A little DnD 5e idea I’ve been playing around with

Here’s a combo for you, which you who’ve been playing 5e probably already know, but might just have been overlooked:

Polearm Master
War Caster

Obviously the first two everyone knows are broken already, particularly when in combo.

Adding the third, however, to a HEXBLADE WARLOCK, (or Padlock if you have a few levels of paladin first), enables the following:

Abilities: you take a max-CHA build, I’m assuming you hit 20 early on here using an 18 + racial bonus. Adjust your figures if you choose otherwise.

Cantrips: Eldritch Blast (this is the reaction shiny) Booming Blade (for using your weapon)

Invocations: Agonizing Blast, Lifedrinker, Improved Pact Weapon, Eldritch Smite and some flavor ones

Let’s assume a pact glaive here, which you can summon to your hand any fight at all.

Some of this will be subject to a DM decision around “magical focus”. Since your Improved Pact Weapon is considered an arcane focus, and many abilities here read “when you hit” (not specifying a type of action, merely a hit), your DM may permit the use of effects on spell attacks cast through your focus, such as Lifedrinker and the Improved Pact Weapon magical bonus. As a DM, I do consider it valid, as the rule does not specify what form of action is being taken, only that you have to “hit” with it (meaning you roll a die to hit – so Magic Missile wouldn’t count here). You are rolling to hit with a magical attack or a physical attack, but your mileage with your DM may vary.

Back to the plan…

War Caster enables you to swap in a spell in exchange for the oppo attack – so long as it is a 1 action and targeting only that creature (thus no “Green Flame Blade”). Enter Eldritch Blast.

Now, your reaction instead of an oppo attack (which you can still do if you’d rather lock that guy down and kite him) becomes Eldritch Blast – and this feat triplet (when you finally have them together, probably 8th as a variant human, or 12th as anyone else) REALLY kicks in hard. Every reaction induced by this is now doing 2 attacks at 8th, 3 at 12th – each doing 1d10+11 (+5 Agonizing Blast invocation, +1 more for the Improved Pact Weapon bonus, and +5 necrotic more for Lifedrinker invocation). I’ll focus on 8th and 12th here.

Of course, you’re giving up that “speed set to zero” by doing this, but in exchange you are getting 2 or 3 attacks at 1d10+11 damage each. In addition, you have more warlock invocations you can use to further augment your EBlast with slow, push, or pull. Each hit will have an independent, additive effect on the target’s movement.

But let’s save two of those invocations, shall we? And one, let’s put it into Eldritch Smite, because there will be times when you just gotta put something on the ground. “Once per turn when you hit a creature with your pact weapon…” Again, not contingent on the type of action, only that you “hit” with it. That adds 4d8 plus prone (and possible falling damage if the target is flying) at 8th level, 5d8 at 12th.

It’s when you get physical that you can do this next part – in your regular attacks, you combine Booming Blade with your Eldritch Smite: all by itself, Booming Blade will add to your damage (scales up with level), and if the target voluntarily moves before the start of your next turn, it will take scaling damage when it does. Said damage is thunder, which is rarely resisted. You’re doing it with reach as well, using the pact glaive.

You now add Eldritch Smite after you establish the hit with Booming Blade, and use a spell slot to add 4d8 (8th level char) or 5d8 (12th level) damage to the hit and knock the target prone if it is Huge or smaller. Note that Eldritch Smite also references the “hit” mechanic and also does not specify whether that is with an attack action or casting of a spell.

So here, you use your main action with Booming Blade to injure the target for 1d10+1d8(scale)+4d8 or 5d8+11 to then drop them prone and add tell them “Stay!” with a conditional extra 2d8 (3d8 at char level 10) if they defy you and stand up.

If you simply want to beat them about the head and neck and don’t care about their movement, you use Thirsting Blade plus Polearm Master to generate up to 2 *(1d10+11) + 1d4+11 (pact glaive twice, and back-end. You have a myriad of potential triggers for your reaction, any one of which results in a lashing of either two or three sets of bolts for 1d10+11 with Eldritch Blast. If they are within 5′ reach you can make it the Booming Blade case above.

Of course, on top of these, using “Hex” and/or “Warlock’s Curse” is just extra 1d6 and Proficiency Bonus damage icing on that cake. If this is the BBEG of the adventure, of course both will be on, which also then turns this into a crit-fishing setup looking for 19s and 20s, which you would absolutely use Eldritch Smite on a crit.

Max damage figures at 12th level (assuming normal activity, no Eldritch Smites or other “nova round” tricks):
Main Action: Attack for 2 * 1d10+11, plus 1d4+11 : 46.5
Reaction: Eldritch Blast for 3 * 1d10+11 : 49.5 + possible movement effects

Total: 96 / turn (becomes 99/turn if you just spam Eldritch Blast)

Add 21 more if Hex is active on the target. Add 18 (8th level char) or 24 (12th level char) more if Warlock’s Curse is active on the target.

Note that this PC is not invulnerable – massed minions and/or ranged weapon/spell attacks are still a significant threat. However, from a “glass cannon” perspective, this feat combo has what it takes.

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The Worst Enemy We Have Ever Faced As a Nation

It isn’t COVID-19.

It is a political party turned rancid.

How many times does Trump have to do this sort of thing before people realize he is an enemy of the United States? Whether at the behest of a foreign power or not, he is an enemy.

Trump caused the COVID-19 disaster. This can all be laid at his feet without subterfuge, without any smoke and mirrors.

He was briefed in January about Covid-19. He ignored those briefings. Same way that Bush II ignored the report “Al-Queda likely to attack with aircraft.” Same result, except with a far, far more dangerous enemy.

The death toll of his ignoring this has already exceeded the toll of our Bush II loss at 9/11.

Because unlike Bush II, this asswipe tore out our ability to respond to the problem two years before it happened, because a black man created that response team. He also reduced funding of the CDC and public health organizations across the board, to make it look like he was making an accommodation for his gigantic tax cut which still threatens our economy independently of this crisis.

It would be as if Bush II had dismissed all the Special Forces of our various military branches in Feb of 2000.

Trump’s inaction and lying about the severity of this crisis will always hang around his neck, it’ll be his albatross. Sycophantic supporters of him will share that load.

Spending weeks pretending it was a hoax, weeks wearing his idiotic MAGA hat, weeks pretending “our fifteen cases will be zero next week”, “It’ll magically just go away”, and so on, those commissions of fraud and criminal negligence will cost.

This preoccupation with “looking competent” while *being* totally incompetent will cost.

The spewing of lies on camera that fly directly in contradiction with the information from people who actually know something about fighting viruses will cost.

This fumbling about while trying to funnel cash out of the government and into rich people’s pockets will cost.

These actions and inactions will cost LIVES. Thousands, tens of thousands, perhaps MILLIONS of lives.

By the time this is over, this orange shitstain and his enablers will have managed to kill more Americans than every enemy we’ve ever fought a war with – from the British to the Spanish to the Confederacy to the Kaiser to the Axis to the N. Koreans to the N. Vietnamese to every terrorist group there’s ever been.


Today’s Republican party and its supporters have proven to be the worst national enemy the United States has ever faced.

