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Show HN: I built four eight-foot-long handwriting robots (twitter.com/aarondfrancis)
408 points by aarondf 79 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 164 comments

I live in Austin TX and got one of the mailers last year. I was wondering how you pulled it off.

The handwriting on the outside does make it look personal but, once you open it, it is obviously computer generated due to the consistency of the writing. If anything, I'd say the writing in inside undermined the message because nobody is going to handwrite a letter to solicit that business. You should test only doing the signature only and see if impacts your response rate.

We also got a couple of 'we want to buy your home' mailings. It does feel like it impacts our open rate but I can't tell if it is just due to novelty.

I think the main reason it 'works' as a business proposition is that the City is doing blanket increases and relying on protests to catch their mistakes. They do this (in part) because they are forbidden from using actual MLS data. It costs me 3-4 hours to do a protest so outsourcing it makes sense if your time is valuable. But when it came down to it, I wasn't willing to let them represent me -- something about it felt off -- and I wound up just accepting the increase.

The system doesn't feel broken -- just wasteful. How else are you going to do a property tax? I do wonder if this goes the way of medical billing (overcharge at first because you know you are going to lose some to protests) or it creates a watchdog effect that make the City limit the increases to an amount that is not likely to draw protests.

No way, you got one of our letters? That's crazy! I'd be curious which version you got. We sent a few different iterations. I'll have to look you up tomorrow when I'm back at the computer.

Re: the system. I can't disagree there. It's a disaster and there has to be a better way. Counties rely on a certain percentage of people protesting and the ones that don't get kinda screwed imo. The unfortunate truth is that everyone should protest every year. That's a broken system. Some other states only revalue every third year, so the counties have a better shot at fairly valuing everything because they have 1/3rd the workload. Not Texas though. They revalue everything every year, so it all just gets ballparked.

I assume it was yours. Everything fits your description and I don't think anyone else is doing exactly the same thing.

I don't think the system is broken. It's just not an easy problem, especially if you can't use the market to set the price. California's only-when-you-sell system seems a lot worse.

Now, you could have a fairer system, but this is America and we're not particularly concerned about fairness when you get down to it. Austin's system actually has some progressive features that it is quiet about so the State does make them stop doing it. For example, if you are over 65, you can defer your property taxes until you die and accrue simple (not compound) interest. And houses have a quality 'grade'. Lower grade housing stock gets smaller annual increases which makes the system mildly progressive.

There is no state income tax so a lot of stuff gets funded through property taxes. It's not like the money is used to build bombs to blow up people on the other side of the world. Taxes are the price of a civil society and gaming the system was one of the primary causes of the decline of the Rome Empire.

So I don't agree "paying the minimum taxes you can get away with" is the same thing as "being screwed". It literally is not worth my time to protest most years, or even to hire a 3rd party, and I'm okay with that. I see companies like yours serving to keep the system relatively honest. The only thing I would change is that I'd add a $20 filing fee which is refunded if they make an adjustment to cut down on the junk protests, which are paid for my property tax dollars.

I looked you up. If the word "Graveline" means anything to you, then I found the right guy!

It's possible that you got one of our handwritten letters, given the properties that you own. I think it's unlikely given the value of Bois though. But it's been a long time since we've sent the handwritten stuff now, so who knows! Small world either way.

Let me know if you want us to handle it next year ;)

What's MLS data?

I think in this context, Multiple Listing Service. Real Estate.

Really impressive and fun to build I'm sure. I bought an Axidraw last year to play around with making fake signatures of fake people and as well we were getting a ton of Etsy orders and we always write a hand written note, but we couldn't keep up at Christmas time and my wife's wrist was breaking, so it saved our bacon when we had to write like 600 notes in 6 weeks.

The fact that you have to keep replacing the sheet and realigning is definitely a drag, but we made a system that worked well enough for us. Making the SVG letters is a pain and we are working on designing our own font from my wife's handwriting, but you can at least SVGize a picture of your writing and then touch it up in an editor.

Gives a good excuse to buy lots of different fun pens and paper, but yeah it's annoying when a pen stops writing half a letter and I'm not sure if it's just an ink thing or a pressure thing.

We've gotten positive reviews that mention our handwritten notes at least and lots of comments on great service and such, so we think it makes a difference.

I think people will be able to tell the difference between the handwritten SVG and the font on anything more than a short paragraph. Our brains are great at finding patterns, and the regular shapes of fonts are such a pattern.

So depending on your use case your time might be better spend on improving the handwriting->vector pipeline instead of designing a font (not that that isn't fun too)

Yeah. We usually only do like one or two sentences, so it's harder to tell and a font might make it quicker, but I doubt we'll end up finding it easier in the long run than just writing something and SVGing it.

Careful posting that here, you might get called Moloch (whatever that is) or an amoral douchebag!

Seriously though, Axidraws rule. Glad it's working for y'all.

I wanted to show my support for you and the cool things you did. Heaven forbid you participate in a direct mail campaign, a legitimate advertising method that is for sale by the post office themselves and as an entrepreneur try to optimize it.

I get 0-4 pieces of junk mail a day, so who cares if one is hand written. There is no case where it will all go that way. You are an entrepreneur, feel no shame for those who don't get it. Most of the time it's not worth posting anything, because very few will appreciate it or not be a douche, even on HN. It's sad that it has to feel that way, that I'd rather not share cool stuff, because people will be dinks, but it's just not worth the mental exhaustion most of the time.

I really appreciate you saying this, truly. Thank you.

The Autopen AF is a commercial product for this.[1] There's also MAXWriter and RealPen. All have paper feeders, so they can turn out page after page, unattended.

