Archive for January, 2015


Tinkering for dummies

January 24, 2015

I received an email:

I’ve listened to a few podcasts and now am officially a fan. I’m curious about “tinkering” for dummies

I realize that I like to tinker but always run into the reality that my technical skills don’t match up with my creativity.

I am wondering if you would suggest a pathway of least resistance for someone who is interested in tinkering. 

Time is always a constraint but I am serious about learning how to code and also learning about embedded systems but not sure if learning python for example is the best way to start.

This seems like a great question, one I’m sure other people have.

However, I’m a terrible person to answer it because I come at the problem of tinkering from exactly the opposite direction. Since programming is my job, tinkering can be difficult because it feels like work instead of play.

Still, I want to encourage the writer so I’ll try to answer. I invite you to suggest other things in comments.

I think the the very short answer is buy a kit. A kit means you’ll get something that probably works and some instructions. Then you can tweak it to be more along the lines of what you want.

And, in general, I think the path of least resistance is Arduino. Their community and system is set up to teach you things (and to hide the tricky details). It started out as a way for educators and artists to approach technology so they don’t expect you to know a lot of coding. There are many Arduinos (the UNO is my fav) so the next question is what do you want to tinker?

Learning by doing is great but difficult to maintain if you don’t have a direction. Self motivation is much easier if you have a goal, ideally an achievable, amusing, and share-able goal.

Say you want to make a watch or small desk display, start with the MicroView (and programmer). If you want to go all out (or you really have no idea where to start), get the Sparkfun Inventor’s Kit. With the MicroView, you get more tutorials with hardware in the inventor’s kit. Without the MicroView, you still get a wonderful grouping of sensors and lots of tutorials (and an Arduino board).

On the other hand, robots are awesome and seeing something move is deeply satisfying. The Parallax BOEBot (“Board of Education” Bot) is educational (and fun). It was designed for high schoolers so you’ll likely feel brilliant and idiotic in turns (c’mon, you remember being a sophomore, right?). You can get it from Parallax more cheaply but you have to build more of it yourself. (Also, you may need an Arudino UNO for those kits to add smarts to your robot.)

As you start to tinker, decide what you want to do with your limited time. Building from the ground up is an advanced exercise, often leading to frustration. Toddling, baby steps are more fun.

But what if you want light up shoes (or bike helmet)? Lights are an awesome way to get hooked on tinkering,* there are so many beautiful blinking patterns. For that, you probably want to look into the Flora system (oh! they also have a budget pack). It is designed to be wearable which is pretty neat.

Do you have annoyances in your house? Something that would be better if you could assure yourself from work or phone? Maybe knowing that the garage was down, the stove off, or the door locked? For this, I’d suggest Electric Imp (and you’ll need the breakout board as well). It connects to WiFi well and is straightforward to program. It isn’t quite Arduino easy but there are lots of tutorials.**

Finally, do you want to make a big system? Like a balloon that can take pictures and use a GPS and then connect to your home network? While I like BeagleBone Black for engineering use, I’d suggest starting with a Raspberry Pi. These are both little computers, cheap enough that you can blow one up without feeling too guilty. The Pi is designed to be a learning environment and there are many excellent tutorials. The Beagle has an excellent community as well so it may be a toss up between them. And if you’ve already started to learn Python, well, these are the boards for you. They’ll let you use Python, explore Linux, and get some hardware experience without ever worrying you’ll run out of RAM or processing power. If you get a touchscreen (like this one for BBB), these small computer feel like, well, small computers: infinitely flexible.

Which brings me to my next point, once you have a direction, look for  a tutorial for something similar. Even if you aren’t building something exactly the same. For example, if you like the look of MicroView and want to try making a watch, even though Wordy is a ring, my tutorial on building it may give you ideas.  Look at the “Learn” sections on Adafruit and Sparkfun for ideas if you don’t have a project in mind. These companies (as you may have noticed from the above links) sell tinkering hardware. They write tutorials to keep you engaged (so then you buy more hardware). You may also find inspiration from Hackaday and Make. You can document your project on, I’ve been pleased at the niceness of the community there.

Tinkering from scratch without a guide is a like baking cookies without a recipe. If you are experienced, it is completely possible to start with a blank slate. I know from experience and reading cookbooks that cookies should usually have between 1 part butter, 2 parts sugar, and 3 parts flour to 2-3-4 (b-s-f). I can make almost any cookie I can think up. But as you start out, some guidance to success is hugely important. Otherwise you end up with Strawberry-Mint cookies*** and everyone is very disappointed that the lovely promise turned into, um, that.

My final word on getting started tinkering: don’t feel guilty when you stop for a weekend or two. This is for you, it is your hobby. It might be educational but it isn’t required for life. The less guilt you feel, the more likely you are to come back to it when you get interested again.

*  My first tinkering project involved lightup high heels. The second involved halloween pumpkins lights (blue to purple flickering “candles”).

**  Heehee, I wrote that tutorial so total bias there.

*** Yes, that happened, ok? It was an accident with the mint and vanilla bottles looking similar. Quit laughing. Aw, to heck with it.



Too many podcasts

January 15, 2015

We didn’t record the movies show for Christmas and that put us off. Instead, we recorded two shows the next weekend. Isn’t it lovely to be ahead?

No, no it is not.

Yesterday, we posted the show on Bluestamp Engineering, a neat summer program for high school students. I feel like it was a month ago since we talked to them, I know I had some things I wanted to tweet. And I really should be posting that to Facebook and other places so it gets a few more listens.

For a week from yesterday, last weekend we recorded a show about hula hoops (it is awesome). I really should write the show notes before I forget the relevant links. Last weekend, I also wrote the guest outline for a show about words (yes!) that will got up two weeks from yesterday.

