Wednesday, January 15, 2014

BeerBot '92

Yes, I'm a geek. While the other kids were out in the sunshine, breathing fresh air and playing sports, I was building robots. All through elementary school, high school and into college I was building robots. I stopped after getting my first real engineering job. I guess because my hobby began to blur with my work. That's always a buzz-kill.

Then there was the disappointment when, after months of circuit board soldering, servo wiring and late-night coding, my final and most sophisticated robot turned out heterosexual. (Ironic, considering robots tend by nature toward being gay.) My intention when giving it body-heat sensors and a repertoire of witty banter was to advance the state of the art of human-cybernetic social interaction. And serve beer at parties.

Apr 16 1992 22:31:29 syslogd[4058]: panties aquired
Imagine my mortification when it became apparent what I actually brought forth into the world was a skeevy, three-foot, heat-seeking drone with a knack for getting sorority girls drunk before sexually harassing them. I would have flashed its EPROMs and started over from scratch if my housemates hadn't intervened. Sadly, the HOPPBOT-2000 fit in better at the Sig Ep house than I did. They made him an honorary brother and called him "Little Beer Dude".

My electronics tools and gear have been in storage so long I wouldn't know where to begin looking. So when I needed a soldering iron recently, it was easier to just buy a new one. What rekindled my interest in my old pastime?

For one thing, my career has drifted away from hands-on electrical engineering. While there's still a hardware side of telecom, it has gradually morphed into general network engineering. Most of the innovation and differentiation in the industry is now in network services enabled by software. I can't remember the last time I had to measure a voltage at work. I guess sometimes I find myself missing the nuts and bolts aspect.

Add to that the renaissance of home hobby electronics in recent years. It used to be if you wanted to enjoy the cutting edge of high tech while not spending a fortune, you had no choice but to do it yourself. Then came the 80's when cheap commodity electronics started pouring out of overseas factories and the idea of building your own stereo amplifier or home computer stopped appealing to all but the hardcore.

I think in reaction to this disposable "closed box" electronics consumerism, the Maker Movement started among those who were not only curious about how all this stuff worked, but wanted to extend the functionality of their gadgets in ways unforeseen by the original designers.

It's exciting to see a new wave of individual hobbyists at their home workbenches reclaiming their place in the technological avant garde that the previous generation ceded to multinational corporations. It's gives me hope for the future and is inspiring me to get back into it.

My next challenge: Convincing JB that I need a 3D printer. If all else fails, I may have to play the "download sex toys off the Internet" card.

I also need to talk JB into letting me set up a more permanent
workbench/bar in the spare bedroom.

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