Modes Of Communication

I have been working on a new mode of connecting with others in the engineering community. It’s been a slog to get people to try it out and use it regularly, but I totally get it. I have so many modes of communication these days:

  • Email (multiple email addresses)
  • Text (multiple phone numbers)
  • gChat (tied to multiple email addresses)
  • Slack (multiple “rooms”)
  • Twitter DM (multiple Twitter accounts)
  • Facebook messenger
  • Skype
  • LinkedIn messages
  • IRC
  • Forums (I run one of my own, though I hardly have time to visit it)
  • SupplyFX (the new site I’m working on)

It really feels like a popularity contest. Any platform is only as good as the one with all the important people on it. This is called a “network effect“. Getting to that point is the hard part. Convincing enough people that it is worthwhile to spend time in one platform vs another.

Aside from thinking about how to get more people to adopt another platform, I feel quite a bit of stress about the range of platforms that I’m already on. What if I’m missing a message? What if someone I’m trying to get ahold of missed my message? Do I try other channels? What if it’s a conscious act (ignoring me)? What if there’s a platform I should be on that I’m not?

It feels like a set of social groups that you can bounce between; sometimes it’s just talking to an individual…sometimes it’s talking to a group. There is definitely a FOMO feeling in there as well (without the accompanying torschlusspanik).

The worst part is also the best solution. Picking one or two methods and sticking to them. In theory, this makes a lot of sense. Our brains can only handle so much stimulation and input, and we really should spend time talking to others in person or working on interesting things. A lot of these modes of communication can be used as escapes instead of connection platforms (people on forums all day arguing about making something instead of making things, posting random nonsense to IRC channels, etc). The downside to this is the assumption that if someone really needs to get ahold of you, they will jump to the platform you have chosen, even if just to grab your attention for a bit. That’s depressing if no one actually jumps over. Sure, it’s ego, but limiting myself to one platform could throw into sharp relief that I’m not really needed for much.

I’m going to keep trying a variety of these platforms and will probably even try out new ones as they pop up. As I have written about recently, I’m most interested in increasing my in-person connections, because those will be the most meaningful (even if the cost is highest for those). I’m planning to reduce communication platforms in the future, but for now….I’m pretty easy to find.

Life Music

I’m selling my drums

I’ve been playing drums since I was 8 years old; sooner than that if you count pots and pans. But if I look at reality, I haven’t been playing drums for a couple years now and finally decided it’s time to pass them on to another person. Well. Sell them.

The drumset itself was nice enough and I played the hell out of it many times. I even used it to record a few songs with my college band and played some fun gigs. I’m not really sad about getting rid of this set of drums. It’s that I know I’m not going to buy another set for a long time. Maybe ever. So it ultimately feels like an identity issue. I used to be a drummer. Now I’m a former drummer. It’s interesting to think about when that transition actually happens.

I’ve already written a bit about the changes in my work priorities, but there have been changes in my personal life as well. It may seem like a silly example, but switching instruments seems indicative of these changes. I play piano (and sing) instead of drums now. What does this mean?

  • There are no restrictions on sound or when I can play (I can use headphones with my piano).
  • I am making melodic music and singing along.
  • I am the lead player, not a backup player.
  • I don’t require other people to make fully formed songs (experimental drums-only songs aren’t my thing).

The third one is probably the biggest. I don’t want to be the background music anymore. Plus I have always loved singing and that is a very unlikely proposition as a drummer.

As I wrote in my last post, I’m evaluating what got me to the point where I’m living in the isolated suburbs; but since I’m here, I’ve optimized for not having other people around. Finding bandmates requires that they are on the same schedule as me, like the same music as me and are interested in playing music with me. That’s a pretty narrow set of people. I like playing music too much to wait on others to decide they’re ready to play.

So I will celebrate this next step in my life. It’s really a part of a larger trend, I think. I know the general thing makes me happy (music), but I need to find my place in it so I can continue on (piano). Since I have already moved moved on and I still have music in my life, it makes the transition easier. But maybe I’ll go bang on those drums one last time…


Nodus Tollens and Torschlusspanik


One thing that I always loved on The Amp Hour was coming up with alliterative titles for the episodes (my favorite word is still “ostrobogulous“, used for episode 162). After roughly 150 occasions of naming shows like this and realizing the increasing amount of time it takes to come up with each one, I decided to move away from the practice and simplify. However, this instilled a fascination with odd words (see also: Logolepsy). There are even a few words that I “invented”, usually by combining latin bases I could figure out, smashing together entire words or by changing the case of a word.