Even today, 25.03.2020, Trump and other prominent Republicans are saying publicly that they want to end social prevention measures in order to get Wall Street moving again. They say that they are willing to sacrifice the lives of the victims of the virus in exchange for that. The Lt. Governor of Texas claims that the old should be willing to die to re-boot our economy.

That’s 8.25 million people. They are willing to let 8.25 million people die. To try to re-start stockholder’s recovery. Never mind that this wouldn’t even work, look at that number.

They mean you. You can die to help their bank accounts. Your mother. Your partner. Your child. They want you to sacrifice your life and the lives of your loved ones. For their money.

Could it be any clearer? If a foreign nation was attacking us, and was threatening to cause upwards of 8 million dead in such an attack, would we not have whipped up enough nukes against them to render their land a radioactive, glassy wasteland?

Then why are we treating the Republicans any differently?

For those of you without access to Twitter:

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It’s about time we got something made clear here…

Okay, here’s the scoop.

Stop pretending “so-and-so is a Russian asset” and all that, as if individuals were lone wolves in this. They weren’t.

Here’s how it went: Russia has owned Trump since the 90s. He’s been laundering money through his shitty properties for ages.

At the Washington Correspondent’s Dinner, Obama pissed Trump off by making him a laughingstock in front of everyone, teasing him about his birther racism. So Trump decided to run for President and destroy anything that had Obama’s name on it.

Russia jumped in to help out, because Putin couldn’t stand the idea of Hillary putting her boot on his neck, and because they could use Trump to leverage against the USA and destroy NATO. Most importantly to Putin, Trump could ease sanctions which we’d imposed due to the invasion of Ukraine (which were really painful to Putin and his rich buddies, threatening his power base).

Putin also poured *huge* amounts of money into the NRA to be funneled into various Republican races (meanwhile, Wayne LaPierre grifted off his share, for which he’s currently being investigated), and managed to buy more than a few Congressmen and Senators in the process. What they didn’t get with NRA money, they’ve been “investing” in businesses local to other members of Congress, which then finds its way into political contributions.

This is why the “puzzling” attitude change took place about Russian sanctions during the RNC convention prior to the 2016 election.

Since then, through Trump properties, far more foreign money has been pushed into Trump’s pockets, further cementing their hold on him. Which puts him beholden to *foreign powers*, including Putin and the Saudis, and specifically *against* us, *against* the people of the USA. He has himself offered $millions to the various election campaigns of Republicans, with the expectation of total loyalty to him if they accept.

What you’re looking at today is this: if Trump goes down, he has very likely threatened all Republicans that they go down with him. He has them, because they all were on the take with him. They cannot possibly afford a fair Impeachment trial, because if there is one, he’ll be removed, indicted, and he’ll sing like a goddamned bird to take as many of them down as he can along the way.

So stop expecting the Republican party to act like a legitimate political party any more. They aren’t. They have morphed into a criminal enterprise, whether willingly or not, and their only hope is to cheat their way into ownership of the country. If they don’t succeed, they know that there’s a stack of indictments coming for each of them as soon as they lose control of the DOJ.

I’ve said many times “It only takes one side to wage a war” – the Republican party is waging an undeclared war against the USA. The sooner this becomes clear to everyone, the sooner we can gear up, fight it, and win it.

This is not the time for milquetoast bullshit like “how can they be acting so irresponsibly”. Recognize they are the ENEMY. They WANT to act this way. Their GOAL is to destroy our institutions, because that is their only path to safety. For them, this is life-and-death – because if they lose, they spend the rest of their lives in jail. Some may very well even end up in the electric chair for treason. They are desperate to avoid this – which is why you see Giuliani wandering around Eastern Europe on the payroll of Russians, doing “free” work for Trump. It’s why Bill Barr, who has no business doing business outside our borders, wandering around Europe. Both of them extorting bribes in the form of smearing Trump’s political opposition.

It should be obvious now to everyone that they take this shit very, very seriously. It’s about goddamned time the rest of the country – the press especially – did so as well. So if you know someone in the Press Corps, someone who works for the news, make sure they understand this.

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An Open Letter to Senator Richard Burr of NC, 18.10.2019

This letter was submitted through Burr’s own website a short while ago. I invite you all to write similar letters to your Republican Senators, and to share this liberally among your friends and acquaintences:

Okay, you buffoon.

I warned you about this over a year ago. I told you that you could be the “voice of reason” in opposing Trump. What did you do? You sat on your goddamned hands. While he praised Nazis. While he ruined our air and water. While he racked up literally DOZENS of crimes against the American people. Why? BECAUSE HE WAS A REPUBLICAN, and you filthy traitors would rather support one of your own than support America.

You’re a goddamned traitor. Right alongside each and every one of your colleagues.
And now, the crowning glory of your inaction.

We had Syria completely under control. We had ISIS almost entirely on the ropes, courtesy of Obama. Oh, but you can’t possibly handle having the success of a black man look good, can you?

In ONE DAY, you, the Republicans, turned Syria into a devastating Saigon evacuation, courtesy of Trump and your refusal to take him and Pence to task.

ISIS prisoners are freed, the group is re-forming as I write this.

We are air-striking OUR OWN bases because our troops didn’t have time to evacuate properly. RUSSIA, our worst fucking enemy on the globe, is occupying the bases we didn’t have time to destroy – and very likely their intel corps is poring over all the valuables left over in them.

Turkey is threatening those troops who are trapped in the area. (Fucksake, a third-rate shitty country like Turkey? A former ally? SHOOTING AT US?) Our allies are being massacred in what will be viewed by history as a Turkish genocide. Enabled by you.

FIFTY OF OUR NUKES are being held hostage in Turkey. Turkey may very well become a nuclear-armed fuckball country with our own captured weapons.

This is the result of a TRAITOR PRESIDENT, and a treasonous party supporting him.

Which includes you – who knowingly stood by while this traitor betrayed us almost daily. Who knowingly overlooked damning information about the man, overlooked that he betrayed the USA, simply because he was in your political party.

You execrable filth. You are almost worse than he is. At least he’s doing it for personal gain. You’re doing it for no better reason than the preference for one football team over another.

Each and every Trump supporter has a price to pay. Those who had a chance to stop him and refused the greatest of them all. I call on you to remember how Germany ended, how its leadership was treated once they were subdued. There were an awful lot of trials, convictions, and nooses at the end of that story.

The time remaining for you and your filthy pack of vermin to do the right thing is fast running out. The evidence will come out. It always does. And when it does, those who refused to stand up for our country will be held accountable.

I’m giving you a benefit of the doubt that you really don’t deserve, in assuming you are still debating the choice. If I’m right, you’d better choose soon, pal. Because the torches and pitchforks are selling out at Amazon.

And the 21st-Century Nuremberg trials are coming.


Edit: corrected location Hanoi for Saigon

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GreenStrawberry EVA Pods for the 1/144 scale Discovery XD-1

Not long ago, I put together a version of the USS Discovery from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and during that build I included a set of resin-case EVA Pods from GreenStrawberry. The base kit was the Moebius 1:144 scale (comes out about a yard long).

