Fusion 360 Foundational Concepts Tutorial

foundational-concepts-iconI went back into Autodesk’s Fusion 360 learning resources for a refresher and to set myself up to learn the Fusion 360 CAM modules. The last time I went through the tutorials, I had skipped the CAM functionality because I had no machine tools and were not likely to get time on anybody else’s machinery. Now that I might be able to access Tux-Lab fabrication machinery, I wanted to make sure I won’t break the machine from doing anything stupid in Fusion 360.

Before I got to CAM, though, the “Foundational Concepts” section caught my attention. I either didn’t see it the last time or it made no impression on me at the time. I went through the set of short videos and they were surprisingly informative. Most tutorials for Fusion 360 (and most other software packages in general) are happy to tell users how to accomplish their tasks. This is a slightly different twist – the foundation concepts talk about why Fusion 360 is the way it is. About how they tried to restructure a CAD package for the cloud-based future, about how they restructured the workflow to take advantage of today’s level of computation power at our fingertips, so on and so forth.

I come from a software engineering background and I’m all too aware of the fact that the end user typically has no idea what the software developer had intended as they built the piece of software. It can be argued that the end user doesn’t need to know anything about the intent if the software is sufficiently well-designed. But for something complex like a CAD package, I believe there is value in learning the motivation behind the design.

And even if the user doesn’t need to know, sometimes the user is curious and wants to know. I appreciate the Fusion 360 user education team for putting this information out there available for those who want to know.

Udemy: Product Design in Autodesk Fusion 360

udemylogoTalking with some people at the Hackaday meet taught me that there are some real fans of Autodesk Fusion 360. It was already on my to-do list to evaluate the software, but the enthusiasm pushed it to the foreground.

The first frustration is learning the software. All the resources I found are in the form of tutorial videos. I personally prefer information in written text format, but I’ll watch the videos if I have no alternatives. The videos on Autodesk’s own site is built using a Flash-based video system. I avoid Flash when I can, so as an alternative I chose the udemy.com course titled Product Design in Autodesk Fusion 360 from idea to prototype.

The quality of the course was uneven: different sections in the course were recorded by different instructors each with their own style. Fortunately, the introductory and starting sections about content creation were pretty good, teaching me Fusion 360 basics and then how to create a design. (Sections 1 through 3)

Where these sections fell short was teaching me how to fix problems. That is, beyond hitting Control+Z immediately after a mistake. I know I’ll change my mind on certain design decisions and need to adjust the file later. The class didn’t spend much time over the editing tools and I felt this gap would prove to be a hindrance to my productivity.

Section 4: Rendering, animation, and drawings were very perfunctory and barely enough to get me started. If I actually want to make use of these features, I’ll need to find additional education before I can be proficient.

Section 5: Computer Aided manufacturing(CAM) assumed the student is already familiar with machining and wanted an overview on how to use their existing knowledge inside the Fusion 360 UI. If the student didn’t already know CAM, the section would make no sense.

I think I picked up enough basics for me to start poking around on my own to fill in gaps in my knowledge, so it worked well enough as a brief overview. I’m just a bit disappointed because my expectations were higher.

“Learn Enough Command Line to Be Dangerous” notes

leclThe Ruby on Rails Tutorial was a great way for developers like me to get up and running with no prior Rails experience. However, it does require the reader to have some level of computer software skill so complete beginners could still get lost.

Acknowledging this, the author Michael Hartl has taken on the challenge of getting people up and running in the world of software development under the umbrella of his venture “Learn Enough Society” with a series of titles in the pattern of Learn Enough [X] to Be Dangerous.

I was curious about how his approach, so even though I’m not the target audience I spent some time looking it over.

His idea of starting from Ground Zero is the command line, which I agreed was a fair place to start. The reader is taken through the basics of navigating files and directories and is introduced to some basic command line utilities such as grep.