In China, some kids use automatic writing machines to do their homework.

[1] https://youtu.be/3FHGO2i0bL4

See also the LongPen, conceived by author Margaret Atwood for remote book signings. I particularly like the name because it sounds like something out of her fiction.


I was about to get out my pitchfork but then I discovered that this is not used for marketing false authenticity. It is actually used in a service that attempts to help people lower their property tax rates. Due to the peculiar aspects of how this works in Texas, a "handwritten" note can improve the chances of a reduction.

Ah well, dust off that pitchfork.

These letters are sent to homeowners, who then hire us, and we go in person to the appraisal district to represent the homeowner.

I received a letter from an attorney telling me I could lower my property tax. I expressed interest and he sent me a 5 page form to fill out.

I looked up online that it was a 1 page form to dispute my taxes myself. Filled it out, was in the room for 5 minutes and my taxes went down almost $2,000 per year.

Yeah you can definitely do it yourself! Usually they give homeowners "courtesy cuts" for showing up. Or sometimes they do stonewall them.

Either way, many of our clients prefer to have us do it since we do that all day, every day, every year.

A lot of people view it as found money. Sure they could take an afternoon to pull comps, go to the district, wait for the appointment, and then haggle with an appraiser for a small cut, or... they could just send us! Each person values their time differently.

To quote Big Tom Callahan: Of course, I can get a hell of a good look at a T-Bone steak by sticking my head up a bull's ass, but I'd rather take the butcher's word for it.

Each person values their time differently.

I actually value my time at a very high hourly rate. The point I was making is that this attorney’s marketing worked… but his process was terrible. It was more work for me to have the attorney do it than doing it myself.

Opinion revised: I'm looking forward to the day when a "handwritten" letter causes your aging mother to forward your inheritance to a scammer. Stop doing things you know are wrong to make a quick buck.

Would you please stop posting flamewar comments? It's not what this site is for, you've done it repeatedly lately, and when accounts do that we eventually ban them. We have to, because it destroys the intended purpose of the site.

(I'm not defending whatever it is that you're flaming - I haven't absorbed any of the details, and they're irrelevant to the moderation point here.)


I'm still surprised how often I get still direct mail with something "handwritten" on it, where it's obviously not, because every same letter looks the same.

This seems like a problem solvable with just software, i.e. introducing artificial variations in the fonts. Why the seemingly overly complicated jump to using real pens in a plotter?

It's the font improvements that could possibly fool me, not the indentation of a real pen.

Adobe’s CFF font format (found tucked away inside OTF font files) has a ‘random’ operator, though most font handlers I’ve seen don’t bother to implement it.

I think a naive randomness would look bad. As in "I have 3 variations of each letter and choose one on random". Because how I write a letter is influenced by letters before (so have to create ligatures I guess). But for the same reason, randomly making some variation to the letters would feel "off" if it doesn't take into account the letters before and after. There is a flow to writing.

Of course, doing anything is better than having the two e's in "meet" be identical, which spoils it being real handwriting from the get-go.

Seems like the sort of thing machine learning actually ought to work quite well on, if you had enough hand written letters as training samples.

Fonts already have this power, which is part of why they're so complicated. "contextual alternates" is the term for search

Thanks. https://www.typenetwork.com/news/article/opentype-at-work-co...

Was a good description. The "horoscope" example in how it connects the r and s is similar to what I meant. Having to create ligatures for that.

It's hard to introduce random into actual fonts. I don't even know how I'd do that. What I could've done is just generate the SVG and then print it, that would've been a lot easier but way less fun.

The reason you get crappy printed mail that's obviously a fake is because it's cheap and easy. Not everyone wants to build robots.

Create hundreds of variations of a font by making small random changes to each character. Then set each character on an envelope to use a random font from that set.

I have no idea if this is possible, but I remember an article in Douglas Hofstadter's "Metamagical Themas" about Knuth's "Metafont". It sounded like one could define certain variables to alter the equations of the font. This could be one way of easily introducing randomness.

While this is honestly very cool from an engineering perspective, it feels highly unnecessary and even disingenuous. the whole point of sending a handwritten letter "in this day and age" is to signal that real effort was put forth for this communication which indirectly shows its importance to the sender.

The difficulty and tediousness of the action is precisely what gives it it's perceived value in the eyes of the receiver.

And while it's arguable that building such an elaborate contraption to mimic handwriting is in itself a signal of the importance of the communication, it still gives off a sense of disingenuousness to me.

It’s just like deepfaked video and audio; it undermines the value and trustworthiness of the real thing by flooding the “market” with hard-to-spot fakes. In this case, the “market” is people’s trust in the proof-of-work of a seemingly handwritten letter.

This reminds me of The Writer which was a handwriting automata created by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in 1770. It is incredibly impressive.


Oddly enough I've received fake handwritten letters for a long time, they're always junk mail, so like a lot of advertising ideas, the novelty wears off quickly.

I've received a lot of handwritten-but-printed-letters (ie. it looks like handwriting at first glance, but if you look closely it looks printed because there's zero artifacts typically associated with handwriting), but I've never received junk mail that's actually hand-written (ie. this post, presumably I won't be able to tell).

It looks easy enough to tell if you check the pictures behind the link. Lots of identical letters, and the lines are too straight for human writing.

Does he mention why he's building this?

I understand that handwritten letters might receive a bit more attention, but doesn't it come across as unprofessional? It would for me - I would assume they don't have the money to properly print at least the address fields.

Yeah this is just another example of the "best minds of our generation working on making people read more ads" quote. Sad, really.

