Arduino Weekend: Freaks in Garages Working together

Several years ago, when I took off a month between jobs, I spent a week geeking out on the Arduino. This weekend, I’m geeking out with my niece – who is a geologist – soldering a bunch of Mintyboost kits for Christmas, mastering the Arduino, and doing some LCD stuff.

As a geologist, my niece has professional reasons to care about electronics and the Arduino. She does field work with instruments and sensors that often need repair, tweaking, and maybe even hacking (that might be my fantasy). A little while ago, she sent me this picture:

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A colleague (colleague, ha! they’re just my niece’s friends) was working with a microcontroller to do . . . well, something geology-related. Anyway, after soldering some of her instruments, she’s got enough of a bug for us to hang and do this.

The other exciting thing about this little adventure is that, while I was ordering parts, I discovered that there’s a new thing called the Arduino Mega!

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It may be hard to see the cause for excitement, but basically the Mega has 54 output pins (they make up the little walls around the edge of the board), compared to the Uno, which has only 14:

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Going past the 14 pins in the Arduino is one of those plateaus that can kill a hobbyist’s momentum. When I had an idea for a project with about 30 LEDs, I was told I needed to get into shift registers. I did so, but it was painful and took a lot of space:

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While it was rewarding to get it done, it took up most of my time and posed some other problems (like space and weight of the components), so my project never got off the ground.

These plateaus occur in all sorts of places: GUI controls for mid- to low-level programming languages, pointers in C++, database hooks in most programming languages, PWM and servos in electronics, hell, even setting up the IDE for a relatively simple programming language. One of the things that was cool in the Lady Ada feature of Wired was how she highlighted how much more support there is in overcoming these hurdles in the last 3 – 5 years.

Chris Anderson: We’ve had the notion of garages, workshops, sheds, and DIY tinkering for a long time. And yet there’s a sense that something’s different now. What characterizes the 21st-century maker model to you?

Limor Fried: One of the things about doing projects is that documenting them and sharing them with people used to be really difficult. Now we see so many people putting up videos, and it’s so easy. I can make a five-minute video in an hour, with a preface and edits and nice audio and everything. And I think that makes a difference, because when people are exposed to this stuff and they actually get to see it, they get inspired.

There are also so many really great websites where people can share their projects. We have Instructables and iFixit and Etsy and Make and Hack a Day and our own Adafruit. So people who used to do this stuff alone now have even more community. It used to be just freaks in garages; now it’s freaks in garages working together.

Of course, I live on the second story of a brownstone, so we’re more “freaks in old maid’s quarters working together.” Still, a good time to be alive, tinkery, and not afraid to get a few burns.

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