Sunday, October 28, 2007


I’ve been struck by a sudden interest in Electronics and Electricity. It’s not too surprising to me, since I was drawn to programming through my interest in computer hardware. In fact, I was first bitten by the bug while in college and I would while away hours in the library, laboriously reading Horowitz's “The Art of Electronics”. However, the siren song of computer programming and the gentler learning curve soon hijacked my interest and I haven’t looked back since. Until now.

So what sparked my interest now? I was reading an article in Popular Mechanics covering their annual Breakthrough Conference and one of the winners was the Windbelt . I was stunned by the simplicity of the design, its cleverness; by its down-right, flat out hackish nature. Simple and effective. It also lead me to start researching the topic of Appropriate Technology and I was hooked. Further reading of Make Magazine, EcoGeek and Hack a Day just made things worse :-)

I’ve always had an interest in making things. Unfortunately, I was always stymied by my lack of electronic knowledge. The age of steam and gearing is long past. If you want to make anything of any significance, you have to stick a circuit in it. That’s what drew me to electronics in college, but the steep learning threw me off. This time, I have a better grasp of what I want and how to get there.

My major mistake was to try and use college text books as my source of information. This is an absolutely terrible idea if you’re not actually in a college course! College text books are geared towards helping students pass tests and not necessarily towards helping the reader acquire any actual, usable skills. Tests are treated as ends in themselves. This is precisely the wrong approach if you’re an enthusiast or a hobbyist. You’re interested in the subject because you want to get things done ASAP. If you need deep theoretical knowledge, you’ll pick it up when required. Show me the blinkenlights already!

This time around, I’ve managed to track down some electronics books for hobbyists and there’s a world of difference. No doubt, I’ll pick up some massive canonical tome sometime in the future to fill in the gaps, but by then I actually expect to have a structure with gaps worth filling. If I were to start off with the doorstop, I’d still be stuck on chapter 5 months later. :-)

So anyway, if I stick with my study plan, I hope to be able to build simple devices in a couple of months time. I’m particularly interested in eco-friendly power generation, like pico/micro hydro-power and wind power. Stuff that is simple/cheap to setup and simple/cheap to run. That’s the mantra that works in the developing world, which is what I want to target.

Ambitious much? You bet! :-) but at worst, I’ll end up wasting a few (hundred) after-work hours and pick up a thorough understanding of computer hardware. Building up your own board to support a microcontroller and writing code which has only a couple of Kb of EPROM and 128 bytes (!) of RAM (OS, what OS?) is going to be a very useful learning experience in any case.

People who know me well are probably holding their heads and groaning after reading this missive. I’m notorious for starting projects and dropping them half-way when I'm distracted by the next shiny thing and I lose interest in what I’m currently working on. There’s no guarantee this won’t happen this time as well, but I’m hoping that I’ve become a little more stable over the years (Ha!). Let’s see how this turns out. :-D

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