At least ads are not trying to deceive, they are usually explicitly marked as ads. This is clearly an attempt to fool the recipient.

Obvious growth hack thing - try to bypass the brains "this is spammy mail ad crap" by making you first think it's written by a person and not a printer, thus it should be important.

When it does turn out to be "spammy mail ad crap", doesn't it backfire?

Note that I have no idea what kind of letters he sends.

Right... because people actually send hand-written letters in the mail \s

In the initial model the pen is slanted but parallel to the axis of the sheet, and in the last model it's vertical. Does this change the style of the writing? I think I hold the pen like rotated at 45°. What about that? Have you tried with a ink pen?

What's the difference with an off the shelve pen plotter?

Holding it at 45 works well for e.g. a sharpie, but it didn't work quite as well for a ball point pen, which we ended up using.

We tried a bunch of different pens and eventually ended up on G2 for reliability and "rollability," if thats a thing. Way fewer dead spots than some of the other pens. Also, we could see remaining ink and swap out early.

> What's the difference with an off the shelve pen plotter?

It's bigger!

Seriously though, this was an off the shelf pen plotter (Axidraw) until I blew up one of the axes. So it's the same controller, same motors, same pen carriage, and one of the same arms. We simply took one axes and made it super long.

The off-the-shelf plotter is called Axidraw, by Evil Mad Scientist: https://shop.evilmadscientist.com/890

I think this is the most interesting video in the thread: https://twitter.com/aarondfrancis/status/1438888791905865730

It'd be probably more realistic if it included random noise or used a GAN model to generate a unique looking letter every time.

Hey! Glad you liked that one.

So it does introduce random variation. I had the employee write each letter ~15 times, and then they are plucked at random and then more "wobble" is applied randomly. So each character is slightly altered from what she wrote. Her original stroke actually never shows up anywhere, which is kinda funny to think about.

Letter spacing, word spacing, line spacing (y pos), line starting point (xpos), and baseline drift are all random as well.

I don't know how to write and or use a GAN model so I didn't. Maybe next time!

Really cool. I've seen a lot of handwritten letter writing services, but most lack realistic variations. It's a pretty crowded market, but this definitely has potential as a spin-off service.

Also, thanks for the A in ACCT 229!

Ha! Weird seeing an ACCT 229 student here. You're welcome. Congrats on getting the A!

> Letter spacing, word spacing, line spacing (y pos), line starting point (xpos), and baseline drift are all random as well.

Did you consider varying intraline individual character y pos? The videos look like not.

Yeah, that's the baseline drift I mentioned. The whole line kinda flows on a wavy baseline, like a human does.

It doesn't look like it on the video because we're talking a few millimeters or less. But when you stand back from it you see that the baselines aren't exactly straight.

OK, nice.

Was this custom code that you wrote to do this? Or is this something that we can find out there in the world? I have been working on this off and on for a few years now and I have just not been able to come up with a reliable way to pull this off.

Great work all around!

That's great, I guess you could have a normal printer do the same and make it look like it's handwritten using your method. The only thing left would probably be the pressure applied to the pen while writing if you can vary that.

That only thing left is a pretty big one! We could print it and then apply the pressure with a pen, but at that point I think writing would suffice

Over the past few months, we've been playing with the Axidraw to bootstrap a handwritten card service, so I loved reading about the way you solved some similar problems – especially the jigs. For us, this has been much more challenging than expected...thanks for sharing your process, it was encouraging.

For what it's worth, we're making FountainCards.com, which will be the easiest way to send a card written in fountain pen. If anyone is up for trying out the beta, my email is [email protected]


Glad you enjoyed it. I feel like the jigs were one of my best inventions. Especially the pen alignment jig that gave me a reference point for dead reckoning. When I figured that out I was pretty tickled. Good luck, reach out if you need anything!

Ha! Moloch indeed.

Fountain was born out of my utter avoidance for writing cards. After my wife had our first child, I had a whole list of people to write and thank…but didn’t…and I still feel bad. Soon, I will have invested a whole year of development time to avoid spending an hour writing cards. Engineering is a curse ;)

Thanks Aaron!

Why did you do alignment via jig? I've done this kind of manual configuration in the past when I needed to align two independently-controlled axes to each other (a pick & place handing off an object to another pick & place) , but for registration of a single axis, I'd normally use a "home" sensor.

The jig aligns two axes! The jig is placed at a specific tooth (x) with a known Y offset. By placing the pen in the hole on the jig, both x & y are resolved

Fountain pen?

I love them. But suddenly 15 years went past, and when I opened up my Parker 45, the ink reservoir plastic had perished.

I've bought a number of replacement wells, but none of them work. They use a screw to draw the ink, which gets the ink into the reservoir OK, but it doesn't flow, presumably because there is no ventilation?

What fountain pen mechanism are you using?

Do you know of a way to rejuvenate a Parker 45?

Oh no! Sad to hear that...I'm not sure how to fix that problem, sorry.

We use Pilot's "Varsity" fountain pen, which is certainly lower end from the 45, but easier to switch in and out.

Reminds me of the story of Turry https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/01/artificial-intelligence-revol... Long text, search for Turry

Haha exactly right! I came across this WBW article when I was building these guys and thought wait... Am I building Turry?

What were the letters for? Were conversion rates significantly better than typed letters?

In Texas, the county puts a value on your house that then determines how much you pay in taxes.

Usually they just kinda eyeball it. The homeowner is allowed to protest and say "hey that's super wrong, I protest!" It's a pretty broken system tbh.

