21 August 2012

On tangibility and engineering inspiration

Every now and then, I think about how few of my blogger friends from ~2006 write consistently anymore. I have always blamed it on the fact that as we've become responsible for a lot more over the years, we have had less time to ruminate and get our thoughts down. I have noticed for a while that the more overwhelmed I am, the less frequently I feel inspired enough to start diving down rabbit holes.

A little over three years ago, I saw Zach Klein and Casey Pugh talk about physical computing and Arduino at a Creative Mornings. It was fascinating, and I thought about it all the time over the years.

My Daft Punk helmet from Casey Pugh on Vimeo.

Cue to a few months ago. My friend Jim and I led a project at work to make a small GE fridge smarter (you can read Jim's awesome blog post about it here), and hired a phsyical computer to build it. The entire time, my head was spinning as I watched him solder things together, move wires around, and type endless strings of code. I was simultaneously furious and jealous about the fact that I didn't understand what he was doing.

Getting there!

So I signed up for an Arduino class at 3rd Ward. With so little time on my hands, I needed some kind of structure if I was to ever learn.

Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform.

I have thought about so much stuff over the past few weeks I've been taking the class. I have made little LEDs turn on, seen how tweaks in code could fade them in and out at different speeds, and can now understand the tiniest bit about currents, resistors, actuators, and pulse wave modulation (any Arduino expert is probably laughing at how beginner-level I sound). And now I can't stop thinking of all the things I want to connect an Arduino to.

220/366: I made something that did something!

Now to my point. Two things I realized as a result of taking this class --

1. It's ok to make inspiration come to you.

I can't afford to let my mind wander all day long anymore, waiting for interesting thoughts to come together and form an idea. Putting structure around activities that I know I will find interesting has done wonders for my extracurricular thoughts – I've been thinking about all sorts of things since pointedly seeking something like this out.

2. Tangibility is important for strategists.

For the past six years, I have worked at strategy-only companies – ones in which we only do strategy, and outsource production to partners. I love this for many reasons, but one byproduct of it is that you're removed from the tinkering energy that working at a full-service shop can expose you to. We are "making things" more and more at Undercurrent (mostly in the name of curiosity and experimentation), but I am still a few degrees of separation away from stuff like hardware laying around, photography studios, and prototypes. As a strategist, you spend a lot of time in your head, and being at a strategy-only company only intensifies that.

My physical computing box

That's why Arduino has been so great. As I mentioned in my Hackers post, I have a pure love of technology and the Internet, and I'm just plain interested in it. Learning how to use this platform not only has me buried in code again, but I'm also physically touching wires and turning knobs - it brings a delightful balance and feeling of I-made-a-thing-that-does-a-thing to my days.

Arduino celebrates Christmas in August.

I'm planning to take more circuitry classes at 3rd Ward to keep the inspiration and tangibility up (like Intro to Circuits and Electronics). I'll be writing a lot more about 3rd Ward in general and these classes too, so stay tuned for that. I guess this was just a little kick start into what feels like hanging out with an old friend again. :)

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