The Ribbonfarm Lab

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Ribbonfarm Lab

As I’ve mentioned in passing a few times, through the pandemic, I’ve been been spending a lot of time getting back into hands-on engineering, after nearly 20 years. I finally have one small thing worth showing off: the first test drive of one of my robots:

It’s not a kit design. I designed and fabricated this robot from scratch. It is probably the most complex engineering project I’ve ever done by myself in my life. I’ve had bit parts in larger, more “real” engineering projects, but they were all much easier to be frank, since my bit parts were mapped to my strengths.

Getting to this video has been a long, slow 18-month journey.

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Touching Transistors

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Ribbonfarm Lab

After a longish break, thanks in part to my stuff being packed away in boxes I was too lazy to unpack because we’re theoretically house-hunting (that’s going slow), I’m finally back tinkering in my lab. A couple of days ago, I fulfilled a teenage dream from the 1980s: Getting an LED to flash using a 555 timer chip.

This is a weirdly anachronistic circuit to build in this brave new age of Arduinos, RPis, and what I’ve come to think of as microcontroller supremacism. But there’s something very fun about doing something with primitive, simple parts and no code (though wiring up a logic circuit is a kind of coding). Making an LED blink without an Arduino is the engineering equivalent of touching grass. Call it touching transistors.

As my younger and more knowledgeable friends tell me, doing electronics this way isn’t a particularly useful skill in today’s technological environment. It’s like using hand tools for wood-working. Borderline quixotic. The “right” way to make an LED blink in 2023 is to write a “blink” program for a microcontroller. Software ate this older style of electronics sometime in the mid 2000s. “Blink” on an Arduino is now the “Hello world” of electronics (I got past that milestone in my learning curve a couple of years ago). Apparently only a few experimental musicians making weird music synth gadgets do things in this 1980s way anymore.

Still, I was unreasonably pleased with myself at making a 555-blinker, and checking off a 35-year-old to-do item. The experience really took me back, and got me thinking about how electronics has evolved since the 80s.


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