We are property tax agents that homeowners hire to do that "protesting" process for them. IF we save them money, we get paid a percentage of the realized savings. If we save them nothing, we get paid $0.00, so it's a pretty compelling offer.

As for conversions, it's extremely hard to track because it's physical mail. But yes, the campaign did quite well!

I don't think you answered the questions: Why was handwriting necessary? Are people more likely to read your mail if it has a handwritten envelope?

My question would: Isn't it faster to just have some people write the addresses per hand?

... I would take "this is cooler" as an answer :-)

> Are people more likely to read your mail if it has a handwritten envelope?

That is the theory!

> My question would: Isn't it faster to just have some people write the addresses per hand?

Undoubtedly, yes! Our plan was to try to make it a service pre-covid, but then we decided to double down on our main product (doing tax protests).

There are lots of services out there that do this, but mostly they do low volume, high cost stuff

- https://www.handwrytten.com/

- https://www.scribeless.co/

- https://roboquill.io/

- https://handwrittenmail.com/

- https://letterfriend.com/

Lots of stuff like thank you notes, etc. We just wanted the addresses on the outside!

I LOVE your project and delighted in reading about it. But your offer is so compelling I doubt you need the fake handwriting.

It shouldn't be that hard to track conversion rates?,

You could run A/B tests on randomized populations, to see relative performance of conventional methods to yours, keeping other factors like packaging, contents of the leter same ?

You could even probably track basis demographic/ economic groups given that you are tracking home value, you have both property tax and location data with which to control for.

Whether you should do is a different question

Ah yeah I guess I shouldn't have said it that way.

I'll rephrase: "It's hard for me, as the individual developer at a company, to spend enough time to devise a system to adequately A/B test the production and distribution of physical mail as compared to link clicks."

So the tax equivalent of the lawyers that advertise on tv that they don't get paid unless you win.

Yes, in the sense that we don't get paid unless we win.

No, in the sense that we don't advertise on TV and we don't call ourselves The Texas Hammer [1]

1: https://twitter.com/JIMADLERLAWFIRM

That is a weird way to tax property.

I still don't understand why you needed this autograph pencil?

> I still don't understand why you needed this autograph pencil?

To trick people into opening their junk mail, because they think it's a letter from a human.

Ah yes.

I have gotten these before, but not produced this way. The ones I got looked like they were written by an underpaid employee.

They have had signature machines for years though. The Kennedy's used them a lot.

The only thing I would experiment with this project is adding significant error, and randomness to the writing. It would look more realistic?

On a personal note, when I get these (Anderson Painting likes this approach.); I throw away the ad away immediately, or if printed on good stock paper--I save to pick up dust.

Pick up dust, that's an interesting comment. How does stock paper help with that?

Not sure if it's the same thing, but heavy cardstock is great at collecting dust off a flat surface - for some reason it sticks to the edge.

It's a pretty common way to tax property.

All a town or county is looking for is a somewhat equitable way to split up the bill for the total tax income it wants to collect each year. All that matters is that every property's relative value is reasonably fairly assessed, and the tax rate is then set based on the amount of funds the local government budgets, with the portion each household pays being weighted based on assessed value.

All that happens if an individual homeowner argues down their appraisal is that everybody else's taxes go up by a bit.

If everybody successfully argued their house was 10% overvalued, all the assessments would go down, the tax rate would go up, and they'd all be right back where they started for tax bills.

Is it? How do other states do it? Here in the Netherlands it's the same, roughly judged based off average values in the neighborhood.

In my locale, the assessment is pegged to the sale price, so if you buy a house for $X, the assessed value becomes $X. The city assessor also inspects the house shortly after the sale. In an area with a lot of turnover, the assessments tend to be fairly accurate. A major renovation (requiring a permit) will result in a re-assessment.

In subsequent years, they're supposed to apply a formula, but of course "drift" can occur. And then there's an appeal process.

> A major renovation (requiring a permit) will result in a re-assessment.

Doesn't this just incentivize people to not pull permits on major work? In California contractors often try to talk you out of getting a permit because it's more of a hassle for them, so clearly the contractors aren't liable for doing unpermitted work...

It does, but it's usually the contractor who pulls the permit for you. I suspect enforcement is enough of a deterrent, but who knows. As I understand it, the penalty is that you get to rip out whatever was built without a permit.

For DIY'ers, there's actually a nice program... once you pull a permit, you get to talk with the code inspectors during their office hours, and they will walk you through everything you need to do in order to meet code. A friend of mine built an entire addition this way.

There's no way to hack-proof any taxation mechanism.

That's really nice. Here they just show up after the fact, tell you the first thing they find wrong and then leave.

If it's not to code, it can take many visits to get a full list of issues.

Same in Canada.. always seemed fair enough to me and I assumed it was standard but now I'm curious how many other ways they are and how they shake out.

As for fair:

There is little thought given to how much the individual house is worth, rather it relies on comp sales in the area. For example, a fully renovated house might go for $500k, but another in the neighborhood with the same number of bedrooms and bathrooms in a less desirable location (say the entrance to the neighborhood) might only be able to sell for $400k.

It is also very common for the adjustments upward to be far quicker than adjustments downward.

Then there are definitely examples out there of the city appraised value being driven by desired tax revenue and becoming detached from the reality of sale prices.

In CA, your tax is around 1 percent of the sales price.

If you remodel, you are suspose to have your property reassessed.

In California, your value is nominally bound to the actual value (i.e. it can be reassessed at any time). However, given that prices go up faster than the limits on raising assessed value in Proposition 13, in reality the tax is effectively "Sales price plus MIN(Inflation, 2%) per year"

My current house was being taxed at a value of 1/8 of what I paid for it.