First off, let me tell you, wow – I was very impressed with the Moebius kit. Great detail, easy fit, and a really solid build. I added the Paragrafix cockpit and pod bay as well, as I wanted to get some interior to the model. GreenStrawberry also makes similar fittings, which are offered together in a 3-piece “Fruit Pack”, but I had bought the others six months before I knew about the EVA pods).

But let’s talk about the EVA pods – that’s what this post is about. They were really cleanly cast – no flash, included PE parts, and very good match-up with the kit. They’re a perfect add to the Discovery, since they play such a dominant role in the film (just ask Frank Poole).

The one thing I felt was missing.


Neither the Moebius kit, nor the pods, were lit. That said, there’s loads of room in the rear engine pod and the command bulb up front. A 9v battery, micro switch, and some LED tape and bulbs in all the right places, and the model was ready.

But I really, really wanted to re-create the scene where Bowman is leaving the Discovery for the last time, and his pod is just departing the ship. One pod is missing (Poole’s), and Bowman was leaving from the center bay.

And in the scene, the pod has spotlights lit up.

Little fella’s all lit up, see?

All by themselves, the pods are great, and to use Gordon Ramsay’s terminology, I felt it was time to “take them to the next level.”

One small…and I do mean small…problem – the pods are solid resin.  No space for lights.

Did I mention they were small?

But, as I said, this is a *small* problem.  Nothing a little drill work and some creative wiring can’t fix.

So let’s get started! 

Parts you’ll need for this:

  1. Greenstrawberry’s EVA pods, of course.
  2. A 5mm cool white LED – preferably something with a high lumen value.  I used some 4.2-candle LEDs I had on hand.  Higher the better, I would suggest not going higher than maybe 9 candles to avoid heat issues.
  3. A resistor for the circuit.  I used 9v to power my Discovery, and ideally your resistor needs to be between 450-1,000 ohms. Lower value means brighter light, and minimally for 9v you should get 400 Ohms or so. You can get standardized resistors at around 470 ohms, so just go with one of those.
  4. Some really low-diameter wire (magnet wire is ideal – I think what I’ve got is about 36-gauge)
  5. Some 1mm fiber optic cable
  6. Drill bits in 1mm and 5mm diameters and a drill or pin vice that can handle them
  7. Side-snips
  8. Some good steel files or a Dremel with a cutting / sanding extension
  9. Reflective chrome or silver paint, some satin varnish/spray, and some gloss clear acryl or enamel
  10. CA glue
  11. A 9v battery
  12. A soldering iron or soldering station
  13. Solder and flux (some solder is “resin core”, in which case it has flux in it already)
  14. A set of “helping hands” – basically this is a magnifying glass and a couple of adjustable alligator-clip arms, usually available for ten or twenty bucks.

*It’s worth noting that #14, though technically not necessary, is so damned useful you’re going to wonder how you got along without one for a lot of jobs.

Alright – first up, you want the lights to be in scale with the model.  If I put SMDs up front on the face of the pod, they’re too bright (not to mention slightly too large to fit).  They’d also require wiring, which makes things a little too cluttered.  Better to light from the interior.

Slap a coat of white on the pod(s) first.  My own preference is something like Vallejo primer, but that’s not a must-have.  This will provide good contrast to see your work as you go.  Leave the little tab on the bottom of the pod, because it’s an easy grip.  Just remove it when you’re done.  Easy apply is to just stick some blue-tac or other putty to the end of a sprue, and embed the tab in the putty.  Spray and wait a little while for it to dry.

Using a sprue and tack to hold the pod while working
Coat of white gets things going

Next we need to make some room for the LED.  Start by putting a very shallow guide-hole in the center of the bottom of the pod.

Guide hole right up the…ahem…

Now the pod is only about 18mm tall, so you have to be careful about the depth of the next step. To avoid getting carried away, mark your 5mm drill bit at about 15mm length.  A CD pen or similar is fine.

Teensy is a good word for this.
Mark your 5mm drill bit so you won’t overshoot and blow the top of the pod’s head open

Once marked, drill CAREFULLY up the bunghole of the pod.

And be careful NOT to overshoot the mark

Once drilled, clean the gunk out of the hole.  Your next challenge is to open some channels from the spotlight locations into the center hole.  In each of the four spotlight locations, you want to open a 1mm hole aimed inward toward the main gap. 

The two upper spotlights should be aimed inward on the X-Y, but even on the Z axis. Each of the four spotlights will be needing its own space for a 1mm fibre, so they shouldn’t overlap.

We are going in through all four lights here, and we need to not overlap

The lower spots will be inward X-Y, and slightly upward on the Z – but you don’t want the channels to bump into each other.

Straight in for the top lights
Try to aim your bit towards the center of the main port

A tool that will make this a lot easier is the Tamiya power drill, but that’s not a must-have.  Open the light channels, and clean out the leftovers. 

Verrrrry useful

Get out your 5mm LED now, and test-fit it in the hole.  Should be a perfect fit, might even be a little bit tight, but that’s okay.

Cool white 4.2 candles was my choice
Checking the fit

Okay, if you’re satisfied that the fit is good, pull the light back out – we’ve got some more work to do. 

Let’s next connect the wiring.  Those of you reading this who already have experience with making your own circuits, jump ahead.  I’m going to assume I’m dealing with newcomers for a while. With each LED, the length of the legs denotes the polarity (positive and negative ends) of the LED.  The longer of them is the anode, or positive. 

The shorter is the negative, or cathode.  It’s possible that the legs were trimmed even, if so check and see if you can find a “flat side” of the LED itself, the pin nearest that should be the negative.

The negative (cathode) should be slightly shorter than the positive (anode)

For any LED circuit, you’ll need to connect your resistor to the negative leg.  However, it is fortunate that there’s no rule that says it has to be connected directly – there’s no room for a resistor on the bay.  I connected wires to each leg, and then my resistor to the end of the negative wire.  By the way, it’s also a good idea to always be consistent with your colors.  A handy standard is to make negative always black (this is often an industry standard, though I have seen exceptions), and any non-black color can be positive.  In the absence of black, just choose a darker color to be negative. 

We’ll begin the circuit by taking a couple sections of equal length wire, stripping the insulation from the last cm or so of length on each end, and “tinning” the wire.  Put the wire into the grip of one of the clips of the “helping hands,” and then apply some solder to the ends with the soldering iron.  You want the wires to acquire a “silvered” look.  You want to do the same to the legs of the LED.  The flux and solder will clean the wires/legs, and make them much more easily connected.

Tin the ends of the wires and the legs of the LED
Tinned connections also mate together much easier than raw ones

Next solder the resistor on the end of the black wire.  The legs of the resistor should be tinned as well. These won’t be the final wires for the model, they are only here for use while we fit the lighting. Once complete, we’ll remove these wires and connect up inside the model with magnet wire.

Once that’s on, tug it to test as well.  As long as it doesn’t come apart in your hands, you’re good to go.  Time for a final test – run some current through that beatch.  Get your 9v battery and put the resistor on the negative terminal, and the white (or whatever color) wire on the positive.  You should be rewarded with a healthy bright light.

A bit like that

Good deal, well done.  Let’s move on, shall we?

