWrong, but there are a lot of programmers. I don't see them talk about this experience a lot, but I figure it's pretty similar; what it feels like to use something that you made, or watch it work. And I'm sure there are other people with other things.

But it seems worth saying explicitly, "Maybe you should make stuff because it's fun."

That was my main explanation for how fun it was, for awhile. But there were a lot of other things when I thought about it more.

I technically had to solve problems, but they were relatively simple and rewarding to solve.

It felt a little forbidden, doing something creative for yourself at work when you're really only there to stay alive. Even a lame taboo is usually a nice kick.

And my time was taken up by responsibility, I was doing real work between all of those steps, so I could look forward to the next step in the creation process while doing something that I normally drag myself through. The day flew by when I started making that thing. When could I fit in some time for my whiteboard?

And it was fun because the meta-event was interesting; I never thought that I could do exactly the same work activity, and a small context change would change it from boring, old work to fun. I was laminating vinyl and fetching drops and rounding corners, but it wasn't for a vehicle wrap, or a sign, or a magnet; it was for my whiteboard, and that changed everything. I was glad that I noticed that, and hopeful that I could find a way to deliberately apply it in the future.

And I was using non-universal, demanded skills, that many people could acquire, but not instantly. It was cool to feel like I was being resourceful in a very particular way that most people never would.

And there weren't too many choices, and the choices weren't ambiguous. The dimensions of the board, including thickness, were limited to the dimensions of the drops, and I'd have to make very precise cuts through a hard material if I wanted a board that wasn't the size of an existing one. A whiteboard is mostly a plain white surface, there isn't much design to be done. I only had quarter-inch and half-inch corner rounders; it's one of those or square corners. What if I had more choices, either about the design of the board, or in a different domain with way more choices by default? I might be a human and regret every choice that I actually make because all of those other foregone choices combined are so much more salient.

And it seems helpful that the whiteboard was being made for a noble purpose: so that I could conserve paper and continue to study mathematics at the same time, and do so much more conveniently. I think it would have been less fun if I was making a whiteboard so that I could see what it's like to snap a whiteboard in half with cinder blocks and a bowling ball, or if I was making one because I just thought it would be cool to have one.

And instead of paying $30-$50, I paid nothing. It felt like I won.

I've thought for quite a while, but not on this level, that there should be an applied fun theory; that it seemed a bit strange that you wouldn't go further with the idea that you could find deliberate ways to make your world more fun, and try to make the present more fun, as opposed to just the distant future. And not in the way where you critically examine the suggestions that people usually generate when you ask for a list of activities that are popularly considered fun, but in the way where you predict that things are fun because you understand how fun works, and your predictions come true. Hopefully I offered up something interesting with respect to that line of inquiry.

But of course, fun seems like just the sort of thing that you could easily overthink. At the very least it's not the sort of domain where you want deep theories that don't generate practical advice for too long. But I still think it seems worth thinking about.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Gyrodiot · 2016-03-05T09:41:36.701Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I really enjoyed this post. The process of making things, and the motivation behind interests me. Also, congrats on making this whiteboard!

Did you, at any point, thought "is this really worth my time"? From your description, I suppose the fun justifies the whole thing, and the fact that you made a usable thing adds to the value. I'm often overthinking fun and how I spend my time, so I wonder how to mitigate these feelings of "am I doing the right choice doing that at all?"

comment by Gram_Stone · 2016-03-06T03:35:54.358Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I really enjoyed this post. The process of making things, and the motivation behind interests me. Also, congrats on making this whiteboard!

Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Did you, at any point, thought "is this really worth my time"? From your description, I suppose the fun justifies the whole thing, and the fact that you made a usable thing adds to the value. I'm often overthinking fun and how I spend my time, so I wonder how to mitigate these feelings of "am I doing the right choice doing that at all?"

I think that if I had done something where I had to do some inefficient things for nothing but the sake of fun, then I may have had thoughts like that, but I don't think this time was like that. I make barely more than the minimum wage in my state, a whiteboard of the quality that I wanted would have been something like one sixth of my weekly income, and I used garbage to make something that would let me practice math more efficiently and spend less money on paper and make less new garbage. (I really can fill a notebook in a few weeks.)

This seems to really be a question about confidence rather than fun. Nate Soares's Confidence All the Way Up is worth reading on this.

I have more thoughts on this, but they're not really developed and there are more things that I need to understand.

comment by Elo · 2016-03-05T05:08:32.646Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Excellent post. Are you familiar with the ideas relating to flow?

Do you know what might be fun in the future now?

comment by Gram_Stone · 2016-03-05T05:14:13.096Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Excellent post. Are you familiar with the ideas relating to flow?

Thanks. I've heard of flow. I think it's a lot easier to retrospectively explain why a flow experience made something fun, as opposed to using the idea of flow to predict what will be fun. It seems hard to input the challenge and skill parameters in real life.

Do you know what might be fun in the future now?

I don't quite understand the question.

comment by Elo · 2016-03-05T09:52:14.114Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Do you know what might be fun in the future now?

