Developer Aspirations

YAPB - Yet Another Programming Blog



March 2010

Building Things

by Colin Miller, on Building, electronics, Make, Robots, Trebuchets

Most of my posts on here have been about software development and work related issues and observances. I'm going to deviate slightly into the realm of hobby, which I think is important for people of any career in order to keep the personal passion alive and to keep your brain active without burning out.

Recently I've been reading a lot of Make Magazine which is primarily about building things of all sorts, though it does lean a bit towards electronics. Building technology is one of those basic features of humanity that separates us from other species. When I was younger I used to visit a friend's house who's father had an extremely well equipped workshop that we would use to make random things. For the longest time I stored all of my blank CDR's on a wooden spindle that we created in that shop. Somewhere along the way with college and a career, building things fell to the wayside. Something that was so interesting and involved when I was a kid I no longer thought about or had time for. It is an unfortunate state to have gotten to, but luckily I've been able to rediscover the fun and excitement of making things from raw materials.

My first project was to build a small scale version of a trebuchet. My version is not even close to historically accurate, was created by lashing together pieces of wood with string, isn't extremely sturdy, and the hook on the throwing arm is a bent nail taped with electrical tape. However, it works. It can toss a small ball around 50-60' using a sack of change as a counterweight. Just by making the proof of concept small scale rickety version, I have built in myself ambition for creating a proper model.

I think that as we get older, for those of us who don't stay in a making field or practice, we forget that we have the ability to create things ourselves. You do not have to be a master carpenter to build a table. You can build a trebuchet using hand tools and scraps of wood without any significant training. Making things, especially if they're fun or useful (or both!), can be a very rewarding experience that I think many people forget that they have the ability to do, even in some spare time.

One of my original ambitions upon moving to California was to utilize the local Fry's and build myself a robot. I'm not really sure what this robot will do, or its exact purpose. It probably won't even look like any normal robot, but I wanted to create one. It's been almost 2 years and I haven't started even thinking about how I would create a robot. The dream just never seemed feasible to me with my limited knowledge. I'm not an electrical engineer, I'm a computer scientist. I can program a robot that's already built, but making one is something outside of my expertise. Luckily today with the abundance of resources on the internet along with the open source movement, Robotics and creating electronics is not out of the realm of a passionate hobbyest who has no formal training.

My next goal along the path of building things will take me to the Arduino which is an open source microcontroller. There is a kit available that will get me started on the path of physical computing with the ability to control LEDs, servos, gears, read various sensors, and make noises. The eventual robot army is the natural conclusion. Everyone needs a hobby, even if it's world domination. It keeps the mind busy.

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