When I was learning to program in C/C++, for several days/weeks and on several attempts I hit the pointers plateau — that thing which, conceptually, I couldn’t get my head around sufficiently to really grok the damn things. I eventually took a class that spent three weeks on it and now I understand them — their purpose, their usage, their style and how to troubleshoot them. A couple summers ago, I took a geek vacation between jobs and worked my way through the NYU ITP Physical Computing class curriculum and dug deeper into some Arduino stuff.
After a couple weeks, I hit a plateau. I needed things like shift registers to multiply the number of LEDs I could manage with the Arduino’s 13 pins; I needed to use a 555 timer chip to get pulsing, and there was a whole range of chips starting named 74______ that were described as “hugely useful” or “workhorses”. These things were critical and basic, like pointers, but (like pointers) it was impossible to find documentation for them that was comprehensible to someone with my level of experience. It was one of the weird places where the web let me down. I must have done dozens of searches, asked everyone I could for help, and could find nothing. Which is a drag, cuz those chips are what give real ooomph to physical computing projects.
Make Magazine has fixed that with Make: Electronics, an unusually good book even by O’Reilly standards. It contains in-depth explanations of how transistors and logic gates work at the physical level — giving you a more intuitive sense of how to work with them (rather than following steps by rote); detailed descriptions of the pins at three levels: the official specs, the occasional nomenclature, and the actual function; and some simple circuits that show what the thing does. The last might be the most important. Even the most basic 555 Timer chip examples I could find had so much stuff going on that it was impossible to isolate the chip and learn, iteratively through tweaking the code, what the things does. To top it off, the Maker Shed Store has a components kit that pulls all the stuff (including jumper wires) together for you.
The one weird thing about the book is in the index:
What the hell kind of alphabetization system is this?
Of course, it’s not like I have time to do anything on my nifty hand-made workbench. But it’s nice to have it when I’m ready. Hope springs eternal. Put differently.