Today, in an apparent effort to get very little work done this afternoon, we recorded the show about words (also awesome). Once I finish writing show notes for hula hoops, I should do notes for words.

Yesterday, I had coffee with a gatekeeper to have Famous Person on the show. Today, I wrote the email that the gatekeeper suggested (Dear Zuul). We are booked out to April (I think there may be one slot in Feb and one in Mar but those were offered to people and I’m waiting to see who accepts) so you’d think it would be one less thing to worry about. Except the wheels need to keep turning on guests so I have two emails received today that I need to respond to in order to schedule future guests.

Also, I should start thinking about the outline for the next show. I think it is about processors but I’m not sure that’s the next one or the one after.

Oh, and if I’m doing an at-conference recording for DesignCon or She’s Geeky, I should start playing with the new recorder. And how in the world am I to do a mash up between those two very different conferences? Two episodes? That seems like a lot of editing and since I only left one slot, that puts us even further ahead.

All of this isn’t to say podcasting is too stressful. My problem is really the intermingling. Being ten days ahead sounded nice: if someone cancels, it is much easier to find another guest. But Chris and I do ok when it is just us.

I think that if I do at-cons, they will be bonus episodes and we’ll remove our buffer. My brain will feel better when we go back to recording 3-4 days before we post. I still have the same amount of work but it will spent less time on the stack.


2014 Year-end Review

January 4, 2015

I read Cation Designs blog and she did a year-end review. It made me think about my advice that people who often feel like impostors should do self-reviews. Creating a well considered analysis requires us to consider (and focus on) the real accomplishments instead of the failures (real or imagined).

Cation is a sewing blog. This is not. Reviews are reviews though.

I suppose that means I’d best get started.  While the categories are top 5, there is no ordering within the buckets.


  • Podcast: we did 50 episodes this year. Occasionally, it was a chore but more often it was a great way to meet interesting people. I’m pleased (and occasionally startled) at how it has grown.
  • I did a white paper for a client. It was a month of incredibly thinky work but not a lot of code (just the odd bit here and there to test ideas). I really enjoyed the in-depth thinking required.
  • Making Hugh and Maxwell are-you-ok widgets as a collaborative project. I liked working with Elizabeth.
  • The Hackaday Prize judging was extremely educational for me as well as being fun. This came about because of the podcast so that’s an interesting loop-back. It also makes me want to do more projects myself.
  • I’ve kept up the blog even though it is something I do almost exclusively for myself. This is where I practice writing and I’m happy with myself that I keep practicing. My output has been a bit uneven but there was at least one post every month. Note that there were some other posts: on element14 (paid), Sparkfun tutorial, and on Hackaday (recent projects).
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sept Oct Nov Dec
Posts 1 1 9 9 7 1 2 4 3 2 6 9



  • I enjoyed building Maxwell but, as a monitor, he’s a failure. His network has been flaky since we got a new router (as have our other Electric Imp devices) and I ignore his whiney emails (exactly what I shouldn’t be doing). Plus, I forget to pet him. I’m not sure this is the right path for this sort of monitoring (maybe fridge mounted would be better).
  • I spoke in two sessions at EELive last spring, being the sidekick for Jen’s BIA teardown and then my own presentation on how the vaunted internet of things is not on a good path for consumers. Many things happened behind the scenes that made me nervous (“Your computer cannot work with our AV.” “No, no one is speaking here at that time.” “No, we don’t need to do a real run through.”). I’m a pretty crummy speaker when nervous.
  • We looked in to getting sponsors for the podcast. It wasn’t pretty. I’m not sure how monetization will change how I feel about it. Making hobbies profitable is a good way to lose a hobby.
  • I worked at PARC and found it to be very interesting. I hoped that the place and people would be interesting enough but routers hold no attraction for me. I missed the gadgets something awful.
  • There are several home improvement tasks that I really meant to do. For some reason, ignoring the things doesn’t make them get done.


  • Last January, we rented a house in San Diego with friends to celebrate another friend’s birthday. It was not an easy trip for various reasons but it definitely qualifies as a highlight.
  • In the fall, Chris and I rented a house in Santa Cruz and had a very nice vacation filled with whales, dolphins, otters, delicious coffee, and sunshine.
  • Chris and I snuggle on the couch watching TV before we sleep. I like it.
  • I was matron-of-honor at a Las Vegas Halloween wedding. It was just as crazy as it sounds.
  • I had my first birthday party in years. It was fun.


  • I need to be better at gauging things I actually want to do versus things I feel I have to. I’ve gotten better at the day-to-day form of this but I still sign up for things in the far future hoping to convince myself it will be fun.
  • People are more important. Even being an introvert, I know this but have trouble remembering. Looking at the Hits and Highlights, it should be apparent that those are there because of the people, not because of the event.
  • My husband is right and I should tell him that more often.
  • I hate it when people leave the area. I felt sort of abandoned. One set of friends had such a long “we’re leaving” time that I sort of stopped believing they were going. It was a sad surprise when they did. Another friend said “we’re thinking about it” and then suddenly (to me) was gone. I know it is good for them (and it isn’t about me) but missing them has made me sad.
  • I’ve been on a path toward focusing on being happy: taking responsibility for and thinking about how to accomplish happiness. I did pretty good this year: learning new things and accepting some things that are not mine to change. But I clearly need a lot more work as I find it difficult to recover from perturbations.


  • Be kind.
  • Be brave.
  • Be generous.
  • Advertise the podcast and book because they are worthwhile and useful so talking about them may help other people.
  • Do interesting work.


We often threaten the dogs with year end reviews but they know their extreme cuteness will mean no punitive action will be taken for their obvious badness.

We often threaten the dogs with year-end reviews but they know their extreme cuteness will mean no punitive action will be taken for their obvious badness.