Recently I encountered the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. This is a project to inject unique words into the common lexicon to describe…well, common feelings. I should note, I’m way late to the party; this site has been around and covered in the media for years now. That doesn’t make it any less awesome. I love the bold nature of inventing words to help out the population. I will continue to do that as I can and will use one of the author’s inventions below. Amazing how the internet works though, isn’t it? Just throw words out there and sometimes strangers pick them up.

This post is not actually about words. It’s about my recent difficulty voicing some feelings I have encountered. I discovered two new words, which hopefully replace the paragraphs of explanation it would normally require. And although me using new words to describe these feelings doesn’t particularly ease the description of emotions from one human to another (me to you), perhaps it will on the second pass, should I mention these feelings again. If nothing else, I hope these words introduce a bit of logolepsy into your life.

Nodus Tollens

The first word is nodus tollens:

Nodus Tollens

I am getting older, as we all are. But as I continue to move towards my goals in life and the goals keep shifting, this has me looking backwards, not forwards. Specifically, looking at and analyzing how I got to where I am today. I don’t regret anything in my life; quite the opposite, actually. I’m super grateful for all of the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met. It’s more of a feeling of “how did I get here” (thanks, Talking Heads, for never allowing me to say that phrase without singing it).

This is especially how I’m feeling professionally. I have had some wonderful opportunities in the field of electronics, but as I move away from hands-on electronics and towards product management, I see it all differently. I don’t dislike it, far from it. It’s more like I’m analyzing the parts that got me to where I am; more importantly, how those same pieces will impact my future.


The second word is Torschlusspanik. This is a German word (not from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows):


This word literally translates to “Gate Shut Panic”, and was offered to me on Twitter when I was describing the feeling and my interest in finding a word that represents it. The description I gave was the manic, physical feeling one gets from the feeling of FOMO (or “Fear Of Missing Out”). Not just the general anxiety that the world is moving on without you, but a specific experience that you can visualize and predict the outcome. This has happened to me even (and possibly especially) when I know the event will never come to fruition. If you’ll excuse the stream of consciousness description, this is what I would have fully described on Twitter:

It feels a bit like a treasure hunt…It’s not actually a treasure you’re seeking though. Instead, it’s a piece of knowledge. It feels like I have just discovered that I’m on the edge of finding the meaning of life or figured out 98% of an extremely valuable equation. I’m not there yet, but it’s within my grasp. It’s a race against time, if I can only reach a certain landmark first…but suddenly, as soon as I realize it is a thing that I want, I feel that all the world has figured it out at the same time….and now I’m not just in a race against myself and the clock, but looking around I realize that the window of opportunity is closing and each person is a potential competitor. I can see the goal, but the closer I get, the more anxious I feel to get there.

The bit about others figuring it out at the same time is never actually the case. The feeling is surely some form of a cognitive bias, but I couldn’t figure out which one…perhaps the Frequency Illusion/Baader Meinhof Phenomenon? Really it’s my brain projecting my newfound information onto the world that I see. As a result, the feeling of anxiety in the present increases, with no actual impact towards future events.

Two words, together

Combined, these two words point towards my somewhat recent and frantic desire to “figure things out”. What do I want in life? Where do I want to end up? Who are the people I want to surround myself with?

Of course, deciding on the future is a gradual course and requires habits, as I mentioned in a previous post. My resultant feelings are an anxiousness to move towards some end goal, as I have always done. Instead, I need to enjoy the ride. I’ve never been good at enjoying the ride. Chaos and serendipity has resulted in some of the best events in my life, things that I remain grateful for. However, I would never have chosen those paths if presented with the option.

