On Making Things

by Gram_Stone6 min read5th Mar 201613 comments


Personal Blog

(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.

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