Let’s confirm that the pod is clear of any debris left over from the drilling, and establish how deep you should sink the light when the time comes.  Hold your 9v battery in the last two fingers of one hand, and put the contacts back in place to turn the light back on.  Hold the light by its legs firmly in the same hand and slide it back up the backside of the pod.  Just go to the lip of the LED, we’re trying here to establish whether or not there’s any garbage left in the spotlight channels, and also to see that they are generally pointed in the right direction to capture light. 

Check each of the four individually, by looking down the hole and confirming unobstructed light.

Should look something like those images above. Note that my lower left wasn’t perfectly aimed, so it wasn’t as bright as the others.

Next step.  Pull the light and set the pod aside. 

Take a close look at your LED. Inside, you’ll see the actual diode, which is the little bit of circuitry between where the legs end within the bulb of the light.  You may also notice a large clear area above the diode, which is basically dead plastic used to broadcast the light.  We’re going to trim a lot of that off now.

They all look pretty much like this, wherever they’re from.

First, saw or file off the head of the diode until you’re down to about 1mm of plastic above the diode.  Next, file away the brim or “lip” around the bottom of the plastic.

We’re aiming for a look like this

Test it on the battery again, to make sure you didn’t damage the diode or the legs.  If you did, pull out a new LED and get to work.  Come back when you’re done. 

Break out your paint now.  Take some chrome or silver (or just any reflective color you have access to – could even be gloss white or something, I’m not picky), and slather a good bit of it on the interior of the big hole in the bottom of the pod.  Use your drill bit to ensure you didn’t accidentally seal up any of the four spotlight channels after you’re satisfied with the coverage of the interior.

We’re establishing a reflective interior to magnify the light

Set the pod aside, and get a bit of gloss clear ready.  After trimming, the cut areas of the LED are probably very cloudy.  Paint the whole thing with a thin coat of clear gloss.  This coat will settle into all the irregular scratches causing the cloudiness and will re-estabish a glass-like cover.

Make it good as glass

Okay, time for you to take a break.  Put this guide aside and go have some food, a beer, and relax a bit.  Your pod and the LED both need time to dry anyway.  Park the pod in such a way that any excess inside will flow to the “ceiling”, and set the LED aside to dry as well.  Conveniently, the “helping hands” has two alligator clips suitable for just such a purpose.

Go ahead, go eat.  I’ll wait.

You’re back, great!  Let’s slap the decals on the pod now.  When putting them on, take note that the decal card Greenstrawberry uses isn’t the super-fancy stuff that big companies have, it’s one solid sheet rather than individual decals parked on a backing page.  So when you cut them loose, cut them as close as you can without damaging the decal itself.

Additionally, the “earmuff” thruster packages on the EVA pods should have their centers removed to make your life easier.  With a very sharp razor knife, cut the center in a circle.  Once the decal has soaked for a while, before you remove the outer circle for application you can flick out the center using the tip of your razor.

The cut will look a little like that

In a case like this, although it isn’t an absolute must-have, I really do strongly recommend a decal softener.  In case you don’t know what that is, it’s a solution (practically every model dealer carries some form of it from various vendors) that will semi-dissolve your decal against the surface of the model.  This has the effect of eliminating “silvering” of the decal material, and provides a “painted on” look to the decal once it’s dry.  My personal experience lends itself to Micro-scale’s “Micro Sol” and “Micro Set”, but your mileage may vary.

Decals on, we’re ready to move

My cockpit window came out a little rough, so I’m going to dress it with a little bit of black paint.

For the more daring lighting fiends out there, yes, you could conceivably drill out that window space to expose the LED space.  Yes, you could, after anchoring the LED, fill it with clear resin to harden up into the window space and then paint some transparent red patches and black and so on, and light the cockpit. 

But if you’re going to do that, you’re way beyond the scope of a guide on the basics like this, aren’t you?  Let’s keep it simple J. 

Give your pod’s decals time to cure, best would be overnight, but at least a few hours.  (I know, it’s hard to let it sit, but go find some other part of Discovery to work on for a while.)  Once that time has elapsed, slap a satin coat on them to protect your work. 

We’re in the home stretch now.

Push the light back in about the same depth as previously done when you were checking the spotlight channels.  Check them again, and try a few different depths to see if you can find a “best light transmission” point for all four.  This step is just like what you did earlier. 

Once you have it where you want it, use a small dose of CA glue to park that light in place and keep it there.  After this glue dries, this is a good time to saw or cut off the retained tab that you’ve been using as a grip this whole time.

Bye-bye little fella, you did good

Make sure not to saw through the LED legs when you’re doing this.

Paint with the reflective paint you used for the interior over the bottom of the LED.  Try to keep it off the legs of the LED as much as possible.  After the reflective stuff is dry, paint black over it.  Test the light to see if you have any light leaks.  When you’re satisfied that there aren’t any, paint white over it.  Again, try to avoid the LED legs.  Not fatal if you get paint on them, but easier if you don’t have to burn that paint off later.

Light-block the bottom with first silver/chrome, then black – check it after it dries, you might need another coat of black

Regardless of the scene you want to replicate, those LED legs are going to need to be trimmed and concealed.  Using the sharp point of a triangular file, cut two small channels into the back of the bottom of the pod so you can fold them back into those spaces.  Paint the channels white again, unless you’re going to putty them over later (in which case the paint can wait until after the putty and sanding). 

Back at the front of the pod, it’s time to use that fiber optic stuff that’s been watching you from the side of the table. 

With each of the four spotlight channels, first insert the fiber optic and jam it in there as far as it will go, marking or measuring how much that is.  Withdraw the fiber, and take note how deep it should be.

Next put a tiny amount of gloss clear as far down into the channel as you can go.  I find best results injecting it with an insulin syringe (you can also acquire blunt-end syringes easily), but it can also be dribbled down with a pin if you have steadier fingers than I do.

I use a glossy white bathroom tile as a base for this work – cheap as hell, very durable

Your objective here is to provide a clear seal that has as little light-blocking properties as possible between the LED itself and your fiber.  It’s also possible that you’ll end up with gloss clear coming out the other holes – that’s okay, it just saved you some work.

Glug glug glug!

After the gloss goes in, immediately follow by pressing in the FO fiber.  Go as far in as you can with it, and wipe up any gloss that bleeds out the hole.  Once you’re convinced it’s in the right depth, use your side-snips to cut it flush with the spotlight opening.

The gloss fill spread amongst all four floods on mine – totally cool, just needed a little wipe

Repeat for each opening.

Give these an hour or so to dry, before again satin-coating the exterior once more. 

Next, apply gloss clear as tiny droplets to each of the four spotlight openings, and the cockpit window. 

Go get that little brass card that came with the pods.  Separate the arms of the pod from the brass PE sheet.  Anchor them in the tac on a stick and paint them white.  Satin coat them when that’s dry.  Make sure that the “hands” don’t accumulate too much paint and fill up – you want to be able to see the “fingers” clearly.

…and after painting

Definitely be careful not to overdo it with the paint, you can end up filling those hands.