While my dive back into the world of words is a recent thing, I believe this entire introspective exercise was caused by this beautifully written post on Raptitude, called “Where the wealth was all along“. It discusses the reassessment of life events once life is over. You’re sitting in a studio reviewing video montages of your life and not just the highlight reel, but also the near-misses. Those are what haunt me. This passage in particular:

Where the wealth was all along

Only in a world of true abundance does one have the opportunity to worry about the things they are missing. But that’s how lucky I have been, and again, I can only state my gratefulness towards my path in life thus far. In fact, that is the point of the article and the “wealth” that the author writes about:


The piece goes on to say that in the infinite possibilities and paths our lives can take, the majority of us choose the safe option, but also cherish the connections we already have. I feel that way and believe I have acted that way in the past. But my mind turns to the “fifty undeveloped relationships” for each one currently in my life. Perhaps it is my engineer brain doing an optimization. Want more deep connections in life? You need to meet a LOT more people.

I believe that is the underlying urgency I feel these days, the “closing of the gate” and the anxiety that comes with it. I seek to increase the number of undeveloped relationships, in the hopes that I will gain yet another deep relationship I can cherish at the end of my life. Whenever I’m offered a tour or a walkthrough of a new place, I’m often ambivalent about what I’ll see. But I go along in the hopes to meet new people. The same goes for meetings. The same goes for my upcoming travel. I am happy (and lucky) to go see a bunch of historical sites in Europe. But I’m really looking forward to meeting new people, from new walks of life. Perhaps this is my best tool to combat the feeling of torschlusspanik. Perhaps the only way to not care about the gate closing is to go with the flow.

The nodus tollens comes from looking back onto my personal, career and life choices: in what world does an engineer expect to be hanging out with other people? It is, of course, true that engineers spend much of their career dealing with the intricacies of interpersonal relationships, but I didn’t know that at the beginning; I definitely didn’t choose the engineering path for the people! Another example of serendipity, I suppose. But then again, most professions require human interaction, so perhaps I would have turned out OK regardless.  The nodus tollens also causes me to analyze the events that led to me living in the isolated suburbs of an industrial midwest city. That hardly optimizes for human connection. Many of the decisions I’ve made have been towards career success, but not towards human connection. It turns out that I long for connection and it seems that I should start to change my habits to favor it.

Consectary or Ultimation

Introspection is not a normal activity for me; it definitely doesn’t happen on the scale of this article very often. I’m sure whatever reasons I list explaining my current state of mind aren’t the only reasons, but other underlying reasons will likely take longer to discover. Overall, I think it’s pretty healthy to do this once in a while. I think it’s where art comes from. It even makes me feel alive for some reason. Like I should have been feeling this all along. Why should the “plot of [my] life” ever make sense? Why aren’t we always reassessing? I am going to do my best to sit in this discomfort, enjoy the ride, write about it a bit more and–obviously–discover (or invent) new words to describe what I’m feeling.


On The Road Again

One large change in my transition from a desk-based engineer to a “product manager helping desk-based engineers” (and part time basement-based engineer) is the sharp increase in travel. I am writing this post from a hotel room, as I likely will others in the future.

Travel has been a blessing. I get to meet more people in person, make deeper connections with those I have met online and see parts of the world that are drastically different than my basement.

However, I am learning that I thrive in situations that are boring.

A large part of my success on projects like Contextual Electronics was a focus on routines; these were natural extensions of excess time while firmly planted in my house in the midwest. There wasn’t all that much to do on any given weeknight and any social activity takes planning because of the relative distance of my friends in the area. When I’m home, I stay on track with my daily habits. Travel throws a wrench in the works though.

One problem relates to my last post about co-workers. I often work by myself, and that’s when I get a lot of work done. But when I’m with co-workers on the road or at the office, I want to spend time with them! Friends…right next to me! This means dinners and social events and simply sitting down and chatting for extended periods. My rather packed habit schedule does not go for this though.

Ultimately, it comes down to balancing fun and social things with work. That’s the nature of work, right? If I want to continue improving myself, my course and my life, I need to sometimes pass up going out for a beer. I think in general, the coincidence of alcohol and social functions also needs to decrease on travel, but that is a topic for another post. The first thing I will be focusing on is striking a healthy balance between spending time face to face with people I don’t see very often (which is important) and getting work done for the future (which is also important).