It is, I agree.

We used them to write the addresses on the envelopes.

Very cool :) The results look really good!

It looks like the pen plotter has 3 degrees of freedom, I'm just curious if you think adding any more would possibly have any benefits?

I've got a very cheap robot arm, I plan to teach to draw sometime, but I don't think it's going to work well, partially because the lowest servos don't seem to have enough torque and I don't think it's especially accurate/repeatable.


It has ~2.5 degrees of freedom. The pen servo only controls the up part of the vertical axis, gravity controls the down. What I mean to say is that the pen carriage just slides down, it is not pulled down.

To solve for that we used... rubberbands. It adds a little extra downward force to ensure the ink flows.

This is so cool! I live in Houston and make a dashboard every year to help friends/family/colleagues find comps and negotiate their property tax rates. I had thought about direct mailing out drafts of info packets to people as a side-hustle, but never put in the work to make it happen.

Nice, it would make a great side hustle if you have a flexible enough job to attend the hearings! Or if your angle was strictly preparing packets for homeowners to attend their own hearings. I say go for it

In my district there are no hearings for this. You challenge the new tax rate with a business reply card and write the comps in a notes section.

Interesting. Is this also in Texas or do you live somewhere else?

Not Texas

Finally the machine from Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" is possible:-)

Joking aside I find this highly fascinating. Especially since (apart from applications like the one in Kafka's story) the results from a good printer are probably practically indistinguishable for most people. Handwriting robots are one example of a technology that became good enough and useless at the same time. They are fun though and I love to see them in action. (OK, not the Kafka one but the one one from article certainly).

I thought this thread was shaping up to be "and now I can automate sending handwritten letters to my Grandma".

At least that's what jumped into my head because I still send my Grandma letters. Don't want to automate it though :)

That's where I draw the line. Call your grandma! Call your mom too, while you're at it.

That's really wonderful that you still send your grandma cards. I guarantee you she saves every one.

Don't worry I call all of them too. I need to do it more often though, I've been slacking.

You might get a kick out of this project: https://hackaday.com/2021/04/25/keep-in-touch-with-grandma-w...

(Not mine, I just remembered and googled it...)

That's awesome, I've wanted to build something similar like a walkie talkie that's connected to a peer over the internet, you just press the button to talk instantly!

I guess this might be for future iterations... But.. aren't variations in inclination, pressure and stroke (direction and order of strokes) super important for handwriting? How would you handle these - especially pressure.

Yes you are absolutely correct! That's the biggest flaw in this system IMO. And I don't think it's fixable without a fundamental redesign. The pressure is controlled by a rubberband. I could possibly use the servo to relieve pressure during certain strokes, but how much? I don't know how tall the paper is! It could be a ten sheet packet or an envelope. And to simulate pressure differences we're talking about fractions of a millimeter there. I can't crack it!

Now I'll have this on the back of my mind.. what a super interesting set of problems to solve, haha!

Please report back when you solve it!

Instead of using a vacuum to directly place a sheet of paper, instead automate the placement of jigs. Design the jigs with self-locating features so they can be placed by a relatively inaccurate system.

Yeah that sounds super cool. Alas, I am but one man, and one mildly skilled web developer with zero experience in hardware before this.

I did watch a bunch of vacuum robot videos on YouTube tho, that was fun.

We had better luck with Bernoulli cups to move paper from a ream to our platen where it gets printed on. We grab the paper by the short edge and drag it over, easier than trying to lift it off vertically. The platen has its own vacuum so the paper gets sucked down in place. Works pretty well but we still need to recover from errors, especially when changing paper types.

In all my research I never came across (or didn't understand) Bernoulli cups. This looks like it might have solved our original problem with suction cups: they would pick up huge amounts of paper. We're talking like 5-15 sheets. We tried turning down the suction, etc, but there was no way it was ever going to be precise enough. Thank you for sharing this, I just learned something new and super cool.

What's your application? You say your platen has a vacuum, did that affect writing quality (assuming you're writing)?

This is for an internally developed printhead test tool (at hp) so money is not as much of an issue. We place the paper on a very flat vacuum platen and then print various test patterns with our (industrial) printheads. So the printing part is easier than what you're doing, printing more or less the same way you'd do in a flat-bed plotter.

We did play around with various ways of picking paper and it's generally a tricky problem, even now we have to adjust the flow for different paper weights. We also came up with a simple way of dropping off extra sheets by forcing a little bow to the paper and shaking a few times for the extras to fall off.

But... but you could have used your powers for good!

Nothing really against the OP, this is arguably more defensible than other similar initiatives. It's just a shame that so many inventive engineers are being put to work in the marketing machine and not more worthwhile endeavours.

It's not just that it is marketing, but this is specifically deceptive, in that the whole point is to trick people into thinking they got human attention (actual handwriting) as opposed to getting spam from a (literal) robot.

That said, I totally appreciate the project from the technical perspective. I even can appreciate it in a "mischievous" sort of way, since tricking people can be fun. But still...

<tongue-in-cheek-mode "on">

Given the amount of effort that went into this (amortized over each letter) - I'd say the client almost did receive special attention.

I mean they could just have hired a few interns (or even crowd-sourced some school kids).


In the movie 'Her' the actors job was writing targetted, "personal", handwritten letters for a living.

> the marketing machine and not more worthwhile endeavours.

Ah yes, but how do we tell the world about our worthwhile endeavours?


> Nothing really against the OP

No worries at all. You should read some of the other comments!

