Progress and Misc Musings - Jan/Feb 2022

I'm going to try something a little different this time. This is part personal accountability, and partly an experiment in openness. Basically, I'm going to run through the various things I'm working on and have done since the last time I made one of these (well, this time is the first, so I'm going to wing it a bit), what I'm working on now. I may decide I hate it and never do it again, but I figure it may help be more aware of taking on too many projects, as well as countering the creeping feeling that I've achieved very little.

General feelings

The last month or so before Christmas felt pretty positive for the first time in a while, after some rocky months where my mental health was very much on the fritz. Following hefty encouragement from various people, I committed more fully to my aviation project and to turning that into an actual startup (or equivalent thereof). That involved putting aside some serious misgivings both about startups and my own abilities, but led to me having lots of productive chats with all sorts of people, from other entrepreneurs to aircraft designers, aerospace engineers and other people working in the climate space. I put together an initial pitch deck, and everything started to feel more real, and I felt a sense of momentum for the first time in a while.

As an aside, as someone who often fears reaching out to people for assistance and advice, I've been blown away by the generosity of the people I've spoken to. So many people have been super willing to lend their time and expertise, giving me feedback and pointers, even when I patently had no clue what I was doing. Good people exist, and I'm very glad that they do!

I actually took a week off at Christmas this year, to try and break my habit of slowly grinding myself into burnout. I'm glad I did, though for a lot of reasons I wasn't really able to switch off. As a result, the post-Christmas period has been rather slow, and I feel like I've fallen off the rails a bit in both work and personal stuff. My mental health has spiralled again, though I'm hoping this time I can manage it a little better.

EDIT: in the several weeks that this post has been in progress, things have perked up considerably. Hopefully this continues!

With the end of my current flat rental contract fast approaching, money is once again on my mind. I'm not quite sure how I still have the savings to continue my strange self-funded adventure into the worlds of climate and aviation, but it seems I can carry on for another year, which is a relief. Nevertheless, running those funds ever lower is a constant low-level source of worry for me, and I will be much happier once I have consistent money coming in again. How I will acheive that remains uncertain, but I guess I'll have to come up with something!

Now I want to run through my main work projects, and maybe linger on a few other areas I've been thinking about a bit. My initial drafts of this went into far too much detail (a pattern I tend towards), so I've made an effort to be more concise and focused – this post is down to a mere ~2.2k words from over 5,000 originally!

Clean Aviation

One of my collection of miscellaneous BWB concepts worked up in OpenVSP. It's like (fiddly) plane LEGO, and it's easy to spend hours making all sorts of fun plane shapes.

Aviation has become rather an obsession for the past couple of years. For a project that started as pure passion research coming out of burnout, it's become this massive endeavour where I'm now trying to start a company to produce zero-emissions aircraft (that still seems surreal whenever I say it). As I mentioned above, the last couple of months have been a step-change in my focus, from 'maybe I should start a company' to 'let's do this', and trying to ignore the impostor syndrome and the voices telling me I can't/shouldn't. I ended up putting together a pitch deck, and figuring out timelines, prospective markets, and funding requirements, driving home both the ambition but also making it feel much more concrete.

That process has once again shown me how much I need to learn and understand. I've been on this cyclical improvement in my understanding of aircraft design – trying to design an aircraft, failing, learning a bunch, and repeating. I've just finished reading through the excellent Aircraft Design: A Conceptual Approach by Daniel P Raymer, a classic in the field of conceptual design. It's starting to feel like it's clicking into place, but I suspect I'll need to apply it a bunch for the process to really sink in. I've been building various software tool chains turning basic shapes into aircraft in OpenVSP programmatically, then running them through SU2, an open-source CFD program, to teach myself the basics of fluid dynamics – another mysterious black box. In other words, I've got lots of pieces floating around, but haven't quite joined them up into something concrete just yet.

Ultimately, I want to nail down a solid conceptual design and likely market for an initial aircraft, but there's so much to do until then, from figuring out risks and TRLs of zero-emissions/high efficiency aircraft technologies, to finding a pathway to a commercial aircraft, funding patterns, building a team, and much more. I'm mostly keeping my head down and trying to tick one thing off at a time, but it gets overwhelming easily, which is one reason I've stalled a bit post-Christmas.

I also applied to the Carbon13 climate change venture-builder/accelerator program, and I'm waiting to hear back. I'm not super sold on venture-builders as a whole, but C13 was recommended by a friend I trust, and it has a strong focus on team-building and co-founder matching, which is something I've struggled with thus far. Still, I'm not putting all my eggs in one basket, and trying to keep reaching out to interesting folks and talk to whoever I can (when impostor syndrome/social anxiety allows). I'm also halfway through an application to YC's Startup School founder matching platform, more for finding interesting people than necessarily co-founders or interest in YC itself.

I still don't know whether a startup is the right vehicle for this project, or for me, but there's enough other moving parts that I'm leaving that aside for now, letting momentum carry me until I have to make a serious decision on the matter. I may write up some of my thoughts on the matter in the future, as it's something I've been pondering for a long time without any meaningful conclusion.

Other aviation-ish projects on the go

The Raven

I've also been trying to keep putting out occasional posts on my aviation newsletter, The Raven, though writing those and editing them takes a bunch of time, and I don't promote it much (a theme for me!). Still, even if it's not going out to many people, I find it helps consolidate my thinking and identify areas I understand less well. The old adage about learning by explaining is very true!