Thanks to Moyan Brenn for the picture of the road.


On Having Co-workers

I thought the thing I wanted more than anything else was to work alone. By myself. With myself. For myself.

Quit my job. Strike out on my own.

Sure, no job actually exists in a vacuum. The basis of commerce is one entity paying another, which sets up a power structure. So I assumed I would be working for my customers. That continues to be a very rewarding part of Contextual Electronics (CE). Hearing about the problems they’re having and working to solve those problems tickles my teaching nerve and my engineering nerve (the one the rewards me when I solve problems).

But I thought I’d be on my own and that’s what I really wanted. I was kind of wrong.

Shortly after leaving my last job to work on CE, I joined Supplyframe part time. We have been doing exciting things like the Hackaday Prize (now in its third year) and building tools I’ve always wanted for myself as an engineer. That has become a bigger part of my life and I really like where the company is right now and where it’s going. Today marks the two year anniversary of that decision. Also along the way, the direction of CE has also taken a turn towards embedded, so I brought on two part time instructors, who also act as advisors for both the content and the site.

Co-workers challenge me.  They keep tabs on me. They inspire new ideas during our discussions. They prevent me from getting lonely, even working remotely in a basement in Cleveland (the “Co” in “Co-workers” meaning working on the same stuff, not necessarily in the same location).

In both of my jobs, I now work with people on a daily basis. Engineers aren’t supposed to like that. I’m supposed to be a lone wolf. I’m either a bad engineer or a true pack animal, because I enjoy having co-workers again.

Thanks to Lex Photographic for the picture of the Lone Wolf

Blogging Health Life Music

Habits, Not Goals

Part of this site used to be public, but is now hidden; it’s a list of goals that I have for myself over the long term.

I went and looked at it recently and realized I have achieved 3 out of 5 in one manner or another, but probably not to the extent that I initially imagined achieving the goal. For example, one goal was “have a music studio in my house”. Recording equipment is super easy and cheap these days and I have it for all my music instruments…does that count? I dunno. I say yes.

But in thinking about revising those goals, I realized there was no way to know if I would ever reach them. More importantly, there’s no way to know if I would want to reach them by the time I actually did. That’s what’s crazy to me. I can set a goal to become an astronaut now (hard pass), but on the path towards becoming an astronaut it’s very possible that I could find out I want to be terrestrial biologist or a children’s author or something I’ve not even heard of yet. You just never know where your path will take you. I got to see a talk on this very subject at XOXO last September and I go back to watch it often. Nicky Case is a wonderful speaker and this was exactly what I needed to see at that point in my life:

So instead, I’m focusing on habits. Really, that’s why a lot of goals exist in the first place. It’s focusing on something far in the future so you can figure out the steps required in the near term. Instead, I’m going to try and change some daily habits to see how that moves me towards a better tomorrow, especially since I have no idea what that will eventually look like.

This actually all started with an app install. I saw a list of “must have apps” and tried installing one called Habit Bull. It’s really quite simple. You input the habit you want to build and every day you track either how much you did of that thing (ie. how many minutes did I read) or whether or not you did it at all (ie. Did I read today?). I normally choose the latter as it makes it a very simple exercise. I also started very slowly. I started with a singular goal,

“Did I walk the dog today?”

Obviously that has benefit for the dog, but also for me. It means my head is in the right place. It means I’m not putting my work above all else. It means I’m getting a little bit of exercise for myself. But that simple question allows me to stay focused. I’ve gradually added other things that seem to indicate daily success.

My most recent one was, “Am I working at my bench by noon?” I have worked from home since I quit my full time engineering job 2 years ago (wowsa, that long ago?). While that sounds like an easy goal (it is), it focuses me on not just reading and responding to emails all day upstairs on the couch and instead being near my electronics. The environment helps me focus even if I’m not working on electronics directly. It also makes me do a little bit of work to go upstairs and grab yet another cup of coffee, which means I might get to sleep at a decent hour later that night.