I've got a few letters which looks handwritten but obviously automated. i appreciate the effort but if the content is an obvious sales tactic it kinda diminishes the appeal.

It's a literal spambot. While a handwriting robot is potentially wonderful (I'm a particular fan of Jaquet-Droz's automaton the Writer, finished in 01774, which is probably the first programmable pen plotter, containing perhaps the second vector font after the Romain du Roi), that's horrible. This is why we can't have nice things.

Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!

- https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49303/howl

... all these scenarios are in fact a race to the bottom. Once one agent learns how to become more competitive by sacrificing a common value, all its competitors must also sacrifice that value or be outcompeted and replaced by the less scrupulous. Therefore, the system is likely to end up with everyone once again equally competitive, but the sacrificed value is gone forever. From a god’s-eye-view, the competitors know they will all be worse off if they defect, but from within the system, given insufficient coordination it’s impossible to avoid.

- https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/07/30/meditations-on-moloch/

In this case, the value being sacrificed is that if you write a letter to the government disputing your tax assessment, you get a fair hearing. Stacked on the crooked timber of humanity, the best inventions immediately sink to the worst, most contemptible ends.

I think this is a misunderstanding of the use of the letters. Although there is definitely some truth to your statement, I don't think is as dark and wicked as it seems. This is a marketing technique to try and get customers to use their tax dispute service, not the communication technique to the government itself. The hypothetical worst case here is that people throw out handwritten mail because every company uses handwritten mail for spam, but, to be fair, if you've gotten a piece of handwritten mail in the last year you're in the minority.

You're right, I misunderstood some of Aaron's explanations. He clarified later that this is just garden-variety spam, which is still pretty dark and wicked, just not in the same way.

I am sure this is for common good. Well no. Is there anything good in this?

It would be nice to receive a letter like this at home.

Is this Turing test - letter edition?

Not sure how I feel about automating those last bits of human touch.

You don't love getting envelopes in the mail that appear hand written but turn out to be mass produced promotional garbage?

The only hand-written letters I get are from religious nutters imploring me to join their church. I'd rather have the promotional garbage.

At least that keeps their hands busy writing letters instead of thumping bibles and pointing fingers. Idle hands are the tool of the devil.

If the churches paid their fair share of taxes, then the real estate taxes wouldn't be so high for everyone else.

Deal! DM me your address

Humans will need to up their game.

Ever tried calligraphy with a split nib? It's really fun (until your hand cramps). I send out holiday updates on nice paper every year. I used to wax seal them too, but that breaks off in the post sometimes. Also: I like to pretend I'm a founding father or Descartes.

If you've ever received something that looked "hand written" it's either a convincing fake, or made by an intern/slave.

I think we should probably question why this person thinks that revealing how the sausage is made will endear anyone to them.

> If you've ever received something that looked "hand written" it's either a convincing fake, or made by an intern/slave.

Do you never receive genuine hand-written letters from friends?

Sorry for you!

Only postcards. The last handwritten letter I received I think it was from my brother, more than 20 years ago. Even my grandma video-chat with me now.

I still send hand-written invitations to social events, and hand-written letters of thanks for social events I'm invited to.

Did you pick up a fork? Pick up a pen!

This really should be a Best Of HN post. Great work!

I feel like this person is a genius.

Ha, thanks! That's a nice thing to say.

I think a lot of times, persistence can be confused for genius.

I think this comment thread in an interesting mix of people quoting Howl and comparing you to Moloch and people calling you a genius. Of course, Moloch mainly chooses genius to serve as his priests.

I've gotta admit I didn't read the whole comment about Moloch. I told my wife that HN was going crazy over the robots and tried to describe the range of comments and her response was "what's HN?"

I think you should probably make sense of the criticism being levied at you, even if it appears at first off base. I had basically the same thought as the guy referencing Moloch, although I generally avoid the impulse to moralize to others about their life choices.

If I didn’t know better I would think this is a parody of morally bankrupt technologists. But it’s not a parody, it’s an obscene reality.

- They have constructed a (rather impressive) mass deception machine, and put it to work.

- They have convinced themselves that the mass deception is worthwhile because their clients can’t lose money.

- When challenged, they seem to believe that the ends justifies the means, and that it is just marketing.

The only constructive thing I can think of is that those of us who have the ability to build these kinds of things should take this as another case study of what not to do, and how not to respond to criticism.

This was interesting too. Since he posted pictures of envelopes with people's names and addresses on Twitter, he was asked:

>are these fake addresses or?

His reply was:

>All names and addresses are public data in Texas!


I see marketing as a giant black hole of ingenuity and talent (that pays well). That being said, it's difficult to see the difference here from ingenuity in say SEO.

> But it’s not a parody, it’s an obscene reality.

Yes and: They're using spiffy tech to further accelerate inequity. aka Pay to play.

"Property taxes represent the single largest source of own-source revenue for America’s local governments. Cities, counties, school districts, and special districts raise roughly $500 billion per year in property taxes, roughly 70 percent of local taxes. Whether residents rent or own, property taxes impact everyone.

In many cities, however, property taxes are also inequitable: low-value properties face higher tax assessments, relative to their actual market values, than do high-value properties. This tax regressivity disproportionately burdens lower-income residents.

To better understand these issues the Center for Municipal finance has reviewed millions of sales records for properties throughout the country. This site presents the results of these evaluations."


"When’s the last time you thought about property taxes? We mostly accept them as a part of society, and assume that they’re being calculated fairly. But a leading University of Chicago scholar says that assumption is wrong.