When they are dry, trim the ends down to where they should be, dip them in CA glue and apply to the mounting point between the spotlights.  Once they are seated, you can apply a little more CA to each of them to reinforce your mount.  Now paint a bit of satin white over the CA.

Trim carefully, or you’ll end up bending something or worse – feeding the carpet monster

Test your wiring again, just to light her up and enjoy the feeling ).

A little light porn to go with your reading…
Check it in shadow too, to make sure you have her set right.  Not much you can do to correct it at this point, but since you have three of these pods, you can decide if this one belongs in the bay or outside the ship

In my case, the pod was resting on one of the landing pads (a separate 3rd-party package of PE), and the pad in question was extended out of the “mouth” of the command deck on some square brass tubing from Albion Alloys.  I connected magnet wire as thin as I could find to the LED legs of my pod, as closely as I possibly could get to the pod itself, and soldered it in place there.  I then trimmed off the excess leg and folded he remainder up and back into the channels I’d cut in the bottom of the pod.  A bit of white paint and all was hidden away.  As the back of the pod faced the model, a little rough edge there would not show.

If you’re actually looking for it, you can see the legs and the magnet wire – but when you build, you’re aiming for a view from about a meter away, and the angle of view obscures the wiring

The magnet wire was then routed behind and under the platform, then forward underneath and glued to the corner of the tube where it met the pod platform, so that the length was now pointing “forward”.  I took that length and reversed it again, this time threading down through the tubing and out the back of the pod bay, inside the command bulb.  I ran a little tiny bit of white putty along the corner, and plugged up the end of the tube, then covered that with white paint.  The wiring was rendered invisible. I glued the pod in place on its platform, and all was right in the world.

The obligatory “Hero” shot…cape sold separately

While the Discovery herself is a fantastic model to build, adding something like these Greenstrawberry pods to her completely elevates a beautiful model to something absolutely out of this world.  I hope what I’ve written here helps you all to add some really spectacular lighting effects to these great little pods.  When I consider the idea of building the bare kit, these pods and the extra lighting effect have turned Discovery into an absolute hero of my display area.  She’s the new star of the show here.

As always – and if you have any questions, comments, or death-threats, by all means send them on to me via the Facebook groups, or direct to my email via the site here. 

Happy modeling! 

Posted in Build Log, Model Kits, Review, Sci-Fi, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments


Okay, I had to write this. No, seriously, I had to write it. It’s an assignment for my B2 Deutsch class.

So, highlights in Deutsch:

Es gab eine Periode der Geschichte, die Karbonperiode genannt wurde. Es war vor etwa 360-300 Millionen Jahren. Während dieser Zeit gab es nicht genug Bakterien, um alle Pflanzenschlachtkörper zu fressen. Wir sehen das Ergebnis als Kohle und Öl.

Vor kurzem (vor 100 Jahren, +/-) hat der Mensch Plastiks ergrunden.

Nichts auf der Welt wusste, wie man es isst. Es wird Millionen von Jahren dauern, bis etwas lernt wie.

Plastiks sind in unserer Umwelt so verbreitet, dass Sie und ich ungefähr fünf Gramm Plastiks pro Woche in unserer Nahrung zu sich nehmen.

Dies ware nicht schlecht, außer dass einige Platiks vom Körper als Hormone angesehen werden. Dies kann schwerwiegende gesundheitliche Probleme verursachen. Aus demselben Grund schädigen sie auch die Ökologie erheblich.

Und sie häufen sich. So sehr, dass zukünftige Zivilisationen in Millionen Jahren vielleicht sehen können, dass wir aus der von uns aufgebrachten Plastik schicht hier sind.

Was konnen wir tun?

Kaufen Sie keine Einweg-produkte aus Plastik mehr.

Ersetzen Sie Ihren Plastik kauf durch Papier.

Stimmen Sie für Politiker, die die Umwelt reform unterstützen.

Sprechen Sie mit anderen über das Problem. Erhöhte Aufmerksamkeit. Und wenn Sie mit Leuten über das Problem sprechen, erwähnen Sie, dass sie letzte Woche genug Plastik gegessen haben, um eine Kreditkarte zu machen.

Unterstützen Sie die Erforschung von Platik ersatzs toffen oder erforschen Sie, wie Plastik abfälle zerstört werden können.

Endlich müssen wir, ähnlich wie bei fossilen Brenns toffen, den Einsatz von Plastiks schränken ein. Oder ändern Sie die Art der verwendeten Plastiks.

Was ist das Schlimmste, was passieren kann? Eine Welt ohne 100 Milliarden Zigarettenkippen, die jeden Monat in die Lebensmittelkette gelangen? Meeresschildkröten verschlucken sich nicht an Taschen? Vögel verschlucken sich nicht an Bierdosen ringen?

Ich denke, ich kann mit einer Welt ohne diese leben.

Zuruck nach English…

Okay, let’s be real about this.

I know it is only supposed to be a few sentences, but this topic is too important for me to just gloss over.  Even if it is just an assignment for a Deutsch class.

Plastics.  Recycling them.  Doing away with them.

Let’s begin with some history. 

About 360 million years ago, plants pushed the atmosphere into an oxygen-heavy state.  So much oxygen, that it enabled insects like the dragonfly to reach the size of a large hawk.

This had the effect of reducing bacterial levels to such a low level that there weren’t enough of them to eat the plants as they died naturally.

So the dead plants piled up.  Really, they just piled up.  They eventually became peat beds.  After that, they were compressed (by geology) into coal.  This took place over a period of about sixty million years.  Piling up.  Like a teenager’s laundry gone crazy.

That period of time is called the “Carboniferous” period.

The key here is that those bodies didn’t get eaten.  And they were buried into the layers of rock and mud.  We call this “geologic subduction.” 

So today, when you talk about coal and oil, you are actually talking about humans digging up sixty million years’ worth of carbon.  Digging it up and burning it. 

Which is a problem orders of magnitude greater than plastics.

But we can walk and chew gum at the same time, can’t we?

So, plastics. 

Here’s the news on plastics:

In 1907, a fellow from New York named Leo Baekeland created a substance called “Bakelite.”   


This stuff was useful for a lot of things, such as electric and heat insulation.  It was made into a number of different things.  Radio and phone cases.  Kitchenware.  Jewelry.  Pipe stems.  Children’s toys.  Even firearms. 

But what it was really useful for was showing the world how to create totally artificial materials.  Materials that were very easily shaped and extremely durable.  Oh, and cheap.  Let’s not forget cheap.

Over the next century, humans got very busy manufacturing stuff from various plastics.  It would be a challenge for any of you reading this right now to look around and not see something made with plastics.

This was all really cool.  Lots of people got rich, lots of things got cheap.  It seemed like a win-win.

But no one really gave a thought to biology.

Practically everything natural has something that eats it.  Dust has mites.  Poop has beetles.  Humans have big cats and sharks. 

But nothing on earth knows how to eat plastic. 

This is primarily because plastic has a unique shape to its molecules.  There aren’t any natural enzymes shaped right to grip plastic and rip it up to eat it. 

So, what we see today is something like the beginning of the Carboniferous period.  Plastics are piling up because there’s nothing that knows how to eat it.  And they are piling up in the ocean.  When a plastic bag from Rewe or Kroger hits the ground in the parking lot, it will eventually be bleached by the sun and shredded by wind, feet, tires, and so on. 

