September 27, 2011

Building Stuff From Kits

by with 6 comments

I grew up with the idea of making things. Homer Price building radios; old science fiction guys building space drives in their basements. The feeling expressed in Cory Doctorow’s Makers.

I’ve never built much myself. We didn’t have Legos when I grew up. I sucked at model airplanes. When I was ten or eleven, I begged the parental units to get me these kits. It was a fiasco.

My vocation is software. I build abstract structures in my mind and attempt to transfer them to machines. That’s what I wanted to do since I first heard about computers.

Over the years, I drifted away from the idea of making things. I’m strongly in favor of the Maker movement (as I am of free and open source software). But I haven’t seen myself as a part of the movement.

Then something changed. My friend Izzy gave me a Lego kit as a joke.

I work at home writing code for SpiderOak. I ended up building the kit in bits and pieces while working. Taking a break from coding, I would fit a few Lego pieces together.

The Lego kit worked really well for me. For one thing, instructions written for an eight year old are about right for me. But the real change is that I didn’t care how long it took to build the kit. When I was a kid, I would sit down, try to build something in one session, get frustrated and give up.

I discovered that it was really satisfying to me to build something with my hands.

I quickly tired of Lego kits. On feeds associated with the Maker movement, like O’Reilly and BoingBoing, I saw the Monochron Clock. This looked like more than I could handle. But when I saw the detailed instructions it began to seem doable.

So I gradually accumulated the equipment. Then I built some simpler kits to practice soldering and small muscle coordination.

Then I built the clock. It took several weeks, maybe more than a month. I was in no hurry. I would take a break from coding, solder in one little piece exactly right, then back to coding. I wasn’t trying to finish. I enjoy the process. I think it helps my coding too.

Here’s Sylvia building the same clock.

One day, there was nothing left to do. Now I have a clock and it works!

I built another clock (this one was much harder). And a watch. And a multimeter [Unfortunately this one didn't work. :-( You can't win them all.]

So something new has been added to my life, quite unexpectedly. A serious maker would create new things, or hack these kits into something unexpected. I’m not at that level yet. I’m just looking for another kit to build.

Any suggestions?

  1. i'm not writing with any maker suggestions to offer, but wanted to mention that i appreciate hearing your story. i'm also a software developer, and have always been curious (and sometimes, more urgent than curious) about ways to keep mentally nourished and comfortable through long coding projects. (the impedance at the start is often the most challenging, or any point where designs are shifting, decisions are open, and many choices have cascading and binding consequences…)

    i really like the sound of the process you discovered, and enjoy the way you've described it. i especially like the attitude of not doing the other thing in order to finish it, but just to do it. i actually have a movement practice, related to the small dance in contact improv and meditation, that i've been working into breaks in my coding, and the gradual, growing discoveries in this practice seem similar to the growth of the things you're making. maybe not so similar for some, but i like it. :-)

    (i found my way to your posting quite tangentially, via a weekly google notification i have for postings that mention SpiderOak. i use SpiderOak and like it a lot. i'm also a python and zope coder, though i don't use it for those reasons…)

    ken manheimer

  2. Nice piece liked it as it provided a view not available other wise now that you asked for ideas [ remember you asked for it ;)] take a look at you can not have it now must wait for Santa's [ release expected in Dec ;) ]arrival time can not have it before.

    Take a look at that and fire-up your imagination start planning what could be done with Ra-Pi + SpiderOak.

    Have a nice day!

  3. I always new your were one of the most creative and intelligent people I have ever met. It is quite refreshing to see how you recharge yourself when in the middle of a coding frenzy. So, on to Mindstorm yet?