A breakthrough study from Prof. Christopher Berry has shown that, on average, homeowners in the bottom 10% of a jurisdiction pay an effective tax rate that is double of what’s paid by the top 10%. Essentially, the poorest homeowners are subsidizing the richest, with disproportion effects on people of color who own property. We talk with Berry about why this happening, how it’s affecting communities—and what we can do about it."


"How Lower-Income Americans Get Cheated on Property Taxes -- Many homeowners are paying a total of billions of dollars extra because of inequities in assessing property values."


This is a weird stretch, I think. By this definition, all paid services are villainous. Maybe by your metric that's true, but then don't pretend this company is any more special than a taxi company or a baker in their evil.

Any citizen of Texas can partake in this process themselves. Their cost is time. If the value of your time is greater than the cost of the service, great! Use the service! If not, take an afternoon and do it yourself. Thus is the nature of services.

In fact, these companies only serve to punish governments for poor taxation practices, as they get more people to dispute their taxes than normally would have. Hurray!

Automating work that should not be done is immoral.

Per the adage that everything taken to its logical extreme becomes its own opposite: the only potential virtue of such work is that gaming the system may expedite reform (cycle of death & rebirth).

Though this is technically impressive, the continued pretending of "personalization" is pretty disgusting to me.

Why not just be explicit that it's automated? Because people don't like that. So we automate anyway and pretend. It's just sad.

Reminds me of the deep-fakes that are becoming popular that allow you to "personalize" video messages. I'm curious of OP had any moral qualms about deceiving people, and I ask this with complete sincerity and with no desire to downplay the (technical) impressiveness of the project.


Those comments aside, and in the interest of having a more productive, positive comment - I'll say that if the machine described could be miniaturized sufficiently - it, combined with some deep learning could be nice for those who are losing the ability to properly write.

> I'm curious of OP had any moral qualms about deceiving people, and I ask this with complete sincerity and with no desire to downplay the (technical) impressiveness of the project.

Hey! OP here. Great question.

So I think one piece of context that's missing from all of this is that our service 1) helps people and 2) can never cost them net-negative.

Our service is a property tax protest firm, where we represent homeowners in an effort to reduce their home's "appraised value," and thereby lower their taxes.

If we succeed, we take a percentage of the realized savings to the homeowner, and leave them with the lion's share. If we fail, they don't pay us anything. There are lots of firms that charge flat fees regardless of success. Those are the bads guys in our eyes.

I look at the handwriting as way to optimize open rates, just like writing a good subject line. I know that emails that say "Hey Aaron!" weren't written one-by-one by a well-meaning intern. Likewise I assume _anything_ I get in the mail is junk. We just want people to look at ours and think "oh wow they put some effort into this piece of junk mail." (We don't think we're junk mail, obviously.)

Anyone that uses our service will either make money, or they'll be left in the same spot they were before.

So I feel pretty great about that!

> I'll say that if the machine described could be miniaturized sufficiently

It started out mini! You can find it here: https://shop.evilmadscientist.com/productsmenu/846

Yes it'll be helpful for you and your clients, until everyone does it, at which point hand-written becomes meaningless. At that point it's both no longer helpful for you to drive commercial results, but also it means anyone who wasn't using it in a commercial way, will now have lost the signalling power of handwriting because the reader can no longer differentiate between someone writing a handwritten letter, and someone sending a digital letter through a handwriting middleman service.

In other words, a bit of a race to the bottom.

As for your appraisal company, I'm not familiar with it. I am familiar with the Dutch appraisal companies, which spam the shit out of municipalities with automated legal objection letters, overwhelming the paralegal capacity, and they make money off of a combination of upfront legal fees (paid not by the homeowner, but by the municipality, as 'everyone deserves access to the law' here) and savings on the property taxes. It's really approaching spam and has blackmail elements, as if the municipality doesn't respond within a legal timelimit, there can be fines or moneys awarded on-top.

All of this is great for the individual owners who use the service, but terrible for the municipality and thereby for society. After all, the municipality is now doing a lot of unnecessary work responding to automated and entirely free (spamlike) appraisal objections. Of course the municipality's budget is paid for by the tax payers. So everyone is in the end paying for this nonsense, in the form of higher tax rates.

Not only that, but in the Netherlands it's lead to a system where the appraisal values are severely distorted downwards, and compensated with higher property taxes. Instead of taxing 1% of $1 million market value, they'll simply appraise it at $600k and set the property tax at 1.6666%. Nobody can reasonably argue the $1m home is worth less than $600k, so the municipality is freed from these appraisal spam companies, and is still raking in the same tax revenue. But these unnaturally low appraisals are distorting other things (e.g. the national wealth taxes which are based on these undervalued municipal appraisals) and it's all not pretty.

None of this is good for society and I'm pretty disappointed that we're now seeing tech move further into the field of spam, even in a physical sense.

> In other words, a bit of a race to the bottom.

Copied from another comment, but this is what I got from ~10 seconds googling.






Most political campaigns, non profits, etc use printed handwriting because it's so much cheaper.

As for our appraisal company, we send human beings into the appraisal district to speak with other human beings and negotiate a value. It is a very unsexy line of work, I'll give ya that.

Customers ( homeowners?) having a potentially risk free/ no downside transaction shouldn't have any relationship to whether they are interested in unsolicited mail or should receive one.

It is a ultimately zero sum game I would think, if this improves your open rate in the short term, everyone from political campaigns to the local deli, will start doing the same and everyone would stop opening hand written mails, and yours(and everyone's) open rate will be back to the same, and we will no longer be able to open by grandmother's Christmas cards .