Those little shreds end up being washed into a sewer, or a stream. 

Those feed into rivers.

Which feed into the sea.

And little bits of plastic look like the traditional food that plankton eats. 

So those little creatures called plankton eat it.

And fish eat the plankton. 

And bigger fish eat those fish.

And eventually, bigger animals eat those fish.  Animals like us. 

In fact, there is so much plastic in the food chain, that we people eat about five grams per week of “micro” plastic.  That’s like eating a credit card or a pen every week.  In a month, it’s 21 grams.  That’s about as much as a comb, or a clothes hangar. 

Now, that normally would pass right through us, since we can’t digest the stuff any better than other creatures.

But plastic has some hidden problems.  For example, some plastics are shaped just right, or emit chemicals that are shaped just right.  Just right for what?  They’re shaped like natural hormones.  And our bodies react to them like normal hormones.  Which can throw a child’s growth out of whack.  Or induce thyroid disease.  Or cause a man to grow boobs. 

I think I might have given you enough now to react.  Perhaps your reaction is “Holy shit, what do I do?”

Well, a few things.

For starters – stop buying one-use plastics.  Use paper sacks at the supermarket.  Don’t buy plastic straws.  Recycle everything.  Use glass.  Use paper.  Use wood.  When you have to use plastic, make sure it will last you.  Get wax paper instead of cling-film. 

Vote.  Vote for candidates who recognize the problem for what it is.  Vote against candidates who deny there is a problem.  Viciously mock people who pretend there isn’t a problem. 

Vote for candidates who support scientific research into bio-plastics.  Like the research recently completed by a Mexican scientist who made plastic out of cactus.  That plastic degrades in a month, and people can eat it safely. 

Support research on biological plastic destruction.  Just because nothing knows how to eat it today doesn’t mean there won’t be something next year.  Researchers can invent microbes that eat practically anything.  Who says there isn’t a possible digestive path for plastics to be found? 

Speak to others about the problem.  Don’t bother talking about the Carboniferous era when you do.  Just tell them nothing on earth knows how to eat that stuff.  Tell them that Porsche automobiles are long-lasting: two out of every three ever built are still out there.  Then tell them plastic has that beat: every piece of plastic ever made, except for the ones that were incinerated, is still out there. 

And tell them how much of it they ate last week. 

In the end, much like fossil fuels, we have to curb our use of plastics.  Or change what kind of plastics we use.

What’s the worst that can happen?  A world without a 100-billion cigarette butts entering the food chain every month?

A world where sea turtles aren’t choked to death on plastic sacks? Where birds don’t die caught in beer-can rings?

I think I can live in a world without those things.





Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Happy birthday, Delphi :)

Back on Feb 14 in 1994, a long-awaited event took place – Borland’s “Turbo Pascal” got a revamp on its entire genome, and a new species of tool was born: Delphi. Other tools existed in a similar fashion at the time (most notably Visual Basic v3 and PowerBuilder), but none of them were nearly as fast or as capable as Delphi. Right out of the block you knew this tool was going to be the new gold standard of development systems.

It’s still running strong today – though not as noticeable in the market, mainly because the owners of the system don’t have the deep pockets that its competitors do. That’s always been the case, though. Microsoft always had more cash and BS to fling around, so what did we do?

We forced them to become us.

Much like when Rome conquered Greece, Greek culture won the overall battle. Visual C# from Microsoft is, for all intents and purposes, a fork of Delphi – looking at the code of the two, you can see how easily the two compare. However…

Today Delphi isn’t just about Windows – with it, you can target Windows, Linux, Android, and even (*hurk!*) Apple devices. I’ve even begun messing around getting it to talk to Arduinos lately.

I have to say, 25 years on, it’s still a rocking platform.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

How to build an un-hackable password

Okay, another friend got hacked yesterday – here’s how to build an un-hackable password:

1. Pick a favorite date, like Bastille Day, your dog’s birthday, the moon landing or something.  You could also do something like a favorite movie mixed with it’s author’s name.

2. Reverse it, so for example today would be 8102voN82.  You could do the film thing like “Clarke1002Arthur”.

3. Pick two letters from the site you’re visiting or app you’re using, best is the leading letters of the first two syllables, so FaceBook would be FB.

4. Pick two numbers and use the Shift key to make them special chars, so 3-4 would be #$

5. String all these together to make your password, so my example here would be Clarke1002ArthurFB#$. Or add them together the other way to make #$FBClarke1002Arthur.

You can re-use this algorithm anywhere, it’ll give you a unique password for any site or app, and you only have to remember the pattern you use to build the password. It should take an average PC about 3 million years to crack it brute-force style.

Posted in IT, PC Stuff, Software, Tips, Work | 4 Comments

Leadership of IT/Software Teams in a Regulatory Environment

Part 3 – now let’s introduce regulation

First part of this, is let’s define “regulation” in context.  Specifically, I’m referring to ISO 13485, EU medical devices (GMP, or “Good Manufacturing Practice”), and FDA medical device standards.

Let’s also be clear, these aren’t just “guidelines” (insert Barbarossa quote here), they’re law.

As law, what is their purpose?  The goal of this regulation is to make certain that the products made by manufacturers are safe, effective, consistent and unadulterated.  As a result, this means that they end up being implemented in such a way as to minimize mistakes and errors, and reduce or eliminate contamination where such can occur.  Consumers as the beneficiaries of the regulation are guaranteed a high level of security that the products and devices they are exposed to do the job they are supposed to in a way that is not dangerous to them.

It is also worth noting here that as law, violations can result in steep fines, product recalls, and potentially even jail time.  This is serious stuff.

That means you, as a leader, have the responsibility to implement compliance measures, and to ensure that your IT and Software groups understand and follow the measures you put in.

The requirements of regulation can result in direct opposition to some of the activities your group performs.  Quite often a software group will be operating on an “Agile” methodology, with possibly scrum sprints and so forth – and these methods are oriented towards speed.

Regulatory requirements will impair that speed and that slowdown will appear to be simply “getting in the way” of work.  Persons unfamiliar with the need for regulation will see it as unduly burdensome – indeed, I can quote a peer who totally missed the mark of what those regs were for:  “No one cares anyway, these are just here to make it look good.”

Needless to say, he didn’t last long.  Sadly, many developers – including most who come directly from university – have no experience with such regulation and will view them as unnecessary impediments.  I myself, as a software developer many years ago, left a contract that I felt overly constraining to me because it was operating under FDA medical devices regulation, and I didn’t appreciate why it took six months to get from proposing a spelling change to final deployment of the release containing the correction.

These requirements make progress feel very plodding and restrictive, particularly for those junior members of your team.  And they never end.  They are part of the job, every single day.  It isn’t just something you do once, qualify for, and then amble merrily forward – these actions and activities go into the job and become part of the fabric of how you operate.

What can good leadership do in such a conflict?  What is to be done here, and how can we exert good leadership in this environment?