I applaud the focus on repeatedly prodding the reader to use the man command to learn more information. The manual pages displayed by man were written by programmers for programmers, which meant they tend to be densely packed with jargon difficult to pierce even for experienced users. But that’s where the information is, so one has to dive in to find answers. The tutorial tries to ease readers into man pages by teaching how to search for specific information so the reader is not overwhelmed trying to understand the full text. Baby steps.

Not being the target audience, I can’t judge how effective the tutorial is. I’m sure there are problems that didn’t stand out to me because I already knew the information, almost certainly because it didn’t stand out to the author either.

I did notice one example, though: The tutorial used the computer term argument without explanation. This might cause confusion: “I don’t want to argue with anybody, I just want to learn the command line!” (UPDATE: I e-mailed the author about this observation, and he has added explanations to the tutorial. Very cool.)

Rails Tutorial (Take 2)

RailsTutorial-cover-webWith all the fun and excitement around 3D printing, I’ve let my Ruby on Rails education lapse. I want to dive back in, but it’s been long enough that I felt I needed a review. Also, during my time away, the Ruby on Rails team released version 5, and Michael Hartl’s Ruby on Rails Tutorial was updated accordingly.

Independent of the Rails 5 updates, it was well worth my time to go through the book again. On second run, I understood some things that didn’t make sense before. It was also good to look at the first do-nothing “hello app” and the second automated-scaffold “toy app” with a little more Rails knowledge under my belt. The book is structured so the beginner reader didn’t have to understand the mechanics of the hello or toy apps, but readers with a bit of understanding will get something out of it.

The release notes for the update mentioned that a few sections were rearranged for better pacing and structure, and added more exercises for readers to check their progress. Both are incremental improvements that I appreciated but neither were especially earth-shattering.

Action Cable, one of the big signature feature of Rails 5, was not rolled into the book. Hartl is handling that in a separate tutorial Learn Enough Action Cable to be Dangerous which I will go through at some point in the near future.

Towards the end of the book, Hartl introduced an optional advanced concept: using Amazon Web Services to store user image uploads. I skipped that section the first time through, and decided to dive into it this time.

I quickly found myself in a deep rabbit hole. Amazon Web Services has many moving parts designed for a wide range of audiences and it’s a challenge to get started without being overwhelmed.

Which is where I am now. Lots more exploration ahead!

“Ruby on Rails Tutorial” notes

RailsTutorial-cover-webTowards the end of the Getting Started with Rails guide, there was a link to the Ruby on Rails Tutorial. I had missed it the first time I went through the Getting Started guide, but when I reviewed the guide a second time (things made a lot more sense) I noticed and decided to check it out.

I’m very glad that I did!

For the most part, this book (available as paper edition, but the author had made it freely readable online on the web site) was exactly what I had hoped to find for Ruby on Rails. The book went through the process of making a Rails app three times, in exactly the progression I wanted:

First pass: A simple “hello world” that does nothing much but lets the student experience all the standard overhead around creating and deploying a Rails app. It’s barely a Rails lesson at all: it’s really a lesson for learning the surrounding infrastructure before digging into the meat of learning Rails.

Second pass: A simple “toy app” that does a lot… but the student is rushed through without understanding what’s going on behind the scene. It’s really a demonstration of what’s possible via Rails helpers & scaffolding and less about learning Rails. It reminds me of what the Codecademy Ruby on Rails “class” was like. A lot of incomprehensible fancy flash. However, unlike Codecademy which left me asking “now what?” Rails Tutorial follows up.

Third pass: Over 80% of the book is spent building the “sample app.” Starting from a site that can serve a few static pages and grows, bit by bit, into a mini clone of Twitter. It had creation and maintenance of user accounts, authentication, posting 140-character messages, following & un-following users, all the core bits we associate with Twitter. (Which, the author asserted, was also originally built using Ruby on Rails.)

The Codecademy Rails class left me confused and feeling like I’ve wasted my time. (About a day.)