This all hinges on using the app daily, which I’ve been doing pretty consistently. Even if I miss a day, the “yes or no” nature of these habits makes it pretty easy to remember and back fill from memory. Over time, I hope these habits will become permanent, but my priorities may also change. For instance, right now I’m learning my third instrument (piano) but who knows what I’ll want to learn in the future (tuba?). Also, I should mention that the app is not the real thing that’s driving me to do these things, so much as the idea behind them. Had I been a pen and paper person, a simple log book could have driven me to similar levels of success.

Obviously, writing has not been on my list for a long time. I’m not sure it will be any time soon, either. I like the idea of writing and I think it helps my career, but I’m not sure it’s as much of a priority for me. Another on my list is trying to make a video each day for Contextual Electronics, and that would take priority as that’s my main communication medium these days. Regardless, I like the flexibility and the focusing on things I can get done in the short term. It has helped me focus what I want in my life with regards to health, relationships, career and personal fulfillment on a daily basis.

If you see more articles from me though, perhaps blogging made it onto my list.

Image via the YouTube video of Nicky’s talk.


The magic of books

What is it about books? They still hold a place of magic in our society and to me.

I have had a few opportunities to write a book or two now, at least the offer to begin writing one or talk about writing one. I have passed on all of them so far. Not because I don’t want to. I actually would quite enjoy it. However, talking to all the people I know who have written (technical) books have told me two things:

  1. It’s really really really hard
  2. It’s really worth it.

How am I supposed to process that? I suppose it’s much like asking someone whether their time in the military was worthwhile. They became a stronger person because of it and opportunities may have emerged because of their new credentials. But it probably wasn’t fun every single day and it wasn’t a quick process. I suppose when you really step back and look at it, the same is true for anything worth having.


The last time I met with someone to discuss a possible book, I couldn’t help laugh and think about the fact that it’s 2014 and “everything” is digital and we were talking about a book. A set of ideas captured statically and printed on paper not to be updated for a few months or whenever the information was needed to be updated. Hell, this blog gets updated more often than that sometimes (and that’s not saying much).

Still. Can’t say I haven’t thought about it a bunch. It got me to post again.

Contextual Electronics Engineering

(KiCad) Information Wants To Be Free

This is a cross-post from the Contextual Electronics blog, as it affects readers here and there

TL; DR: I am releasing all of the KiCad videos that were part of Contextual Electronics to the public and have started a new site/forum to support them. See below for announcement video.

I officially finished the first two sessions (1A & 1B) of Contextual Electronics in early June. It was a great experience, especially for a first time course, especially one where there was money involved and I was the IT guy on the project. It wasn’t a super smooth build, but that kind of added to the project; we were all “in it together”. At the very least, I can very confidently say I don’t regret quitting my job to teach electronics; it has been rewarding and an eye opening experience.

The first part of the course (session 1A) was all about how to design a PCB for a particular application. We use an open source PCB CAD program called KiCad. The open source was important to me because it not only meant that members would be able to download and use the software free of charge, it also meant the final product–which is licensed as open source hardware–could also be replicated and improved upon without needing to buy a license for the software that designed the product.

I had been a fan of KiCad long before starting the course and the software has been in development long before that (since 1992!). But it has never really taken off either in the professional nor the hobbyist community, the latter being the more perplexing data point; the predominate piece of CAD software with electronics hobbyists is CadSoft EAGLE. I think it’s a good piece of software and have used it a bunch for previous designs, but also think KiCad has surpassed EAGLE in many ways.

Not only am I a fan of KiCad, I also see how fast it is moving. It is a dynamic software environment, with developers who are regularly working to make it better. In fact, CERN recently added resources to assist in the project and have been rolling out some exciting new features. They are helping to inject some advanced techniques into the package, which should help move it towards being a world-class piece of CAD software.

So between enjoying my own use of KiCad, educating others how to use it and still not seeing it take off, I decided that I am going to release all of the videos that were part of Contextual Electronics about KiCad onto YouTube. I hope that these will encourage people browsing YouTube for help with KiCad to take a deeper look and start using it for all of their projects. I will also add move videos as newer features become standardized and new stable builds are released.

The other thing I noticed that was missing was a place to discuss KiCad. There is a Yahoo group but I am not a big fan of Yahoo groups nor how they are run. So I decided to start up a new site with information on how to do the builds and a forum where people can discuss KiCad and the videos I posted. It is meant to be a resource for people getting started who want to build their own PCBs with KiCad.