Let’s examine the conflict first.  There are a few sources of conflict here:

  • Requirements for thorough examination of work products and the preparation for creating them can seem like an attack on the respect for an IT professional’s work.
  • The burdensome nature of documentation and preparation in advance of work can create a very tedious work environment, making it hard to feel like you want to go in.
  • Effects of both of the above and other impacts of regulation can fray the nerves a bit, and place demands on your mediation skills that you didn’t expect.

Needless to say, rising to the occasion here requires a lot of patience and discipline.  It also needs a great communicator, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Let’s begin with organization.

A lot of what you do, whether it is network infrastructure or software development, will require up-front planning – and most importantly, documentation of that planning, in order to provide an audit trail.  Whether you’re aiming to be compliant with ISO, GMP, or FDA, there’s a key question that you have to ask before you begin an operation:

Will my action, or any effect of my action, have direct impact on our final product?

For some things, the answer will of course be “no” – for example, establishing a new backup plan for your email server.  Regardless, before you begin, that question has to be asked and the answer documented.  For most regulation, that documentation ends when the answer is “no.”

However, what if the answer is “yes”?  In that case, you have to assess what you are doing, why you are doing it, why you think doing it will satisfy the original stated need, what are the risks, plan mitigation for those risks, and have your rollout staged to assess success or fail conditions at every milestone.  This entire process is generally called “validation”.

In my own context, I created a form that enabled myself and others on my team to ask that question, and then to lay out the long set of considerations on changes to hardware and software in the IT group.  That form went into our Confluence server, and could be linked from there to Jira tickets created to represent the progress of the tasks being tracked.  For your own use, in whichever issue-tracking system you use (I refer to Jira here, just because it’s so common and it’s the one I’m most familiar with), you can put a field in your issues asking the very question about impacting the final product.  Then you link it to a new issue page with the content required for the “yes” answer.

And once filled out, the page may need to be locked in read-only status (GMP and FDA requirements both demand that no editing or deletion be available after finalization).

This satisfies the regulatory requirement, and the organization provides your team with clear addenda to the original requirements.

The need for organization (and communication, below) requires your Commitment.  Not just commitment to the team, but commitment to the mission of the company and the production of whatever products require the regulatory oversight.  Your IT / development group are key players in delivery of solid product to market.  If the commitment isn’t there, the team will know and it’ll show in how you deliver.

Next step we should look at is communication.

Quite possibly, this should be your first consideration, but I wrote it second here and we’ll leave it at that.

In your team, from day one of a person’s start or day one of implementing compliance, communication of the compliance effort will be key to making sure everyone stays on board with it.

I’ve found in both software development and network architecture that the most important factor in keeping the team aligned is making sure everyone knows and is clear about the answer to the question: “Why are we doing this?”  Knowing why gives us all not only a common ground and a team unifier, it also helps us all determine potentially better solutions than we could with just a team head knowing the why and issuing directives to meet it.

This also applies to ensuring the team gets on board, and stays on board, with compliance efforts.  They have to see the broadest picture of how the regulations help the business.  If your company manufactures widgets used in surgeries, your team needs to be reminded (perhaps even daily) that what you do helps people safely undergo and survive life-saving operations.  Their actions, every one of them, can potentially impact how well a widget works after manufacture.

In a lot of ways, this means that what you’re doing is linking the following of the regulation with the provision of a quality product, and instilling a culture of quality that goes into the tiniest details of everything your team does.

Which, when you think about it, is generally needed for a company to become great, isn’t it?

I make it sound easy, but it isn’t.  You have to beat this drum every day, and you yourself, as the leader, need to be its biggest evangelist.  Your Personality and Knowledge (see Part 1) tie in here, and are key factors in enabling this – you have to be able to be positive about the requirement of regulation and knowledgeable about its execution.  There will be days when you are tired, and simply don’t want to deal with it.  But remember – those widgets depend on you.  They depend on your team.  And the people undergoing surgery depend on you all.

Finally let’s talk expectations

I don’t’ want to really call this a “final” topic, because there’s an enormous quantity of factors that can affect this topic.  But I only have so many hours of the day, and I’m calling these my top three items for being a successfully leader in this environment.

Setting expectations of stakeholders and team members for the execution of projects and tasks is a key element of all work, whether it’s regulated or not.  Telling your boss how long project Y will take, and getting good estimates from your staff on how long tasks A, B, and C will take are key to that.  Regulations increase workload, there’s no two ways about that.  They also slow down progress.  But they do enhance quality.  They benefit consistency in the product(s) your company makes.  Knowing what features are being prepared and what to expect in each release, as well as knowing what steps are being taken to mitigate the risks involved will put everyone more at ease (and will ensure no interruption or disruption in production).

Linking the goals of the regulation with the production of a quality product falls directly into your skills of Motivation for your team.  Getting the team’s buy-in by involving them in the setting of proper expectations is the way to ensure the best possible motivation for success.

Making sure your team knows to take into account the added burden of the regulatory requirements will get you a good ways towards ensuring that you don’t have overblown demands on your team.  It also involves them all along the way to ensure they retain respect and participate in their own work environment.  This really applies to all environments, but it deserves special attention in a situation where a great deal of up-front and ongoing efforts require such detail.

Is there some magic bullet here?

Well, no.  Obviously there’s no “silver bullet” answer to anything in IT, but there are some very cool tools that can help you along the way.  I’ve mentioned Jira and Confluence already, and these are insanely useful in establishing organization, team communication, and helping to set expectations.  Really if I were setting up practically any environment, these tools would be first on my list.

There are also document management systems which enable GMP/FDA-compliant protection of docs, which might be required.  When these enter the picture, I generally advise that one keeps only what is absolutely necessary in such a DMS, and the rest in Confluence.

Additionally, Jira or other issue-management systems can be tailored to monitor risks and mitigation efforts, as well as validation efforts.  The reporting capabilities of these systems can make scrum meetings much simpler, as well as providing outgoing communication to non-IT stakeholders in the form of expected- versus delivered-work estimates, etc.

In Summary

Gathering this up, a regulatory environment heightens the need for a clear communication path as well as requiring a more organized IT department.  The company’s, and really the market’s, expectations of your firm’s output puts an additional burden of caution on your IT staff.  This may not be suitable for all tech people, and there’s no shame in recognizing that you might not be one of those people for whom this is a good working environment.

If you’re comfortable with it, though, you’ll find that your skills in communication and organization are being called upon considerably more strongly than in a “normal” non-regulated situation.  You’ll still be responsible for aiding in motivation, commitment, and the rest, but GMP and FDA regs put you in a special situation where you have to be stronger in certain areas to enable your team to succeed.

Leadership in its raw form doesn’t change – but different aspects of it are called upon more strongly in a regulated environment, and you need to be prepared to engage appropriately.

Part 1

Part 2

Posted in Business, Business, Development, IT, Leadership, Programming, Software, Work | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Let’s Talk Briefly about Deep Learning

You’ve heard the name over and over, and for most of you it probably settles into the same category as Harry Potter’s “levitation charm” as far as whether you need to understand it.  That’s cool, most people will never need to know this stuff, in the same fashion as you don’t need to know the specific chemical reactions that go on when gasoline burns inside your engine cylinders.  You just want to turn the key and go!

