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How Invisible Waves Have Changed the World

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Back to the Hardware part 3 - going 3D in the middle of the rain forest

2024-01-09 [Petri]

This is the third part in my “back to the Hardware” story. The very first part can be found here, and the second part here.

My new home base in Brazil, Manaus, was surprisingly close to Florida: the direct flight to Miami was only four hours, and relatively affordable, thanks to two competing airlines, with either direct or one-stop hops between those cities.

It was roughly the same distance as what was between Manaus and Brasília, and shorter than going to Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro.

Hence, thanks to my numerous visits to the US, both on business and pleasure, I became accustomed to haul stuff from the "American Amazon" to the "Original Amazon" in the middle of the rain forest. I must have set up several tens of hotels as the Amazon delivery destinations, and it always worked flawlessly.

The latest rising trend in technology that was about to hit its inflection point was 3D-printing, and the prices of those gizmos were falling rapidly.

In order to find out what all that fuss was about, I bought myself a do-it-yourself printer kit, spent half a week building and debugging it, and finally got it working, despite of my first “cube” print being the unholy mess in the attached picture.

It turned out that I had two control wires crossed.

After that fix, it all worked. Not without hiccups, but well enough that this new manufacturing model looked like true magic to me.

I soon became accustomed to using the devilishly complicated UI of Blender, exporting the file to Cura, which then created the movement commands for my printer.

I still claim to know only maybe 10% or probably actually much less of what Blender can do, but it has been enough for my 3D-work ever since.

Even though the prints failed more often that I would have liked, it was fascinating to see the usefulness of this brand-new manufacturing method:

For example, when I moved to a new flat in Manaus, it did not have a suitable wall-drain adapter for the outgoing water from my washing machine. I had just a hole in the wall, which, being directly connected to the waste water piping of the building, was happily spewing bad smell to the kitchen pretty much all the time.

Instead of trying to find an adapter/cover combo from local hardware stores, I measured the proportions of the washing machine's exhaust pipe and printed a matching airtight cover plate that could be screwed to the wall around the hole.

The print time was about half a day and I had to do it three times before I was satisfied with the result, but in the end it perfectly solved my problem for the whole time I lived in that apartment.

I'm sure that the next tenant kept on using it, assuming that it was a "standard" item.

Naturally I also printed other nice thingies that this new technology enabled. Many of the just for fun, to see what could be done, as some of the items would be impossible to do seamlessly by any other production method.

One example was a meshed ball that had another meshed ball inside of it. Sure it had no functional purpose, but it was a proof of the potential of this new manufacturing model: being able to produce something that was formerly impossible, or at least devilishly complicated to make.

The benefits of this revolution can now be seen for example in the 3D-printed rocket engines of SpaceX: You can create complicated internal ducts that are only limited by the laws of physics, not by the CNC rig that you are using.

As I mentioned, in terms of dealing with electronics, my time in Brazil was not advancing my tinkering side, and being solidly in the Nokia universe provided me with interesting hardware to play with: I was privileged to get the latest and greatest portable gizmo every time a new one popped up.

The most complicated thing with electricity during my time in Manaus was figuring out why the power outlet in the bedroom of the brand new flat did not work:

It turned out that whoever had installed it had connected the live wire to the ground pin, and the two pins for actual power were neutral and ground. This would have been a deadly combination with a lamp that had a metallic cover and a grounded plug, but luckily I had only tried it with a two-prong plug attached to a television.

You would expect that newly-installed electrical connection wiring is tested with a simple plug-in-and-out checker that takes just seconds to indicate that everything is all right, but apparently not.

All in all, living in Manaus was truly fascinating time for someone accustomed to much more northern latitudes:

Being at the Equator, the sky was rotating in 90-degree angle from the eastern horizon to the western horizon, and the length of the day was constant within just a couple of minutes, all year round.

Residing some 1000 km from any other major city made me think with awe of those people who had done that already hundreds of years ago, without even a hint of air conditioning.

Manaus was officially established already in 1669, and was one of the richest cities in the early 20th century when the rapidly expanding car industry required tons and tons of rubber for their wheels.

