Chris Gammell's Analog Life

Analog electronics and everything else between 1 and 0

A bundle of glass on the seafloor

I’m writing from a plane to Australia, coming off a couple days of holiday in Queenstown, New Zealand. Something was tickling my brain that inspired me to start writing

By the end of my 5 days, I wasn’t exactly yawning at the mountains and beautiful scenery. But I also wasn’t snapping pictures of it non-stop like I did at the beginning of my trip. This is felt like the “hedonic treadmill“. Humans are very good at acclimating to the things in life, including the good things. I stopped to think about another way this acclimatization has impacted me:

The internet has impacted my life more than I ever give it credit for

We all pay it lip service when it’s brought up, but how often do you stop and think about it? Really, how often do you think about how much the internet has changed your life? Perhaps more than I do. But I know I’m used to it. I’m human, I’ve adapted. In fact, I’ve adapted so much I still get upset when I have less-than-stellar wifi (see Louis CK’s bit about wifi on planes). We adapt because it’s always there. The internet and constant connectivity has become such a big part of my life, it has become easy to ignore. So as I fly through the air in a magical metal tube writing on my supercomputer and listen to unlimited music over wifi…I thought I’d take the opportunity to pause and call out my opportunity.

First, let’s talk history: About 8 years ago, I joined a then-small site on the internet called reddit. I had been blogging for a couple years prior to that. A year and a half after joining reddit, I responded to a thread asking whether there are any electronics audio podcasts. There weren’t, so I made my attempt at doing a podcast by myself. It was…not great. But in doing so, a fellow nerd heard my attempt and suggested we try recording one together. After me and Dave recorded 3 episodes, Mike Harrison (from Mike’s Electric stuff) gave our show a name: The Amp Hour.

In the years since, Dave’s following on YouTube has risen to an astounding 400K+ subscribers. I was still working at industrial electronics companies in Cleveland while he started making a living out of it. I took a hint from this move and started my own venture nearly 4 years ago, starting to build an online course about electronics. That directly led to me quitting my engineering job to try my course full time. Shortly thereafter I ended up joining another company. That opportunity has since allowed me to travel the world and write about electronics and meet a wide range of electronics hobbyists and professionals.

All of this was made possible by a bundle of glass on the seafloor.

OK, yes it wasn’t just the intercontinental fiber optic internet lines. There are a lot of other things like laser diodes and networking equipment and the rest of the infrastructure of the internet. But regardless of how much stuff is involved, it really amazes me how much those data pipes have enabled in my life. It amplifies when I think about the events that have transpired as a result of my involvement with The Amp Hour.  Dave and I talk weekly (sometimes along with guests) and connect at near perfect audio quality and minimal lag. How would have we even come close to doing something like this years ago? Writing letters or emails back and forth, maybe? Or satellite links to somehow connect video broadcasts? Sending audio files via tape or wav files? A sometimes-working connection via ham radio when the ionospheric conditions were just right? The truth of the matter is, Dave and I would have never met and our lives would have taken different paths. I wouldn’t be a podcaster, I wouldn’t have the opportunities I have had. I would be living a different life. It’s crazy how much these small decisions have led to my current scenario.

I’ll be meeting Dave in person in a couple hours. I’m looking forward to it. I have been joking on the show that we might just get into a fistfight since we enjoy bickering about topics on-air. The truth is I really respect Dave and have been grateful to get to know him over these past 6.5 years. We give each other feedback on business decisions and discuss things happening in our lives. I’m sure it’ll be weird to see finally see each other in person, but I’ll shake his hand as an old friend.

The internet doesn’t just enable random connections (which this started as), but it enables people to find like-minded people. Even on this trip and the few meetups I have done so far, I hear the same things when I bring people interested in electronics: “I didn’t think there were others interested in the same stuff I am”.  I have always told people this is the best thing about events like “Bring-a-hack” after Maker Faire and the meetups I do in SF, LA and Chicago. Electronics people aren’t known for being particularly social, but it feels good when you find your peer group (or “tribe”). Feeling like we belong is an important part of being human and the internet allows us to find groups we connect with, even when the groups are super niche.

So three cheers to the internet and the shoulders of giants it was built upon! The bounty of the internet continues to bring nerds together from near and far (with more meetups being announced shortly). I look forward to connecting to many more people in the years to come.

Update:

6.5 years later…

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Pro Bono Engineering

Today I’m announcing a new project: Pro bono engineering. I will be offering a couple hours per week to those in need in an attempt to make a positive impact.

The concept of pro bono is nothing new. It is a common practice in law and medicine. Sometimes as a method for writing off hours at a tax break (though that is on shaky ground with the IRS) and sometimes as a public service; the American Bar Association recommends donating time to those in need to maintain good standing with the law community. And while engineering doesn’t really have a centralized organization for licensure (yes, the National Society of Professional Engineers acts as this for some fields), it is still an important thing to think about. Really it’s about helping people who are not able to afford services. Other precedents exist for this as well, like Engineers Without Borders (EWB), but I am not aware of this existing for electronics/tech projects.

I would love to tell you that I’m doing this solely out of the goodness of my heart, but that’s not how idea started. It primarily started because some of my skills are less sharp than they had been in the past. I have been working on a lot of things in the last 3 years, but I’ve been learning mostly outside of the field of engineering: marketing, product management, business administration. All of these things are necessary, especially for running a small business. But the core skills that I talk about and am proud of are my engineering skills. Much like my strife over selling my drums, moving away from engineering is as much an identity crisis as anything else. I am the first person to talk about the power of “learning by doing” (see also Contextual Electronics), so this is my form of that.