When the term “Deep Learning” started getting used, the media clamped onto it because it was a pretty sexy marketing term, and it sold a lot of print and eyeballs.  This is because we have a somewhat intuitive sense of what we conceive “Deep Learning” to be – it conjures up images of professors doing serious research and coming up with great discoveries, etc.  Because of this, a lot of intrinsic value is being assigned to the topic of Deep Learning, so much so that it seems a startup can automatically generate a B-round or further simply by stating that “we use Deep Learning to make the best decisions on what goes into today’s lunch soup”.  That’s a bit of a stretch, but not by far ).

So What Is It?

We need to start by looking at the name:  Deep Learning.  These two words, just like pretty much everything in computerese, have very specific meanings which often don’t attach well to the real world.  In this case, they do, which is fortunate for me because it’ll help keep this article brief.

Let’s tackle each word separately.

Learning.  A DL system quite often has a multitude of modules or units, each of which is responsible for Learning something.  If it’s a good object-oriented model, each unit is responsible for learning one thing, and one thing only, and becoming very good at that one thing.  It will have inputs, and it will have outputs, and what it does internally it might involve multiple stages of analysis against the inputs that help it craft an output that has “meaning” to the other parts of the system that use it.

What would be a good example of a learning unit?  How about something in image identification?  Within a satellite photo, parts of the image get pulled as possible missiles, or tanks.  These parts have attributes of their parts, such as the ratio of length to width, possibly their height (if the image was taken from an angle not directly overhead it will be possible to calculate height), maybe differences in shading top to bottom (the turret of a tank will produce shadows), etc.

A unit that is given candidate images might build a statistical history based on its prior attempts to classify, its positives and negative results, and may (if it is particularly advanced) also ‘tune’ its results based on things like geographic location and so on.  In its operation, it will come back with a statistical probability that object X which it was given is a tank or a missile.  Over time it will be ‘trained’ – either by itself, or by humans inputting images to it with flags saying “tank” or “no tank” (when humans give it cues like this it is called “supervised learning”), to be better at identifying candidate objects.

Deep.  The ability of a computer system using Deep Learning is generally amplified by how many different things it can learn, and each one of these things that can be learned, when placed in line with one another (or if you go for the visual, they can be “stacked up”) produce depth.  A system that can stack many layers is considered Deep.

The example above, where a system was given a photo object, might be part of a system which takes a single large photograph, and multiple different units act on it.  Let’s walk through the hypothetical layers:

The first might look for straight lines.  It trains itself to be better and better at examining colors of pixels in images and finding ones that line up as straight, given the resolution of the image.

The second looks for corners, where straight lines meet.  It takes the identified straight lines from unit one, and then will seek places where their ends meet.  It will train itself to avoid “T” bits, and might decide that “rounded” corners are acceptable within a certain threshold.  It outputs its data to…

The third, which takes corners and try to find ‘boxes’, places where multiple corners might form an enclosed space.  It must train itself to avoid opposite-facing corners, etc.  It then sends its candidate ‘boxes’ to:

The fourth, which takes boxes and begins to look for color shading gradients which can describe sides, tops, fins, etc.  It compares these values to its own historical knowledge and ‘learns’ to classify these boxes as specific objects – and outputs things like “75% missile” or “80% tank”, etc.  Particularly sophisticated versions might even be able to compare signatures finely enough as to identify the type of missile or tank.

Each of these units described above might be comprised of multiple sub-units, which share connections with one another (which, by the way, is a “neural network” – different discussion, might write about that some time too).  These sub-units would be hidden from the units outside itself.

So between the two, we have a Deep system, that Learns to do its job better over time.

And before you ask, yes, there is also “Shallow Learning” – Shallow simply refers to a “stack” that doesn’t have many layers.  There’s no set boundary between what “Shallow” versus “Deep” is.

How Good Is It?

As with pretty much every computer system ever invented, the answer to the question “How good is it?” is:  GIGO.  Garbage in, garbage out.  The system is only as good as its training.  In the example above, if insufficient valid positive and negative images are given to the system to train on, it can suffer from muddied “perception” and never get better.

However, DL is powerful.  By that, I mean that when compared to a human, it can reach or exceed our capabilities within its specialized tasking in a very short (comparatively) period of time.

For example, I have a set of rules I built in Outlook over the course of probably fifteen years or more, and these rules successfully negate 99.5% of the spam that lands in my inbox (today’s example: 450+ messages are in my ‘Deleted’ folder, about 5 landed in my inbox that had to be deleted).  Occasionally, I get a ‘false positive’ and a good mail will get deleted, but it’s pretty rare.  These rules have taken over a decade to produce, and act on a host of subject triggers, address triggers, body triggers, etc.  A DL system can establish a similar ‘hit rate’ to my rules in only a few days, perhaps as fast as a few hours.

But these factors depend on how well the system is built, and how good its learning data is.

What Does It Mean To Me?

Well, now that’s the catch.  Depending on your life, DL systems may not have a direct impact on you at all.  Plumbers, for example, are unlikely to care.  Insurers, actuaries and other folks whose livelihoods depend on statistical analysis, however, had better sit up and take notice.  The initial “green field” territories where statistics are the primary function have already been broadly affected by Deep Learning.  Today, areas such as FinTech and advertising sales are steadily moving to use DL in certain aspects of their business.  Self-driving vehicles are a perfect example of another “Deep Learning” application.  What do you think those first few highly-publicized autonomous vehicle voyages were a few years back?  Supervised training.  They were teaching the vehicles how not to get into wrecks.

We’re just beginning to see learning systems entering healthcare and other more ‘soft’ sectors.

And here is where the warning bells sound.  Not because SkyNet is going to set off the rise of the machines (though there is some legitimate reason to be concerned in that regard, particularly when you see robot chassis and drones armed with weapons).  No, the concern should presently be directed at how these tools get used.  As I mentioned, these are powerful systems that can be used to great benefit – and can also be used to do great harm.

For example, one of the innocuous sentences I’ve seen with regard to the application of a learning system to healthcare was:  “Given the patient’s past history, and their medical claims, are you able to predict the cost for the next year?” (Healthcare IT News).  Okay, in context, that question was raised with the intent of predicting utilization, how much hospital care might be needed across a population.

But what if the question is “Find the best combination of interest rates to keep people paying their credit card bills without completely bankrupting them, and to maintain their indebtedness for the longest period.”   In that case, Deep Learning can be used to figuratively enslave them.

What if that question was asked by an insurance executive in the USA, wanting to see where the profit line cuts and using that data to kick people off their insurance who would negatively impact the company’s margin?  In that case, Deep Learning can be used quite literally to kill people.

The tools will only be used within the ethical boundaries set by the persons who use them.  In the United States and several other countries, there are certain political parties who feel that ethics have no place in business – that might makes right.  Just as with dangerous vehicles, dangerous weapons, and other hazards, we as members of our societies must make our voices heard – through the voting booth, in our investment choices, in journalistic endeavors – and ensure that these tools are used to benefit, not harm, the public.

It might even be worth considering that from a software engineer’s perspective, perhaps it is time to establish something similar to the medical professional’s Hyppocratic Oath:

First, do no harm.

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