So that’s all for the big announcements today. I will be over at the new forums, answering questions and supporting the site. I hope you will join me over there!

Analog Electronics Digital Electronics Work

As big as…space

Last week on my electronics podcast, The Amp Hour, I did something uncharacteristic: I mentioned where I’m working, while I’m working there. Normally I don’t talk about my place of employment until after I have left, which has always served me well. There is no conflict of interest in talking about work that protected by non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).  This time is different though, because the nature of the company is different (and my role will be more public facing than my normal role as an engineer).

I’ve been working with Supply Frame part time, in addition to my work on Contextual Electronics. It has been great working with a team dedicated to making the supply chain (the complex system of vendors and distributors) a bit easier to navigate. As it so happens, Supply Frame also purchased a popular blog site a while back that I have always been a fan of, Hackaday. That site highlights fun projects from around the web and is a great way to keep up on recent innovations in personal projects.

So why all this explaining and build-up? Well I’ve also been asked to help out on a project as part of Hackaday. In fact, it falls in line with my past experience of running the 555 contest back in 2011.

Hackaday is sending the grand prize winner of a new design contest to space. Whoa.

When they first told me about this idea, I figured they must be joking. How the hell would this be possible? Well, it turns out there are more and more commercial space flight options opening up. These days with enough money (and yeah, it’s a lot of money), you can buy a ticket to ride. So that’s how we’re doing it.

The contest itself is really exciting as well. The goal is for people to build “open, connected hardware”. In my experience (with the 555 contest), you need a constraint to base the contest around; openness as a constraint is particularly interesting. Not only does it encourage people to design something cool (like an open source Nest Thermostat or similar), but it also then allows that hard work to be built upon later. I’m a huge fan of open source hardware and up until this point, the way most people are rewarded for their openness has been a community building up around their project (a prize unto itself); now they can also win a trip to space (or other prizes).

I put in a couple emails to friends and acquaintances and we’re going to have a killer judges panel as well; they’re all as interested in sending open hardware experts to space as we are. Bunnie, Limor, Dave Jones, Elecia, Jack Ganssle, Ian of Dangerous Proto, Joe Grand, Sprite_tm. We’re also announcing the final winner in Germany at the huge tradeshow Electronica.

Anyway, I’m super pumped and I hope you are too. I feel very lucky to be involved with such a fun project and hope lots of people will be interested in submitting an entry.

Life Work

Don’t Wait For Permission

I have corresponded with a international student for a few years now. I honestly can’t even remember how we met online and it doesn’t matter. He showed interest in my work and we started talking and have continued as he has graduated from US university and found a job locally. Recently he asked me:

I don’t like my current job. How can I get a job at Google?

I asked him why he wanted to move to Google. High pay? Exciting work? Big challenges? A recognizable name on a resume? All of these things can be had at other companies, many that are easier to get to than Google. Without having someone on the inside of Google that knows his work, I told him that he will be forced to go through the same process that every other interviewee does when applying to jobs posted online…and that’s a lot of competition. Not that competition is bad, just that there are so many better ways to find interesting, rewarding, high paid work.

So here’s the advice I give him and to all of you and any other recent graduates or young people looking for work:

I recommend you pick an open source project you think that Google would work on (or any other target company you’d like to work with). Maybe it’s a robot. Or a new API. Or a delivery service for soggy cereal milk (really?!?).

Next, start working on that project. If you can’t find an existing project, start your own (I started the BenchBudEE as part of Contextual Electronics because I didn’t see anything else in the marketplace). If you can’t do it alone, find some others that might be interested in the same topic. Find discussion boards or subreddits around the topic to find like minded people (hopefully with complementary skill sets)

Finally, spend all of your waking moments not at your job or school working on this project. You won’t be paid at all and likely never will be for this project. Work really really hard on it. At the end, you’ll either have one of two things

  1. A job offer from Google (or whichever company you were targeting)
  2. A great project and great experience.

If you don’t want to do the hard work when you’re not already working for Google, they likely won’t want to hire you in the first place.

Don’t wait for a company to give you permission to do interesting work. Go out there and find it and do it. The world is a playground!