> everyone from political campaigns to the local deli, will start doing the same

It is definitely a matter of time until this stops working. From a quick google of "handwritten letters" here's what I got:






Many people may buy from spammers and be happy with the transaction. That's not why anti-spam laws exist.

They exist because they inflict an attention cost on people who receive unsolicited advertisements.

What you are doing is bypassing "no junk mail" signs, and fooling people into not throwing away unsolicited mail.

>> I'm curious of OP had any moral qualms about deceiving people

> I look at the handwriting as way to optimize open rates, just like writing a good subject line.

So that's a 'yes', then.

> We don't think we're junk mail, obviously.

It's junk mail.

You should give some thought to the moral argument you're making here. You believe it's okay to fake that the letters you send out are handwritten, because

> our service 1) helps people and 2) can never cost them net-negative.

That's not much of a justification, is it? What other means can you justify on the basis that you believe the service you offer is such an incredible force for good? If deceiving customers is okay, is outright lying to them? Selling their personal info on to other businesses?

If someone's going to hire you to represent them in a tax dispute with their county government, one presumes that they will be expecting you to represent them truthfully, right? That you wouldn't misrepresent the true value of their home, or, for example, try to pass a protest filing off as having been individually prepared, but actually have automated the process. Doesn't your initial contact being deceptive rather undermine your credibility as someone who will act honestly and truthfully on a customer's behalf?

The fact is pretty much all businesses believe that the service they offer helps people and offers their customers a net value. That alone is not a justification for bending your ethics.

But when the entire way your business 'helps people' is that it helps them to shift their tax burden to their neighbors, kidding yourself that your unsolicited commercial mail is not really junk mail and devoting enormous ingenuity and effort to misleading your prospects are probably the least of your ethical concerns.

"deceiving customers", in the same sense all food joints that say "best<whatever> in town", or carlsberg's "probably the best beer in the world". I'd argue there are plenty of examples on why this isn't the slippery slope you propose.

That’s not comparable. As I said, most businesses believe they offer a good product. Claiming ‘it’s the best in town’, when that’s clearly only your own biased opinion, is hardly deceitful.

Making a letter look like it was personally handwritten by a human when it wasn’t is a lie. It is intended to convey an idea that is not true: that you have been personally chosen to receive this offer, that a person has devoted time to getting in touch with you, that this offer is probably not being sent to everybody and therefore you may have been specially selected to receive the offer, because a human being chose you.

The equivalent is a restaurant using pictures of a kitchen making pizzas from fresh ingredients in their menu, but actually serving microwaved frozen slices. Sure, they never actually said they were selling fresh pizza, but… they knew what their customers would be thinking.

who cares though? If he could hand write a note 10000 times easily he would, but instead he got a machine to do it for him so now it's bad?

Isn't that what computers do?

I'd be 1000x more offended if he emailed me something that looked handwritten, but was just a bot, and everyone seems to do that.

We shouldn't celebrate all computer optimisations, if the optimisation breaks laws and hurts people.

People were annoyed with unsolicited mail, so invented "no junk mail" signs, and laws.

A handwritten address requires human time and thus is probably not worthwhile for low-margin spammers. It is a costly signal that a letter probably isn't junk mail.

By reducing the cost of the costly signal, he breaks the value of it - now everyone lives in a lower signal, higher noise world: more likely to get unsolicited mail, more likely to throw out legit non-spam handwritten mail.

True, but any handwritten note from someone you don't know is already suspect or garbage, and in no likely future will every ad be handwritten. I wouldn't call a 2 second glance as I filter mail to throw in the recycle bin "costly" per-se, and I don't know how the mail sorters at the post do their job. I can't speak on laws as I am unaware of them.

If you are using a direct mail campaign from a company they probably would know which addresses not to bother with anyway due to the no junk mail stickers (although that may be giving them too much credit) and would operate within the law.

Anyway, I don't want to try and defend "spam", the more you get, the more it sucks for everyone, but at the same time, I don't feel bad about what this guy did and as an entrepreneur trying to make a living. Maybe other people get way more junk mail than I do, but at 0-3 items a day, more on the 0 side, it just seems trivial and a non-issue and it won't scale into as big a problem as digital spam due to the costs. It's more like a clever hack, because who actually uses mail, that's so analog and back2basics.

I've got an axidraw and a laser cutter and can program and I'll be damned if I try to go through that much effort to make what he made, it just seems like a nightmare to me, but he was creative and looked like he had fun and did some really hacky stuff, so props to him.

I enjoyed your page and the technical accomplishment, but the logic of your morality is pretty twisted. It's not ok to deceive people like that. And remember, these people are competing against other people, so there are people hurt just as much as helped. It's ok to compete, but this is cheating, in my opinion.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

> Why not just be explicit that it's automated? Because people don't like that. So we automate anyway and pretend. It's just sad.

i dunno, if i got one of these spams and it included a photo and description of the homemade robot that handwrote my name on the envelope that tricked me into opening it, i'd probably think it was so cool that i'd consider buying a house in texas just so i could hire the diy robot pen envelope people to represent me in a theoretical property value adjustment case with the local authorities.

Ha! This exactly.

I really hate the 'pretending to be something it's not' angle of faking handwriting. But the tech and the effort that went into making it work is indeed fascinating.

Another week, another impressive technological display of amoral mass-douchebaggery.

Even most crimes require a lot of work and many a fair amount of technical prowess, but at the end of the day they are a severely net-negative for society.

It's a "hack", in this case to make people believe things they would otherwise not believe, and as such, it deserves to be on Hacker News.

Perhaps someone else finds a better use of the technology.

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