But when the market crashed due to cheap, alternative production, established in Asia from smuggled rubber tree seeds, the city went from boom to bust, only to start growing again when the government declared it a tax-free manufacturing zone.

Places like Teatro Amazonas were restored to their former glory, inspiring movies like Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo".

Living in a place surrounded by just seemingly endless swaths of jungle in various forms, with the abundant flora and fauna that accompanied it, was an experience of a lifetime.

Manaus was and still is a very isolated oasis of civilization, practically in the middle of the rain forest, with an equivalent of almost half of the population of Finland living in this one, vast city.

Your only connections are either by boat, up and down the Amazon, by plane, or by car to Venezuela.

For someone who has been into "all things space" during all of his life, one of the memorable events happened when I had just moved to the new flat:

I pushed the plug of one of my computers to the wall outlet and everything went dark.

First I thought that something was wrong and I had tripped a fuse, but a quick check from the balcony showed that the whole city had a blackout: it was pitch dark everywhere.

And just by chance it happened to be a completely clear night, with only low humidity in the air. Even the Moon was below the horizon.

Seeing the Milky Way and the Magellanic Clouds on the pitch-black Equatorial sky from your own balcony, in the balmy 30-degree heat of the night, was truly an amazing and memorable sight, as normally the high humidity and the stray lights from a big city would ruin the view.

The intensity of both rain and thunderstorms was another awesome experience. Of course, Amazon being a "rain" forest, you would expect some rain, but the fact that the level of the Amazon river goes up and down by roughly 20 meters every year in front of Manaus means that A LOT of water has to fall to fill that volume.

And boy, when it rains, it truly pours. And the water is often warm: getting wet is like being in a warm shower.

It turned out that the above-mentioned blackout was also caused by yet another thunderstorm: lightning had hit the main power feed from the Balbinas hydroelectric power station and disconnected Manaus from the grid.

Another amazing experience happened when I was watching another thunderstorm passing by in the horizon. It was a big lump of localized lightning whereas the rest of the sky was totally clear.

Suddenly, a lightning bolt went first straight up, turned horizontal and finally hit down somewhere maybe 20-30 km away from the cloud. The place that got hit surely did not have any rain and not even any clouds at the time.

Lightning can really hit you under a totally blue sky.

I used to go out on the balcony to admire the storms, and twice the lightning hit some structures so close that I could feel the radiated heat and smell a strong puff of ozone a few seconds afterwards.

Once we had a company event at a hotel by the Amazon river, and the building got hit while I was sipping Caipirinha at the open bar below the building.

Spilled my drink as a result...

Manaus tends to offer a free light show pretty much every month, as the locals used to call the two seasons "rainy" and "rains all the time".

But eventually all good things must come to an end: just as we had a promising Linux-based smartphone family in the final tests in our lab, Nokia’s handset division was sold to Microsoft, with our R&D unit going along, and we were instructed to scrap everything, moving to the Microsoft mobile operating system instead.

And a relatively short while later even Microsoft decided that mobile handsets are not their thing and they had entered the game way too late: the world ended up being handed over to the Android/iOS duopoly, and Nokia, even though having pioneered the whole handset business, became just a network provider.

This rise and fall of Nokia's handset business and my conclusions of the causes for it are described in detail in "The Hockey Stick Years" chapter of my book.

As a result, I was out of a long career in Telecoms, still living in Brazil, looking for the next big thing, that was semi-agreed already.

But the economy in Brazil went unexpectedly in to a deep decline, the local tech job market all but evaporated, and while I had used my spare time writing some books and setting up this platform that delivers you these stories, I realized that I had hung around for too long, waiting for things to improve:

It was time to find a new challenge.

And eventually a startup from Spain called. It meant a move to SaaS and IoT. And back to the hardware, this time in a form of an IoT device for Edge Computing. So I had a chance to reuse my earlier experience with microcontrollers.

The story continues here.

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My first ever 3D print in 2012: "Cube"

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Earlier entries:


You can purchase A Brief History of Everything Wireless: How Invisible Waves Have Changed the World from Springer or from Amazon US, CA, UK, BR, DE, ES, FR, IT, AU, IN, JP. For a more complete list of verified on-line bookstores by country, please click here.

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