I recently posted about mitigating the risks of novel technologies in aviation, as part of what will hopefully become a series about conceptual design. This is a topic which I keep revisiting, mostly as it seems to be fractally complex, and the more I look, the more I find I need to learn! Still, thanks to Raymer and other sources, the basics are starting to click, and I now need to figure out how much of that remains valid for my novel experiments in aviation off the beaten path.

I've also just put out a post about ghost flights and other aviation inefficiencies to support the fine folks at FuelVision, who I've known for a while. They're also working on reducing the impact of aviation, though through behaviour change rather than technology. I've got plenty more ideas for more posts, but time and motivation is always against me – everything takes longer than I'd like! Getting faster at bringing ideas from conception to publication is definitely something I'd like to improve upon.

Modernising Foilsim

Progress on modernising Foilsim. Left is the original, right is my current progress (no UI tidying thus far, hence it looks kinda janky).

I've also embarked on a side-project to reimplement FoilSim III, a NASA web tool to teach about lift and drag and 2D airfoil dynamics, in Nuxt on my site. The tool was originally written in Java, reworked extensively, added to, then ported to JS by (I'm guessing) some grad students, who did a decent job, but the code behind it is a mess (no judgement – these things happen!).

So I decided to re-write it on my site, porting it to Nuxt/Vue and tidying up and simplifying the code where I can, and improving the UI. It's partly a bit of fun, and partly to muck around with web tech/modern JS. It's slow going, but I've got many basic calculations together, and I've cracked the start of rendering for foil shapes and airflows. As you can see from screenshots above, it's a bit rough and ready right now, but the broad elements are falling into place.

R/C aircraft/speed records

I've also been mucking around with R/C electronics, initially to just make a basic flying wing or similar, but hopefully also to support basic testing of my aviation designs. However, mostly so far it's just been soldering lots of miscellaneous connections together to get a complete wiring setup, but hopefully I might be able to test something simple before long!

In my usual spirit of wildly optimistic ambition, I started thinking about electric R/C model aircraft speed records. The FAI records look quite strict in their criteria, but it'd be a cool application of my new-found design skills to make an aircraft to try and break the record, even if it isn't official. It might also get some attention too, and I reckon it may be possible to go faster than the recent record from Rolls Royce in the Spirit of Innovation (sure, yeah, that was a full-size, piloted aircraft, but baby steps!). This is very much on the drawing board, but it seems exciting, which is always a good start for a solo project.

Forge the Future

Forge the Future continues to tick along. Subscriber/reader numbers have mostly stalled, probably as I've failed to promote it in any way, shape or form. I dislike self-promotion, and while the modern web makes content creation and publishing very easy, it creates a race for attention, where everyone has to relentlessly self-promote to keep afloat. The meme of 'Smash that like button, share, comment and hit the bell' on YouTube is pretty well-known by now, but I see similar on newsletters, and it leaves a sour taste in my mouth. However, I do also want to grow the newsletter, and it's my only source of income currently (and not much at that), so I should really find a happy medium, especially given the time I put in each week.

The content has been fairly static/steady in recent months. I had a brief spurt of writing more deep dives – non-news posts diving into specific topics more thoroughly, but most seemed to not really get much traction given the additional time investment, so I've backed off on that for now. Also, with the aviation work taking up a ton of time and mental headroom, it felt like I couldn't manage both at once, so we're back to just a news post each week. It often feels like a bit of a dull grind, but there seems to be a core of folks who appreciate it, which is nice.

I also managed to acquire a helper – Syuan Ruei Chang reached out on LinkedIn late last year, and after chatting back and forth for a bit, he asked if he could assist. I've generally turned down such offers in the past, as I wasn't sure how to make it work, but we figured out an approach – he covers different sources from me, and then I continue to assemble, write and edit the post itself. So far, it seems to be working out well, and it might actually scale to others, potentially lightening my workload, as well as removing the most time-consuming and wearing part (reading and writing up notes on the articles covered). For now, it hasn't massively impacted the time the newsletter takes, but allows me to cover more stories, so the assistance is very much appreciated!

Other thoughts

I've had a recurring pattern over the past couple of years where I start to write up an idea or thought, but then end up not wrapping that up and publishing it. There seem to be a lot of reasons behind it, from losing momentum, potential undiagnosed ADHD, to feeling like my opinions and writing aren't worth sharing, as well as fearing writing about something that's still ongoing/not tidily resolved. I'm making an effort to gradually shift that a bit – I don't think I'll ever be super comfortable with throwing my ideas around, but I'd like to be more OK with putting personal writing and other creative produce out into the world.

Particularly in the past couple of years, a lot about my life and my perspective on myself and the world has changed, and much of that is still in flux. I've come to find writing a way of exploring many of those ideas and how they sit with me. I'd like to get to a point where I can share more of that, as I've found huge benefit in reading others' perspectives on many subjects, from identity to politics and much more, and I'd like to pay that forward in some way. However, that sharing process requires a vulnerability – balancing the benefits of increased openness against the safety of keeping everything locked away. This post is in its own way an expression of some of that desire to share more – my journey is a somewhat unusual one, and maybe someone can benefit from me sharing more about the nuances of the process!