That’s not to say I’m not excited by the prospect of social good and helping people move their projects forwards. As you’ll see in the criteria I lay out below, the project goals will also help me decide which project to prioritize. Really instead of “social good”, I’ll try and focus on “impact”. If I can help a software engineer move a project forward for a device that helps a lot of people (even if it’s a commercial project), I’ll favor that.

But enough about the motivations, as this is really an experiment. I’ll only know it is working once I have tried it out! Let’s take a look at some of the restrictions and guidelines for projects I’m looking to work on:

  • This will be no more than 5 hours per week of my time.
  • You will need to pay for parts. Even when a friend mechanic works on a car for “free”, you’re often paying for the parts.
  • I will be working in KiCad. This is my eCAD of choice. If there is mechanical or other work, I’ll help out how I can (have been learning Fusion 360).
  • I will be talking and writing about all projects I help with. If you have a “secret” project, you probably should be hiring someone to help you out.
  • There are restrictions on what I’ll agree to work on, including life-critical and dangerous projects. Really I am the only person who decides what I’ll be working on.
  • Projects with existing documentation (even background info counts) will be given priority as that helps to assess the project. There is a place on the form below to add info about where to find the documentation.

So the last thing is that I am taking the “applications” for this via Google Forms. You can access the form directly here and I will attempt to embed the form below.

I am hopeful I will be able to help a lot of people and find great new people to work with. If you have thoughts or questions, please leave them in the comments below.

Thank you Antonella Beccaria for the picture of helping hands

Intermission: Act 1 of 3

I turned 33 last week.

While I have no guarantees of making it to 99, I like the idea that this birthday could potentially mark the first third of my journey to living to 99. Who knows? I could live even longer…or I could die tomorrow. Either way, I like the idea of being a third of the way to a destination; the numbers tickle my brain. It also presents a good time to pause between the acts in the play of my life and make some announcements.

Before I do, I want to explain that I have no reason to explain myself. I still feel compelled to. I think it’s because this will act as a marker for future things, future announcements. Talking about the things that have happened will make it easier to talk about other things that will happen. “Ooo, cryptic, Chris. Just get on with it already!”

Midwest, but more…west.

The biggest piece of news is that I moved from Cleveland to Chicago last week.

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This is a rather big change for me. I spent more than 12 years in Cleveland and I was a big advocate for the area (I also was a “colonist”, as I tried to recruit others to move there). I went to school at CWRU, took a 2 year hiatus working in Austin TX and then headed back to Cleveland. That’s also about the time I started this blog. Jeez, 8+ years ago.

Cleveland has been in the press a lot lately: the Cavs winning the championship last season (meh), the Republican National Convention (the city didn’t burn down! woo!) and generally more economic development coming to the region, both in and out of manufacturing (yay!). I’ve always liked it in Cleveland. I liked it when I went to school there. I even liked it through the disastrous financial crisis of 2009. Mostly I liked it when I hung out with the people who understood and liked the city. Really the people were one of the few reasons to stick around, since I haven’t worked for a company based in Cleveland for two and a half years (unless you count mine). So I’m glad I am still going to get that midwest vibe with Chicago, even if it ends up being a little grittier or different.

Wait, why the move?

Yes, you’ve figured it out. This is not the only change that happened in my life. My move was motivated by a big change in my personal life, namely splitting up with my now-ex-wife.  That was a year-long process made official a few weeks ago as well. I’m obviously sad it didn’t work out, but I couldn’t have asked for a more civil and adult ending to a relationship. For that, I’m really grateful. We’re still friends and we talk often.

This also led to a whirlwind of other large life events that normally accompany such a split and a move:

  • Selling a house.
  • Selling my car and going car-free.
  • Getting a new apartment in the city (change of lifestyle).

Needless to say, I’ve been under some strain lately.

But…California!

Yes, any time I mention that I have moved (especially to people in tech), I get the question, “Why didn’t you move to California??” While I understand where they are coming from, I get a little upset at the assumption that the only place to work on electronics/tech is California. No one asks Californian tech workers, “Why don’t you move to Shenzhen?? That’s where all the electronics are actually made!” I don’t plan to lay out all the reasons for choosing Chicago, but I will say it was a conscious choice and the right choice for me right now. I still travel out to California regularly but I’m interested in being a promoter for hardware outside the ecosystem of electronics out there.

Curtain Up, Act 2

While I’ve gone through a range of emotions in the past year, I can’t stress how excited I am for the future

Starting over again at 33 for my personal life is a little bit stressful, but I can’t be anything but grateful. All of the things that led me to where I am today, all of the people I’ve met and all of the things I’ve experienced; all of these things have enriched my life and made me the person I am.

As for Chicago, I’m really really excited to be living here. Travel is easy to the entire continental US (and major flights to Asia or Europe), there is a growing startup community (including a huge new hardware space) and the people seem to be a creative, down-to-earth crowd. I’m interested in meeting new people and bringing people together around hardware and I hope to be doing that in my new home.

If you’re stopping through Chicago at any point, let me know! I would love to meet up and show you around.

 

Thanks to the Vancouver City Archives for the Intermission image and Bert Kaufmann for the picture of Chicago.

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