I don't quite understand the question.

having had the experience to discover an instance of fun that surprised you; do you think you learnt to find future instances of similar fun?


Yes; I agree, flow is a good retrospective explanation. there is also this picture:

and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkes%E2%80%93Dodson_law

I would suggest that you encountered the right amount of challenge and skill required to enjoy yourself (as well as desire to do the thing). For future working conditions you might want to find something more difficult to do. than basic sign-making...

comment by Gram_Stone · 2016-03-05T16:14:58.787Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe a little. I always wondered why a lot of things that were supposed to be fun weren't. It seems to me that doing the fun thing for an even slightly important reason was a big factor between fun and unfun. So I don't think it can feel too directionless. That feels like a new thing that I know.

My other line of thoughts on fun things has to do with what would be fun for really obvious evolutionary-psychological reasons. The one big idea that fell out of that so far is Gathering Gardens of Myriad Difficulty.

I don't just want to play caveman, if you notice, people still hunt for sport, and they love it! So, why not gather for sport? I mean, have you guys ever looked for easter eggs? I would still do that.

Forest gardens/food forests are forests with lots of edible vegetation that humans put there on purpose. If you wanted, you could make it more or less difficult to gather by changing the populations and types of plants. You could do it with other people if you wanted. Maybe it would end up being similar to going to a park for a day, maybe it would be more like a hunting trip, maybe it would be both. And I'm sure there's plenty of novelty to be found in the space of all edible vegetation. The various edibles would take up an implicit value within a particular forest if there were barriers to trading it on the global market enough, you could trade edibles if you wanted. Imagine gathering an edible that was high in a tree and extremely rare in this forest; I sure would get a kick out of trading that for a visually impressive amount of inferior edibles.

comment by Elo · 2016-03-05T21:32:49.207Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

food forests

I believe there are a few. but hardly enough to be worthy of comment. I think the main 2 problems were bugs and plant-care-is-hard.

play caveman

examples: sports, lifting, cooking, building buildings, repairing things.

a lot of things that were supposed to be fun weren't

I wonder if you feel like "fun" is not "work" so you can't because that would be doing fun which would be (I know someone who is slowly teaching himself to like fun where he previously wouldn't allow himself to)

comment by Gram_Stone · 2016-03-05T21:40:24.250Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think the main 2 problems were bugs and plant-care-is-hard.

That contradicts my understanding of forest gardening. It's one of the oldest agricultural methods, it's low maintenance, and polyculture encourages diversity, which would seem to make pests a considerably smaller problem than in monoculture.

comment by Elo · 2016-03-06T00:11:32.189Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I know of this one https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beacon_Food_Forest but I have to ask the question; if they are so great; why don' they exist more often? There is likely something that I am missing from the picture.

comment by Gram_Stone · 2016-03-06T00:21:46.894Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, I'm not sure either. There are more economical ways to perform agriculture, of course. That's probably part of it.

comment by Zatheos · 2016-03-21T10:04:28.382Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I liked this post an awful lot too. There is definitely something intrinsically rewarding about creating something for your own personal use. Sometimes it almost seems to enhance the experience if you know that it would never realistically be of use to anyone else because of your unique circumstances. An enjoyment of making things in this way is what lead me to start programming, and although I'm still very much an amateur, I love the moments where a simple program I've made comes together to make something useable. Thanks for sharing, Gram_Stone

comment by bogus · 2016-03-05T12:45:33.810Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Um, you can buy a whiteboard comparable to what you made in any office-supply store - they're quite cheap. Whiteboards made with laminated plastic (though usually melamine as opposed to vinyl) are quite common, the problem is that they don't stand up to heavy use (such as in a classroom or a crowded office setting) because the laminated surface ultimately comes off.
Don't get me wrong, it's very nice that you had some fun and managed to make this using what would normally be waste material, but other than that there's very little value here.

comment by Gram_Stone · 2016-03-05T17:05:11.849Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Don't get me wrong, it's very nice that you had some fun and managed to make this using what would normally be waste material, but other than that there's very little value here.

I see that you have been downvoted; not by me.

I predicted that there would be a subset of the LessWrong audience that would not find this post particularly valuable, and this is why I left a content note addressing this concern at the beginning. Ideally, instead of rehashed arguments over relevance and bad karma, we get a situation where people who will like the subject of the article read it and comment on it, and people who won't like the subject of the article never read it and never comment on it. (And I don't mean that people can't still criticize things that they like, or that someone who dislikes the subject can't read it anyway and offer constructive criticism.) If there were subreddits, I'm sure this would be easier. But that's still being worked on and this is the best that we have.

And the larger point of the article is not me making a whiteboard, but the idea that it makes sense to try to predict what will be fun from principle, and use it to make our lives more fun. And there are people who have already done this successfully. (E.g. game designers, game programmers, anyone who's invented a successful sport, etc.) I have a hard time seeing that as unvaluable, and I've definitely never seen it written before. This is what I'm talking about when I talk about audience members' preferences over subject matter.