The Rails Guides left me with a basic level of comprehension of what goes on in a Rails app. My time (About half a week) is well spent, but I didn’t feel like I could build anything on my own yet.

After the Ruby on Rails Tutorial (which took me over a week) I feel like I have all the basic tools I need to start playing in the Rails playground. I feel like I have an idea how to get started, how to experiment, understand what the experiment does behind the scenes, and debug whatever goes wrong while I experiment.

And with that, it’s time to practice using my new tools: Let’s build something!

Codecademy “Learn Sass” notes

SasslogoWhile learning Ruby on Rails, one of the things I put on my “look into this later” list was Sass. I knew it was related to CSS but didn’t know the details, I just noticed when the Rails generator created a controller, it created a .scss file under the stylesheets directory.

So when I received email from Codecademy notifying me that they have a new class on Sass… the “look into this later” became “let’s look into it now”.

Unlike Ruby on Rails, Sass is not a huge complicated system. It solves a fairly specific set of problems typical of CSS growing unwieldy as it grows with a project. It introduces some very nice concepts to keep CSS information organized. After banging my head on lots of walls with Ruby on Rails, it is refreshing to tackle a smaller-scope project and be able to understand what’s going on. The Codecademy format is well suited to teach a smaller scoped concept like Sass.

I was also mildly amused to learn that Sass is apparently written in Ruby. I don’t think it particularly matters what the implementation was, but it’s amusing to me to see Ruby applied in an entirely different way from Rails. The bonus is that, if I should try to debug or extend Sass myself, I wouldn’t be starting from scratch looking over its source code.

Being a fresh course, the Codecademy class had a few minor problems that still need to get ironed out. The flashcard example was supposed to flip on mouse hover… it never did anything for me. Too bad, because I think the effect would have been interesting.

I haven’t gotten far enough with Rails to think about making my web app pretty, but when I do, I know how to keep my style sheets manageable with Sass.

Codecademy PHP notes


I just zipped through the PHP course in the Codecademy “Language Skills” section.

As is typical of beginner-friendly Codecademy language skill courses, it starts from the beginning with variables, flow control, etc. If the student is already aware of such basic concepts, this can get very tiresome.

This PHP class flew through basic topics. This is great for experienced programmers already familiar with the concepts and just wanted to see how PHP differs from the other languages. The downside is that, if a student is truly a beginner, they wouldn’t have received much help and would probably be lost.

I thought the class would get into more difficult topics, or areas specific to PHP and web development and… it didn’t. After covering the basics of declaring classes and class inheritance, the class stops. Even though the introduction mentioned that PHP web apps can contact databases and other server-side resources, this class didn’t cover any of the meat-and-potato of writing web applications with PHP.

Overall, the class is a superficial skimming of the surface for PHP. Good for somebody who just wants to see a quick view of PHP basics, and I appreciated it for that, but bad for somebody who actually wants to figure out how to do useful things with PHP.

I’ll have to look elsewhere for that.


Unrelated to the skimpy curriculum is a problem with the interactive learning development environment. In other Codecademy courses, the student writes the code and presses a button for it to be executed and evaluated. In this class, evaluation is constantly happening before the button is pressed. The upside is that feedback for errors are instant, no waiting until the end. The downside is that it’s easy to make it go into an infinite loop.

Example: If this was the goal:

$abc = 1;

while ($abc < 10)

Just before we type “<10” the state would be:

$abc = 1;

while ($abc)

Which is an infinite loop that sends the evaluation code spinning uselessly. So when the student actually presses the button later, the gear just spins.

Workaround: copy the newly-typed code into the clipboard, hit refresh on the browser to reset and reload the page, then paste the code in.

Codecademy “Learn Ruby on Rails” notes

Codecademy RailsThis class rushes through the basics of setting up a Rails app without explaining the bulk of what happened. This is not itself a bad thing: it let me see that Rails has a large surface area of machinery, pre-built components that can be put to work quickly.

But the majority of the course is of the “type this and look at the results” without much explanation of what I just typed and why. Example: After writing a few lines of Ruby code, the student is instructed to go into the command prompt and type “rake db:migrate” followed by “rake db:seed” before instructed to marvel at the result of the magic.

What did that do? The class didn’t really say beyond “made database”. Afterwards I went back and dig into the documentation to come up with a guess at what’s going on:

The lines of code turned out to be a way to define schema for a database table. After the schema is updated, the table itself is migrated from the previous schema to the new schema. In this case there is no existing table, so ‘migrate’ creates a new empty one. Then “db:seed” inserts some information pre-generated by the Codecademy course author into the just-created database so it is not empty.

And “rake”, which I had inferred to be some kind of database tool, is actually a general task running tool like “make” for C. I got the wrong impression since all I saw were database tasks.

That’s one example, there were many others. With this lack of explanation I’m sure I have quite a few misconceived notions on how Rails apps are built. Heck, what I described above with ‘db:migrate’ etc. might be wrong! I’ll learn my errors in due course.

If it was titled “Interactive demo of Ruby on Rails” I would be satisfied with what I got, but I don’t think it deserves the title “Learn Ruby on Rails” when actual learning has been left as an exercise for the student.

Codecademy “Learn Ruby” notes

Upside: Despite being the last in the list of language skill courses, the Codecademy “Learn Ruby” course does not assume the student knows anything about programming. It will start at the very beginning with variables, functions, flow control, etc.

Downside: If you already know basic programming concepts, the first few sections will be a complete bore as it teaches the concept of variables, function, flow control, etc. The only reason to put up with any of it is to learn the Ruby syntax for these basic concepts.

Fortunately, the class doesn’t take terribly long before getting into the interesting stuff. Like how Ruby’s basic data types have a lot more tools attached to them than other languages I’ve seen. All kinds of ways to traverse an array. The crazy number of things built in for various string manipulation. Things that, in other languages, a programmer would have to get from utility libraries outside of the language base.

That said, I’m not sure I see how these differences explain the enthusiasm I read from some Ruby champions. At the basic level covered in the Codecademy class, it doesn’t seem significantly different from any of the other object-oriented programming languages out there. Yes, it has a lot of built-in capabilities for common operations, but is that really enough to get people excited?

I haven’t seen the debugging facilities (or lack thereof) for Ruby. I’m also wary of the reputation Ruby has for being difficult to get up and running on a computer. Inside the Codecademy learning environment, it’s already set up. Getting it up and running on your own has been repeatedly warned as a nontrivial process.

No matter, I wasn’t learning Ruby for the sake of learning a new language. I was learning it as a foundation to build on learning a non-basic-library: Ruby on Rails.

That’s next.

Back to Server-Side Education

It’s fun trying to bring an old DOS game into the web world, and now I’m getting to the point where I think it makes sense to do part of the work on the server side.

I went into some Node.js classes earlier, mostly because I wanted to learn about NPM. But Node.js isn’t the right tool for every job. Specifically, it isn’t a tool I can use if I want to host with shared hosting services – the power of Node.js conflicts with the constraints to make sure everybody plays nice on a shared web host server. (Specifically those on Dreamhost, where I have my domains registered.)

So… time to learn something that I can use to put on a Dreamhost shared web server and visible to the world. The bullet point on their sales pitch says “Perl, Python, and Rails”. I already know I don’t particularly care for Perl. It is a very terse and concise language that I find to be unnecessarily difficult to debug. Python is supposed to be a more human-readable language, and I don’t know much about Rails at all.

In the spirit of adventure, time to roll the Codecademy courses on Ruby, followed by Rails, to see if I can use it for the server-side work of my little personal project. Either I learn how to do what I want, or I learn enough about Ruby & Rails to be able to articulate how it does not suit me.